Sunday, 15 March 2015

Why Anti-Semitic Language in The Merchant of Venice is Important

Should Shakespeare's 'problem'
plays be censored?
Earlier this month, David Schajer of Shakespeare Solved debated whether the very talented Mark Rylance is right in saying that, since the Holocaust, certain anti-Semitic phrases in The Merchant of Venice carry more resonance and should, therefore, be cut from performance. 

I disagree with Rylance for two reasons.

Before a dive headlong into them, though, I will just preface by saying I am not Jewish and accept that people who are may feel differently about this than me.

However, the crux of what I'm about to ramble on about is that, in my opinion, it is doing a disservice to Jews to remove the anti-Semitism from The Merchant of Venice.

The Past Cannot be Altered


My first reason for feeling that anti-Semitic remarks are important is that to censor them is, it seems to me at least, a troubling exercise in sanitising history. 

There's a danger in sanitising history
It is inarguably uncomfortable to come face to face with our racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and barbaric past. 

But does that mean we should gloss over it; pretend that it didn't exist? Are we doing Jews a favour by sweeping the hatred they faced in 16th century Europe under the rug? 

And if we do think that 16th century anti-Semitism is unpalatable, should we not also see anti-Semitism from all centuries (including the 20th) removed from literature, theatre and film?

George Santayana told us, "Those who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it."

To my mind, it is essential that we acknowledge anti-Semitism as part of human history. To pretend it was not there, and to deny it's existence, is to deny the suffering of scores of people. 

Shakespeare wasn't an Anti-Semite


The second reason that I believe anti-Semitic language to be crucial in The Merchant of Venice is that, although several of Shakespeare's characters are unapologetic in their hatred of Shylock and his religion, Shakespeare himself is not.

That could not be made any clearer than in one of his most famous passages:

"He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge."


David Suchet as Shylock (Hath not a Jew eyes?)

We know that Shylock is the wronged party in the play. He is a victim rather than a villain, and that fact is obvious thanks to the abusive vitriol he receives from the Christians, in particular Gratiano, Antonio, and Salanio & Salarino. 

Keep in mind, at the beginning of the play, Shylock has done nothing to any of them. Still Antonio not only thinks it's okay to void his rheum on Shylock's beard, but freely admits he's like to do so again!

There is nothing Christian about the way the other men treat Shylock. Spitting on him, calling him a dog, their glee when he is forced to convert, Gratiano wishing him hanged - none of these things are Christian behaviours. These men are not 'nice' characters. 

Henry Goodman is Shylock
If we take away the proof of their unpleasantness, what are we left with? 

Well, Shylock's distress and anger don't make anywhere near as much sense. His speech above loses at least some, if not all, of its power. His desire for revenge doesn't ring true. And then we have a man who's bent on hurting Antonio for...no good reason. 

Take away the anti-Semitism he's been victim of and you make him a villain. 

Now, don't get me wrong, Shylock isn't all sweetness and light, and perhaps his desire for revenge is wrong. But it's understandable in the context of the play.

However, take the context away, and we not only turn him into a baddie, but also make him a two-dimensional, pantomime villain. 

I'm not going to deny there are facets of the play that are uncomfortable; the upbeat end probably the most disturbing thing of all. I've seen productions that close on a rather more sombre note though, like Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theatre production. I tend to think, if you're going to edit the play at all, that's one of the places to do it. 

It is, unquestionably, a problem play, but I don't believe we make it unproblematic by removing lines that are offensive. I don't think taking vile things out of the Christians' mouths makes The Merchant of Venice a 'better' or more palatable play.

In fact, I feel the complete opposite is true. 

Ignoring the anti-Semitism of the era, and the horrific abuse that is so fundamental to why Shylock acts as he does, makes for a much poorer play; with far less complex characters and a Jewish character whose demand for a pound of flesh is seemingly motiveless.

But what do you think?

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