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Debate on Play by Shakespeare

February 7, 1934
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An address here before a lecture forum by Louis K. Anspacther, playwright and lecturer, has revived the controversy as to whether or not “The Merchant of Venice” should be banned in the public schools.

Anspacher apealed to his audience to use influence with boards of education “to get ‘The Merchant of Venice’ out of the hands of high school students.” he maintained that “it’s a bad play to begin with, and there’s no use to pattern a child’s mind to its prejudice. It is full of anti-Semitic prejudice and was just a bit of propaganda.” He reviewed the background of “The Merchant of Venice,” explaining that in England, in Shakespeare’s time, the Jew was the villain. The great dramatist wrote the play the year after the death of the Spanish Jewish doctor, don Ruy Lopez, who was hanged because he was charged with a plot to poison Queen Elizabeth.

“So terrible has been the effect of this play,” Anspacher declared, “that in Schleswig-Holstein there was a law that no performance of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ could be given unless it was preceded the evening before by a performance of Lessing’s ‘Nathan the Wise,’ which portrays the Jew as a philosopher. This law was passed because when “The Mer- chant’ had been produced alone it was followed by invasions of the ghetto and massacre of the Jews who lived there. However, I don’t imagine that in all Germany today anyone is producing ‘Nathan the Wise.'”

But Malcolm W. Bingay. editorial writer of the Detroit Free Press and author of the daily column, “Good Morning.” in the Free Press, disagrees. He believes that if the “Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic then “Hamlet” is anti-Nordie and “Macbeth” anti-Scotch. Mr. Bingay, who has on numerous occasions condemned racial and religious bigotry, maintains that he knows of no finer plea for racial and religious toterance in all literature than the speech by Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”

“I have read and seen the play most of my life.” Bingay writes, “and it never arouses within me anything but the deepest sympathy for Shyiock and the Jewish people.”

Declaring his doubt that Shake-speare had written the play in the spirit of anti-Semitism, he said, “The theme is as old as literature. It had been played as a crude and vicious comedy. Shakespeare took it and with his divine genius made of a comedy one of the world’s most poignant tragedies. He called it a comedy because it had always been accepted as a comedy, but the Master knew that the dividing line between comedy and tragedy is invisible.”

Quoting Shylock’s plea in the play, Bingay continued, “There spoke a man! Combine it with the plea of Scott in Ivanhoe and the answer to the Suitan in “Nathan the Wise” and you have a complete protest against bigotry.”

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