The Merchant of Venice

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The Merchant of Venice
Imagery in "The Merchant of Venice"
Imagery is important in a text because it adds another dimension to the text. It enhances and extends meaning. It often helps to develop character or theme. For the following, complete the image and explain its meaning. Think carefully about who is speaking and to whom.

Act and scene


Technique and Meaning

Act I, scene I, lines 8-10

“Your mind is tossing on the ocean,
There where your argosies with portly sail


Act 1, scene 1, lines 148-151

“To shoot another arrow that self way
Which you did shoot the first, _____________________________________”


Act 1, scene 1, lines 169-172

“…her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece…


Act I, scene III, line 36

“How like a fawning ____________he looks!


Act II, scene I, lines 15-16

“Besides, the ______________________
Bars me the right of voluntary choosing:”


Act II, scene IX, lines 28-30

“…but like _________________
Builds in the weather on________________,
Even in the force and road of casuality.”


Act III, scene II, lines 44-45

“Then if he lose he makes a swan-like end,
Fading ________________.”


Act III, scene II, lines 121-123

“The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
a golden mesh _______________________
Faster than gnats in cobwebs.”


Act III,scene III, line 7

“But since I am___________, beware my fangs”


Act IV, scene I, lines 115-116

“…the weakest kind of fruit
________________________, and so let me,”


Act IV, scene I, lines 180-181

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It _____________________________”


Act V, scene I, lines 90-91

“How far that little candle throws his beams!



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.


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).

Caroline Spurgeon (1952). Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us. CUP.
© Ministry of Education, Wellington, New Zealand (First published 1998)

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