Two More Shakespeare Plays

I’ve now finished reading The Taming of the Shrew, and I want to comment on it and on The Merchant of Venice. The version of Shakespeare I’m reading has a brief 2-3 page essay introducing each of the plays, and it spends pretty much the entire essay for each of these two comedies attempting to justify the play to a modern audience.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are timeless and really easy to enjoy 400 years after they were written. For example, the portrayal of Rosalind in As You Like It is as nuanced, complete, appealing, and feminist as that of any woman in any play I’ve read. But The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are both pretty appalling plays. In the former, the villain is a spiteful Jewish moneylender named Shylock whose implacable irrational hatred of Antonio (the Merchant of Venice) eventually causes Shylock to lose his daughter and all his possessions, and face public humiliation and the threat of execution. The play is littered with anti-Semitic characters and dialogue, and both Shylock and his “pound of flesh” have played a large role in the history of anti-Semitism ever since. And I found The Taming of the Shrew even more disturbing. This play purports to teach “how to tame a shrew”, and in the end Petruchio “tames” Katherina the way that the Bush Administration breaks a suspected terrorist: using sleep deprivation, starvation, isolation, and emotional manipulation.

These plays are incredibly famous and literary criticism has grappled with their complexities and nuances for centuries; I don’t have the background to meaningfully contribute to that discussion. The introductory essays inform me that plenty of people think Shylock is meant to be a sympathetic character on some level, or that Shakespeare is lampooning anti-Semitism, and that because of the “play-within-a-play” structure of Shrew the message of that play is actually that Petruchio’s methods of relating to his wife are fantastical and should not or would not work in the real world. I’ll never know Shakepseare’s intentions, but these explanations sound pretty hollow to me. As a blogger, I don’t have to be informed to state my opinion, and I think that Shakespeare was a great writer and if he didn’t mean to vilify Jews or degrade women in these plays, then that would have come through pretty clearly and we wouldn’t be spending all this time discussing it.

Projecting myself further into this discussion, I think it comes down to wanting to justify everything done by people we idolize (which, actually, might make a good definition for idolizing someone). Shakespeare was a giant of a playwright, and he’s created some examples of true beauty and understanding. But he wasn’t perfect – and he wasn’t even perfect for his time period. To me, these two plays reveal his ugly side and frankly stretch the meaning of “comedy”. If you’re wondering how the ethics and compassion in his plays can vary so wildly (e.g. modern feminism in As You Like It and ridiculous misogyny/cruelty in Taming of the Shrew), the best justification I can offer is that people just aren’t really that consistent.

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5 Responses

  1. My aforementioned Harold Bloom Shakespeare Reader has a lengthy dissection of Kate’s Act V speech about female inferiority. Bloom reasons that “the speech is so over the top that no actress could deliver it with a straight face”, basically concluding his defense of the play as ironic social commentary. Shakespeare loved women too much to actually mean that, and the language of that speech seems to verge on parody.

    I buy that argument with respect to the Taming of the Shrew, a play that I saw on stage (twice in Stratford) before reading it. Act V played like an elegant play within a play, where Kate and Petrocchio went out of their way to convey their marital/gender norms to their peers, as a sort of inside joke.

    Bloom also identifies the brief scene on the streets (which comes immediately before that famous speech) as one of only 2 scenes in Shakespeare’s entire oeuvre depicting true marital bliss. The other would be between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth before killing Duncan.

    Funny, because Macbeth also plays infinitely better on stage than on the page.

  2. As for Merchant of Venice, I too am deeply conflicted. Al Pacino’s Shylock is rivetting, and the film interpretation is sympathetic to Shylock as a wronged men whose rock-solid moral value system is admirable/noble to some extent but ultimately the cause of his tragic downfall.

    But doesn’t this seem like cheating? The play is a comedy, and the role of Shylock more closely resembles that of Bottom than of Cassius or Laertes (his harsher tragic counterparts). By deconstructing Shylock as a tragic figure, the narrative structure suffers, casting a pall over the other two-thirds of the play. The primary (comic) story arc involves Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia. Even the pivotal court scene represents the triumph of Portia in the eyes of Antonio/Bassanio first and the humiliation of Shylock second. Yes Shylock is a ferociously powerful character. However I think that we tend to over-interpret the play as a work of unabashed anti-Semitism, as opposed to a comedy that uses the stereotyped role of a Jewish money lender as an extended plot device.

    That being said, two questions remain:

    A) If valid, could this potential caveat redeem the play?
    B) If not, how should this effect our opinion of Shakespeare?

    A) I’m not sure. At the very least, this play demonstrates Shakespeare’s raw power. The language is great as ever, and the speeches are exceptional, even by his standards. Maybe the play shows Shakespeare getting a bit ahead of himself; seeing that it’s one of his earlier works, perhaps he decided to develop Shylock more than one would a typical supporting character in a comedy. I think that the interpretation that reflects most positively on the play (and its author) is that Shakespeare didn’t realize his own strengths and let the charcter of Shylock get out of hand. So, that would make Shakespeare Dr. Frankenstein and Shylock his monster.

    B) Personally, I have such a high opinion of Shakespeare as a humanist that I am willing to make an exception for the Merchant of Venice. The play is quite an anomoly, and that’s the best explanation I’ve got. Maybe we underestimate the extent of anti-Semitism in the Elizabethan Era, and thereby underestimate the ability of even Shakespeare–brilliant and enlightened as he was–to see beyond the prejudices of his society.

    I guess it’s clear based on this response* that I do, in fact, idolize Shakespeare as you defined above.

    *This response yes. However I don’t think my defense of Taming of the Shrew is biased by said idolatry, I truly believe that play to be a masterpiece.

  3. Sorry for monopolizing the comments section of the blog, but I’ve got one more Merchant of Venice thing. In the end, the Duke forces Shylock to convert to Christianity. To some critics who stick to the anti-Semitic interpretation of the play, this could represent a redemption of Shylock. Christinaity “saves” him. To other critics who treat Shylock as a sympathetic figure, a Christian conversion represents the ultimate tragedy. Shylock loses his job, his family, his community, and his identity. He is, in effect, destroyed.

    My problem with both of these angles is that at what point does Shakespeare EVER come across as a Christian playwright? I mean, EVER???

    Probably over half of his plays contain no reference to any Judeo-Christian tradition whatsoever. In fact he seems much more interested in the pagan worldview, whether it’s the polytheistic ancient Greece/Rome of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the animistic island of The Tempest, or the godless Britain of King Lear.

    Some of his plays feature clergy characters, but they never preach or advocate a more “Christian” way of life. In Romeo and Juliet, the friar serves as a cultural artifact reminding English viewers of Catholic Italy. He’s the functional equivalent of the nurse, a surrogate parent to Romeo who helps the lovers in order to help end a feud. In Measure for Measure (which I won’t give away in case you haven’t read it yet, it’s one of my very favorites), Shakespeare uses the character of Isabella (a pious, virginal nun) to subvert the entire notion of Christian chastity.

  4. Thanks for all the great comments Louis! About Taming of the Shrew, you (and Bloom, I guess) bring up some good points and I’m reconsidering it a bit. That play does seem so over-the-top ridiculous on the page that it’s hard to take seriously. But, while I can imagine a production that plays up the wit and marital bliss between Katherina and Petruchio (and it would probably be really enjoyable to see), I can also imagine a production that plays up the darker side of the material, and that one would be really disturbing to see.

    I guess that’s the way it goes with any play that’s even moderately complex – the playwright fills it withall sorts of themes and it’s up to the director and actors to interpret and emphasize what they want. So while there are plenty of valid ways to stage this one and make it sweet and romantic and funny, there’s an unmistakable theme in the text of violence and cruelty that I really think is kind of ugly, even though it can be legitimately explained away.

  5. Also, your comments on Christianity in Shakespeare are spot-on! I completely agree.

    And I did read Measure for Measure, but I finished it before I started the blog. I liked it a lot though. And that was a comedy that dealt with dark material but was still awesome.

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