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The Merchant of Venice - Extract 2

This is the second of two GCSE English Literature extract questions for The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. It takes place in the third act, almost at the centre of the play. In this passage, Bassanio achieves the goal for which he had borrowed 3000 ducats, the great sum for which Antonio has pledged a pound of flesh to Shylock. Bassanio, unlike Portia’s many other suitors from near and far, solves the puzzle set by Portia’s father. Read the passage through at least twice before tackling the questions. In answering the questions below, pay close attention to the text while also bearing in mind the wider issues of the play as a whole. Which details do you think are the most significant?

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Can you account for the language choices? And remember, it’s a good idea to practice several extract questions, so be sure to try the Extract 1 quiz, as well!

How to answer an extract question in an exam:

When answering an extract question in an exam be sure to read the passage through more than once as you consider your response. On the first read through, you can aim for a broad understanding of the passage and how it relates to the question or questions which you will answer. As you read through a second time, you can begin noting details and making annotations. Ask yourself why the specific passage has been chosen. How does this passage relate to rest of the text? Pay attention to its place in the structure of the text. Are any significant characters or significant themes introduced? What happens afterwards? Are later events foreshadowed? How? What changes between the beginning and end of the passage? Why do you think the chosen extract ends where it does instead of somewhere else? What is significant about the final line?

Consider the question very carefully. You might be asked to write about the mood and atmosphere of the extract, or perhaps a particular character. Sometimes you will be asked to discuss dialogue, behaviour or feelings. You will probably be asked to relate these details to the themes of the text. Always explain the passage’s immediate context: what events precede the extract? Pay close attention to detail, to setting and characterisation. As you write, group related ideas together in your answer, but be sure to discuss the entire passage. Remember to pace yourself. Leave enough time to write about the whole passage rather than covering one section in detail while neglecting the remainder of the extract!

Read the passage from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice below carefully before answering the questions.

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BASSANIO: Thus ornament is but the guilèd shore
To a most dangerous sea, the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. [ Aloud ] Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.
[ To the silver casket ] Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
‘Tween man and man. But thou, thou meagre lead,
Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!

PORTIA [ aside ]: How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair,
And shudd’ring fear, and green-eyed jealousy.
O love, be moderate! Allay thy ecstasy.
In measure rain thy joy; scant this excess.
I feel too much thy blessing: make it less,
For fear I surfeit.

[BASSANIO opens the leaden casket ]

BASSANIO: What find I here?
Fair Portia’s counterfeit. What demi-god
Hath come so near creation? Move these eyes?
Of whether, riding on the balls of mine,
Seem they in motion? Here are severed lips
Parted with sugar breath. So sweet a bar
Should sunder such sweet friends. Here in her hairs
The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
A golden mesh t’untrap the hearts of men
Faster than gnats in cobwebs. But her eyes —
How could he see to do them? Having made one,
Methinks it should have power to steal both his
And leave itself unfurnished. Yet look how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance. Here’s the scroll,
The continent and summary of my fortune.
“You that choose not by the view
Chance as fair and choose as true.
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content, and seek no new.
If you be well pleased with this,
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn you where your lady is,
And claim her with a loving kiss.”
A gentle scroll. Fair lady, by your leave,
I come by note to give and to receive,
Like one of two contending in a prize,
That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether those peals of praise be his or no.
So, thrice-fair lady, stand I even so,
As doubtful whether what I see be true
Until confirmed, signed, ratified by you.

PORTIA: You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand.
Such as I am.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Norton, 2008)
  1. What is the immediate context of this passage?
    This scene immediately follows the scene in which Shylock's distress at the news of his daughter mingles with his delight in the news of Antonio's misfortunes
  2. What immediately follows this excerpt?
    Joy is short-lived. The cost of Bassanio's great gamble becomes apparent in Antonio's letter
  3. Bassanio feels fairly confident in his gamble. Which of the following statements expresses this mixture of hope and confidence?
    Bassanio is confident in his rejection of the gold and silver caskets. He entrusts himself to fortune with his wish for joy
  4. "Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge / ‘Tween man and man." What does Bassanio describe and reject in these lines?
    Silver is a "common drudge" because it is a servant, passed from hand to hand as currency
  5. "In measure rain thy joy; scant this excess." To whom or what does Portia speak in these lines?
    Porita tells love to be "moderate". She is afraid to feel too much
  6. What is "fair Portia's counterfeit"?
    Bassanio refers to the image of Portia which has been placed in the casket
  7. What is significant about the word "counterfeit"?
    The portrait, in Bassanio's view, is misleading and does not show Portia's true beauty. He compares it to counterfeit money which is made to appear like genuine currency, but holds no value
  8. "Here are severed lips / Parted with sugar breath. So sweet a bar / Should sunder such sweet friends." Which of the following states is emphasised in these lines?
    "Severed", "parted", "bar" and "sunder" evoke a separation, perhaps even a violent separation. Why do you think these words appeal to Bassanio at this moment? If Portia's "sweet" lips were not separate, would she be able to speak? How does this idea relate to the rest of the play?
  9. Bassanio turns his doubt into a game. He doubts his good fortune, the message in the scroll telling him that Portia is his, the counterfeit image and the evidence of his own eyes. How does Portia respond?
    Bassano later does not recognise his own wife in her disguise as Balthasar
  10. Bassanio describes the scroll as the "continent and summary" of his fortune. "Continent" here means "container". What does the scroll contain?
    The scroll literally contains words and the words enact Bassanio's good fortune. Can you think of any other examples of words having such a powerful effect in the play?

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