The Merchant of Venice

Who is the main character?

There are a few Shakespeare plays where the character named in the title is not necessarily the biggest role in the play, or the one that the audience connects with.

In The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio is named in the title as the subject of the play. His character does go on quite a journey, from risking money, to losing his fortune, to being arrested and having his life threatened, to finally being saved. Is a main character always in control of their fate? Things seem to happen to Antonio, rather than him having control over the events in his life. He is quite unlike like Macbeth or Hamlet.

Over the years, audiences, actors and directors have often considered Portia and Shylock to be the two biggest roles in The Merchant of Venice, but are either of them the main character in your perspective? Or do you think the main character is someone else entirely?

Group discussion

Get into small groups of three to five students. Discuss who you think is the main character of the play, and why?

Use the following questions as a guide for your discussion:

  • Which character were you most drawn to, and why?
  • Who do you feel had the most stage time or the most lines?
  • Do you think the director drew our focus towards one character in particular?
  • Who did you care the most about, and why?
  • Who did you empathise with, and why?
  • Were there any characters who you did not relate to at all? Why not?

If your ideas differ, you may need to take a vote, which is why it's important to have an odd number of people in your group if possible.

Individual work

  • Once you have decided which character you feel was the main character in this production, make a list of the important things that occurred to them throughout the play.
  • Did the character cause these things to happen or were they a victim of circumstance? Explain why you think this, using examples from the play.
  • Why are they the most important character to you?

Present your findings to your class. Note whether other groups had similar or different answers to you.

Creative writing

  • Write a short diary entry from this character’s perspective about the things they have experienced throughout Bell Shakespeare’s production of this play, or even one event that you thought was important. This can be a very personal and emotional response to how this event/s made them feel, how others treated them, how they are positioned in their world. Do you think they feel empowered or disempowered?

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