Anne Blocker's Reviews > The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
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's review
Sep 19, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: strong-influence
Recommended for: everyone
Read in March, 1956

My grandmother knew Shakespeare by heart. Not one play or a few sonnets, but all of it, the body of work. She believed the highest calling was to contribute to the body of human knowledge. She was one of the early professors at The University of Texas.

I knew Shylock and Portia as if they were members of our family when I went with my grandmother at 15 to the open stage at Stratford-on-Avon to see The Merchant of Venice. Growing up on an island in the Gulf of Mexico where every able-bodied person is valued in a storm, I was unable to understand the tone of anti-Semitism. I wrote about that when I next studied the play in college.

In my Forties, our laboratory was conducting research at St. Stephen's School in Austin when the Headmaster called to say I had to come immediately to see the results of a new learning device. The door to the classroom was locked until the bell rang. Seventh grade students streamed into the class and seized the lesson of the day to learn -- Elizabethan vocabulary for The Merchant of Venice. I expected groans and instead, it was like a race. In 15 minutes, they had all learned the lesson to 100% and the teacher turned on a video in process, an exchange of Portia, Antonio and Shylock about the pound of flesh.

When the word forsooth came on, the class, in unison, raised fists into the air and shouted the word. I was startled. Could this be learning?

When the video was turned off, the hands went up enthusiastically. The first question, what are the words we say today that will seem odd three hundred years from now? Cool, tight, talk to the hand seemed to qualify. The next question, what is a pound of flesh and where could you cut it off the body where it would do the most and the least damage? That led to a discussion of emergency medicine, vulnerability of biological systems and triage.

Then, the inevitable, what does it mean to be Jewish and why do they charge interest? If I lent you lunch money today, I wouldn't ask for more than I lent you tomorrow. That would not seem fair. The kids of bankers and Realtors were quick to discuss economic systems, countries where interest was illegal, the first rumors of the success of the Grameen Bank. They were guided in a discussion of the common origin of religions, the children of Abraham who had become Jews, Christians and Muslims.

I asked the teacher, noticing the time, when they were going to discuss the play and Shakespeare. She turned and smiled. This is what we study Shakespeare FOR, she said, to teach students to think and feel and deal with what is important -- poetry, ideas, the human condition. This is just the beginning. These kids will be talking about The Merchant of Venice all their lives. I realized she was right.
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04/19/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Kathryn (new)

Kathryn What a great teacher. I love what was happening in that classroom. TMOV is my favourite. I am interested in discussion about the ring. Our hero seems to have betrayed his love. Did he risk all by giving it up or was it a demonstration of his trust in Portia t hat she would agree with his position?

message 2: by Emilye (new)

Emilye Thank you for sharing this experience! I love that Shakespeare was being presented in a context that invited examination of our world, as I think his plays were intended to do in his own time.

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