Module 7

The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew

Two of my favorite comedies

It is hard to believe that we are already up to Module 7. The time is really flying by, and this week is a crucial one. We will be looking at two of my favorite comedies, The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew. While many people believe a comedy is a production that is funny and light hearted, we will see that such is not the case classically. We will be looking at the definitions of old and new comedy and how these two comedies really could be classified as tragicomedies.

We also will be reading two critical articles that look at the two plays in new and refreshing ways as well as two video clips of movie versions of the play. Al Pacino as Shylock is wonderful!

The Taming of the Shrew and the final scene

We will be reading The Taming of the Shrew this week, and at the close of the play, Katherine performs the role of Petruccio’s “perfect wife,” seemingly obeying his command and echoing his words in her final speech to the other women. Much has been written about this final scene as to whether Kate really has been tamed or if she is just parroting Petruccio’s words to further dupe him. Whether or not the play ends in joy is open to much speculation. Some productions have had Kate and Petruccio exit the stage arm in arm signifying a happy future together, while other productions have had the two remain on stage staring at one another in stony silence. What are your thoughts? Has Kate really been tamed, and will the couple have a happy future, or is her speech merely one more instance in her ability to put one over on Petruccio?

Rough draft due!

A rough draft of your final research project is due this week, and I encourage you to review the Module 7 rough draft paper checklist and assignment guidelines which I have posted in the Discussion Forum for Module 7

What is a shrew?

A bit about the word “shrew” – In the 16th century, a woman only had to challenge a man’s opinion to be labeled a shrew. If she talked too much, or appeared mean spirited or was sexually promiscuous, she would be considered to be overly shrewish. Many have been the ballads and folk tales that were concerned with unruly wives, and thus Shakespeare could have based his portrayal of Kate on any of these. In one folk ballad, “The Cruel Shrew,” several lines might be considered applicable to Kate:

“She never lins her ruling,

Her tongue it is so loud;

But always she’ll be railing,

And will not be controlled.

For she the breeches still will wear,

Although it breeds my strife.

If I were now a bachelor,

I’d never have a wife.

Punishments for being considered a shrew

The punishments for being considered a shrew were brutal. A woman might be forced to wear a cruel and painful metal device known as a scold’s bridle. This barbaric headpiece fit over the woman’s head and pushed a metal plate into her mouth to hold down her tongue. Thus, having silenced his wife in this manner, a husband could tie a rope around her neck and parade her in front of his neighbors.
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Did Shakespeare intend for The Merchant of Venice to be anti-Semitic?

As we look at The Merchant of Venice, and much of the scholarship on the play, there is a question as to whether Shakespeare intended the play to be anti-Semitic. In some ways, Shylock does conform to a negative portrayal that was already well used by the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Christopher Marlowe had written and produced a successful play with such negative stereotypes abounding in The Jew of Malta, which he wrote in 1590. There are some very clear parallels between Shylock and Marlowe’s character, Barabas, who like Shylock is a widowed father with a single, beautiful daughter who rejects her father’s religion and converts to Christianity. It is probable that neither Shakespeare nor Marlowe wrote from direct experience, however, since Jews had been banned from England long before the time of the writing. Thus, both Barabas and Shylock are perhaps best regarded by the playwrights as stock villains.

Divided views among critics

However, there is no doubt but that The Merchant of Venice has, in its time, reinforced negative stereotypes of Jews. The play was staged deliberately in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s to help justify the attacks on Jews. Critics, however, have been divided over whether this can be blamed on Shakespeare or those who have misused the play. Many critics defend Shakespeare against the charge of anti-Semitism looking at Shakespeare’s other plays in which he looks at the role of the one who remains outside of Venetian culture, but is vital to its existence. Other critics have suggested that readers today should bear in mind the context of Shakespeare’s time when few people had the political and racial awareness that we do now. Perhaps the question for us today is “How do we approach characters such as Shylock and Othello, and their portrayal, with our awareness of the dangers such stereotypes pose?”