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.

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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.

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  1. Which of the following is true of sixteenth-century Venice?
    Venice was multicultural in its population, but various laws and customs discriminated against those who were not Christians
  2. 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 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
  3. When was The Merchant of Venice written?
    The Merchant of Venice was written by 1598
  4. What was the "ghetto" in sixteenth-century Venice?
    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
  5. Which of the following statements is true?
    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
  6. Which of the following statements is true?
    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
  7. A famous trial might have been an influence on The Merchant of Venice. Whose trial?
    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
  8. What was the greatest source of wealth in sixteenth-century Venice?
    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
  9. What is meant by the term "usury"?
    Usury was later redefined to mean primarily the charging of excessive interest on loans
  10. Which of the following is an alternate title for the play?
    What difference does the alternate title make in how you see the play? Does it change the perspective of the audience?

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