Need to write up an analysis of the Merchant of Venice for the HSC English Common Module? We’ve got your back with a summary of the Merchant of Venice, the key characters, themes, quotes and a step-by-step of how to analyse an excerpt from the text.
PLUS we’ll provide you with a sample analysis table (also called a TEE table) and a sample Band 6 paragraph for The Merchant of Venice!
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to ace your analysis of The Merchant of Venice — let’s go!
Check out our analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ below!
Summary: What is The Merchant of Venice about?
The Merchant of Venice tells the story of Bassanio, who is too poor to attempt to win the hand of his true love, Portia. In order to travel to Portia’s estate, he asks his best friend, Antonio, for a loan. Because Antonio’s money is invested in a number of trade ships, the two friends ask to borrow money from Shylock, the Jew.
Shylock tells the men that if they cannot repay the money, he will claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh. They borrow the money regardless, and Bassanio and Portia fall happily in love.
Meantime, Antonio’s ships have been lost so he is unable to repay Shylock the money that had been loaned. Shylock takes Antonio to court in order to claim his pound of flesh.
Portia dresses up as a legal doctor and disguises herself as the judge of the court. During the court scene, Bassanio offers Shylock twice the money lent, but Shylock refuses. At the last minute, as Shylock is about to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio, the judge (Portia) claims that the law does not state he can have any of Antonio’s blood.
Shylock finally agrees to take the money, but Portia tells Shylock that because he is guilty of conspiring against a Venetian citizen, he must give away all of his property to the state and Antonio.
Antonio does not ask Shylock to pay the money, but requires him to convert to Christianity and give his inheritance to Lorenzo, and his daughter, Jessica, who abandoned him. Portia eventually reveals her disguise to Antonio and Bassanio, and it is revealed that Antonio’s ships have returned safely.
Key Characters in The Merchant of Venice
Antonio is arguably the protagonist of The Merchant of Venice, and the merchant the play is named after. As an audience we are drawn to Antonio due to his melancholy demeanour and devotion to his best friend, Bassanio. However, Antonio shows his dark side through the cruel and racist comments he makes towards Shylock throughout the play.
Bassanio is Antonio’s best friend. He’s obsessed with two things: money and Portia. And since Portia is super rich, we could argue it’s just money. Bassanio is also manipulative and cunning throughout the play, using convoluted rhetoric to convince Antonio to lend him money and using figurative language to make it pretty clear he likes Portia for her money.
Portia is the wealthy heiress of Belmont. Before his death, her father created three caskets and only the man to choose the correct casket could marry his daughter. Not being able to choose her own husband and being forced into limited feminine roles, Portia lacks autonomy within her society. However, she finds ways to circumvent the systems which oppress her, and demonstrates a surprising amount of agency by the end of the play.
Shylock is the Jew that lends Antonio 3000 Ducats on the condition that if he does not return the loan in three months, Shylock can take a pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock hates the Christians and curses them throughout the play, yet we might feel sorry for Shylock when we see the abuse he endures from his society. Shylock stands out as a “what you see is what you get” kind of character, which contrasts against the deceitfulness of many of the Christian characters in the Merchant of Venice.
Jessica is Shylock’s daughter. She steals her father’s money and treasures and runs away to marry Lorenzo, converting to christianity. You may want to consider whether Jessica was justified in leaving her cruel father, or whether she abandoned her family and religion.
Lorenzo is close friends with Antonio and Bassanio. He marries Jessica, who, much like Portia, is loaded with cash after stealing it from her father. However, unlike Bassanio who just wants Portia for her money, Lorenzo seems much more likely to love Jessica for who she is. He also marries a jew, something his society would have condemned. So, you may like to consider whether Lorenzo is less confined to his society’s prejudices than other characters in the Merchant of Venice.
Portia’s lady in waiting and bestie. Nerissa and Portia enjoy mocking her suitors together.
Minor Characters in the Merchant of Venice
Gratiano: Bassanio’s friend.
The Duke of Venice: The Duke of Venice’s job is to hold up the law. He has little power to help Antonio after he owes Shylock a pound of flesh.
Prince of Morocco: One of Portia’s suitors. Portia and Nerissa mock him for the dark colour of his skin.
The Prince of Arragon: One of Portia’s suitors.
Salarino and Solerio: These two are difficult to differentiate from one another. These characters are merchants in Venice and friends with Antonio and Bassanio.
Launcelot Gobbo: Initially Shylock’s servant, he leaves to work for Bassanio. Launcelot Gobbo is the clown of the play, and often misuses big words.
Old Gobbo: Launcelot Gobbo’s dad.
Tubal: A friend of Shylock.
Balthasar: Portia’s servant, who she sends to Doctor Bellario to provide the documents she needs to appear as The Duke in court.
Context of The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice was written in a time when antisemitism (hostility against Jews) was prevalent in Europe. A fresh wave of this antisemitism erupted after the trial and execution of Roderigo Lopez, a doctor of Jewish ancestry who served and was accused of poisoning Queen Elizabeth I. Jewish people were stereotyped as ‘greedy’ and ‘cruel money lenders’.
The Merchant of Venice has been criticised by some for appealing to this antisemitism, yet others have acknowledged the ways in which Shakespeare challenged the antisemitism of his time by humanising Shylock. Shylock contrasts against other depictions of Jews at the time, such as Barabas from Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta, which gave a more one-dimensional and stereotypical depiction of a Jew.
This was also a time in which women were seen as property by males, and it was very difficult for women to have any property or real power of their own. It is important to consider this in order to understand the actions of Portia throughout the play, who circumvents and exploits patriarchal structures in order to gain power for herself.
Themes and Quotes from The Merchant of Venice
Value of money over human life
Throughout the play, Shakespeare develops the contrast between the value of human life and monetary value — we’re prompted to consider whether characters favour commodities or human life.
This quote conveys this idea in particular:
“I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin!” – Shylock, Act 3 Scene 1
In this speech, Shylock is so enraged that his daughter ran away and stole all his money and jewels that he wishes his daughter was dead. Though, there’s more than one way this quote can be interpreted:
Does is suggest that he desires all the jewels and ducats back, and his daughter dead, upset with what she’s done? Or is he saying that he doesn’t really care for the money, but is hurt by what Jessica has done, that he wants her dead?
Commodification of love
From the start of the play, Bassanio evidently shows that he cares a lot about Portia’s money, even just in the way he talks about her:
“a lady richly left,”
“many Jasons come in quest of her” – Bassanio to Antonio, Act 1 Scene 1.
In this quote, Bassanio alludes to the Greek myth of Jason and the argonauts, where a team of heroes go on a quest in search of a golden fleece. By suggesting that Portia is a prize, like the golden fleece, what can be said about the way Bassanio views Portia?
Marginalisation of oppressed groups
The play represents the marginalisation of not only Jewish people in 16th Century Venetian society, but women too.
In Act 4 Scene 1, Gratiano insults Shylock:
“thy currish spirit
Govern’d a wolf, who, hang’d for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou lay’st in thy unhallow’d dam,
Infused itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous.”
– Gratiano, Act 4 Scene 1
This quote illustrates Gratiano insulting Shylock by suggesting he was reincarnated from a wolf. He also calls Shylock’s mother an “unhallow’d dam”, playing on the word “dam”, referring both to a female parent of an animal but also suggesting she is “damned”.
Interestingly, his language is Christian, but this idea of reincarnation is starkly non-Christian. Is Shakespeare complicit in Gratiano’s racism, or is Shakespeare self consciously pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian using non-Christian logic to insult Shylock?
The individual desire for power and agency
Portia expresses her yearning for power to circumvent her marginalisation. She tells Bassanio:
“This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s. I give them with this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.”
In this speech, Portia warns Bassanio that if he loses her ring, their love is ruined and that she will have power over him. We could then say that Portia’s ring is a way for her to manipulate Bassanio and gain power over him, especially since she’s the one who plans for him to lose the ring.
The paragraph for download below argues that Portia’s character spends the play manipulating others to gain her own power. Do you agree?
Connection to Texts and Human Experiences
Before you begin your analysis of The Merchant of Venice, it’s a good idea to read up on what the Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences is about so you know how to relate to the module in your assessment.
Let’s take a look at the syllabus!
In short, this module is about deepening your understanding of how texts represent the individual and collective human experience. This can include examining how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from human experiences.
You can read more about Texts and Human Experiences in our guide here!
Now, let’s make some links between the Common Module and The Merchant of Venice!
Shakespeare was a playwright who was very interested in the idea of the human being, meaning “human experiences” are central to his thematic concerns.
The Merchant of Venice represents the collective human experiences of oppression, racism and marginalisation, as well the individual human experiences of overcoming these limitations.
Shakespeare represents the human qualities of ambition, and motivations of greed and power, by showing how all of his characters will do anything to get what they want.
For example, Bassanio will do anything to get money (oops, I mean Portia), Portia will do anything for power, and Shylock will do anything for revenge.
Shakespeare represents characters in the Merchant of Venice paradoxically, as simultaneously marginalised (whether by money, gender or religion) as well as in positions of power.
Shylock is particularly paradoxical as he is simultaneously depicted as cruel and vengeful, and a victim of an antisemitic society. Bassanio and Portia are presented as inconsistent, ostensibly motivated by their love for one another, but on a deeper level, motivated by money and power respectively.
Shakespeare challenges the responder to see the world differently by suggesting people are not what they seem: loving protagonists perhaps have ulterior motives, and cruel antagonists can be marginalised victims of their society.
How to Analyse The Merchant of Venice in 4 Steps
Often students will try to start with their thesis when trying to answer an essay question. Instead, start with your analysis! You need to equip yourself with the knowledge of your text before you can answer anything about it.
After you’ve analysed your text, you can draw ideas from it, then you can build your thesis!
We’re going to walk you through an how to analyse a piece of evidence from The Merchant of Venice in 4 steps using the passage below!
It’s important that whenever we are writing analysis we do it with a theme or a topic sentence in mind. For the following analysis, this is the topic sentence we are trying to prove.
Portia moves from an object of male consumption to a subject with individual agency throughout the Merchant of Venice, yet she uses her power to marginalise others
Step 1: Choose your example
When we choose examples, we want to use quotes that have a strong technique which we are able to analyse.
That’s why we have chosen Bassanio’s descriptions of Portia:
He calls her a “lady richly left” and speaks of her “worth.” He also calls her a “golden fleece.”
Note: It is okay to have multiple quotes in an example, so long as they are all proving the same point!
Step 2: Identify techniques
When trying to find a technique within your example, it’s not about finding the fanciest technique or just any old technique for that matter!
It’s about identifying a technique which will enable you to say something about your idea that’s interesting and can contribute to your argument and analysis.
We have identified a few techniques from these quotes. For the first two quote, “a lady richly left” and “worth”, the technique is consumerist imagery.
For the second quote “golden fleece” the technique is allusion to Greek mythology.
Notice that we haven’t pointed out the alliteration in “lady richly left” because we have nothing to say about this alliteration. We should only use a technique if it has an effect which we can link back to our topic sentence.
If you need to brush up on your literary techniques, check out this cheat sheet of literary techniques to help you analyse The Merchant of Venice here!
Step 3: Carry out your analysis
Now that you’ve identified your techniques, you need to conduct some analysis!
Did you know the key to good analysis is starting with a technique? You focus on the technique and identify what it reveals about an idea.
There are two steps to good analysis:
- Show how the effect of the quote links to the idea of your topic sentence
- Say something new about your topic sentence (don’t just repeat the previous point!)
We are going to analyse the first two quotes and the third quote separately, however our analysis is going to suggest the same idea about both of them.
The consumerist imagery of “a lady richly left” and “worth” position Portia as an object for male consumption and a commodity.
This reference to Jason and the Argonauts positions portia as a prize to be won, rather than as an individual with her own subjective experience.
Have a think about how we have fulfilled the criteria for the two steps for analysis above.
Step 4: Put it all together!
So we have found an example, identified a technique and written some analysis. Now let’s put it all together into the beginning of a paragraph:
Portia moves from an object of male consumption to a subject with individual agency throughout the Merchant of Venice, yet she uses her power to marginalise others. Bassanio describes Portia as an object through consumerist imagery. He calls her a “lady richly left” and speaks of her “worth.” He couples this with an allusion to Greek mythology, calling her a “golden fleece.” This reference to Jason and the Argonauts positions Portia as a prize to be won, rather than as an individual with her own subjective experience.
Sample Band 6 Paragraph and Analysed Examples
We’ve analysed another two examples using TEE tables for The Merchant of Venice that you can access for FREE below!
We’ve also got a sample Band 6 paragraph that you can read over in our downloadable guide below!
And that wraps up our guide to analysing The Merchant of Venice for HSC English Texts and Human Experiences. You’ve now got everything you need to know about The Merchant of Venice with the summary, key characters, themes and quotes — good luck!
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