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The Bard and the Church

My friends have been taking bets on how long it would be before I worked Shakespeare into a column. I hate to keep them waiting any longer, so here goes:

There’s a lot of debate about whether Shakespeare was a misogynist and about whether he was anti-Semitic. There are many quotes in his plays to support arguments on either side. If you want evidence that Shakespeare hated women, read some of Hamlet’s or Othello’s lines. If you want evidence that he hated Jews, look at the way Antonio spoke to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Then again, it’s difficult to reconcile Shakespeare the misogynist with his creation of strong-willed, good-hearted, and clever female characters such as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and Rosalind in As You Like It. And it’s difficult to reconcile Shakespeare the anti-Semite with Shylock’s “quality of mercy” speech.

In trying to figure out what Shakespeare really thought, most people get tripped up by two mistakes. First, they confuse Shakespeare with his characters. If Othello likens women to animals, does that mean Shakespeare did too? Second, they take things out of context. For example, when Othello made the offending remarks, he was in a jealous rage that led him to murder his blameless wife—yet no one argues that Shakespeare advocated murder, so obviously Shakespeare doesn’t endorse everything his characters do.

So what does that have to do with This Rock? The Church also gets accused of being misogynistic and anti-Semitic, and the accusers likewise are able to cite plenty of credible-sounding evidence. In this issue, articles by Chris Kaczor and Matthew Bunson examine the evidence for these two accusations and show that people get tripped up by the same two mistakes. First, they confuse authentic Church teaching with some of the less-than-edifying writings and behavior of individual Catholics. Second, they take things out of context.

That isn’t to say that Catholics didn’t commit real sins against women and Jews throughout history. Pope John Paul II faced those sins squarely and apologized to the world for them. But when we’re confronted with an apparently misogynistic or anti-Semitic quote, it’s important to find out who said it and the context in which it was said. It’s also important to note that the Church doesn’t endorse everything its members do.

We’ll never know for sure what Shakespeare thought about women or Jews because he left no written record of his beliefs. He gave us three-dimensional characters and showed us their humanity in all its glory and in its degradation. He didn’t tell us how people should act—he just showed us what happens when people act in certain ways.

The Church, on the other hand, does have a written record of its beliefs—Scripture and Tradition—so we know exactly its views about women and Jews. Appropriately, the Church also tells people how they should act: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

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