John Nathan

Morpurgo is right to ‘cancel’ the Merchant of Venice

Children need to be protected against Jew hatred, even when it comes from Shakespeare


LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Michael Morpurgo attends the "Waiting For Anya" Gala Screening at Vue Leicester Square on February 12, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

January 06, 2021 15:57

I used to enjoy defending freedom of speech. It was always one of those off-the-shelf, no-brainer causes to which one can sign up without bothering to agonise over rights and wrongs. All that virtue signalling. Lovely. But now you have to be brave. JK Rowling can’t say what a woman is without cancel culture-vultures banning themselves from reading her books.

Something happened recently that made me wonder if cancel culture has its roots in the BDS movement, which wants to cancel Israel. I was asked by a Jewish woman to support a complaint to Bridge Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner about his decision to cast Maxine Peake in his stage and screen revival of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, which almost single handedly kept theatre and TV drama going last year.

The complainant’s point was that giving Peake a platform on which to perform was to condone her declaration — later retracted —that Israel was somehow behind the killing of George Floyd. Peake’s performance should be cancelled suggested the woman.

I explained that I was probably as appalled as she by the idea that Jews were behind the atrocity that convulsed the world into Black Lives Matter protests. But I don’t think Peake should have her living taken away for it, even if BDS-supporting British actors think that’s what should happen to their Israeli counterparts. It was as if cancel culture had come full circle.

Yet this week I find myself flipping on the right to cause offence. War Horse author Michael Morpurgo has decided not to include The Merchant of Venice in his forthcoming children’s book Tales from Shakespeare. The collection will retell and modernise the stories of ten Shakespeare plays for readers between the ages of six and 18.

Plays that make Morpurgo’s list include Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth, all staples of the school syllabus.

But despite Merchant being an A-level text the author rejects the play for his book on the grounds that it contains “assumptions right the way through about what it is to be a Jew, and how Jews are thought of…”

“The play can be antisemitic” and it “would be offensive” to include it in a book for children, added Morpurgo. The decision has reportedly been condemned by Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education as “the dead hand of political correctness” and “cowardly”. “Children do not want to be protected all the time against great literature.”

But they do. McGovern apparently gives no thought to what it is like for a Jewish child sitting among schoolmates in a theatre while in front of them Shylock sharpens his knife for his pound of (Christian) flesh. Morpurgo has. The author has also thought of the young readers for whom Shylock will be their first impression of a Jew.

Before the new lockdown I was driving in slow-moving traffic through Stamford Hill with my seven-year-old daughter. She watched with interest the black hats walk busily along Upper Clapton Road. “They remind me of Ebenezer Scrooge,” she said innocently, already a veteran of many A Christmas Carols, being the daughter of theatre journalists.

She has not yet encountered Dickens’s actual Jew, Fagin, yet somehow she still intuitively connects a gentile’s antisemitic tropes to real Jews. It might be time for her to take on The Merchant of Venice. It will be fine because Shylock will not be her first Jew. I am.


January 06, 2021 15:57

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