Works of literature, written hundreds of years ago, may contain viewpoints that seem stereotypical and that offend modern sensibilities. While it is natural to want to protect students from these harsh sentiments, it may be counterproductive to omit controversial texts from class rather than using them as a vehicle for raising awareness and sensitivity about issues of prejudice. When teaching The Merchant of Venice, then, it is important to raise the issue of anti-Semitism as a precursor to examining the text, and to explore this type of prejudice as both a historical and contemporary phenomenon.
Throughout the play, Shylock, and by extension, all Jews, are presented as moneyhungry, conniving, and cruel. Shylock the Jew, as he is called by everyone in the play is compared with a dog, a cur, and a demon, and is referred to as the very devil incarnation. Teachers should be aware of the negative impact these words and ideas could have on students without a thorough examination of the history and the context of this language. It is important to consider how Jewish students in class may feel after reading The Merchant of Venice, and equally essential to take into account how the play might reinforce stereotypes of Jews among other students. When negative and stereotypical portrayals of minorities are read in class with no examination or critical analysis of these stereotypes, students may assume that these depictions are accurate and true. It is therefore critical to contextualize these stereotypes and offer students an opportunity to examine and deconstruct them. Related Activities/Discussion Questions
1. ON CENSORSHIP/FREEDOM OF SPEECH
a. Ask students to define the word censorship .
b. Lead a discussion on the history of the free speech movement in the United States. Students can research organizations dedicated to the promise of freedom of speech, such as the ACLU, www.aclu.org or PEN, www.pen.org, an association of writers committed to defending freedom of expression. c. Lead a discussion on whether students think that censorship is ever appropriate.
d. Have students debate whether or not censorship of The Merchant of Venice is ever an appropriate response to concerns about the promotion of anti- Semitism or prejudice. Divide the class into two teams; assign one to argue a pro-censorship perspective and the other an anti-censorship perspective. Create small groups of four students two from each team and allow them time to debate before debriefing as a whole class.
Anti- Semitism and The Merchant of Venice: A Discussion Guide for Educators © 2006 Anti-Defamation League Page 5
e. Have students research works of literature that have been banned in classrooms in the United States in the last fifty years?
Do these books have anything in common? If so, what?
Research the years that these books were banned and compare the current events and news of the time period with the content of the books. Are there specific issues or trends that explain the controversies surrounding these works?
Students can read the American Library Association s information on this topic:
2. ON LITERATURE AND ART
Lead a discussion on the role of art and literature as vehicles (sometimes controversial) of social commentary and the expression of new ideas. Explore the following:
a. What is the purpose or function of art?
b. What makes a piece of writing literature? Might this change over time? Can a book or play that was originally considered literature fall out of favor? If so, why?
c. Who decides what is literature or art?
d. Have students research recent controversies over art exhibits and the use of public funds to support them. What types of exhibits have been considered controversial ? Who decides?
e. Many readers find the character of Shylock to be an offensive caricature of Jews. Do you agree? If so, is it still worth...