Anti-Semitism and Shakespeare

The FWB has been studying Merchant of Venice and so we all ended up rereading it and watching a couple of films – an excellent National Theatre production, set in the Thirties, broadcast by the BBC; and the Al Pacino film which exemplified the faults that interest me.

Pacino tries to make Shylock sympathetic. The character is, after all, the victim of anti-Semitism. But he still fails, because Shylock is actually loathsome. He’s not meant to be sympathetic, and the fact that he has one great speech doesn’t really change this. He is merciless, fawning, greedy, and quite without empathy. His daughter hates him. He has no more humanity than a Bond villain. All this is intimately bound up with his Jewishness. There’s no other reason given for his villainy. Iago belongs in a tragedy because he might be different. The Merchant of Venice was a comedy because Shylock couldn’t be different. He is the essence of Jew – as Elizabethan audiences understood Jewishness.

Perhaps the play could still be performed like that in Arab countries today. Under Hitler, it was produced at least fifty times in Germany. But in the West now we can no longer dehumanise Jews like that, whatever Melanie Phillips may say.

Fully to understand the play, and the emotions it was meant to arouse, I think you would have to play it with Shylock as a small Asian/Muslim businessman, in modern Birmingham in front of a black audience.

To judge by the things that were said at the time of the riots last summer, there are plenty of Brits who would think it absolutely hilarious that such a man’s daughter would run away with a "Christian" and that he would end up losing all his money and even his religion.

Of course this thought experiment doesn’t prove that anti-Semitism is dead, or dying; or even that Muslims have taken over from Jews as the chief objects of prejudice in this country. But it does show that a lot of the prejudices that fuelled popular anti-Semitism now feed into some forms of anti "Asian" prejudice in this country. The fact that these Asians themselves probably loathe Jews and would be happy to deny the holocaust doesn’t make this less true.

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2 Responses to Anti-Semitism and Shakespeare

  1. Beck Laxton says:

    Sorry to make such a tangential comment, Andrew, but your fourth paragraph is, for me, and excellent example of why we should split infinitives. Your unsplit infinitive reads very oddly and gives the sentence the wrong emphasis. Unless avoiding ‘to fully understand’ wasn’t actually your aim?

    I now scour this posting for grammatical errors, since making a pedantic comment of this kind almost guarantees that I’ll have included a blooper, usually an order of magnitude worse that the mote I was whingeing about.

    How I wish I had something more intelligent to say…

  2. acb says:

    Oh. I didn’t have an aim. I write like that naturally, as a result of ferocious beatings in chidhood. I like that construction. It makes me think of a horse lifting its feet high. But there are plenty of other ways not to split an infinitive.

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