Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Preparing to Read Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

The Advanced Reading class of the Loyola Intensive English Program (LIEP) has undertaken the challenge of reading Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which will be performed in early November by students in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance at Loyola University New Orleans under the direction of Dr. Laura Hope.

The Merchant of Venice is rich in themes of love, friendship,  and faithfulness, on the one hand, and prejudice, hatred, and revenge, on the other. The play also raises questions about the proper balance of justice and mercy.

We began our work with The Merchant of Venice on October 16, with an overview of the play.

The main plot of The Merchant of Venice revolves around a loan of 3000 ducats from the Jewish money-lender Shylock to the Christian merchant Antonio. The prosperous Antonio, whose wealth is tied to his ships, all of which are at sea, has agreed to borrow 3000 ducats to finance his poorer friend Bassanio's courtship of the woman he loves, Portia. The catch is that the bond that seals the agreement between Antonio and Shylock specifies that Shylock will cut a pound of flesh from Antonio's body if Antonio does not repay the loan by the due date! This bond is supposed to be a joking way of providing Antonio with an interest-free loan, but when Antonio's ships go astray and he cannot make the payment, Shylock, embittered by years of Christian prejudice against Jews, demands his pound of flesh.

The Merchant of Venice also has three interesting sub-plots.

The Three Caskets: The loan taken by Antonio from Shylock for 3000 ducats is to furnish Antonio's friend Bassanio with everything necessary to win the beautiful and wealthy Portia as his wife. Portia's father, however, has died and has specified in his will that Portia may not choose her own husband but must marry the man who chooses correctly from three caskets: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Anyone who wants to marry Portia is faced with this choice. 

The Elopement of Shylock's Daughter: Shylock's daughter, Jessica, deeply hurts and saddens her father by running away to marry her Christian lover, Lorenzo, and taking along Shylock's money and jewels.

The Rings: Bassanio does win Portia as his wife, whereupon Portia presents Bassanio with a special ring, obtaining Bassanio's promise that he will never allow the ring to leave his finger. (Bassanio's friend Gratiano also wins the love of Portia's serving maid Nerissa, obtains a similar ring from Nerissa, and makes a similar promise to wear the ring always.) But both rings go astray later in the play!

Our next post will show how we built on this overview, calling upon volunteer students to act out the sub-plot of the three caskets!

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