William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice
Answer part (a) and either part (b) or (c).
(a) Read the extract on the opposite page. Then answer the following question:
Look closely at how Shylock speaks and behaves here. What impressions would it give an audience of his character?
(b) Write about the relationship between Bassanio and Portia, explaining how and why it changes during the course of the play.
(c) One of the main themes of The Merchant of Venice is the danger of judging by appearance.
Show how Shakespeare presents this theme to an audience.
Call you? What is your will?
I am bid forth to supper, Jessica.
There are my keys. But wherefore should I go?
I am not bid for love, they flatter me;
But yet l'll go in hate, to feed upon
The prodigal Christian. Jessica my girl,
Look to my house. I am right loath to go;
There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest,
For I did dream of money bags tonight.
I beseech you, sir, go; my young master doth expect your reproach.
So do I his.
And they have conspired together - I will not say you shall see a
Masque; but lf you do, then it was not for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on Black
Monday last, at six o'clock i'the moming, falling out that year on Ash
Wednesday was four year in th'afternoon.
What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica,
Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum
And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife,
Clamber not you up to the casements then
Nor thrust your head into the public street
To gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces;
But stop my house's ears - I mean my casements -
Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter
My sober house. By Jacob's staff I swear
I have no mind of feasting forth tonight:
But I will go. Go you before me, sirrah;
Say I will come.
I will go before, sir.
[Aside to Jessica] Mistress, look out at window for all this:
There will come a Christian by
Will be worth a Jewess' eye [Exit]
What says that fool of Hagar's offspring, ha?
His words were 'Farewell, mistress', nothing else.
a) To do well on this question, remember to select relevant parts of the extract as quotations to back up
your points. It's important to discuss the language used in the extract when answering this question. Here are some points
you could include in your answer:
- Shylock seems thoughtful and introspective. He wonders why he is going out to see people he doesn't trust:
"But wherefore should I go? I am not bid in love".
Shylock's character seems serious and perhaps depressed. He criticises the "shallow foppery" and "vile squealing" of the
revellers, preferring his house to be "sober". He pessimistically predicts that there is "some ill a-brewing".
Shylock seems very suspicious and prejudiced against Christians. He instructs his daughter to stay inside and ignore the
"Christian fools with varnished faces" in the street parade outside. He says vindictively that he goes to see Antonio,
the "prodigal Christian" in "hate" to feed upon his wealth.
Shylock seems very protective and controlling of his daughter. He insists that she should stay indoors and "stop my house's
ears" so that she can not even hear the revelry.
Shylock's Jewish identity is reinforced by expressions such as "By Jacob's staff I swear". His dream about "money bags"
suggests highly negative stereotypes of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders. It's likely that the prejudices of the
time in which Shakespeare lived influenced his characterisation of Shylock. A modern audience might feel uncomfortable
about the anti-Semitic overtones in the way Shylock is portrayed.
Shylock seems isolated from the other characters. He doesn't like or trust the people he is going to supper with. His
daughter and servant make plans behind his back, which suggests they don't respect or trust him.
The fact his daughter lies to him at the end of the extract might make the audience think she is scared of him. This might
reinforce the impression that Shylock is bad-tempered and intimidating.
b) For a good mark on this question, remember to write an introduction and conclusion, and to write in
paragraphs. Here is a list of points you could make:
In Act 1, Scene 1, Bassanio tells Antonio that he wants to marry Portia because she is a rich heiress, and it would help
him financially. His first description of her is "a lady richly left" which suggests this is her most attractive quallty
as far as he is concerned. It is only as a secondary point that he says "she is fair" and "Of wondrous virtues."
At the beginning of the play, Bassanio views Portia as a prize, whom he must compete for against the other suitors. He
says Portia's golden hair is like the golden fleece of legend, and "many Jasons come in quest of her."
From the beginning, Portia seems to look favourably on Bassanio. Portia has met him before and when she is reminded of
him by Nerissa, she says I remember him well, and "I remember him worthy of thy praise".
When Bassanio arrives at Belmont she makes it clear she likes him in a very confident and forthright way: "I pray you
tarry; pause a day or two / Before you hazard, for in choosing wrong / I lose your company."
When Bassanio chooses the right casket, both Bassanio and Portia are dellighted. Bassanio is proud and "Giddy in spirit"
that he has chosen correctly. Portia portrays herself as humble before Bassanio, describing herself as an "unlessoned
girl, unschooled, unpracticed." She gives everything she has to him.
When Bassanio receives a letter explaining that Antonio's life is in jeopardy because of the debt he took out on
Bassanio's behalf, their relationship changes. Bassanio has to admit that he has acted like a "braggart" by asking
his friend to borrow money for him so that he could woo Portia. Portia takes control of the situation and orders that
double the sum be paid to Shylock to save Antonio.
Portia again shows her intelligence and power in the Court. Disguised as a man she saves Antonio's life and as a reward
takes the ring which Bassanio had promised never to part with. Later, she uses the fact that Bassanio has given the ring
away as an excuse to chide him, before revealing her trick.
c) To gain full marks on this question, you need to write a thoughtful, coherent essay. You need to write with
confidence, backing up your points with quotes and examples from the play. Here are some examples of points which
you could make:
The theme of characters disguising themselves appears throughout the play, and sometimes this signifies danger and deceit.
For example, the revellers dress up with "varnished faces", Jessica dresses up as a boy to escape her father's house and
Portia and Nerissa dress as men in order to infiltrate the Court.
Shylock pretends it is "in a merry sport" that he suggests the use of Antonio's flesh as collateral on the loan.
Antonlo doesn't realise that he might be held to his word. He thinks that Shylock is being kind by offering the loan
Portia's sultors have to choose one of three caskets: gold, silver or lead. lf they choose the casket containing Portia's
picture, then they will gain her hand in marriage. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket, because he is taken in
by its rich appearance: "Never so rich a gem / Was set in worse than gold." He loses and the scroll inside warns him,
"All that glisters is not gold ... Gilded tombs do worms infold."
The Prince of Aragon is also fooled by the appearances of the caskets, choosing the silver one. He arrogantly believes
he "deserves" Portia and that he will win her hand by choosing the casket which promises "Who chooseth me shall get as
much as he deserves". He dismisses the correct lead casket without much thought because it is "base" and ordinary.
Shakespeare uses the characters of Morocco and Aragon to dernonstrate the foolishness of people who judge by appearances.
When Bassanio chooses a casket, he gives a thoughtful speech about how appearances can be deceptive. Shakespeare discusses
this theme in detail through this speech. He describes how vices and evil often hide themselves with the appearance of
virtue. He associates gold with greed (mentioning the legend of King Midas). Bassanio eventually chooses instead the lead
casket which proinises nothing and requires him to "give and hazard all he hath", and he is rewarded.
There is a Christian overtone to the symbolism of the three easkets. Choosing the first gold casket suggests greed,
and choosing the second silver casket suggests arrogance. The correct choice is the lead casket, which looks plain and
unattractive. This choice requires the suitor to "give and hazard" all they have. This is similar to Christian parables,
where people are encouraged to give up their wealth and risk everything for their falth.
Shylock belleves the law is on his side in his case against Antonio - he says "I crave the law" because he believes
it will help him gain his personal vengeance. He turns down the offer of six thousand ducats because he hopes to take
a pound of Antonios flesh. Appearances are deceptive though; through Portia's learning, it turns out that the law is
actually against him and he loses half his goods.
Source: GCSE English: Complete Revision and Practice by Richard Parson, Elanders Hindson, Newcastle u.T., 2003, pp. 140/41 and 179/80