New Internationalist

Mixed company

Issue 374

You give an interesting list of writers and artists with antisemitic tendencies (‘Portrait of the artist as an antisemite’, NI 372 ); but they are a mixed crowd.

Geoffrey Chaucer was intent on assembling an eclectic mix of stories, some more sophisticated than others, and routinely attributed to his pilgrim narrators attitudes he didn’t himself share. His bit of sedately gory antisemitism is given to the genteel Prioress, who couldn’t bear to look at a mouse in a trap.

Shakespeare did give Shylock the speech appealing to shared humanity: ‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs…? fed with the same food… as a Christian is?’

Wagner, on the other hand, was an enthusiastic hater, especially in general terms. He loathed the French; he gleefully boasted of hating ‘the three Js – Jews, Jesuits and jurists’. He also chose a number of Jews as his close friends and assistants.

Mark Twain is a curious case. He wrote sympathetically of black people, satirized racism and the slave-owning mentality, fiercely attacked Leopold II’s atrocities in the Congo. He never had a good word for the Native Americans.

George Schlesinger Durham, England

Critical debate continues on whether Chaucer was antisemitic or whether his use of a rabidly antisemitic tale was ‘ironic’. However, antisemitism was a common theme of Christian literature of Chaucer’s time and there is much scholarship to suggest he was content to reflect it. The ‘ironic’ reading is attributable more to a modern audience’s desire to be comfortable with the messages in the Canterbury Tales. While Shylock’s speech is often quoted in defence of Shakespeare’s characterization of him, the rest of the play is saturated with offensive references to his Jewishness and villainy. – Ed

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