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The Merchant of Venice
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Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 9 links]

The Filmmaker's Vision

Playing Shylock
In the long performance history of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock has been played as a buffoon, a malevolent manipulator, a tragic hero, and a victim. No one knows how Shakespeare intended the character to be played, but the part as written has invited the full range of interpretations. How does Henry Goodman play the part in the Masterpiece Theatre production? Have students track his performance as you watch the film. Divide a piece of paper into columns labeled "sympathetic portrayal" and "unsympathetic portrayal." Use the two columns to note what you see and hear: important lines, gestures, responses.

After viewing, compare your list with others in the class. Do you think Shylock could be played more sympathetically than he is here? If so, how? Cite specific lines or scenes that might be acted differently.

Building Blocks
Creating a film from a play is not as simple as turning on a video camera to record a stage performance. Filmmaking is a distinct art form, requiring a series of decisions by the filmmakers that produce a viewing experience different from that of live theater. What are the building blocks of film? How do filmmakers use their art to shape our responses to plot, character, and themes?

Take apart selected scenes from The Merchant of Venice and Othello to explore these questions. View a two- to three-minute clip from each film on video. You may wish to use the scenes suggested below. (Or, see the Drama to Film sections of The Merchant of Venice and the Othello Web sites to view scenes in streaming video.)

Compare what you saw and heard in each clip to how you imagine the same scene would play on the stage of a theater. List as many differences as you can. Now compare scenes from the two films against each other, looking at specific elements of filmmaking:

  • Set/background.
    How elaborate or realistic are the sets? Are they interiors, exteriors, or both? Filmed on a sound stage or on location? What is the atmosphere of each scene, and how does the set help create it?

  • Lighting.
    How is the scene lit? What is the source and intensity of the light? Does it appear natural or artificial? How does the lighting help create the mood or spirit of the scene?

  • Camera work.
    How tight are the shots (close-up, wide angle)? What is the position of the camera relative to the actors (above, below, eye-level)? Is the camera moving or steady? Do you feel close to the action or removed from it?

  • Editing.
    How many different shots are in the scene? How rapid are the cuts between shots? What is the effect of the editing?

  • Sound.
    Are there sound effects or a sound track? Watch for a moment with your eyes closed. What do you hear in addition to voices?

Drawing Conclusions
After developing their answers, have students read comments from actors, directors, and producers at the play's Web sites.

  • What do you think The Merchant of Venice director Trevor Nunn hopes to do with film that he could not do in live theater? How does his film change the viewer's experience of Shakespeare's play?
  • What is Geoffrey Sax, the director of Othello trying to achieve? How does his purpose differ from Trevor Nunn's?
  • Which film is more like the last film you saw in a movie theater? Refer to specific techniques and choices in your answer.

The Camera at Work
Othello: Point of View
Opening banquet scene
(about 2 minutes into the film)
Watch the scene and note the position of the camera in relation to the actors. How does Jago use the camera? What is the camera's point of view during the speech? How does the camera's point of view control how we understand and interpret events? Is Jago controlling what we see in the story and how we see it?

The Merchant of Venice: Capturing Action and Reaction
Trial scene from Portia's entrance
(about 1 hour, 35 minutes into the film)
How does the camera follow the dialogue between Shylock and Portia? Specifically, how do the scene's many close-up shots add to the emotional intensity of the scene? How do the wide shots heighten the effect of the action and movement in the scene?

Stop the film on a wide angle shot. Would this shot work better as a close-up? Describe another shot you would consider if you were the director. Stop the film on a close-up. How would the effect be different if the shot were wider? What choice would you make?


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