This GCSE English Literature play takes a look at character in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, brings together the merchant of the title, Antonio, with the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. These two characters resemble one another in many ways, especially in their isolation. Antonio begins the play sad and weary, despite being surrounded by friends, while Shylock’s isolation derives from his status as an outsider in Venetian society and is further increased through his abandonment by his daughter and his servant.
In addition to these two main characters, the play focusses on the courtship and marriage of Bassanio and Portia, the parallel marriage between Nerissa and Graziano and the secret elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo.
These marriages comment upon the financial agreement and conflict at the heart of the play.
Drama allows us to understand a character through their speech, their actions and interactions with other characters. Staging a play also gives scope to the director to characterise through costume and to actors through gesture. Watching a production of a play can be a good way to see how its characters have been interpreted by others. When reading The Merchant of Venice, pay close attention to asides and to private dialogues where you can learn what characters might be thinking and what their motivations are. Do characters present different accounts of their thoughts and decisions to different people? Shylock, for example, guards his thoughts from Antonio and Bassanio, and is more likely to reveal himself to his friend Tubal or to his daughter. She, however, is guarded with him, entrusting her plans and wishes to Lancelot, her servant. Portia’s wide learning and careful logic can only be given public expression when she puts on a disguise. The prevalence of secrecy, hiddenness and disguise in this play encourages us to look below the surface to discover its meaning.
Answer the questions below to see how well you understand the characters in Shakespeare's play.