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How does Shakespeare build dramatic tension?

Shakespeare wrote the Merchant of Venice, it is one of Shakespeare's less known plays because the original manuscripts were lost but the play did re-surface in the 1600s. In Shakespeare's time there was only one Jew in England, he name was Rodrigo Lopez. He was the Queen's Physician and was only half Jew. He was tried and executed. Shakespeare probably never met a Jew so he may have got his attitudes towards Jews from his experiences of them; he may also have got ideas and inspiration from the one other play about Jews at the time called `The Jew of Malta'. Christopher Marlowe who was a contempary of Shakespeare wrote it. Marlowe was stabbed to death in a pub.
This play was a controversial play when it was written and it still is now. It was controversial in Shakespeare's time because Jew's were not well liked and this is supported by the fact that the only Jew in England was executed. This play is arguably even more controversial now because we live in a post-holocaust world. The holocaust changed people's views towards Jews because they were treated like sub-humans and they were massacred by the millions.

The genre of this play is hard to decide because in Shakespeare's time it would have been a comedy because people would have wanted to see Shylock lose everything because he was a Jew but now it is more of a tragedy because our attitudes towards to Jews have changed. The Merchant of Venice is also a bit of a mystery play because we do not know who sent the letter about Antonio's ships because they never did sink it was a dramatic device use by Shakespeare.

The courtroom scene is one of the most important scenes because everyone is on stage and it is the penultimate scene of the play. Act IV Scene I is a stage for Shakespeare to present his ideas to the audience, he shows the Duke using derogatory language towards Shylock to show the attitudes of Venice towards Jews and he also shows us that women were not recognised in court through Nerissa and Portia dressing up as men to save Antonio. This scene also shows a change in attitude over time because in Shakespeare's time a Jew having to change to a Christian was a fate worse than death because it is a spiritual death and some people would say if you cant be yourself what's the point of life. But in our time death is much worse because we are not so religious.

As the scene opens, the Duke begins the dialogue with references to Shylock. The Duke uses phrases such as `That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice', `thou art come to answer a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch' to describe Shylock and his actions. Shakespeare uses this language to show how alienated Shylock is from the rest of the people in the courtroom and it also sets the scene that the trial is straight away biased because of the prejudice towards Jews. When Shylock enters the court, the Duke continues to use derogatory and insulting language to address Shylock he says `From stubborn Turks and Tartars, never train'd to offices of tender courtesy'. He also refers to Shylock as `Jew' instead of using his name, as if he is not good enough to have a name. The language the Duke uses shows Venice's hatred towards Jews and it also makes Shylock look all alone, fighting a battle against a city which despises him and his religion. The Duke speaks at Shylock rather than to him, which shows he thinks Shylock is sub-human and it shows the class difference between the Duke and Shylock.

Shylock's opening speeches express his will to have his pound of flesh because he wants to and nothing will stop him, `You'll ask me why I rather have a weight in carrion flesh than to receive three thousand ducats. I'll not answer that, but say it is my humour' this line confounds audience's expectations because everyone is looking at Shylock and expecting him to be merciful but instead he states that he will have his pound of flesh. Shylock is determined to have his pound of flesh because although three thousand ducats would be of more use to him than the flesh, it would be a major victory for him to lawfully kill a Christian in front of the people of Venice who hate him.

Shylocks opening speeches are impassionate and also represent part of the play's continuing themes of love and hate. Shylock talks mostly of hate in his speeches this relates to the theme of Christians and Jews as a symbol of hate. Shylocks talks about how he would rather have a rat in his house poisoned than receive ten thousand ducats, he uses this to illustrate why he is taking his pound of flesh rather than receive the money. The way Shylock likens Antonio to a rat shows how much hate there is between Christians and Jews. The feud between Antonio and Shylock is a structure or device used by Shakespeare to explore the idea of difference.

There are themes that run all the way through the play. Money is a big theme because it is the basis for the plot about Antonio owing Shylock money. Love is theme that is symbolised by Bassanio and Portia, it is also symbolised by the friendship of Antonio and Bassanio. Hate is an important theme because the play is about the hate between Christians and Jews, which is emphasized through Antonio and Shylocks feud. Family is also a theme and its importance is shown through how devastated Shylock is when Jessica runs away. Justice and mercy are shown to be linked because it isn't really possible to have justice without mercy. Death is a theme that is shown through Shylock's eagerness to kill Antonio.

Nerissa's sudden arrival increases the tension because the audience thought that there was nothing that could save Antonio because it Shylock was so determined to have his pound of flesh, `From both, my lord. Bellario greets your grace'. Now that a possible solution has arrived the audience knows a little bit about Portia's plan and are wondering if she will turn up. The audience are ultimately wondering if the plan will work if she does turn up.

Nerissa presents the letter and while she is doing this Shylock is whetting his knife, the juxtaposition of these two scenes happening at the same time is very effective. This is because you have got Nerissa trying to stop Shylock from getting his way, which is the solution, but at the same you have got Shylock preparing to carry it out. I think Shakespeare uses these to dramatic devices together because it creates tension because the audience can see in front of them the two things that could happen in the trial and this makes them wonder what is going to happen next.

When the letter is read out it is in prose as opposed to verse like the rest of the play, the transition from verse to prose makes it seem more likely that Antonio will be saved because verse is much less emotional and formal which makes the letter sound more genuine as it is the type of language a doctor of law would use. This change is a dramatic device used to change the atmosphere and mood of the scene. Before the letter is read out the people on stage are talking in poetry, they are also talking in an emotional way either trying to convince Shylock to be merciful or Shylock laying down the reasons for his actions.

Portia enters the court immediately after the letter has been read out `and hear, I take it, is the doctor come. Give me your hand; come you from old Bellario?' The entrance of Portia contributes to the dramatic tension because the audience is wondering if she will be able to save Antonio. The fact that Portia is dressed as a man is dramatically ironic because it is obvious to the audience who she really is but the characters on stage do not realise it. Shakespeare now increases the tension with Portia's pleas for mercy and Bassanio's offer to double the amount owed to Shylock by way of compensation.

Portia's pleas to Shylock for mercy but insistence on the letter of the law being obeyed are traps deliberately set so that Shylock's final defeat will be bitterer. Shylock refuses to accept the extra money from Bassanio through this Shylock condemns himself because he makes it quite clear that he wants to take Antonio's life, which makes him look like a murderer.

Portia tells Antonio he must prepare for the forfeit to be carried out, `You must prepare your bosom for his knife'. Shakespeare is building towards the climax, this increases the tension because it confounds the audience's expectations as the audience was expecting Portia to save Antonio not allow Shylock to carry out the forfeit.

Just as Shylock is about to carry out the forfeit, Portia reveals the details of the law, which makes it impossible for Shylock to carry it out `Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more but just a pound of flesh'. Shakespeare slowly reveals the details of the law to maximise the effect of the audience's realisation that what looked like Antonio's sealed fate could not be carried out.

Shakespeare's unexpected twist that Shylock is to die is very unexpected because Shylock was the one who brought the case to court in the first place. This twist would have worked even better on an Elizabethan audience because they would have wanted to see Shylock condemned to death because they hated Jews. `If it proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen,' `the offender's life lies in the mercy of the Duke only, `gainst all other voice.' Shakespeare's language when describing that Shylock must die show how much Shylock and his religion are despised by the city of Venice. In particular his use of the word `alien' to describe Shylock shows how alienated the Jews are from the rest of the people of Venice and England, which are both Christian societies.

I think Portia doesn't reveal her true identity because she thinks that it would not be appropriate for her to reveal her identity in front of other people because women are not recognised in court. I also think that maybe if she revealed her true self her arguments might be dismissed because she is a woman and not recognised and she did not want to risk losing the case. I think Antonio would be very grateful to her for saving his life but at the same time he would be shocked because women are not recognised in court. I think she accepts the ring from Bassanio so she can prove that it was she at the trial and so she can confront Bassanio for giving it away when he promised not to. This then paves the way for a comic ending after the seriousness of Act 4 Scene I.

Shakespeare used many dramatic devices to build dramatic tension in Act IV Scene I such as confounding the audience's expectations, sudden entrances and adding unexpected twists. I think Shakespeare built up dramatic tension very effectively because he quickly changed the direction of the trial from going in Shylock's favour to in Antonio's favour which kept the audience guessing all the time, he also used a different dramatic devices to build the tension which worked. The tension worked because it kept the audience guessing about what would happen next. Also it helped to put across Shakespeare's views and perspective on Elizabethan society.

I think the play has relevance to the modern audience because it shows a change in attitudes over time and it also shows how one event like the holocaust can completely change our attitudes and women today can see how lucky they are to live in a society which respects their opinions and lets them speak their minds. There are also lessons to be learnt such as not to make bonds that you cannot fill and that if you behave maliciously towards people it will catch up with you, they will treat you in the same way if the tables turn.   

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