In preparing for the 2024 exam, most of the 68,000 students now starting second year English will study The Merchant of Venice. It will replace Romeo & Juliet, another popular Shakespeare, which was not on the most recent list of prescribed plays, but which will return in time.
The Merchant is an unusual play, a rare combination of comedy and sadness. On the one hand, it’s a light romance, with beautiful people in a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, lavish costumes, a blonde fairy princess in a glittering place, golden casket, spectacular stage sets, comic moments, music, marriage and a celebratory dancing finale.
On the other hand it’s a bleak, dark story of money and menace, a melancholy merchant, courtroom drama, the bizarre pound of flesh clause in a sinister contract, brutal humiliation, laws against “aliens,” social prejudice and the ugly realities of a divided society.
It’s a story about how people treat each other; the good we do and the harm we do; how we love, hate, count on our friends, or treat our enemies. It’s about fathers and daughters, romance, secrets, disguises, spite, hatred and cruelty, vengeance, justice and mercy.
Love and money mingle. Most of the characters are on the make; the suitors who cross mountains and deserts to gamble on the caskets, bankrupt, swaggering Bassanio who borrows from his friend to finance his pursuit of a beautiful heiress, Lorenzo whose young girlfriend brings him a bag of gold from her father’s house, Shylock, the moneylender, and Antonio who imports luxury goods for wealthy Venetians.
In 16th century Venice, with its merciless laws against “aliens,” alienated hearts become so hardened that a man is willing to draw blood and watch while another man bleeds to death. It’s the stuff of news broadcasts, courtroom drama, and hatred driven by the repressed outrage of a man who has been spat at, insulted and publicly mocked.
“The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it will go hard, but I will better the instruction,” Shylock, 3, (i).
When I took my first class of 13-year-olds to see it, my keenest student, seated in the front row, opened his book and drew his finger down the page at the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. I don’t know how Cyril Cusack took it, but watching that speech on stage taught my class just how crucial its delivery is to understanding Shylock; seeing him either as cruel villain or persecuted victim.
Then there’s gender; the intellectual power of a woman disguised as a man who takes control in a court of law. Portia is a class act. Smart and charismatic, she outclasses the judge, outwits the prosecution, shows a hard-hearted, ruthless streak, and delivers a courtroom speech that packs the heart-stopping emotion of another famous courtroom moment when Reverend Sykes, in homage to Atticus Finch, says: “Stand up, your father’s passing”.
The teaching of Shakespeare has been stirred and shaken by two innovations; imaginative pedagogy and new technology. Generations of teaching the plays as museum pieces killed the joy of character, staging, story and dazzling plot twists.
Today’s classroom favours stage over page. Stage and cinema photographs and videos bring the play on-screen in the classroom, demonstrating its spectacular impact.
Students see and appreciate how the inspired gestures of gifted actors can heighten the drama in moments that might otherwise lie flat on the page. They learn about stage sets, lighting, props, how costume creates character, and how every director’s vision reimagines and recreates the play.
One of my favourite teaching moments is Henry IV’s “when I was your age” speech, spoken to his wayward son, Prince Harry, who talks too much, favours pub over palace, and hangs around with common people. The king begs him to live a dignified life, practise reserve, and perform royal duties to support the crown. Shakespeare is always a play for today.
Our best teaching moments come when students connect with character and story. Shakespeare’s lovers and lawyers, heroes and hotheads, monarchs and murderers, lovable, pitiful, brave, greedy and cunning characters came from a phenomenal emotional intelligence, a dazzling imagination and timeless insight into human nature.
On a Council of Europe scholarship to Stratford, in a Q&A session with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I asked an actor: “How would you answer my students’ question – What’s so great about Shakespeare?”
His answer was: “When we play other playwrights we perform some of the emotions. In Shakespeare we have to reach for all the emotions. There is no one like him.”
I tell students: “The last word has never been spoken about Shakespeare. You have ideas to express here in class and to interest an examiner.”
Shakespeare’s genius lay in his understanding of people, politics and power; of the solitary moments in which we speak our deepest feelings; the mistakes we make; the ambitions we reach for, and the wrongs we do to one another; all expressed in language of incomparable creativity.
In 1623, his fellow playwright Ben Jonson answered the student’s question, “why do we study Shakespeare? “.
Jonson simply said: “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Pauline Kelly is a teacher trainer and author with Gill Education. Her edition of The Merchant of Venice will be published in February 2023.