You have been introduced to a variety of ways of using historical contexts as a way to assist an understanding of Shakespeare. Look especially at the contrast between the "universalist" and "materialist" positions.
Look at the vexed questions of the anti-semitism of the play (is it or isn't it?) and the degree to which a modern audience or reader can reconstruct a historical response to the issues it raises.
In earlier classes we have looked in detail at the role of women in Shakespeare's plays. How is this issue dealt with in The Merchant of Venice? Look at Portia's attitude to her dead father (1.2.20-32 and 3.2.10-12) and to Bassanio (3.2.12 ff. and 149 ff.). Compare the developing relationship between Bassanio and Portia; how does the power balance between them at the end of the play compare with couples in comedies you have read earlier?
A related issue concerns the relationship between those of the same sex in the play; Portia and Nerissa, Antonio and Bassanio. How do you see these relationships in the context of the Renaissance? How might they be portrayed in a modern performance?
Consider the small subplot with Launcelot Gobbo and his father. Apart from providing a part for the company clown, Will Kempe, do you feel that the subplot contributes to the play?