My column in the Jewish Chronicle this week deals with the protests against the Israeli theatre company Habima, which performed its Hebrew-language version of The Merchant of Venice at the Globe Theatre in London last week.
I’m against cultural and academic boycotts. The attempts to shut down performances by Israeli artists are not an advance for a two-state territorial solution: they’re an attack on artistic freedom. I was glad to be able to quote, in this context, the judgment of James Shapiro, whose ability to illuminate Shakespeare for general as well as scholarly audiences has gained him deserved critical acclaim. Note that the protesters “hand[ed] out fliers claiming: ‘Mr William Shakespeare says No! to occupation and colonisation’”.
Obviously, they weren’t claiming that Shakespeare really said that, but it’s a revealing piece of street theatre even so. One of the accidents of history that Shakespeare caught was to live at what Shapiro describes, in his magnificent biography 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, as a seminal moment in the history of capitalism. This was the birth of the East India Company at a meeting of merchants at Founders’ Hall at Lothbury in the City. Till then, as Shapiro says (p. 303):
England had failed to plant colonies in America; it didn’t even protect its plantations in Ireland. English venturers had failed to break into the Caribbean slave trade, failed to discover the much sought after northern passage to the East, and failed to establish a direct trade with the East Indies round the Cape of Good Hope.
Shakespeare was a man for all time, but he was also of an age. There is a vast story to tell about the economic and social changes in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It’s predictable that those who shout down actors should subsume it in a decidedly modern, sectarian political demand.