NYC school cancels Shakespeare play after antisemitic parental concerns

An NYC middle school has canceled their production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant in Venice" following parental concerns about the antisemitic themes in the play.

 Photos from the Otterbein College theatre performance of "The Merchant of Venice". Photos may not be published without permission of the photographer.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Photos from the Otterbein College theatre performance of "The Merchant of Venice". Photos may not be published without permission of the photographer.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A well-known New York City middle school canceled their production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant in Venice" last month, following parental concerns about the antisemitic themes within the play, the New York Post reported. 

Jewish parents turned to the school's administration about their concerns that the play's material may not be appropriate for the seventh-grade drama students at Greenwich Village's 75 Morton middle school in Manhattan. 

Shakespeare's 16th-century play, "The Merchant in Venice", tells the story of a Jewish moneylender named Shylock, a term that has long been considered to be an antisemitic slur.

The play has some clear anti-Jewish elements with Shylock playing the "stereotypical greedy Jew, who is spat upon by his Christian enemies, and constantly insulted by them", pointed out in a Smithsonian Magazine analysis of the play.

The play was even a favorite of Nazi Germany which also "lends credence to the charge of antisemitism" and "between 1933 and 1939, there were more than 50 productions performed there."

 	An evening performance of the Merchant of Venice in the grounds of Coughton Court. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) An evening performance of the Merchant of Venice in the grounds of Coughton Court. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Manhattan-based organization collaborating with the students on the play, Theatre for a New Audience, was aware of the "polarizing elements of the play" and took those into consideration when developing their approach to the project, according to the Post

The school added that while TFNA "designed the curriculum with input from the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) to ensure that the challenging themes of the piece would be treated with the proper critical analysis, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness, [they] decided to move forward with a different unit with the Theater.”

According to school sources, parental opinion was divided "with some calling for a cancellation, others calling for a dialogue on the issue, and others who opposed scrapping the play," the Post reported. 

One member of the school community told the Post that "the way that anti-Semitism is shown in this play, if you don’t have a minimum of knowledge and context you can’t understand how bad and dangerous it is you."

Parent Joe Sherinky felt while he had reservations about the production they missed a "teachable moment" and he would have preferred "a more meaningful exchange on the issue." 

“There are great lessons in the Merchant of Venice. You can take names like Shylock and apply them broadly into lessons about racism. But in order to teach that properly you need to have enough context as parents to say that this is something good for the school to do," Sherinky told the Post

The school said their "decision did not come lightly, as [they] worked diligently with TFNA and listened to the members of our community to resolve concerns,” the Post reported.  

Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College Susannah Heschel says that "critics have long debated what motivated Shakespeare to write this play", in the Smithsonian Magazine analysis. 

The question of whether Shakespeare was being antisemitic or if he was exploring antisemitism is raised. 

Shylock is "given the most humanizing speech in the play",  professor Michele Osherow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County pointed out.

Heschel thinks the play "opens the door for questioning" about antisemitism during Shakespeare's time and it is one of the most important pieces of literature from Western Civilization well worth studying.