The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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Teaching Approaches

Money Versus God as a Theme: Money is near the heart of many of the relationships in the play. From the first scene, the characters assume that money is the main issue in everyone’s lives. Antonio is assumed to be sad because of money, Bassanio cannot pursue love without money; Jessica and Lorenzo cannot elope without money. When Jessica disappears, they claim that Shylock was crying about his money rather than his daughter. Most of the Christians’ metaphors revolve around money. While the Christians hate Shylock because he is Jewish and ultimately condemn him to conversion, the Christians are never seen caring about God in this play. The Christians’ “God” seems to be money. From one perspective, this hypocrisy turns the Christians into villains and Shylock into a victim. 

  • For discussion: Why is it significant that Shylock makes allusions to the Bible while the Christian characters make references to antiquity? 
  • For discussion: The Christians are identified by their faith and yet spend most of the play discussing money rather than God. What theme might be revealed by this substitution? 

Prejudice and Alienation as a Theme: Throughout the play, the Christian characters show extreme prejudice towards Shylock because he is Jewish. In return, Shylock shows hatred for the Christians. In the trial scene, Shylock refuses to take Portia’s money so that he can punish Antonio for his bigotry. Because Shylock is alienated from Venetian society, he cannot engage with it effectively. This alienation turns Shylock into a type of monster. In a tragic twist, Shylock becomes the monster that the Christians have assumed he is all along because he reacts strongly to the treatment he endures at the hands of the Christians. 

  • For discussion: Why won’t Shylock take Portia’s money in exchange for his bond? How does this commitment to the original agreement challenge the Christians’ view of Shylock as a greedy, money-hungry man? 
  • For discussion: Though an Early Modern audience would see Shylock as the villain of act 4, scene 1, how do the Christians act monstrously? 

Interpretations of Shylock’s Character: Shylock’s character can be read from three predominant angles. 

1. Shylock as villain: The play’s earliest audiences may have viewed Shylock as a blood-thirsty heathen who plagues the good Christian characters. This interpretation looks past moments in which Shakespeare humanizes the character and takes as its defining image Shylock’s brandishing the knife he will use to cut Antonio’s flesh. 
2. Shylock as vengeful: Some primarily view Shylock as a victim of circumstance. From this perspective, Shylock’s ruthlessness towards Antonio arises from the injustices he has faced at the hands of the Christians. In other words, if he is a monster, it is only because his Christian antagonists have made him so. 
3. Shylock as flawed hero: This interpretation essentially blends the above readings of Shylock’s character. Shylock, then, is both a villain and a victim, someone who chooses the wrong solution to a complex problem. Like flawed heroes such as Macbeth or Othello, Shylock’s poor judgment—rather than an innately wicked nature—leads to his downfall. 
  • For discussion: Looking at Shylock’s dialogue, what types of words and phrases does he use? With what kind of tone does he speak to others? Based on this, what can you conclude about his character? 
  • For discussion: Consider the trial in act 4, scene 1. Why does Shylock refuse to show mercy to Antonio? Does this make him a villain? Why or why not? 
  • For discussion: Compare Shylock to the main characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. Do you think Shylock is more similar to Iago, who is amoral and vengeful, or Othello, who is shortsighted and reactionary? 

Interpretations of Antonio’s Sadness: Readers will notice Antonio’s absolute devotion to Bassanio. At the beginning of the play, Antonio says “Forsooth, I know not why I am so sad.” Many critics have argued that the source of Antonio’s...

(The entire section is 1,685 words.)