Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that Michael Morpurgo “refused” to include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in a forthcoming Shakespeare anthology for children due to anti-Semitism. This comes right after a year which saw the British Library compile “dossiers” on writers, including Ted Hughes, George Orwell, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde, with historic links to colonialism. The gist of the Times’ story was clear: another day, another long-dead literary titan cancelled for upsetting contemporary mores.
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, described Morpurgo’s decision as an example of the “dead hand of political correctness… children do not want to be protected all the time against great literature.”
In this instance, I’m not sure McGovern is right. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ certainly has its moments, but like many Shakespeare plays it is patchy, and at least half an hour too long when performed in its entirety. And it is not ‘political correctness’ to reflect on the unpleasant anti-Semitism that’s seamed through it. Harold Bloom, a critic whose love of Shakespeare tended to blunt his faculties, and no friend of the politically correct, wrote that you “would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”
Likely performed for most of its history as a romantic comedy with a Jewish villain, today audiences are used to watching Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, and the rest of the play, as a dramatic tragedy. When ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was put on in Vienna in May 1943 at the express command of the Nazi Gauliter Baldur von Schirach, the profound anti-Semitism Bloom noted was on full display.
For me, it has always seemed more apparent that the Nazi version — as horrific as this is to contemplate — was probably far closer to Shakespeare’s intentions for this play than contemporary versions are. The bard’s humanism, so vaunted by Bloom and other scholars down the centuries, had its limits.
This morning, Morpurgo said ‘The Merchant of Venice is not a play I enjoy myself’. Anybody who thinks about it for long enough ought to come to the same conclusion.