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The Merchant of Greece?

November 9, 2010


The Merchant of Venice
, by William Shakespeare, is a play about how Jewish man (Shylock) is not repaid the money that he loans to two men. Shylock, a moneylender, makes an agreement with a man named Antonia, who needs the money to give to his friend as travel expenses in order to court Portia. The deal is that Shylock will not charge any interest, but if he is not paid back timely, then Antonia will lose “a pound of flesh.” After no money had been received, a friend of Shylock seeks the pound of blood from of Antonio. Portia, the woman caught in the middle of situation, offers to repay the unpaid loan three times, but Shylock refuses the offer. Eventually Shylock goes on trial in order to seek justice against Antonio. Portia, disguised as man in the courtroom, reminds Shylock that if he takes any of Antonio’s flesh, then he will be arrested immediately. Therefore, Portia begins to argue that Shylock should not receive any money and as result should face the death penalty for plotting against a Christian man. In this pressing circumstance of life versus death, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.

While reading the “Apology” by Plato earlier in the semester, I could not help but to notice the similarities between Socrates (specifically in sections 34 and 35 of the text) and Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Both men argue to save their own lives in an unapologetic tone, which creates the idea of a superiority complex. Personally, it seems odd to be acting above the judiciary committee involved, yet each man look down on their current society as they are faced as a neighborly anomaly. Socrates believes in radical philosophical concepts, while Shylock is a Jew.

Putting aside these ‘quirks’ which separate them from the majority, both men play the ‘I-have-a-family-and-children card’ as a means for the jurors and judges to relate to them. For example, Socrates states in section 34d that he is:

Not born ‘from oak or rock,’ but from men, so that I have a family, indeed three sons, men of Athens, of whom one is an adolescent while two are children.

Clearly, Socrates is trying to convey a sense of empathy and relatedness towards the people of the courtroom in order to distract why he is being placed on trial. Both men are trying to divert from the reason of the trial, and suggesting people look at humanity. Ironically, Shylock suggests humanity in the courtroom, but he himself is on trial because he is threatening to take the life of Antonio (obviously not very humane!) He demonstrates this by stating during the trial that he has a family.

These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter;

Would any of the stock of Barrabas

Had been her husband rather than a Christian

These two examples demonstrate how both men in dramatic and life threatening moments chose to find the humanity in the situation. Although each man was originally criticized for thinking and acting differently, they are now trying to create a parallel.

While they are trying to create a sense of equality, they also attempt to connect to prosecutors by acting somewhat elitist, which is odd juxtaposition when the majority of people in a room want you dead. Socrates blatantly states in section 35a that “Socrates is superior to the to majority of men.” He continues this argument by deflating the intellectual capacity of Athenians. When Shylock enters the courtroom he angrily and fiercely explains how he wants justice rather than mercy for the matter with Antonio.

What if my house be troubled with a rat

And I be pleased to give ten thousand ducats

To have it baned? What, are you answer’d yet?

Some men there are love not a gaping pig;

Some, that are mad if they behold a cat;

And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose,

Cannot contain their urine: for affection,

Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes. Now, for your answer:

As there is no firm reason to be render’d,

Why he cannot abide a gaping pig;

Why he, a harmless necessary cat;

Why he, a woollen bagpipe; but of force

Must yield to such inevitable shame

As to offend, himself being offended;

So can I give no reason, nor I will not,

More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing

I bear Antonio, that I follow thus

A losing suit against him. Are you answer’d?

Here Shylock is quite fierce when he chooses to not provide a reason about why he is pursuing this unprofitable case. He answers the question in quite a sassy way as reflects his answer’s approval back at the Duke. Shylock even uses rhetorical question and answer sequences (though this is not the best example) in order to prove his point. Very Socratian!

I am writing this post because I truly found the similarities between these two men quite uncanny. Though Shylock succumbs to society by converting while Socrates remains in jail, there is something to be said about this comparison. It makes me wonder how much of Shakespeare’s philosophical opinions and syntactical influence aided him while writing this anti-Semitic piece of dramatic literature?

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One Comment
  1. mjlewan permalink
    November 9, 2010 2:52 PM

    This is a very interesting post. The comparison never dawned on me but there are a lot of interesting similarities between Shylock and Socrates, the most important of which, in my opinion, is the religious persecution that each man faces against the majority. While Socrates is brought down for having no religion at all, Shylock is discredited for having strong beliefs in a different faith. This is a distinct difference that has a strong effect on how each man reacts to the similar situation when on trial. Socrates will not submit to any form of belief system other than his own complicated unique one while Shylock, having already been a part of a world religion, is less forcefully opposed to converting to another. This is where I disagree with one of your final points, that Shakespeare’s play is anti-semetic. I think Shylock’s forced conversion is a stronger critique of the Christian majority and how they saw other religious believers during Shakespeare’s time. The Merchant of Venice is no more anti-semetic than the apology is anti-philosophy. The main character’s beliefs are challenged in both stories and although they deal with these challenges in different ways neither will completely lose themselves to what others are forcing them into. Shylock may have converted but what does he really believe? Did truly convert? And what of Socrates, while he may have faced death for what he believed in he never wavered, even when it was to save his own life. If Plato’s interpretation of the trial and death of Socrates is meant to show Socrates in a positive light, I would have to believe that The Merchant of Venice does the same for Shylock.

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