Need to analyse the Merchant of Venice for the HSC English Common Module?

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We’re going to walk you through the key ideas in The Merchant of Venice, as well as give you a step-by-step of how to analyse a piece of text from The Merchant of Venice!

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!

Synopsis 
Context 
Key Ideas
Connection to Texts and Human Experiences
How to Analyse The Merchant of Venice in 4 Steps

Check out our analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ below!

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.

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.

Key Ideas in The Merchant of Venice

Now, we’ll walk you through some of the key ideas from The Merchant of Venice and help you identify their link to the human experience!

The key ideas include:

  • Value of money over human life
  • Commodification of love
  • Marginalisation of oppressed groups
  • The individual desire for power and agency

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 play 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!

The Topic Sentence

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:
  1. Show how the effect of the quote links to the idea of your topic sentence
  2. 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.

Consumerist imagery 

The consumerist imagery of “a lady richly left” and “worth” position Portia as an object for male consumption and a commodity.

Mythological allusion

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 – good luck!

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Brooklyn Arnot has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature with Honours at the University of Sydney. She scored an HD average and has even received the Dean’s award for excellence! Brooklyn teaches our English classes at Art of Smart and has over 5 years of experience supporting Year 11 and 12 students throughout their HSC. She’s also a new Syllabus expert and studied 4U English in high school.