English 304: Shakespeare: Major Plays (Prof. Boyer)
Reading Questions for The Merchant of Venice
Keyed to The Norton Shakespeare
The best beginning procedure is always to familiarize yourself with the cast of characters and then to read the play (or at least an act or a scene) all the way through so that you know what's happening. The notes can help if you're stuck, but try to get the big picture of a scene before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to think about the questions.

Act 1
Act 2
Act 3
Act 4
Act 5
Return to list of English 304 reading questions 

ACT 1

1.1

1.

What is the tone of Antonio's first speech (1.1.1-7)? What explanations do Salerio and Solanio come up with (and what do they tell us about Antonio)? How does Antonio respond to their suggestions? How does he see his position in the world (1.1.77-79)?

2.

Why has Bassanio asked to meet Antonio (1.1.119-21)? What does he start talking about instead (1.1.122-134)? How do these two topics come together? How does he describe Portia and his quest for her (and her wealth)? (See 1.1.161-176.) Why can't Antonio give him the money he needs now? What will he do about it?

1.2

1.

In reading the play, we know from the stage direction that Portia enters at the beginning of 2.1, but an audience in the theatre doesn't know that. How soon might an audience know that it is Portia who is talking to Nerissa? Based on Bassanio's description of Portia at the end of 1.1, what might first identify her as Portia?

2.

How does Portia feel at the beginning of the scene? How does this compare to the beginning of 1.1?

3.

How does Portia talk about "law" in 1.2.15-18? How does "law" apply to her (1.2.18-23)? How has her father controlled her choice of a husband even after his death (1.2.24-28)? Given the "roll call" of the suitors in 1.2.28-93, what do Portia's prospects look like? But what changes in 1.2.94-101?

1.3

1.

How would you describe the relations between Christians and Jews in Venice as represented by 1.3? What seems to be the main difference between the Jews and the Christians, at least the merchants? (See 1.3.36-47.) What Biblical story does Shylock use to justify his taking of interest? How does Shylock respond to the Christians' methods of making money? (See 1.3.13-23.)

2.

How has Antonio treated Shylock in the past, and what does Antonio think about that?

3.

What agreement does Antonio reach with Shylock for the three thousand ducats Antonio will give to Bassanio? Does Antonio expect to have any problem paying back the money? Why or why not?

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ACT 2

2.1

1.

How does Morocco come a-courtin'? What happens to suitors who choose the wrong casket?

2.2

1.

What is Launcelot trying to decide in 2.2.1-25? What does he decide to do?

2.

How does Launcelot treat his father? Why? Whom is Launcelot going to serve now (2.2.96-98)? Why is Bassanio hiring? Does Launcelot get the job?

3.

Much is said throughout the play about Fortune. Why? (Consider how much both Antonio's "ventures" and Bassanio's "venture" depend on fortune.) How does Launcelot's comment about Fortune in 2.2.149-150 fit into this general discussion?

4.

Why doesn't Bassanio want to take Gratiano with him to Belmont?

2.3

1.

What does Jessica ask Launcelot to do for her? What is she planning to do? In what way(s) are her speech and situation (2.3.14-20) similar to Launcelot's (2.2.1-25)?

2.4

1.

What are Lorenzo and his friends planning for that evening? What did Jessica tell Lorenzo in her letter? What message is Launcelot now carrying to Shylock?

2.5

1.

What does Shylock tell Jessica in 2.5.11-18? What is his response to the news that there will be a masque (which includes music)? (See 2.5.27-38.)

2.

Why is Shylock happy that Launcelot is now working for Bassanio?

2.6

1.

How does Jessica escape from her father's house? What does she take with her? What plans have changed at 2.6.61-67?

2.7

1.

What are the three caskets made of? What message does each one have outside?

2.

Which casket does Morocco choose? What reasoning led him to that choice? What reward does he get? What is Portia's response to his departure?

2.8

1.

How, according to Solanio, did Shylock respond to his daughter's departure?

2.

How, according to Salerio, did Antonio respond to Bassanio's departure?

2.9

1.

Which casket does Arragon choose? What reasoning led him to that choice? What reward does he get?

2.

Who is the next arrival? How is he described?

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ACT 3

3.1

1.

What news on the Rialto?

2.

Why does Shylock tell Antonio (indirectly) to look to his bond (3.1.39-40)? What is the function of 3.1.49-61? Does Shylock see any differences between Christians and Jews?

3.

What news does Tubal have from Genoa? What is the effect of intermingling news about Antonio and about Jessica? What did Jessica use to pay for a monkey?

3.2

1.

Why does Portia want Bassanio to wait a day or two before choosing a casket (3.2.1-2)? How are the two getting on together?

2.

Which casket does Bassanio choose? What reasoning led him to that choice? What reward does he get? Is that any surprise?

3.

Remember that the inscription on the lead casket is "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9). Why is this inscription appropriate to Bassanio? Are there any ways in which it is not appropriate to him?

4.

Read Portia's "submission" speech carefully (3.2.149-174). What object does she give to Bassanio? What is your reaction to her speech? How does it echo ideas present elsewhere in the play? What does she say about the ring in 3.2.183-185?

5.

Who else is getting married? What additional company joins them?

6.

What news is contained in Antonio's letter? How does Bassanio tell Portia about Antonio (3.2.249-265)? What has happened to Antonio's ships? What is Shylock demanding.

7.

What is rich Portia's response (3.2.297-312)? How do you compare her wealth (now Bassanio's) with Antonio's or Shylock's? (Remember Shylock had to get help to loan three thousand ducats; by 3.2.305-306 Portia has no problem offering sixty thousand ducats.)

8.

Read Antonio's letter carefully (3.2.314-319) in light of his earlier attitude toward Bassanio. What is he asking of Bassanio? What is he trying to do to Bassanio?

3.3

1.

What is the function of this scene between Shylock and Antonio? What does Antonio's last speech (3.3.26-36) tell us about Antonio's chances of survival?

3.4

1.

What reason does Portia give to Lorenzo for her departure with Nerissa (3.4.24-32)? What does she send Balthazar to do (3.4.45-55)? What does Portia tell Nerissa they will be doing?

3.5

1.

What is the function and effect of this scene, with Launcelot and Jessica talking about salvation, and then with Jessica and Lorenzo talking first about Launcelot and then about Bassanio and Portia?

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ACT 4

4.1

1.

Before the trial proper begins, what does Antonio say the Duke has already tried to do (4.1.1-12)?

2.

What does the Duke assume Shylock will do (4.1.15-33)? What is Shylock's response? Why is Shylock unwilling to show mercy? How does he respond to the Venetians and their call for mercy (4.1.88-99)? What is his ultimate claim (even "threat") in demanding justice (4.1.100-101)?

3.

Who is Bellario (4.1.103-106)? Why is he coming?

4.

While the Duke is reading the letter from Bellario (see 4.1.109), why does Antonio say he is fit to die? (See 4.1.113-114 and remember both Antonio's melancholy and the fact that he now is bankrupt.)

5.

What is Shylock doing while the Duke and Nerissa are talking (4.1.120-123)?

6.

What is the message of Bellario's letter (4.1.149-161)? Who is Balthazar?

7.

As readers we have stage directions telling us that Nerissa and Portia enter in disguise? Does an audience seeing the play for the first time know who they are? Why or why not?

8.

What, if anything, is significant about Portia's first question (4.1.169)? How might one use this line as the key to an interpretation of the play?

9.

What is Portia's first judgment about the bond (4.1.172-177)? Why must Shylock then be merciful (4.1.177)? How does this discussion help us see the purpose and focus of the "quality of mercy" speech (4.1.179-200)? What religious message does the speech contain? What religion does the message come from? How likely is Shylock to respond favorably to it?

10.

Why is it important that offers be made to pay Shylock the amount owed him and even more (as in 4.1.204-207)?

11.

At 4.1.213-217 who has won? Why? Why does Portia continue to urge Shylock to take the money (as in 4.1.222, 228-229)? What is Antonio's response to his approaching death (4.1.259-276)? What is Antonio claiming in 4.1.268-272? How do Bassanio and Gratiano respond (4.1.277-282, 285-287)? How do Portia and Nerissa respond to them (4.1.283-284, 288-289)? What sort of potential problem is brewing here? How does it relate to themes of the play?

12.

What happens at 4.1.300? How does the law begin to work against Shylock? Why can't Shylock take the money now and leave (4.1.333-334)?

13.

What additional problem with the law does Shylock have at 4.1.341-357? Why does this law against an "alien" apply to Shylock? How are the tables turned at 4.1.358? How does Gratiano respond to this request? How does the Duke respond?

14.

What penalty does the Duke decree (4.1.365-367)? What clarification does Portia provide at line 368? What "mercy" does Antonio add (4.1.375-385)? Who, ultimately, is the big winner here?

15.

In the last part of the scene (4.1.397-453), why are the rings that Portia and Nerissa want from Bassanio and Gratiano so important? How difficult is it for the women to get the rings? What is Antonio's role?

4.2

1.

What problem now remains to be resolved in Act 5?

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ACT 5

5.1

1.

Note the effects of the language of music and moonlight in the first part of the scene (through 5.1.109). What, however, is the tone of the examples of lovers cited by Lorenzo and Jessica (5.1.3-22)? How seriously should we take these examples?

2.

What attitude toward music does Belmont provoke (5.1.53-64)? Why does a discussion of "sweet harmony" lead so easily to a discussion of the heavens and the stars? What is the meaning of Jessica's comment in 5.1.68? How does Gratiano explain her feeling to her (5.1.69-87)? How do Portia and Nerissa extend the discussion (5.1.88-109)?

3.

How does all this emphasis on music and harmony compare to Shylock's attitude toward music (2.5.27-35)? Is it an emphasis that the Christians of Venice (Salerio and Solanio of 1.1, for instance) would understand any better than Shylock does? (Note here two different sets of oppositions in the play: Christian/Jew and Belmont/Venice, which can also be seen as inherited wealth/commercial wealth.)

4.

How does the tone change when Bassanio and the others arrive at 5.1.126? What is happening by lines 141-144? In what follows, how do Portia and Nerissa make life as hard as possible for their husbands? How is the ring argument (5.1.141-265) finally resolved? What is Antonio's role in resolving it?

5.

What news does Portia have for Antonio (5.1.272-278)? How is it that she is the one who brings the news?

6.

What is the effect of ending the play with Gratiano's dirty joke? Why, for the world of the play, is it proper only now that the marriages be consummated?

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