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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Racism, Sexism, etc.
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0190  Thursday, 5 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Chris J. Fassler <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 15:46:27 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Portia's Racism?

[2]     From:   Chantal Schutz <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 10:45:30 -0500
        Subj:   Shylock and Kate

[3]     From:   Kristine Batey <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 14:10:49 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0175  Re: Postings Related to MV

[4]     From:   Mary Christina McLaren <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 12:50:28 -0400 (AST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Sexism in Shrew

[5]     From:   David Skeele <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 14:18:43 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc.

[6]     From:   Chris J. Fassler <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 13:55:13 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   RE: Is Shakespeare sexist?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris J. Fassler <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 15:46:27 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Portia's Racism?

Colleagues,

I teach in South Carolina, where they're still trying to decide whether
to repeal the anti-miscegenation clause from the state constitution and
where it is not difficult to get students (black and white) to
articulate their deep-seated hostility to interracial marriage.  These
same students (most of them) deny that these are racist attitudes.

Jesus Cora asks us to consider whether Portia's remarks about Morocco
express her will to independence of choice rather than as expressions of
bigotry.  Bill Godshalk's questions articulate skepticism about whether
preferences (bigotries?) based on skin color indicate racism when they
are not joined with preferences based on religion, culture, and other
factors.  Larry Weiss points out that our view of racism depends in part
on what we find "perfectly natural" in discriminating inferior from
superior.

Here's my response:  Portia's appeal to a racist attitude is a
"perfectly natural" way for her to express delight at getting her own
way and avoiding an unwanted match.  Furthermore, even if racism in
people were usually (psycho)logically consistent and equal opportunity,
Portia is not a *person* whose apparent acceptance of Jessica need be
squared with her racist rejection of Morocco.  (Saved Hawkes some work
there.  Make payment in US dollars, Terry.)

Here are some questions of my own:  Does the play's success depend on
its audience's acceptance of Portia's choices.  To what extent does that
success rely on our concurence with or at least toleration of the
rationale articulated for those preferences?

(If you think this post was disjointed and ill-tempered, you should read
the comments I'm writing on my students' papers this week.)

Cordially (because something here ought to be cordial),
--Chris Fassler

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chantal Schutz <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 10:45:30 -0500
Subject:        Shylock and Kate

David Skeele wrote about Kate :

> Is there any textual evidence that she is pretending?  I know that this
> is a choice made in many modern productions (i.e., having her wink
> knowingly at the audience during her last speech), but it always seems
> to me to be a colossal cop-out.  Or are you simply saying that it is a
> conceivable option?  Of course, by the same token, one could argue that
> Shylock could simply pretend to be a happy Christian while practicing
> his religion in secret-not much of a life.

It may not seem much of a life to you, but that is how thousands of Jews
lived during the dark years of the Spanish Inquisition. They were called
Marranos, and many died for continuing to be Jewish while pretending to
be Christian, including Queen Elizabeth I's Portuguese doctor Lopez, who
was accused of attempting to poison her, burned at the stake and who was
laughed at when he claimed that he loved the queen as much as Jesus.
Which makes me think that Shakespeare probably expected audience members
to think that Shylock, who does not give in so easily, and Kate, who
does not either, may well choose to pretend rather than completely lose
their identity, however negatively it comes over in the first part of
the play.

(But then, of course, one could believe the same of many characters who
make unexpected amends, like Oliver in As You Like It...)

All the best
Chantal

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristine Batey <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 14:10:49 -0600
Subject: 9.0175  Re: Postings Related to MV
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0175  Re: Postings Related to MV

>Jesus Cora writes:

>>I'm currently discussing _MoV_ with my fourth-year students and we have
>>focused on Portia's words on the Prince of Morocco: "if he have the
>>condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he
>>should shrive me than wive me." (1. 2. 123-4). Some students interpret
>this remark as downright racist.

Yes, of course, by the standards of the 1990s-and let's hear it for
those standards! Forty years ago, this discussion wouldn't have come up.
There would have been no question that a dark complexion was
undesirable. During my childhood, polite people, people who would not
have characterized themselves as prejudiced-who would not have been
characterized by society as large as prejudiced-held that to call
attention to the unfortunate fact of African ancestry was rather like
pointing out an unsightly birthmark. My brother and his friend used to
insult each other with "black skin" jokes.  (This is the Chicago suburbs
in the 1950s we're talking about here.) I don't think most people in my
parents' generation-let alone Shakespeare's-would have had questioned
the premise that dark skin was ugly. "Negroid" features were inherently
undesirable-in the early 60's Mick Jagger's lips were considered
shocking and repulsive by our parents because they looked, shall we say,
"Negro" (not the term I heard used); women used foundation makeup to
make their lips look thinner. It took the "Black Is Beautiful" movement
in the late 1960's, with the intentional rejection of European standards
of beauty, to change and enlarge the popular standards of beauty.

Was this attitude continuous from Shakespeare's time? Going back a
hundred years, we have Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Wild Swans,"
where the heroine is rejected by her father after her wicked stepmother
stains her skin with walnut juice. Eighteenth century stories often
featured burlesque "nubian" figures. And the Grimm tales frequently
involve maidens proven to be ugly-and therefore, in some cases,
murdered-because their true skin color is black.

Yes, this attitude would be racist now. Yes, this attitude was racist
back then-even if nobody thought about it that way, even if everybody
felt that way. And yes, Portia's remark indicates an offhand, entrenched
racism that would have been entirely unremarkable at that time, and even
within my own lifetime. Maybe we're getting somewhere.

Kristine Batey

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mary Christina McLaren <
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Date:           Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 12:50:28 -0400 (AST)
Subject: 9.0187  Re: Sexism in Shrew
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Sexism in Shrew

On Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998, J. Kenneth Campbell wrote:

"Examine the text. If during the "subjugation" speech Kate suits the
action to the word and sits Petruchio down on a "joint stool"...  Kate,
it seems to me, negates the entire speech by lifting up on that foot,
sending Petruchio tail over teacups to the floor."

Forgive me, but I _have_ `examined the text', and I see nothing of the
sort implied in any stage direction.  Although I do not like the term
`sexist' being applied to Shakespeare either (especially since I
consider it to be more of a 20th C. construct, than an Elizabethan one),
I refuse to make such speculations about what Shakespeare `really'
intended us to see.  Why would he not be more specific in his
directions, if this is what he meant?

What I do see in the text, is a speech that can be read as disturbingly
misogynistic.  Arguments can be and have been made, that Kate is being
ironic, or even sharing a tongue-in-cheek joke with Petruchio, to defend
Shakespeare's intentions-but at least they tend to be based on real
textual evidence, and not non-existent stage direction. Even if Kate is
being serious here, and Shakespeare is actually `sexist', does this
change the fact that _Taming of the Shrew_ is a great piece of drama?

Mary McLaren
Dalhousie University

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Skeele <
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Date:           Tuesday, 3 Mar 1998 14:18:43 -0500
Subject: 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc.
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc.

>I see the play as a progression from honesty into deceit, where
>Katherine finally learns how to survive in (and enjoy, see 4.5.37-49)
>this world so full of lying.

>How can anyone call The Taming of the Shrew a sexist play.
>Examine the text.
>If during the "subjugation" speech Kate suits the action to the word and
>sits Petruchio down on a "joint stool", by the time she arrives at the lines.
>Then vail your stomachs for it is no boot.
>And place your hands below your husband's foot
>In token of which duty, if he please
>My hand is ready: may it do him ease.
>       Kate, it seems to me, negates the entire speech by lifting up on that
>foot, sending Petruchio tail over teacups to the floor.  Petruchio responds
with. Why, there's a wench come on and kiss me Kate.
>The only other time in the text Petruchio refers to Kate as a wench is
>right after she's brained Hortensio with a lute.
>From that common ground they can both ascend to their marital bed. Wiser
>and richer then any they leave behind at the wedding banquet.

I'm not convinced by any of the above examples.  The first speech (4.5
37-49) expressing her "happiness" occurs as she embraces Vincentio upon
the command of Petruchio.  She has spent almost the entire scene
enthusiastically confirming everything she thinks Petruchio wants to
hear; if we accept that her enthusiasm in these lines is an accurate
reflection of her true happiness then we must also accept that Vicentio
is in fact a young maid and that the sun and moon rapidly changed places
several lines earlier.  As for the second example, I hardly think that
your imagined stage direction constitutes very strong evidence that
everything comes up roses for Kate (even after "examining the text").  I
have seen the play performed just as you envision it, and it seemed
utterly false, apologetic and tacked-on.  What is there in Petruchio's
previous behavior to suggest that, after such an affront as toppling him
over in front of his friends, there wouldn't be fresh tortures-more food
and sleep deprivation, perhaps?--awaiting Kate at home?

Of course, we are talking about directorial choices, and I would be the
last person to want to restrict them.  It just strikes me that so many
people begin their consideration of TAMING by assuming that Shakespeare
couldn't possibly have created a play in which a woman is REALLY treated
so badly, so they come up with extravagant rationales for defending
Petruchio's actions that simply do not seem supported by the text.  The
most powerful production I have ever seen assumed that Kate, after
having suffered the horrific treatment that is now recognized as the
modus operandi of cults and other brainwashers, literally means every
word of her final speech (though such belief, in this actress'
interpretation, clearly came at great psychic cost).  It was a startling
and chilling interpretation, but the resonance of that final speech,
taken at face value, has never left me.

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris J. Fassler <
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Date:           Tuesday, 03 Mar 1998 13:55:13 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        RE: Is Shakespeare sexist?

I return from a few days away to discover that my name and e-mail
address has inadvertently been attached to comments written by Curtis
Perry.  While I certainly don't dispute anything written by him, I take
neither credit nor responsibility for his post re "Is Shakespeare
sexist?"

My own comment appeared at the end of that digest, and I thank Helen
Ostovich for clarifying her reason for the post.

--Chris
 

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