Thursday, December 1, 2016

Protecting Us from "The Merchant of Venice"

I saw a Merchant of Venice recently, staged in the 1930s. A lot of anxiety about the Shylock, about the anti-Jewish language. I have always thought that sanitizing a genius' work was Bowdlerization, despite what pure motives may lurk beneath the damage. It has always seemed to me more a comment on a fragile audience, uncertain and weak.
Here is Brecht on the other side of Bowdler:

Man is the sum of all the social conditions prevailing at every time, as the [Marxist] classics have it. All the same, there is a lot in these works that is dead, distorted and empty. This can continue to be printed; for all we know it may be shamming dead, and it may anyway explain other aspects of this past period. I would almost sooner draw your attention to the wealth of living elements still to be found in such works at apparently dead junctures. An infinitesimal addition, and they spring to life, specifically now, specifically not till now. What really matters is to play these old works historically, which means setting them in powerful contrast to our own time. For it is only against the background of our time that their shape emerges as an old shape, and without this background l doubt if they could have any shape at all.

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