Shakespeare understood the universal nature of man. This is why we can relate to him today. As humans, our psychology is just like it was in his day. Teenagers today rebel against their parents’ wishes just like they do in Romeo and Juliet. Jealousy can eat at and destroy relationships like it does in Othello. Prejudice, attitudes towards money, and love are all
universal themes in The Merchant of Venice. Religious intolerance and prejudice play a destructive role in the play. Money enables and destroys, and love occurs in many forms.
1. Have students place the story The Merchant of Venice in another time period. The
students must draw the costumes of three main characters, design the set, and write
a one-page paper on their concept and present it orally to the class.
2. Have students divide into groups and stage various sections of the play. For example, the could stage the lending scene, the casket scenes, or the trial scene.
3. Pick a monologue within the play, and have the students translate it into modern speech. Have the students perform both speeches for the class, one following another. They will easily understand the speech. Translate and perform a variety of monologues so each student has a different speech.
4. Divide the class into groups, and have each group write a number of news stories focusing on the events in Venice. Have them include headlines and quotes; let each group present its new stories to the class. Examples of headlines and story ideas could be “Suitor Fails in Quest for Maid,” “Antonio’s Ships Lost at Sea,” or “Trial of the Century Demands Pound of Flesh!”
5. Have individual groups create a five-minute show based on an event in The Merchant of Venice. Models for these shows can be The People’s Court, a modern talk show with guests (Jay Leno to Jerry Springer), a game show (Jeopardy, The Dating Game, etc.), or a soap opera. Have the students prepare scripts and visual aids and present them to the class.
6. Have students pick a character from one scene and assess the character based on some of the follow questions: Describe your character from the point of view of the audience. What is your character’s relationship, specifically, with the other people on the stage? What does your character want out of life and out of this scene? Describe (from your imagination) what your character might reasonably have done immediately before his or her entrance onto the stage for this scene? What is your character’s mood when he or she arrives on stage? How would your character show this? If you could ask your character any questions, what would they be? How might the character respond?
7. As a study of character, write a scene which occurs in the play but in Shakespeare’s text takes place offstage, between scenes, or removed from the central action of the scene. Examples could include Antonio hearing the news of his first losses, Gratiano’s wooing of Nerissa even as Bassanio wins Portia, Shylock’s plea to the duke to search Bassanio’s ship for Jessica and Lorenzo, Portia meeting with the suitors she described to Nerissa.
8. Have a short discussion about how the gestures of the hands, arms, shoulders, eyes, and so on show the mood or characteristics of the person making the gestures. Brainstorm out loud about some specific gestures and what they might convey. Explain the concept of dumb shows, silent performances that rely entirely on gesture to show what happens. Divide students into performance groups, and assign each group a different scene from The Merchant of Venice, to be kept secret from the other groups. Students will have fifteen minutes to prepare a dumb show based on their scene, which the rest of the class will later try to guess while the scene is being performed.
9. Define stereotypes and discuss with students what types of stereotypes exist in their school and community. Then analyze stereotypes in The Merchant of Venice including Shakespeare’s characterization of Portia’s suitors, religious stereotypes, and gender stereotypes.
10. Part of producing a play is determining how to “market” the show—how to catch people’s attention in the media, by way of mouth, or by other means, and how to interest them in buying tickets to see the show. Design a poster for the play which you think will attract patrons. If you like, include a “tagline” —what you think the most important line of the play is to share and attract an audience to see the show. Include images from the play, pictures or silhouettes of important characters, or other aspects of design (including the font of the title).
11. Have students write a poem fourteen lines long in iambic pentameter, (ten syllables, accent on the second syllable). Have the students read their poems in front of the class.