On Friday, the Tribune Media Services published a crossword puzzle with the clue “Shylock, e.g.” in several of its newspapers. The corresponding three-letter answer: J-E-W. Jew. Within hours, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had written a letter in protest calling the clue “insensitive,” demanding an apology, and frustrating crossword enthusiasts who hadn’t yet done their puzzles.
Perhaps the puzzle authors were unaware of the use of Shakespeare’s Shylock character throughout the years as a vehicle for anti-Semitism. Selecting Shylock to elicit the answer ‘Jew’ demonstrates cultural ignorance and an extreme lack of sensitivity. Even if done inadvertently, such a linkage perpetuates classic anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as evil and money-hungry.”
For its part, the Tribune Media Services quickly apologized, ran an apology in a number of its papers, and swore to never use the clue ever again. The ADL commended them for their “swift action” and the dance was complete.
But was this clue actually offensive? After all, is Shylock–one of the more polarizing characters in all of literature–not a Jew? To help gain some clarity, I sought out Barry Edelstein, the Artistic Director of the Old Globe in San Diego, who took a break from preparing for the Old Globe’s major production of The Merchant of Venice to speak with me.
The Old Globe is Edelstein’s third major production of the Shakespeare play, including a previous production that starred Al Pacino as Shylock. “The only person who has Shylock on his mind more than me right now,” Edelstein confessed, “is Antonio.” Edelstein’s been too busy to hear about the crossword controversy, but when I told him about it, he was a little bit confused:
“As a Jew and not any kind of an expert [on anti-Semitism], I think this is a case of the ADL and Foxman defining anti-Semitism down. I appreciate so much of their good work, but I just don’t agree that this crossword puzzle clue rises to the level of noxious anti-Semitism. For one thing, Shylock in his famous speech stands center stage and proclaims ‘I am a Jew.’ For another, Shakespeare seems very interested in the slippage between the name Shylock and the identity Jew and it’s one of the games that he plays throughout the play. So I just don’t find it offensive, in fact, I find it kind of innocuous. If the answer had been ‘bloodsucker’ then that’s a different case. But this seems to me, if you’ll pardon the Shakespeare line, ‘a tempest in a teapot.’ Given the fact that there actually is real anti-Semitism in the world that’s doing real damage to real Jews, I wish that Foxman would keep his powder dry for that stuff.”
And what about Foxman’s claim (and the claim of countless others) that the character Shylock has been used “throughout the years as a vehicle for anti-Semitism?” Edelstein didn’t disagree, saying that Foxman is “correct to say that Shylock has been used throughout the years as a cudgel against the Jews.”
“But if you dig a little deeper into that, what you find is that in every one of those cases, some aspect of Shylock has had to be pulled out of the context of Shakespeare’s much more complicated design,” he said.
Edelstein cited the Third Reich’s frequent revival of The Merchant of Venice, which sought to portray Jews as “money-hungry leeches.” But as Edelstein points out, Shylock’s Jewish daughter marries a Christian at the end of the play and eventually the play stopped being produced because “that didn’t fit their worldview.”
“You had to cut and adapt the play. In other words, Shakespeare, as a rule, is larger than any political interest that tries to co-opt him for some narrow agitprop point of view.”
Edelstein also explained that while the characters in Shakespeare’s Venice are cruel to Shylock through his part in five of the 25 scenes in the play (or 40 of 180 minutes), they ultimately pay for it. “In a bigoted society…nobody can actually find any kind of fulfilling love relationship. Shakespeare has a design that is so complex that to pull any one piece of it out is to do damage to Shakespeare and to minimize his achievement.”
Simply put, to let the corrupters define who Shylock is gives them too much power. This above all; to thine own self be Jew.
But, perhaps most interestingly, is how the audience matters. “It halves the story or more than halves the story,” Edelstein said. Were The Merchant of Venice being staged in Pakistan it would mean something entirely different than in New York City, where Edelstein has spent most of his life. In places where there are misconceptions about Jews or is deeply ingrained anti-Semitism the play “operates in a different kind of way.” In this case, we’re talking about a crossword clue in the Tribune.
In other words, the longview of Shylock ought to be considered because it shows where we’ve come from and how far we’ve progressed. Throughout history, Edelstein explains, the stage has given us four different Shylocks across four centuries. The first is the “different” Shylock.
“Visibly different from everyone else in the play. Alien-looking in costume, in gait, in the way he speaks. The famous production of the Royal Shakespeare Company with Anthony Sher in the 80s, where he played him as sort of a Turkish Jew with a turban and a long flowing robe. Everyone else was in Elizabethan London costuming. Then there’s the other end of the spectrum, Lawrence Olivier performance whereas he looked so completely assimilated that there was no visual distinction whatsoever. So there’s one spectrum of the history of the role that vacillates back and forth along that axis.
The second is Shylock as the sympathetic figure versus Shylock as the absolute villain of the piece. There’s a second line over 400 years where that portrayal vacillates back and forth. These questions always have to do with what’s going on with the position of Jews in that society at the time.”
Edelstein referenced Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, who saw this dynamic set in the origins of the play. The Merchant of Venice was written during “one of the first moments in English history when Englishmen were really coming to terms with the various things that constituted an English identity. So in order to do that, they needed a figure to represent everything that Englishness was not, against which they could measure themselves. The figure that they summoned was the Jew, in a context in which there were some Jews, but not very many…In that case you get this alien, villainous, corrupt, immoral figure against which the virtuous Christian can be set off. Again, if you trace the play across 400 years, you’ll see it reflects as much about the position of the Jew in that culture as it does about Shakespeare.”
So if Shylock is a canvas upon which a society projects its attitude toward Jews, what does it mean when Jews immediately interpret the most banal mention of Shylock in a reflexively defensive posture?
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.