Friday, 29 September, 2023

William Shakespeare as a Biased and Misogynistic Playwright

Mohammad Mozammel Haque

That William Shakespeare is the brightest star in the sky of English literature needs no telling. English literature minus this greatest artist is as Bengali literature minus Rabindranath Tagore. There is hardly any branch of English literature where William Shakespeare did not climb. But that this prodigious poet and dramatist has, I think, failed to occupy the place of a poet of man is picturesquely proved when we study his most famed writings. By an attentive perusal of his tragedies, it becomes crystal clear that females are not treated as human beings in these works. They have been side-lined. Furthermore, if we study his only tragi-comedy The Merchant of Venice, we can easily discern that Shakespeare has totally failed to remain unbiased in this play.

Based on the rules of writing tragedies laid down by Aristotle, William Shakespeare has ‘blindly’ followed them and chosen his tragic characters from higher class family. Moreover, no female are allowed to enter into the galaxy of tragic protagonists. Somebody may have objection to using the word ‘blindly’ in the case of Shakespeare as he is the writer of the writers and father of the fathers. But should an artist like him follow what his predecessors have prescribed about the rules of writing tragedies? I know the answer will be a big NO.

Hamlet is a prince; Macbeth is a Scottish general; King Lear is a king; Othello is a Christian Moor and general of the armies of Venice. If Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neil can write Death of a Sales Man and The Hairy Ape respectively selecting the protagonists from lower class family, why William Shakespeare could not take even only a single character from poorer class. If John Webster can write The Duchess of Malfi, then why this greatest artist ‘failed’ to give a poor woman a place in the area of tragic heroes. Suppose, a king died today and millions of people, including his wife, are deeply weeping, mourning and shedding tears. Another man of an impasse breathed his last on the same day but no people other than his wife are shedding tears for him as he is not as famous, well-known as the king is. But is there any difference between the grievances of these two wives? Can it be said that the queen has more grief, plights, predicaments, pangs and pains than those of the wife of that almost ‘unknown’ deceased? If the answer is NO, then cannot we say that William Shakespeare could take his tragic heroes from lower class family, but he did not do it intentionally? A big number of critics opines that William Shakespeare could easily chose his main characters of tragedies form lower class, but he did not do it as the demand of the society was not like that. If he selected any hero form poor family, the readers would not read and the audience would not watch his plays. But my point is an undisputed artist, poet and dramatist like him should have made his own way disregarding what have been laid down by the forerunners. He should have tried to be familiar with what and how he himself wrote. But should a poet for whom his successors have written-

“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpracticed by the rest of the world; by the peculiarities of studies or professions, which can operate but upon small numbers; or by the accidents of transient fashions or temporary opinions: they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find. His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.” (Samuel Johnson)

“Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolick of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design.” (Samuel Johnson)

“He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life. Nor sequent centuries could hit Orbit and sum of Shakespeare’s wit.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“We can say of Shakespeare that never has a man turned so little knowledge to such great account.” (T.S. Eliot)

“When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder that such trivial people should muse and thunder in such lovely language.” (D. H. Lawrence)

“If I say that Shakespeare is the greatest of intellects, I have said all concerning him. But there is more in Shakespeare’s intellect than we have yet seen. It is what I call an unconscious intellect; there is more virtue in it that he himself is aware of.” (Thomas Carlyle)

“If we wish to know the force of human genius we should read Shakespeare. If we wish to see the insignificance of human learning we may study his commentators.” (William Hazlitt)

“He was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. But Shakespeare’s magic could not copied be; within that circle none durst walk but he. He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature. He looked inwards, and found her there.” (John Dryden)

- have borrowed from what others have written? Then would it be an overstatement to opine that he has totally failed to remain unbiased?

Can’t a writer who has denunciated, admonished and condemned Lady Macbeth and Gertrude unscrupulously and could not chose any tragic protagonist from the female world be regarded as a misogynist? Is it an offence for a woman to cherish the desire of being a queen? The following lines from Hamlet and Macbeth-

“Come you spirits, That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here.” (Macbeth)

“Look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t” (Macbeth)

“What beast was’t then, That made you break this enterprise to me?” (Macbeth)

“Tis the eye of childhood, That fears a painted devil.” (Macbeth)

I doubt it is no other but the main,

His father’s death and our overhasty marriage. (Hamlet)

Do not forever with thy vailèd lids

Seek for thy noble father in the dust.

Thou knowst ’tis common: all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity. (Hamlet)

Frailty, thy name is woman! (Hamlet)

-bear the proofs of how the women have been treated by William Shakespeare. It won’t be an overstatement, I think, to opine that Shakespeare did not give the women what they deserved let alone making them heroines of his tragedies.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s biasness is crystal clear again. He has shown the win of the Christians in this paly as he himself was a Christian. Shylock was a Jew by religion while Antonio was from the playwright’s tribe i.e. Christianity. Shylock’s only offence is that he lends money to the poor people with a high rate of interest. On the other hand, Antonio lends money to the needy but he does not take any interest. Antonio scolds Shylock by calling him a ‘cut-throat dog’, spits at him when he gets by them. But it seems that these are justified in Christianity. In spite of all these, Jewism is completely defeated while Christianity wins the game. Not only that. William Shakespeare could end his play with the final verdict of the court. But he still extends the play where Antonio and Portia are seen to enjoy their happy conjugal life. This part was not needed in the play. By adding this part, it seems that the dramatist has added insult to injury. The Jews have already been defeated in the court. The elative moments of Antonio and Portia have been added to the play with a view to insulting them again. Thus William Shakespeare has utterly failed here also to remain unbiased. If he would show the victory of the Jews in spite of his being a Christian, I could say that he wrote for human beings.

Therefore, it is now the duty of the readers to decide whether the points and arguments described here are true or not. Let’s regard white as white and black as black disregarding what the others say.


The writer an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Northern University Bangladesh and and can be reached at [email protected]