He asks the question after a group of students at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in London boycotted their national curriculum Shakespeare test in protest of the Bard’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
And instead of reprimanding the girls, the school’s principal, Rabbi Abraham Pinter, said his girls were ‘conscientious objectors’ and he was ‘proud that the girls were prepared to face the consequences of their beliefs’. He thought their stance was ‘very positive’, insisting that ‘it is something that needs to be encouraged’.
Cranmer is bemused by this, and reproduces the reasoning he contributed to Mr Hannan’s blog:
Shakespeare was a man for all seasons, and some of those seasons are unforgiving. The 'purpose of playing', as he said, is 'to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.'
Shylock is a creation of the age and body of his time; he is no more a universal representative of the Jew than Othello is of the negro. Indeed, giving succour to school children who withdraw in objection to a prima facie reading will have no logical end. Shall we permit the Christian to object to studying Measure for Measure? Or the pacifist to object to the study of patriotic war poetry? Or the feminist to object to the study of Jane Austen?
One may variously discover a plethora of superficial reasons to reject any work of literature, but a function and purpose of art is to offend. Indeed, there are those who might say, in an age of political correctness, that it is the last bastion of free expression.
Unless, of course, that art is remotely linked to Mohammed.
Indeed, a recent production of Tamburlaine was bowdlerised for fear of offending Muslims. The Qur'an is supposed to be burnt on stage, but it was edited out, along with this section:
Tamburlaine: Now, Casane, where’s the Turkish Alcoran, And all the heaps of superstitious books Found in the temples of that Mahomet Whom I have thought a god? They shall be burnt…
… In vain, I see, men worship Mahomet.
My sword hath sent millions of Turks to hell, Slew all his priests, his kinsmen, and his friends, And yet I live untouch’d by Mahomet.
There is a God, full of revenging wrath, From whom the thunder and the lightning breaks, Whose scourge I am, and him will I obey.
So Casane; fling them in the fire.
(They burn the books.)
Now, Mahomet, if thou have any power, Come down thyself and work a miracle.
Thou art not worthy to be worshipped That suffers flames of fire to burn the writ Wherein the sum of thy religion rests…
…Well, soldiers, Mahomet remains in hell; He cannot hear the voice of Tamburlaine.
Seek out another godhead to adore:
The God that sits in heaven, if any god, For he is God alone, and none but he.
(Tamburlaine the Great Act V Sc.i)
It is now only in schools and universities where such lines may be read and debated: His Grace cannot see them being performed in Britain's theatres ever again...