The Merchant of Venice – Study Guide

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Initial considerations

The Merchant of Venice is a powerful exploration of human nature as it highlights how multifaceted and complex we often are. Commenting on universal concerns such as justice, xenophobia and greed, The Merchant of Venice has undoubtedly earned its spot on the list of prescribed texts for Common Module.

Some significant aspects of the play that you should consider when discussing The Merchant of Venice and Texts and Human Experiences include:

  • The debate around Shylock and Shakespeare’s possible antisemitism
    • Changing adaptations of Shylock over time
    • Reflection on antisemitism in Elizabethan society
  • The significance of Venice and later Belmont as the settings
  • The impact of religion on the character’s motivations and behaviours, and what this reflects about Elizabethan society as a whole
  • The play’s classification as a comedy
  • Sources from which Shakespeare may have taken the plot from

Background to The Merchant of Venice

Author’s context

Considered the greatest English-speaking writer in history and known as England’s national poet, William Shakespeare has had more theatrical works performed than any other playwright. Born in 1564, he was raised in a family of modest means in Elizabethan England. However, his career was anything but – the ‘Bard of Avon’ wrote at least 37 plays and a collection of sonnets, established the legendary Globe theatre and helped transform the English language. By the end of 1592 (at just 28), Shakespeare was an established playwright in London, receiving acclaim for such plays as Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus.

His career consisted of acting, writing, and finally being the part-owner of a playing company, known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The company took its name, like others of the period, from its aristocratic sponsor, the Lord Chamberlain. The group became popular enough that after the death of Elizabeth I and the coronation of James I (1603), the new monarch adopted the company, after which it became known as the King’s Men.

Shakespeare died in 1616. However, his spirit arguable remains alive as, to this day, countless theatre festivals around the world honour his work, students read his eloquent plays and scholars reinterpret the million words of text he composed. The fact his works, including The Merchant of Venice, have been critically acclaimed suggests a broader response to this text being culturally significant in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition.

Historical context

Although there are no exact records, The Merchant of Venice was likely written in either 1596 or 1597. It is impossible to discuss the historical context of this play without first discussing the widespread antisemitism that pervaded Elizabethan England. Jews were an incredibly marginalised group at the time. One of the reasons Christians disliked Jews was the Jews’ willingness to practice usury – charging interest on borrowed money. There was a long tradition in Classical and Christian moral thinking against usury. It was therefore not uncommon for Jews to be portrayed as greedy villains and objects of mockery in popular media.

Many critics also note that the basic plot outline – with its stock characters of the merchant, the poor suitor, the fair lady, and the villainous Jew – is typical of contemporary Italian story collections. As such, Shakespeare clearly borrowed several elements of the play from pre-existing sources.

The Merchant of Venice and Texts and Human Experiences

As with any prescribed (and related) text, we must first look to the Texts and Human Experiences rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric, so it is imperative that we study the links between The Merchant of Venice and the major points in the Texts and Human Experiences rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will provide examples of talking points that you could explore in regards to The Merchant of Venice.

Individual and collective human experiences

  • Potential question: Human experiences can be both unique and universal. How does studying your prescribed text and ONE other related text deepen your understanding of this notion?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.’

The most prominent example of individual experiences in The Merchant of Venice is undeniably the isolation and ostracization that Shylock experiences as a Jew. Shylock’s 16th century, Jewish experience is rather unfamiliar to ours. Initially, his exclamation, ‘I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear!’ comes across as unsavoury and two-dimensional. However, as Shylock reveals the dehumanising epithets he has been subject to – ‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog’ – Shakespeare draws on our universal understanding of exclusion and pain as he justifies Shylock’s erratic behaviour to be the culmination of societal pressure and vulnerability. That is, while Shylock’s experiences are unique to his context, and perhaps his animosity is somewhat unrelatable to us, Shakespeare is able to illuminate emotions that we, as a collective, experience. Furthermore, Shylock’s experiences of alienation are undoubtedly familiar to Jewish people in the contemporary world, as well as any marginalised group who has been prejudiced against.

Shakespeare also speaks to various human concerns that are universal and therefore collective experiences. For example, the theme of love permeates throughout the play. Three separate romances are explored in the story, each with their unique and individual characteristics, but all underlying with the message that this is inherent part of the human experience. In line with the play’s comedic genre, Shakespeare’s take on love is optimistic and pure. Various other themes in the play are worth considering. Ask yourself – how is this reflective of the collective human experience?

Human qualities and emotions

  • Potential question: To what extent are texts culturally significant due to their explorations of the complex emotions and qualities that define humanity?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences.’

The Merchant of Venice is a very emotionally charged text. Perhaps, the clearest example of this is the anger felt by Shylock throughout the play. The constant ostracisation, Jessica’s decision to elope with a Christian – all are prominent factors in leading Shylock to be better about the people around him. However, his emotion is a complex one. Especially considering the varying portrayals of the character in the last five centuries, this anger can be interpreted as a reflection of his vicious, scheming personality or an inevitable result of the unjust vilification he has been subjected to. As stated earlier, you must come to an opinion about this and be prepared to argue your perspective to the marker.

Regardless of whether it is justified, Shylock’s anger turns into the human behaviour and quality of getting revenge. He says of Antonio, ‘if I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.’ Years of pent-up animosity towards him has left Shylock craving what he sees to be justice. From this, we can gather that Shakespeare is fully aware of the intricacies that lead humans to act out in certain ways. Anger and revenge are apparent in every one of us, and Shakespeare explores in great depth exactly what leads us to this point.

Language and form

  • Potential question: Explain the significance of form in expressing and evaluating what it means to be human in your prescribed text and ONE other text of your own choosing.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and value the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.’

When talking about how the form of the text helps to illuminate ideas about our humanity, the play’s theatrical elements must be considered. Because theatre is performed in front of a live audience, you should think of each performance as a living, breathing entity. Slight nuances to the way a line is read, the set that each production company uses or even who is cast in the role – all of these elements affect the meaning of the play. This lends itself to the changing interpretations of various elements in the text, such as the debate over whether Shakespeare reinforced the antisemitic values of the Elizabethan era, or whether Shylock was a villain or simply a misunderstood, sympathetic character. In your essay, you should communicate that you understand the complexity of Shakespeare’s shifting representations of the human experience and that the theatrical form is the perfect medium through which he can represent how complex people really are.

Other structural features to note when providing an analysis of how the use of form is manipulated to explore ‘what it means to be human’ include:

  • The play’s genre
    • Is it a tragedy or a comedy?
    • What do the shifting genres say about the human experience?
  • Intertextuality
    • Influences from texts such as informs Shakespeare’s ideas of justice, prejudice and money
  • Shifts between verse and prose
    • Denotes the speaker’s class and comments on power imbalances
  • Motif of money and consistent use of economic language

As you can see, talking about form and language is almost always related to the composer’s thematic concerns. Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as deliberate choices made by Shakespeare in order to most effectively tell the story he needed to tell in this play. In other words, Shakespeare explores human experiences through this medium by which he communicates with the reader.

Anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies

  • Potential question: Explore how texts illuminate the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations.’

Arguably, the biggest anomaly in the play is in regard to its genre. Whilst it has been deemed as a romantic comedy, The Merchant of Venice undeniably has tragic elements too. For example, when Shylock seemingly faces a hanging for his attempt to forfeit Antonio’s life, the story edges towards a tragic turn. However, by the end of the play, each romantic pairing end up happily together, Shylock’s sentence is relatively light-hearted and the final scene is one of a joyful reunion – all of which are known elements of a Shakespearean romantic comedy. Even still, the play does not give our protagonist a typical ‘happy ending.’ Although he does not die, Shylock is forced to give up his religious beliefs and conform to a society that has belittled him all his life. Again, this highlights the complexity of the various, conflicting emotions that humans experience. It is often unclear whether certain stories are meant to evoke sadness, happiness, anger, or all of the above. Regardless, it is clear that the even form of the play reveals deep complexities about the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistences that define human nature

There is also an abundance of ‘anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistences’ throughout the rest of the play. For example:

  • Appearance versus reality
    • The casket scene
    • Bassanio and Shylock’s deception of others
    • Religion
      • The Christian characters in the play, although seemingly valuing kindness, respect and peace, end up being some of the most antagonistic characters
    • Love versus hatred
      • The irrationality of love
    • Mercy versus justice

Each of these inconsistencies are illustrated by Shakespeare in order to achieve one overarching goal – to show that humans are often confusing and our lives do not always go as planned or as expected.

Challenging assumptions

  • Potential question: The most important texts are ones that invite the responder to see the world differently. To what extent is this true of your prescribed text and one text of your own choosing?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students explore how texts [invite] the reader to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.’

Think of what aspects of the play have forced you to reflect personally on your life and experience. What parts of the story surprised you the most? What made you think about, say, prejudice in our modern world or the inherent nature of human greed differently?

These are the inferred questions that the rubric, and the HSC examination question, is ultimately asking you. Some possible answers of how The Merchant of Venice have ‘ignited new ideas’ may be:

  • Perceptions and expectations of religion
    • How did you expect the Jewish versus Christian characters to act in the beginning of the play? Does this align with your eventual understanding of the characters’ behaviours?
  • The power of prejudice and isolation
    • What permanent effects does Shylock’s constant ostracisation have on the character?
    • How does Shakespeare use this concept to challenge the ideals of his Elizabethan audiences?
  • Setting
    • How is Belmont initially contrasted with Venice, and what do we learn about the reality of Belmont?
  • Law and justice
    • Shakespeare shows that law and justice are not necessarily interchangeable terms

Don’t be afraid to deconstruct this part of the syllabus beyond the narrative and in-universe themes. It is also important to consider the play in the larger fabric of texts—this means discussing how Shakespeare is being innovative through his form and overall message. Above all, you should understand that challenging readers’ assumptions is a fundamental purpose of all texts, humans need to be challenged in order to grow.

The role of storytelling in reflecting lives and cultures

  • Potential question: How do texts reflect particular lives and cultures, and what does this tell us about the relationship between storytelling and humans? In your response, make close reference to your prescribed text and one other related text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.’

Despite the fact that many elements of The Merchant of Venice are relatable to a contemporary audience, the text is still valued largely for its ability to capture the unique essence of Elizabethan society. For instance, Elizabethan Christian values ultimately dominate the text. Shylock is undoubtedly more than just a caricature of the villainous Jew, but the play ends with him converting to Christianity and, therefore, reaffirming the values that Shakespeare’s audience held. Whilst this may be seen as problematic in today’s society, it is clear that the text nonetheless serves as a piece of history – preserving and reflecting the lives and cultures of ordinary people in Shakespeare’s time.

Again, whether Shakespeare was critical of these attitudes is highly debatable. Perhaps, then, storytelling can do more than just reflect lives and cultures. The play acts as a medium through which Shakespeare can challenge the values of those around him, providing insight into the true value of a text – to spread and ignite new ideas in its audience.

Although The Merchant of Venice certainly explores very universal themes and notions, there is certainly a particular culture in which it reflects. The role of storytelling is thus to use engaging stories and unique characters to make significant commentaries about what it means to be human.

Prominent themes

Prejudice and antisemitism

Prejudice – specifically in the form of antisemitism – is seemingly prevalent throughout the entire play. This is clear in the fact that almost all of the Venetians express some form of intolerance of Shylock and the other Jews, often attacking them with insulting epithets and slurs. In fact, it seems that the community of Venetian Christians are bound together by the exclusion of outsiders. This would accurately reflect the world that Shakespeare was living in – a predominantly Christian society that, despite its conflicting interests, will bond together in the face of an unknown outsider. The fact that Shylock also ends the play having to sacrifice his religious beliefs and convert to a Christian appears to reveal that Shakespeare is validating the prejudice and antisemitism he experiences.

Yet, it is more likely that Shakespeare is at least subtly criticising the prejudices of his characters and, more broadly, the world around him. Remember that Shakespeare was one of the most popular playwrights at the time and often performed in the royal court, meaning he could not be too overt in making any statement that did not reinforce the values of the ruling class. The complexity of this theme is seen in the fact that scholars have long debated whether Shylock’s intolerable and malicious character is a result of his ‘Jewishness’ or if it is the reasonable and inevitable cause of the exclusion he experiences throughout the entire play. After all, is it not human nature to act out in bitterness when we are treated with bitterness?

In considering this central theme, it may be helpful to try to make direct links back to the rubric elements – what does this theme say about individual and collective experiences, paradoxes, emotions and the role of storytelling?

Wealth and greed

Another central message that Shakespeare delivers in The Merchant of Venice is how universal the desire for wealth is. According to the play, humans have an inherent greed for money, with various behaviours being motivated by it.

The most telling sign of this is the fact that the entire plot is structured around the event of Antonio attempting to repay a loan to Shylock, a character known for his selfish nature (for better or worse reasons). Shylock himself is a usurer. While this could ostensibly be indicative of Shakespeare’s criticism of Jewish people and their stereotypical greed, it becomes clear that most characters in the play exhibit this trait to some extent. Bassanio, although attracted to Portia’s virtuous character, is ultimately motivated to court her because of her wealth. The Prince of Morocco fails to gain Portia’s hand in marriage because of his lust for shiny, material objects. Even though the Christian characters claim they do not care about money like Jews do, the fact that Antonio and Bassanio even ask to borrow the three hundred ducats from Shylock indicates otherwise.

However, in talking about greed being inherent points of interest for humans, Shakespeare seems to conclude that wealth is ultimately necessary for the characters to gain their happy ending. In tandem with the comedic genre’s stereotypical happy ending, we see Jessica revel in her father’s ducats as part of the celebratory reunion that takes place in Act V. Therefore, Shakespeare attempts to explore the complexity of this theme by showing that wealth and greed, while unavoidable in human society, is only what we make of it.

Love and friendship

In contrast to the theme of the human quality of greed, Shakespeare sheds light on a more wholesome part of the human experience – love. This can obviously be inferred by the various friendships and relationships throughout the play, such as Portia and Bassanio, Jessica and Lorenzo and Antonio and Bassanio. Critics have even argued that the latter involved romantic feelings, although this is more subtle as part of the subtext of The Merchant of Venice. However, Shakespeare also takes advantage of the form of his play to reveal the importance of love and friendship. For example, with the central romantic relationships, the marriages happen in the middle of the play (as opposed to being at the end, as they typically are in Shakespearean romantic comedies). This suggests that Shakespeare is wanting to focus more on the pure love in these relationships rather than the act of marriage, which has come to be associated with business transactions.

However, it may be that Shakespeare believes that even this pure form of human interaction is tainted with greed and economic concerns. For example, when Jessica runs away and takes her father’s ducats in the process, Shylock states that he would rather have his stolen jewels and money than his daughter back. Even though their relationship is seen to have warm, protective and respectful moments, it appears that this act of betrayal has led Shylock to care more about his economic loss rather than the loss of his own daughter. Furthermore, the play’s plot spurs from the moment that Bassanio borrows from Antonio in order to court Portia. Bassanio’s use of emotive language as he says ‘to you, Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love’ even manipulates Antonio into a position of sympathy. This suggests that this inherent part of the human experience – however enlightening and rewarding it can be – may not necessarily be as pure as we would like it.

Law, justice and mercy

Shakespeare creates unique situations revolving around the paradox of justice and mercy. Justice is typically perceived to be delivered to the collective, whereas mercy is an individualistic phenomenon. However, Shakespeare subverts these expectations as Shylock pursues justice as an individual and the Christian Venetians advocate mercy as a collective. Yet, ironically, it is the latter who prove to be merciless in their response to Shylock’s pursuit of justice. This reflects a broader question that Shakespeare is asking about justice and mercy – if law and religion can be so easily misused for villainous purposes this way, then who is in charge of delivering justice? In other words, Shakespeare shows that the law and justice are actually not interchangeable concepts at all. These ideas clearly continue to resonate with modern audiences as Shakespeare allows us to empathise with the universal struggle between law, justice and mercy.

Conclusion

Although the play was written nearly five centuries ago, Shakespeare’s ideas and characters remain entirely relevant to us in its evocative depiction of universal human concerns. It is a text that you should draw your own conclusions on, project your own impressions upon and deliberate its purpose. Make a statement on what Shakespeare’s message and intent, especially in regards to the debates surrounding his stance on antisemitism. After all, a significant part of the Texts and Human Experiences syllabus asks you to respond to art in a meaningful and critical way.

The Merchant of Venice makes for a profound Common Module selection, and it is crucial that you consider the ways in which Shakespeare has successfully and insightfully crafted an engaging commentary on the nature of human relationships and emotions.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text
  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • Try to incorporate all of the above information and ideas into how you argue your related text—it does make up half of your essay, after all, and markers will notice when the quality of your analysis of one text is substantially worse than the other
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the play could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts and human experiences
  • Don’t neglect Section I of the paper! Apply all these tips into your short answer responses. After all, both sections are worth equal marks, so you should be putting in equal effort
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