User:Mosborne Ashs School Nz/Temp/Worksheet-language.odt

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Shakespeare’s Language:


Prose is flowing writing with no particular rules. It is conversational and less formal than verse. In Shakespeare, prose is used by characters like Gobbo who are lowly servants rather than educated gentlefolk. Portia, an aristocratic character, uses verse most of the time, and certainly on formal occasions. She does use prose, however, when she is talking informally and confidentially with Nerissa. This reflects a lack of formality between them.

  • Find an example of this:

Solanio and Salerino usually use verse, but in places they use prose. Find examples of the following examples of prose use in Act III:

  • When speaking to each other confidentially. (Reflects the lack of formality between these close friends.)
  • When speaking with Shylock. (Who is obviously unimportant enough for them to feel no need to speak too formally.)


Shakespeare’s formal language, called blank verse, is rather like poetry. It has a regular rhythm created mainly by the way words with different numbers of syllables are joined together and how words or sounds are repeated.

Blank verse has a tighter structure than prose. Most of the lines are regular, and they consist of five iambic feet. An iamb is a foot of two syllables:

The qual/ i/ ty / of mer/cy is / not strain’d/ (Act 4, scene 1, line 180).

  • How many syllables are there in this line?

Now choose a line in which the verse looks regular, and tap the beat while saying it aloud. How many beats are there to each line? Write it down here, identifying the syllables with the / symbol:

Now choose a speech written in prose. Does it have the same, consistent number of beats?

Now look at the first scene. Although they are discussing personal matters, Antonio’s friends use the formal verse that is to be expected from educated ‘young men about town’ of some social standing.

If you look at the last two lines of most of the scenes, you will see that they rhyme. The rhyming couplet as it is called, at the end of scenes has the added advantage of warning the audience that the scene is ending, and it will be okay to cough or shift position.

  • Write one down here:


Imagery is the use of words to create pictures, or images in the viewer’s or reader’s mind. Imagery makes what is being said more effective, can make an idea more powerful, and can help create a mood. You will find examples of imagery on almost every page of Shakespeare. Images of animals, storms and water are common in The Merchant of Venice.

Animal imagery is often used both by Shylock, and others to describe him. We learn that Antonio has often referred to him disparagingly as dog, and he is also compared to the devil to reinforce his wickedness. Shylock first brings up the idea of sheep when he tells a Bible story to illustrate his views on usury (Act I scene iii). As if they had been present during this conversation, Shakespeare makes several of the other characters pick up the sheep image again, particularly to call Shylock a wolf preying on Antonio, who is compared — by himself and others — to a sheep. Look at Antonio’s speech at Act 4, scene 1, lines 70—83, and Gratiano’s at lines 128—38. Can you pick out the images of sheep and wolves?

  • Write them down here:

The watery images reflect the canals of Venice, and echo the idea of ships abroad. The stormy seas, wind and tempests, and especially how ships fare in them are at much talked about in Venice, as they probably would have been in Elizabethan London. Look at the first scene, up to line 45. How many watery images can you pick out?

When Bassanio first tells Antonio about Portia, he uses references to the sea. Belmont itself was a sea journey away from Venice, and the Prince of Morocco also refers to the sea when he tries to win Portia.

The storms of Venice contrast with music at Belmont. Music is a symbol of love and harmony, and it is no accident that a song is sung as Bassanio chooses the winning casket When Lorenzo and Jessica talk of music in the garden at Belmont all has turned out well. Not surprisingly, Shylock hates music. He wants Jessica to lock up the house when she ‘hears the drum/ And the vile squealing of the wry-necked fife.’

Look at Lorenzo’s speech in Act 5, scene 1, lines 70—88. It is a veiled reference to Shylock in the way it contains images which refer to the power music has to tame beasts: The man that hath no music in himself,/ Let no such man be trusted. What is he saying about Shylock, Jews and Jessica’s heritage?

Images of money, commerce, riches and treasure adorn many of the speeches used to develop the bond plot and the caskets sub-plot. Write down some examples of each:

Bond plot:

Caskets sub-plot:

Wealth and value. Find examples of wealth and value being used to describe the following:

One’s breeding and family:

One’s ability to help others:

One’s financial security:

Why is Shakespeare so difficult to understand? [Very rarely- if ever- will you have cause to write about these things in an essay, but they will help to understand the text better.]

It is easy to look at the text of this play and say to yourself, ‘I’m never going to understand that!’ But it is important not to be put off Remember that there are two reasons why Shakespeare’s language may seem strange at first.

  1. He was writing four hundred years ago and the English language has changed over the centuries.
  2. He wrote mainly in verse. As a result he sometimes changed the order of words to make them fit the verse form, and he used a large number of ‘tricks of the trade’: figures of speech and other verse techniques.

Language change

This can cause three main kinds of problem: grammar, semantic change and obsolescence.


Since the end of the sixteenth century there have been some changes in English grammar. Some examples:

  • Thee, thou, thy, and the verb forms that go with them are used alongside you, your

Jessica ‘Who are you? Tell me for more certainty,

Albeit! swear that! do know your tongue.’

Lorenzo ‘Lorenzo and thy love.’

Thou is used from master to servant:

Bassanio: ‘I know thee well, thou hast obtained thy suit.

Shylock thy master spoke with me this day

And hath preferred thee ...‘

Gratiano:‘You must not deny me, I must go with you to Belmont.’

Bassanio: ‘Why then you must. But hear thee Gratiano,

Thou art too wild, too rude and bold of voice,’

  • Words contract (shorten) in different ways. For example:

‘tis rather than it’s; ne’er for never.

  • Some of the ‘little words’ are different. For example: an for if, ere for before.

Semantic change (Words that have changed their meaning)

Sometimes you will come across words that you think you know, but discover that they don’t mean what you expect them to mean. For example:

naughty’ (Act 3 scene 3 line 9) meant ‘wicked’ or ‘worthless’ in Shakespeare’s day. Now it means ‘disobedient’ or ‘badly- behaved’. In the same line ‘fond’ now suggests affection. Then it meant ‘foolish’.

Obsolescence (Words that have gone out of use)

These are the most obvious and most frequent causes of difficulty. Shakespeare had and used — a huge vocabulary. He loved using words, and pushing them to their limits. So you will come across many words you have not met before. They are usually explained in the notes.

Adapted from A Guide to the Merchant of Venice by Ruth Coleman, 1998, Hodder & Stoughton, and
The Merchant of Venice, edited by Elizabeth Seely, 1994, Heinemann.