This class will cover two of the most famous trials in the history of the West: Socrates’s trial for accusations of impiety and corruption (for which Socrates is eventually put to death) and Shylock’s civil suit against the Christian merchant Antonio (for which Shylock is ultimately punished) in Shakespeare’s controversial and challenging play, The Merchant of Venice.
The trial by jury of Socrates in 399 B.C.E., on charges of impiety and corruption of the young, is momentous. At his trial, Socrates offers a provocative defense (his “apology”) for his questioning way of life. The guilty verdict (by a close vote) results in Athens putting him to death. But the beautiful conduct of his life secures for philosophy its subsequent development in the dialogues of Plato, the treatises of Aristotle, and the works of every philosopher thereafter. This tremendous aspiration of human thought to ground opinion and belief in knowledge through discourses of reason and channeling of desire continue to challenge traditions of piety, morality, family, and civic life.
We shall keep Plato in mind as we read The Merchant of Venice. The Christian merchant, Antonio, is prosecuted for his debts to the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. The animosity that urges Shylock to exact his “pound of flesh” derives in part from the impiety of his daughter, who elopes with a Christian, converts, and steals jewels from him. Shylock’s hatred mounts a reasoned defense (an “apology”) that gets the better of his Christian opponents (almost) every time, just as Socrates used to do.
In this class, we’ll read these plays (and act out key scenes) while also trying to figure out what these dialogues have to say to each other and what they can teach us about Western civilization, philosophy, and ourselves.
- Plato, Euthyphro, The Apology of Socrates
- William Shakepseare, The Merchant of Venice
Louis Petrich received his master’s degree in Social Thought from the University of Chicago in 1986. He worked as a dramaturg, assistant director, and actor at the Court Theater in Chicago in the late 1980s, and at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s. In 1990, he received his first Fulbright Scholar Award to teach American literature at the Alexandru I. Cuza University in Iasi, Romania. This was followed by service in the United States Peace Corps as a teacher of English teachers at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechoslovakia (where he met his wife). Afterwards, he taught American studies through the Civic Education Project to university students in Presov, Slovakia; Iasi, Romania; and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
He received a second Fulbright Scholar Award to teach American studies at Kyrgyz State National University, also in Bishkek, where he founded the American Studies Resources and Training Center. He returned to the United States in 2002 to begin a very different academic career as a Tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis. He remains there to this day, teaching the great books across the liberal arts curriculum. He has published articles on Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tocqueville, and liberal education. He also publishes poetry. He took a year’s leave of absence from St. John’s in 2010 to teach mathematics and biology to Arab and Kurdish students at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. He has two children, ages 23 and 16, and in his spare time he photographs marine life on the oceanic reefs of the world. He is honored to return to the Tikvah Institute in 2021, for his fourth consecutive summer on this distinguished faculty.
Director, Tikvah Scholars Program