Given its preoccupation with financial ruin, oppression, racism, anti-Semitism, and a bloody pound of human flesh, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice seems an unlikely comedy; in fact, today the play often receives the oxymoronic designation “tragicomedy” because it does not adhere to the conventions of either tragedy or comedy but instead includes two distinct plots. The tragic plot hinges on a legal bond between Antonio, a respected merchant who requires a large loan, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender universally scorned (particularly by Antonio) for usury, the practice of charging excessively high interest rates on loans. In an attempt to entrap Antonio, Shylock offers to forego interest on the loan if Antonio will instead pledge a pound of his own flesh as collateral, forfeiting it should he fail to repay the hefty sum by the appointed time.
Antonio accepts these strange conditions in order to help his friend Bassanio pursue another type of bond—marriage to Portia, the beautiful heiress of Belmont. Bassanio believes he needs a small fortune to compete for the right to woo Portia. Having lived beyond his own means, he appeals to Antonio, to whom he already owes “the most in money and in love.” Bound to Bassanio by deep feelings of platonic love, Antonio binds himself to Shylock for the gold. As the play’s focus shifts from money to marriage, traditional comedic elements such as rebellious women, clever disguises, and mistaken identities lighten the mood and steer a course closer to Shakespeare’s other comedies. Nevertheless, the original bond between Antonio and Shylock soon enmeshes all the characters in Antonio and Shylock’s deadly serious rivalry.
As the play unfolds, Shakespeare reveals a plethora of bonds of a different nature—the bonds between friends, between lovers, and between parents and children. The resulting conflicts challenge the idea that two people can truly be bound to each other in marriage or in friendship when they are bound also to their social obligations, to professional distinction, to family duties, to religious piety, and to reputation. The bonds, betrayals, and divided loyalties make a comic conception of the play troublesome; moreover, the remarkably hostile climate in which these bonds are forged and broken truly sets The Merchant of Venice apart as Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy.
Antonio’s bond being central to the plot positions Shylock as the principal antagonist, a role that presupposes a degree of derision and exclusion. Cruelty and comedy are frequent bedfellows in Shakespeare; however, Shylock is unique as an alienated antagonist because he is a Jew. First published in 1600, The Merchant of Venice belongs to a period of widespread anti-Semitism in England and in continental Europe; the prejudice and malice that prevailed against Jews during this time were rooted in the Middle Ages, when Christians made scapegoats of Jews, blaming them for Christ’s crucifixion and spreading dark rumors that the tribes of Israel drank the blood of Christian children. Enduring social, legal, and economic exclusion defined Jews as a separate race, as well as a religious group, forbidding them from owning land, confining them to impoverished ghettos, and denying them the practice of most professions. Complicating an already malignant stereotype, many Jews turned to money lending, a despised profession, simply because prejudice closed so many other career paths to them. England had forcibly expelled most of its Jewish population four hundred years before Shakespeare’s time; sources estimate that fewer than two hundred Jews remained in England during the author’s life. Thus the character of Shylock was crafted from stereotype and sensationalism; Shakespeare often trafficked in exotic characters and settings to heighten the interest of the masses that flocked to view his dramas.
That prejudice and cruelty form the basis of so much of the play’s humor causes great consternation among critics. Because of its blatant, demeaning anti-Semitism, should the play not be performed for modern audiences, or does Shakespeare provide just enough sympathy for Shylock—and criticism of his antagonists—to redeem the work? Furthermore, Shylock is not the only character who is the target of bigotry, giving rise to the criticism that The Merchant of Venice evinces a broader racism. While the Venetian merchants spit on Shylock, the lady Portia spurns a parade of foreign suitors, one of whom is black. Her disparaging comments about Morocco’s “complexion” underscore the play’s endemic racism, confounding our expectations of a romantic heroine.
In Portia, three other major themes of this play come together: marriage, money, and bondage. An undeniably willful, intelligent woman, Portia is nevertheless bound by the will of her dead father; she must welcome any suitor willing to face a test of her father’s own devising in order to win her hand. Her suitors find Portia beautiful, but her wealth clearly constitutes a considerable part of her charm. Even Bassanio seems seduced more by the promise of money than by Portia herself, raising a troubling question: While the marriage plot promises the happy union of lovers, can a happy ending exist when the object of marriage is not love but wealth?
Racism, greed, betrayal, deceit, cruelty . . . and comedy? What is the reader to do with the problems posed by The Merchant of Venice? Shakespeare’s language always requires careful reading, but this play also demands an open mind. As scholar Alexander Leggatt observes in the Folger edition of the play, “Even a great writer can be bound by the prejudices of his time.” The reader must confront instances of exclusion and racism, question their causes, and look for those moments in which Shakespeare suggests sympathy for Shylock. Most importantly, the reader must turn a critical eye on the play’s heroes as well as on its villain. Given the lovers’ readiness to exclude Shylock (and Antonio), do they deserve a conventional happy ending? Shakespeare seems to invite this critique, as the play’s title directs us not to The Moneylender of Venice but to Antonio, the eponymous merchant. Antonio’s blatant prejudice and his determination to exclude Shylock mirror his own social isolation at the end of the play.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe the primary conflict each main character faces in the play.
2. Identify examples of dramatic devices such as asides, active monologues, and dramatic irony and explain their significance in the play.
3. Identify examples of literary devices such as metaphor, simile, and allusion and explain their significance in the play.
4. Describe the logic behind the lottery of the caskets devised by Portia’s father, and explain how this element of the play relates to the theme of marriage and money.
5. Discuss the role of gender in the play, as well as the functions of cross-dressing.
6. Compare and contrast Bassanio’s relationship with Antonio with his relationship with Portia.
7. Compare and contrast Antonio and Shylock as outsiders in the play.
8. Identify and discuss examples of humor used to assert power and humor based on cruelty.
9. Discuss whether or not the play endorses racism and/or anti-Semitism.
10. Define “tragicomedy,” and explain how The Merchant of Venice exemplifies the genre.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary...
(The entire section is 842 words.)
1. Critics still debate whether The Merchant of Venice endorses racism, criticizes it, or merely depicts an unfortunate but pervasive cultural norm. Using specific evidence from the play to support your claim, state and defend your position on this issue.
2. How does Bassanio’s friendship with Antonio, a relationship based on platonic love, create conflict in his relationship with Portia, a relationship based on romantic love? Ultimately, which type of bond seems stronger, and why?
3. Citing specific examples from the play, discuss how Shakespeare both condemns and sympathizes with Shylock. Ultimately, how does Shakespeare want us to view his alienated antagonist?
(The entire section is 521 words.)
ado: agitated fuss or concern
ague: fever accompanied by chills
argosies: large ships belonging to merchants
burghers: prosperous citizens
conceit: a thought, an idea
fie: an expression of mild disgust or annoyance
for this gear: because of this talk
good morrow: archaic good morning
gudgeon: a fish rumored to swallow anything it comes across
Janus: Roman mythology god with two faces looking in opposite directions
mortifying: archaic self-denying
piring: archaic peering
prodigal: lavish, wasteful...
(The entire section is 752 words.)
appropriation: an addition
by my troth: archaic a mild oath, “I swear”
Diana: Greek mythology goddess of chastity and hunting
dote: to lavish attention or affection on
level at: archaic guess at
mean: small, inconsiderable
played false: committed adultery
shrive: to grant absolution
smith: a blacksmith
sponge: a drunkard
superfluity: an excess
surfeit: an excessive amount
1. Paraphrase Nerissa’s comment in response to Portia’s complaint about world-weariness: “They are as sick that surfeit with...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
albeit: even though
bound: obligated by law to repay
break his day: archaic fail to repay the debt on the appointed day
cur: a dog
doit: a jot or a little bit
ducats: Venetian gold coins
fawning: courting others’ favor by flattery
in supposition: uncertain
last man in our mouths: archaic we were just talking about you
present store: ready cash
publican: a collector of Roman taxes and an enemy to Jews
rails: scolds using harsh, abusive language
rated: berated, scolded
soft: wait a...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
feared: caused someone to feel terrified (in context)
hedged me by his wit: bound me by his cleverness
incision: a cut
Moor: a broad term for people of North African descent who held Spain for 800 years
Phoebus: Greek mythology god of the sun
scimitar: a saber with a curved blade, chiefly used by Arabs and Turks
livery: a uniform
1. How does the prince of Morocco respond to Portia’s dislike of his black skin?
The prince entreats Portia not to dislike...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
allay: to moderate
anon: archaic right now
be God’s sonties: by God’s saints
clown: archaic actor playing a traditionally comic role in a play, usually a servant
ergo: Latin therefore
gramercy: thank you
guarded: lavishly decorated (in context)
halter: a noose
Master: a term of respect reserved for gentlemen
preferred: recommended someone (as for a job)
raise the waters: provoke to tears
sad ostent: serious appearance
scarce cater-cousins: archaic...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
alack: archaic exclamation of sorrow or regret
the hand: handwriting
heinous: shockingly evil
page: a young man who serves a person of high rank
quaintly ordered: archaic carefully managed
whither: archaic where
wilt: archaic will
1. What has Shylock’s daughter Jessica resolved to do, and how does she enlist Lancelet Gobbo’s help?
Jessica has decided to leave her father’s house, convert to Christianity, and marry Lorenzo, one of Bassanio’s friends. She asks Gobbo to deliver a letter to Lorenzo, presumably confirming her...
(The entire section is 300 words.)
clamber: to climb
fopp’ry: archaic foolish actions, folly
gormandize: to eat ravenously
patch: archaic fool
prodigal: characterized by lavish wastefulness
rend apparel out: wear out clothes
1. What does Shylock criticize about Gobbo as a servant? How do his criticisms contradict Gobbo’s claims about Shylock as a master in Act Two, Scene Two?
Shylock accuses Lancelet of overeating, wearing out his clothes too quickly, and being lazy, while earlier Gobbo accused...
(The entire section is 319 words.)
beshrew me: archaic a mild oath meaning “curse me”
discovery: uncovering, revealing
ever holds: is always true
gentle: gentlewoman or gentile (in context)
obliged faith: love vows that two people have kept for a long time
scarfed: archaic adorned with flags
1. Paraphrase the conversation between Gratiano and Salarino. What does it indicate about their attitude toward love and toward Lorenzo’s desire to run away with Jessica?
Salarino and Gratiano believe that the attraction of new love wears off quickly, especially after lovers have...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
carrion death: skull
dross: archaic worthless things
glisters: archaic glitters
immured: enclosed, imprisoned
miscarried: archaic came to harm
rib her cerecloth: contain her burial clothes (in context)
slubber not: archaic do not conduct sloppy business
stay the very riping: archaic wait for the completion of
withal: archaic too, also
1. Explain the prince of Morocco’s rationale for...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
addressed me: archaic made myself ready
assume desert: archaic assume that I deserve the best
courteous breath: polite words
cozen: to trick, to deceive
deliberate: reasoning, calculating
draw the curtain: open the curtain
enjoined: directed, commanded
injunctions: orders that require a person to refrain from doing specific acts
iwis: archaic certainly
martlet: house martin (a small bird)
sensible regrets: gifts
ta’en: archaic taken
wroth: archaic anger or...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
bespeak: hire him for
carrion: dead flesh
complexion: archaic nature (in context)
cross: archaic to thwart, to make ineffective
dam: archaic mother
fee me: hire
flat: archaic shoal
fledge: archaic ready to fly
hearsed: in her coffin
hindered: kept from making
out upon it: curse it!
prolixity: using an excess of words
sufferance: what one must bear or put up with
(The entire section is 913 words.)
allay: to relieve, to alleviate
am forsworn: perjure myself
bereft: lonely and abandoned
by note: with the authority of the scroll
continent: archaic container
counterfeit: archaic portrait
eche: archaic to increase, to add to
engendered: begotten, conceived
fancy: desire for something
knell: solemn sound of a bell marking someone’s death
lightest: least respectable (in context)
mere: archaic absolute
miss me: choose incorrectly (in context)
naughty: evil (in...
(The entire section is 1430 words.)
bated: shrunk, diminished
device: archaic plan
habit: a costume
imposition: a duty forced on someone
intercessor: one who makes a prayer or petition in favor of another
traject: archaic ferry
1. According to Antonio, what will inhibit the duke of Venice’s efforts to stop Shylock from taking his pound of flesh?
Antonio explains to Solanio that the duke’s interceding on his behalf would “impeach the justice of the state.” The trade and profit of all Venice...
(The entire section is 355 words.)
fear: archaic suspect
meet: archaic fitting
out: archaic arguing, at odds
Scylla and Charybdis: Greek mythology two monsters that represent being caught between two dangers
set you forth: serve you up as if you were a dish
1. Explain the gist of the argument between Lancelet Gobbo and Jessica. How do Gobbo’s cruel jokes exemplify using humor to gain power?
Lancelet reminds Jessica of a passage in the Bible that says the sins of the father are visited upon the children and jokes that she should be of good cheer; since both...
(The entire section is 292 words.)
abject: extremely bad and degrading
cope: archaic give in exchange for
dram: a tiny amount
fashion: pretense (in context)
fell: archaic cruel
humor: archaic whim
impugn: to call into question or dispute the validity of something
malice: strong hatred
meetest: most suitable
moi’ty (moiety): a small or indefinite part or share
obdurate: stubbornly refusing to change one’s opinion or course of action
purpose: to intend
qualify: to limit
slavish parts: slavish ways
strained: limited, held back
(The entire section is 1656 words.)
attended: listened to
beset: to surround and harass
by season seasoned are: are perfected by appearing at the right moment
ceremony: symbolic value (in context)
Dido: Greek mythology Queen of Carthage abandoned by her lover Aeneas
Endymion: Greek mythology mortal loved by the moon
fetching mad bound: madly leaping
inter’gatory: a question
light: unchaste (in context)
Medea: Greek mythology betrayed by her husband Jason, Medea murdered their children in vengeance
muddy vesture of decay: body
(The entire section is 1160 words.)
1. Salarino’s comment that Antonio’s ships are “like signiors and rich burghers on the flood” is an example of which literary device?
A. It is a metaphor.
B. It is personification.
C. It is a simile.
D. It is imagery.
E. It is hyperbole.
2. Which of the following statements best addresses the cause of Antonio’s sadness at the beginning of the play?
A. Antonio never clearly explains the cause of his sadness.
B. Antonio’s sadness is caused by his bankruptcy.
C. Antonio’s sadness is brought on by Bassanio’s request for more...
(The entire section is 1657 words.)
1. Throughout The Merchant of Venice, characters use humor, often cruelly, in an attempt to assert their power and control at the expense and exclusion of others. Identify and discuss three examples of the relationship between humor and power.
Much of the humor in The Merchant of Venice comes from characters’ cruel jokes at the expense of others which, for modern audiences, can create discomfort more than lighthearted humor. Shakespeare deviates from the traditional function of comedy in order to show how humor can also be a source of power, particularly for the powerless.
Portia’s feelings of powerlessness cause her to make cruel jokes at her suitors’ expense. Powerless to contend with her...
(The entire section is 3507 words.)