Oh, What Can We Do with The Taming of the Shrew?

Shrew: ‘a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; a scolding or turbulent wife’.

[Oxford English Dictionary]

The Taming of the Shrew: an early comedy by William Shakespeare.

The Problem: why do we still like it, and can we, in all good conscience, allow ourselves to continue to do so?

This is a slightly updated version of a piece I wrote several years ago. You can read the original, and the (rather lengthy) ensuing discussion on Hoyden About Town.

When people hear I write about shrews they often assume I mean that I write about this play. I have to explain that a shrew was a conventional type, a stock character, if you like, and that Shakespeare wrote many of them. I generally also mention that I find Katherine the least interesting of his shrews, and the play little more than a dry run for characters and scenarios that Shakespeare was to get better at, as his career progressed.

For those not familiar with the story: Katherine is so shrewish that no man will marry her, until Petruchio decides that her valuable dowry makes her attractive enough, marries, and sets about to ‘tame’ her. He does this by denying her food, clothing, sleep and the means to wash herself (though never actually hitting her), demanding that she agree with everything he says, no matter how patently wrong, until in the final scene she gives a long speech to the assembled company of husbands and wives proclaiming the inferiority of women and the appropriateness of their subservience to their husbands, and offering to place her hand below her husband’s foot. Yes, seriously.

Pre-Raphaelite portrait of a red-haired girl biting the head off a flower.

“Love’s Shadow” by Frederick Sandys

The paradox of The Taming of the Shrew has seemed to be that if we are meant to take Katherine’s experiences as funny and the final scene as moving and romantic, then the play is offensive, but if it isn’t meant to be funny and romantic then it obviously isn’t a romantic comedy. If it’s not a romantic comedy, why would we sit down to watch three hours of brutality presented as farce?

So, why can’t we let it go, if its politics are so loathsome? It’s not because it’s Shakespeare, almost everybody has managed to live without ever seeing Timon of Athens and not felt the lack. Many would suspect that it is because of the delight our society takes in seeing a woman humiliated. But lefty, anti-establishment types have something better to cling to: the trick lying in all Shakespeare’s plays whereby they lend themselves equally convincingly to interpretations that support the status quo and those that subvert it.

Pamela Allen Brown, the pre-eminent scholar of shrew-taming literature, maintains that this play was always primed to divide its audience and never, even in its first showings, to provide a model for any behaviour worthy of admiration. This would be in keeping with Shakespeare’s always shrewd (ahem) eye for bringing in the punters. Early in his career, as this was, a play that was generally pleasing might be less valuable than one guaranteed to get talked about.

This inbuilt divisiveness has not always fallen along the lines that might be expected. Germaine Greer, famously, included a reading of the play in The Female Eunuch in which she sees it as exposing the fact that society requires women to develop manipulative skills to survive. She sees Katherine as instinctively above such behaviour, and Petruchio as appreciating that. (Ironically, and duplicitously, the Australian playwright David Williamson later appropriated parts of Greer’s reading and presented it in his anti-feminist play Dead White Males as a challenge to conventional feminist ideology.) Those of us like Greer, who simply have an irredeemable soft spot for Shakespeare, can’t get past the fact that there’s too much good stuff in Shrew for us to let ourselves believe it’s as bad as it seems. You see, there are two really good scenes between Katherine and Petruchio; one when they first meet (which is chock full of the witty, sexy banter we adore when Beatrice and Benedick do it in Much Ado About Nothing), and one on the road from Verona to Padua (when Katherine agrees to call the sun the moon if Petruchio says it is, but says it in such a clever way that it still feels as if she has won the encounter). These scenes make us feel that if we take the play as sexist, we must have missed something. And the search for what it is we must be missing has absorbed people ever since. Unfortunately, this has prompted a few people, especially the poor actresses who have played the part of Katherine and wanted to believe in it, to tie themselves in knots trying to justify it.

A common argument is that Petruchio is inviting Katherine to join him in a game, and that once she realises this, and learns to play too, all is joyous. However, no one is harmed by calling the sun the moon, as no one for a minute really believes that it is. This is a fundamentally different thing from saying that a woman should place her hand below her husband’s foot in a room full of people who are eager to accept that as the truth. Sinead Cusak, who played the role in the 1980s, is one who is convinced that Katherine is freed rather than broken by what she goes through:

‘She can say anything now and she’s still Kate… This so-called submission speech isn’t a submission speech at all: it’s a speech about how her spirit has been allowed to soar free.’

It is easy to see how the desire for this to be true might be overwhelming for an actor, especially in the context of pressure from a director who sees the play as a romantic comedy. She goes on to say:

‘She is not attached to him. He hasn’t laid down the rules for her, she has made her own rules, and what he’s managed to do is allow her to have her own vision.’

Given the nature of the preceding scene these seem extraordinary statements. The man who said ‘I will not go today, and ere I do, / It shall be what o’clock I say it is’ (IV.1.187-188) and ‘It shall be moon or star, or what I list’ (IV.3.7) has not been laying down rules? And ‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband’ (V.1.167-168) doesn’t indicate submission? Are RSC actresses sent on a course in doublethink before being employed by the company? The very clever Stevie Davies puts her finger on why such a rationale is not good enough:

”Whereas before she became Petruchio’s tongue (whether in-cheek or not), Kate was sullen, dissatisfied, unamenable and unpopular, afterwards she is represented as radiant, powerful in utterance, a public success. Why then should we regret for Kate that she has lost the little matter of her own tongue…? Precisely for that reason: that it was hers.”

The play’s apologists tend to assume that the audience will find Petruchio attractive in the last scenes of the play, that he has ceased to be a bully, showing either that he was ‘curst for policy’ only while it was necessary, or that he, too, has been reformed by the proceedings. But Petruchio’s last action, bar his exit, is to make sure he publicly humiliates (in the most literal sense, requiring her to make explicit the extremes of her humility) his wife. This may be the act of a man who considers her better than the other women, but not one who considers her too good to abase herself in front of the other men.

The trouble with trying to convince ourselves that the last scene actually shows Kate and Petruchio in an alliance against the others is that the image they present of themselves challenges only what the others thought of them as individuals, but does not challenge at all their idea of what a relationship should look like, so they clearly have not risen above the society from which they come, or got beyond concerning themselves with what people think of them.

So, if these perspectives fail to satisfy, is there any way that we can look at this play that saves it from being grossly offensive? Of course, you can play the whole thing as a monstrous tragedy, but (apart from making for a very grim night in the theatre) you then risk sending the message that the inevitable fate of an independent-minded woman is to be broken.

I think there is a key hidden in the special features of a work written as a play to be seen, not a book to be read. When someone writes a script for performance, it is designed to generate non-linguistic material, too. What Katherine’s final speech presents us with is a complete and staggering contradiction between the form of the speech and its content, between the dominance of the voice and figure on the stage and the submission they are describing. Thus, while the content of the speech suggests that it could only be supporting the status quo, its shape and context have always unsettled such an easy assumption. An audience in a theatre is getting only a minimal proportion of its messages from the direct meaning of the words spoken; it will always be absorbing information from the positioning of bodies on stage, the sound, the responses of the performers to one another, and many other elements. Katherine is speaking the longest speech in the play, she is the centre of attention, she is speaking uninterrupted, classical rhetoric, and will almost certainly be either centre stage or roaming freely over the full space of the stage while everyone else is still. In short, as an audience we are being told that Katherine is the most dominant personality by everything except the words.

Perhaps even more crucial is something we can learn from looking at the whole of Shakespeare’s body of work. Shakespeare wrote no fewer than six other plays in which a man who is basically scum is forgiven by a woman who is much better than he deserves, for the sake of love and community stability. Certainly, this still puts women in the role of the good redemptive force, which has been so annoying in a long string of stories stretching from the Odyssey to Knocked Up, but it does give us an answer to the many people who persist in claiming that Petruchio is a hero. He’s not, he’s just lucky.

Creating the story as a play-within-a-play, and emphasising deceptive appearances, jest and misrule, with the Christopher Sly Induction scenes goes some way towards encouraging us not to take Petruchio’s victory seriously. But more than this, Katherine is allowed to be too much the voice of those who deserve better respect than they are afforded by the status quo to be dismissed as having been served justly. She speaks lines that are too close to the hearts of those with spirit, and a passion for liberation:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break
And rather than it shall, I will be free,
Even to the uttermost as I please in words.

By the way, the real reason The Taming of the Shrew is so sexy is because it’s actually all about falconry, but I’ll have to tell you about that some other time.

2 thoughts on “Oh, What Can We Do with The Taming of the Shrew?

  1. Wow. I really felt instructed by this and I love how you took us through different readings of a play that always leaves me a bit nauseated, even as I laugh. I don’t buy what Cusack has to say in the last, but I like the notion that how the crucial scene is played can change the play for us. Great post — you got a lot of information into a little space and really said something.

  2. Pingback: 73rd Down Under Feminist Carnival! | The Conversationalist

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