Dealing with art and prejudice: Fawlty Towers and The Merchant of Venice

Venice - the merchant of Venice
Venice is beautiful - Does The merchant of Venice inflame prejudice?

Most people by now have read about the removal of one of the episodes of Fawlty Towers from the BBC (UKTV) Archives. In many newspapers and social media sites it was reported that it was removed because it was poking fun at Nazi Germans. In other words, worrying about upsetting Germans.  However, it seems that it may have been removed because one of the characters in the series, Major Gowen, voiced the belief that “all cricketers are n*****s”.  How will the BBC, other media organisations and theatre companies deal with plays that are clearly prejudicial, injurious and intolerant towards a particular group of people in the future?

John Cleese, who plays Basil Fawlty, suggested in recent interviews that the BBC was “stupid” for not understanding that Major Gowen was being mocked by the Germans who were guests of the hotel for his use of the “n-word”.  The BBC has changed their decision due to public outrage.  They suggest that a precautionary note will be added to the episode in question.  But then again how will the BBC, other media organisations and theatre companies deal with plays that are clearly prejudicial, injurious and intolerant towards a particular group of people.  One play that comes readily to mind is William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” first appearing in 1596.

The play, in short, is about Shylock who is depicted as a ruthless Jewish moneylender who lends money to Antonio with the underlying condition that if the said Antonio does not repay the loan Shylock will get to cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Antonio defaults but Shylock loses out by cleaver arguments in court by Portia (dressed as a man) about flesh and blood and the killing of Antonio who is after all a Christian. We should not for forget that Shylock is a Jew. In the end Shylock is charged with colluding against a Venetian citizen and he loses all his fortune but can redeem half of his estate if only he converts to Christianity. Not to mention the fact that Shylock’s daughter runs away and forsakes her heritage and religion.  Shylock himself is spat upon and insulted by his Christian foes.  Hardly a story of tolerance and brotherly love.

Prejudice is prejudice is prejudice.  However, the play is regarded by Shakespeare lovers’ and theatre critics as one of his most beautiful and dramatic plays.  For generations it has been obvious that the play is clearly anti-Jewish based on stereotypical depiction of greedy, ruthless Jewish moneylenders who extract exorbitant interest rates.  The Oxford Dictionary defines Shylock as – “A moneylender who charges extremely high rates of interest”.  Merriam Webster Dictionary defines Shylock as a “loan shark; [who] lends money at exorbitant interest rates.  After Shylock, the ruthless Jewish usurer in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice who demands a pound of his debtor’s flesh as compensation for default upon a loan.”.

It does not require much imagination to understand the premise of the play, yet there are many who would defend it as brilliant firstly (so is Fawlty towers in my analysis) and secondly that it not only defames Jews but also belittles Christians.  The late American theatre critic Charles Marowitz, the author of Recycling Shakespeare, argues the following. “There is almost as much evil in the defending Christians as there is in the prosecuting Jew, and a verdict that relieves a moneylender of half his wealth and then forces him to convert to save his skin is not really a sterling example of Christian justice.”  The literary critic Harold Bloom writes, “One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”

Unlike the Fawlty Towers episode, there cannot be questions about its inherent message. There is no doubt that the play is full of anti-Jewish sentiments, views and ideas, inflaming anti-Semitism.  Should it be removed by the BBC from its archives? Should it never be performed again?  By the standards of the moment the answer must be sadly but resoundingly “Yes”.  It should be irrelevant that it is written by William Shakespeare or that it is 400 years old as it is full of ugly bias and intolerance.  What about other plays, books and TV programs?  Yes, we need to be careful what we wish for.

The play is a denigration of Jewish people for the last 400 years.  Does it make a difference that it was written by William Shakespeare or that it is several hundred years old?  Recently, I wrote on these pages Pearls and Irritations  about an increase in anti-Chinese prejudice blaming them for the Covid19.  What has not been publicised widely is the rise in anti-Semitism blaming Jews for Covid19 with preposterous appeal to old enmities about control and money.  Does not “The Merchant of Venice” lend approval and support to such beliefs?  We know from credible research that underlying beliefs guide thinking and behaviour. Can it be redeemed by a precautionary note that the play is offensive?  I am not sure!

About the Author
Rivka T. Witenberg (Ph.D.) is an academic, researcher and a writer. In 2017 she published a book entitled “Tolerance" the glue that binds us.”and in 2019 she published "The psychology of tolerance https://www.springer.com/gp/book/978981133788. Professionally, she is a writer and academic who brings an expertise in the field of examining thinking processes and underlying beliefs about moral codes, tolerance and acceptance to human diversity .
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