Shakespeare caught up in antisemitism row

Sixteenth-century hit: The Merchant of Venice is one of the world’s most popular plays.

Was Shakespeare antisemitic? His play The Merchant of Venice has long attracted accusations of racism – and now a new book by Michael Morpurgo has reignited the controversy.

The tension in the court has reached fever pitch. The merchant Antonio cannot repay the money he has borrowed from his enemy Shylock, and now Shylock is preparing to take the forfeit they agreed on: a pound of flesh. But as he prepares to wield his knife, the catch is revealed – if he sheds a drop of blood while taking the flesh, he will lose everything he owns.

This scene from The Merchant of Venice has been applauded by some as one of the most dramatic ever written. But for modern audiences there is a problem: Shylock is a Jew. Many believe that his mean, ruthless character reflects Shakespeare’s own perception of Jewish people in general.

The controversy has been stoked once more by a Sunday Times article about a new book by Michael Morpurgo. Aimed at 6-to-18-year-olds, it retells and modernises the stories of 10 Shakespeare plays – but The Merchant of Venice is not one of them. The article claims that Morpurgo refused to include it because it was “offensive” and “antisemitic”.

The very next day, Morpurgo denounced this as nonsense. “I chose the 10 plays I love the most, that I felt young children would respond to,” he said, adding that “this is not censorship: children will come to this play later, when they’ll have some sense of what Jewish people have endured over centuries”.

But by then the debate was already in full flow, with the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, Chris McGovern, accusing Morpurgo of cowardice in the face of political correctness. McGovern argued that there was “plenty to be offended by in Shakespeare”, but that children “do not want to be protected all the time against great literature”.

Responding to him in the Jewish Chronicle, Jonathan Nathan wrote that “McGovern apparently gives no thought to what it is like for a Jewish child sitting among schoolmates in a theatre while in front of them Shylock sharpens his knife for his pound of (Christian) flesh. Morpurgo has.”

But another Jewish writer, Howard Jacobson, sprang to Shakespeare’s defence. The Merchant of Venice, he argued, was “not an antisemitic play, but a play about antisemitism. It dramatises racism in action.” To him, Shylock is certainly the victim of prejudice. But this prejudice exists in the minds of the Christians around him, not in Shakespeare’s.

There is no doubt that racism is an evil which concerns Shakespeare deeply. It is at the heart of another play, Othello, in which his black hero’s marriage to a white woman ends in tragedy. And those accusing him of antisemitism face a problematic fact: his treatment of Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is wholly sympathetic. Indeed, the love scenes in which she appears are among the most beautiful he ever wrote.

But for some critics, nothing can excuse the insults to which Shylock is subjected. In The Washington Post, Steve Frank argues that “the daily revival of ancient racial slurs” is sufficient reason to ban the play.

Was Shakespeare antisemitic?

Deriding prejudice

Some say, yes: Shylock is an appalling caricature, embodying all the vices which their enemies traditionally ascribed to Jewish people. His Jewishness is constantly referred to, and there is so much relish in the insults aimed at him that Shakespeare must have enjoyed them himself. As well as this, Shylock’s downfall at the climax of the play leads to his forced conversion to Christianity. Given the prevalence of antisemitic feeling in Shakespeare’s time, it would be surprising if he did not share it.

Others argue that Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to understand and sympathise with every kind of person. He makes it clear that Shylock’s viciousness is largely the result of the awful way in which he has been treated by the Christians around him, and his speeches are written with incredible sensitivity. If Shakespeare had really been antisemitic, he would not have presented the play’s other Jewish character, Jessica, in such a glowing light.

You Decide

  1. Is it disrespectful to take the stories of Shakespeare’s plays and tell them in a modern way?
  2. Which is the greater literary form – tragedy or comedy?

Activities

  1. Using the internet, find a speech from the Merchant of Venice and learn it. Try performing for the rest of your household.
  2. One of the locations in the play is the famous Rialto Bridge. Design a bridge to go over your nearest river.

Some People Say...

“Prejudice is the child of ignorance.”

William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830), English essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that no writer has a more universal appeal than Shakespeare. His plays have been translated into every major language: examples range from the Albanian Antoni dhe Kleopatra and Basque Julio Zesar to the Welsh Y Dymestl (The Tempest) and Zulu uMabatha (Macbeth). Foreign productions often have a political dimension: in 1915 a Chinese actor in Macbeth was sentenced to death for “behaving like a rabble-rouser under the pretext of playacting”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether William Shakespeare really wrote the plays attributed to him. Some people argue that his work shows a sophistication and familiarity with literature, geography, politics and court life that a boy from a humble school in Stratford-upon-Avon could not possibly have acquired. They believe that he acted as a front for someone who did not want their authorship to be known: candidates include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford.

Word Watch

Forfeit
Penalty. It comes from a French verb meaning to break a rule.
A pound of flesh
Shakespeare took this element of his plot from a popular folk tale. He may have found it in an Italian collection of stories called Il Pecorone (The Simpleton).
Michael Morpurgo
A former teacher who has written dozens of books for children, the most famous being War Horse.
Campaign for Real Education
A pressure group demanding more choice for parents and less state control of subjects studied.
Jewish Chronicle
The oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world, dating from 1841.
Howard Jacobson
Regarded as one of Britain’s best comic novelists, he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question.
Othello
One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, written several years after The Merchant of Venice. The first mention of it, in 1604, gives the author’s name as “Shaxberd”.
Sensitivity
One of Shylock’s most famous lines, “If you prick us do we not bleed?” is a reminder to the Venetians that all people – even those in a minority – are human.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.