Sunday, March 02, 2008

Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism

Cranmer much enjoys the blog of Dan Hannan MEP, so he has decided to add it to his list of regular reads. Just occasionally he posts on matters which do not pertain to the geo-politics of the European Union, and one such is his question: ‘Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?

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...

14 Comments:

Blogger Doctor Syn said...

Thank you for the post, Your Grace. Not having read Tamburlaine I was not aware of the scene you quote.

One wonders whether it is perhaps an allusion to Elijah v. the 450 priests of Baal in I Kings 18.

2 March 2008 at 20:27  
Blogger Snuffleupagus said...

Interesting post Your Grace. My own feelings are that clearly children should read The Merchant of Venice and discuss whether or not it is anti-semitic. To simply refuse to study it is silly. It is Shakespeare after all.

But then there is the question as to whether or not Shakespeare himself was anti-Semitic and whether the depiction of Shylock is itself anti-Semitic.

For Othello, I think you are correct: his race is absolutely necessary to partly explain his descent into rage, but Shakespeare is not saying that all Moors are jealous madmen.

But Shylock is different I think because of the physical depiction - which is exaggerated perhaps in such a way that is normally seen to be an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews. I am not sure that this can simply stand alone as your argument suggests - that it merely shows that Shylock in this way.

Of course, depending on how the play is directed, different elements can be highlighted. The betrayal of his daughter for instance can be ignored, or can be emphasised in such a way so that the audience feels for Shylock.

But then perhaps it is necessary for Shylock to have a typically Jewish look, so as to emphasise how he is ostracised by society. Hmm, I am in two minds over this.

So what am I saying exactly? I suppose I do not believe your post sufficiently weighs up the complexity of the issue. It cannot be put down to 'this is the depiction of one man'. The issue is far more complicated. So much so, that I am undecided.

2 March 2008 at 22:07  
Anonymous hear o israel said...

your grace

hear o israel, the lord our god , the lord is one , love the lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength .The second comandment is this, love your neighbour as yourself .There is no commandement greater than these.

NIv mark 12:28

the christ own words, probebly said in aramaic , probebly not witten down at the time .


shakespear uses a story to show how a jew , shylock , a man for whom the law and its binding honour was where his spiritual growth ended.
it was indeed written at a time when the expertise of jewish understanding/learning of accountancy/law was both envied and despised .

to listen to the great rabbi jonathan sacchs , you do not see the shylock of shakesperian times and it is wrong to assume to judiaism does not try and go beyond the law and understnd the christs advancement in understanding.

the law is about balance , a right for a wrong. which goes to some way to explain there wish to bring to account the rain of catoucha rockets , with air raids.

shylock may be an intelligent figure in much more cruder times , th law after all was to change those who worshipped Baal and worse.

the jews anger at not honouring the law , is as much in eveidence today in non jewish society .Legal representatives do seem to request high fees to argue for the rebalance of a percieved deficiet.

the charctures of the merchant of venice inhabit the offices , trading floors, banks, warehouses and middle class. the story is as illuminating today if studied as it was so much more realistic when first played.

i tend to find anti semetic views always correspond with a lack of honour for the law , or some kind of unfairness. Hitler hated them because he percived that they had withdrawn funding for the first world war and then seemed to do nothing when germany was under ecnomic ruin.

it isnt shylock that needs consciencous objection , but more the law that does not allow the rebalance of the heart to enable it to turn towards god of israel

2 March 2008 at 22:24  
Blogger Homophobic Horse said...

I dunno Cranmer, I think you've jumped off the handle a bit here. It's not a question of artistic freedom and free expression, the school girls as far as I can tell don't want to ban 'The Jew of Venice' they just don't want to study it. One should not be forced to study things you don't like or are not interested in.

It would be like me sending you to study Hindu tantric sex and devil worship.

3 March 2008 at 01:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homophobic horse

I agree

I also agree with Cranmer that the words of the Rabbi were irresponsible and lead nowhere but hell for all.

In this country we have little over 250,000 Jews, which is very small minority. Mostly living in small specific areas of our largest Cities.

A vastly disproportionate amount of power especially in the financial world but also in the entertainment media, medical, and scientific, is all but obvious.

The first time in many cases a young developing intelligent mind comes across a Jewish personality is when first studying Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.

Now if they were being tutored by sensible fully rounded human beings things would or could be fine. But take it from me in the school I went to in the seventies, this was to say the least, not the case.

Our English teachers where typical young lefties on a mission, whether they knew it or not. Life long Socialists who's hatred of anyone simply evil enough just to be running their own small business, was bad enough. But someone like Shylock was there own personal Angel of Death.

Asking whether Shakespeare was anti-semitic or not, is more silly then asking whether the Pope is Catholic. In Shakespeare's time everyone was anti-semitic to a greater or lesser extent. Intellectuals like him as today generally all are, still. For very similar reasons today as they were then.

They just cant handle the OBVIOUS fact that a man who understands how to make, and keep a bit of cash for himself and family has more of the stuff then they do.

Not much to do with religion, this one or indeed rascism.

Just pure envy, from people who think that a socialist type, brainwashing education, and having a 'big brain' should be an automatic passport to a superior powerful, wealthy life and lifestyle.

ATLAS shrugged

3 March 2008 at 06:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HH - Are you daft? "one shouldn't be forced to study things you're not interested in"; come on! What's education for?

3 March 2008 at 11:27  
Blogger AethelBald, King of Wessex said...

I saw that play once. It was clearly anti-semitic.

I have no doubt that you can write an anti-semitic play while not being an anti-semite. We humans can do that sort of thing. Whether we can live with ourselves afterwards, though, is another matter. But that's all too comlicated. The simplest explanation is that Shakespeare was an anti-semite. End of.

3 March 2008 at 13:02  
Blogger Evil of Dron said...

It matters not whether it is boycotting books or burning books or bowdlerising books or, for that matter, burning petulant priests. It is all censorship.

"Books are sacred to free men for very good reasons. . . . Wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them"

These people have short memories. It is time for them to look around and ask themselves why they are travelling in a hand-cart.

3 March 2008 at 16:59  
Blogger Little Black Sambo said...

Shakespeare anti-semitic, Aethelbald anti-American: we all have our little foibles.

3 March 2008 at 17:39  
Anonymous penlan said...

I believe that the boycott is of the works of Shakespeare generally and not just of the Merchant of Venice.As a result I believe that any attempt at justification by those in charge of this academy is totally wrongheaded and indefensible.

3 March 2008 at 19:41  
Blogger Homophobic Horse said...

"HH - Are you daft? "one shouldn't be forced to study things you're not interested in"; come on! What's education for?"

:) You can't make drama students good chemists.

3 March 2008 at 19:41  
Blogger Snuffleupagus said...

HH
No, but if one allowed students to study just what they wanted, they would all be experts at PSPs and football and no one would be able to count!

3 March 2008 at 19:47  
Blogger Homophobic Horse said...

Like conscription, one volunteer is worth 10 pressed students.

4 March 2008 at 03:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I acted the part of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice at our school, mainly because, being Jewish myself, I had the requisite head covering.

For some reason, at the time, I did not think the play anti-semitic (I was only 11), but far preferred Portia's speech on the quality of mercy, which could be taken straight out of Jewish teachings.

Funnily enough the 'pound of flesh' story was actually taken by Shakespeare from an Italian tale, which appears to have had some basis in truth, in which it is the Christian who demands the 'pound of flesh' from a Jew.

As Judaism abhors the sight of blood, or the shedding of blood, it does not seem feasible that what Shylock demands could be based on anything but complete mythology.

There were no Jews officially allowed in England in Shakespeare's time. However, around that time, Elizabeth I's doctor, Lopez, a Marrano Jew, was falsely accused of trying to poison her, and was duly executed.

People link this fact to the subject matter of the play.

4 March 2008 at 16:36  

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