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Playing Humanity: Comparing Shylock and Antonio

Teachers' Rating:
  8 ratings

Richard Westall. Shylock Rebuffing Antonio. Oil on canvas, 1795.

June 2005
Keith Muller, National Cathedral School, Washington, District of Columbia.

Plays/Scenes Covered
The Merchant of Venice 1.3
What's On for Today and Why

This lesson introduces students to the range of motivations and traits that make both Shylock and Antonio complex human beings with their own virtues and vices. Through close reading and performance of the conflict between the two in 1.3, students begin to consider the play's treatment not only of anti-Semitism but also of bigotry, persecution and mercy.


This lesson should take 1-2 class periods.
What You Need

Folger edition of The Merchant of Venice
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts

What To Do

1. Divide the class into two groups. Assign one group to read 1.3 and write out three remarks by Antonio that indicate important traits of his personality. On the back of their paper or on another sheet, they should explain in one or two specific sentences what each mark reveals about Antonio. Assign the second group to do the same for Shylock. (This step could also be assigned as homework.)


2. After reading the scene (or to begin the class if reading was homework), students swap their remarks and explanation sheets with a classmate in their group. Students should look only at the quotes, not their explanations. Students should find the three remarks chosen by their classmate, read each remark in context, and write on the homework paper their own view of what each remark reveals about the character.


3. Ask students to return their homework to each other, read the new comments, and compare their responses with their partner. It will be especially useful for students to discuss differences of opinion.


4. Instruct the students to select one of the remarks they have chosen and to discuss with each other how the character would say the remark. Have them practice various ways of doing so, and select a gesture that the character might make as he speaks.


5. Select one side of the room for Shylocks and one for Antonios and ask students to sit on the proper side.


6. Ask students to read their lines aloud while seated, alternating between Shylock and Antonio and using a normal, non-dramatic reading voice. Next, ask them to stand away from their desks and speak the lines in character, as they have practiced. Students should not pause between remarks; the exchanges should flow like a conversation. Finally, have students repeat the exercise, adding their gestures. (It's all right if some lines are repeated—this will probably help, in fact, because it will clarify the remark's significance.)


7. Ask students to return to their desks and to write for five minutes about their impressions of Shylock and Antonio. Students should consider in particular any tensions or contradictions in each character.


8. Have students share their impressions. Direct these comments toward discussion of the characters' motivations and of the similarities and differences between Shylock and Antonio.

How Did It Go?
Have students understood the complexities and the humanity of both characters? Have they found meaningful similarities and differences between the two? Are students interested in the characters as human beings with diverse experiences, motivations, and hopes?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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  Common Core State Standards

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