English KS2: Shakespeare Retold - All for a pound of flesh
All for a pound of flesh
This story is based on The Merchant of Venice, which is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’, containing elements of tragidrama and comedy which are difficult to reconcile. In this adaptation, the story is told through the eyes of a young slave boy who realises that, to most, he is as invisible as ‘a dog or a goat’. It is a faithful and detailed re-telling which raises some very interesting questions about freedom, slavery and humanity. Is Portia any freer than a slave if her father has decreed that she must marry anyone who solves a riddle? Aren’t we all human, whether we are Jewish, Christian, slave or master?
Ideas for use in the classroom
Modern productions of The Merchant of Venice shy away from making Shylock a ‘villain’. He is horribly treated by the Christians in the play, who relentlessly mock him for his beliefs and who are overjoyed when his daughter runs off with a Christian. He is not a good man, but as the re-telling says he ‘was bitter about the way he was treated just for being Jewish; often pushed around and insulted. This had made him mean and hard, and turned him into a bully…’
Questions to think about:
- Many religions (including Christianity and Judaism) have explicit rules that state we should treat others as we expect to be treated. Does this happen in the play? How is Shylock treated? How does Shylock treat others?
- What happens when somebody is treated badly by others? What effect might it have on the way they behave in the future? Why do bullies act the way they do?
- Why is it important that we respect the beliefs of others, even if they are different from our own?
Ask children to listen carefully to what Tomas says at the very start of the programme. (‘I’m human: I see, hear, speak, touch, smell.’) Now read out Shylock’s famous speech (and if possible give out a hard copy for children to read),
I am a Jew. 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?
Can the children see similarities between the two speeches? This could be followed up with questions for debate such as:
What makes us human?
What would it be like if we were all exactly the same?
Is it difficult for people of different religions or social backgrounds to be friends?
Is it better to be rich or poor?
Is it better to be rich and miserable or poor and thankful for what you have?
Is there a difference between being ‘rich’ and being ‘wealthy’?
Other than money, what else might constitute ‘wealth’?
What does it mean to have ‘freedom’?
What freedoms do we take for granted that others do not have?
Discussions about freedom and slavery based on Tomas’s story might develop into discussions about rights, responsibilities, Classroom Charters and subsequent lessons on UNICEF’s Conventions on the Rights of the Child, for which resources and lesson plans are widely available.
In the re-telling, when Portia (disguised as Balthazar) tries to persuade Shylock to show mercy, she speaks the following words:
“Shylock! You can’t put a value on mercy. It is good, gentle, like soft rain, blessing the person who gives mercy as well as the person who receives it.”
Shylock however, maintains that he will have what he is entitled to. Kindness is not an option.
Questions and Activities:
Look up the word ‘mercy’ in the dictionary. What does it mean? Why does mercy bless the person who show mercy and the person who receives it? (Or why is it good to forgive someone as well as to be forgiven?). Children could hold a debate or write a persuasive argument either FOR or AGAINST Portia’s position (for Shylock to show mercy to Antonio) using evidence from the re-telling to support their views and including evidence of their own they have collected or collated during whole class mind mapping (eg based on personal experiences or by making links to national news stories, TV and films, books they have read, etc.)
Drama and performance
- Generate questions to Hot Seat Shylock, Antonio and the slave boy Tomas based on the re-telling of the story.
- Create a role on the wall for Shylock, Antonio and Tomas based on what we learn about them in the re-telling.
- As we have seen, status is very important in this story and in its retelling. In small groups, children could devise short dramas that deal with status and show them back to the rest of the class for discussion. Examples may include; a child being bullied/ someone standing up to a bully/ a teacher or parent punishing a child unfairly/ a customer complaining in a shop or restaurant.