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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare
Understanding -
– 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 mixups 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.1404).