Shakespeare Solved ®

Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.

These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and see his world through his eyes.

Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Shakespeare and Women

Is Taming of the Shrew an anti-feminist play?

Was Shakespeare a sexist? A misogynist?

Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day
Shakespeare Globe 2012

A new production in Chicago seeks to “save” the play by performing it with an all-female cast.

The play is “certainly anti-feminist” according to the female director of this particular production. 

She has set the play in 1919, in order to include the suffragette movement, and the vote to allow women to vote.

If you read the Wikipedia entry on the play, you get a summary of the feminist criticism of the play, and the question of misogyny in the play.

George Bernard Shaw (whom some consider to be England’s greatest playwright, after Shakespeare) found the play “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.”

There has been a great deal of critical writing about Shakespeare from a feminist point of view.

It would be impossible to evaluate all of it, especially in a blog post.

I would just like to ask some questions.

Was Shakespeare a sexist — did he discriminate against women, or diminish them in his plays, as if women were inferior to men?

Worse, was he a misogynist? Did he hate women?

A case could be made for sexism or misogyny across all of his plays. 

But if it he was so rampantly and clearly discriminating against, and hating women, I doubt the plays would have endured for as long as they have.

In the abovementioned article about the Chicago production, it mentions how by the middle of the 19th century, there were women’s theatre groups performing Shakespeare’s plays. By the 1940s, there were three of them in Chicago alone: the Hull House Shakespeare Club, Argyle Park Portia Club and Shakespeare Club of Chicago.

I doubt those women’s groups would have existed at all, had any of the women truly believed that Shakespeare was prejudiced against, or hated, women.

Is Hamlet a sexist or misogynistic play? Macbeth? King Lear? Midsummer? As You Like It?

All of those plays have powerful, important and significant female characters.

I can’t imagine those plays without Queen Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, Cordelia, Helena and Titania, Rosalind — and many more.

I don’t think Shakespeare could have imagined those plays without those female roles — roles that are as significant and integral to the story as the male roles.

All of those female characters are strong and capable women — but all of them also possess flaws. All of them suffer in some way. Some of them even die because of their faults.

The exact same thing can be said of the male characters. The men are flawed, too. Some of them die because of their faults.

So, how could Shakespeare have written so many complex, fascinating, and all-too-human female characters — and then somehow have made Kate an insult to women?

How did he succeed so often, with over 30 plays, and then failed so miserably with this one single play?

Or did he really fail with Taming of the Shrew?

Is it possible that we don’t understand the play? 

We could be excused for doing so. His plays are very old. 

After re-opening the theatres (which were closed from 1649-1660) Shakespeare’s plays were considered “old-fashioned” and “dull” — and the language was considered “dated.”

So, within 60 years of their original performances, the plays had lost their original meaning.

How much meaning have they lost in 400 years?

What if our understanding of Taming of the Shrew is so inhibited by our modern thinking that we can’t appreciate what Shakespeare was really trying to express?

After all, Shaw said that the play was “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.” 

He was seeing the play 300 years after it was written, and judging it against plays that were written in London circa 1900.

For what it’s worth, I think there is a lot more to Shaw’s views on Shakespeare. 

I think Shaw was intensely frustrated by his lack of insight regarding Shakespeare, and was forever feeling diminished by Shakespeare’s greatness.

Shaw even wrote a short puppet play in which he and Shakespeare box each other! Truth is stranger than fiction.

What if we are too modern to understand Shakespeare?

If we are presumably so much more superior to him and his contemporaries — as far as our social and sexual mores — then why do we return to his plays over and over again?

Why do so many actresses aspire to perform Cleopatra, Ophelia, Juliet, etc?

It begs the question — are we truly superior to him? Or do we return to him and his work because he does in fact still have so much to teach us?

Does anyone seriously think that the roles written for women today, for stage and screen, are superior to the roles that Shakespeare wrote for women?

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock
Shakespeare Globe 2016

What I have discovered as I study Shakespeare, was that he was famous for defying expectations. 

He wrote a play about a Jewish moneylender at a time when Englishmen reviled Jews, who were mostly exiled from England.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Shylock the most compelling character in the play. Shylock is the hero!

Not long ago, I established that Shakespeare created the Jewish moneylender to represent himself, William Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare = Shylock.

David Harewood as Othello
National Theatre 1997

He also wrote a play about a Moorish general at a time when Englishmen reviled and feared such Moors, Africans, non-whites, and non-Christians — or any such aliens.

But for some reason, Shakespeare made Othello the hero! The villain is a white Christian man!

Why would Shakespeare present Iago, who resembled the men in Shakespeare’s audience, as a villain? Why was he alienating his male audience? 

Because that was the whole reason for the play — he was making his audience feel sympathy for Othello, the alien.

Shakespeare loved such baiting and switching. He loved challenging the pre-conceived notions and prejudices of his audience. He did it all the time.

Was an Elizabethan audience really expecting to see a teenage girl on stage as eloquent, as moving, and as self-possessed as Juliet? 

Ellie Kendrick as Juliet
Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo
Shakespeare Globe 2009

I think it is far likelier that Shakespeare’s original audiences expected to see a teenage girl who foolishly fell in love, and faced tragic consequences.

As such, the play (that the audience expected) would have been a cautionary tale, a stern lesson to all young women not to behave foolishly.

But Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote her, is no one’s fool.

In fact, it is Romeo who proclaims that he is “fortune’s fool!”

Shakespeare’s original audience probably was quite surprised to see this Juliet. They related to her even more, precisely because she was a headstrong and smart girl who was not entirely responsible for falling in love.

If and when you fall in love, whose fault is it? 

Therefore, since we can't blame her for falling in love, how can we blame her as entirely responsible for her death?

Shakespeare’s presented a Juliet who was as human and as fallible as we all are. Therefore, before we judge Juliet or blame her for her flaws, we should first take a good look in a mirror.

What if he wrote Taming of the Shrew, and hoped to get an audience full of misogynists — only to pull the rug out from under them?

What if his precise motive, in writing the play, was to make women-hating men change their mind, and treat the women in their lives better?

Also, what if he was actually endorsing shrews? What if he was saying that there is a greatness in being a shrew? 

What if Shakespeare liked strong women, the stronger the better? What if he was encouraging women in the audience to speak their minds with more force and clarity?

What if Taming of the Shrew is not an aberration — what if it is not the one fully sexist and misogynistic play in Shakespeare’s otherwise unblemished career?

What if it is a celebration of strong women?

What if, in order to demonstrate how strong Kate is, she needs an opponent who is worthy of her?

Yes, Kate and Petruchio fight. But is it a fair fight?

No one likes an uneven match. We don’t hope to see two weaklings in a boxing ring. Does anyone watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians hoping to see them all get along — or do we hope to see them squabble?

Occasionally, we all like knock-down, drag-out fights — especially when the opponents are evenly matched, and equally formidable.

Petruchio may be a sexist pig — but by the end of the play, he is as much tamed as she is.

After all, they do end up married. They are the most happily married of all the characters in the play.

Also, what if Kate has become a shrew because there are no good men in Padua?

What if, with all his faults, Petruchio is actually the only decent man among them — and the only man worthy of Kate’s kiss?

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, 1967

I urge you to read the play again, and see another production of the play. The Shakespeare Globe version is excellent and even-handed.

As we read it again, or see it again, instead of judging the play on our own modern terms, why don’t we give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt?

It is entirely possible that Shakespeare was a sexist, and even a misogynist. 

But what if his plays were his way of rising above his own faults, and transcending the prejudice of his day?


David B. Schajer

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