education, GCSE AQA English Literature

GCSE Merchant of Venice Shylock Essay AQA GCSE English Literature (8702)

An A and A* essay on Shylock for the Paper 1 AQA GCSE 2017 English Literature Spec (8702) for students sitting 2017 exam.

How a Shakespeare student essay is marked for Level 6 English Literature.

Paper: AQA Literature Paper 1 Section A. 34 marks.

These skills are prioritised:

AO1 Identify information relevant to the question. Write perceptive ideas.  Use of textual evidence in a closed book condition. Developing a critical response. Using quotes from memory to make good points.
(12 marks)

AO2 Extract to Whole Text assessment. Technical language and terms relevant to a play that is staged. Linguistic terms for language, form and structure. Analyse the language of the author and describe meanings and effects.
(12 marks)

AO3 Sense of whole text. Know the whole play. Historical, social and cultural context. Relevance to Shakespeare’s body of work. Internal contextual points within the play on themes of race, gender, marriage, power, conflict.
(6 marks)

AO4 – Use of spelling, punctuation and grammar. Use of sentences and paragraphs. A good structure to your writing. Good vocabulary. Clarity.
(4 marks)

The question from AQA Specimen material 2017

The Merchant of Venice

Read the following extract from Act 1 Scene 3 of The Merchant of Venice and then answer the question that follows.

At this point in the play Shylock is speaking to Antonio. Antonio has asked Shylock to lend him some money.


Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
 In the Rialto you have rated me
 About my monies and my usances.
 Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
5 For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe. 
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
 And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
 And all for use of that which is mine own. 
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
10 Go to, then, you come to me, and you say, 
‘Shylock, we would have monies’ – you say so, 
You that did void your rheum upon my beard, 
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold: monies is your suit. 
15 What should I say to you? Should I not say
‘Hath a dog money? Is it possible
 A cur can lend three thousand ducats?’ Or 
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key, 
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,
20 Say this: 'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last, 
You spurned me such a day, another time
 You called me dog: and for these courtesies
 I'll lend you thus much monies.’

Starting with this speech, how does Shakespeare present Shylock’s feelings about the way he is treated?

Write about:

  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in this speech
  • how Shakespeare presents Shylock in the play as a whole.

Examiners are encouraged to reward any valid interpretations. Answers might, however, include some of the following:


  • Response to Shylock in this extract and elsewhere in the play A02/3
  • Shylock’s behaviour and whether or not it is justified – both here and elsewhere in the play A02/3
  • Shylock’s refusal to lend money and possible reasons for/reactions to this A02/A03
  • Shylock’s treatment at the hands of Antonio and others AO2
  • Use and effect of questions A01
  • Use and effect of anecdotal speech A01
  • Effect of repetition: ‘monies’ etc A01
  • Use and effect of imagery of dog/cur AO2
  • Attitudes towards usury A03
  • Attitudes towards Shylock, possibly contrasting then and now A03
  • Shylock as outsider/victim of society A02 analysis
  • Shylock as pariah A02 analysis

Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explores the world of commerce and trade in Venice, 1596. The attraction of making a modern adaptation of the play must be in exploring these aspects – the iconic bridges of Venice, the costumes of Elizabethan times and the treatment of Jews who lived in the poorest parts of the city. Elizabethans lived in a time of religious intolerance and racial superstition. Jewish stereotypes operated in both Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice through the portrayal of the character of Shylock.

The two central characters in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio (the merchant), and Shylock (the Jewish money-lender), receive a solid representation in the 2004 film version, directed by Michael Radford. Al Pacino plays Shylock and uses accent, gesture and costume to great effect, portraying on the big screen a Jewish man who walks bent double, waves his hands emphatically, and rarely smiles.

Incredibly, this film is the first ever English Language version made for cinema. Many believe the reason for this ‘neglect’, when you consider how many Shakespeare plays have been made into films, were sensitivities about the plays alleged anti-Semitism. The original play delves deeply into Jewish views on wealth creation, quoting Biblical references of the rivalry between Jews and Christians in almost every line of Shylock’s dialogue. Shylock’s long speeches, full of the rhythm of iambic pentameter reflect this at the start;

Act 1 Sc 3; “If I can catch him once upon the hip,

I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.

He hates our sacred nation and he rails

Even there where merchants most do congregate

On me, my bargains and my well-won thrift

Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe

If I forgive him.”

The final line “If I forgive him” is repeated to emphasise the change in tone from iambic pentameter and blank verse to prose. This seems to suggest Shylock has vengeful reasons to lend Antonio the money and an ulterior motive to setting up a bond with him. This is supported when Bassiano sets the price of forfeit and remarks “This were kindness.”

The opening scene in Shakespeare’s play presents Antonio (the merchant of Venice whom the story is named after), in conversation with his merchant friends. Antonio, a Christian merchant and investor, has spent his fortune on ships and vessels of trade and is expressing his concern the ships might sink. We become aware of the burgeoning mercantile trade where ships unloaded good in Venice, a bustling port city. It was a huge risk to invest in the shipping trade, and the rewards were even more massive. This had serious implications for an Elizabethan audience who were aware a man could lose his whole fortune by storm and indeed we find Antonio’s mind ‘tossing on the ocean’. Today, we have mercantile insurance, so this would have less of an impact on a modern audience. The loan of credit to Bassiano to woo Portia is a risky business. The question both audiences must ask themselves is why would Shylock lend money to a Christian, when it is clearly a very large risk? Shylock’s comments in the extract show the irony of the situation:

'Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last, 
You spurned me such a day, another time
 You called me dog: and for these courtesies
 I'll lend you thus much monies.’

That Bassiano secures ‘three thousand ducats’ from Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, in Act 1 Sc3 raises not only the religious animosity experienced by Jews and Christians towards each other.  It raises a mystery as to motive. The vicious ‘aside’ Shylock speaks, describing Antonio as a ‘fawning publican’, someone who ‘hates our sacred [Jewish – sic] nation’, sees him vow not to let Antonio get away with paying his debt due to all the anti-Semitic slights Antonio has made in the past about Shylock, “… bargains and well won thrift which he calls interest.” (line 43 ) Perhaps Shylock’s motivation for lending the money as “The ancient grudge” was done to keep the audience in suspense, making Shylock a more manipulative character.

Shylock’s main beef with Antonio is “he lends money gratis”. Free loans bring down the value of “usance” or interest, and this costs all the other money-lenders financial profits. Interest is applied so lenders can lend more out to business ventures. It was the only way Jews could make money as they were not allowed to own property. Antonio is hurting commerce, and this Christian way of doing business is  this “ancient grudge Shylock bears him”. These two different views on the value and purpose of money foreshadow the clash in court to come.

Instead of a clash of commerce, as the play’s title suggests, the play promotes a different theme . To the forefront comes anti-Semitism. “The Jews were forced to live in the old walled foundry, or ‘geto’”, we are told. As a modern audience our sympathy for Shylock,  runs high. In the play, his first scene is one of trade and hatred of those who lose his money. Antonio, on the other hadn’t, talks to his merchant friends and there is no prescribe setting at all. In the modern film version starring Robert De Niro, the director chosen a tavern where some women of ill-repute ply their trade in the background for this scene. Perhaps demonstrating the behaviour of Christians as morally bankrupt. In Shakespeare’s time, the to and fro with merchant Jews may have been the norm, and not so shocking.

We are told that on the Rialto bridge, Antonio walks past Shylock and spits on him as Shylock greets him. The “ancient grudge” Shylock bears Antonio would seem referenced by Shylock’s speech in this extract. Actions speak louder than words – perhaps.

The sub-plot; Bassiano’s pursuit of Portia, must look like tomfoolery to a Jewish audience member living in Elizabethan times, when ghetto life and racial isolation was their ‘lot’. Indeed, Shakespeare is not known to have travelled abroad, it is also possible he never knew any Jews personally, as in his lifetime there were no settled Jewish communities in England, (as they’d all been expelled by Cromwell – and were not permitted to return until some forty years after Shakespeare’s death.

This makes Shakespeare’s decision to write a play with a villainous, scheming, bitter, Jewish usurer a curious work of literature. The subplot between Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, and Lorenzo (a Christian) might reveal more about this – in the sense that intermarriage between ruling class (Christian) and Jews (poor class) was a controversial idea. The characterisation sin Merchant of Venice may be a convenient allusion to issues closer to home. The Catholic/Protestant divide in England (and this Shakespeare knew about first-hand) provides some insight into why Shakespeare chose to write a play where class, religion, and isolation policies practised by a ruling elite can exist in a flourishing commercial city.

Is Venice just like London perhaps? This might explain the scant attention to setting in the original play. Indeed Belmont, and the antics of Portia and Nerissa, could compare with England country estates and nobles – the practises of arranged marriage and ‘eccentric’ wills.

Shylock negotiates a loan with Bassiano for 3000 ducats for 3 months, expressing reservation about Antonio’s risk, yet concludes he is worth investing in. Shylock bases his argument for his need for a usury bond equal to the wisdom of Jacob, who in the Torah borrowed his uncle Laban’s sheep and bred them in such a way, Jacob got to keep the one’s he bred. He bred the sheep to his advantage, getting all the streaky ones. This behaviour, earning through thrift, is admirable. As Shylock says; “thrift is a blessing if men steal it not” or, to put it another way, a clever profit is a good thing. Antonio disagrees Jacob should have made money while in the employment of his uncle.

Now that Antonio needs Shylock’s help to get money, Shylock argues it is only fair Antonio borrows off him his way. After all, Shylock has suffered abuse at Antonio’s hands recently, and says:

‘Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last,

You spurned me such a day, another time

You called me dog: and for these courtesies

I’ll lend you this much monies.’ (Act 1 sc 3 lines 118:121)

Antonio does not see the danger signs and underestimates his foe. He presses ‘friendship’ as a payment of usury, and Shylock sarcastically agrees if he “forgets the shames” of the past “an equal pound of [Antonio’s – sic] fair flesh” will be cut off and taken by Shylock from whatever part of the body it pleases him.

To Shylock’s amazement this “merry sport” is agreed upon. Antonio is so confident he will be able to repay the bond “a month before the day” its due. Act 1 sc3 closes upon this bargain, and Shakespeare has achieved some semblance of balance here. A fool (Antonio), wagers his own flesh as if it is a noble antic, upon a money-lender he views so low down in society he’ll get out of paying for the loan all together. If a ‘pound of flesh’ is now a famous English idiom, the saying ‘rich men are rich because they never pay for anything’ is the counter to this. We have a bet ladies and gentlemen – whose side the audience is on depends on the era.The original play suggests (most certainly from the conclusion) the audience is on Antonio’s side. Particularly if Shylock is not motivated by avarice, as he would appear not to be, when Bassiano offers to repay 6000 ducats as usury for the loan [when Antonio has to forfeit the pound of flesh. A Shakespearean audience would see Shylock as quite wicked]. It is as if any moment a well-dressed Christian is going to charge Shylock, who is dressed traditional garb – reflecting his cultural dress in his appearance.

In a great irony, the stereotypical Jew, scheming with avarice intentions is not how Shylock can be analysed in the play. He wants to exact his “pound of flesh” as he has proven himself determined “By my soul I swear, there is not power in the tongue of man to alter me. I stay here on my bond.” (Act 4 Sc1, lines 236-8). The truth is, the entire Jewish culture and all the insults and suggestions of inferiority they’ve suffered in both a legal, spiritual and actual sense at the hands of the Christian, Venetian elites is about to be avenged. Shylock has taken it all upon himself, and this could be viewed as noble. By a modern audience, it probably would be.

The rage is his undoing in the plot, as Portia (disguised as a legal clerk) points out the removal of a pound of flesh may kill Antonio, but Shylock refuses to have a surgeon stand by, as it is “not in the bond” written. Literal reading re-interprets the law to mean “expressly” flesh, but not “one drop of Christian blood”. And, after determining the extraction of the bond is impossible without bleeding Antonio, [Bassiano’s payment already rejected], Shylock gets nothing, not even his original stake.

The Venetian court presses further the pound would have killed Antonio, adding further charges of intention to murder against Shylock. Antionio asks for Shylock’s fortune to be put in trust for his daughter Jessica and her husband Lorenzo (the mixed-marriage couple). The Duke of Venice graciously agrees to these conditions and adds them to the pardon, including Antonio’s request Shylock “become a Christian”. The Duke makes all of these conditions part of the deal under which he won’t lose his life. Shylock, now portrayed as broken, outwitted and defeated accepts all, returning quietly to his ghetto, after his ‘place in the sun’.

He’s considerably poorer, and must convert to Christianity.

The moral of the story in the play? If you are a victim of racism, intolerance, bullying and discrimination, murder is not a suitable form of justice or revenge to exact. While it is common to Christian and Jews “If we prick us do we not bleed”, Shylock loses in court, and is co-erced into Christian conversion because we know his motivation from the most famous speech in the play (Act 3 sc1): “To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.”

The Venetian law does not respect murder as fair punishment for the repayment of a financial debt. This is the law of criminals (not civil law) and would have provoked much outrage. This idea of revenge goes against every Christian principle practised and understood by an Elizabethan audience. That Antonio accepted the bargain in the first place would have been met with sympathy as he did not truly believe he would be cut. The play ends with a farcical happiness, (led by a rare moment where Shakespeare puts the setting in the stage instructions) as the Belmont group all end up in bed, (including Jessica, Shylock’s daughter). Gratiano gets the final line, about “keeping safe Nerissa’s ring,” which could be considered innuendo.

That a modern audience has more sympathy for the attitudes towards Jews, and the discrimination suffered is evident. The ending, where the nobles descend into an almost ‘carry on’ type scene drinking and carousing and celebrating their victory leaves a slightly sour note. The attraction of making a modern adaptation of the play must be in exploring these aspects alongside the setting where iconic bridges of Venice and expensive costumes of Elizabethan times contrast with the treatment of Jews who lived in the poorest parts of the city. Elizabethans lived in a time of religious intolerance and racial superstition. Jewish stereotypes operated in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice through the portrayal of the character of Shylock.

Shylock’s famous speech in Act 3 sc1 (“hath not a Jew hands…”) is delivered to a captive audience, as the shocked faces of courtly ladies look on. We can imagine their insulted looks as Shylock’s spitting, desperate face calls out his lines in agony because he is missing his daughter. Because modern audiences are less attuned to bible values and more minded to view fairness (in race relations and usury/interest charges) as an ethical way to do business, the loss of Shylock’s daughter would make a modern audience very sympathetic to the Jew. The disappearance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica seems adequate justification for the rage he displays, as he speaks in prose using emotional words to embody the language of grief. Words like “death… hearse… coffin” – when he discusses his daughter and the loss of his money gains sympathy from the audience. Accusing him of murder seems somewhat harsh, he’s clearly so downtrodden he’s lost his good judgement. The final scene with Shylock shows shows Shylock abandoned by all his Jewish community, stripped of his honours under Judaism. The door is shut. The penultimate scene shows Jessica looking at her Jewish ring and no doubt pondering the new life she took willingly, where Christian men don’t keep faith with oaths (unlike her father – who got her ring back from an unscrupulous crowd and made sure she had it We wonder if she made a wise choice. Shakespeare’s aim in writing the Merchant of Venice may have been to sow the seeds of doubt about racism towards Jewish people or ‘others’ in general.

Level 6 Response

AO1 critical explanation of theme within the context of the drama. On task. Astute connections. We are looking at a strong finish here, with a sustained analysis of the significance of the play as a whole and how the audiences feel, and how Shylock and Jewish stereotypes worked. A critical conclusion and excellent use of the most famous speech in the play to examine how the audiences feel at the play’s conclusion.

A02 Internal comparisons, use of foreshadow – perceptive. Imagery discussed and motivations analysed. The plays effects and meanings discussed thoughtfully, using relevant examples with well organised, coherent conclusions. References critically.

AO3 Sustained explanation of audience at the time: Elizabethan culture versus modern culture. (AO2 as part of a ‘considered’ response. )A perceptive explanation of the relevance of the play to the audience. “The moral of the story …”

A04 – confident style with very few errors. – 4/4


Overall mark AO1 12 plus AO2 12 plus AO3 6 and AO4 4 Level 6 34/34/

This script builds towards a firm understanding of the significance the original play’s impact upon different audiences. The script is closely focused throughout on Shylock, and sustained a textual overview of the whole plot. The material is well organised, clear with a stretch of coherent fluency and terminology use in the last paragraphs. The conclusion lifts the script into critical strands for Level 6. In the effort seen here (and the length, given controlled examination conditions) a ‘best fit’ award is Level 6 12/12/6 and 4 and  34 – a Top Level grade.



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