Melvyn Bragg presents The South Bank Show on Sky Arts and In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. His latest novel, Remember Me, was published by Sceptre.
Why would the authorities not want the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay to read The Merchant of Venice? Like all of Shakespeare's plays, it is an example of a liberated mind—probably as good a mind as there has ever been. That in itself is worth the read.
And it's explosive. Revenge, honor, money, and race: it provokes arguments at every turn.
Shylock, the moneylender who is in essence the main character in The Merchant of Venice, is imprisoned in the life he is forced to lead because of his race. He's judged first and last by his race—he is a Jew—rather than by any other factor. He is the cleverest man in the play and the most successful merchant in Venice. Nevertheless, simply because he is Semitic, he is persecuted.
Because of the prejudice of that time he is thought to be someone who can be treated as less than human.
Shakespeare puts into Shylock's mouth some of the greatest lines written about why you should never suffer such unjust persecution simply because of your racial inheritance. His condition in everything that is human is exactly the same as every other man who lived.
Yet he is not unflawed. Shylock refuses to show mercy in victory and he claims his debt too literally. He asks for a pound of flesh if he manages to gain his bond or victory. Yet when he claims it, he's told that if he spills one drop of Christian blood in doing so he will be condemned. This sudden reversal is shocking. It is unfair in one way but in another it makes sense and is a legal nightmare.
I would also hope that once The Merchant of Venice has been allowed into the prison then other plays of Shakespeare would follow. And those unfortunate enough to be in Guantánamo would at least be permitted to read about life, thought, and human experience from the greatest poet and playwright of any age.