William Shakespeare Questions and Answers

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What plays of Shakespeare's were seen as controversial?

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It is difficult to know which of Shakespeare’s plays were controversial when they first came out. Troilus and Cressida was likely very contentious during its time because it parodies classical heroes such as Achilles and Ulysses. Ancient Greece greatly inspired Renaissance England, and this play makes a complete mockery of the world, indicating that these heroes were actually buffoons and that their reputations were largely unearned. There are virtually no records of its performance from Shakespeare’s time until the nineteenth century.

Sir Thomas More is an incomplete play written by Shakespeare and a number of playwrights. The fact that it was never finished suggests that there might have been controversy over its publication. Thomas More himself was not in favor of the Protestant Reformation, but the text portrays him in a generally positive light. This was an unusual sentiment to express at a time when England had made the tumultuous transition to Protestantism.

Other Shakespeare plays have been contentious in more recent years. Titus Andronicus disturbed critics in the past several centuries due to its extreme violence, and some suggested Shakespeare could not have written such a grisly play. All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure are considered problem plays because they are dark and emotionally unsatisfying comedies.

Shakespeare’s most questionable plays nowadays are Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. Shrew is about a man who “tames” an unruly and violent woman in order to marry her for her money. At the story’s conclusion, Katherine, the former “shrew,” says that women’s weakness is “past compare” and that they should “place your hands below your husband's foot.” Nonetheless, it is a wildly popular play, especially when interpreted ironically.

Merchant features the villainous Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who fulfills numerous antisemitic stereotypes. The ostensible comedy ends well for the Christian characters, including Shylock’s converted daughter Jessica. Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and to lose half of his wealth. In a post-Holocaust world, the play is a disturbing reminder of virulent antisemitism. However, it is still performed, largely due to the more sympathetic aspects of Shylock’s character.

As you can see, a number of Shakespeare’s plays have generated considerable controversy, but many are complex and intriguing enough to have their fair share of defenders, even today.

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