To the editors:
In his October 22 “Critic’s Choice” review of the APT production of The Taming of the Shrew, Jack Helbig notes the “patriarchal bias that mars this comedy for modern audiences” as well as the blatant anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, neither of which APT was able to find “a way around” in their otherwise excellent stagings. Alas, Mr. Helbig, how many of Shakespeare’s plays are disfigured by similar lapses in taste, and how much work remains to be done before they can be rendered acceptable to the modern viewer! I do not speak merely of the gross abuses of such plays as Shrew and Merchant, but also of the more subtle, no less offensive prejudices which animate nearly every line the Bad Bard ever wrote. One need not look far–Othello, for example, manages to combine racism and sexism in a particularly virulent stew, and concludes with a thinly disguised apologia for wife beating; King Lear offers a defense of aristocratic privilege in the name of some specious “cosmic justice”; Henry V advocates a shameless imperialism; The Tempest depicts native Americans as monstrous Calibans; A Midsummer Night’s Dream mocks the literary aspirations of the working man–the list goes on and on, presenting in sum a task of revision so great as to give pause even to the stoutest of Bowdlers.
Hence my enthusiasm for Mr. Helbig’s gesture, which, though but a trifle in itself, exemplifies the attitude required of every actor, director, and editor of Shakespeare if we are to rehabilitate his wayward oeuvre in a manner consonant with the advances of 20th-century humanism. Of course, this gentle correction of Shakespeare must be seen as no more than a step en route to the final goal of a world literature freed of the unfortunate ignorance whence it so often arose. From Dostoievski to Heraclitus, the Bible to William Faulkner, Plato to Pynchon, this enormous labor awaits the scholars and media experts of the next century. Once achieved, however, it shall guarantee that every reader of literature find, in the individual work of art, “a mirror, as it were, held up to ourselves”–for surely that is what the poet meant to say.