The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. Although classified as a comedy in the First Folio, and while it shares certain aspects with Shakespeare's other romantic comedies, the play is perhaps more remembered for its dramatic scenes, and is best known for the character of Shylock. The title character is the merchant Antonio, not the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is the play's most prominent and more famous villain. Though Shylock is a tormented character, he is also a tormentor, so whether he is to be viewed with disdain or sympathy is up to the audience (as influenced by the interpretation of the play's director and lead actors). As a result, The Merchant of Venice is often classified as one of Shakespeare's problem plays. (From feedbooks.com)
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Written at the very end of the 1500s, The Merchant of Venice was classified as a comedy when published in 1623. It is known for its passionate monologues, including one by Shylock which you will see on video later in the play, as well as one of the strongest female characters (Portia) of its time.
Like most of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice throws the reader right into the middle of the action. To learn more about this device, called in medias res, watch the following video. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is not a possibility offered for Antonio's self-proclaimed sadness?
Antonio seems to be saying that he is destined to be sad. What do you think of this notion?
What do we learn about Gratiano from Bassanio here?
Shakespeare uses many historical and literary references in his plays. Here, Portia is likened to the Portia from Julius Caesar's time. Below is a painting of her done by Elisabetta Siranni in the 17th century. (This annotation contains an image)
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently... Is there a word on this page you need to look up?
Portia, like Antonio, enters complaining of sadness. How does Nerissa's response to her compare to the way Salanio and Salarino respond to Antonio's state of mind?
A careful reading of her lines shows us Portia's (and Shakespeare's) prejudices against people from other backgrounds. Can you find examples of this in the descriptions that follow?
What is Portia's attitude towards all of the suitors that Nerissa mentions?
Portia is determined to respect her dead father's wishes regarding a husband. Later on we will learn more details about the caskets, which form a symbolic motif in this play.
Use the dictionary function to look up "bound," and choose the most likely meaning for this word in the highlighted phrase.
The character of Shylock is one of the most controversial in Shakespeare's plays. The depiction of him as a greedy, abhorrent Jew reflects the rampant anti-Semitism of the time. To gain a greater understanding of this historical context, take some time, when you have finished your reading, to look at the Anti-Defamation League's work on anti-Semitism. (This annotation contains a link)
What have we learned about Shylock so far through his interaction with Antonio and Bassanio? List three adjectives to describe him and give an example that supports each trait.
Shylock refers often to people from the Jewish Bible. In the highlighted text, he mentions Jacob and Laban, pictured below,. (This annotation contains an image)
Why is Bassanio pleased?
Shylock himself recognizes that charging a penalty of a pound of Antonio's flesh is not beneficial to him. Do you think he intends to carry this out if Antonio defaults on his loan?
Quiz One - Act One
Which of the following is an accurate paraphrasing of Morocco's thinking?
Unlike the suitors who came previously, the Prince of Morocco is willing to try his luck, even though he knows that if he chooses poorly, he will never be allowed to marry anyone in the future.
Is Launcelot's trickery with his father for the audience's benefit only, or do you see other meaning in it? Explain what informs your opinion.
Like many servants in Shakespeare's works, Launcelot is a comedic figure. Below he is pictured with Jessica and Shylock. (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Launcelot want to seek different employment?
Are you noticing that Shylock is referred to as "the Jew?" The status of being other, and in this case, a hated other, dates back a long time in England. Did you know that King Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290?
Why does Bassanio tell Gratiano that he must behave well?
The short video clip below helps us appreciate Gratiano's tendency to joke around and make something of a spectacle of himself. (This annotation contains a video)
Jessica's inner turmoil reflects the separate lives lived by Christians and Jews during this time period. Established in 1516, the Venetian Ghetto housed the city's Jews, who faced other restrictions as well.
Whose letter is Launcelot carrying?
What does Lorenzo love about Jessica? Find two examples from the text to support your opinion.
How do Lorenzo's remarks reflect the anti-Semitism of his day?
How do you think Shylock will react when he realizes that his daughter has run off to marry a Christian?
Venus, the Roman goddess of love, is often depicted with piegeons (doves). Below is a painting of Venus by Francois Boucher. Can you find the dove? (This annotation contains an image)
What do we learn about Jessica in this scene?
While the planned masquerading is for festive reasons, the wearing of masks (and disguising one's self) also can have symbolic value. To appreciate the repeated use of masks, watch the following video on motifs. (This annotation contains a video)
What lesson is being expressed in the highlighted text?
Have you noticed that the arrival and departure of some characters are accompanied by musical announcements? Follow the link below for a brief sound byte which is similar to the cornets in the text. (This annotation contains a link)
Compare and contrast the development of Nerissa, Portia's lady in waiting, with the servant Launcelot. What is Nerissa's role in the play?
The highlighted text suggests that Arragon
Nerissa speaks to the commonly-held notion that destiny determines many important outcomes in our lives, such as we die and when we marry. What are your thoughts about the role of fate in your life?
Shakespeare uses _____________ in the highlighted passage to describe the arrival of Bassanio.
Quiz Two - Act Two
Based on the highlighted text, as well as what we already know from previous acts, why is Shylock determined to make good on his threat of exacting a pound of flesh from Antonio?
Watch Al Pacino's 2004 performance of this famous monologue, and think about whether his interpretation of it creates disdain or sympathy for Shylock. (This annotation contains a video)
Tubal alternates speaking of Antonio and Jessica. Is he being a good friend or is he manipulating Shylock?
Why is Sherlock especially angry with Jessica?
Bassanio uses the metaphor of "the rack" here; he refers to a torture device from medieval times, pictured below. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the highlighted text reveal about Bassanio's values?
Have you noticed how Shakespeare uses language to create the tone and mood of a scene? Watch the following video for a fuller appreciation of these devices. (This annotation contains a video)
What does Portia want from Bassanio in exchange for the ring she gives him?
Gratiano says that his fate, at least in love, is tied to his friend Bassanio's. Why do you think Shakespeare sets the relationship up like this?
Which of the following most likely reflects the contents of Antonio's letter?
Notice how a case is built against Shylock, without us having the chance to hear his own words right now. Do you think it is likely that Shylock will change his mind about a pound of flesh?
How would you describe Portia's character to someone? List three traits revealed about her in this scene?
Shylock's repetition of this highlighted line lets us know that he is unwilling to change his mind about the conditions of the loan he made to Antonio.
Which of the play's themes is present in Antonio's words?
For many, Portia is one of the strongest female characters in Shakespeare's plays. How does she compare to other female characters in books you have read recently?
What do you think of Portia's plans for her and Nerissa to disguise themselves as men? How do these plans help prepare us for subsequent scenes?
For Launcelot, Jessica would be better off having been born out of wedlock than to be Shylock's daughter. Do you think this degree of anti-Semitism was commonplace among the audience watching this play when it was written?
Which of the book's central ideas is reflected in the highlighted text?
Quiz Three - Act Three
Do you notice how this scene has created a very light-hearted, happy mood? This will provide a sharp contrast to what is about to come in the next act.
What does the Duke's description of Shylock suggest?
Keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments enumerated in the Jewish Bible. Shylock's reference to it here is his way of showing how serious he is about his beliefs. Below is a depiction of the tablets given to Moses with the commandments (English added by the creator of the image). (This annotation contains an image)
Antonio blames Shylock's actions on his Jewish heritage. Has this been Antonio's thinking all along, or is it different? Give an example from earlier in the text.
Bassanio and Antonio have a very close relationship. Do you think Bassanio's offer here is sincere?
Who is this doctor?
Notice how right from the beginning, Portia establishes herself as a credible lawyer. Read carefully as she builds her case in the following pages.
In the highlighted text, Portia seems to be
Shylock refers to a wise judge, Daniel, from the Jewish Bible. Today Daniel is perhaps best known for having survived being thrown into a lions' den. Below is a famous painting of this by Peter Paul Rubens. (This annotation contains an image)
What does Shylock's repeated reference to the "bond" suggest about his personality?
While it is easily overshadowed by the conflict between Antonio and Shylock, the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio reflects intensity and deep love. Their words to one another in this act are especially poignant.
This is an allusion to the blood libel, an old, false accusation that Jews liked to use Christian blood in their religious rituals. For more about the history of this pernicious lie, which has been the justification for many anti-Jewish attacks, check out the ADL page linked to below. (This annotation contains a link)
How does Portia's statement about shedding no blood change the situation entirely? What do you think will happen?
While most prevalent in Spain during the Inquisition, the forced conversion of Jews (and Muslims) to Christianity was practiced in other parts of Europe too.
Use the dictionary function to look up "recant" and then choose the best antonym for it.
Why doesn't Bassanio want to give Portia this ring?
There are several mentions of rings in this play; one might consider them to form a motif.
What do you anticipate happening when Bassanio has to admit that his ring is gone?
Portia and Nerissa are ___________ here, as they plan how to deal with the missing rings.
Quiz Four - Act Four
The arrival of Stephano interrupts what seems to be an endless declaration of love between Lorenzo and Jessica. After reading another page or two, think about the dramatic purpose of Stephano's part.
With the appearance of Launcelot, we can guess that the mood of this scene will be
Shakespeare's work reflects tremendous insight into human behavior. Can you explain the wisdom in the highlighted lines?
Shakespeare uses _____________ here to express Portia's sentiments.
The following video about the different types of irony will help you appreciate this final scene even more. (This annotation contains a video)
What is the effect of Shakespeare's use of irony in this scene? How do you think an actor would play Portia's role here?
Read aloud the highlighted exchange between Bassanio and Portia to gain a fuller appreciation for Shakespeare's poetry.
In the highlighted text, Portia is _________ Bassanio.
Why does Shakespeare have Portia (as opposed to someone else) deliver this piece of good news?
Quiz Five - Act Five
The play ends without us finding out exactly what happens with Shylock. Given what we read in Act IV, and what you have learned about anti-Semitism, what do you imagine the rest of his life is like? Jot down a few ideas.