Drama Study: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

FRom the pRL / originally written in english / C16TH / Europe / england

All that glisters is not gold.

The National Theatre production of The Merchant Of Venice starring Laurence Olivier (1973)


The Merchant of Venice ranks with Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed dramas. Written sometime between 1594 and 1598, the play is primarily based on a story in Il Pecorone, a collection of tales and anecdotes by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Fiorentino.

In Venice, Antonio and Bassanio are friends. Bassanio is already in debt to the merchant, but he asks for an additional sum so that he can woo the wealthy and beautiful Portia in Belmont. Because most of his money is invested in three merchant vessels that have not returned from abroad, Antonio is unable to comply with his friend’s request. Bassanio turns to Shylock, who hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money without interest. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats for three months: if the loan is not repaid in time, he will demand a pound of the merchant’s flesh.

There is considerable debate concerning the dramatist’s intent in The Merchant of Venice because, although it conforms to the structure of a comedy, the play contains many tragic elements. Despite the sometimes stereotypical portrayal of Shylock as a money-loving Jew, some audiences also notice several ambiguities in the play’s apparent endorsement of Christian values. Does Shakespeare actually censure Antonio and the Venetians who oppose Shylock? After all, the Christians’ discrimination against Shylock contradicts the bible’s instructions of love, charity and mercy. Other commentators suggest that Shakespeare intentionally provided for both interpretations of the drama: although the playwright does not entirely support Shylock, they contend, neither does he endorse the actions of Antonio and the other Venetians in their punishment of the Jew. Once you’ve read The Merchant of Venice, you’ll be able to judge this issue for yourself.

IB Learner Profile: Caring

We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us.

IB Learners care about others, and care about the impact they have on others. They don’t stand aside when they see injustice or cruelty, and seek ways to actively improve the lives of others. In many ways, The Merchant of Venice is a play about the way people choose to treat each other: why does Antonio abuse Shylock on the Rialto? Why does Shylock doggedly pursue his ‘pound of flesh’? Pause at one or two moments in the play and reflect on what may have been different if characters had shown each other more empathy, compassion and caring.  

Lang and Lit Concept: Perspective

The Merchant of Venice has a reputation as a ‘problem play’, the problem being it seems to fall back on stereotypes of Jewish people in order to satisfy the expectation of a 17th century audience. As a Jew, Shylock would have been an archetypal villain, incapable of human emotion such as pity, mercy or kindness. At several points in the play other characters level this charge against Shylock. However, the way the play is written allows for other interpretations of Shylock’s character, and the viewer is left to wonder whether Shakespeare was trying to represent Jewish people in a more progressive way than Elizabethan culture would normally accept. During your reading of The Merchant of Venice, keep track of the possible perspectives one might have on Shylock’s character.

Areas of Exploration

The Merchant of Venice revolves around the taking of a loan from a Jewish moneylender called Shylock, one of Shakespeare’s most powerful fictional characters. The portrayal of Shylock has generated intense debate: on one hand, he is given the most emotive speeches in the play; on the other hand the content of the play certainly contains some anti-semitic elements reflecting Elizabethan attitudes towards Jewish people. Use the following resource to learn more about the context in which the play was produced and those in which it has been performed and changed over time. This resource will help you explore the Lang and Lit conceptual question:

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

The Merchant of Venice is a very symmetrical play. Almost all the characters have a partner in love: Bassanio and Portia; Lorenzo and Jessica; Gratiano and Nerissa. Other characters have friends and constant companions: Portia and Nerissa; Salanio and Salarino; Antonio and Bassanio. It’s no accident that of all the major characters, Shylock is the only one left alone. You can use this observation as the starting point for your Higher Level essay. While this list is not exhaustive, it may give you some lines of investigation you could pursue.

  • How far does Shakespeare suggest that duty must always come before love in The Merchant of Venice?
  • Examine the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice: can it be argued that these characters love one another?
  • What does a comparison of Portia and Jessica reveal about a woman’s freedom to love when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice?
  • Is love more important than life in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare?
  • In the world of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, what are the conditions for a character to love?

Act 1

In Venice, Antonio is describing his mysterious state of melancholy to his companions Solanio and SaIerio when Bassanio approaches him for a loan. Bassanio is already in debt to the merchant, but he asks for an additional sum so that he can woo the wealthy and beautiful Portia in Belmont. Because most of his money is invested in three merchant vessels that have not returned from abroad, Antonio is unable to comply with his friend’s request. Nevertheless, he authorizes Bassanio to borrow money using his name. Bassanio turns to Shylock, who hates Antonio because he is a Christian and because he lends money without interest. Shylock agrees to lend Antonio 3,000 ducats for three months: if the loan is not repaid in time, he will demand a pound of the merchant’s flesh. Bassanio objects, but Antonio signs the bond, confident that his ships will return before the term expires. Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia laments the provision of her father’s will that states she must wed the suitor who, from three caskets (one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead) chooses the one containing her picture. She expresses her relief to Nerissa that all the previous suitors have failed the test, and then confesses her admiration for Bassanio.

Act 1, Scene 1

“…Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone,
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks,
Which touching but my gentle vessel’s side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream.

Salarino, 1.1.29-33

In the first scene of the play, we are introduced to the wealthy Christian class. The characters that begin the play have money and takes great pains to hide their concern over it – however, you can hear from the language they use that thoughts of money, business, trade and fortune play on their minds to the point of distraction. 

However, the audience initially sees in Antonio a Christian ethic in which caring for others takes precedence over his money; there is a bond between Bassanio and Antonio that goes deeper than money. Antonio truly cares for Bassanio as an elder brother figure and is willing to watch out for his friend and provide him with the financial means to woo the woman he loves. His relationship with Bassanio, and his feelings about losing his best friend to marriage, are developed over the course of the play. 

Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes as Antonio and Bassanio in the 2005 UK Film Council production of the play, directed by Michael Radford.
VEnetian Wisdom

The exact date by which Shakespeare completed The Merchant of Venice is not known, but a clue lies submerged in Act 1 Scene 1 – literally. Antonio alludes to the ‘wealthy Andrew dock’d in sand’, which has been accepted as a reference to the San Andrés, a Spanish ship captured during the expedition to Cadiz in 1596. News of this exploit reached court by 30 July 1596, so Shakespeare could not have written The Merchant of Venice before that date.

Act 1, Scene 2

“O me, the word ‘choose!’ I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?”

Portia, 1.2.21-25

Portia, a rich and beautiful young woman, complains to her waiting-woman, Nerissa, that she hates all of the suitors who are seeking to marry her. Portia’s father has decreed that she will marry whichever suitor makes the correct choice when presented with three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead.

Portia is a wise heiress longing to choose her own husband. However, she is a good daughter honouring her father by allowing his plan to find her a worthy husband to be played out. The audience also sees that Portia is an intelligent and capable woman – but still bound by the limits her society places on her, as she is not trusted to choose her own husband!

Marsha Stephanie Blake and Lily Rabe as Portia and Nerissa in the Broadhurst Theatre, New York
VEnetian Wisdom

Portia isn’t the only Shakespeare heroine who doesn’t get to choose her own husband. In The Taming of the Shrew, Baptista Minola arranges his daughter’s marriage to Petruchio. Although the elaborate lottery Portia’s father has arranged is pretty unusual, it was typical for 16th-century dads to choose their daughters’ husbands.  

Act 1, Scene 3

“Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key, with bated breath and whispering humbleness, Say this; ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last; You spurn’d me such a day; another time You call’d me dog; and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys’?”

Shylock, 1.3.117-124

Antonio can’t access his own money until his ships return safely from sea, so he borrows the money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock, whom he has previously treated very badly. Shylock agrees to lend the money but only on the basis that if the loan is not repaid he will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As a stark contrast to the fun-loving and caring Christian men we have seen so far, the more sinister character of Shylock is introduced. It was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s time to vilify Jews in theatrical presentations – yet Shylock is not a fully evil character. Shylock’s malice is to some extent brought on by his treatment by the Christians. The audience sees a major difference in the way Antonio treats Shylock versus Bassanio in this scene.

Anthony Sher as Shylock flanked by Antonio and Bassanio in the RSC’s 1987 production.
VEnetian Wisdom

The Church believed that interest (usury) should never be charged when one Christian loaned money to another Christian. The idea comes from Deuteronomy 23:19-23: “You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner, you may lend upon interest, but to your brother, you shall not lend upon interest.” Christians were allowed, however, to borrow money (with interest) from foreigners. Since Jews were classified as “foreigners” in England, they were encouraged to set up banks when they arrived in the country.

Learner Portfolio: Act 1 – the Christian Gang

How do you feel about the Christian characters at the end of Act One? In this journal entry, you should focus on one or two of the Christian gang and see what their concerns, behaviours and dialogues tell you about this group of people. Write one-two pages about one or two of Antonio, Bassanio, Portia, Gratiano, Salanio and Salarino or Lorenzo.

Take Bassanio, for example: his character might be appealing because he is full of youthful optimism – however, many audience members find it hard to warm to him. He has wasted a lot of money (both his own and his friends’) and his plan to get it back involves both a degree of risk and marrying Portia for her money! His scheme is explained as a ‘childhood proof’ which he believed as a child and still believes now; to any critical thinker his theory cannot seem like a sensible or responsible way to act. Repeated phrases throughout the play compare Bassanio to the Prodigal Son (St Luke 15:11-32) who spent all his inheritance in ‘riotous living’ then went back to his father when he was penniless and starving.

Act 2

In Belmont, two Princes arrive to try their luck at the casket game. We begin to understand more why men have not been willing so far to venture a guess toward the caskets: they can never marry if they choose incorrectly. Back in Venice, Launcelot, the clown, tells his father that he is running away from his job as a servant to Shylock to work for Bassanio, who enters soon after. The two both plead with Bassanio to accept Launcelot’s services, which he does.

Finally, we see Shylock with his daughter Jessica in their home as he exhorts her to stay away from the festivals and revelries in Venice that are happening tonight. Shylock is portrayed in this scene, not as an evil character, but as one that lives strictly by the Law and rules of his religion; yet, we also see a concern for both his daughter and his possessions, as he tells Jessica to protect her purity to lock the doors of his house to protect his possessions too.

Act 2, Scene 1

“Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.”

Morocco, 2.1.1-3
David Harewood as Morocco in the 2004 UK Film Council production.

Back in Belmont, the Moroccan prince arrives, a dark skinned man dressed in white and followed by four servants. The prince asks Portia not to judge his skin color, but to look more at his beauty. Portia explains that she does not believe beauty is the way to her heart, but then laments that her husband is not hers to choose, either.

In this scene, we begin to understand more why men have not been willing so far to venture a guess toward the caskets, as they can never marry if they choose incorrectly. The audience also meets the kind of man brave (or arrogant?) enough to choose: the Moroccan prince. Portia receives him politely but very coolly. He believes her reserved manner is due to his dark skin color making him less attractive to her. Her words in Act 1 (“the complexion of a devil”) seem to bear out his suspicions; but in this scene the audience also see that his constant boasting and massive ego drives her away from him. The audience are asked to constantly re-evaluate Portia’s character – is she blinded by his outer appearance, or does her desire to look beyond the outside appearance of her suitors speak to a more upstanding side of her character?

Act 2, Scene 2

“Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnal; and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew.”

Launcelot, 2.2.24-27

Launcelot, the clown, debates with himself about running away from his master, Shylock. Launcelot is bothered that Shylock is a devil of sorts, because Shylock is Jewish, yet his conscience reminds him that he is an honest person. When he decides that he will leave Shylock’s employ, a half-blind man walks up asking how he can get to Shylock’s home: Launcelot recognizes him as his father, Gobbo. Launcelot cruelly plays with his father’s inability to see: this marks a common tool in plays of Shakespeare’s time. Often throughout his works we see “clowns” or “fools” adding some comic content. The scene between the Gobbos is very much that comic interlude.

Finally, we again see the contempt that the Christians feel toward Shylock in Launcelot’s desire to leave the Jew for no other reason than his being a Jew. It adds a sympathetic feeling toward the villain of the story. 

Act 2, Scene 3

“Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child!”

Jessica, 2.3.15-16

Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, tells Launcelot that she is sad to see him leave, but gives him a letter for Lorenzo. To herself, she deplores herself for being ashamed of her father. Yet she vows to become a Christian and marry Lorenzo. Again, Shylock seems condemned by those around him, even his own daughter. The audience wonders about Shylock’s character since all these characters seem to hold him in such contempt, yet none voice any other reason for the malice except for Shylock being a Jew and somewhat tedious. This same voice coming from his daughter also calls into question her own virtue, as she berates herself for her own sin of being ashamed of Shylock. The audience can again debate the presentation of a character: is Jessica voicing a real grievance against her father, or is she acting like a spoiled, impetuous brat?

Launcelot and Gobbo at the Key City Theatre, 2013
VEnetian Wisdom

There are many possible texts that Shakespeare could have used in constructing The Merchant of Venice. His chief source was a tale in an Italian collection entitled Il Pecorone or The Simpleton, written in 1378 by Giovanni Fiorentino, and published in 1565. The story in Il Pecorone tells of a wealthy woman at Belmont who marries an upstanding young gentleman. Her husband needs money and his friend, desperate to help, goes to a money-lender to borrow the required cash for his friend. Portia’s suitors and the game of casket choosing they must play for her hand in marriage are from the Gesta Romanorum, a medieval collection of stories translated by Richard Robinson, and published in 1577.

Act 2, Scene 4

“Come, go with me; peruse this as thou goest:
Fair Jessica shall be my torch-bearer.”

Lorenzo, 2.4.38-39

Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salarino, and Solanio discuss the preparations for the masquerade party that evening and how they have no torchbearers. The continued contempt of Shylock is again voiced by Lorenzo, who believes Jessica to be more virtuous by turning her back on her heritage and embracing Christianity due to her love of him. A play on words exists here, with Jessica becoming the torchbearer for Lorenzo, carrying a “torch” for the man she loves.

Act 2, Scene 5

Shylock calls for Jessica, and tells her that he is going to dine with Bassanio to spite him. When he learns from Launcelot that there will be a masquerade, he tells her to lock up the doors and windows and not to look out the windows at the partygoers.  Shylock is portrayed in this scene, not as an evil character, but as one that lives strictly by the Law and rules of his religion. Shylock seems almost Puritanical in his care to not revel in the masquerade. Yet, we also see a concern for his daughter, as he tells Jessica not to watch the revelers; in order to protect her purity (and his possessions) she must lock the doors.

Act 2, Scene 6

“Here, catch this casket; it is worth the pains.
I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange:
But love is blind and lovers cannot see.”

Jessica, 2.6.34-37

Lorenzo calls for Jessica, who arrives on the balcony dressed as a page. Jessica tosses down a box of treasures, and laments her having to dress as a boy in front of her love.  The audience sees how the men regard Jessica as a virtuous figure for leaving her father; yet they regard her as virtuous while she is running away from a father who never mistreated her and is stealing his belongings.

Doug Kaye and Amanda Lindsay as Shylock and Jessica in the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse 2016 production, directed by Laura Cole
VEnetian WIsdom

Anyone involved in the production of plays in Elizabethan England, from the playwright to the theatre owners, knew that the Master of Revels was the man to impress and fear, for he auditioned acting troupes, selected the plays they would perform, and controlled the scenery and costumes to be used in each production. When the Master of Revels organized an upcoming season of performances he would summon the acting troupes so that they could audition before him and his three subordinate officers. The Master would then choose which companies would perform and which plays they were allowed to produce. If the Master saw fit, he would delete lines or passages and even request that entire scenes be inserted into the original material.

Act 2, Scene 7

“All that glisters is not gold”

Portia’s Father, 2.7.65

Back at Belmont, the Moroccan prince is choosing between the caskets. The prince comes upon the gold casket with the inscription telling him that the box contains what many men want.  After much analysis, the prince chooses the gold casket, for he knows that many men come to woo Portia, and she is what they desire. However, upon opening the casket, he finds a skull with a poem explaining why he has chosen incorrectly – he was too arrogant. Despite his ego, we can understand why he logically chose the gold box, and sympathize as he leaves quickly. In this scene we glimpse a cool, callous Portia who cares little for the Moroccan’s lonely future, but instead hopes that none of his kind chooses the right casket.

Act 2, Scene 8

Salarino and Solanio are discussing the latest news in Venice: Shylock has realized that Lorenzo and Jessica had ran off together. Shylock appeals to the Duke to search Bassanio’s ship, but they are too late, for Bassanio has already sailed. Shylock is visibly upset by both the loss of his daughter and his ducats. Though the Christian characters revel in Shylock’s misfortune, the audience feels for Shylock’s losses. Shylock is not a fully sympathetic villain, though, as he places the loss of his daughter on the same level as the loss of his money and valuables.

Act 2, Scene 9

“Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify the approaching of his lord”

Messenger, 2.9.85-87

The prince of Arragon is at Belmont and is about to make his choice. The prince is brusque and insulting to Portia. The man tells her that she would have to be more beautiful to him in order for him to pick the gold box.  Again we see another suitor very unworthy of Portia’s hand in marriage. This suitor is not only arrogant, but he is also insulting to her. The audience feels little sympathy for his loss and also realizes which box is the right casket, and can wait now for Bassanio’s choice.

VEnetian WIsdom

Legally, in the 16th century, marriage made a man master over his wife and her property, which Portia acknowledges in her speech in Act 2.

Learner Portfolio: Act 2Love is all around us

Kinds of love and rivalry in love are important topics in The Merchant of Venice. For example: the suitors who vie for Portia all represent different types of love. Arragon and Morocco – the two unsuccessful petitioners – symbolize a shallow and limited form of love. By selecting the silver casket on the basis of its inscription (“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”) Arragon reveals that his concept of love is self-serving and vain. Morocco’s choice of the gold casket indicates that his notion of love is based on superficiality (“All that glisters is not gold”). In another example, the issue of rivalry in love is evident in the association between Antonio, Portia, and Bassanio: citing the merchant’s unexplained melancholy at the beginning of the play as the result of Portia displacing him as the object of Bassanio’s affection.

Create a graphic explainer of the various kinds of love depicted in The Merchant of Venice so far. Choose different character couples to illustrate each type of love, and include plenty of direct quotation taken from the text. Before you start, you might like to complete this mix and match activity. On the left are various ‘types’ of love; on the right are different couples. Can you match them up? Are there any other ‘types’ of love depicted in the play? Add two or three of your own ideas to your infographic.

  • Formal engagements
  • Illicit love
  • Socially acceptable love
  • Fathers and daughters
  • Brotherly love
  • Shylock and Jessica
  • Bassanio and Portia
  • Antonio and Bassanio
  • Lorenzo and Jessica
  • Portia’s various suitors

Act 3

Salarino and Solanio discuss the rumors that another of Antonio’s ships has been lost in the English Channel, and they hope that this is all he loses. Shylock enters, accusing them of being in on Jessica’s plans to run away. Shylock tells them that she will be damned for her choice, but the men tell him that he is the very opposite of her daughter. Salarino asks Shylock if he has heard anything of Antonio’s ships, and Shylock tells them that Antonio is hiding from them, because he will soon be bankrupt. Shylock tells them that he will gladly take a pound of Antonio’s flesh in collection of the debt and use it as fish bait. Shylock vents to the men that he has been mistreated by Antonio just for being a Jew. Shylock tells them that he is a man, too, like them, but Antonio only sees him by his nationality and he will treat Antonio as badly as he has been treated by the men that call themselves Christians…

Act 3, Scene 1

“Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.”

Shylock, 3.1.63-65

Solanio and Salarino continue to fulfill their duties by catching up the audience on what has happened over the past three months with Antonio and Shylock. The two also set up the audience for Antonio’s failure to repay his debt to Shylock. The audience sees their concern for Shylock’s revenge as Shylock rants to them of his own misfortune at Antonio’s hands. Shylock is justified in his contempt for Antonio, though we cannot feel completely sympathetic for Shylock, as he has no mercy for Antonio whatsoever. Shylock is consumed by revenge, which is difficult to overlook.

VEnetian Wisdom

That Antonio loves Bassanio so devotedly would not make him specially romantic in Elizabethan eyes, for it was commonplace for two men to be so devoted to each other. In an early play of Shakespeare’s, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we have Proteus and Valentine who are sworn brothers, and in Twelfth Night the sea captain, Antonio, risks his life to follow Sebastian only because of his great attachment to him.

Act 3, Scene 2

In this scene, we are offered closure to the drama of the caskets, and see happiness for Bassanio and Portia. Though there is some drama encompassed in the “will he or won’t he” choose correctly, it seemed destined from the beginning of the story. However, the celebration is cut short by the drama happening in Venice, where Antonio is about to lose a pound of flesh to repay a debt of Bassanio’s. The audience sees Portia’s cool head and generosity rising, yet now we begin to lose a bit of sympathy for Shylock, who is about to gain revenge on them all for the loss of money and his daughter. Jessica voices her concern to all that her father seeks revenge more than restitution. Jessica’s comment is not acknowledged by anyone, which suggests her lack of acceptance by the group as a whole.


  • Act 3 Scene 2 Discussion and Activities

Act 3, Scene 3

“I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak:
I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more.” 

Shylock, 3.3.12-13

Sympathy for Shylock evaporates in this scene, as we see him bent solely on revenge. Shylock takes his anger to extremes by demanding the pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock is completely blinded to forgiveness and grace by his own rage and past humiliations. The audience is also introduced to the importance of law in Venice. While Solanio sees the Duke as a good, moral man, Antonio reminds him how important it is to keep emotions and the law separate. This distinction will play an important part in later scenes.

Learner Portfolio: Act 3 – practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

Shylock, 3.1.52-59
Actors David Suchet and Patrick Stewart discuss different ways of playing Shylock.

A rich Jewish moneylender in Venice, Shylock is the antagonist of The Merchant of Venice in that the problem he initiates causes great concern in the Christian community of that city. He insists that Antonio keep his bond and forfeit a “pound of flesh” since he has failed to make good the three thousand ducats Shylock has loaned to Bassanio on Antonio’s guarantee.

However, one thing to make clear is that an antagonist does not necessarily equate to a ‘villain.’ In Shakespeare’s time it was a generic convention that Jewish characters were villainous. Over the years, however, theater and film productions of the play have portrayed Shylock in various ways. As literary critic Ann Barton points out in The Riverside Shakespeare, “Shylock has sometimes been presented as the devil incarnate, sometimes as a comic villain gabbling absurdly about ducats and daughters. He has also been sentimentalized as a wronged and suffering father nobler by far than the people who triumph over him.” In other productions, Shylock is portrayed as a justifiably angry man: he is hated by the Venetians; despised for his religion, culture, and occupation; betrayed by his daughter; and ultimately undone by the very city in which he lives. You could argue that Shylock’s hatred and desire for vengeance is a natural result of his circumstances. 

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages concerning Shylock taken from The Merchant of Venice; as this is a play, the literary form is ‘drama’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

Act 4

The Duke calls Shylock into the courtroom and tells him that everyone is expecting him to relent at the last moment and show Antonio mercy, as Antonio has already lost so much. However, Shylock tells the Duke that he expects the Duke to honor the contract and allow him to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock reminds the Duke that if he rules otherwise, Venice’s charter could be endangered. Bassanio calls Shylock hard-hearted, and the two argue. Antonio tells him that arguing is useless, so Bassanio offers Shylock double the amount of the debt if he will drop the case against Antonio. Shylock turns him down, telling Bassanio that he would not even take ten times the dollar amount in lieu of the pound of flesh. The Duke asks Shylock how he thinks he will ever be shown mercy if he offers none himself. Yet Shylock reminds the Duke that he is not afraid of man’s judgment; if the Duke rules against him, all of Venice’s laws become invalid…

Act 4, Scene 1

“Most heartily I do beseech the court
To give the judgment.”

Antonio, 4.1

At the start of the longest scene in the play, Shylock again appears villainous and cruel. Shylock is blinded completely by his own desire for his revenge, and continues to demand the pound of flesh. The men are at a loss to make any decisions, and plead for Shylock to see reason and offer mercy. However, it is upon the entrance of Portia that we see cooler heads prevail. It was not uncommon for Shakespeare to make women more intellectually superior than men. In a time when women were regulated to specific gender roles, Shakespeare broke through that and offered up women’s intelligence to his audience. It is not any of the men that save Antonio from his fate, but a woman. It is not a man that offers judgment on Shylock, but a woman.

By the end of the scene, a modern audience might wonder, though, if Shylock’s sentence is too cruel. The audience is able to admire Portia’s intelligence, but wonder at her harsh treatment of the Jew. Yet, in Shakespeare’s time, conversion was to come at any cost. Though Shylock lost his faith and his method of employment, the audience would believe it was well worth it. By today’s standards, the end events offer the modern audience the ability to feel sorrier for Shylock, who is one of Shakespeare’s more complicated villains.

Antonio, played by Jamie Bollard, is menaced by Makram J. Khoury’s Shylock in the 2015 RSC courtroom scene.
Venetian Wisdom

Portia’s understanding of mercy is based on the way Christians in Shakespeare’s time understood the difference between the Old and New Testaments. According to the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament, the Old Testament depicts God as requiring strict adherence to rules and exacting harsh punishments for those who stray. The New Testament, in contrast, emphasizes adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of the law, portraying a God who forgives rather than punishes and offers salvation to those followers who forgive others. Thus, when Portia warns Shylock against pursuing the law without regard for mercy, she is promoting what Elizabethan Christians would have seen as a pro-Christian, anti-Jewish agenda.

Act 4, Scene 2

“We shall have old swearing
That they did give the rings away to men;
But we’ll outface them, and outswear them too.” 

Portia, 4.2

Portia tells Nerissa to bring the deed to Shylock’s house and tells her how happy Lorenzo will be with what they have done. Nerissa tells Portia that she will also try to get her ring from Gratiano. Portia imagines she will, and thinks how they will embarrass their husbands when they swear they gave the rings to men. By getting the rings away from the men, Portia is again exhibiting her superior cunning and intellectual skills. The letting go of the ring again brings the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio to question, as it appears that Antonio feels he should be valued above any wife – and Bassanio defers to that thought!


Learner Portfolio: Act 4 the difference between justice and the law

At this point in the play, the conflict between merciful justice and a harsh, ungentle legalism (the law) becomes the main burden of the plot. Shylock demands his bond; this is ‘just’. The arguments for justice are strong,  Shylock has legally bought his pound of flesh: if he does not get it ‘there is no force in the decrees of Venice’ (4.1.102) 

On the other hand, Portia argues for the application of mercy to the law: 

… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation.

But this plea does not work on Shylock’s stony heart, hardened further by grief and loss: Shylock persists in his demands for ‘justice.’ (The strictures of Renaissance drama demanded that Shylock be a villain, and, as such, patently unable to show even a drop of compassion for his enemy.) A sixteenth-century audience would not expect Shylock to exercise mercy—therefore, it is up to the Christians to do so. Once she has turned Shylock’s greatest weapon—the law—against him, Portia has the opportunity to give freely of the mercy for which she so beautifully advocates. Instead, she backs Shylock into a corner, where she strips him of his bond, his estate, and his dignity, forcing him to kneel and beg for mercy. To what extent he gets ‘justice’ is for you to decide.

Write a one-two page journal entry in which you debate the difference between ‘justice’ and the ‘law,’ as portrayed in The Merchant of Venice.

Act 5

Act 5, Scene 1

“In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.”

Jessica, 5.1.8-11

As is typical of Shakespeare’s comedy plays, the last scene is a joyous one. It ends with the women toying with their husbands and showing off their continued intellectual superiority. The women even get Antonio to believe in their deception, though in the previous act he dismissed the wife’s love as below what Bassanio should show to him, he now relents and offers up his soul to preserve it.

Though it is supposed to be a happy ending, we wonder at the future of the pairings. Lorenzo and Jessica compare themselves to some of the most tragic figures in literary history. None of the couples they mentioned ended happily. Also, Portia and Nerissa’s intelligence seem so much more advanced than their husbands’; we might wonder if their futures will be as pleasant as they are at this moment.

  • Act 5 Scene 1 Discussion and Quotations
Venetian Wisdom

Lorenzo’s most memorable speech (lines 54 – 68) describes the ‘music of the spheres‘, an ancient belief that celestial bodies (stars and planets) revolved on crystal spheres and made heavenly music as they orbited.

class activity: order – disorder

Whether comedy or tragedy, Shakespeare’s plays all begin with the world in a state of order or equilibrium. Pretty soon, order gives way to disruption and disorder. That disruption could take place within individual characters: Macbeth believes he is destined to be king; Othello believes his wife is unfaithful; Hamlet, a bookish man, becomes obsessed with revenge.

Disruption could also occur in society, for example, civil war or the overturning of the correct social order, such as women and men trading places. Sometimes disruption in an individual will lead to social disruption (in the case of Macbeth) or vice versa (in the case of Hamlet). Disruption will be reflected in nature or in the world around the characters. In Macbeth, horses are reported to eat each other; in Hamlet, ghosts walk the castle. At the end of the play, order will be restored. Macbeth is killed and replaced; Hamlet takes his revenge against an illegal usurper. In The Merchant of Venice, Christian values triumph over the machinations of Shylock. The Christian characters reunite at Belmont, where social order is restored in the community.

Perhaps Shakespeare was compelled to restore order in his plays so as not to ruffle the feathers of theatre patrons upon whose largesse his theatre depended. Interestingly, though, Shakespeare would often leave ‘loose ends’ in a way that subtly challenged the established social order. For example, in The Merchant of Venice, although Christian values prevail over Shylock, the audience is left with a deep impression of the nasty anti-Semitism that mars Venetian society.

Create a graph of the play that charts the progression from order to disorder – and the return to order again. Annotate your graph to explain your ideas and observations.

Learner Portfolio: Act 5 practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to The Merchant of Venice, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied.

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you may have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. According to literary works you have studied, can it be concluded that characters are better judged by their actions, not their words?
  2. Friendship marks a life more deeply than romantic love. Consider this idea with reference to literature you have studied.
  3. To what extent do male and female literary characters accurately reflect the role of men and women in society in works of literature you have studied?
  4. Examine the role and function of the outsider in works you have studied.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks)††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Symbolism is a crucial component of any literary work, and The Merchant of Venice is chock full of important symbols. Writing your Higher Level essay about one of these symbols would provide an excellent focus for your writing. Focus and organisation is explicitly assessed in this piece of work; in fact, you can gain up to a quarter of your marks for how well focused your essay is. Consider using one of these ideas as a starting point for your essay – although you should always be mindful of generating your own question based on your personal interest in this play:

  • Explore the symbolism of rings in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
  • How important is the city of Venice in Shakespeare’s playThe Merchant of Venice?
  • In what ways is music used symbolically in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare?
  • Explore the meaning of various types of ‘bond’ in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
  • What is the purpose and function of ‘caskets’ in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice?
  • How does Shakespeare use images of death in his play The Merchant of Venice?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

In many ways,The Merchant of Venice would be an ideal text to discuss in this oral assessment. The play explores a wealth of themes from which you can develop a Global Issue: the roles of men and women in society, the importance of money, the difference between justice and the law, prejudice and discrimination… and that’s just for starters. Now you have finished reading and studying The Merchant of Venice, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: types of justice
  • Possible Pairings (Lit course: if you are following the Literature-only course, you must pair a text originally written in English with a translated work): Broken April by Ismail Kadare; Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
  • Possible Pairings (Lang and Lit): editorial cartoons by Ann Talnaes; The Post by Steven Spielberg; I, Daniel Blake by Ken Loach.

Shakespeare’s play illuminates the difference between justice, which can be merciful and fair, and a harsh unyielding legalism: the law. You might consider what Shylock is really asking for when he demands justice – and why his appeals to the law become his undoing.

In The Merchant of Venice, all the Christian characters hate Shylock because he is a Jew. Their sentiments would have been shared by many in the audience in the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare’s play has much to say about discrimination, racism and prejudice.


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