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Philosophy and Piety in Plato and Shakespeare

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.



Sample Readings:

  • Plato, Euthyphro, The Apology of Socrates
  • William Shakepseare, The Merchant of Venice

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