Merchant of Venice Reading Questions

Act I:

  1. The play opens with Antonio, the “Merchant of Venice,” complaining that he “know[s] not why I am so sad.” His friends have an explanation–what is it? Why does Antonio say that this is not what bothers him (1.1.41-44)?
  2. Another friend, Graziano, has a different explanation at 1.1.79 ff. What does he say about Antonio? What advice does he give him?
  3. Yet another friend, Bassanio tells Antonio, “To you…/I owe the most in money and in love,/ And from your love I have a warrenty/ To unburden all my plots and purposes/ How to get clear of all the debts I owe” (1.1.131-34). What plan does Bassiano speak of here? How, at the end of the scene, does Antonio promise to help him?
  4. Mark the allusion that Bassiano makes at 1.1.169 ff. What is he comparing Portia to in this allusion?
  5. In 1.2, we meet the woman of whom Bassiano has been speaking. According to her maid, what ploy did Portia’s father arrange to find her husband (1.2.24-30)? Why, according to Nerissa, did he come up with this ornate device?
  6. “Whiles we shut the gate upone one wooer,/ Another knocks at the door” (1.2.112-113). What is Portia telling us in these lines?
  7. In 1.3, we are introduced to the most famous character from this play, and one of Shakespeare’s most notorious creations: the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. From the very start of the scene, carefully note Shylock’s speech. How would you characterize the way he talks?
  8. Why, according to Shylock at 1.3.36 ff., is Antonio so objectionable to him?
  9. How, according to Shylock (1.3.102 ff.), has Antonio treated him in the past? Does Antonio deny these accusations?
  10. What are the terms of the “bond” that Shylock and Antonio agree upon?

Finally, if you happen to know the story of Jacob and Laban, I will be very glad to hear from you in class!

Acts II and III:

  1. In 2.2, we meet Lancelot, Shylock’s servant, who wants to become a servant to whom? Why? Why do you think Shakespeare included this scene in the play?
  2. We learn in 2.3 that another member of Shylock’s household, his daughter Jessica, also has plans to leave. Whom does she plan on marrying, and what will she do in addition to marrying him (2.3.19-20)? What else does she take with her when she leaves (see 2.4)? How have the Venetians planned to help her escape from her house (2.5-2.6)?
  3. What does Shylock mean by “fast bind, fast find” (2.6.52)? How would you paraphrase this?
  4. What has Jessica done in 2.7 to aid her escape?
  5. In today’s reading, we see three different scenes in which Portia’s suitors face the casket trial. What are the inscriptions on each of the caskets? 
  6. Note in 2.8 that we only hear Salerio and Solanio’s report of two important events: Shylock’s response (“a passion so confused”) when he learns Jessica has left, and the parting of Antonio and Bassanio. How is Shylock represented in their speeches? How do they describe Antonio as he bids Bassanio farewell?
  7. In 3.2, how does Bassanio arrive at his choice of casket? What logic does he use in choosing it?
  8. What token does Portia give to Bassanio after he successfully chooses the casket? What directive does she give him (3.2.170-74).
  9. After he makes his choice, Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio that greatly troubles him–the contents “steal the colour from Bassanio’s cheek,” according to Portia. What is the news? What does Bassanio do at the end of the scene?
  10. When we hear from Antonio briefly in the following scene, he is quite confident that the Duke will come to his aid…why?
  11. Portia sends her servant, Balthasar, to Padua to get something from her cousin, “Doctor Bellario” (3.4.50). What is it? What does she tell Nerissa she has planned?

Act IV:

1. How would you paraphrase Antonio’s speech at (4.1.9-12)? “I do oppose/ My patience to his fury, and am armed/ To suffer with a quietness of spirit/ The very tyranny and rage of his.”

2. Shylock says that if the Duke reverses his contract with Antonio, that it would do damage to “your [the Duke’s] charter and your city’s freedom.” What does he mean by this? Note that Portia/Bellario offers a similar explanation at 4.1.213-217.

3. One of the reasons Shylock gives for denying mercy to Antonio comes at 4.1.93-96. What is his strategy, do you think, in bringing up slavery here?

4. Carefully note the exchange between Portia and Shylock at 4.1.252-257. By what authority does Shylock deny Antonio “charity”? How does this logic come back to hurt him (see 4.1.300-307)?

5. What judgment does Portia/Balthasar render against Shylock at 4.1.332-350? How does Antonio augment the judgment at 4.1.375-385? What conditions does he put on this concession? (This is all very confusing, so look at it carefully!)

6. Do we believe Shylock when he says, “I am content”?

Act V:

1. At the end of act four, Antonio convinced Bassanio to give Balthasar something that he/she wants–what was it?

2. How would you characterize the exchange between Lorenzo and Jessica at the opening of act five? Playful, scornful, intense? What mood does this set for the rest of the scene?

3. Which characters are left OUT of the heterosexual pairings at the end of the play?

4. Look at Bassanio’s exchange with Portia at 192-207. Is there anything unusual about these speeches? Why, generally, do you think this play ends with so much fussing over rings (note the last word of the play!)?

5. A big question–does this play have a happy ending? For whom?