In this lesson, our instructor Rebekah Hendershot teaches The Merchant of Venice. Youll go over the complete background of the play, the setting, and the characters. Rebekah explains each character in detail, including Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Portia, Jessica, Shylock, Nerissa, The Duke of Venice and everyone in between. Youll learn each element of the plot beginning with Antonio and Bassanio to the happy ending. Themes, major passages, and essay topic jumping-off points are also discussed. With Rebekah youll discuss topics such as the portrayal of Shylock, justice, mercy, and relationships between characters. The lesson concludes with a few secrets to make understanding Shakespeare a lot easier.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
The prince of Morocco fails
Shylock’s daughter and ducats
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
Tolerance? Anti-semitism? The problem of Shylock …
Love of all kinds
Justice vs. mercy
Love vs. self-interest
Cycle of hatred
“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
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.
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