Discovering Shakespeare


He was reading something from the GED workbook when the term "segregation" came up. When he looked in one of the dictionaries, he said, it offered "a racial community" - which is like defining "robbery" as "the free movement of goods." So I gave him a couple of the Grass Roots Press biographies - I think the Fanny Lou Hammer book, or maybe Rosa Parks, and the Nelson Mandela one - to help him build a contextual definition.

"I don't understand," he said after. "To me, people are people. We're all just people. We just, like, we all live the same. We all get sick or whatever."

Whereupon I, good looking dog that I am, said "Wait! Wait!" and scrambled into Google. For once, the internet performed as advertised, the printer was not out of paper, and I handed him a sheet of paper with this:

I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, 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?
The Merchant of Venice Act 3, Scene 1


"Exactly!" he said. "That's it. It's all right there. What is this, anyway?"

So I told him, and we moved on.

I had only the slightest twinge of discomfort over the link between the play and antisemitism. From Wikipedia:

Regardless of what Shakespeare's own intentions may have been, the play has been made use of by antisemites throughout the play's history. One must note that the end of the title in the 1619 edition "With the Extreme Cruelty of Shylock the Jew..." must aptly describe how Shylock was viewed by the English public. The Nazis used the usurious Shylock for their propaganda. Shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938, "The Merchant of Venice" was broadcast for propagandistic ends over the German airwaves. Productions of the play followed in L├╝beck (1938), Berlin (1940), and elsewhere within the Nazi Territory.[16]

The depiction of Jews in English literature throughout the centuries bears the close imprint of Shylock. With slight variations much of English literature up until the 20th century depicts the Jew as "a monied, cruel, lecherous, avaricious outsider tolerated only because of his golden hoard."[17]

I wouldn't have encouraged him to read more of the play without laying some groundwork. But, for better or worse, this was the first and only time I've ever been able to create a living connection between a learner and Shakespeare.

Including the time I stood on a chair and delivered the Saint Crispin's Day speech from Henry the 5th.


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