*cough cough* This is not a post about science. You were warned. Science post tomorrow.
Sci went to see Taming of the Shrew this weekend. Mr. S brought her to the show as a semi-surprise, because he is generally awesome. And I highly recommend (the show! Not Mr. S! Mr. S is mine). It’s a free show put on every year by the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. You have to sit in line for tickets, so Sci recommends bringing a picnic. But you can’t argue with free Shakespeare performed by one of the best Shakespeare companies in the nation. We sat in line for an hour and a half, but we got in! Sci has a long-standing love of Shakespeare, as well as most other theater, and has in fact been in a production of Taming of the Shrew. I very much enjoyed the interpretation they used (setting it in the age of the pin-up girls, with an interestingly versatile set, KILLER costumes for Bianca, and using the plot to talk about honesty in relationships between men and women).
But there’s always that last scene in Taming of the Shrew. It makes me shudder inwardly every time I see it, no matter how it is interpreted.
(From the Shakespeare Free for All)
For those who don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (or it’s hilariously cute spin-off “Ten Things I Hate About You” with Heath Ledger…sigh…), The Taming of the Shrew is about a “shrew” named Kate, the eldest daughter of a very wealthy man. She has a sister named Bianca. Bianca is hot, and cute, and charming, and everything that any many could want. She has, as you may imagine, lots of guys running after her. Kate is also hot, but she is not charming. She’s angry and smart, and hates the life under her father, where she is to be auctioned off as a bride.
Thus, their father (Baptista), makes a decision. No one can have the delectable Bianca until Kate is out of his hair. The many suitors for Bianca are desperate, but luckily for them, Petruchio comes along. Petruchio wants a wife. A wealthy one. “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua/if wealthily, then happily in Padua”. He doesn’t care what she looks like or what she’s like at all, as long as she comes loaded. This is exactly what Bianca’s suitors want to hear, and they quickly convince Petruchio that he needs to marry Kate.
Hilarity ensues. Petruchio “courts” Kate (if you can call a usually elaborate fight scene courting), and gets her father to agree to a marriage. He then embarrasses her horribly at the wedding, takes her home, starves her for seven days, won’t let her change clothes, denies her pretty things, won’t let her sleep, and makes her agree that the sun is the moon because he says so. Kate begins to break down.
A lover of Bianca gets the girl, Petruchio and Kate go back for the wedding, and at the wedding, Petruchio takes a bet that he has the most obedient wife. Remembering the Kate they knew and hated, the other guys around accept. Petruchio commands his wife to his presence, and she appears promptly, while the other married men do not make out so well. Finally, Petruchio commands Kate to give a speech to the other wives about the proper duties of a wife, and she does. From this, Petruchio wins over 20,000 ducats. And the last speech goes as follows:
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
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?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.
Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.
For those who could not make it through a pile of iambic pentameter, Kate basically says “you bad girls, you should be so happy you have a big strong man to take care of you, and all that you should be concerned with is making him happy, no matter what, because without him, you would be helpless”.
Obviously, this play poses significant issues for feminism. Scholars think that it was written before 1594, so this was less of an issue then (though with Queen Elizabeth on the throne, one wonders what she thought of it, and it is thought that not all audiences reacted positively, inspiring Jon Fletcher to write “The Tamer Tamed”). But now, there are various ways to interpret the play, especially the last scene. Many productions have Kate give her last monologue ironically, showing that she is not at all tame, and is just fooling the men around her. Other productions take it more as an agreement between Kate and Petruchio, that this is the way marriage is, but that they have an understanding between them, that it isn’t like that. Still, it’s really hard be a woman, hear that monologue, and refrain from squirming.
But what interested me is this: Shakespeare wrote three “edgy” plays. As in ones that are now considered to be pretty politically incorrect:
1) Merchant of Venice (in which the evil, rapacious and greedy character is a Jew, who demands a pound of flesh in repayment for a debt)
2) Othello (in which the murdering/suiciding lead is black/dark skinned, or possibly of Arab origins, performed by a white person in blackface until 1943)
3) Taming of the Shrew (in which the female lead is a shrew whom no one will marry)
Merchant was pretty popular in the beginning, and is supposed to be a “dark comedy” (apparently the original audiences were rolling, and the Jew was a hideous character with a hooked nose and a wig, which was always red for some reason), but had a MASSIVE decrease in popularity since WWII. Nowadays, it’s performed pretty rarely, and it’s VERY difficult, because if you don’t try to make Shylock (the Jew) a sensitive character, you’re screwed. Sympathetic portrayals of Shylock began as early as the 19th century, however, and nowadays that is considered to be the only way to get away with performing the play at all.
Othello is not as un-PC as many people think. There are only two racial slurs in the entire play, and the “Moor of Venice” is mostly known in the play for being a renowned war general. Othello’s racial classification is never verified, he could be either African, or Arabian, and the character has been played both ways (there was also a performance of Othello starring Patrick Stewart, in which he was the only white person in the cast. I saw it, quite excellent). There are no impediments to his marriage to Desdemona, who is white. The villain who does Othello in via manipulation hates him not for his race, but for his military accomplishments. So slightly less controversial.
But interestingly, whenever I hear about a Shakespeare company wanting to do something “edgy”, what play do they do? Taming of the Shrew, of course. In fact, it’s often in the general repertoire, without being considered edgy at all. It’s a comedy, which helps. But it’s just not considered as being problematic the way Othello and Merchant are. No one thinks of Taming as being a problem because it’s still considered totally acceptable to view a strong-minded woman as an untamable shrew, a terrible person, and someone who needs to be “tamed”. By a man. Obviously. And it’s not just jokes, there are fight scenes written in in which the man beats up on the woman (though she herself is known to be violent as well). But it’s ok, it’s funny, they’re flirting, and “she likes it”, because she’s finally got a man who “gets the better of her”.
The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Why is this still so funny and so acceptable, while making fun of Jews is absolutely not? Why is this play, full of references about how women are meant to subject to men and cater to all their desires, where the woman who makes the “best” marriage is by far the younger sister who is pliant and pretty, so much more popular than the “edgy” Othello, which has only two racial references which are usually cut? The humor in the Merchant of Venice isn’t funny anymore, and neither are the racial references in Othello. Why is Taming of the Shrew? And it is very funny. It’s very easy to understand, in a way that both Merchant and Othello are not. But I think it tells us a bit about how far feminism has to go, that Taming of the Shrew is still funny. It’s still barely controversial. That kind of sexism is still ok, and it’s still ok to laugh at a woman getting her spirit broken by her husband (though usually in an extremely crazy manner). The more I think about it, that performance was still great, but I don’t think it’s so funny anymore.