Here are a few questions and thoughts to kick things off. I'll send around a few more later, if need be, but my sense that shorter is often better at the outset:
1. First, why is Antonio so sad? He mirrors Shylock at the end in his "aloneliness" (his ship has come in, but he is rather glaringly unpartnered) – should we read him as a Christian mirror of the moneylender? Is it the impending loss of Bassanio that looms over him at the beginning? A premonition of his sinking fortune?
2. Are we supposed to read the riddle of the caskets as anything more than a charade? It takes a dim ninth grader to be befuddled by it, and I vacillate on wondering if that's the point, or if it's simply a necessary weakness on the part of a symbolic plot device? Silver as a "middle path" has always struck me a bit sideways (i.e. if gold is 100 and lead is 0, then silver comes in as a middling B at 83). And how far can we push the ubiquitous use of the word "casket" (i.e. Jessica tosses Lorenzo the goods in Act 2, scene 6: "Here, catch this casket. It is worth thy pains.") and all its connotations: treasure chest, corpse holder, stereotypical "box" for fathers to contain daughters, etc. (i.e. Shylock says of Jessica in Act 3, scene 1 "Would she were hearsed at my foot and the ducats in her coffin.")
3. Who would you cast as Shylock in a production today, and why? Grapple directly with the level of sympathy/antisemitism you read in the play, and how far a valid interpretation can go. "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"
4. What do we make of Shylock's demise? He ends with "I am content, "followed by, "I pray you give me leave to go from hence. / I am not well. Send the deed after me / And I will sign it." That's it. The rest is silence. Not with a bang but a whimper. How much sympathy do we have for him? Is there a critique of Christianity in the justice he receives? (Via the same new testament that brought us "The love of money is the root of all evil" and "Love one another as I have loved you.") Or are we comfortably inside a worldview that aligns more closely with Mel Gibson's?