A portrait of William Shakespeare
A portrait of William Shakespeare.
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For centuries, the poor old Bard has been the victim of what can only be described as a literary smear campaign, with questions being asked about his authorship, his parentage, his gender, his race and even his sexual orientation.

One of the most widely ascribed-to theories is that Shakespeare was a second-rate actor from the sleepy backwater of Stratford, who put his name to the works of other, greater men, among them Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and even Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.

There are even some who claim that, in an eerie foreshadowing of the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, Shakespeare was actually a front for a series of out-of-favor playwrights - some because they were Catholic, some because they opposed the monarchy - who could not publish under their own names.

This week, a new group joined the Shakespearean fray: nine teenage girls from a state-run Jewish school in London, who protested Shakespeare's alleged anti-Semitism in "The Merchant of Venice" by refusing to answer questions in a national curriculum exam. The girls, students at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School, an Orthodox institution with 249 pupils, were supposed to answer questions about "The Tempest," which they had studied earlier in the semester. But they decided to make a stand and instigated a boycott against the Bard, despite the fact that the offending work - "The Merchant of Venice" - was not part of the curriculum and was not part of the exam.

They refused to answer any questions about Shakespeare, citing the anti- Semitism that is a central theme in "The Merchant of Venice."

This is not about legitimate protest. Nor is it about protecting the easily offended sensibilities of these poor girls - who were not even exposed to Shakespeare's horrendous Jew-hatred, but, instead, read a romantic comedy, that is, Elizabethan chick lit.

It is, however, about challenges - that is, whether we are willing to expose ourselves to intellectual and emotional challenges. Shakespeare - or whoever it really was that put words in the mouth of the "impenetrable cur" - challenged his audience with the "I am a Jew" speech. How must an Elizabethan audience have felt, having been whipped into a frenzy of Jew-hatred, to suddenly be presented with a soliloquy in which the otherwise inhuman Shylock makes an impassioned plea to his tormentors to see beyond the Jew and recognize him as a human? How did they feel when challenged by Shylock's rhetorical questioning: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?"

Similarly, we must recognize that works of art that challenge us, as people and as Jews, are far more valuable when we confront them than when we dismiss them. We can learn much more from "The Merchant of Venice" - about the historical roots of anti-Semitism, for example - by studying it than by snubbing it.

The main problem with this Bard boycott, however, is not the girls, no matter how "unlesson'd, unschool'd and unpracticed" they are. What is really troubling here is the support that the girls appear to be getting. According to a report in The Independent, the girls' parents are fully behind them. The principal of the school in question, Rabbi Abraham Pinter (and with a name like that, he really ought to know better), said that while he does not agree with the girls' reasoning, he respects it. Instead of embodying the very Jewish virtues of academic inquisitiveness, and a thirst for knowledge, he has given his tacit approval to a dangerously blinkered approach.

"The Merchant of Venice" is a work of fiction, which examines the themes of mercy, vengeance and hatred. The anti-Semitic baying of Shylock's adversaries in the dramatic courtroom scene does not flatter the play's Christian personae.

To shun Shakespeare's entire body of work because of the anti-Semitism of some characters in one of his plays could be excused as misguided adolescent zeal. To condone it, as Rabbi Pinter and others have, is unforgivable.

Rather than explaining to these girls the error of their ways, they have told them that it is acceptable to eschew anything challenging, anything that does not conform in advance to our way of thinking. By not insisting that the girls sit down and read "The Merchant of Venice" - or, better still, having them see it performed on stage - the very people who are supposed to be their guides and their teachers have failed them.

Simon Spungin is an editor at Haaretz.