Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shakespeare With Prejudice

The Tainted Muse: Prejudice and Presumption in Shakespeare's Works and Times
by Robert Brustein
280 Pages
Yale University Press

Robert Brustein is one of the most familiar names of authority in American theatre. He is perhaps most widely known as a critic and a public speaker, but within theatre he is recognized as the founding director of the Yale Repertory Theatre at Yale and the American Repertory Theatre near Harvard. He has also written and adapted plays, and is now officially enshrined in the Theatre Hall of Fame.

This book focuses on an uncomfortable area of surmise: the evidence for various gender, racial and ethnic prejudices in the plays of William Shakespeare. Some are obvious and often discussed: the Jewish Shylock, the Blackamoor Othello, the shrew that is tamed. Others that Brustein emphasizes are not so widely held: he considers Hamlet as drenched in misogyny, for example.

Brustein focuses on six prejudices: misogyny (or the hatred women), dislike of womanish men ("effemiphobia"), the correlative prejudice in favor of macho men, a political prejudice against "mobocracy" and for monarchy, racial prejudice and religious prejudice.

Though Brustein recognizes that prejudices and how they are seen to be expressed is a matter of interpretation that changes according to the times, he is using current standards, especially as applied by today's cultural/political theorists. (He is however, mercifully a better writer.) He traces Shakespeare's exploration of these themes through various characters, and finds (at least to his satisfaction) lines of development in the playwright's attitudes.

All in all, the salient effect of this book may be to counteract the too easy enthusiasm for Shakespeare as a mirror of whatever the current attitudes are. On the other hand, since we are such an either/or society, such sweeping charges of prejudices could taint readings and discourage productions--particularly by producers sensitive to political pressure groups and the various loudmouths who can get pretty vicious.

In fact this does seem the book of a scholar but mostly a producer, who has faced such controversies when mounting these plays. Less obvious is the approach of the playwright, who does things for any number of reasons having more to do with the internal dynamics of the play--as well as the players, the playhouse, the public and so on.

So while I can take Brustein's interpretations into account (though I don't agree with them all by any means) I see them as interpretations from a particular point of view, at a particular time. I haven't lived quite as long as Brustein, but even I have seen the meaning imputed to various words and actions change over the years. Still, a contemporary production should face these issues without becoming overwhelmed or especially defined by them. This book can be a useful tool to that end.

But it's only one point of view. Brustein is mostly pretty literal. He doesn't deal with the symbolisms and mechanisms of the Elizabethan theatre in the way that, say, Northrop Frye does. He acknowledges that in his terms, Shakespeare infused characters like Othello and Shylock with a humanity than other authors of his time did not. But my guess is that Shakespeare the playwright also likely had other considerations beyond such statements.

So this book goes on my Shakespeare shelf, to be consulted when I'm seeing one of these plays, along with studies that take quite different approaches.

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