Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Merchant of Venice” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare offer a short summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “Merchant of Venice” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Meaning of the Pound of Flesh in “The Merchant of Venice”
The money-lender Shylock in Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” demands a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, who vouches for Bassanio, his dear friend and the man who has borrowed money from Shylock. Shylock (click for an in-depth character analysis of Shylock) is portrayed as a greedy character in “The Merchant of Venice,” but the pound of flesh must represent something more symbolic, as it obviously does not have the equivalent value of money. At the hearing before the court, Shylock says “it is my humour" in response to the question why he wants a pound of flesh, yet his persistence and insistence are so intense that it is clear that the debt owed to him is more symbolic than money. In building your argument about what that debt is, and what its payment represents, look to Shylock’s experiences and words for clues as to his underlying motives.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: The Role of the Law in Society in Shakespeare's “Merchant of Venice”
One of the goals of law is to maintain social order by applying a set of standards to be followed by all citizens of a society. Yet, laws often have unintentional loopholes, for they are limited by the fact that they cannot anticipate all possible violations of the behaviors they seek to prevent. Nor are punishments always congruent with the crime committed. The interpretation of the law during the court hearing is a clever one, and Shylock is not only prevented from exacting the pound of flesh, but he is also forced to strike a deal according to the terms of which he must convert to Christianity and surrender his fortunes. Develop an argumentative essay on “The Merchant of Venice” in which you defend this decision or contest it. Be certain to note the differences between justice and fairness as legal and moral concepts.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Roles of Women in The Merchant of Venice
Women of the late 16th century were not exactly paragons of social empowerment, yet two of the women in The Merchant of Venice play significant roles in the fates of all characters. Portia and Nerissa cleverly disguise themselves as an esteemed lawyer and clerk, respectively, and interpret the law in such a way that Antonio and Bassanio are let off the hook, while Shylock is forced into a position of utter humiliation. Analyze the roles of these women, and indicate what factors made it possible for them to influence the outcome of the play as they did. For a shorter essay on the role of women in “The Merchant of Venice” do a character analysis of Portia or Nerissa in terms of their status as women.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: Shakespeare’s Evocation of the Reader’s Sympathy in “The Merchant of Venice”
Shylock is a man who is despised by many, and he certainly has moments of extreme irrationality and inflexible insistence that make him a rather unappealing and even deplorable character. Yet, there are many moments in which Shakespeare prevails upon the reader to consider the multidimensionality of this most complex character. Analyze those passages in which Shylock demonstrates his humanity and his emotional vulnerability, and offer a persuasive argument as to whether the reader should sympathize with Shylock.
Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: Religious Lessons in The Merchant of Venice
Clearly, religious issues are of central importance in The Merchant of Venice; they are the foundation from which the primary conflict emerges, and they serve as the plot propellants. The religious issues are not limited to the conflict between the Jewish Shylock and the other Christian characters, however. Religion also plays a central role in the sub-plot of the wooing of Portia. Consider what religious and spiritual lessons Shakespeare conveys by examining some of these sub-elements of the plot, focusing especially on the messages that appear on the caskets.
*For academic essays / articles on Merchant of Venice, visit the literature archives at Article Myriad or click here for a comparison of Othello and Merchant of Venice. The archives here have several other essays / articles on Shakespeare's works *
This list of important quotations from “The Merchant of Venice” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Merchant of Venice” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare they are referring to.
“To you, Antonio,/ I owe the most, in money and in love;/And from your love I have a warranty/To unburden all my plots and purposes/How to get clear of all the debts I owe." (Act I, Scene I, ll. 130-134, p. 6)
“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,/ walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat/ with you, drink with you, nor pray with you." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 32-34, p. 14)
“Signior Antonio, many a time and oft…/you have rated me/About my moneys and my usuances:/Still have I borne it with a patient shurg,/For sufferenace 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…." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 102-110, pp. 16-17)
“Go with me to a notary, seal me there/Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,/If you repay me not on such a day,/In such a place, such sum or sums as are/Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit/Be nominated for an equal pound/Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body pleaseth me." (Act I, Scene III, ll. 140-146, pp. 17-18)
“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 infold./Had you been as wise as bold,/Young in limbs, in judgment old,/Your answer had not been inscroll’d./Fare you well, your suit is cold." (Act II, Scene VIII, ll. 65-73, p. 37)
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" (Act III, Scene I, ll. 54-62, p. 45)
“If you wrong us,/shall we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest,/we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a/Christian, what is his humility? Revenge!/If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance/ be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction." (Act III, Scene I, ll. 62-69, p. 45)
“I never did repent for doing good,/Nor shall not now: for in companions/That do converse and waste the time together,/Whose souls do bear an equal yoke of love,/There must be needs a like proportion/Of lineaments, of manners, and of spirit….If it be so,/How little is the cost I have bestow’d/In purchasing the semblance of my soul…." (Act III, Scene IV, ll. 10-15; 18-20, p. 59)
“Yes… the sins of the father are/ to be laid upon the children; therefore, I promise/you, I fear you." (Act III, Scene V, ll. 1-3, p. 61)
“You’ll ask me, why I rather choose to have/A weight of carrion flesh than to receive/Three thousand ducats. I’ll not answer that,/But say it is my humour…." (Act IV, Scene I, ll. 40-43, p. 65)
Reference: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Roma Gill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Act I, Scenes 1-3
1. Compare and contrast Antonio’s situation in signing the agreement with Shylock, with Portia’s situation of being held bound to her father’s will.
2. Contrast Antonio’s loans to Bassanio with Shylock’s loan to Antonio and Bassanio
Act II, Scenes 1-9
1. What is the relationship—both structurally and thematically—of the Jessica/Lorenzo subplot to the main plots of The Merchant of Venice ?
2. Compare and contrast Morocco’s reasoning during the selection of caskets with Aragon’s speech during the same test.
3. Aside from the obvious one of comic relief, what function might Launcelot Gobbo be seen to have in the play?
Act III, Scenes 1-5
1. Compare and contrast Bassanio’s deliberations over the three caskets with those of his rivals.
2. Discuss Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech in relation to the various attitudes toward race demonstrated throughout the play.
3. How does Portia’s character develop over the course of Act III?
Act IV, Scenes 1-2
1. What factors motivate Antonio’s resignation in Act IV, Scene 1? Discuss this in relation to his ambiguous position of both envying his friend’s new relationship and yet sacrificing himself to make it possible.
2. How does the plot of the rings relate to the other contractual obligations dramatized in the play?
3. Consider and discuss the process by which Portia turns the situation in the court from Shylock’s advantage to Antonio’s.
Act V, Scene 1
1. Trace the development of Portia from a daughter bound by her father’s will to a behind-the-scenes manipulator of events.
2. How do Lorenzo’s speeches concerning the moon and ¬music suggest other themes previously explored in The Merchant of Venice?
3. What purpose does the parallel romance of Gratiano and Nerissa serve in terms of an audience’s evaluation of the relationship between Bassanio and Portia?