Looking at the external contents of Shakespeare’s plays, one might say yes. If you were a person who lived during Shakespeare’s time, you might have said yes with all of the political and social backing of Western Europe.
We can’t completely know what he was thinking any more than we can know if Shakespeare really wrote his own plays. All we can do is take the evidence that we have and interpret it through our own beliefs and bias.
Few people will argue that Shakespeare was racist when he wrote Othello, particularly with the infamous “dark lady” of his sonnets. Yet, no one of the Jacobean era would have flinched at a Moor being portrayed as an impetuous murderer. But most people today weep at the tragic fate of the ruler and his wife.
People have argued that Shakespeare was Antisemitic because Shylock, the antagonist of The Merchant of Venice, was Jewish. Which on the surface seems plausible. However, when put in the historical context of the time, no one would have questioned this choice; by the time the play was performed almost all of the Jews had been driven out of Europe and the few that remained were locked in ghettos, so it would seem like a natural choice for the role of a villain. However, most people who see a production today can see that Shylock was a victim of his own stubbornness and, perhaps, greed, but not that his religion was the cause of his fate.
So what about Katherina, the shrew? While women were not necessarily equal at that time, Queen Elizabeth ruled England without a husband, even though marrying the Duke of Anjou would have strengthened England’s defenses? Marrying might also have resulted in an heir that would have kept the Tudor dynasty alive. So, what do we make of the treatment of Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew and that wonderfully controversial monologue at the end of the play? While we’re asking that question, what do we make of powerful women characters like Goneril, Regan, Lady Macbeth, or Beatrice? For that matter, what are we to think of Hero, Ophelia, and Cordelia? And where does Portia fit in? She doesn’t resemble a shrew, but she was no waif either, and even though she had a lot of knowledge some of her wisdom could be questioned.
Shakespeare did not write simple characters with simple answers and it’s because of this reason that we continually visit and revisit his plays throughout the generations. It’s because his characters are dynamically human. Even Shakespeare’s professed “villain,” Richard III, cannot escape his own frailties and insecurities.
It will be interesting to examine Katherina and Petruchio’s characters as Swiftly Tilting Theatre Project, Inc. puts on its first production, The Taming of the Shrew, in the winter of 2014. Let’s see how it unfolds…