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Literature/Shakespeare critical essay


Hey I'm 16 in year 10 and I need help urgently, I have a test on Monday and I have to write a critical essay about how Shakespeare explores relationships in the merchant of Venice. I've roughly written a page an a half but I don't know if I'm doin it right, I just need some guidance and maybe an example
Thank you

Hello Alex,

As I always tell students, the important thing in assignments like these is that you demonstrate an ability to *think* about what you read. The question itself is just an excuse for giving you an exercise that is intended to activate and stretch your mind! There is no single correct answer, because literature isn't a science. This means that you are free to speculate about the text and the characters in almost any way you want - as long as you show that you have read and thought about the play. Always draw quotes from the text into your essays as support for your arguments. And be sure to read the play thoroughly.

The character relationships in A Merchant of Venice are fairly complex. When asking a question like this, the teacher may primarily be looking for comments on the relationship between Bassanio and his friend Antonio (who lends Bassanio money at the risk of his own life). Antonio, incidentally, is the merchant of Venice that the title of the play refers to. He is rich, and for some reason he likes Bassanio a lot. There has been a lot of speculation about whether Bassanio and Antonio may have had a homosexual relationship. The play doesn't specifically say, but it hints at some kind of love between the two men. Of course, maybe it's nothing but an old-fashioned close friendship.

There are many other relationships in the play. The rich lady, Portia, knows Bassanio from some previous meeting, maybe when they were children, and she is already in love with him, and when he has to choose between the three caskets, she gives him clues for which one of them to pick, by having a minstrel sing a song with lyrics that rhyme with "lead": "Where is fancy BRED, Or in the heart or in the HEAD, Where begotten, Where nouriSHÉD," etc.

One could also question Bassanio's motivation for wanting to marry the rich Portia. Does he love her, or is he really only after her wealth? Bassanio has, after all, squandered the personal wealth he was born with and is now a man of little means. It would seem, in any case, that Portia is actually more in love with him than he is with her.

Then there is the relationship between Shylock and Antonio, which provides a lot of the impetus for the plot. Antonio used to treat Shylock very badly (because Shylock is a Jew, or perhaps more because he is a usurer), and Shylock is unwilling to forgive these past slights. This is why Shylock insists on getting his "pound of flesh"; he refuses to show mercy, even when all around him urge him to, and offer to pay the money he is owed, three times over. The characters here could be seen in a symbolical way, with Shylock representing capitalism, and the rest of the characters representing benign humanism, even socialism! This way, Antonio's scorning of Shylock in the past comes to symbolize a progressive attitude that is critical of rampant profiteering.

The last major relationship I want to mention is the one between the two married couples after they are married (i.e. Bassanio and Portia, and Gratiano and Nerissa). Portia and Nerissa are two very progressive ladies, and they decide to play a prank on Bassanio and Gratiano by making them swear to hold on to their wedding rings. While, later, disguised as judges, they ask their husbands only for their wedding tokens, to test whether they will give them away. The funny thing is that, normally, such a test would be a test of fidelity, and the women would feel betrayed if the love tokens were given away to others, but in this case it is a test of generosity and love, and by giving away the love tokens to the judges who have saved Antonio's life, Bassanio and Gratiano actually PASS the test, demonstrating themselves to be models of gratitude and goodness, just as Portia and Nerissa want them to be. In this way, the disguised women help their husbands to become the very men they wish them to be: men who understand values like mercy, generosity and selflessness. Even if Bassanio might at first have been most interested in Portia's wealth, he has now been firmly educated in the ways of honor and integrity!

I hope you can use these points.

Good luck,
- Tue Sorensen


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Tue Sorensen


I am an authority on the complete works of Shakespeare, and can answer any questions relating to his plays, poetry and life. I specialize in interpretation, double-meanings and translation into modern language.


I was a top-rated Allexperts expert on this same subject several years ago.

Former member of the Danish Shakespeare Society, as well as an active participant in the scholarly SHAKSPER mailing list.

Three years of studying English literature at the University of Aarhus, Denmark

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