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Ministry of Education.

The merchant of Venice

Students are encouraged to engage with and reflect on key themes, develop their understanding of characters and appreciate the historical context of the play. They then plan and write essays on selected topics.

Learning Outcomes | Teaching and Learning | Assessment and Evaluation | Printing Version

Writer: Ann Hamer
Year level 13
Who are my learners and what do they already know? See  Planning  Using Inquiry
School curriculum outcomes How your school’s principles, values, or priorities will be developed through this unit

Learning Outcomes

 (What do my students need to learn)

Curriculum achievement objectives (AOs) for:  

Processes and strategies

Integrate sources of information, processes, and strategies purposefully, confidently, and precisely to identify, form, and express increasingly sophisticated ideas.

  • thinks critically about texts with understanding and confidence
  • creates a range of increasingly coherent, varied, and complex texts by integrating sources of information and processing strategies


Select, develop, and communicate sustained and insightful ideas on a range of topics.

  • develops, communicates, and sustains sophisticated ideas, information, and understandings

Language features

Select, integrate and sustain a range of language features appropriately for a variety of effects.

  • uses a wide range of text conventions, including grammatical and spelling conventions, appropriately, effectively, and with accuracy.


Organise texts, using a range of appropriate, coherent, and effective structures.

  • organises and develops ideas and information for a particular purpose or effect, using the characteristics and conventions of a range of text forms with control.
Achievement Standard(s) aligned to AO(s) AS 90722 Respond critically to Shakespearean drama studied.

Teaching and Learning

 (What do I need to know and do?)

1-2 related professional readings or links to relevant research

Planning  Using Inquiry

English Teaching and Learning Guide 

Learning task 1:

Learning intention(s)

Establishing prior learning and linking it to the text

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – explore texts

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 1


  1. Draw up concept circles containing the following words: mercy, justice, money, law and marriage, love, money, religion. In pairs student discuss these words and what connections they have. Focus is on their modern meanings. Class discussion to follow which expands on the ideas.
  2. Look at the historical background resource that has information about Elizabethan times. Write questions on the board then select the slip that has the correct answer. This activity encourages reflection and conveys information about the historical context of the play.
  3.  Read through the play and act out scenes. Reading is completed on a stage area designated in the classroom with discussion of plot, characters and themes after each section of the play.

Learning task 2:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – using a range of thinking strategies to build understandings

Relate to others – peer discussion

Learning task 2


Complete a plot diagram that allows visual learners to see the dynamics of the play. Two settings are outlined: Belmont and Venice. Identify who goes where and why. The four plot elements: give the casket plot, the pound of flesh plot, the ring plot and the development plot a different colour.


Focus on characters using following worksheets:


Focus on themes starting with issues. Consider issues in the play and rank them in order of agree and disagree continuum. Each worksheet has a symbol attached to the sheet and students pair up with the person with the same symbol. This allows students to work with different people. Pairs discuss their opinions and then relate them to the play. Pairs write two paragraphs about two of the issues.

Three level guide about appearance and reality

"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano. 
A stage where every man must play a part
And mine a sad one" (1,1, 79-80).

Tick or cross the following statements. Defend your reasoning with supporting evidence from the play.

Level 1

  • All that glitters is not gold.

  • Portia dresses as a man in order to escape the confines of the female gender.
  • Bassanio come to Belmont as a beggar.

  • Antonio appears depressed but denies it is his business ventures.

  • Shylock appears mean and greedy.

  • Portia is not beautiful
  • Shylock's defensive attitude is a result of years of abuse.

Level 2

  • A "noble friendship" exists between Antonio and Bassanio.

  • The inner person is often hidden by a mask.

  • Make up and appearance are important features of our lives.

  • Bassanio's loss of the ring shows that he does not value deep love symbolised by the ring.

  • Telling lies can be justified in certain situations.

  • Shylock treats Antonio honestly.

Level 3

  • Racism is derived from appearance.

  • Mercy is an inner value rather than an outward value.

  • Justice is the outward symbol of our civilisation.
  • Portia's ring deception is to test Bassanio's inner nature.

  • Faces act as a motif for appearance and reality in the play

  •  Portia is the spokesperson for inner reality as against outward appearance.
"like a villain with a smiling cheek
a goodly apple rotten at the heart" (1,3, 97-98)

Learning task 3:

Learning intention(s)

Examining key text aspects

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – close reading

Learning task 3

Making connections

  1. Bring an object to class and give a two minute speech about how that object links with the text. It can relate to a character or a theme. This allows you to start making connections with your life and the play. It also develops an analytical approach to the play.
  2. Close analysis of speeches Choose one of these speeches. Once you have ordered it and worked out the modern translation, focus on what the passage tells you about character and theme. This activity encourages a closer look at the language of the play and helps you prepare for the examination question. Report back to class.

Imagery in the play

  1. Imagery is important in a text because it adds another dimension to the text. It enhances and extends meaning and often helps to develop character or theme. Complete the  imagery resource. Think carefully about who is speaking and to whom.

    There are nature images - Antonio's reference to mountain pines "fretten with gusts of heaven" (4,1,77) and Gratiano's image of the ship (2,6, 14). The floor of heaven is described as a mosaic "thick inlaid with patines of gold"(5,1,58-9). Cowards are said to have false hearts like "stairs of sand"(3,2,83). Gratiano describes men whose faces are like ä standing pond" (1,1, 88). Shylock is compared to a dog and uses the image himself (4,1, 133, and 3,3,6). Also see Shylock's description of how Christians use dogs (4,1, 90-93).

    There are also images about the city. Antonio's ships are like rich burghers (1,1,9-14). When Bassanio wins Portia he feels like a prize-winning wrestler who hearing the applause stops "Giddy in spirit.." (3,2,144). Later he feels the "pleased buzzing" among the crowd after a speech by royalty (3,2,179).

    What matters is the choice of image but these points are relevant. Do not, however, go on at length about them in an essay.

    Bassanio and Portia use the most images in the play, between them accounting for half of the images in the play. Imagery is used unevenly in the play. It centres mainly around Bassanio's choice of casket and Act 5.

    In the three casket scenes, imagery is used unevenly to create different tones and feelings. Morocco uses 4 images in 79 lines, Arragon uses 3 in 84 lines. With Bassanio's choice Portia uses 7 in only 18 lines (3,2, 44-62). Bassanio uses 12 in 32 lines.

    Noteworthy is the fact that the trial scene does not use much imagery - 10 in 457 lines.


  1. As well as using images, Shakespeare refers to music in order to build up atmosphere. Spurgeon (1952) shows how the two moments of emotion and romance are accompanied by music: Bassanio's choice of casket and the return to Belmont by Portia at the end of the play. In Act 5, scene 1, lines 53-98 (45 lines) it is named more often than in any other play. Shakespeare describes how the power of music can tame and subdue a herd of young horses:

    "If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
 You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn'd to a modest gaze" (Act 5, scene 1, lines 76-78).

    Lorenzo goes on to assert that no man should be trusted if they cannot be moved by the power of music. This is very fitting in a play that is about emotion. Shylock does not like the music of the masque earlier in the play and urges Jessica to "stop my house's ears" (Act 2, scene 5, line 34).
    Reference: Caroline Spurgeon (1952). Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us.


  1. Ask students to complete a jigsaw activity on a critical reading of the play. In groups they look at a critical reading of the play (such as Harley Granville-Barker or WH Auden from Critical Essays 1991 or Bill Overton) and each group focuses on one part of the essay. Groups then meet together to hear about the whole article. This allows everyone in the class to participate but also to have support from others.
  2. In small groups, students use the essay resource to develop an essay. Include quotations to illustrate the essay.
  3.  Analyse an Exemplar Essay based on the play. They annotate key features such as supporting ideas, answering the question, linking paragraphs, using quotations.

Learning task 4:

Learning intention(s)

Drafting and polishing writing.

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Use language, symbols and texts – structure and express understandings about texts

Learning task 4

Developing an essay

  1. The Merchant of Venice is prescribed Level 3 play until 2012. From 2013 with the introduction of the curriculum aligned standards at Level 3, there are no longer prescribed Shakespearean plays so that any play could be used for the new level achievement standard 3.2 Respond critically to specified aspect(s) of studied written text(s), using supporting evidence
  2. As formative work for AS 90722 Respond critically to Shakespearean drama studied, develop an essay on a topic linked to an aspect of learning tasks 2 or 3. In selecting a topic, it is vital that you select one suited to your understandings about it. As a first step in making a selection, consider the topics set.Talk with your teacher about the most appropriate topic for the learning completed in tasks 2 and 3. In selecting a topic, give preference to a topic in an paper from the last few years.
  3. Look at the annotated not achieved, achieved and excellence exemplars. Additional exemplars are also available for this achievement standard by ordering the NZATE exemplar resource.
  4. Look over the Assessment Reports for AS 90722. As identified in the report, an excellence level response:
    • showed extensive knowledge of the play, and made apt references to critical works about the play
    • related understanding of the play to wider human issues, including modern-day events, to indicate a broader knowledge of themes
    • showed an awareness of both modern and Shakespearean audiences (placed the audience)
    • wrote fluently and accurately, often extensively
    • used high quality, academic language in their responses, with mature understanding of essay structure and logical sequencing of argument.
  5. Having selected a topic, develop an essay. Write at least 400 words. Support your ideas with specific details from your work in learning tasks 2 and 3.
  6. After completing a first draft, read your piece aloud to help identify parts of the writing that require reworking. Before writing a final version of your piece, proof-read it to improve on technical accuracy. Prior to writing the final draft, you should return to the exemplars to help reflect on whether any changes or additions are needed in your own final draft. You should also refer to the Assessment Schedule for AS 90722.

Preparing for AS90722 at the end of the year

  1.  Look back at the essay you developed earlier and use it to help prepare for the external standard. Don’t rote learn this essay then attempt to somehow adapt a learnt essay to a topic in the exam. You will be much better prepared if you familiarise yourself again with the text as well as its ideas and supporting evidence, then adapt your understandings and supporting evidence to fit the requirements of the topics set.

Learning task 5:

Learning intention(s)

Extending learning

KCs/ Principles/Values focus


Thinking – explore texts

Learning task 5 – Additional Resources


           Lists some useful sites and both raises and answers several questions about the play


  • Arden Shakespeare "The Merchant of Venice" - Russell Brown (1955)
  • Longman "The Merchant of Venice" - John O'Connor (2000)
  • "Hodder English 4 The Merchant of Venice" - Jo Shackleton (1998)
  • Harvester "New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare" - John Lyon (1988)
  • "Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us" - Caroline Spurgeon (1952)
  • York notes advanced "The Merchant of Venice" - Michael and Mary Alexander (1998)
  • "Critical Studies: The Merchant of Venice"- Graham Holderness (1993)
  • "Studies in English Literature 21 "Shakespeare Merchant of Venice" - David Moody (1964)
  • "Merchant of Venice: Critical Essays" - Wheeler (1991)


  • The Merchant of Venice, starring Laurence Olivier. Directed by John Sichel 1992

Assessment and Evaluation

 (What is the impact of my teaching and learning?)

Formative and/or Summative assessment task(s), including how will feedback be provided AS 90722 Respond critically to Shakespearean drama studied.

Provision for identifying next learning steps for students who need:

  • further learning opportunities
  • increased challenge
This piece of writing should be an integrated part of the year’s writing programme. Refer to English Teaching and Learning Guide 

Tools or ideas which, for example might be used to evaluate:

  • progress of the class and groups within it
  • student engagement

leading to :

  • changes to the sequence
  •  addressing teacher learning needs
See  Planning  Using Inquiry

Printing this unit:

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Published on: 10 Dec 2010