Another day, another clash of cultures story. This time, some Jewish school-girls have refused to answer questions in an English exam on Shakespeare because he was apparently anti-semitic. Seth Freedman makes some comments at Comment is Free. By his analysis, since the head teacher (a Rabbi at an Orthodox School) is condoning the girls’ boycott, its a slippery slope into all kinds of intolerance.
However, as with other examples of multicultural friction, liberal democracy looks robust, and does not seem to be at all threatened. No concessions whatsoever were made to the girls’ religious beliefs, and they failed their exams accordingly.
On a separate note, the boycott itself is surely silly and counter-productive. In a similar manner, one might refuse to study the Declaration of Independence on the basis that its authors were a bunch of slave owners. Regardless of whether Shakespeare was an anti-semite or not (and, given his portrayal of Shylock, he probably was), the man has had such a huge impact on the English language that to ignore him is hugely disadvantageous from an intellectual point of view. Critically analysing a text with reference to an artist’s life an opinions is a crucial tool, which these pupils are denying themselves. Likewise, critically analysing an artists output with regards to their times is important too. Was Shakespeare any more or less anti-semitic than his contemporaries, say? How do the views of the playwright compare to the views of the rest of his society? What role does the character of Shylock play in the history of Judaism? I fear that the quest of these girls to maintain some kind of intellectual purity might result in intellectual ignorance. And that outcome will not help them, their community, or their beliefs.