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The Merchant of Venice - Understanding the Text

This GCSE English Literature quiz focusses on understanding the text in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice was written over four hundred years ago. Although it is written in what is known as ‘Early Modern’ English, the language can seem very different from any dialect of English spoken today. So the text will not be the easiest to understand. Reading slowly, reading sections more than once and even reading aloud will help with comprehension.

As with any other text, pay close attention to all of the methods and techniques authors use to convey meaning. Think carefully about character, setting, plot, theme and dialogue. Comprehension works on several levels simultaneously.

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Consider how context and setting relate to the events in the play. Ask yourself how events relate to each other, especially paying attention to shifts of scene, which occur frequently in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. What effect is achieved when a scene change forces us to leave characters in the middle of an event only to return to them later, leaving other characters mid-action? Try creating a timeline of events in order to help yourself picture the structure of the play. Although events occur chronologically in this play, you might like to consider the many occasions when characters relay news of other events occurring off stage. It can be useful to create summaries of each act and scene to help you remember and better understand the text.

Think about characters’ words and actions and what these reveal about their motivations. Are there any clues in the text to explain their behaviour? Should readers understand characters’ words to be truthfully presented, or should we examine their subtext more closely? Do the words and actions of each character correspond to one another? Try to answer why or why not, justifying your views by referring in detail to the text.

It is always useful to analyse beginnings and endings. Why does the play begin where it does? How do you come to find out about previous events? What do we know of various characters and how do we learn it? Are future events foreshadowed? How? Analyse individual acts and scenes in the same way: think about the significance of their beginnings and endings. Undertaking detailed analysis of this sort will really improve your knowledge and understanding of the text!

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

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  1. What is Shylock able to do that Antonio is not?
    Skylock is allowed to practice usury, which is the charging of interest on loans of money
  2. Regarding the answer to question one, why is this practice forbidden to Antonio?
    Until the sixteenth century in England, as in much of Europe, Christians were forbidden by the church to practice usury. Jewish people often faced severe restrictions on economic activity but were not bound by the laws regarding usury
  3. Why does Bassanio wish to borrow money from Antonio?
    He must present himself as an appropriate suitor to the wealthy Portia. Ironically his wealth is not truly his own, but borrowed at great danger to his friend
  4. What can be found in the leaden casket?
    Bassanio distrusts the impressive outer appearance of both the gold and silver caskets, correctly choosing the foreboding leaden casket instead
  5. In order to make a point, Shylock demands a pound of flesh as a forfeit if Antonio is unable to pay back his debt. How does Shylock refer to this agreement?
    Claiming that the forfeit is a sort of game, Shylock calms Bassanio's fears by asking what use a pound of a man's flesh would be to him if Antonio were to fail to repay the debt
  6. What happens to Antonio's ships?
    Some ships are wrecked and others are reported missing. Antonio believes all of his ships to have been lost, but in the final scene, Portia surprises him with news that three of his ships have returned to harbour
  7. Which of the following does NOT prompt Shylock to seek revenge on Antonio?
    Shylock turns down, then accepts invitations to dine with Christians, but is distrustful and ill at ease at their invitation. While he is away, Jessica elopes with Lorenzo
  8. How does Portia rescue Antonio?
    Shylock insists on obedience to the letter of the law before Portia reminds him that his bond is logistically impossible to carry out since he must take his pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood
  9. Which of the following is NOT revoked when Shylock is sentenced?
    The Duke pardons his life, which was forfeit, and Antonio pardons his share of half Shylock's estate. Antonio does this on the condition that Shylock will become a Christian (which was not part of the original sentence). Their "mercy" leaves Shylock humiliated
  10. What does Bassanio do with Portia's ring?
    "Balthasar" demands the ring and Antonio persuades Bassanio to ignore his wife's commandment

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