This post is a response to Pages Unbound’s Classic Remarks meme.
The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s family-friendly romp about a tough, street-wise hero who falls in love with and marries a fast-talking heroine. They decide to play an elaborate prank on their friends and family, so the pair pretend to hate each other and the hero torments the heroine, in order to highlight the atrociously misogynistic attitudes of early modern England.
Hmm. Maybe not so much. Although there’s been some debate about the extent to which Taming of the Shrew is in fact a misogynistic play (some people even argue that it’s just the opposite) I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty problematic. It includes a great many jokes about women needing to be ‘tamed’, not to mention scenes of abuse: Katharina, the ‘Shrew’, is abducted and starved by her new husband Petruchio.
So is the play misogynistic?
I guess ‘misogynistic’ depends on how you define it: for instance, does it count as misogynistic if the era in which a text was written had no concept of feminism as we understand it today? Personally, I’m inclined to say yes; just because people in Renaissance England didn’t know about bacteria doesn’t mean they couldn’t die of tuberculosis. Inasmuch as misogyny is a deep-seated hatred of women, I think we can comfortably say that Taming of the Shrew is misogynistic. Or, at the very least, it contains misogynistic elements and characters.
I don’t think it’s enough to simply ‘excuse’ texts because they were written in ‘different times’. That’s not to say we should reject them outright, but we need to acknowledge that they are problematic, that they reflect attitudes and themes which we today are more aware of and more critically engaged with. Of course, we also need to recognise that these texts do not represent the totality of human experience and opinion in the period, and that of course they’re open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Sure, we can keep staging Taming of the Shrew – but we can never simply shrug off the gender issues in the play. In fact, given that domestic abuse is a continuing issue in the contemporary world, it can in fact serve as a vehicle for exploring contemporary experiences.
In many ways, you could say that Taming of the Shrew is only as misogynistic as we make it. This is particularly true because it’s a play, and therefore made to be performed, and consequently re-interpreted by every actor who takes up the roles. In Taming of the Shrew, there’s a moment in the play upon which the whole story’s ‘misogyny’ in some way hinges. It’s the speech that Catherine delivers at the very end, where she talks about wives needing to bend to their husband’s will. Nowadays, these lines are almost always delivered by actors ironically, subverting the interpretation of the play as a celebration of male dominance over the female:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign: one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience –
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
(V:ii, ll. 146-60)
If we’re going to keep staging this play, it needs to be with an awareness of what it can tell us about contemporary gender issues. We need to look at it critically and confront its misogynistic elements, rather than hiding behind the excuse that ‘Shakespeare didn’t know about feminism’.
The Taming of the Shrew plotline is not dead, incidentally: just take a look at any rom-com from the past few decades that features an angry, asexual, bitchy businesswoman who is eventually ‘tamed’ by a scruffy, likeable hero. (This is even the approach that the BBC used for their ‘ShakespeaRe-Told‘ series; Katharina is a career politician and Petrichio is some kind of down-on-his-luck loser. Whether they were making an ironic comment on the trope of the shrewish career woman or not is probably open to interpretation.) This in itself should tell us something about the way we continue to write gender in the modern world. Clearly, Shakespeare’s play is reflecting a wider pattern in society, one we need to be deeply aware of, not simply brush under the carpet.