by Will Lloyd
Tuesday, 5
January 2021
Debate
12:12

The Merchant of Venice deserves to be cancelled

It's hardly 'political correctness gone mad' to say the play is anti-Semitic
by Will Lloyd
2nd April 1955: British actor, Roger Wreford as Shylock. Credit: Getty

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. 

Join the discussion


  • As a Jew, I’m with Yuval and others who agree that the play is anti-Semitic, but SHOULD NOT be banned or canceled. It is a part of the Western cannon, our literature and culture. Plus, I too have always thought it satirises the business practices of the British Empire.

  • Yes, and Othello is racist; The Taming of the Shrew is sexist and don’t get me started on the anti-Elvish nature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Let’s just burn the lot!
    Alternatively, maybe we should consider that shameless, ill-argued clickbait like this is a lot more harmful than anything in Shakepeare

  • Sickening to see how wokeism has penetrated the educated. This guy is so loaded with cancel culture wile thinking he is too intelligent and that it is only in others, and perfectly points out the ability to see flaws in others but not the same flaws in themselves. He is proof academia has managed to make censoring mania endemic in all people it has touched. (Before you can remove the mote in anther’s eye you must remove the beam in your own eye, Bible).

    Orwell in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ described ‘A jew, muzzle down in his plate, guiltily wolfing down bacon’. Why don’t you get his books on your wrong/speech bonfire? Orwell did not like Jews and his work is loaded with references of shoddy Jews running the echelons of the Stalin Communist USSR.

    Protesting too loudly to cover his own issues with it. Also here on Unherd they have had many an article on how wicked it is to cancel and censor well thought,out and fully believed, points of view, as there is always room to look at all sides. Yet they have deleted entire long posts I have made. These posts would be gained from my long and weird life, I have been exposed to the world in ways an exceedingly few have, and thus it is a different reality to the one you know. I am well educated (self taught mostly, but odd years at university as I drifted) and intelligent, and been around all manner of places, but even here feels the collective truth can not always accommodate anther’s take on it, so deletes it less it harms the reader’s purity of essence.

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