Literary Yard

Search for meaning

A Modern Look at Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

By: Jodi Nathanson

I am a High School English teacher who has been teaching grade 9 English for more than 20 years. One of my favourite parts of the job is teaching the Shakespeare unit to young students, many of whom have never encountered the Bard’s work before. It is a privilege, a challenge and a calling because being able to expose young minds to Shakespeare’s timeless brilliance is a rare gift. In this day and age where students’ attention spans are much shorter (thank you Tik Tok) teaching a full length Shakespearean “Problem Play” written in 1598 is not an easy feat. Consequently, I find myself looking for ways to hook the students early, so that they “buy in” to the unit and engage with the material for more than a few minutes at a time. In recent years, I have noticed how the social hierarchies and friend groups in The Merchant of Venice are a relatable avenue into Shakespeare’s complex and classic text, which explores many apropos concepts such as prejudice, social injustice, the outsider and what it means to be human.

The lyrics from the Broadway musical, Wicked definitely apply to The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare’s play is, in some respects, “all about popular.” In the opening scene, set in Venice, Italy, the audience meets the brooding Antonio, the play’s Merchant and one of its main characters. The audience sees that Antonio is well respected and holds a high status position within his friend group of stylish Venetian men, despite the fact that he seems to be the only one who needs to work to maintain his comfortable lifestyle. His close bond with Bassanio, a popular gentleman, helps to solidify Antonio’s high rank amongst his peers. Bassanio is physically attractive, charming, and comes from a wealthy family; everyone in Venice seems to want to fraternize with him and Antonio is his number one. Bassanio’s affluent parents have cramped his style by “disabl[ing] [his] estate” (Shakespeare 1.1 123) because they are, most likely, frustrated with their son’s prodigal ways and sense of entitlement. Bassanio spends excessively on parties and entertainment and even borrows money from his friends to satisfy his hedonistic desires, which reveals that he is indeed flawed, despite his obvious popularity. The main plot of the play involves Bassanio using Antonio’s good “credit” (1.1180) to secure a loan with a much despised moneylender. The irresponsible and shallow Bassanio needs ready cash in order to fund an elaborate journey to Belmont, so he can woo and win the beautiful heiress Portia, marry her for her riches, clear his debts and solve all of his financial woes. Antonio’s money is all tied up in his ships and “ventures” (1.1 42), but he expects a windfall once they come in. Antonio agrees to give his best buddy, Bassanio, a second loan despite the fact that Bassanio is already in debt to Antonio for a previous one. The idea that perhaps the two men privately harbour romantic feelings for one another complicates matters further and might explain why Antonio is so generous and willing to compromise his beliefs to do business with his enemy, the Jewish Shylock, on Bassanio’s behalf. Antonio only wants happiness for his closest and dearest companion. The other members of their circle seem to be aware of this special bond between the “sad” (1.1. 1) merchant Antonio and the frivolous gentleman Bassanio and constantly defer to them or leave them alone with one another. The best friend dynamic is something that is certainly familiar to today’s teenagers; it can feel intense for those in the relationship and isolating to those outside of it.

Every clique contains followers, who are a key element to a group’s energy and make up. Salerio and Solanio have no distinct personality traits or defining features and therefore, students often confuse the two characters. Their main role is to provide background information through lengthy speeches and they are also present in the play’s most social scenes. They care deeply about Antonio’s mental and physical health and they want to please him. They know their place in the hierarchy, have no interest in social climbing and seem content just to be included. After all, Bassanio throws the best parties in all of Venice and being part of his posse ensures that they will always receive an invitation. Comments like, “Fare ye well: We leave you now with better company” (1.1 58- 59), upon the arrival of Bassanio, Gratiano and Lorenzo, indicate that Solario and Solanio recognize how Antonio prefers his “worthier” friends’ (1.1 61) company to theirs, but they do not mind. Antonio denies that he plays favourites, but Solario and Solanio have the ability to read social cues and they know when to disappear. Further, when Salerio informs Bassanio, “We’ll make our leisures to attend on yours” (1.1 69), he reveals how easygoing he and his friend are and how they will rearrange their free time around Bassanio’s more important schedule. Salerio and Solanio are relatable; they are aware of their position in the group and they do not make any waves or demands. They do not seem to care that they lack power and status since they have the knowledge that it feels better to be included in this “squad” than to be excluded. The two also have each other. All of this feels very real and today’s teenagers relate to Salerio and Salanio’s desire to belong to a group, even if the group itself is not as ideal as it may outwardly appear.

Other characters who seem content to “follow the leaders” are Lorenzo and Jessica. Lorenzo is a handsome, young, romantic, too distracted by love to lead with anything but his heart and his love interest happens to be Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. Although she sacrifices everything, including her religious faith, to fit in with Lorenzo and his Christian buddies, she will always be seen as an outsider because of who her father is. Lorenzo seems to be insecure about this and constantly seeks approval from his Christian pals. It is not enough for Lorenzo to like Jessica; he needs his friends to like her, too. “Beshrew me, but I love her heartily” (2.6 52) he says in a self-deprecating manner after Jessica has stolen jewelry and money from her father’s house in a desperate attempt to fit in and to prove her newfound loyalty to her new crowd. Lorenzo’s friends support him and even facilitate Jessica’s escape from her father’s “sober house” (2.5 36) through the streets of Venice, so the two lovebirds can secretly elope. The gang even covertly manages to get Shylock out for the evening, by inviting him as a guest to Bassanio’s party, solely for that purpose, and Shylock grudgingly accepts, because deep down, he most likely longs to be included, too. One must remember that this is the same man who, after years of enduring persecution from the Christian community, tells Antonio, “I would be friends with you, and have your love” (1.3 134) even after Antonio has “spit upon [Shylock’s] Jewish gaberdine” (1.3 107) and beard (1.3 113). The Venetian men may seem to accept Jessica, for Lorenzo’s sake, but they continually refer to her as “a gentle, and no Jew” (2.5 51), punning on the word gentle/ gentile, drawing attention to her desire to change from Jewish to Christian and while Lorenzo might see his beloved as “wise, fair and true” (2.5 56), neither she nor he can escape her “otherness”. The characters in this play feel like they need to overcompensate in order to be accepted and this is very relatable to young people today, who so strongly crave a sense of belonging with their peers that they will sometimes compromise their morals and change their identity in order to fit in.

Additionally, like most friend groups, all members of the elite Venice crew possess distinct personality traits, which affects their social standing within the group. Gratiano, for example, is the “clown” or joker. His chums find him entertaining (albeit embarrassing at times), but there is no one who is more fun at party; Gratiano’s joie de vivre is unmatched. Gratiano is garrulous and often dismissed because his friends are not all that interested in his ideas about life, even though his speeches do, upon closer examination, contain more substance than “two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff” (1.1 116). They tease him constantly. During Shylock’s trial scene, he is presented as one of the most anti-semitic and cruel characters in the play, but before this point, the audience might feel some sympathy for this character who might want to break free from “play[ing] the fool” (1.1 79). Perhaps Gratiano, like many teenagers today, feels weighed down by the expectations of his peers and would like to be treated more seriously, but he sticks to his habitual role because that ensures inclusion and a valued place within the group.

Lastly, there is no doubt that the “It” girl in this play is the beautiful, rich and brilliant heiress, Portia. Men desire her and women want to emulate her. She is ruthless when she describes the suitors who all long for her hand in marriage and she is very particular and snobby in her tastes. Her late father designed a casket game, before he passed away, and suitors “from every coast” (1.1168) come “in quest of her” (1.1 172). Everyone seems to be aware of Portia’s elevated “worth” (1.1 168) and the men are quick to objectify her. The racist comments Portia makes about the Prince of Morocco, who is willing to risk everything for a chance at her hand, are often cut from modern productions because it becomes nearly impossible to like and respect Portia when she is supposed to be the heroine of this play. Nerissa is her best friend and confidante, but she is also Portia’s Lady in Waiting who is employed by her. This creates an interesting best-friend dynamic. Portia continually reminds Nerissa of the difference in their social status whether it concerns their double marriage (Portia to Bassanio and Nerissa to the inferior Gratiano) or how she will “prove the prettier of the two” (3.4 63) when they dress up as men for the infamous trial scene where Portia saves Antonio from Shylock’s wrath and knife. Many students have noted that Nerissa copies almost everything Portia does, but it is always the ring trick, where Portia has the idea of testing Bassanio’s loyalty and Nerissa does the exact same to Gratiano, that they find most pathetic. Additionally, to make matters worse, Jessica worships the flawed and narcissistic Portia. When Jessica arrives in Belmont after her conversion to Christianity and marriage to Lorenzo, one notices that Jessica is, once again, viewed as an outsider. Upon her arrival, Gratiano jokingly calls her Lorenzo’s “infidel” (3.2 217) despite the fact that she has abandoned her father and her Jewish roots. Gratiano later tells his wife to “cheer yond stranger” and “bid her welcome” (3.2 234) because he recognizes how Nerissa and Portia seem to be tolerating Jessica, but there is no warmth. The Belmont women are not particularly inclusive or kind to Jessica and the more they ignore her, the harder Jessica tries to win them over; it is certainly uncomfortable to watch. Jessica even goes so far as to exaggerate and possibly lie about her father Shylock’s vengefulness and bloodthirsty desires when she shares, “When I was with him, I have heard him swear to Tubal and to Chus, his countrymen, that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the value of the sum” (283-286). If this is not enough, Jessica uses Cosmic imagery to describe how much she adores Portia saying how the “poor rude world Hath not her fellow” (3.5 76-77). This is painful, yet recognizable behaviour and any teenager would recognize the realistic and troubling power dynamics that exist amongst insecure individuals trying to win the approval of the “Queen Bee”.

The Merchant of Venice, a 16th century play, is predominantly known for its antisemitism and racism and characters who are both mistreated and behave poorly. I would argue that the value in teaching this difficult, yet eye-opening text, originally marketed as a Shakespearean comedy, is more meaningful and relevant than ever given today’s current climate. Through its portrayal of flawed charactersfrom all backgrounds, Shakespeare’s timeless work instructs that we need to do better and be better as humans. The Merchant of Venice can be a challenging text to teach to today’s youth; however, no one understood human behaviour and group dynamics better than Shakespeare did. This is not new to us, but it is certainly something that one can address to make the relationships in a seemingly dated play like The Merchant of Venice seem as contemporary as those in Tina Fey’s ever popular movie Mean Girls.


Works Cited

Schwartz, Stephen. WickedA New Musical: Original Broadway Cast Recording. New York, NY: Decca Broadway, 2003

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Canada: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988


Jodi Nathanson has been a High School English Teacher (grades 9-12) for over 20 years and currently teaches at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto. She received her degrees from Queen’s University in Ontario, where she majored in English, minored in Drama and graduated from the University’s Concurrent Education program. Jodi holds an English Honours Specialist from OISE and has also filled the role of Co-Head of the English Department at Tanenbaum CHAT. Her work has been published in the E-journal Literary Yard, in the online literary magazine The Bangalore Review, Canadian Teacher Magazine (print and online) and online in The Wilderness House Literary Review. Jodi lives with her husband, 2 teenage girls, a dog and a cat in Toronto. She loves fiction novels (especially the classics) and believes strongly in the power of words.

Leave a Reply

Related Posts