The quality of mercy is not strained.

Like a lot of famous Shakespeare quotes, people have heard this a hundred times, but probably had no idea what it came from, or what it meant.

Here is the context. There is a trial going on. A man can be judged harshly, or he can be judged more mercifully. The character, Portia, is begging the court to consider the advantages of an act of mercy. She begins by saying, in effect, that as a species we sure don’t overdo it when it comes to mercy. Mercy is such a wondrous and beautiful thing that its very existence enlightens the world and causes everyone to become better.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.

His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.

But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute of God himself;

And earthly power doth then show like God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

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