14th of January 2012 / Serving Oregon & Southwest Washington since 1959

Ashland reprisal of Shylock spurs concern

In my opinion

By PAULA BARRETT

article created on: 2010-08-01T00:00:00

In commemorating its 75th anniversary season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is performing the plays that opened the festival in 1935.

One of these plays is Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Shylock, a Jew, is a moneylender (by necessity, since Jews were restricted in their means of earning a living).

This Shakespearean character has come down through the ages as a stereotype of every negative and ugly myth that has been foisted upon the Jewish people: miser, blood libel, hater of Christians and—by extension—God killer. In some productions worldwide he has been portrayed with a tail, horns and a hooked nose.

Some have argued that Shylock is not a stereotype and that the play is not anti-Semitic. However, one cannot deny that the Nazis loved this play and used it as part of their propaganda campaign to foster Jew-hatred. As reported in the 2005 Harvard Divinity Bulletin: “In 1933, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ was staged no fewer than 20 times (in Germany). In the next five years, it would be put on more than 30 times.”

In our present time, when anti-Semitism is rampant and increasing throughout the world, when Israel-bashing has become a favorite pastime of far too many individuals and governments, when condemnation of the Jews precedes fact-gathering—as evinced by the recent Gaza flotilla episode in which Israelis were blamed for their self-defense, when Israel is repeatedly singled out for UN and worldwide condemnation while other countries with unchecked human-rights violations are never mentioned—any play that may feed this hatred is worrisome.

I am concerned that false images and untrue “facts” are presented as accurate. “The Merchant of Venice” promotes false and demeaning stereotypes and tends to hold Jews and Judaism up to ridicule and hatred. I also am concerned that the play may be used to spur the cumulative effect of negative stereotyping and not-so-subtle propaganda that is hurtful and mean spirited. When a religion is vilified, it gives license to those who would attack it and provides more of a reason to do so.

Since dangerous stereotyping in the past has led to great harm to Jewish people, we must be on the lookout for any signs of modern-day anti-Semitism, which has morphed into anti-Zionism. Producers and directors of “The Merchant of Venice” might consider using the play’s presentation as an opportunity to showcase the horrors of bigotry, in general, and anti-Semitism, specifically.

This historical piece could be put into a modern-day, realistic context. The production’s educational materials could show numerous examples of anti-Semitism in media and its impact on ignorant peoples, leading to possible exacerbation of already violent conditions.

While not advocating censorship, I would hope that this play is performed infrequently and that theater-goers would be sensitive to the bigotry and hatred that are present in the story.
There is great potential for great harm here.

Paula Barrett is a board member of Advocates for Israel. She lives in Ashland.

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