Michael Morpurgo has denied a Sunday Times report that he “refused” to include The Merchant of Venice in a forthcoming Shakespeare anthology for children due to antisemitism.
The newspaper described the former children’s laureate’s “21st-century sensibilities” as having prevented the inclusion of the play in Tales from Shakespeare, his retelling of 10 Shakespeare plays for children aged six and older. The Merchant of Venice famously features the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who demands a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio if a loan is not repaid by his deadline.
Morpurgo was quoted as saying: “The play can be antisemitic … I did feel this was Shakespeare’s play and I could not tell it honestly. It would be offensive.”
“The notion that I censored this, it is such nonsense. I chose the 10 plays I love the most, that I felt young children would respond to,” he said. “To be honest with you, The Merchant of Venice is not a play I enjoy myself. I didn’t ‘refuse’ to include the play, no one told me to do it – I sat down quietly and decided the 10 I would do. It’s completely wrong and a kneejerk reaction.”
Morpurgo said the book, which will be published next year and was only intended to include 10 of Shakespeare’s plays, was focused on plays that had “very strong storylines, and plays that children would be most likely to see at the theatre or study at school”. Starting on 8 January, performances of his retellings by the Royal Shakespeare Company will be made available to schools around the UK for free for five weeks.
“There are certain plays, and The Merchant of Venice is one of them, that I believed would not resonate with eight-year-olds. Yes, there was some worry that this might be the first time an eight-year-old reads about a Jew. A story that the Nazis used to portray Jewish people in a bad light – that is not something you put in front of an eight-year-old as their first example of an extraordinary group that has contributed so much to the world and suffered so much,” he said. “Now, that is not to say the play does not have merit. But this is not censorship, children will come to this play later, when they’ll have some sense of what Jewish people have endured over centuries.”
“The point of this project is to bring Shakespeare to the eyes, ears and hearts of children in our time,” said Morpurgo, who grew up reading Charles and Mary Lamb’s retellings, also titled Tales from Shakespeare, which was published in 1807. “You have a writer and the RSC trying to encourage children to go to the theatre - I fail to see how that is offensive or censorship.”
The Sunday Times quoted Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, describing Morpurgo’s decision as an example of “the dead hand of political correctness. It is cowardly not to face up to great literature. Of course there is going to be plenty to be offended by in Shakespeare … children do not want to be protected all the time against great literature.”
“If I had suggested doing Titus Andronicus for primary school children, an eyebrow or two might have been raised. It doesn’t even do for me, and I am 77. It is almost as if anything you do around Shakespeare is treated like holy writ and that is the problem. He was a man of the people and his plays weren’t just for the classroom,” Morpurgo said.