The Merchant of Venice - Character

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.

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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.

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  1. Antonio is a respected, successful merchant. Which of the following behaviours is at odds with his gentle — and genteel — demeanour?
    Shylock reminds Antonio of the many occasions when the merchant spat on him. That such an apparently gentle man would engage in physical marks of disrespect creates the sense that Anti-Semitism is thoroughly entrenched in sixteenth-century Venice. Antonio promises to continue to spit at Shylock in public despite the loan
  2. Which of the following is true of Nerissa?
    Nerissa is Portia's "waiting woman" and companion. Their relationship includes gentle teasing, wry humour and the occasional lecture from Nerissa
  3. Why does Jessica feel ashamed during her elopement with Lorenzo?
    Jessica does not want to be seen in her disguise as a boy
  4. "If I catch him once upon the hip / I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him." How does Shylock's aside in Act One, Scene Three, characterise him?
    Shylock's aside makes his hatred of Antonio and the reason for this hatred clear. The audience becomes aware that he begins his transactions with a desire for revenge against Antonio for his practice of freely lending money
  5. What does Portia's trick with the ring achieve?
    Portia unveils herself as Antonio's saviour, a clever strategist and someone who knows much more than her husband suspects
  6. Which one of the following most accurately describes Bassanio?
    Bassanio is loyal to Antonio. This loyalty causes some difficulty when it conflicts with his loyalty to Portia. The older loyalty to his friend trumps that to his new wife
  7. "Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?" What does Portia's complaint about her father's provision for his estate demonstrate about her character?
    Portia evaluates each of her suitors and attempts to influence their decisions when faced with the three chests, but is ultimately obedient to her father's instructions
  8. How does Shylock describe his offer to lend money without charging interest?
    Shylock describes his offer as "kind" and Antonio agrees that it is "kindness". After Shylock names the forfeit, Antonio says that he will agree to it, saying, "there is much kindness in the Jew". The following surreal conversation and the promise of a pound of flesh hinges on the primary meaning of "kind" as "natural"
  9. "All debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death. Notwithstanding, use your pleasure. If your love do not persuade you to come, let not my letter." What does Antonio's letter tell us about his relationship to Bassanio?
    Antonio's understanding of Bassanio's great debt is highlighted by his use of the word "if". If Bassanio comes to say goodbye to him, then will his debt to his dear friend be forgiven
  10. How does Lorenzo typically address Jessica?
    Lorenzo enjoys talking about love, praising Jessica and playing romantic word games with her. He frequently uses terms of endearment when addressing her. He also dismisses her melancholic mood when it jars with the sweet music he has been praising

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