Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice Essay - Critical Essays

Sample Essay Outlines

The following paper topics are based on the entire play. Following each topic is a thesis and a sample outline. Use these as a starting point for your paper.

Topic #1
Much of the plot of The Merchant of Venice is generated by contractual obligations. These take the form of legally binding contracts, such as the bond between Antonio and Shylock, as well as less formal arrangements, such as the ring given by Portia to Bassanio. Examine the way the individual will is forced to negotiate with external demands.

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: One of the major conflicts illustrated in The Merchant of Venice is the struggle of the individual will against the imposed obligations of society. This struggle is primarily manifested through the various contracts characters must fulfill throughout the course of the play.

II. Act I
A. Bassanio owes Antonio money and seeks to repay his debt by marrying Portia, a wealthy heiress.
B. Portia must marry whoever can solve the riddle of the three caskets, as specified in her late father’s will.
C. Many of Portia’s suitors give up their attempt to win her hand, unwilling to abide by the strict consequences of her father’s will.
D. Antonio, in the past, has helped people escape the consequences of their contracts with Shylock, the usurer, by lending them money at no interest.
E. Antonio must sign a bond promising to sacrifice a pound of his flesh to Shylock, so that the usurer will lend Bassanio money for his quest.

III. Act II
A. Morocco objects to the terms of Portia’s father’s will, because it doesn’t allow the individual to succeed on his own merits.
B. Gratiano must agree to curb his usual behavior if Bassanio is to allow him to join his expedition.
C. Morocco must leave Portia and remain a bachelor for the rest of his life, for failing to solve the riddle of the three caskets.
D. Aragon suffers the same fate as Morocco for failing in his choice.

IV. Act III
A. Shylock intends to have Antonio arrested for being unable to repay the loan on time.
B. Portia desires Bassanio to wait before attempting to solve the riddle, knowing that, if he fails, she won’t be permitted to see him.
C. Bassanio wins Portia by fulfilling the terms of her father’s will.
D. Portia gives Bassanio a ring which he must wear to prove his love for her.
E. Gratiano, whose proposal was contingent on Bassanio’s success, becomes engaged to Nerissa.
F. Antonio’s life is in danger as he has failed to repay his debt to Shylock on time.
G. Antonio absolves Bassanio of all debt, on the condition that the latter comes to Venice immediately, before the merchant’s death.
H. Antonio has been taken into custody so that he cannot escape from Shylock.

V. Act IV
A. The Duke feels he cannot stop Shylock’s quest for Antonio’s flesh without breaking the law.
B. Shylock insists the Venetians must allow him to fulfill the terms of his bond, otherwise Venice will lose its good international standing.
C. Portia, disguised as a doctor of law, informs Bassanio that “There is no power in Venice/ Can alter a decree established.”
D. Portia informs Shylock that, although entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, he has no legal right to spill any of the merchant’s blood.
E. Portia decrees that, according to Venetian law, Shylock is liable to a fine and possible execution for attempting to harm a citizen.
F. Shylock is forced to sign a deed, willing his possessions upon his death to Lorenzo and agreeing to become a Christian.
G. Portia, disguised as the lawyer, demands Bassanio’s ring in payment for her services, but Bassanio must refuse, due to his prior agreement with Portia.
H. Bassanio breaks his agreement with Portia by giving the disguised Portia her ring.
I. Gratiano breaks a parallel agreement with Nerissa.

VI. Act V
A. Portia and Nerissa censure their future husbands for violating their agreements about the rings.
B. Portia reveals that she and Nerissa provoked the violation.

Topic #2
Much is made of differences between races and religions in The Merchant of Venice. Explore the various, sometimes inconsistent attitudes toward, and behaviors based upon, these aspects of culture as they are exhibited in Shakespeare’s play.

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: In The Merchant of Venice, characters display an impulse to categorize one another on the basis of religious and racial characteristics, but this is frequently complicated by certain characters’ actual behavior.

II. Act I
A. Portia and Nerissa discuss the former’s suitors on the ¬basis of their national/racial characteristics.
B. Shylock refuses to dine with Bassanio and Antonio for religious reasons.
C. Shylock tells the audience that he hates Antonio “for he is a Christian…”
D. Antonio, in the past, has publicly scorned Shylock for both his religion and occupation.
E. Antonio thinks that Shylock has overcome some of his Jewish characteristics when he lends the merchant the 3,000 ducats.

III. Act II
A. Morocco, on meeting Portia, asks her to “Mislike [him] not for [his] complexion” (i.e. to not hold their racial differences against him).
B. Portia assures Morocco that his race cannot be a factor in her decision to wed.
C. Launcelot Gobbo decides to terminate his employment with Shylock because Shylock is a Jew.
D. Launcelot believes Jessica may yet marry a Christian, despite being Jewish.
E. Jessica regrets her Jewish blood and hopes Lorenzo will make a Christian out of her.
F. Lorenzo...

(The entire section is 2362 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster