To clarify the story line and the interactions among the characters in the play, I will ask the following questions during our discussion period. I have found from experience that choosing different students to lead the discussion by asking the questions and calling on others helps keeps the class as a whole more engaged and so I will have these questions written on notecards for my discussion leaders to use. I will include such questions as:
What is Portia worried about?
Who can explain how the 3 caskets test works?
Why do you think Portia’s father made this test?
What is the suitors’ problem?
If you were there, which casket would you choose? Why?
What does (name of character) say or think about himself/herself?
What does (name of character) say about others?
What surprises (name of character)?
How did the story end? Would you change the ending? If yes, how?
Does this story remind you of any story you know?
After this initial discussion we will begin our character analysis. Why teach character traits? Character trait studies add rigor to any discussion of a story and help students develop an understanding of characters’ motives. By studying character traits, students learn how to make appropriate inferences from facts and children enjoy debating and explaining their reasoning in a discussion format. At the first grade level, the teacher plays a major role in helping students make inferences as this is a relatively new concept for them. So I plan to help them each step of the way. I will begin with the important question: How do you think that authors show a character’s personality to readers? They seldom just tell you by using trait words like brave or lazy. Rather they show the reader by giving them clues to look for in a story. These clues might be the words he says, the thoughts he has or the actions he does. I would tell them that their job as readers is to gather up these clues and then decide what kind of person the character is.
I have found that my first-graders are often confused by the question (found on their BAS reading test): What is the character like? They immediately look puzzled at such wording and respond by saying: “Well, he/she likes to…” When that happens I quietly sigh because, just like Portia, during the test I cannot give any prompting and so they go off on this irrelevant tangent for which they will be awarded no points for comprehension. So my rationale for using this wording regularly is that it will expose them to this common type of question and hopefully they will get a better sense of how to respond to it appropriately and describe what a character is like, not what he/she likes.
In this section we will analyze the characters of Portia, Bassanio, the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon. I will begin by showing them a chart of character traits that will look like this:
I will ask them to choose two or three traits to describe a parent or a best friend and after listing them on chart paper I will ask them to give some reason or evidence to explain their choice. From this lesson we will move to an analysis of the play’s characters. This format of selecting character traits and then finding evidence by looking at a character’s words or actions is an effective way for teachers to encourage students to comprehend the text they are reading at a deeper level. In a play such as ours, where the students are just reading the script, there are no pictures to support the text or movement of the actors on stage to observe and so they have to rely on an analysis of the character’s written words and actions to determine character traits. The graphic organizer that my students will use will look like this:
Here is a sample description of each of these four characters, naming traits, actions and feelings that I will be encouraging my students to discover. I suggest not copying this list but trying to elicit from students something like it, however complete or abbreviated. The aim is to have students come up with their own interpretations based on the evidence (found by looking at a character’s thoughts, words and actions) in the play.
· initially does not know which of the caskets will win her
· remains quiet during the caskets test but is not used to doing so
· gives and hazards all she has to Bassanio: her fortune, her household, her right to make her own decisions
· feels worried that she will end up with an unwanted, unloving suitor
· feels trapped by her father’s mandate
· feels relieved after both suitors (before Bassanio) fail the test
· feels dizzy with love after Bassanio passes the test
· feels willing to give everything unconditionally to Bassanio after he passes the test
Prince of Morocco
· shows himself to be rich in dress and in language
· willing to gamble and take the 3 caskets test agreeing to the vows
· pompously brags about his bravery and prowess in battle
· is fooled by appearances
· shows excessive pride and cannot imagine risking everything for the worthless lead casket choice
· says that he does love Portia
· chooses the gold casket because he thinks only a beautiful thing (her portrait) can belong inside a beautiful thing (the gold casket)
· forgets that moral choice is the true arena for the proof of man’s worth
· does not take his defeat lightly
· feels proud of his background and military prowess
· has a superficial love of riches
· feels he is worthy of Portia and deserves her based on his wealth, good breeding, manners and his love for her
· feels humble about the fact that his nobility and military fame cannot help him in choosing the right casket
· feels he is equal to any man
· does not seem to understand that worthiness can appear in humble places
Prince of Arragon
· holds a very high opinion of himself at the expense of others
· uses his reason to make decisions
· is very dependent on what others think
· acts more prudently and does not want to risk all of his possessions by choosing the common lead casket
· shows no love or affection for Portia
· does not see that appearances can be deceptive
· could not imagine that any lesser metal could contain the goal he strives for
· chooses the silver casket because he thinks he deserves the very best
· feels that due to his inherited nobility he well deserves Portia
· strongly believes in his own superiority
· feels overconfident in his own merit
· feels that he alone possesses perfect judgment
· feels angry and ashamed when he fails the test
· freely asks his friend, Antonio for financial aid over and over again
· dresses himself for the occasion very impressively
· is ready to risk all he has for happiness and love
· gives without knowing if he will receive anything in return
· learns to look beyond appearances to what is really valuable in life
· pensively deliberates over each casket before making his choice
unreservedly commits himself to Portia after passing the test
· realizes that he truly is in love with Portia
· feels anxious to get the caskets test over with
· feels wary about judging a thing simply by its outward appearance
I am concerned that this lack of visuals in the presentation of this story might hamper my students’ understanding of the play’s important events. At their age they still rely heavily on picture support of the text in the books they read. Is it better to stimulate their imagination with visual examples of some of the scenes or to ask the students to draw their own visuals? I have collected a number of online paintings and movie photos of the story’s main characters and the three caskets scene showing, for example, Bassanio ruminating over his choice (in Robert Alexander Hillingford’s ‘The Three Caskets’ The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene II) that I can project on the classroom Smartboard for the class to examine and talk about if need be.
In Lesson Plan 1 the students will learn about verbal clues in the play and how to make inferences about the traits of a character by examining the words he/she says. This lesson is to be taught with a high level of teacher guidance.
Shakespeare’s characters in the story of the 3 caskets is rich in life-lesson content. Not only does it teach us about making smart choices but it is also about love, sacrifice, greed, and the deceptive nature of outward appearances. It is important to encourage young learners to realize the fact that people often can and do change as a result of their experiences and become better people. This story provides a perfect segue into such a discussion. Our character analysis will now go a step deeper as we take a look at how each character changes as a result of going through the caskets test. It can be said that this moral lottery devised by her father really did have its desired effect of separating those suitors full of self-importance or greed from those willing to sacrifice everything for his daughter. I would use the following chart to record the discoveries we make.
In the Beginning the character
At the End the character
In Lesson Plan 2 the students will take a closer look at action clues, a character’s actions and reactions to the obstacles he/she faces that reveal his/her character traits. Through this lesson my students will have an opportunity to see more clearly that our experiences shape us and offer us opportunities to grow and change.
Lesson Plan 3 will be a kind of culminating activity in which the students will take what they have learned about these four characters and try to step inside their shoes to write a bio poem about each of them. I have found a great deal of success pairing students up for more challenging activities like this one and so this will be a ‘buddy writing project’.
Character analysis is essential to the understanding of any story or any play. After all, without characters venturing forth into the world, interacting with each other, learning lessons from the challenges they face, there would be no story. Shakespeare has given us so many ‘scenes of instruction’ within his stories by which we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us. This story of the 3 caskets has important lessons to teach us all about life and the choices that we make.