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www.Merchant of Venice

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Jean de Glen. Des habits, moeurs, ceremonies . . . anciennes & modernes du Monde. Liege, 1601 (Detail).

October 2004
Jeremy Ehrlich, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Heather Bouley, student, West Springfield High School in Springfield, VA.

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

Students will use online resources in order to examine patterns of imagery in The Merchant of Venice. By comparing these patterns to those of other Shakespeare plays, the students will draw conclusions about the different reasons Shakespeare uses imagery in the play.


This lesson will take two class periods.

What You Need

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

Internet-linked computer lab for the class period or available for homework

Optional: "There's No Plays Like Home" Handout
What To Do

1. Demonstrate the use of the online concordance at http://shakespeare.clusty.com. You might want to show students a variety of online concordances, such as the one at http://www.it.usyd.edu.au/~matty/Shakespeare/test.html.


Explain that a concordance groups together all the uses of each word in a piece of literature. Show students how to search for a particular word on the site.


2. Divide the students into pairs. Give each pair of students a set of images to explore in the play. Make sure they know they may need to look up all the different forms of the word: a student with the word "blood" may need to enter "blood", "bloody", "bleed", "bleeds", etc. Possible sets of images to use include: love/hate; Jew/Christian/faith/Jew's/Christian's/Shylock; pray/swear/soul; flesh/blood; husband/son/wife/daughter; god/heaven; gold/ducats/money; mercy/gentle/power/kind; judgment/pardon/judge/law; give/take/hazard/forfeit; fiend/devil; fortune/value/worth/dear; or rate/use/stake/ring.


3. Have the students use the online concordance to examine their sets of images. At each stage, make them attempt to draw conclusions: what does this information tell them about what Shakespeare is trying to say with his imagery? First, have them find and examine the uses of their word(s) in the play. As a conclusion, they may note the relative frequency of words in the play: they may note the word "love" appears many more times than the word "hate", giving the play more of the feel of a romantic comedy than students may find on a first reading.


4. Second, have them examine each use of the word in the context in the play in which it appears. Can they find any patterns in the way a word is used throughout the play? They might note that "gold" is often used metaphorically, even though so much of the play is concerned with actual money. Coax them to use this information to draw conclusions: what is the play saying about the role of gold in the world of the play?


5. Third, have them go back to the concordance and compare Shakespeare's use of these words in The Merchant of Venice to his use of them in some of the other plays he was writing around the same time. Before Merchant, scholars think he wrote King John, and before that Richard II. After Merchant, scholars think he wrote Henry IV, Part 1 and then The Merry Wives of Windsor. How is his use of imagery different in The Merchant of Venice than in the other work he was doing at the time? What kinds of conclusions can students draw from that information? In these four other plays, they might note that the word "swear" often appears in the context of cursing, while here it appears often as a promise. How are the worlds of bargains, promises, and curses different in Merchant?


6. Finally, have the students examine Shakespeare's use of these images within the context of his entire body of work. Students might note that the word "forfeit", appearing frequently in Merchant, appears very rarely in all the rest of Shakespeare's plays. What can students conclude about the reasons for this play's differences from the rest of the canon?


7. Have students report their findings to the whole group. Have groups compare other students' findings with their own to see if they can uncover any larger patterns of imagery in the play.


8. Optional extension: download and copy the 12-page handout "There's No Plays Like Home". This is a dramatic retelling of the Wizard of Oz story told entirely with lines from Shakespeare. It was written by Heather Bouley, a sophomore at West Springfield High School in 2000–01. Bouley's class used online resources to identify Shakespearean lines relating to the Oz story. Have students read this play. Then, give them a well-known fairy tale or modern story to research online. For extra credit, see if students can retell this story using Shakespeare's language as Bouley has.

How Did It Go?
Were students able to draw conclusions from the information they received from the concordance website? Were they able to generate a discussion about the imagery in the play? Did the exercise show the students image patterns they had not seen before?

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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