Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Principled Ignorance

I've never been a big fan of Shakespeare. I realize that most of my lack of appreciation is due to ignorance of the value of classical English literature and its contribution to world society. But I still don't understand why his stuff couldn't be translated into English I can understand, without all the "fardles" and "bodkins" thrown in.

Having learned The Merchant of Venice back in grade 9 (my school project that year was a full length parody in which Shylock wins his trial and runs off with Portia at the end), I have also never understood the claim that the play is anti-Semitic.

For one thing, if ol' Bill Shakespeare hated Jews, it couldn't have been from personal knowledge of them. Jews had been expelled from England centuries before and wouldn't be allowed back in until long after his death. To him, a Jew was a character from history or literature, not a real, living person and if he thought derogatory thoughts about Judaism, it would be fair to wonder if he'd ever had the opportunity to hear positive ones.

Despite this, The Merchant of Venice in the original (anyone can twist the text on-stage for personal ideological reasons) does not come off as anti-Semitic. Shylock is a venal character, to be sure, but if one examines how he is treated by the title characters, Antonio and Bassanio, it is hard to blame him for carrying a grudge and wishing to make their lives difficult. Yes, his request for a pound of Antonio's flesh is unreasonable but when the matter comes to trial at the end of the play, one cannot help but be disgusted with the tactics used to frustrate his desire. A fake judge, a loose interpretation of what justice is when it helps Antonio and a strict interpretation of the law when it results in thwarting Shylock, all these point at something far deeper. I am not a scholar of Shakespeare's works (I can't understand what they're saying half the damn time!) but is it possible that he had developed some sympathy for this people he did not know? Was he portraying Shylock as the bullied victim who tried to get back at his tormentors only to be frustrated by them?

I thought of all this when I read this post from Cross-Currents tonight:

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news coverage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

The article goes on to analyze the results of the girl's decision but in my opinion, the actual issue is skirted around. For me this is not a case of whether or not the school should honour its obligation to teach matters required by the national curriculum or not, or whether children should have a right to protest material they find offensive. For me, the defining line is:

they had not even been studying The Merchant of Venice.

Uh huh. So, based on heresay or assumption, these girls took a principled stand on something they clearly know nothing about, and as a result damaged their grades and their school's reputation.

It's one thing to take an active stand on a researched position. It's quite another to decide to avoid material based on assumptions or guesses. It does not speak of principles but impetuous ignorance. Is this state of education in the Jewish system today? And when these girls go out into the real world and are confronted by jewish points of view different to their own, will they react just as dismissively?

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