June 7th 1594—ten years before the first performance of The Merchant of Venice. Dr. Rodrigo Lopez, who some suspect inspired the character of Shylock, awaits his execution. His formal charge is treason against the Queen—attempt to poison, supposedly. His second, more subjective charge is obvious to the angry crowd delighting in his death. Lopez probably didn’t attempt to kill Queen Elizabeth; he did, however, convert from Judaism to Christianity—neither of which the public believes. The crowd and court ignore his pleads of innocence on both religious and criminal charges.
Fast-forward 350 years: Shakespeare and anti-Semitism are still present throughout Europe and America. Sensitivity surrounding the war puts The Merchant on the receiving end of American censorship. As early as 1931, Jewish organizations in Buffalo and Manchester, New York, found the treatment of Shylock to breed intolerance, eliminating it from high school curricula. After the war others followed suit, the Bay County in Florida putting it among other banned books such as The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451. In the midst of Jim Crow laws, segregation, severe anti-Communism and all the other ways that racism and prejudice played out in American society, why was Merchant of Venice receiving so much attention?
Shakespeare’s place in the literary canon makes him an interesting case for analysis. While his plays all contain numerous sexist, racist and anti-Semitic themes, they also represent one era’s culture and literature. As Preti Taneja highlights in her Washington Post article, ‘Should Shakespeare be censored?’, the potential for productions of The Merchant to shed light on contemporary issues is available. Rupert Goold’s recent production in London set the play in Las Vegas, having Bassanio’s men spit on Shylock then record it on their phones, which some saw as a crucial indictment of our racist modern society, and others criticized for projecting the same racism it sought to analyze.
The Israel-Palestine conflict and recent religious attacks, such as the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, have brought discussions of religious tolerance further into the foreground. With such atrocities happening today, it’s not difficult to imagine the setting for Dr. Lopez’ execution four centuries ago. We have to wonder how far society has moved since then, but more than that we have to wonder how we’re framing this history that’s available to us. Can we, for the sake of Art or Literature, justify condemning Elizabethan society while at the same time laughing at a portrayal of Shylock with a curly red wig and unsatisfied greed?
Many schools in America may have seen censorship as the loophole around Racism-with-a-capital-R, but censoring as a device may not prove that effective or wise. Shylock’s characterization is a hateful and prejudiced mark of the period, but if understood and taught as a product of its time, it could provide a basis for critiquing the racism that our society was built upon. Shakespeare is a product of his time like anyone else, and instead of ignoring that and dismissing his more “controversial” plays, the texts are asking us to look into them with just as critical an eye as anything written today. That critique is necessary if we want to get to a point where we no longer see ourselves in Bassanio’s men.