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In this lesson, we'll look at the differences between Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies, and how The Merchant of Venice fits into those categories. We'll see that the play is a "problem play" both in terms of how we categorize it and how we read it differently from Shakespeare's audience of five hundred years ago. Finally, I'll give you some background on the characters, plot, motifs, and symbols in the play.
Below is the outline of the slides used in the lesson:
William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Understand the Difference between Shakespeare's Tragedies and Comedies
Review of Reading Strategies
Brief Introduction to the Play
Learning Objectives for Your Reading of the Play
Shakespeare's Three Modes
Comedies: Usually end the conflict with a marriage or a series of marriages
Histories: Dramatize real events from history; historical fiction
Tragedies: Usually end the conflict with murder(s) or suicide(s)
Bassanio—a reckless youth who has wasted his money and who has fallen in love with the rich daughter, Portia, of a dead man who has placed a trial on any man who would win her love
Antonio—the merchant of Venice, Bassanio's friend who agrees to borrow money from the rich Jewish moneylender, Shylock, to help his friend impress Portia
Shylock—a rich Jewish moneylender who hates Antonio because the merchant has disrespected him and treated him poorly; he agrees to loan the money with a very special condition attached
Launcelot Gobo—Shylock's Clown; he acts as a go between and does odd deeds for both Shylock and the Christian Venetians
Gratiano and Lorenzo—Antonio and Bassanio's friends who find their own love interests in the play
Portia—her dead father put a condition on her marriage: she has three caskets (small boxes the size of a toolbox), one of which has her picture; suitors who want to marry her must pick correctly, agreeing never to marry if they're wrong
Nerissa—Portia's maidservant who finds her own love interest
Jessica—Shylock's daughter who runs of with a Christian to get away from her oppressive father
Bassanio confesses his love to Antonio who agrees to borrow money to help his friend impress Portia
Antonio must borrow the money because his ships are all over the world
The men approach Shylock who points out how awful Antonio has been to him
Shylock agrees to loan the money, interest-free, on the condition that if the loan is not repaid in three months, he will be able to take a pound of Antonio's flesh
In Belmont, near Venice, Portia waits in her mansion as foolish men come to her to try their luck with the caskets
Finally, the man she wants, Bassanio, comes to try...
Themes and Motifs
Risk: Pay attention riskiness of travel and trade in the Renaissance as represented by Antonio
Hatred of Jews: Pay attention to how Shylock is treated by the Christian Venetians and by Shakespeare—does Shakespeare make him look sympathetic and justified in his anger or like the villain?
Themes and Motifs
The Princess and the Hero: The trial of the caskets is a sort of fairytale test for the young lover, Bassanio
The conflicts between Christian Europe and the outsiders in their midst (similar to Othello)
Themes and Motifs
Bonds: Bonds of friendship, marriage, money, law, contracts
Faith and Trust: Portia's faithfulness to her father, Gratiano's and Bassanio's faithfulness to their wives, the suggestion that their wives have cheated on them
Shakespeare's Problem Play
How are we supposed to view Shylock?
Is he a greedy, evil Jew who hates Christians and just wants to get rich?
Is he the victim of Christian bigotry who is just trying to get even after all he's been through?
What about his conversion to Christianity at the end? Is that comedic or tragic?
What did Renaissance viewers think about it? How is that the same or different from 21st century viewers and readers?
Like Othello, does this play show Europe as bigoted and hateful towards others?
Why Are We Reading This?
I want you to be exposed to a comedy
I want you to wrestle with whether or not this is actually a comedy, given how Shylock is treated
I want you to see how Renaissance Europe dealt with the strains of multiculturalism—sometimes well and sometimes not well
It's a funny play with a lot of bawdy humor