‘merchant of Venice’ Makes Little Hitlers, Says Anspacher

“Why make little Hitlers out of school children?” Dr. Louis K. Anspacher, founder of the Drama League and fellow of the League for Political Education, stated emphatically. “For years I have tried to get the ‘Merchant of Venice’ out of the hands of the public schools. And I wish everyone would help me. There is no excuse for patterning children’s minds to a religious prejudice.”

Thus spoke a leader of the theatre whose bible is, in the orthodox tradition, Shakespeare. The statement is not heresy for him. He contends that the Merchant of Venice is an inferior play. It contains one role-but one that has presented enough difficulty even in the hands of the great. When Mansfield or Warfield undertook to play Shylock, there had to be much changing of the script, and elision of the most glaring brutalities.

” ‘I wish my daughter were dead with the ducats in her ear’.” Malevolence lined the speaker’s features. “There it is. You shrink from the character. And children, whose minds are wax to receive and marble to retain, are fed that sort of thing. In Shakespeare’s day it was a matter of expedience to write such a play. Anti-Semitism was rife in England, and the topic pleased the Queen.

PLAY FOUNDED ON GOSSIP

“It was an elaboration of bit of gossip that had reached the court through the ‘New Yorker’ of the day. A Jewish gambler of Rome made a wager with a Gentile friend that Magellan would fail in his project of encircling the globe. The winner might demand a pound of flesh to be taken from the breast of his adversary. When Magellan’s success was announced, the Jew, who had lost, was forced to flee his murderous playmate, who pursued him with a knife. That is the first point, you see. It was not the Jew who insisted upon the bargain. Far from it. The ironic part of it was that he finally ran, in despair, to Pope Sixtus the Fifth for protection. Immediately all Rome was agog with the news that a Jew had thrown himself at the feet of the Church for mercy.

“Through the Italian ambassador’s whispering wires, the juicy bit arrived at the court of Elizabeth. The judgment of the Pope was lost in the to-do about the situation. As a matter of fact, Sixtus was then, as usual, in debt. He settled the matter very satisfactorily by fining both Jew and Gentile 80,000 scudi for considering a suicidal wager. And the Sistine Chapel grew out of the proceeds. But thereby hung a plot for Shakespeare. And he had a living to make. In a few months he turned out the Merchant. And the Queen, who had been vastly amused by the whole thing, paid well for the piece.”

‘NATHAN’ AS COUNTER-PLAY

The suggestion that the drama may not have as powerful an influence upon the mob as he attributed to it drew forth a strong contradiction from Dr. Anspacher. He stated that during the centuries after the poet’s death, when the play was presented in the small towns of Germany, there was invariably a pogrom to follow. Supper hour for the enraged audiences was an orgy of stones and knives in the streets of the Ghettos. Indubitable proof of this came when the authorities of Schleswig-Holstein issued a proclamation that no company was to be allowed to present the “Merchant of Venice” unless on the night before it had done Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise.” The latter play, which represented the Jew as a benevolent old man, softened the minds of the audiences. And on the ensuing night, when the Shakespeare opus was offered, the memory of the kind, just old man, still fresh in their minds, mitigated the villainy of Shylock. And the Ghetto slept that night.

“There is no justification for poisoning young minds with the play. There are other much greater Shakesperian works that the schools neglect. ‘Hamlet,’ for example, and ‘Twelfth Night,’ Anspacher concluded.

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