A High School Course Considered – Part 2

Shylock and Jessica, Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879)

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my high school son’s Shakespeare course.  This is a fairly demanding course that my son has opted to take as an elective, mostly as a result of his respect and admiration for the instructor.  I’ve been listening very closely to his stories about the class and his observations of the dynamics, straining to recognize any pattern, any insight that I might add to my understanding of what makes for good teaching.

They started the term with sonnets.  Reading them, reciting them, and writing their own in order to master the intricacies of iambic pentameter.  Now they’ve moved onto their first play – The Merchant of Venice.  I’ve never read the play, but when I saw it on stage, I can remember feeling intensely uncomfortable. Squirming in my seat over my disappointment in Shakespeare, as an author.  How could such a gifted artist hold such deep and bald prejudice?  Rather than allow his students to squirm in silence over the discomfort that,  I’m sure, any modern reader would have, the instructor selected the breathtaking speech of Shylock’s, the moneylender, and asked the students (each of them) to memorize it and read it aloud in class.

He hath disgraced me, and hinderd me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason?  I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, 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?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

By having them all read the scene out loud, over and over, I intuit that my son’s instructor is trying to pour the language into their veins, make the sound of it so intensely familiar that it becomes an inner voice.  To shorten the distance between 1598 and 2010 and allow them to enter the idea – the notion – of Shylock.  Not just a character – but an attitude, an idea, an impression.

The class went on from there to discuss whether or not the play was indeed anti-semitic. They talked about the possibility of the sympathetic read – that Shakespeare drew the character in order to shine a light on the common prejudices of Elizabethan England.  Shylock is, after all, obviously wronged and the speech, quoted above, is surely moving.

And with that strategy, I can see that this gifted teacher has done it again – he’s left them with a question without providing an answer.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A High School Course Considered – Part 2

  1. Lovely post. I never once read this as antisemitic, actually. Shylock, with all of his bad traits in the play, does come off as sympathetic, very human, and indeed, you make a solid point on the wronging of one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters.

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