One of the most unattractive features of Western society today is its obsessive presentism – that is, its estrangement from both the past and the future and its myopic focus on the here-and-now. Twenty-first-century culture continually seeks to erode the line that separates the present from the past. Past events – whether historical or literary – are now evaluated from the viewpoint and values of today. This culturally anachronistic approach means that centuries-old historical figures and literary characters are often castigated for their racism, sexism, classism or any other trait that offends the imagination of contemporary readers.
One of the worst aspects of this cultural necrophilia is the trend for rewriting the great literature of the past. Yesterday, it was reported that poor old William Shakespeare has been brought into the frame – apparently the British author Howard Jacobson plans to rewrite The Merchant of Venice in order to ‘tackle its anti-Semitism’. I have the greatest of respect for Jacobson, so these reports sadden me.
No doubt Jacobson has the best of intentions, but the fact is that rewriting a Shakespeare play – especially one as controversial as The Merchant of Venice – is a form of rewriting history. Such an endeavour threatens to violate the integrity of art, and it encourages the politicisation of aesthetic judgment.
Does The Merchant of Venice have disturbing anti-Semitic overtones? Yes, it does. Does its character of Shylock personify the caricatured depraved and greedy Jewish antichrist? Yes – there’s no doubt Shylock will repel audiences unsympathetic to the Jews. But this play was written in the sixteenth century, and it was an attempt to capture the sensibility and moral standards of that era. In a world where Jews were regarded as an alien threat to Europe’s moral order, Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock was unexceptional. Just as Greek tragedies did not preach messages about abolishing slavery, so sixteenth-century European writers did not promote multiculturalism.