Is the Quality of Mercy Not Strain’d?

The post-sermon conversation yesterday was thought-provoking. I listened, mostly, but I asked a question as well: where does guilt fit into ideas about mercy? And what about forgiveness? Is forgiveness a necessary component of mercy, or can mercy be bestowed without it? The discussion of mercy followed a sermon in which the minister delivered Portia’s soliloquy, from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which includes the following:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
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.

Listening to the sermon and to the post-sermon discussion, my thoughts swirled around the idea of guilt and how—or whether—one can bestow mercy upon oneself in partial relief for the guilt one carries. Not only can one do it, but whether one should—and whether forgiveness is deserved when it comes from within for actions or omissions of oneself.

These issues are not strictly religious questions. They are questions concerning life in general and the difficulties one encounters or creates along the way. One interesting point made during the course of the sermon and/or the conversation was this: mercy is not conditional. It does not depend on any form of quid pro quo. If that is the case, then the person upon whom mercy is bestowed does not necessarily have to feel guilt to earn mercy. Nor does the person showing mercy have to forgive the act or omission. Yet Shakespeare’s assertion, through Portia, suggests something else. Later in Portia’s speech, she says;

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

“When mercy seasons justice.” Mercy and justice are not born of the same mother. They come from different places and they serve different emotional masters.  Some of the lyrics of Michelle Shocked’s Quality of Mercy come to mind, too, alluding (I think) to justice:

Yes vengeance and revenge
Are just two words for pain
And the quality of mercy is not strained

Feelings of guilt for things said or unsaid or for actions taken or deeds not done seem distant from an intellectual appreciation for the concepts of mercy. But mercy hinges on wrongs, whether real or imagined, as does guilt. Forgiveness, too, is granted for wrongs. As I think about the two concepts, it seems to me they are one and the same, just given different names. But, then, mercy may be granted in lieu of punishment, whereas punishment may be meted out even in the face of forgiveness. In both cases, guilt is assumed. Or is it? I could think endlessly about those questions, arriving at different answers just as often.

One who feels guilt for his actions might hope for mercy or forgiveness from one who he has wronged, but in that person’s eternal absence, the only one who can grant either mercy or forgiveness is the guilty party. Showing oneself mercy or granting oneself forgiveness is self-serving. At what point—if ever—is that self-serving absolution justified? Another question whose answer could consume one’s entire lifetime of searching.


I could shatter this morning if I bumped into a door casing. When I feel this brittle, I want either to crawl under the covers and sleep until I can sleep no more or drive for hours on a stretch of desolate highway until the highway sounds completely numb me. I want to do one of those things, but I will not. I never do. I just want to. Eventually, the brittleness subsides. I turn to taffy, instead, becoming malleable as I focus on keeping myself from wrapping around trees and lamp posts and sliding along the door casings as I look for ways out of the room. Odd, that…the way my mind pretends I become something I am not. Crazy is the word that comes to mind.


I admire people who can sort things out for themselves—people whose analytical abilities are sufficiently well-developed that they do not need help overcoming emotional obstacles to their well-being. Those people seem to be equal in number to the rest of us, whose attempts to think things through lead only to tangled webs of impossibly complex confusion. The trick, I think, is to extract emotion from the process, leaving only dispassionate evaluation in its place. That trick is unavailable to me, and to many others like me, because our emotions are inextricably tied to every drop of blood flowing through our veins. We are the ones who cannot count from one to ten without feeling an emotional connection to each whole number and all the fractions carried within it. There are days I wish I could seal those goddamn numbers in a metal container and weld its lid tightly shut.


Lacking the ability to sleep for hours and hours and hours or drive for a thousand miles on a restricted access highway, I will buck it up and have another cup of coffee. Then, I will try to confront the day as if it were a friend instead of an adversary. I will simply have faith the friend will not hit me over the head with a metal pipe and take everything. And off I go.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Is the Quality of Mercy Not Strain’d?

  1. Todd, thanks for your kind comment. I will always welcome your thoughts about my posts!

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks. I was unable to stay for the discussion after the service. This article mitigates that loss and adds your usual thought-provoking introspection.

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