Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cutting a Pound of Flesh from Shakespeare by Frank Furedi

Dustin Hoffman as Shylock
One of the most unattractive features of Western society today is its obsessive presentism – that is, its estrangement from both the past and the future and its myopic focus on the here-and-now. Twenty-first-century culture continually seeks to erode the line that separates the present from the past. Past events – whether historical or literary – are now evaluated from the viewpoint and values of today. This culturally anachronistic approach means that centuries-old historical figures and literary characters are often castigated for their racism, sexism, classism or any other trait that offends the imagination of contemporary readers.
One of the worst aspects of this cultural necrophilia is the trend for rewriting the great literature of the past. Yesterday, it was reported that poor old William Shakespeare has been brought into the frame – apparently the British author Howard Jacobson plans to rewrite The Merchant of Venice in order to ‘tackle its anti-Semitism’. I have the greatest of respect for Jacobson, so these reports sadden me.
No doubt Jacobson has the best of intentions, but the fact is that rewriting a Shakespeare play – especially one as controversial as The Merchant of Venice – is a form of rewriting history. Such an endeavour threatens to violate the integrity of art, and it encourages the politicisation of aesthetic judgment.

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