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The Quality of Mercy is not Strain'd -- William Shakespeare

Guest poem sent in by Michelle Whitehead
(Poem #1501) The Quality of Mercy is not Strain'd
 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:
 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
 The throned monarch better than his crown;
 His sceptre 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 sceptred sway;
 It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
 It is an attribute to God himself;
 And earthly power doth then show likest God's
 When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
 Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
 That, in the course of justice, none of us
 Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
 And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
 The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
 To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
 Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
 Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
-- William Shakespeare
           The Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene 1

I am currently studying "Legal Ethics and Professional Conduct" at Uni. I
have been using the Minstrels site to spark discussion with my fellow
students about the portrayal of lawyers in literature. I was wondering
whether all the Minstrels out there would like to help me out by submitting
their favourite 'lawyer' poems, whether positive or negative?

Since it is not currently on the list I thought I would start the ball
rolling with Portia's speech from The Merchant of Venice, which is perhaps
the best known 'positive' representation of a lawyer in poetry - although
Portia was only impersonating a lawyer and thus could freely use the
language of religion and morality. However, Portia triumphs because she
knows the loophole in the legislation that favours her client. She works
within the man-made law to give effect to the 'higher law' which is the
subject of this poem. This is, in effect, a statement of her personal

Other lawyer poems which are already archived by the Minstrels include:
(The Law the Lawyers Know About - H.D.C. Pepler; suggests lawyers are
ignorant of natural and moral laws - presumably having spent too much time
with their noses in books, though there is also a suggestion of an inherent
lack of ethics; this poem obviously touched a nerve in some
poetically-inclined members of the legal profession...)
(The Lawyers Know Too Much - Carl Sandburg; this poem is another
unflattering depiction of lawyers. It suggests they inhabit a dead world of
rhetoric, divorced from the real, living world, yet sucking it dry. I
personally find the rhetorical question which ends this poem to be a
wonderful image for prompting thought about legal ethics and the public
perception of lawyers!)
(Partition - W.H.Auden; looks at Radcliffe's partitioning of India &
Pakistan; gives some sense of the harried nature of lawyers, particularly
mediators trying to do the best for both sides.)
(The Shooting of Dan McGrew - Robert W. Service; very entertaining yarn from
the Yukon gold fields; in contrast with the cold, dispassionate environment
of the first two poems above, this poem introduces some of the drama of
courtroom narratives; lawyers are only mentioned in the last stanza, but
they are portrayed as dispassionate untanglers of the facts - the ones who
sift through the story to find the 'truth' - a truth which significantly
differs from the conclusion of the narrating witness, who is the involved
observer of human nature)
(To a Goose - Robert Southey; once again, lawyers are only incidental to
this poem...  though here their portrayal as perpetually malevolent forces
in society is used more as an accepted cliche which the poem (very subtly)
questions. The other cliche in the poem is the 'love-sick poet's sonnet' -
but the poem is a sonnet which is anything but love-sick!  Hence an implied
questioning of the reliability of cliches.)

Michelle Whitehead

73 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Tim Cooper said...

The only lawyer poem I can suggest (if one line of not-quite-perfect
pentameter counts as a poem), which I guess you already know, is also by

"The first the we do, let's kill all the lawyers" - Henry VI part II,
act IV, scene II

(issued as a joking aside by Dick the Butcher, a mercenary, during a
speech by Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne, on how he will achieve a
Utopian society).

I looked this up on the internet before posting it to make sure I'd got
the right play/scene etc. You may like to do the same - there are pages
of analysis on this quote by armies of lawyers mostly seeking to show
how, because it's spoken by a low-life, it in fact serves to show how
lawyers are needed for a stable society.

Of course, I couldn't agree more - lawyers are vital to society and
those who seek to work ethically are to be applauded. Except...

thinking of all those internet pages by lawyers in defence of lawyers,
my only thought is (derived again from Shakespeare) - methinks, perhaps,
they do protest too much.



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Anonymous said...

Report Of An Adjudged Case

Between Nose and Eyes a strange contest arose,
The spectacles set them unhappily wrong;
The point in dispute was, as all the world knows,
To which the said spectacles ought to belong.

So the Tongue was the Lawyer and argued the cause
With a great deal of skill, and a wig full of learning,
While chief baron Ear sat to balance the laws,
So famed for his talent in nicely discerning.

In behalf of the Nose, it will quickly appear,
And your lordship, he said, will undoubtedly find,
That the Nose has had spectacles always in wear,
Which amounts to possession time out of mind.

Then holding the spectacles up to the court, -
Your lordship observes they are made with a straddle,
As wide as the ridge of the Nose is, in short,
Designed to sit close to it, just like a saddle.

Again, would your lordship a moment suppose
('Tis a case that has happened and may be again),
That the visage or countenance had not a Nose,
Pray who would or who could wear spectacles then?

On the whole it appears, and my argument shows
With a reasoning the court will never condemn,
That the spectacles plainly were made for the Nose,
And the Nose was as plainly intended for them.

Then shifting his side, as a lawyer knows how,
He pleaded again in behalf of the Eyes,
But what were his arguments few people know,
For the court did not think they were equally wise.

So his lordship decreed, with a grave solemn tone,
Decisive and clear, without one if or but, -
That whenever the Nose put his spectacles on,
By daylight or candlelight - Eyes should be shut.

William Cowper

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