(Stephen Greenblatt’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 7/10-7/17; via Pam Green.)
What “The Merchant of Venice” taught me about ethnic hatred and the literary imagination.
I attended university in a very different world from the one in which I now teach and live. For a start, Yale College, which I entered in 1961, was all male. Women were not matriculated until five years after I had received my B.A. degree. Among the undergraduates, there were only a handful of students from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and very few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Hispanics, unless one counted a couple of prep-school-educated heirs to grand South American fortunes.
The Yale that I attended was overwhelmingly North American and white, as well as largely Protestant. It was difficult for the admissions office to identify Catholics, but applicants with conspicuously Irish, Italian, or Polish names were at a disadvantage. For Jews, there was a numerus clausus, not even disguised by the convenient excuse of “geographical distribution.” And the whole system was upheld by a significant number of legacies, along with a pervasive air of privilege and clubbiness. To display too much interest in one’s studies or a concern for grades was distinctly uncool. This was still the era of what was called the “gentleman’s C.”