The student doth protest too much
Teachers should not backslap a group of teenage girls who refused to sit an exam on Shakespeare in protest against his anti-Semitism.
‘Three thousand ducats or a pound of flesh.’ Those are the blunt terms in which Antonio, the title character of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, takes a loan from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. For modern audiences, The Merchant of Venice has been steeped in controversy, with each staging reigniting debates about Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism, embodied, some say, in his portrayal of Shylock. Shylock has entered the English language as a synonym for extortion, and the character has been used in anti-Semitic propaganda over the years.
When nine teenage girls at a north London Jewish comprehensive school recently refused to take a test on Shakespeare, the only writer whose work is a compulsory part of the English secondary school curriculum, they were supported and encouraged by their parents and principal, Rabbi Abraham Pinter. The students at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School were being tested on their reading of The Tempest, not of The Merchant of Venice, but their refusal was apparently a protest against having to study the Bard at all (1).
The Shakespeare section of the test accounted for only 18 per cent of the total exam, but as the students did not put their names on their papers, their marks were removed. The school subsequently fell from first place to 274th place in this year’s school league table, which measures the progress of pupils between the ages of 11 and 14.
Interpreting works of literature and art through the prism of their authors’ alleged prejudices, rather than assessing them on their artistic merits, is increasingly common these days. In our era of identity politics, fuelled by postmodern and post-colonial criticism, art has become politicised, and the literary canon is re-read as a collection of prejudiced writing by homophobic, sexist, racist, white men.
Some leading academics argue that the privileging of Dead White Males in Western curricula needs to be balanced through diversification. The alternative voices of ethnic minorities, Third World residents, gays and lesbians (or any combination of these) must be heard, too. Others are not satisfied with playing identity politics, and want to open up the coffins of the ‘racists white men’ in order to throw their books in with them.
In educational settings, the almost censorial obsession with what old authors thought and believed, rather than with the quality and meaning of their art, counteracts any possibility of intellectual openness, logical analysis and critical thinking. Instead, it triggers such posturing protests as that of the nine refuseniks at Yesodey Hatorah. The sad thing is that, supported by their parents and complimented on their bravery by their principal, their childish protest drew support from many sections of the adult world. Simon Gibbons of the National Association for the Teaching of English said: ‘It is noble of the school to take the view that the individual pupils’ views are more important than their league table position.’ (2)
There is nothing noble about a school’s lax attitude towards the pupils’ protest against Shakespeare. The school has failed to take seriously its role to educate its students. Debating whether or not The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, what the Shylock character represents and what historical, social and artistic influences informed Shakespeare’s playwriting can, of course, be worthwhile. But simply endorsing a group of 14-year-olds’ refusal to engage in such discussions means that the school is denying them the chance to realise that these are not black-and-white issues with straightforward answers.
Shylock has indeed been decried as an Elizabethan stereotype, and Shakespeare as an archetypal anti-Semite. Yet others have argued that Shylock is not simply a one-dimensional character, and didn’t just serve the purpose of reaffirming and reinforcing the prejudices of the time. Critics have disagreed on whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic or is about anti-Semitism, and whether or not it is possible to classify Shakespeare himself as an anti-Semite – or whether that would even matter. There have been disagreements as to whether Shylock is a despicable villain or a sympathetic character, hardened by the mockery suffered because of his Jewishness. Some say the passionate monologue in which Shylock exhorts ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?’ demonstrates that Shakespeare infused the character with humanity and did not simply construct him as a hate figure. Indeed, that monologue has come to express an idea of univeralism, of people having fundamentally shared traits and desires. One could argue that such a humane outlook is undermined by the narcissistic particularism of special interest groups who want to shut down and shut out any discussion of the ‘anti-Semitic’ Merchant of Venice.
Debating whether or not Shakespeare, who wrote 154 sonnets and over 30 tragedies, histories and comedies, was an anti-Semite involves a great deal of pointless speculation, and is hardly the most important consideration in the study of his work. The same goes for any other Dead White European Male, whether it’s Wagner, Dickens or Twain, all of whom made significant contributions to the world of culture and artistic development and who are remembered by many for their alleged prejudices.
The parents and teachers of the Yesodey Hatorah pupils should have known better than to endorse their childish refusal as a ‘valid’, ‘noble’ or ‘brave’ stance against racism, effectively giving the green card to similar, philistine protests in the future. They might have thought the girls’ decision wise, but this was nothing but a fool’s protest, triggered and intensified by anti-intellectual currents in the adult world.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.
(1) Jewish pupils boycott exam in Shylock protest, Independent, 1 March
(2) Jewish pupils boycott exam in Shylock protest, Independent, 1 March
Alex Standish lamented the fact that romantic individualism and political correctness have robbed university humanities departments of their ‘love of man’. Raymond Tallis explored art, humanity and the ‘fourth hunger’. Josie Appleton said cultural diversity policy substitutes political goals for artistic standards. Marcus Mason said that just because racist stereotypes can be found in some of our most cherished literature, that’s no reason to ban them. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.
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