Dr. David Davies of the English and classics departments says that he was surprised when he received an invitation from the Dallas Institute of Culture and Humanities to discuss reason, justice and love in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in a “salon” held by the institute Saturday afternoon. Speaking of his initial skepticism, he said, “It seems to me there is [in The Merchant of Venice] little if any rational judgement, no justice and nothing deserving of the name of love.” This notion seemed to be confirmed by the interesting, if digressive, turn that the discussion took.
Present at the seminar was an eclectic mix of professors. Five of these were the University of Dallas’ own: Dr. Bainard Cowan of the English department, Dr. Joshua Parens of the philosophy department, Dr. David Sweet of the classics department (and dean of the Braniff Graduate School), Dr. Richard Dougherty of the politics department, and Davies, who served as the seminar’s moderator. Also present was Dr. Aaron Thurow, a University of Dallas graduate who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas’ Jefferson Center for Core Texts and Ideas, as well as Dr. Martin Yaffe, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas.
The discussion opened with Davies’ question, “Where is the love [in the play], what justice, and what reason is employed?” and was led largely by Thurow, whose recent research on the thematic relationship between Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays and Shakespeare’s portrayals of love and beauty was relevant to the discussion.
Thurow argued that love can be an action, either useful or not, saying “Antonio’s love does not make Bassanio better; Portia’s does.”
The conversation was free-formed: Davies was equally a participant and moderator, and the panelists quickly turned to the subjects of economics and religion.
Yaffe, whose expertise extends through business ethics, the history of philosophy, and Judaic religion and philosophy, was very active in this part of the discussion. In 1997 he published a lengthy study on The Merchant of Venice, titled Shylock and the Jewish Question.
Yaffe pointed out Shakespeare’s criticisms both of the strict legalism of Judaism and the ineffectual, perhaps gullible nature of Christianity’s take on economics, stating that the titular character, Antonio, who lends money almost unquestioningly without interest and gets into considerable trouble doing so, “just wants to return to the old Christian ways.”
One of the final questions of the seminar was perhaps an unanswerable one: Is The Merchant of Venice a tragedy or a comedy?
It is notable that in Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, a 1623 published collection of Shakespeare’s plays commonly referred to as the “First Folio,” it is classified as a comedy.
How did Davies respond? “It says it’s a history … I need someone to explain that to me.”