Skip to main content


In this module, you’ll have the chance to think about how performances shape and reshape texts, working with William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. We'll be focusing intensively on this play over the five parts of the module, learning how to read and analyze Shakespeare, how to analyze drama and performance, and how to design a dramatic scene.

Our goal for this module is to help you take ownership over the material so that you will feel confident in reading and enjoying Shakespeare. This module will also give you the tools you need to put your knowledge of Shakespeare and the stage into action by producing a scene of your own. You don’t need any previous experience with drama or with Shakespeare—just a willingness to pay attention to language and to learn more about performance.


Work in this class includes a number of different activities:

  • Readings and videos: In addition to reading The Merchant of Venice (more than once!), you will also have shorter readings each week, with information that will help you to contextualize and better understand the course’s topics. These will be supplemented with short instructional videos, interviews, and clips from several productions of the play—including live theater, but also film and television.
  • Annotations: There will be several chances for you to annotate Merchant, including some short passages to practice close reading as well as guided thematic annotation across the whole play and staging notes for the scene you will perform. You can also feel free to use our installation of the course annotation tool, Annotation Studio, to make notes and jot down questions on your own.
  • Questions and quizzes: There will be several short reading activities that will give you guided practice in observing important features of Shakespeare’s texts; this module also has a number of quizzes and comprehension checks that will help you to make sure you understand core concepts and ask you to think about significant aspects of the play. It is important for you to remember that these quizzes are not graded and that you can check your answers as many times as you like. Instead of just trying to figure out the right answer, think about all of the options and consider what each question might reveal about our readings. We encourage you to check multiple answers to see the feedback that each provides.
  • Discussion forum posts: Our discussion forum will be your main opportunity to communicate with other students. Please be respectful at all times, even if you disagree with someone, and remember that this play will raise some sensitive topics. The most successful discussion forums posts are ones that are brief, but substantive; please read through other students’ posts and consider replying, rather than starting a new topic. The course team will be reviewing the discussion forums and will moderate the comments if necessary.
  • Final performances: In the final assignment for this module, you will prepare a short scene from Merchant; you will film this scene twice—once in a location of your own choosing, and once in front of a live audience. Together, these performances and your reflections are your opportunity to stake your own claim for how you think the play might be performed, and to show how you have been thinking about performance, about Merchant, and about the topics raised by the play.

Because this module is self-guided and self-assessed, it will be up to you to set personal goals and work on accomplishing them. This is not a course that focuses on lectures and tests; instead, you will complete activities that will help you to think through our key concepts—with some instruction through video and readings to get you started. We also will share interviews and rehearsal & performance footage from The Merchant in Venice, which was performed in the Venetian Ghetto in the summer of 2016, as well as performance footage from several other stagings, so you will have a chance to see the play in action and hear from people with experience in staging Shakespeare.

We have collected links for a wide range of resources that we think you may find helpful or interesting; you’ll find these on the Resources tab—and also added to sections of the course where they are particularly relevant.


You are free to use any version of The Merchant of Venice you like for this module. There are several free versions online, including the Folger Digital Texts edition that is included on the course site for you to read and annotate online. You can access and download other formats of the Folger edition at their site. You may also choose to read the version published by the Internet Shakespeare Editions project, or even read the First Folio online with page images and a transcription made available through the Bodleian Library.

One thing that all of these editions have in common is that they do not contain any explanatory notes, which can often be very helpful. If you would prefer to read an annotated version, there are several excellent scholarly editions of The Merchant of Venice—many of which are available as relatively inexpensive paperbacks. You might also consider using WorldCat to help you find a copy in your local library. In addition to the Folger edition that we have added as a course textbook, we will sometimes make reference to the Norton Critical Edition, which includes scholarly essays and historical sources as well as explanatory annotations. However, no matter which edition you choose to read, you can use the play's act, scene, and line numbers to navigate.


Professor Diana Henderson

Erica Zimmer, instructional designer

Cathleen Nalezyty, instructional and video designer

Sarah Connell, instructional designer

Shelly Upton, educational technologist 

Kyle Boots, educational technologist

Douglass McLean, video designer

We would also like to thank professors Eugenie Brinkema, Shankar Raman, Yu Jin Ko, and Diego Arciniegas; Daniel Epelbaum; Jana Dambrogio; the entire cast and crew of The Merchant in Venice; the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT); the Office of Open Learning at MIT; the MIT Global Shakespeares Video & Performance Archive; the Literature Section at MIT; the Annotation Studio team; Ted Hardin and Elizabeth Coffman; and all of our interview subjects and beta testers for their assistance and support in creating this module. 


This course is self-directed and self-paced. All materials are posted and available, and while you can follow its pages sequentially, we encourage you to explore as best meets your interests and educational goals. The module is organized as follows:

  • Part 1: Reading Drama and Poetry
  • Part 2: The Merchant of Venice and Close Reading
  • Part 3: Productions of The Merchant of Venice
  • Part 4: Designing Your Own Productions
  • Part 5: Preparing for Live Performance


If you find that a video doesn’t play after a minute or two, try reloading or refreshing the page. If you find yourself with questions or encounter any challenges as you're working your way through the course, please post to the Questions and Challenges discussion board forum.


This module is not graded. You will need to define your own version of what success looks like and be responsible for your own learning. Ideally, all students will take advantage of the varied ways of learning this module offers and work toward the final project of creating a performance video to share. The outcomes we are working toward together will be appreciation for Shakespeare from the inside out, confidence in enjoying the plays, and continued learning and application of the tools you will master after the module has ended.