Amidst all the rather more harrowing news of recent days, a somewhat quieter argument has been playing out. Well, the argument was fairly quiet and not really much of an argument until Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail stormed in with some sensationalised inaccuracies. I’m talking about the recent news that former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo has been accused of censoring his upcoming book of retellings of Shakespeare for children – something which the author has denied.
The book – due to be published next year – will include retellings of ten plays from Shakespeare which will then be be performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and will be free for schools around the UK to view for five weeks. The retellings will not simply modernise Shakespeare’s language, but they will update the context of his plays, centring them around issues such as drugs and gangs.
Morpurgo only ever intended to retell 10 plays, and so many have been excluded from the upcoming book. Morpurgo has stated that he simply chose to retell the 10 plays he loved the most. However, Morpurgo has specifically discussed his reasons for excluding one play in particular – The Merchant of Venice.
The playfeatures a Jewish money-lender called Shylock who insists that if his loan is not returned by the title character he will take a pound of his flesh as payment. It was described by Morpurgo as something that ‘can be antisemitic’. Morpurgo said that he did not feel he could modernise the tale and make it suitable for younger readers, and worried that for impressionable youngsters, seeing Shylock as possibly their first example of a Jewish person would be problematic.
Morpurgo is, I believe, right not to retell The Merchant of Venice if he feels that he cannot modernise it in a way that will be helpful to the pursuit of racial justice. While the play is undoubtedly more nuanced than a blatant antisemitic tract (there is much reason to feel sorry for Shylock – excluded, belittled and dehumanised at every turn), it was, as Morpurgo notes, a favourite play in Nazi Germany, performed in such a way as to stir up antisemitic fervour.
The Daily Mail et al are wrong to cry ‘censorship’. By leaving out The Merchant of Venice from his book, Morpurgo goes no way towards silencing Shakespeare’s work. The play is still out there, and it is not as if Morpurgo wishes to deny its existence or content. But there is a slightly more complex issue at hand here.
Morpurgo’s deliberate decision not to include The Merchant of Venice in his book raises the question of what sort of things it is right to expose children to – and how to expose them to sensitive content. I think it is certainly true that it contains many antisemitic attitudes. Whether the text ultimately condones those attitudes is much less clear. I read an abridged retelling of the Merchant of Venice as a child and spoke to my dad (who had studied the play for his O Levels) about it. I remember my dad explaining antisemitism to me at the time, and talking about the prejudice the other characters held towards Shylock. I remember him quoting the original version of the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ monologue that Shylock delivers.
I think this conversation was pivotal to my understanding of antisemitism. Reading that retelling of the Merchant of Venice had prompted me to ask questions, and when I received the answers I felt I understood not just Shakespeare’s text but something more about the world.
Many years later, as a student of English literature, I began to realise just how ‘problematic’ vast swathes of Shakespeare can be. A play like The Tempest (often touted as a child-friendly favourite for retellings) features subtle suggestions of incest. Something like Twelfth Night (also often retold for children) features a sinister episode of gaslighting. Though I read retellings of those plays too as a child, it was only as a young adult that I realised the dark (and often unchallenged) implications of them.
Ultimately, selecting material that is ‘child-friendly’ won’t necessarily achieve the desired effects. I don’t actually think that this is what Morpurgo intends to do. I feel he has simply considered how best he can present material containing antisemitic tropes to young children and has found that this is something that he is not going to be able to do. That’s perfectly fine. But I don’t think this means that The Merchant of Venice is totally inappropriate for children – in the same way that so many of Shakespeare’s other plays present issues but should not necessarily be considered unsuitable for young minds.
Perhaps raising such issues and exposing our children to these materials is the right way forward. They aren’t unambiguous tracts of hatred, but nuanced and often ambiguous texts which present a cultural moment no more confusing and unsettling than the global society in which we live. Maybe by opening up the trickier conversations with our young children we can give them some perspective on the fact that there are lots of dark and difficult issues to contemplate in this world. One thing that must be noted is that trying to shield our children from the world’s ills rarely works. So while I totally support Morpurgo’s decision, I do think that we should be more open about what we expose our children to – with mentors and teachers in place, tricky issues might best be navigated young.