English Professor Richard Strier sought to challenge long-held critical views that two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays are prejudiced against women and Jews in his 2012 Humanities Day keynote address on Saturday.
“George Bernard Shaw famously divided his dramas into ‘plays pleasant’ and ‘plays unpleasant.’ For many, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice fall clearly into the latter,” Strier began, referring to Shrew’s alleged portrayal of women as subservient to men and Merchant’s portrayal of Jews as greedy and cruel.
“I hope that after this talk these plays can be seen differently,” Strier said. “But I cannot promise that these shadows will go away completely.”
On its surface, Shrew shows the conversion of Katherine, initially a sharp-tongued woman vehemently opposed to marriage, into a submissive wife who grovels at the feet of the suitor who “tamed” her, Petruchio.
However, Strier illustrated places where this conversion seems less misogynistic than many had previously thought. For example, when Katherine finally submits to Petruchio, she affirms only that a wife should submit to her husband’s “honest will,” not, as many have interpreted the scene, to his unconditional will.
The play is also more respectful of women when compared to other “shrew-taming” advice of Shakespeare’s time, which usually involved the male suitor’s use of violence to force a woman into submission.
Merchant has long been considered anti-Semitic for reinforcing negative stereotypes about Jews through the titular character, Shylock, who betrays Antonio when Antonio fails to pay him back for a “brotherly” loan. Even once the friend can procure the money, Shylock insists upon the alternate legal punishment of “a pound of flesh” from Antonio.
However, Strier noted that Shylock’s motivations for demanding the penalty were actually more rooted in Christian notions of revenge and binding contracts than Jewish ones. Strier’s interpretation is that the play’s other characters are shaken to look beyond race for moral judgment because they sympathize with Shylock’s motivation.
Strier concluded that the two plays work to question stereotypes and “beg the question of what treating the alien well would provide.”