Forensic Friday 013

The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene i


Unlucky for some?

Life’s pretty poor for Shylock as is, but his world falls apart when his flighty daughter elopes with a ne’er-do-well Christian lad, taking his fortune to boot.  Famously, Act III scene i sees the dam of his frustration and resentment overwhelmed, leaving him only the potential satisfaction of revenge against his mortal enemy, Antonio.

But why is Shylock’s speech so memorably powerful?

First visit to Forensic Friday?  You can find the rules here.

The question is always How does Shakespeare use language for dramatic effect?  The limit is always a measly 250 words.  And the mark-scheme is always the OCR A-Level one that my Y13 students will be doing for real on 23 May.

Let’s get stuck into a close reading of this famous passage, then …

My students should know by now to consider the economy of writing style, the use of subject terminology and the balance between ideas (AO1) and analytical method (AO2).

FF 13 MOV III i.001

In Shylock’s monologue, Shakespeare moves the character from unpleasant but pathetic victim to a frightening harbinger of hatred and violence.  Abandoning any pretence to blank verse might be a response to Salarino and Salanio’s presence and speech patterns, or a symptom of his distress at Jessica’s elopement.  The unadorned simple declarative that begins this passage bluntly underlines the ridiculousness of his treatment by Antonio on religious grounds.  Shylock’s bewilderment and anger builds through a crescendo of seven consecutive rhetorical questions.  By referring to himself in third person abstract and then repeatedly using plural pronouns we come to realise that his dispute with Antonio is a symptom of a wider malaise: the treatment of all Jews by Christians.  Again this works to challenge Antonio’s dislike; stereotyping effectively dehumanising Shylock as an individual.  After drawing attention to similarity of physiognomy and anatomy, Shakespeare builds a sense of common humanity transcending and undermining religion through the iteration of ‘the same’.  Our sympathy for the Jew gradually increases, the pathos created through a series of juxtaposed verbs – such as ‘hurt’, ‘healed’, ‘warmed’ and ‘cooled’. The juxtaposition widens the range of commonality whilst simultaneously implying passivity and victimhood.  By the time the final rhetorical question is asked, the audience is firmly convinced of Shylock’s logic and reasonableness – this makes the contrast to the active, emotive verb ‘revenge’ all the more shocking and frightening.  Much like Swift’s ‘Modest Proposal’, the audience have been conditioned to agree with Shylock until asked to condone the lawless and indefensible.  [250 words]


William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Arden Third edition, ed. John Drakasis), (Bloomsbury Publishing:  London, 2013)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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