Lisa Rampton Halverson, Edgewood High School, Ellettsville, Indiana.
This unit incorporates the work of Mary Ellen Dakin of Revere High School, Revere, Massachusetts, Caleen Sinnette Jennings of American University, and Jeremy Ehrlich, Head of Education at the Folger.
The Merchant of Venice
What's On for Today and Why
This unit on the character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice offers a variety of opportunities to reflect on potrayals of the character—within the text, in performance, and through visual depiction. The activities in this unit are intended to scaffold the final unit project, a "Director's Paper" in which the students propose a specific production of the play that fits, or perhaps defies, their audience's conceptions of Shylock.
This lesson will take 8-10 class periods as written. It may be adapted for shorter time slots by selecting individual activities from the overall unit plan.
What You Need
Folger edition of The Merchant of Venice
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Optional: Norma Howe's Blue Avenger Cracks the Code and Mirjam Pressler's Shylock's Daughter
The Merchant of Venice, 2004, directed by Michael Radford
The Merchant of Venice, 2001, directed by Trevor Nunn
Images of Shylock: http://www.folger.edu/eduLesPlanDtl.cfm?lpid=689
The history of four-footed beasts: http://www.folger.edu/eduPrimSrcDtl.cfm?psid=97
What To Do
1. Ask students to bring in two photographs of themselves taken in very different circumstances. Have them compare the two unlike photographs, trying to look at themselves as they would appear to a stranger. Look at the dress, appearance, and setting in the first photo. Are there others in the photo? What seems to be their relation to you, or their reaction to you? What conclusions would students draw about their appearance? Then repeat with the second photo. Finally, compare the two lists. What created any differences in their evaluations? Use this to launch into an introductory discussion for this unit: in film and theater, how does appearance give you a sense of a character's personality?
2. Next, use the lesson plan "Visualizing Shylock" (http://www.folger.edu/eduLesPlanDtl.cfm?lpid=689) to explore various depictions of Shylock in artwork. This can be a stepping stone to discuss the ways dress, lighting, props, posture, and the reaction of other characters can influence a viewer.
3. Divide students into groups. Give half of the groups Shylock's asides at 1.3.33-52 to explore, and the other half Shylock's speech at 1.3.116-139. The first groups should prepare a performance of the text that offers us a more sympathetic Shylock than the one related in the text; the second group should prepare a performance that offers us a less sympathetic Shylock than the one suggested by a literal reading of the text. Students may cut the text and explore line delivery, action and reaction, gesture and facial expression, costumes, set, and props as tools to create their effect. Here again, students will see the varied possibilities for interpreting Shylock and give them practice for decisions in their final paper.
4. Follow up with an activity that looks at the subtext of scenes involving Shylock. In small groups, have half of the class prepare 4.1.311-379 in which Portia is reluctant to pass judgment on a sympathetic Shylock, and the other half with a Portia who is eager for vengeance against a harsh and unrepentant Shylock. For more help with this kind of exercise, see Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream, pages 67-69.
5. Bring two movie versions of The Merchant of Venice to class; the 2004 production with Al Pacino, directed by Michael Radford, and the 2001 production with Henry Goodman, directed by Trevor Nunn, are both readily available. Divide students into four groups. Have one group closely follow changes in the text; another visual cues (lighting, camera angles, and blocking); a third, aural cues (music, noises, and sound effects); and the fourth, other production choices (sets, locations, costumes, and props). Show the equivalent of 1.3 for each film and ask students to compare the two Shylocks. Are students surprised by any of the choices made in these movies?
6. Show students the primary source The history of four-footed beasts, at http://www.folger.edu/eduPrimSrcDtl.cfm?psid=97. How does this understanding of the Elizabethan view of animals change their view of a society that applies these labels to Shylock?
7. Once students have finished the play, lead them in a discussion of the text's binary oppositions. List the following pairs of words and ask students to place the play's major characters somewhere along a continuum running between the two: greedy/generous; good/bad; moral/immoral. With discussion, students may realize how far the characters can slide along these paths. Have students journal on the implications this has for a director trying to portray a character.
8. Optional or for extra credit: Norma Howe's Blue Avenger Cracks the Code and especially Mirjam Pressler's Shylock's Daughter offer variations on the play that can give students additional insights for their final papers.
9. The cumulative assignment for this unit is a final "director's paper"—give students the handout below to get them started.
How Did It Go?
Having analyzed Shylock's actions and considered choices for their own version of the character, do students understand Shylock's complexity? Are they sensitive to the choices that Shakespeare and directors make in shaping an audience's views of this character? Can this work make students better critics of media?
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.