The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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So you’re going to teach William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, The Merchant of Venice has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots, teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. It will give them unique insight into racial prejudice in the Early Modern period and Shakespeare’s role in spreading these ideas, as well as important themes surrounding prejudice, alienation, and revenge. This guide highlights the text's most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 1605
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9 and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 21,900 
  • Author: William Shakespeare 
  • Country of Origin: England 
  • Genre: Drama 
  • Literary Period: English Renaissance, Early Modern 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society 
  • Literary Devices: Dramatic Irony, Double Plot, Mistaken Identities 
  • Setting: Venice, Italy, 1605 
  • Structure: Five-Act Stage Drama 
  • Tone: Comedic, Ironic, and Light-hearted, but with a Grave Undertone

Texts that Go Well with The Merchant of Venice

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a 1925 novel about American excess and nostalgia during the Jazz Age of the 1920s. Told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, the novel chronicles Jay Gatsby’s attempts to reconnect with his now-married former paramour, Daisy Buchanan. Like the Christians in Merchant, the lives of the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel revolve around money, which causes many of the problems throughout the story. The novel’s plot is in many ways driven by repression. Nick’s character’s dedication to and obsession with Gatsby can be seen as a type of homosexual desire similar to Antonio’s dedication to Bassanio. Nick’s homosexual repression, Daisy’s repressed desire for Gatsby, and Gatsby’s repression of his true nature cause the events of the novel to unfold just as Antonio and Bassanio’s powerful bond sets the events of Merchant in motion. 

Grendel, by John Gardner, is a 1971 novel that tells the story of the epic poem Beowulf from the perspective of the monster. Grendel becomes a monster because the Geats treat him like a monster. Though Grendel commits murder and other horrible acts, readers empathize with Grendel because he is rejected and mistreated by the community. This novel can be used to examine Shylock’s character and the extent to which his actions are the result of the prejudice and rejection that he faces. 

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is a 1952 novel that addresses the social issues and challenges facing African Americans during the early 20th century. The unnamed protagonist struggles to find his identity within different groups. He faces racism and prejudice from the dominant culture and rejection from various subcultures. The protagonist in this story can be compared to Shylock as both characters seem to have no community to support them. This lack of community leads to isolation, anger, and resentment. 

The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, is a 1590 play in which a Jewish man in Malta begins killing people after the Duke takes away all he has. The main character, Barabas, is a vicious, villainous, amoral character. Compare Christopher Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Shylock. While Barabas is irredeemably wicked, Shylock is the only truly pious character of Merchant and is allowed to make an argument for his humanity. 

The Pianist, by Henryk Szpilman, is the 1946 memoir of a Polish-Jewish pianist and composer who lived through the occupation of Poland and the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. Szpilman quotes the “Hath not a Jew Eyes” speech to his brother in order to question Nazi propaganda that demonizes Jewish people. The novel can be used to examine the dangerous effects of the anti-Semitic rhetoric that created characters like Shylock and eventually led to the mass extermination of European Jews. 

The Stranger, by Albert Camus, is a 1942 existentialist novel in which the main character, an Algerian-born Frenchman named Meursault, kills an Arab man after attending his mother’s funeral. This novel addresses the theme of individual alienation from culture. In this case, Meursault feels alienated from inherent meaning and human connection. Just as Meursault cannot understand what motivates people to act, Shylock cannot understand the Christians who live according to contrary laws and vilify him at every turn.

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Key Plot Points