Shakespeare the anti-semite

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.

9 Replies to “Shakespeare the anti-semite”

  1. If these were Arab schollgirls complaining about Islamaphobia, the teachers and the scholl officials would be fired and every student would receive an A+!!

  2. Of course they wouldn’t, Jeffrey. When Islamic school-girls do make a stand, they are rebuffed in the same way. Remember the jilbab case, for example? The head-teacher involved was made a dame, and the girl in question lost the case.

  3. Its difficult to tell from this distance whether Shylock was intended as an Ali G type joke, or whether Shakespeares was just a vessel for the beliefs of the day. Irrelevant to an English exam either way.
    Robert, why do the pupil actions denote “some kind of intellectual purity”? You could – at an extreme stretch – compare them to the scientists who don’t use data from Nazi experiments.

  4. Good post Rob. Similarly, although he was to some extent a parody you could argue that Fagan in Oliver Twist shows Dickens to be at least mildly anti-semitic. I would agree that it’s impossible to understand culture outside it’s context, which is why claiming, for example, that Tintin is racist, when the modern concept of racism didn’t exist when authored, is absurd.
    To develop the point slightly, can the artist be separated from the art ? As in does listening to Wagner make you a proxy nazi sympathiser, or is it possible (subject to taste) to listen to Garry Glitter records with a clear concience ?

  5. I went to see Daniel Barenboim perform at the Royal Festival Hall the other day. He is famous for being the first to perform Wagner in Israel. He said that you couldn’t really understand other 20th Century music without understanding Wagner.

  6. Never mind art, what about technology? To be consistent, they’d have to interrogate the beliefs of all kinds of people, from Alexander Graham Bell to Tim Berners Lee. Not that I’m insinuating anything about such people, but a willingness to use these technologies unquestioningly kind of blows their shakespeare argument right out of the water, wouldn’t you say?

  7. Very clever rebuttal. You’de probably win a debate against the schoolgirls. However, comparing text spewing hate, ignorance and stupidity with an enlightened document advocating equality, freedom and human rights for all citizens devoid of any hateful speach (regardless of how long it took to be properly fulfilled) is fallacious. Regardless of the personal habits of the authors and general attitudes of the times.

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