English majors gathered with non-English majors Thursday morning for professor and English department chair Jo Carney’s reading of Act III/Scene I of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Carney’s half-hour dissection of this work was the first in a series of “Close Readings.”
The purpose of Close Readings is to create a venue in which reading occurs as a group activity. These seminars emphasize the enjoyment that can be gleaned from looking closely into a text and allow individuals to experience the pleasure of literature together.
Thursday’s selection was a famous scene in which Shylock, a Jewish merchant in Venice, defends himself in the face of racism and malevolence. Carney described Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” as one of the dramatist’s “problem comedies.”
Although it was written to make people laugh, the play asks serious questions of its viewers. Through questions such as, “If you poison us do we not die?” Shylock speaks powerfully on the hypocrisy of racism.
Carney emphasized that the language used by Shylock was an important vehicle for Shakespeare’s message. The character’s extensive use of open-ended interrogatives was a way of persuading, which was, according to Carney, a priority of many men in Shakespeare’s time.
The professor noted that Shakespeare loved language and used an astonishing number of words yet he chose to make Shylock’s prose startlingly simple. He chose this method, Carney said, in order for the language to go “straight to the heart and ear.” She emphasized that simple and direct syntax does not imply simplicity of content or ideas.
Carney provided listeners with a background of the history and ideas pertaining to the reading. She also explained that Shakespeare was one of the few members of his circle that avoided arrest because, as was the case in “The Merchant of Venice,” he set his plays outside of England in order to evade controversy.
“I liked the way Jo Carney broke down the historical aspects of Shakespeare,” Ashley Edwards, freshman English major, said.
Following the reading, Carney hosted an open discussion about the work. Many comments revolved around religious persecution and how the scene related to a broader religious context. The stereotypes that Jewish people were subject to in Shakespeare’s time were discussed as well as the ways that Shylock’s language may have functioned to challenge the practices of Christians.
“It was interesting to hear all of these Ph.D.’s having a conversation and throwing out their ideas,” Lindsay Warren, a senior English major, said.