I’d not heard of Robert Brustein’s book “The Tainted Muse”, but it does look interesting – particularly for historians of Shakespeares’s era. How much of the poet is reflected in his plays, and how much of that can be attributed to the time period?
The most notable example, of course, is whether our boy Will was an anti-semite, given what he did with Merchant of Venice. The argument is ancient – he was, he wasn’t, it’s not biggie because everybody else was back then too. The article doesn’t say which side of the argument the author comes down on, which is probably a smart move.
He also wades into less charted territory with discussions of Shakespeare’s machismo, misogyny, and “effemiphobia’’ - his distaste for courtiers such as Osric in “Hamlet’’ and his abiding respect for warriors such as Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part 1.’’ Here, for example, is how he differentiates between contemporary and turn of the 17th century sensibilities - “ ‘Make love, not war’ was the primary motto of protesters against the Vietnam conflict. Elizabethans would have reversed this axiom, for moral reasons . . . but also for physical ones - making war, not love, was believed to improve one’s health’’ and he goes on to compare how copulation was considered deleterious.
The article goes on to say that the author himself acknowledges that much of the problem comes from separating the playwright from the written word. Shakespeare never said “I feel this way about this subject”, only his characters did, so how often when we make that leap are we getting it 100% wrong? Merchant’s still the shining example, of course.