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Teaching William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"

Hausarbeit 2015 19 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Pädagogik, Sprachwissenschaft


Table of Contents

1. Analysis of the 'Fictional' Group of Learners

2. Analy si s of the Subj ect Matter

3. Didactic Analysis

4. Learning Objectives

5. Lesson Plan

6. Methodological Analysis

7. Teaching Material and Expected Answers (Appendix)

8. Works Cited

1. Analysis of the 'Fictional' Group of Learners

This double lesson within a teaching unit dealing with William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice will be held in a grade 12 advanced course at a German High School (‘Gymnasium’) in Rhineland-Palatinate. The group of 24 students consists of 10 boys and 14 girls between the ages of 17 and 19. Both boys and girls are actively participating in class discussions and also the ones who are rather under-performing try to join and follow the class discussions as effectively as possible. A clear enrichment for this highly motivated group are the two native speakers of whom one is a 17- year-old male exchange student from Canada who will join this class for one year. The other native speaker is an 18-year-old girl who was born in England but has been living in Germany for over 10 years.

Not only those two aforementioned individuals are fluent in English: the overall level of English proficiency is high in this class and often the knowledge of another foreign language enabled the students to develop a very good language comprehension. I decided to discuss a play by William Shakespeare (cf. Chapter Three, Didactic Analysis) but I let the students choose the play after presenting short summaries from a variety of different plays. The majority of students wanted to read The Merchant of Venice, a decision which was much to my delight since it constituted the focus of my Bachelor thesis.

The general learning environment in this class is very good and harmonic mainly because no one is interrupting or disturbing the lessons on purpose and therefore the lessons can generally be held as planned. Both the teacher and the students (and also the students among themselves) always work together and communicate in an adequate way which creates a good basis for cooperation in class. The appendix features a seating plan of the class (cf. appendix M7).

1. Analysis of the Subject Matter

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays and is believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. When analyzing this play, one of the most important aspects is the connection between the so called “Flesh-Bond Scene” (Act One, Scene Three) and the “Court Scene” (Act Four, Scene One) because the “Flesh-Bond Scene” influences the “Court Scene” and thus strongly impacts the overall outcome of the play.

In Act One, Scene Three, the audience witnesses a conversation between the Christian merchant Antonio and the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Antonio would like to raise a credit to help his friends Bassiano. He decides to talk to Shylock who is eventually willing to lend him three thousand ducates for the period of three months. During the conversation, it becomes clear that their different business practices resulted in tensions in their relationship which unveils when they enter a contract. While a conventional contract generally consists of a monetary interest 1, their contract contains a special clause: instead of letting Antonio pay an interest, he demands one pound of his flesh in case he would not be able to repay the credit on the set day. It becomes clear that Shylock does not want Antonio to fulfil the contract but however wishes for the special clause to take effect. There has been a long lasting feud between Shylock and the Christians due to the Jewish oppression by Christians. Shylock wants to take revenge on Antonio who thus serves as an exemplary for the whole Christian community. Furthermore, Shylock seems to be the superior character at this particular point in the play because Antonio is dependent on him because he needs to raise a credit for his good friend Bassiano. The fact that Shylock wants one pound of his flesh if he cannot repay the credit on the set day will have severe consequences regarding the “Court Scene” and the overall outcome of the play which will be shown later.

In the most important scene of the whole drama, the “Court Scene”, almost all characters appear on stage. The scene consists of a trial and there are some characters that want to convince Shylock of not demanding Antonio's piece of flesh as a reimbursement for the lost money. The Duke serves as one example of a person who tries to convince Shylock to show mercy. He informs Shylock that everybody believes that he is only bluffing and that Antonio has already suffered “[...] on his losses,/That have orlate so huddled on his back” (Act Four, Scene One, 1.27) but Shylock answers that Antonio signed a contract and this is enough reason for him to ask for compensation because “[...] it is my humour” (Act Four, Scene One, 1. 43). Bassiano also wants to convince Shylock to show mercy and therefore appeals to his conscience; he argues that killing someone out of dislike is not acceptable. Furthermore, he offers him to pay double the owed amount but Shylock declines again. He argues that he does not need to act to his liking and he admits that he also does not want his money: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him,/is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it” (Act Four, Scene 1, 1. 99). Gratiano tells Shylock that he will be damned if he insists on the bond “[...] but on thy soul, harsh Jew, /Thou makest thy knife keen” (Act Four, Scene One, 1. 112) but Shylock answers that he should rather spare his energy as he will not listen to him. Balthasar, who is actually Portia in disguise, tells him that even if he is entitled to the bond, mercy is a quality that supersedes any earthly claim since “[t]he quality of mercy is not strained” (Act Four, Scene One, 1. 168). Shylock answers that he takes responsibility for his actions: “My deeds upon my head!” (Act Four, Scene One, 1. 190).

Although all these attempts remain unsuccessful, it is finally Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, who is able to convince Shylock not to kill Antonio by finding a loophole in their contract. Shylock would not be able to cut out exactly one pound of Antonio's flesh without spilling Christian blood. Shylock had obviously not taken this circumstance into account and eventually it becomes clear that Shylock is the actual victim in the play because he loses his daughter Jessica and his wealth and even has to convert to Christianity.

Without the events in the “Flesh-Bond Scene”, there would not have been such a dramatic development of the play which reached its climax in the “Court Scene”. If Shylock would have put a conventional monetary interest on the loan, the overall outcome of the play would have been completely different. His strong will to seek revenge on the Christians, initially becoming visible during his conversation with Antonio in Act One, Scene Three, paints the picture of a blood-thirsty villain who is ready to kill a Christian. His strong desire to seek revenge thus influences the whole development within the “Court Scene”. As mentioned before, several characters try to persuade Shylock to drop his demand but he does not retreat. Thus, the loophole in Shylock's contract can be seen as the decisive factor that changes the balance of power between Shylock and Antonio.

In contrast to Act One, Scene Three, the power relations are now reversed. Within the trial in the “Court Scene”, the audience experiences that Antonio’s story consists of a happy ending: Shylock is not able to take his life and furthermore his ships are not entirely lost. Meanwhile, Shylock's situation deteriorates and he is humiliated by the others. Now, Antonio is the superior character. Although this scene is followed by the so-called “Ring Episode”, the actual action ends with the satisfying outcome of the trial within the “Court Scene”.

2. Didactic Analysis

This double lesson is part of a teaching unit consisting of 12 lessons about William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. After the students receive an overview on the Shakespearean Age, the language, most of the sub-plots, and important topics such as friendship and love, lessons 9 and 10 set their focus on the connection between the “Flesh-Bond Scene” (Act One, Scene Three) and the “Court Scene” (Act Four, Scene One).

One of the most important topics in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is the relationship between the Christians and the Jews, impersonated by the Christian merchant Antonio and the Jewish moneylender Shylock. To actually work out the details of this relationship and its development throughout the play, the students investigate the connection between the two mentioned scenes.

This double lesson on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice intends to show the students that the “Flesh-Bond Scene” (Act One, Scene Three) is an important key scene because it strongly influences the “Court Scene” and thus the overall outcome of Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice. Therefore it is recommended that the students should deal with both the “Flesh- Bond Scene” (Act One, Scene Three) and the “Court Scene” (Act Four, Scene One) of the play and subsequently put them in relation to each other. Through the course of this double lesson they will work on different tasks which all refer to this overall topic; thus, a common thread can clearly be detected within this session.

The consequences of the “Flesh-Bond Scene”, particularly regarding the details of contract and its influences on the “Court Scene”, have not been analysed by the students yet. Nevertheless the students have read this scene before and are familiar with the plot. Today's assignment for the double lesson was to read the “Court Scene” and they will now be able to identify the interrelation of the two scenes. In general, the teacher could either assign to read the play in a chronological order or he could only pick the most important scenes. Since I consider the events that happen in between these two scenes to be significant as well, I prefer that the students read the complete play until after the “Court Scene”. Furthermore I think that the complexity of the play makes a complete lecture crucial for a thorough understanding.

First of all, teaching Shakespeare (“Shakespeare und sein Zeitalter” 2 ) in the “Gymnasiale Oberstufe” in Rhineland-Palatinate is mandatory and beyond that Thaler indicates its outstanding position in the curriculum:

Eine herausragende Stellung in der Sekundarstufe II nimmt nach wie vor Shakespeare ein. Die meisten Richtlinien verlangen die Lektüre eines Shakespeare-Dramas oder zumindest die Beschäftigung mit den Sonetten und der Elisabethanischen Zeit. Warum Shakespeare Auf diese Frage antwortete der amerikanische Literatur-Papst Harold Bloom: ,,Who else is there?” und verwies damit auf den Status des Barden als kulturellen Heros (267-268).

Nevertheless, there are still several other reasons why reading Shakespeare might be very interesting for the students aside from the fact that we have to teach Shakespeare due to the curriculum, as Gibson explains:

Shakespeare's characters, stories and themes have been, and still are, a source of meaning and significance for every generation. Their relevance lies in the virtually endless opportunities they offer for reinterpretation and local application of familiar human relationships and passions. [...] Students of all ages can recognise and identify with such relationships (2).

It becomes clear that a Shakespearean play such as The Merchant of Venice has above all a strong and current relation to the student’s lives and therefore enables them to identify with the characters, the action or the overall topic of the play. Furthermore, as Nünning & Surkamp explain, a drama such as The Merchant of Venice offers:

[...] vielfältige didaktische Möglichkeiten. Neben der traditionellen Textanalyse gibt es viele alternative, handlungsorientierte, spielerische und kreative Formen der Textarbeit [...]. Im Zentrum des creative acting steht nicht die begriffliche Analyse, sondern das aktive Sprechen, Spielen, Darstellen und Agieren [...] (173).

Although The Merchant of Venice is not explicitly recommended in the curriculum, I still consider it to be an excellent choice to learn about Shakespeare and his time 3, to become familiar with Early Modern English 4 and to eventually empower the students in developing their own sense of justice during the rendered verdict at the end of the “Court Scene” in Act Four, Scene One.

Through Shakespeare's language (and particularly his play with language), students are provided “with rich models for study, imitation, and expressive personal re-creation [...] [and furthermore] students gain a sense of achievement and satisfaction as they respond to its challenge” (Gibson 5-6). Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice serves as an excellent example of how the writer utilizes language and makes a study of this play enjoyable for students.

In the end, The Merchant of Venice and especially its “Court Scene” gives the students the opportunity to develop their own sense of justice and also to reflect on their own expectations of the justice system. The fact that the rendered solution to the flesh-bond conflict (starting in Act One, Scene Three when Shylock demands one pound of Antonio's flesh if he cannot repay the credit on the set day) is composed of a legal loophole means that the play does not really provide a solution that could be described as ‘just’. The final moral judgement is left to the students and thus the play offers them the opportunity of a high level of self-reflection.


1 There are both advantages and disadvantages when charging interests on loans but this matter will not be further discussed since it is not of significant importance for this part of my paper. The main focus is set on the analysis of the relevant part of the play but the advantages and disadvantages of charging interests on loans can be found in the appendix (cf. м2)

2 RLP curriculum, p.33

3 RLP curriculum, p.33 and p.53

4 RLP curriculum, p. 31


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
785 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz – Fachbereich 05 Department of English and Linguistics
Shakespeare Teaching Lesson Teaching The Merchant of Venice




Titel: Teaching William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"