Chaucer's Anti-Semitic Tale

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

One cheer for Philip Kennicott for calling attention to the anti-Semitic screed in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Canterbury Tales" ["Chaucer's Slurring Words," Arts, May 7]. But he was off in characterizing the inclusion of the Prioress's tale as "bold" and urging us to be "curious" about, not offended by, this theatrical incarnation of the blood libel against Jews.

Anti-Semitic stereotyping is not a historical curiosity. Iran's president has called for the elimination of Israel.

Mr. Kennicott's comparison of Chaucer's slander of Jews with Eugene O'Neill's "The Emperor Jones" also was off. Mr. O'Neill's tin-pot-dictator character may be offensive, but he resembles real creeps such as former Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Nothing in the history or beliefs of Jews involved killing gentile boys.

One does not have to find anti-Semitism lurking in every joke gone wrong to conclude that the Kennedy Center and the Royal Shakespeare Company owe the Jewish community an apology. The night I saw the show, the audience applauded every other Chaucer vignette but was stunned silent by the Prioress's tale. Maybe silence signals curiosity, but I doubt it. I was appalled.




To say that Chaucer was anti-Semitic because of the Prioress's tale -- incorrectly attributed as "The Nun's Priest's Tale" [Free for All, April 29] -- is like saying that Shakespeare condoned killing little boys because his Richard III did.

Yes, the late-medieval Christian world was often anti-Semitic -- although Chaucer visited places where both Jews and Muslims functioned in trade and the arts.

But the Royal Shakespeare Company's beautifully composed and superbly translated reduction of the original tales provides a profound opportunity:

When Madame Eglantyne launches into her painful tale, we may substitute whatever group we dislike most -- Islamic fundamentalists? Right-wing moralists? -- for the benighted Satan-led Jews who persecute Hugh of Lincoln, and see if the dark seed of prejudice has been well and truly expelled from our hearts.


Silver Spring

The writer hosts WETA's "Around Town."


I assure Free for All letter writer Daniel Klein that other attendees of "The Canterbury Tales" also were surprised and insulted by the decision to stage the grossly anti-Semitic Prioress's tale.

Portraying the "blood libel" murder of a Christian child martyr by Jews in bizarre storm-trooper headgear does little to elevate the human spirit. To make matters worse, the program notes made specific reference to the historical context of Chaucer's ill treatment of women in his works, but they remained silent on this highly offensive depiction.



© 2006 The Washington Post Company