The Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Understanding - Analysis Evaluation - Expression

Read these notes on some of the literary devices that Shakespeare uses in this play. This information will help you analyse the text effectively in your CEL.

Dramatic irony

In drama the audience is frequently made aware of something that some or all of the characters on stage are not. This is sometimes accomplished with the use of asides, or soliloquies, speeches by a single character on an otherwise empty stage in which they reveal their innermost thoughts. In Act 1, Scene 3 Shylock pretends to be friendly towards Antonio but in an aside (line 36) he reveals his deep hatred for his enemy and the reasons behind it.

Blank Verse

Lines that have a regular rhythm (iambic pentameter; five paired beats to a line) but which do not rhyme. Generally, the high-status characters in Shakespeare’s plays speak in blank verse, although there are one or two exceptions. Most of The Merchant of Venice is in blank verse.


The form other than blank verse in which Shakespeare’s plays are written. It is used to indicate characters of low status, (for example in Act 3, Scene 1 when Shylock speaks with Tubal — Jews were of lower status than Christians) and informality (for example, in Act 1, Scene 2 Portia and Nerissa to indicate their closeness). It is also used for humorous scenes involving lower-class characters. Lancelet Gobbo and his father speak in prose in Act 2, Scene 2. Prose might also be used in short business-like scenes to speed the plot along.


The secondary or minor plot. In Shakespeare’s plays it usually mirrors the concerns of the main plot, although often involves characters of inferior status. The main plot and subplot are usually intertwined and key themes are often shared. In The Merchant of Venice the main plot involves the bond of flesh and the caskets, the subplot tells the story of Jessica and Lorenzo


In simple terms this means that the play ends happily for the main characters. The romantic comedy was usually based on a series of mix-ups or confusion about the identity of particular characters, often because they were disguised. In The Merchant of Venice there are a number of disguised characters, making us think about the nature of appearance and reality. There may be a move towards tragedy in which a key character is threatened with death (Antonio) but in the nick of time the day is saved by (Portia) dressed up as a man. The movement of the play is from happiness to despair to resurrection — the happiness of the lovers is temporarily marred by the threat of Antonio’s death, then restored by the intervention of Portia. (See the Comedies for details of Shakespeare's comedies.)


A comparison made to show particular characteristics of something or someone. Shylock is called ‘dog’ and ‘devil’ to indicate the hatred felt towards him by other characters, and Antonio describes his use of the scripture as ‘a goodly apple rotten at the heart’ (1.iii.96). Bassanio uses elaborate metaphors to try to describe Portia’s great beauty, for example, ‘sugar breath’ (3.ii.119) and comments that her hair is ‘a golden mesh t’entrap the hearts of men’ (3.ii.122). In Act 1, Scene1 Bassanio uses an archery metaphor to try to persuade Antonio to lend him more money, indicating his status as an educated young gentleman (see 1.i.140-4).

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