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The Merchant of Venice - Language

This GCSE English Literature quiz will test you on language in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice contains a mixture of poetry and prose. Its language is charged with the wealth of Venice, the flowery imagery of courtly love, the ugliness of social exclusion, and the brutality hidden beneath financial transactions.

The language choices in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice tell us how characters regard one another, how they are feeling and why they choose to follow a particular course of action. The themes of the play are evident not only through the plot and actions of characters, but often more subtly through the slow build-up of related language. It can be a useful revision technique to collect examples of vocabulary related to each of the themes of the play. Consider which character uses each of these collected examples and what the implications might be.

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Analysing language in a text

While performance, including an actor’s pace, tone and gesture, affects the audience’s understanding and interpretation of a play, language is the foundation and substance through which its meaning is conveyed. Like other texts, plays depend on the very words with which they are written.

Authors choose the language that they use with precision. Lying beyond the literal meaning of each word is a weight of symbolic meaning and other associations. The use of imagery, such as metaphor, simile and personification, adds shades and layers of meaning, sometimes subtly and at other times, not so subtly.

Paying close attention to language choices in a text is always worthwhile; deeper understanding will be the reward for your effort. Look beyond the surface meaning. Take time to consider what else is going on besides the obvious. Analyse the language that the author has put such care into choosing. This practice will help you to decipher the text’s deeper meanings.

Answer the questions below to develop your understanding of the way language choices affect our interpretation of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

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  1. At the beginning of the play, when Antonio tells Salerio of his sadness, Salerio assumes that he is worried about his ships, saying, "Your mind is tossing on the ocean". What makes this an effective phrase?
    Remember that it's important to explain what imagery accomplishes, what its effect is, rather than to just state that it is present. Here the implied metaphor is that Antonio's mind is another ship, or perhaps a passenger on one of his ships, and is at the mercy of the waves
  2. BASSANIO: Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?
    SHYLOCK: I cannot tell. I make it breed as fast.
    What is significant about Shylock's use of the word "breed"?
    Shylock compares his ability to make money to an animal's capacity to reproduce, boasting that he can increase his fortune as quickly as sheep give birth to more sheep
  3. ANTONIO: ...for when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?
    What is the significance of the word "barren"?
    Antonio states the Christian position on usury; it is unnatural in its pretence that money can give birth to more money (something that is barren cannot reproduce or give life). Yet his own activities as a merchant involve a similar reliance on the growth of wealth. His comparison might also give rise to Shylock's request for living flesh rather than barren metal
  4. Speaking of the men who hope to marry her, Portia says, "For there is not one among them but I dote on his very absence; and I pray God grant them a fair departure." What does she mean by this?
    Although she is using the most polite language, Portia wishes nothing more than that her unwanted suitors would leave her alone
  5. "For aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing." What does Nerissa mean by this?
    Nerissa is mocking Portia for her complaint that she is "aweary of this great world", but she does so by acknowledging that too much wealth can be bad for people
  6. "My ships have all miscarried." What does "miscarried" mean here?
    This is another example of the idea that wealth can reproduce wealth in a similar way to animals giving birth
  7. Which one of the following statements does not logically follow the others?
    Shylock presents vengeance as a natural consequence similar to the involuntary physiological consequences of tickling, poisoning and pricking
  8. Which of the following phrases implies that a person can be a possession?
    Lorenzo "stole" Jessica from Shylock, as if she were one of his possessions
  9. "Here in her hairs / The painter plays the spider, and hath woven / A golden mesh t'untrap the hearts of men." What does Bassanio mean in these lines?
    Despite the use of the phrase, "golden mesh", the image is not very flattering!
  10. I should think of shallows and of flats,
    And see my wealthy Andrew, decks in sand,
    Vailing her hightop lower than her ribs
    To kiss her burial.
    How does Salerio speak of his ship in these lines?
    The tradition of using feminine pronouns ("her") to speak of ships, the name "Andrew", and the depiction of the ship as kissing the spot where it becomes wrecked give the impression that Salerio values his ship as a living being

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