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Complexity of character in The Merchant of Venice

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Thomas Sully. Portia and Shylock. Oil on canvas, 1835

December 2012
Christina Alvarez teaches English at South Miami Senior High School, Miami, FL

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

The goal of this assigment is for students to explore ambiguity by discovering  the intricacy present in many of the characters in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Students will:

  • Perform a speech of a chosen character multiple times
  • Research past portrayals of this character on stage and on film
  • Evaluate how the varied portrayals of a character reflect that character's complexity.

This complete lesson will take 3 x 60-90 minutes class periods but can be amended to take only 1 or 2 x 60-90 minute class periods depending on your students' needs.

What You Need

Copies of the respective speeches or Folger editions (for each student)

Handout #1 Image Analysis(one per group)

Computer access (at least one per group)

Poster paper



What is also helpful:

Film versions of the plays

Reference books:


A Shakespeare Glossary, C.T Onions

Shakespeare's Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, Schmidt

multiple editions of the text

Shakesperare Set Free - especially the essay on close reading by Michael Tolaydo, p.27 in Macbeth, A Midsummer, Night' Dream and  Romeo and Juliet edition.

Image Analysis
What To Do

Day 1

1. Assign each group (or let each group choose) one of the following characters and their accompanying speeches/lines. All citations refer to the Folger edition of the play.


a. Portia-1.2.12-26, OR 3.2.153-178


b. Bassanio- 3.2.261-282


c. Antonio-4.1.276-293


d. Shylock- 1.3.116-139 OR 3.1.52-72


e. Lorenzo-5.1.57-76


f. Jessica- 2.3.1-9 AND 2.3.15-21


g. Lancelot- 2.2.1-31


2. Have students sit in a circle in their groups. Ask each group to read their character's speech by having one student start and read to the end of a final stop (period, question mark, exclamation point, semicolon, or colon) then rotating around the circle as necessary until the entire speech has been read. As the speech is being read this time, students should circle any words they do not fully understand. After the first reading, discuss these words, consulting references as necessary. Have students write a one sentence summary that explains what is going on in their assigned speech.


3. Ask students to read the same speech again in their groups, this time chorally (everyone reading in unison). As they read, they should consider what their character's motivation might be for saying each word or line. After the choral reading, have students go through the speech and make marginal notes, identifying the reason their character is saying the line. To assist, have them think about what the character is trying to accomplish or hoping to gain by his speech.


4. Ask students to divide their character's speech into logical chunks based on the number of members in the group. Each group member then reads an assigned chunk in order so that the group is essentially reading the speech a third time. As they read, they should consider how the character would deliver the speech-- tone, gestures, movements, vocal stresses, props, etc. Have students discuss these choices after reading the speech this third time with their group.


5. Have students plan a group performance of their speech. Each group should perform their speech to the class in such a way that every group member has lines to speak (either chorally or individually) and that the scene is staged to reflect what is being said.


6. Have each group perform the speech to the class. The group should not explain anything about their performance choices before or immediately after their performance. Tell the class who the character is before the group performs. After the performance, have the class brainstorm a list of character traits they noticed in the character being presented for performance. Jot these traits down on a poster under the character's name. Do this after every performance. Keep these posters to revisit in a few days.


Day 2

7. Have students research images at luna.folger.edu of how their characters have been portrayed in past productions or artistic interpretations of the play. Students should reference at least 3 images  (paintings, promptbooks, costume drawings, photographs, etc .) from as many time periods as possible. For each image they should choose at least 2 details in the image and explain how these details reflect their assigned character as complex (See Handout 1: Image Analysis)


8. For homework, have students view how their character is portrayed in a production of the play using YouTube videoclips. Another option would be to show a portion (or more than one) of a film version of the play in class and have each group focus on its own character as they watch.  Students should consider how the actor plays the character and how that portrayal can be justified in Shakespeare's text.


Day 3

9. Give students a clean copy of their respective speeches. Have students re-annotate their assigned speeches for performance, given all their research. They should consider how their original interpretation has/has not changed as a result of their research. Allow them time to make up to 5 changes to their performance which must be justified by their image and video research.


10. Have each group perform again. As before, make a list of descriptors on a poster. Compare this to the original list and discuss how different performance choices were made and why.


11. Lead a reflective discussion by having students stand in a circle. Give them a minute to complete the following sentence in relation to the last few days' work.

"I noticed...." Go around the circle so that every student has a say.


12. Do 3 more rounds using the following sentence starters:

"I appreciated..."

"I learned..."


13. As a follow up activity, assign students a different speech from a different play and have them identify the complexities in the character by annotating the speech as they did on Day 1, keeping in mind how their character might be portrayed visually in art , film or on stage.

How Did It Go?

Were all the students participating?

 Did the group performances reflect thoughtfulness and effort?

 Did the completed handouts reflect analysis and evaluation as opposed to description and summary?

 Did students acknowledge the complexity inherent in the characters studied and understand how this complexity is reflected in the language?


This lesson can be used with any Shakespearean character and adapted for characters in other genres. Note that the Luna site only offers images related to Shakespeare's work.


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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49 CommentsOldest | Newest

Excelent article. very good info. thx homestay JOGJA Homestay | tiket Pesawat Murah
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Prakash January 9, 2015 10:51 AM

This lesson can be used with any Shakespearean character and adapted for characters in other genres. Note that the Luna site only offers images related to Shakespeare's work.cit
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