Merchant of Venice might be a politically incorrect play, but it is too good for us to ignore. While it makes moderns uncomfortable because the Jew is made to forcibly convert in the end, it is – particularly for its time – an anti-anti-Semitic play.
The plot, the speeches, and the themes all deserve attention and affection – and this simple set of homeschool lesson plans will help you build just that.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for Kids
Merchant of Venice’s schemes and antics appeal to kids. They appreciate the obsurdity of requiring a pound of flesh for a bad loan, and also the trick that the wives play on their husbands in the end. Shylock’s laments about his runaway daughter are funny (Oh my daughter! Oh my ducats!) as are the overacted suitors being foiled by the casket test.
Merchant of Venice is a great play to engage and amuse children with Shakespeare.
1. Introduce Merchant of Venice
We always begin our study of a new play by reading a picture book version. Far from being a “spoiler,” a good retelling introduces the story and makes it easier to interpret the original play afterwards.
The retelling we used was the one found in Leon Garfield’s Stories from Shakespeare
2. Memorize Lines from Merchant of Venice
There are so many good lines to choose from in Merchant of Venice – it was hard to pick!
Here’s what we went with:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
Mark the music.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
and I couldn’t resist this one-liner:
You speak an infinite deal of nothing.
Download the lesson plans and memory sheets:
3. Watch a Movie or Live Production of Merchant of VeniceIf you can find a live stage performance, that’s always preferable (assuming it’s well done and appropriate) - but not usually possible. I always attempt to have my children watch Shakespeare before reading him, though. After all, Shakespeare was meant to be seen - he wrote stage productions, not books. For Merchant of Venice, we watched YouTube clips of the Al Pacino movie (the entire play in his version is, not surprisingly, not decent or appropriate). In class we watched the casket scenes and Portia’s defense of mercy from this version, and they made the play more intelligible and interesting. But for a full-length version, we gathered with friends and watched the Laurence Olivier production.
4. Listen & Read Along to Merchant of VeniceAfter watching the play and getting a sense of its flow, characters, and action, we listen to an audio and read along. The Archangel audio productions of Shakespeare are excellent, and Merchant of Venice was no exception. Merchant of Venice is 2 hours, 16 minutes long, so this portion of the study will take 10 15-minute class periods.
5. Play Merchant of VeniceThe way kids make Shakespeare their own and learn to love it is by playing with the stories in their own way. Sometimes that might be by building a scene with LEGO or by acting out the story with puppets or dolls or simply by dressing up and acting out their favorite parts in the yard. One way to play with Merchant of Venice with a class might be to act out the court scene - with Shakespearean lines or by paraphrasing. The casket tests also make for great play-acting material. Another way might be to draw a comic strip of their favorite story line - Shylock’s, the casket trials, or the ring trick. By ending with some sort of artistic and personal rendition of the play, kids will identify with the story better and fond memories will last longer.
Put it together: Lesson Plans for Merchant of VeniceClass Time: 20 minutes, 2 times a week (plus time to watch the movie) Total length: 8 weeks Class Procedure
- Repeat the lines to memorize together once or twice
- Do the day’s lesson
- Ask a question to get a narration/discussion going for a few minutes
- Read 1/2 the picture book. Have a student narrate.
- Ask each student to name & describe a character. Read the rest of the picture book.
- Review play's plot, then watch YouTube scenes of the casket & court speeches.
- (over the weekend, have a movie night)
- Discuss the story, plot line, and movie – ask kids for favorite parts or characters. Let them ask questions.
- Listen to 15 minutes of Merchant of Venice on audio while following along. (The Merchant of Venice is 2 hours 16 minutes, so this will take 10 class periods).
- Have students present either mimed or play acted scenes or present artwork done to tell the story.