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"Money for Something:" Understanding Usury in The Merchant of Venice

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  8 ratings

The death of usury, or, the disgrace of usurers. Cambridge, 1594

September 2005

Kate Authenrieth teaches English and drama at Saint Agnes Boys' High School in New York City.


Plays/Scenes Covered

This is a pre-reading activity for The Merchant of Venice.

This lesson will take one class period.

What's On for Today and Why

This activity will introduce students to the concept of usury in The Merchant of Venice. By examining various credit card offers, students will learn how accepted it is to lend for gain today and how serious it is to be in debt.


This lesson is best used in conjunction with the 1594 primary source, The Death of Usury. For a link to pages from that source, as well as teaching ideas, click here .

What You Need

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

You will need to start preparing for this lesson in advance by collecting various credit card offers—your colleagues can help. Be sure to remove any names and addresses as these will be distributed to the students for this activity.


You may wish to consult with a math teacher at your school before beginning this assignment.

What To Do

1. Begin by asking students if they have ever heard of the term "usury". If not, begin by asking them what other word it sounds like. They should recognize that the term usury sounds like the word "use". Discuss with them what they think it means to use someone. Explain that usury originally meant lending money for gain—in effect "using" someone else to make money. Today, "usury" connotes charging excessive interest.


2. Explain that much of The Merchant of Venice deals with the conseqences of lending and borrowing with interest. Discuss with the students the issues of charging interest for money lent and what they believe to be excessive interest.


3. You may wish to explain that in Elizabethan England, 10% was the limit on allowed interest on a loan, but that it was reduced to 8% in 1624 in the belief that 10% was excessive.


4. Explain to the class that in The Merchant of Venice, the title character of the play borrows 3000 ducats.


5. Divide the class into pairs and pass out samples of credit card offers of varying interest rates.  Have them calculate the amount of money they would have to pay back from a $3000 loan if they only made the minimum payment each month, and the amount of time it would take them to complete the payment. If the math proves too difficult, students could use an online interest calculator such as http://cgi.money.cnn.com/tools/debtplanner/debtplanner.jsp .


6. Discuss with the students their reactions to the results of their calcuations. Explain that this is a major problem for many people today.


7. Finally, discuss again the students' reactions to the idea of charging interest for money lent. Do they think there should be a limit? What might the implications be of interest rate limits that are too high or to low? Do they think about this problem differently after making their calcuations?


8. Explain that in The Merchant of Venice, money is lent at a very high price: a man's life.


9. Start reading the text!

How Did It Go?
Do the students understand what the term "usury" means? Are they able to correctly calculate the interest charges? Can they connect the idea of lending at interest to their own lives? Can they articulate opinions on the morality of lending at excessive rates? Has their interest in the beginning of The Merchant of Venice been piqued?

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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