The Tragedy of Shylock, Merchant of Venice (a Geeklet story)

My 9yr old recently finished The Wednesday Wars, a book about a student who bonds with his teacher over the works of Shakespeare set during the Vietnam War.

Geeklet: “Tell me again what Merchant of Venice is about.”

Me: “Well, Shylock is Jewish. The rest of the characters are Christian, like we are. And because Shylock is Jewish, he’s the bad guy in this one. He doesn’t have the same beliefs and rules as the Christians do, and because of that he can do things that Christians can’t, like lend money. It wasn’t allowed for Christians to make a business out of lending money, so the Jewish people would do it. But that’s what made them the bad guy, if that makes sense. Because they were willing to do something that that Christians would not, they were seen as evil and sinful. Even though Christians could be the ones borrowing the money.”

Geeklet: “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Me: “Well, exactly. Anyway, the whole point of the Merchant of Venice is that Shylock is the bad guy, right? And the Christians, they’re the good guys, right? Well at the very end of the play, the Christians take all of Shylock’s money, they make him say he’ll no longer be Jewish, and then they all laugh at him.”

Geeklet:  “Oh, so, a tragedy.”

Me: “No!  A comedy! Back in Shakespeare’s time they would have found it hysterical that the evil Shylock got what was coming to him.  We don’t think that way anymore. That’s one of the reasons we study that play, to remember how much our acceptance of people has changed over the centuries.”

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Shylock, Merchant of Venice (a Geeklet story)

  1. "Oh, so, a tragedy."

    –A lot closer to accurate than maybe we might wish. You could say Shylock was the tragic product of the rank hypocrisy of his time; hypocrisy in evidence even today, better hidden in plain sight and, because of that, one might say more acceptable as well.

    If we look past the surface, I think Shakespeare picked up a whole lot more on it than he is often times given credit for.

  2. Neil Davies says:

    Varoufakis points out Shylock’s tragedy is to be born at a time of profound economic change in society. Under feudalism the distribution of surpluses had occurred after the harvest was in. The power backing it was therefore visible. But as land and labour were transforming into commodities, which could be traded, distribution was happening before production took place. The power backing the new system would be far less clear. Continual anxiety was to be a feature of the new commercial societies, such as ours, because of the risks of producing enough to pay off debts incurred even before any work had been done. Shakespeare allows us to observe this change in the lives of a group of people who are unaware of the forces driving them. ‘The Global Minotaur’, p. 30

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *