Heidi Beehler, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, New York.
The Merchant of Venice
What's On for Today and Why
One of the reasons The Merchant of Venice is so interesting—and so troublesome—is that characters in Venice cannot define human values such as justice, mercy, and love in anything other than economic terms. The language of the Venetian characters is fraught with terms of economic rather than romantic exchange.
This activity emphasizes finding the multiplicity of meanings buried within Shakespeare's language. Students will examine how the meanings of words differ in Belmont and in Venice.
This lesson will take two to three class periods.
What You Need
Folger edition of The Merchant of Venice
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Can't Buy Me Love Handout
What To Do
1. Divide students into groups of three or four. Assign four words from the following list to each group: fortune, value, interest, worth, engaged, bond, dear, gold(en), good(s), hazard. Give each student the attached handout, and have them copy their assigned words onto the chart.
2. In their groups, have students search for their assigned words using an online Shakespeare concordance. What different meanings do these words have in different contexts throughout the play? Do they have different meanings in Belmont and in Venice? Have them fill in the Belmontian and Venetian meanings of the words in the chart. They may use a dictionary to help them.
3. Next, have each group choose one of their four words and a scene in which it appears. Have them discuss the following questions as a group. Each group should choose a scribe who will write down the answers.
Where does this scene take place?
Which characters are speaking? Where are they from?
To whom are they speaking?
How do the other characters understand what the speakers are saying? Are characters from different places able to understand one another?
Then, have students repeat this activity with one more of their words.
4. Have each group present their findings to the class. Conclude with a discussion about how language is used differently by characters in different places. Does this change the students' view of the play in any way?
5. As a concluding activity, have students act out their scenes.
How Did It Go?
Were students able to develop multiple definitions of the terms? Did students choose passages appropriate to the task at hand? Were they able to apply what they learned about the tension between the definitions of the words in Venice and Belmont to their passage? Was their understanding of the performed text enriched by their research?
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.