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The Merchant of Venice - Context
Play this enjoyable quiz about Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice - Context

This GCSE English Literature quiz takes a look at context in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Setting and context bear many similarities, although context means the environment in which a text is written and a text’s setting is one key aspect of its fictional context. Social issues, geographical location and political events together create the context of any particular text. Authors often respond to contemporary or recent issues in a work of fiction. Personal views also shape the text to an extent and are therefore a component of a work’s context.

How to write about context

The context of a fictional work affects the meaning of text. Making an effort to understand context is an important part of analysing a text.

The relationship between text and context is not simple, nor necessarily straightforward. History is complex and certainly does not dictate the meaning of any text. Instead, the context of any piece of fiction is mediated through the work, the aims and outlook of the author. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare will have consciously responded to ideas circulating at the time and, like any other author, was probably affected by context in ways he might not have been aware.

Pay especially close attention to the text when writing about context. Of primary concern is what the text itself says about the themes with which it is concerned. Researching a work’s context will help you to develop your approach to these themes. Find out what was happening at the time the text was written. Do you see any relationship to the issues of the text? Compare your knowledge of historical context to whatever the text says about these issues. Any work of art exists beyond its context, of course, and good texts continue creating meaning long after the time they were written.

Remember to distinguish between the setting of the text and its context. Shakespeare chose to set The Merchant of Venice not in London, but in the more exotic trading port of Venice. His immediate context therefore differs significantly to the setting of his play, even though the times are contemporary.

Research the context of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, remembering everything you have learned in English lessons, and try these questions to see how much you know.

Europe had a long history of Anti-Semitism which predates the writing of The Merchant of Venice. How does Anti-Semitism impact on the play?
The Christian characters use violent and prejudiced language when speaking to or about the Jewish characters
Shylock's behaviour is influenced by the Christians' expectations of him and by their mistreatment
The play remains Anti-Semitic, even while exposing the Anti-Semitic views of its time
All of the above
The Merchant of Venice is a complex play which manages to evoke sympathy for Shylock even while he fits the very worst Anti-Semitic caricatures of the sixteenth century
What was the greatest source of wealth in sixteenth-century Venice?
International trade
Antonio's activities help to make Venice and its citizens rich. Shylock and other people who are able to make a living from money lending play their own role in increasing the wealth of the city
Which of the following statements is true?
Usury was illegal in England until the mid-seventeenth century
Usury was only illegal in Venice
Usury was only illegal in England
Usury is still illegal in Britain today
Charging interest on loans is standard practice throughout much of the world today, but was illegal in England and much of Western Europe until the mid-seventeenth century
What was the "ghetto" in sixteenth-century Venice?
A residential area where Jews were forced to live
A name for the poorest neighbourhood
A name for the wealthiest neighbourhood
A neighbourhood where the Jews of Venice chose to live
Venice's Jewish population was placed under strict controls and Jews were only permitted to live in a place called the Ghetto. Shakespeare might not have known of this, since it is not mentioned in the play
When was The Merchant of Venice written?
In the 15th century
Around 1600
Around 1700
In the 19th century
The Merchant of Venice was written by 1598
Which of the following is true of sixteenth-century Venice?
It was multicultural
Only Christians could legally live in Venice
Only Christians could legally work in Venice
There were no limits on people of any religion or nationality in Venice
Venice was multicultural in its population, but various laws and customs discriminated against those who were not Christians
A famous trial might have been an influence on The Merchant of Venice. Whose trial?
Elizabeth I's wig maker
Elizabeth I's personal secretary
Elizabeth I's doctor
Sir Walter Raleigh
Roderigo Lopez, a Jewish doctor who had converted to Christianity, was accused of attempting to poison the queen. He was sentenced to death and was eventually executed in 1594
Which of the following is an alternate title for the play?
The Jew of Malta
The Jew of Venice
The Merchant and the Jew
The Doctor of Venice
What difference does the alternate title make in how you see the play? Does it change the perspective of the audience?
Which of the following statements is true?
Many Jewish people lived openly and traded freely in London during the 16th and 17th centuries
Sixteenth-century London held a famous ghetto
Before Shakespeare's time, England had always been a safe place for Jewish people to live
During the Middle Ages, Jews were forced to leave England
Jews were expelled from England in 1290, under the reign of Edward I. There were very few Jewish people living in England during Shakespeare's life
What is meant by the term "usury"?
The practice of loaning money for a short period of time only
The practice of charging interest on a loan
The practice of loaning money
None of the above
Usury was later redefined to mean primarily the charging of excessive interest on loans
Author:  Sheri Smith

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