From Shakespeare Newsletter, Winter, 1987, pp. 47-48 The Merchant of Venice Banned in 9th and 10 grades in Waterloo, Ontario.
Public outcries to ban The Merchant of Venice from classes and presentation have evoked much controversy over the years. The latest controversy occurred when students, parents, and religious leaders last summer petitioned the Waterloo County Board of Education to ban the reading of the play in the 9th and 10th grades where it was usually taught.
The prevailing sentiment for keeping the play early was that the play might well be used to “teach a lesson about” prejudice which would expose its evils. To have the existence of prejudice was a disservice to the educational process. It was not right for a vocal minority to “impugn the ability of the teaching staff” to handle the play. It was thought that if MV were banned we might expect black parents to demand removing Othello and royalty could make the same demand for R3 and Hamlet.
At a later meeting there was a broader discussion of whether the teaching of MV might be a violation of Human Rights Legislation. Some members of the Board thought that the advice of the Human Rights Commission of the Ministry of Education and other public groups. Should be sought. Instead of a “callous and insensitive attitude” toward the problems, there was a need for understanding. Members felt that the postponement of the play until the 11th and 12th grades would lead to a more “peaceful coexistence between Jewish and other students.”
Teaching the play had led to discriminatory remarks to Jewish students by non-Jews. Testimony from 8 students revealed that there was a surge of anti-Semitism after the play was taught. Jewish students were taunted as “Jewish moneylenders” and coins were thrown at them. Swastikas were found scrawled on desks. Another said that the wrong Shakespeare did was that he emphasized “at every evil point Shylock’s race and religion” but not with other villains. Half the students in some classes had never seen or known a Jew; Shylock was their first contact and it was a bad one. “Jew” began to be used as a derogatory word. Any unpopular student was called a Jew. Jewish students were made to feel ashamed of their religion. One student who was not known to be Jewish was afraid of being found out. A student known to be Jewish was told to play Shylock in class recitations. One teacher told a Jewish student who complained not to worry; the others didn’t know he was Jewish. Another student told a Jewish student that he felt sorry for him. A hurt student told his brother to suffer as he did in the 9th year English class.
The English Subject Association felt that their teachers were not insensitive and could teach MV in the 9th and 10th grades. The English coordinator observed that “the play provides a forum for the examination of prejudice and bias…makes one deeply aware of the human condition…challenges one to clarify values held…forces one to examine the integrity of personal beliefs and opinions.”
The difficulties, set forth here for use should SNL readers become involved in similar situations—for it does occur at higher levels in producing the play, were that if the Board did not act it is being attacked as insensitive, if the Trustees ban the play in the intermediate classes it will be seen as giving in to a coalition, if the decision is referred to a higher authority is shirking its responsibilities. Whatever ruling was made it would be realized that the decision might have an effect on other schools. In any case, the decision, would inspire teaching or producing the play with heightened awareness of its content.
In discussing the motion to ban the play the following points were raised: One speaker said he did not want his daughter’s first exposure to the Jewish people to be like Shylock. Another member said that the problem would exist in the upper grades as well. Would it be necessary to ban the play altogether? Still another said banning the play could be interpreted as depriving others of their rights. The vote was taken and the play was banned from the lower grades by a vote of 10 to 8. The Education Ministry of the Human Rights Commission may make a further ruling in the matter.