The politically incorrect Shakespeare

Statue of Hamlet in Stratford-on-Avon, England

(August 2008) Emsworth finds that he enjoys Shakespeare plays best when he has brushed up on the written text ahead of time. Reading Romeo and Juliet this last week in anticipation of an imminent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), he was struck once again with the extent to which Shakespeare can offend contemporary sensibilities — sometimes even Emsworth’s.

Take the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. Samson and Gregory, who apparently work for the Capulets, are trash-talking about what they’ll do to the Montagues if they get the chance. Samson brags,

I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids — I will cut off their heads.

What Samson means by “heads” is “maidenheads,” and the rest of the dialogue makes it clear that what he intends is forcible rape.

This may have passed for “comic” dialogue in Shakespeare’s day, but it doesn’t seem funny today. Especially after all we’ve read lately about the deliberate use of rape as a tool of genocide in Africa, it’s a bit raw. Samson’s braggadocio may seem mild compared to the viciousness of some of the characters in contemporary plays by David Mamet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, but those characters aren’t comic, and their lines are intended to shock.


Katherine learns submission in the Stratford Festival's 2008 show

In fact, one doesn’t have to look very hard for politically incorrect material in Shakespeare:

In Othello, all the characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself by making the beast with two backs with the dark-skinned Moor, “a Barbary horse.”

In The Taming of the Shrew (also at the Stratford Festival this season), Petruchio teaches “submission” to Katherina.

And in The Merchant of Venice, the avaricious Shylock embodies many anti-Semitic prejudices — and is forced at the end of the play to “convert” to Christianity.

As I recall, last year the Stratford Festival included a warning on its website that The Merchant of Venice was a “controversial” play (much as they might have warned that there would be strobe lights or smoking on stage!). And the program for last year’s Merchant actually seemed to be apologizing for the Bard:

The anti-Semitic nature of the play has caused controversy, particularly in the 20th century. The anti-Semitism is not confined to evil characters in the play, which makes scholars conclude that Shakespeare himself must have accepted at least some of the bias of his age.

Well, how astonishing would it be if Shakespeare hadn’t harbored some of the prejudices of his contemporaries? Whoever thought that literary genius was necessarily accompanied by enlightened social views? It’s a sorry commentary on our politically correct times that a theater company should feel that it needs to apologize in advance for material in a Shakespeare play, worrying that audiences might impute the prejudices of the playwright to the management!

No one needs to make excuses for Shakespeare. We ought to be tolerant enough, and humble enough, to recognize that in every culture, and at every point in history, cultured people of good will have had moral blind spots.  That includes, of course, twenty-first century Americans and Canadians as well as the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Update. As it turned out, the Stratford Festival’s 2008 Romeo and Juliet just wasn’t very good — it seemed a bit of a muddle. See Emsworth’s review at this post. And for Emsworth’s comments on the “color-blind casting” for Romeo and Juliet (which wasn’t really color-blind at all; they bungled it), see this post.

But the Stratford Festival did put on a highly entertaining The Taming of the Shrew in its 2008 season. For Emsworth’s enthusiastic review of this show, see this post. For his comments on certain kinky aspects of how Katherine the shrew was “tamed” in the Stratford show, see this post.