As you read the play, it is important to imagine yourself watching and listening to the action. It is a drama, not a novel! Shakespeare provides us with very few stage directions, so to help us imagine exactly what is going on, we need to picture each character's actions and reactions clearly. During the course of The Merchant of Venice we see comedy and near-tragedy. We see three sets of lovers get together and almost see a man murdered on stage. There is much deception and disguise. The ending is full of celebration for most but despair for Shylock. So, what happens to create so many dramatic contrasts? How is the drama maintained and the audience involved?
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• In Act 2, scene 9, the Prince of Arragon follows the Prince of Morocco to choose a casket, but also fails. We now know that it must be the lead casket that contains the prize, so when we hear moments later that Bassanio has arrived we are on the edge of our seats to see which casket he will pick.
• Tension mounts as Shylock continues to demand his pound of flesh and it seems that the laws of Venice will let him have his way. This reaches its height in the trial scene: Shylock even sharpens his knife in anticipation. Will Antonio live or die?
Tone and Pace
There are frequent changes in tone in this play.
The dream-like, fairy-tale world of Belmont
First there is tonal contrast between two places: the world of downtown Venice - a gritty, male world dominated by business, politics and conflict - and that of Belmont, which is a dream-like, female space in which thoughts of love and marriage prevail.
Then there are the frequent changes of tone in the action of the play: the atmosphere changes from love or comedy to cruelty from scene to scene, sometimes even within scenes - so much so that it's often hard to decide whether we are watching a comedy or a tragedy or something in between.
Equally noticeable are the changes in pace. For example, Act 2 is made up of lots of short scenes that rush us through the story of Jessica and Lorenzo's elopement. In contrast, Act 4 is one long scene taken up almost wholly by the trial, in whose complexities and emotions we are quickly caught up.
Conflict and Comedy
"He was wont to call me usurer: let him look to his bond."
There is a lot of hostility between the Christians and the Jews of Venice, and this of course fuels the hatred between Shylock and Antonio. There is verbal abuse between the two groups. Shylock is keen to commit murder in the cutting out of the pound of Antonio's flesh. But the conflict is balanced to some extent by comedy. We can laugh at Lancelot's...