The Merchant of Venice - Themes

This GCSE English Literature quiz looks at themes in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Any work of literature will deal with multiple themes. These can range from the obvious to the very subtle. Themes engage with and impact upon one another so that it can often be tricky to talk about a single theme in isolation. Setting, character, plot and dialogue all feed into the themes of a text. When you spot concepts and ideas arising in different parts of the texts, you are becoming aware of its themes. Different characters each make visible various aspects of a theme and comparing these is a useful method of analysis.

Pay attention to related ideas in order to follow the development of a theme over the course of a text.

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When you write about themes, check whether your view at the beginning of a text matches the view you have at the end of a work. Have your ideas changed? If so, ask yourself exactly when and where in the text your views on a key theme began to change.

Authors communicate meaning to their readers through themes. Any ideas or issues raised can prompt the audience to reconsider beliefs or ways of looking at the world. If a text makes you think, the author has successfully encouraged you to engage with one or more of its themes. Your views might be similar to those of other readers or you might find that you disagree strongly with other readers (or even your teacher). Your response to a text will be deeply personal, which is inevitable when you bring your own thoughts, beliefs and experiences into consideration as you read.

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice deals with themes of friendship, love, money, true wealth, exclusion and hatred, mercy, justice, and the differences between appearance and reality. These themes are interrelated and appear in different guises throughout the play. Although many of these themes seem obvious, try to be aware of the play’s subtext. This can be difficult in a play which deals with murder as a form of justice and payment in human flesh as a legitimate possibility. Perseverance is key!

Read the questions below and test your knowledge of the themes of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

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  1. Which of the following themes is NOT developed through the episode of the three caskets?
    The leaden casket hides the real treasure. Several suitors are unable to see beyond outward appearances. Portia welcomes their mistakes, not wishing to marry any of the foreign men who attempt the task. Her attitude, including some racist remarks, reinforces the way in which those who are not native, Christian, Venetians are excluded
  2. In the court scene, what is contrasted with mercy?
    Shylock wishes to see the law upheld to the letter. Portia turns the law against him after he refuses to seek mercy, rather than his strict version of justice
  3. "To you, Antonio, / I owe the most in money and in love." Which of the following is true of this statement?
    Bassanio's debts to Antonio are both financial and personal. His relationship with Portia, similarly, is personal and financial. Is the balance between the two equal, or does Bassanio's love of money to fuel his extravagance outweigh his love of Portia?
  4. Portia describes mercy as gentle. Which of the following episodes depicts mercy otherwise?
    Antonio, believing himself to be merciful, insists that Shylock must convert
  5. "The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven." These famous lines are Portia's response to which question of Shylock's?
    Portia insists that Shylock "must" show mercy and he responds by asking what could force him to do so. Portia's response that mercy does not result from compulsion, or force, is paradoxical
  6. The Merchant of Venice explores many forms of love. Which one of the following is NOT one of these?
    Many of the different forms of love are problematic and verge on idolatry, such as the love of wealth. Even love for other people is not pure, but mingled with less noble motivations
  7. The Venetian Christians frequently direct abusive terms at Shylock. Their treatment of Shylock is related to which of the following themes?
    Although Venice welcomed the money and business of those who were not Christians, the play portrays a society riven by Anti-Semitism and unwilling to adopt those considered to be outsiders. Although within the law (and therefore, technically just), their behaviour is a form of injustice according to their professed beliefs
  8. Which of the following is true?
    Bassanio makes his interest in Portia's wealth clear during his conversation with Antonio. Jessica's insistence on bringing gold and jewels with her when she flees her father's house implies that her wealth plays some part in Lorenzo's love for her
  9. The winner of the challenge of the three caskets receives Portia as his reward, along with all of her father's wealth. What does this imply about Portia?
    The challenge is designed to rule out those most obviously seeking great wealth rather than love. By bestowing his daughter in marriage from beyond the grave through a provision in his will, Portia's father behaves as if she were like any other part of his estate
  10. When Bassanio gives away Portia's ring, his conflicting loyalties are exposed. This episode reflects which of the following themes?
    Antonio faces death for his friend and this places a great burden on Bassanio, who becomes very personally indebted to the other man. By saving his life, Portia places Antonio in her debt and it is through the loss of the ring that he becomes aware of what he owes to his friend's new wife

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