"Portia" ‒ a case of antisemitism overlooked?

Dear readers of my blog,

looking at the files I have preserved it is easy to note that writing a regular post has been a difficult if not impossible feat to pull off in the last twelve months, for there were so many other tasks to fulfill, especially following the last summer recess. There is but a little respite at this time of year when both public and school life lie low but for the odd marking job to be done every day but on the Christmas holidays and over the New Year weekend.

Before digging anywhere deep let me just tell you what I experienced today, New Year’s Day proper, that is, when recording “Portia” for this year’s audio  calendar. It was a déjà-vu I had already had when re-reading the relevant chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, or listening to the audio-books in German and English in the autumn. Moreover, a friend and reader of the calendar as well as an ardent student of Shakespeare had already sent me a note questioning the content of this poem.

Wilde the poet, like Wilde the novelist, is so much part of the anti-Semitic literary tradition he grew up with in England and Ireland that the phrase “that accurséd Jew” (l. 12 of “Portia”) does not strike him as a slip of the pen – just as, later on, he would not revise the passages in which the theatre director in The Picture of Dorian Gray became the stereotypical Jew that both the director of my English and my German audio version of the novel strove to eliminate from the recording. Neither, however, explained why they did so. As editor of the calendar, however, I want to do so now.

So, for the record, while I do not seek to re-write Wilde the poet I do note that this passage does not strike me any more as an innocent transcription of a century-old tradition of blaming not only the individual Shylock, who happens to be Jewish, but of blaming him as a Jew in general, as pars pro toto for the people and religion he belongs to. I also note that having compared the passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray from various translations into German I now know, which I did not, when the calendar was in production, that in translation, as is the case here, such stereotypes tend to make matters worse. At the same time, I take all responsibility, since it was me who chose the poem in the first place.

Since this post is going to be issued in English and German – as were all of last year’s posts, too, which also explains why I cannot just produce them every fortnight – this note for the record of what is included in the calendar has a chance of circulating in two cultures. Please do not shy away from sharing this! Unfortunately, this is necessary, as antisemitism simply does go not away if we keep our eyes shut! At the same time, this should not put anyone off reading and re-reading Wilde.

In order to prevent this post from suffering the fate of “The Remarkable Rocket”, I ring off at this point, so that the content of this particular post is not lost. I shall try to tackle other matters similarly in coming months.

All best wishes,

Jörg W. Rademacher

P.S. The next post with more details is already in preparation.

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