Teachers defend role of Shakespeare's 'anti-Semitic' play

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ENGLISH teachers leapt to the defence of the Bard yesterday despite a survey which found teachers worldwide shunning The Merchant of Venice as anti-Semitic. In the survey of more than 1,000 teachers in Britain, Germany, Australia and the United States, 5 per cent thought the work about Shylock, a moneylender, should not be taught, while 40 per cent deemed the play anti-Semitic.

The survey was commissioned by the Globe Theatre, the replica of the house that staged Shakespeare's works, which is producing the play as part of its 1998 season.

The play, written in 1596, has been controversial for generations. It has prompted walk-outs and protests at productions in Israel and was suggested as one reason why the Bard's face was left off euro banknotes. However, it is firmly established in schools. It is even used as an introduction to Shakespeare for children as young as 10.

Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "The play can be read and studied on different levels. It is true that the whole business of Shylock is complex and the area of Elizabethan anti-Semitism is odd to 20th-century readers. You have to be very confident about your ability to teach these issues of racism and prejudice, and you need to know your kids well."

Richard Wilcocks, of Bruntcliffe High School in Morley, near Leeds, teaches the play to 14-year-old GCSE pupils. He said: "It's a good opportunity to teach about anti-Semitism. They are very involved in the play and are learning a lot."

The Globe is running a project to work on the play with south-east London schools. Alastair Tallon, of the theatre's education unit, said: "If we do not perform and teach the play, how do we deal with other people's prejudices? Racism is very much on the agenda because the British National Party and the National Front are strong in these areas and we hope schools use this to confront that."

St Saviour's and St Olave's School, a girl's school in Southwark, is participating in the project. The headteacher, Irene Bishop, said: "Young people are not stupid. They know there are racists around and just because there are racists in a play it does not mean we should not address the issues."