Archive for Thursday, March 8, 2001

Merchant’ alternatives

March 8, 2001


To the editor:

Replacing "The Merchant of Venice" as a required text does not involve censorship. The only call for censorship I can find has been in George Gurley's diatribe against "vulgar" culture.

The real issue is simple: What should the curriculum include? As Ms. Phyllis Allen has suggested, substituting "Hamlet" or "MacBeth" for "The Merchant" is not censorship.

Anti-Semitic and racist texts like the "Merchant" are in the curriculum because they are considered part of the literary canon and when they were adopted most Americans were blind to anti-Semitism and racism. Not all teachers are trained to guide students to explore the play's anti-Semitism. Since high school attendance is compulsory, we need to exercise special sensitivity in assigning texts.

I have been disappointed that the public conversation on using "The Merchant" has lacked an empathetic understanding about using an anti-Semitic text in the classroom and the impact it could have on some Jewish students.

My wife and I raised two children in Lawrence and have lived here for 32 years. We have dealt successfully with the "vulgar" society that Gurley would like to censor, but we have had difficulty with the spectrum of anti-Semitism that we have experienced, from death threats to seemingly innocent stereotyping of Jews. If the "Merchant" were taught to eradicate anti-Semitism in Lawrence, it has been a failure; it is time to adopt another strategy. Indeed, in my experience, the play affirms rather than undermines the stereotypes of Jews that I have heard locally.

I ask that the English departments at our public high schools consider the issues that have been raised over assigning the "Merchant." Does it inflict harm on some members of our community? Should we freeze the curriculum as it exists now because any change represents censorship? What do we do when a play, in Harold Bloom's words, is "a profoundly anti-Semitic work"? Or what if it were profoundly racist? What is our responsibility to look at the issue and weigh the benefits and harm?

It is not censorship to introduce students to Shakespeare by using another play that, without inflicting the harm that the "Merchant" does, better offers students exposure to the best possibilities of imagination, literature, and the English language.

David M. Katzman,


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