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The Merchant of Venice

  • First Things First
    • This lesson will teach you how to read and understand a play by William Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights in the history of the English language (and the man who invented quite a lot of it).
    • These videos are not a substitute for reading Shakespeare, listening to Shakespeare, or watching Shakespeare performed.
  • Seriously. Don’t be that guy.
  • Background
    • Written 1596 – 1598
    • A variation on a common story of the time (notably interpreted in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta)
    • Also called The Jew of Venice
    • First published in 1600
    • Sometimes classed as a comedy; also classed as a tragic comedy
    • Controversial for its portrayal of Jews
  • Setting
    • Venice, Italy, and Belmont
    • Major trading city
    • Jews confined to the ghetto, restricted to certain clothing and professions, including moneylending and pawnshop management, in exchange for protection
  • Characters
    • Antonio—A merchant of Venice
    • Bassanio—Antonio’s friend and kinsman, a young nobleman who lives beyond his means and is courting Portia
    • Gratiano—A friend of Bassanio
    • Lorenzo—A friend of Bassanio and Antonio, in love with Jessica
    • Portia—A rich heiress; she falls in love with Bassanio
    • Nerissa—Portia’s lady-in-waiting; in love with Gratiano
    • Shylock—A Jewish moneylender who hates Antonio; he disowns his daughter Jessica when she marries Lorenzo
    • Jessica—Shylock’s daughter; she marries the Christian Lorenzo
    • Duke of Venice—the ruler of the city who will adjudicate the dispute between Shylock and Antonio
    • LauncelotGobbo and Old Gobbo—Father and son; clowns
  • Plot
    • Antonio and Bassanio
      • Antonio’s depression,and his investments
      • Bassanio’s debts and his courtship
      • A need to borrow money
    • Portia and Nerissa
      • Portia’s inheritance and her father’s will
      • The three chests
      • No successful suitors
    • Shylock
      • Hatred of Antonio
      • The pound of flesh
    • The prince of Morocco
    • Gobbo’s new job
      • Trip to Belmont
    • Jessica and Lorenzo
      • Shylock as a father
      • Jessica escapes
    • The prince of Morocco fails
    • Shylock’s daughter and ducats
      • Leah’s ring
    • The prince of Arragon fails
    • Antonio’s fortune lost?
    • Bassanio wins Portia’s hand
      • Exchange of rings
    • Antonio in prison
    • “I’ll have my bond”
    • Portia and Nerissa: road trip!
    • Antonio and Shylock go to trial
    • “Balthazar”, the lawyer
    • “The quality of mercy is not strained”
    • A loophole in the contract
    • Shylock loses everything
    • Fun with rings, and a happy ending
  • Themes
    • Tolerance? Anti-semitism? The problem of Shylock …
    • Love of all kinds
      • (Homosexuality?)
    • Justice vs. mercy
    • Love vs. self-interest
      • Who’s who?
    • Cycle of hatred
  • Major Passages
    • “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?…”

      -Act III, Scene 1, 49-61

    • “You have among you many a purchased slave …”

      -Act IV, Scene 1, 89-99

    • “The quality of mercy is not strained.
      It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
      Upon the place beneath.…”

      -Act IV, Scene 1, 179-197

  • Jumping-Off Points
    • Many scholars think Shylock was a character who got away from his author—that Shakespeare intended him as a Jewish stereotype, but that he turned out to be a much more intelligent, eloquent, and wronged man than he was meant to be. Others see Shylock as a typical Jewish villain; still others see The Merchant of Venice as a plea for tolerance. How do you think Shakespeare intended Shylock to be portrayed?
    • On a related note, many actors have played Shylock as villain, victim, or a combination of the two. How would you portray the character if you were acting or directing the play?
    • How are the concepts of justice and mercy explored in The Merchant of Venice? Does Shylock truly seek justice? Does Portia truly grant mercy? Is the conflict resolved by the end of the story?
    • Is The Merchant of Venice a comedy, or not? Why?
    • What do you make of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio? How does that relationship reveal their characters?
    • Why does Shakespeare split his action between two locations? What roles do Venice and Belmont play in the story?
    • Examine the relationship between Jessica and Shylock. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who has the audience’s sympathy, and does that change?
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare
    • Watch it performed (or on film if you can’t get to a theatrical production). All of Shakespeare makes more sense when it’s spoken by actors who have lived his words and know, bone-deep, what he’s talking about. Never underestimate the power of performance. Remember that this is how Shakespeare meant his work to be seen …

The Merchant of Venice

Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.

  • Intro 0:00
  • First Things First 0:08
  • Lesson Overview 0:54
  • Background 1:24
  • Setting 2:54
  • Characters 5:16
    • Antonio
    • Bassanio
    • Gratiano
    • Lorenzo
    • Portia
    • Nerissa
    • Shylock
    • Jessica
    • Duke of Venice
    • Launcelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo
  • Plot 7:28
    • Antonio and Bassanio
    • Portia and Nerissa
    • Shylock
    • The Prince of Morocco
    • Gobbo's new job
    • Jessica and Lorenzo
    • The Prince of Morocco fails
    • Shylock's daughter and ducats
    • The prince of Arragon fails
    • Antonio' s fortune lost?
    • Bassanio wins Portia's hand
    • Antonio in prison
    • I'll have my bond
    • Portia and Nerissa: Road trip!
    • Antonio and Shylock go to trial
    • Balthazar
    • The quality of mercy is not strained
    • A loophole in the contract
    • Shylock loses everything
    • Fun with rings, happy ending
  • Themes 20:48
    • Major Passages
    • Act IV, scene 1, 89-99
    • Act IV, scene 1, 179-197
  • Jumping-off Points 25:58
    • The portrayal of Shylock
    • How would you portray Shylock?
    • Justice and mercy
    • Is this play a comedy or not?
    • The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio
    • The roles of Venice and Belmont
    • The relationship between Jessica and Shylock
  • The Secret of Understanding Shakespeare 30:04