On Shakespeare’s Bigotry: An Open Letter

On Tuesday, 13 June 2017, I opened up the Buffalo News to find a perplexing letter to the editor. Someone named Gerhard Falk was calling for an end to the “literary correctness” that kept Shakespeare on our bookshelves and in our syllabi. Gerhard Falk wanted us to “ignore Shakespeare.”

This was absurd. You cannot, of course, “ignore” a force and a legacy that has shaped our culture, shaped our language, and shaped our understanding of ourselves. On top of that, Falk’s charge was a silly, tired one, something high school English teachers address as a prelude to a discussion of historical context and the importance of an author’s intentions to the value of a work of literature: namely, that Shakespeare is bigoted, and specifically anti-Semitic.

Gerhard Falk, I discovered, is a long-time Buffalo State sociology professor, and a survivor of the Holocaust.  The full text of his letter is below:

Recently I read “Hitler” by Joachim Fest. Evidently Adolf Hitler considered “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare his favorite play because it maligns the Jewish people in the most disgusting manner, thereby undoubtedly contributing to the mass murder of the European Jews.

The recent bombings in London and several other such atrocities in England and in the United States demonstrate that there is enough hatred in the world so that we need not teach our children by means of Shakespeare’s bigotry that religious hate is legitimate.

After I read “The Merchant of Venice,” I read all of his plays and discovered that his 16th century works are so remote from present day interests that it is unfortunate that “literary correctness” requires us all to pretend that Shakespeare was anything better than an antiquated bore.

There is some great literature in this world that is far more supportive of our democratic values than Shakespeare’s hate-mongering. Surely our English teachers know that and would do all of us a favor if they had the courage to ignore Shakespeare in favor of all the great American literature that our children evidently never see.

Gerhard understands the power of bigotry in a way that I never will. Still, he was wrong about Shakespeare, and wrong about the value of literature generally. I had to turn this letter to the editor into a conversation. I spent a Sunday afternoon drafting the following in longhand, and posted it to Gerhard’s address.

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