Shylock Unchained

The Society gathered for the eighth time this semester for a literary debate: Resolved: Shylock deserves his pound of flesh. On the affirmation were Ms. Emily Coccia (COL ’15) of Pennsylvania and, making her induction, Ms. Janelle Spira (NHS ’18) of California. On the negation were Mr. Luke Young (MSB ’15) of Colorado and, making his induction, Mr. Adam Gonzalez (SFS ’18) of Texas. With a Philodemic Rendition of Shakespeare, President Whelan opened the debate asking “to be a good debate, or not to be.”

“Hath not a Jew eyes?” Ms. Spira started by echoing Shylock’s appeal to common humanity and exposure of Christian hypocrisy. Defining Shylock as a microcosm of social inequality and religious discrimination, she recapitulated the play’s plot and framed the debate as threefold: the contract’s legality, Shylock’s right to anger and the bond’s symbolic significance. She first established the contract’s legality with Rousseau’s Social Contract theory, aligning Christianity with mercy in New Testament and Judaism with justice in Mosaic covenant. She then attributed Shylock’s insistence on justice to a righteous anger for his humanity shattered by Christian religious persecution. But denied justice in the ending, Shylock is ultimately “left with nothing” – For him, Merchant for Venice is a tragedy.

But according to Mr. Gonzalez, Shylock is persecuted not just for his Jewish ethnicity but also for his actions as a usurer. He hates Antonio, the Christian who helps those in debt, just as “a lion hates a shepherd for protecting the sheep” and his hatred is “just as racist, if not more so.”  He also selfishly takes out his frustration on those around him, including his daughter Jessica and servant Lancelot. Moreover, Shylock appeals to law and vengeance instead of the scale-balancing Lady Justice and the Society does not deserve the pound of flesh taken in a “zero-sum” situation. Mr. Gonzalez left us with the question: “If people aren’t judged by their actions, what are they judged by?”

Ms. Coccia responded with a few corrections: Usury was only practiced by Jews as their sole mode of living and Lancelot was a “clown” not to be taken too seriously. In Shylock’s explanation of his motive, she discerned an anger at Christians and at the Venetian society that denied him humanity as a Jew — “If we desire mercy, we deny humanity.” And this anger, unlike the unproductive hatred of anti-Semitism, motivates reaction to oppression. If we refuse to “stand still and listen to anger’s rhythm,” we also blindly refuse to recognize the wrongs done to Shylock. Ms. Coccia then emphasized the symbolic meaning of a pound of flesh in the bloody Elizabethan England. Shylock is asking for reparation, the “sacrifice of something symbolically significant” to his oppressors. (In this case, castration.) He poses us the question: “Who gets to dictate the terms of justice?” The oppressed Jews or the oppressing merchant class and aristocracy?

Though he shared with Shylock the “[belief] in the power of finance” as a MSB student, Mr. Young stressed the concrete and zero-sum concept of deserving in Shylock’s case. He argued that regardless of the contract’s validity or Shylock’s righteous anger, the “pound of flesh” was a “blood-thirsty revenge” far darker than Ms. Coccia’s symbolic interpretation — By refusing the $1.2 million offer, Shylock asks not for reparation voluntarily given but for “revenge on his terms.” With the case of Japanese internment, Mr. Young reminded us that such a revenge would require painful harm done to other citizens. “Shylock deserves never to be wronged in the first place,” but not his pound of flesh.

With the same respect for agency, Mr. Fletcher values “how Shylock sees himself” as advancing the cause of his fellow sufferers for their denied humanity. He concluded from King’s and Ghadi’s examples that “In an unjust society, what is just would appear unreasonable.” But Ms. Hernick questioned the utility of revenge on a social justice accounting spreadsheet and invoked Buddhism to show that “the anecdote to hatred is not revenge, but love.” As a former Buddhist, Mr. Kim argued that Shylock does not represent the Jewish community that values peace. Besides, Antonio consents to a game of uncertainty similar to Poker and signs up for Shylock’s “standard” if not “exemplary” provisiosn. But Mr. Perez-Reyes commended the better option to “turn the other cheek” and cited the teaching “do not be overcome evil, but overcome evil with good.” According to him, Shylock should raise himself above his oppressors and “[be] a Christian that they can’t be.”

Vice President Thanki, however, considered Shylock not as an individual sufferer but as a representation of all his oppressed kin. Standing by the contract, Shylock asks for more than what the oppressive class is initially willing to give – a true reparation instead of a “gift unwanted.” Mr. Joseph Laposata (COL ’16) raised the issue of invalid legal contract and argued that a civil society does not allow Shylock’s unenforceable contract based on the exertion of force. Ms. Allie Little (COL ’18) ridiculed English Labor Party’s use of pink buses to enlarge women representation and asserted Shylock’s true motive to “make a statement.” She also called attention to the good-natured Aztecs slaughtered by their Spanish guests.

Revenge, where does it all stop?Mr. Willis asked and argued that revenge begets revenge by providing legitimate claims of being wronged. Thus, members of an oppressed group should end the cycle of revenge, meet the opposition on their terms and “be the bigger man” (again citing the grand and eternal King and Ghandi). Ms. Kurek brought us back to Shylock’s time where revenge seemed the only option for Jews. What’s more, don’t we love the gruesome images in Djangle Unchained and Inglorious Bastards?

Mr. Kendrick immediately countered that Quetin Tarantino (who was just fined $5 by the President for swearing on the floor) exposes the Affirmation’s false package deals between Super Ghandi and a bloody pound of flesh. As “retributive justice works for individuals and not for groups”, we cannot punish people for the wrongs built up over time in a “mentality of mass killers.” Ms. Egan contested by stressing the symbolic nature of the play and placed Antonio back to a merchant class and a Christian community that economically and legally exploited Jews. The “foreigner” Shylock is forced to give up his identity because oppression is a “difference made legal”.

Mr. Edgar reflected on the ending of Inglorious Bastard and “felt sad,” because even though the Nazis had it coming, there was “something inhumane” in vengeful violence. Addressing the systematically oppressed nerd community within the Society, he asked them not to punish people for their cultural context and give them a chance to learn. But according to Ms. Ringwald, we felt sad at the violent scene because we did not share the deep anger of Shylock and the persecuted Jews – Otherwise, “that’ll feel pretty darn good to me!

Ms. Christensen introduced proportionality and distinguished between symbols and individuals. Israel has the right to execute a Nazi but not a German who did no actual harms to Jews. Similarly, Shylock’s civil court does not have as large a capacity as a criminal court to punish. Opposing the concept of “senseless violence,” Mr. Wilson emphasized the systematic oppression Shylock suffers and asserted that real social change requires pain and sacrifice by those in power. Mr. Wang contested that the play is actually a personal hatred between the two individuals. Moving past the issue, he asked, “Why was an apology not enough?”

Ms. Grace recounted driving without a license, confident of her exemption from penalties. Antonio, similarly, signs the contract knowing that a pound of flesh will never be asked of him in his “place of privilege.” But Mr. Mouch declared the drafter Shylock responsible for the contract’s ambiguity by the principle “Contra Proferentem.” He quoted “be the change that you wish to see in the world” and sought to prevent Christians’ greater revenge to undo Shylock. But retelling his family history, Chancellor DiMisa showed how fear effectively ended the harassment to the Italian community in D.C. Though a moral wrong, a terrifying pound of flesh is necessary to stop oppression.

Mr. Young nostalgically recalled his induction but found it unnecessary to step above his own side’s argument now. Reiterating the distinction between reparation and revenge, he reminded the affirmation that even Shylock is uncomfortable taking extralegal means to assert his justice. Socially, revenge also does not bring about systematic change. Mr. Young then engaged with the play’s central notion of bond and posited that “no one should ever be held fully in bond by someone else.” The Society does not deserve a cycle of revenge.

Ever the expert on Shakespeare, Ms. Coccia took a historical standpoint in her literary analysis. In 16th century Venice, violence happened for no reason and bonds were upheld though unjust — But justice is not upheld for Shylock because of racism. Furthermore, “we don’t get to pick the victims.” However stereotypical Shylock is, we still have to get behind him because a perfect scenario may never come. Ms. Coccia also recounted how the New York Stonewall riots created a schism that silenced the Gay Rights Movement. Citing a florist who refused to service gay marriages, she asserted the necessity to incur “painful sacrifice” by demanding service – “I want her to be uncomfortable.” Back to Shylock, she concluded that recognizing Shylock’s humanity sets a “game-changing precedent” to social change.

Mr. Gonzalez considered forcing others to be uncomfortable as a transformation from the oppressed to the oppressor, as seen in historical revolutions. He emphasized an objective perspective of justice, not in taking from others but in recognizing differences. Reiterating the futility of senseless violence that perpetrates itself, he accused Shylock for being “the angriest person in the room.” But Ms. Spira saw the pound of flesh starting “a cycle of justice” as a “statement of fight.” Or else, the oppression perpetrates despite the idealistic statement of reform. She then told the story of her uncle who, rendered powerless by cancer, refused food for “a last chance at autonomy.” Similarly, Shylock holds fast to the pound of flesh as his last hope for justice.

The Society then voted to award Merrick points to the five most eloquent speakers that night:

  • Ms. Spira – 2 points
  • Mr. Kendrick – 3 points
  • Ms. Coccia & Mr. Edgar – 4 points
  • Mr. Young – 5 points

And this brings the Merrick totals to:

  1. Ms. Coccia – 24 points
  2. Mr. Wilson  – 14 points
  3. Mr. Edgar – 11 points
  4. Ms. Christensen – 10 points
  5. Ms. Egan – 8 points
  6. Mr. Edgar – 7 points
  7. Mr. Young – 6 points
  8. Mr. Dinneen& Mr. Mouch – 5 points
  9. Mr. Kendrick & Mr. Mazzara & Mr. Perez-Reyes & Mr. Vishwanathan – 3 points
  10. Mr. Patrick Musgrave & Ms. Spira – 2 points

With a vote of 34-2-31, this resolution was affirmed! Congratulations to the two inductees who sure deserve a huge round of Huzzah and to the two senior keynoters who never fail to impress the floor with their eloquence and charisma.


Xinlan Hu

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