Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1685
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 sadness is his unrequited and unspoken love for Bassanio. Throughout the play, the strongest bond is the one between Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio agrees to place his life and livelihood in jeopardy for Bassanio by taking the initial bond with Shylock. He symbolically offers up his heart to Bassanio by promising “a pound of flesh taken from the area around his heart.” Bassanio in turn proves his loyalty to Antonio when he gives up Portia’s ring to repay the lawyer who saves Antonio’s life. Portia’s “prank” at the end of the play intends to break the bond between the two men by having Bassanio swear his love to her. Antonio is left with his money at the end of the play, but he is left out of the comedic happy ending. His story does not end in romantic union and his “sadness” is never solved.
- For discussion: Why is Antonio so sad at the beginning of the play? Do you think this sadness has subsided by the end of the play? Does Antonio receive the happy ending befitting a Shakespearean comedy?
- For discussion: Why does Portia need to play a prank on her husband at the end of the play? What might the ring come to symbolize in these final scenes?
- For discussion: What might the pound of flesh taken near the heart symbolize? Why is it important that this is the bond Antonio takes for Bassanio?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- In act 2, scene 8, we hear an account of Shylock by Salario and Solanio. How do these two characters describe Shylock? Is their account consistent with the Shylock we have witnessed on stage?
- How does the trial scene complicate our expectations of justice and mercy? Do you think justice is served? In what way do Portia and the Duke show mercy? In what way is Shylock’s punishment not merciful?
- Discuss the casket test. What does this test tell us about Portia’s character? Why is Bassanio able to pass the test?
- Would you characterize this play as a comedy, tragedy, or something else?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
There Are Many Offensive Moments in the Play: Because this play portrays the anti- Semitism of the Elizabethan age, many of the things said to and about Shylock, and Jews in general, are offensive.
- What to do: Address the anti-Semitism directly. Briefly describe the situation of Jews in Europe during Shakespeare’s time, and point out lines in the play that describe their circumstances. Acknowledge that some of the lines will make students uncomfortable, and that they can be difficult to read.
- What to do: Read these passages with a empathetic eye for Shylock. In other words, if the text is depicting him doing something monstrous, try to figure out why he is doing it. In many cases, Shylock’s actions are reactions to harmful things that the other characters have done to him. It is difficult to know, without detailed records of contemporary performances, how Shakespeare intended Shylock to be portrayed or received. Point to the character’s moments of intense humanity, and his own descriptions of his situation.
Usury Is a Complicated Concept: One of the main reasons for the animosity between the Christians and Shylock is the complicated ideology behind usury in Shakespeare’s time. Students will also have a hard time understanding why usury was so shunned since the collecting of interest is a fundamental part of modern economies.
- What to do: Explain that usury is the practice of lending money and charging interest on the loan based on how long it takes the borrower to pay the money back. It is akin to having a credit card or student loan. Explain that the Catholic church banned usury because it considered the practice an absence of charity and a monetization of time, both of which were problematic according to doctrine.
- What to do: Explain why usury is not necessarily a crime or wrongdoing.
Shakespearean Diction and Syntax Are Difficult: Shakespeare’s language can be difficult for students to understand. However, it is not written in Old English or even Middle English. It is written in Modern English and can be understood with some practice.
- What to do: Outline the whole plot of the story before beginning the play so that it is easier to follow. Consider hanging a timeline on the board or asking students to recap the plot at the beginning of each class.
- What to do: Start with a short passage and ask students to translate Shakespeare’s archaic language into plain English so that they can become familiar with his style.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Merchant of Venice
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
Focus on anti-Semitism and alienation. Though Shylock delivers the play’s best lines and is the most pious character, he is still alienated from his society and severely discriminated against. Talk about how this play figures in the larger narrative of anti- Semitism. Use the “Hath not a Jew Eyes” speech as a way into talking about anti- Semitism in Europe, and how this tradition eventually led to the Holocaust in the 20th century.
Focus on Jessica’s conversion narrative. Highlight the scenes in act 2 in which Jessica converts to Christianity in order to marry Lorenzo. Ask why Jessica decides to convert and investigate the language she uses to show her conversion. Compare her voluntary conversion to Shylock’s forced conversion at the end of the play.
Focus on Nerissa and Portia’s comedic trick. Look at the trick the two women play in the final act. Though this playful ending is typical of a Shakespearean comedy, it seems out of place in this story that centers on racial prejudice. Discuss the effect of this comedic ending and how it affects the tone of the play.
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