The Taming of the Shrew

*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.
shrew_boxing.jpg
(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:
KATHARINA
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.
PETRUCHIO
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.

31 Responses

  1. I’ve wondered if Shakespeare didn’t create Shrew as a commentary on British politics of his day – consider
    Petruchio represents Elizabeth, and Katherine, her court so often resistant to being led by a woman. Elizabeth as Queen was acting in what was deemed to be a male role, the role of Katherine would have been played by a man playing a female role. The other major character may, or may not, align with the other royal households of Europe, but need not.
    Shakespeare frequently played with gender issues and used the device of men playing women who pretend to be men several times.
    If so, in Shrew we had a play that took advantage of the sexism of the day to rebuke the expression of that sexism for the context of the monarchy.

  2. So that’s where ‘kiss me kate’ comes from, ye auld speer shaker.

  3. or it could just be set in a society of five hundred years ago…
    just because he could write really well doesn’t mean he could predict 500 years of social progress. It’s up to directors to reinterpret things to keep it in line with current society (or do it traditionally as a way of reminding us how different the society of his day was).
    I know Othello has been done here (New Zealand) with various parts being assigned to colonists and soldiers, and the part of Othello being a Maori chief, thus converting it (without any changing of lines beyond the usual cutting for time) into a commentary on race relations as they are here…

  4. Not being into Shakespeare too much, I had heard of “Taming of the Shrew,” but I didn’t know recently precisely what it was about. I had seen “10 Things I Hate About You” some time ago, and quite enjoyed it. I also recently came across the fact that there’s a TV series that came out this year. Well, while reading up on that, I found out that it was based upon the “Taming of the Shrew.”
    For what it’s worth, I read the plot synopsis and thought, “Holy fuck that’s disgusting.” I mean, in 10 Things, Kate was “tamed,” but it wasn’t in the sense that she was beat into submission. He merely broke through her cold exterior that she used to keep people (especially guys) at a distance. The movie was quite sympathetic as to why she had that defense set up in the first place, and I don’t remember anything implying that she would have ever been “obedient” to Ledger’s character (Patrick/Petruchio).
    So yeah, honestly, Erv, I can’t help but worry if people don’t squirm while watching the ending to that movie.

  5. Play! I meant play! Bah…

  6. You mean Sci, not Erv, too, right?

  7. I mean, I know they’re just females, but I think they like it if you refer to them as separate individuals every once in a while. It keeps them tamed.😛

  8. I have seena Taming spin-off, it was made the TV 6-p.m. Soap Opera, and it was 180 long. Of course, lots of parallel histories had to be added/developed, but the essence was all there. And, really, I cannot think of a more feminine public than the women who watch this. So, how to transform something edgy and dangerous in a much loved show?. The director had an excellent idea: Kate and Petrucchio were played as adults, but one could notice readily that their fights and arguments seemed that of pre-adolescents boy and girl, who simply do not know that love each other, and pick on each other everytime. Some scenes which would become unnaceptable bu today’s standards became more of a slapstick comedy, specilly when Kate became violent. Plus, the actor chosen to play Petrucchio was someone young and charismatic, and Kate always seemed to have lots of fun everytime she was being a shrew, first because of bad temper, but after just to tease her husband, since she knew he married her for money and was trying to get from him a proof of true love. Like, “If he can love me even when I am a bad-tempered shrew, it’s because he reallly loves me.” And the final scene was played as a declaration of her true love for him.

  9. Oh, when I said 180 long, I meant 180 daily episodes long. And Kate and Patrucchio, in this specific show, lived sometime between 1920-1930. Kate was an early feminist and suffragist.

  10. Oh, when I said 180 long, I meant 180 daily episodes long. And Kate and Patrucchio, in this specific show, lived sometime between 1920-1930. Kate was an early feminist and suffragist.

  11. Still, it’s really hard be a woman, hear that monologue, and refrain from squirming.

    I don’t think women have a monopoly on squirminess in TTotS. Although what gets me most is the abuse.
    As for the TTotS’ acceptability, I chalk it up to the fact that the plot is just a pretext for the dialog — which is Tracy and Hepburn, 300 years early. We get lost in the repartee and it’s easy to overlook where things are going.
    Hmmm. Interesting allegory, that. Wonder if anyones done a meta-play on TTotS based on feminist tensions over the plot?

  12. David: An interesting thought, thinking of the play as a metaphor for the political situation of the time. I hesitate to give Shakespeare that much perspicacity, though. He was a brilliant wordsmith, but a lot of his play plots were recycled, and I’m not sure he would have been that “in” with the machinations of the court. But it’s a really cool thought.
    wazza: heehee. Definitely not Erv here. She’s totes sexier than Sci. Also angrier.
    DC Sessions: oh yes, a lot of people have done feminist readings of Taming, and I know of at least one feminist spin-off. Tend not to be as well known.

  13. Wazza,
    Haha, wow, that’s an even worse error on my part. Clearly not enough sleep last night…

  14. Excellent post, Sci, with lots of food for thought. I love Shakespeare, but TTotS makes me want to puke on…somebody’s shoes.

  15. Excellent post, Sci, with lots of food for thought. I love Shakespeare, but TTotS makes me want to puke on…somebody’s shoes.

  16. Well, what is acceptable as funny and what is not in society at large is always tempered by mutually agreed upon social codes, right? Social codes that constantly evolve based on the amount of light that has been shed on the injustices that persist because of a particular stereotype, and the horror society has collectively managed to feel at that injustice. The lesser the light, the lesser the social discomfort with humor based on stereotypes (which is itself based on the unexamined ignorance of those not at the receiving end).
    I have always found the story of the taming of the shrew to be repulsive and disgusting. So do most progressive men who are aware of sexism and are allies of feminists, I’m sure (even though we may not be able to share the anger that comes from being at the receiving end). But overall, disgust toward sexism is not shared within the collective social (and more specifically, male) consciousness in the same way that disgust at racism and anti-semitism have come to be. Why? I’m not quite sure. God knows there’s enough atrocities against women happening every day. The “more specifically, male” part must play a big role. The ubiquitous patriarchy.
    Media has a huge role to play too, I think. In last year’s presidential primaries, even though I liked Obama, I could not help but notice the rampant sexism against Hillary from progressives supporting Obama, not just online, but even from media figures like Chris Matthews. In contrast, racism toward Obama from Hillary supporters was only a trickle initially during the primaries and only gradually increased to a fire hose of disgusting racism, especially after Obama sealed the nomination.
    I really hope some day in the future (hopefully, in my lifetime), women also achieve full human status in our collective social consciousness. While I’m upset it hasn’t happened already, I’m also optimistic based on the progress made by other subjugated groups. But the way things have shaped up so far historically across the world, it looks like all male subgroups will have their day first before women are even considered. And that too, white women first before any other women sharing a marginalized subgroup with men.

  17. Arvind, I would agree that probably more men than women are going to think Taming is ok. But I want to point out that women, as well as men, participate in patriarchy. It is indeed a male dominated society, but women are participating in it (not necessarily consciousness), and both men and women suffer the consequences of patriarchy (Sci’s been reading the Gender Knot). I think that both men and women have an obligation to let people know that, while Taming of the Shrew is a great historical play, it shouldn’t be making people laugh comfortably at current societal tropes.

  18. Arvind, I would agree that probably more men than women are going to think Taming is ok. But I want to point out that women, as well as men, participate in patriarchy. It is indeed a male dominated society, but women are participating in it (not necessarily consciousness), and both men and women suffer the consequences of patriarchy (Sci’s been reading the Gender Knot). I think that both men and women have an obligation to let people know that, while Taming of the Shrew is a great historical play, it shouldn’t be making people laugh comfortably at current societal tropes.

  19. I always saw TotS as funny, although it did provoke a bit of squirmy uneasiness. The last time I saw it, though, I suddenly realized how aptly it illustrates the Stockholm Syndrome.
    Now I find it horrifying.

  20. It is simply a historical fact that casual overt misogyny and transphobia are still mainstream acceptable, overt homophobia is becoming less so, and overt racism is not at all acceptable. This is something that has been, and continues to be, discussed at length all over the progressive blogogsphere.
    Modernized versions of Shakespeare plays make my skin crawl. Sack the fuck up and wear the motherfucking goofy Elizabethan clothes!!

  21. It is simply a historical fact that casual overt misogyny and transphobia are still mainstream acceptable, overt homophobia is becoming less so, and overt racism is not at all acceptable. This is something that has been, and continues to be, discussed at length all over the progressive blogogsphere.
    Modernized versions of Shakespeare plays make my skin crawl. Sack the fuck up and wear the motherfucking goofy Elizabethan clothes!!

  22. I love that you talked about Othello – that’s my favourite one! I’ve seen the one with Patrick Stewart, but the best one is with Morpheus from the Matrix, whatever his name actually is. I don’t think the play is racist at all, if anything it challenges racist views – the real villain is Iago, a white guy, who corrputs Othello and makes him all crazy. It certainly addresses racial views, but it doesn’t agree with them.
    If you’re looking for a good Shakespeare movie I recommend Rosencratz and Gildenstern are Dead, it’s an awesome version of Hamlet – not too much Shakespeare and lots of wit!
    “I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this
    Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.”

  23. I think you’re a bit off base saying TotS is more accepted than Othello and Merchant of Venice. It’s difficult to access the frequency these plays are performed, but I’d consider the making of a mainstream movie as one level of acceptance. Both Othello (1995) and Merchant (2004) have fairly recent movies with top actors. The last big screen release of Shrew was in 1967 (according to imdb). To my knowledge most recent Othello & Merchant movies use pretty much verbatim Shakespeare dialogue. There are many adaptions of Tots that alter key aspects of the plot to make it acceptable to modern audiences. The fact that so much energy seems to be going into trying to reinterpret TotS makes me think that perhaps there are more, not less concerns about it.

  24. I think you’re a bit off base saying TotS is more accepted than Othello and Merchant of Venice. It’s difficult to access the frequency these plays are performed, but I’d consider the making of a mainstream movie as one level of acceptance. Both Othello (1995) and Merchant (2004) have fairly recent movies with top actors. The last big screen release of Shrew was in 1967 (according to imdb). To my knowledge most recent Othello & Merchant movies use pretty much verbatim Shakespeare dialogue. There are many adaptions of Tots that alter key aspects of the plot to make it acceptable to modern audiences. The fact that so much energy seems to be going into trying to reinterpret TotS makes me think that perhaps there are more, not less concerns about it.

  25. bsci, I wouldn’t take the rate at which movies are made as a measure of how the play is doing. Also, you have to remember things like spin-offs, of which Taming has had a very large number, many of them modern.
    I do agree that people are concerned, and a lot of things are changed, but I think there is a lot more concern for plays like Merchant. The pure dialog is used, but a great deal of effort is made to make Shylock sympathetic, you will almost never see a performance where Shylock is played as he was written. Othello, the character is written without any problems (as far as I can tell). What concerns me is that the old-fashioned version of Taming is still so acceptable, and still so relatable, and so easy to find funny, while Merchant ALWAYS makes people squirm, and Othello has to be performed carefully, Taming is often performed alive and well in its original interpretation.
    PhysioProf: Clearly you did not see these costumes, they were AWESOME! Also, in original performances, the “costumes” were modern dress, people didn’t wear togas or anything for the Greek or Romans plays (on the men playing women it would have been both hilarious and considered very immodest). So many people consider doing Shakespeare in modern dress to be actually more appropriate than otherwise. And besides, you have to give the costumers something with VISION!!

  26. You’re a slacker, Squirrel, admit it!

  27. You’re a slacker, Squirrel, admit it!

  28. I do not think the taming of the Shrew would be played at all if it weren’t a Shakespeare play. Though honestly I didn’t think it was ever played with the original interpretation anymore. Personally I do not really see the point of making a feminist version, since you are more or less completely rewriting the play in that case and it is not one of the Bards best in any case. Write a new play of your own if you want to make a feminist point, or play it to illustrate what sort of values were common not so long ago.
    It is interesting that embarrassment about the play is old.
    I remember seeing the Zefferili version in school. I found it interesting that there wasn’t anyone who was upset by the movie though my classmates did indicate that they didn’t think a play like that could be made today.
    I agree that Othello is not very racist. There are a few racist slurs but it is far from obvious that the play itself expresses racist values. I don’t think you can say that Othello does his actions because he is black. And the only completely evil character is Iago who is white.

  29. Cassio @ #8:

    Kate and Petrucchio were played as adults, but one could notice readily that their fights and arguments seemed that of pre-adolescents boy and girl, who simply do not know that love each other, and pick on each other everytime.

    That sounds more like the plot of “Much Ado About Nothing”

  30. I think the key is that the movies, Broadway musicals, etc are spinoffs of Taming. To my knowledge, most of the spinoffs remove from the most disturbing plot elements. People grapple with all three plays, but for Othello & Merchant, the alterations are context and point of view, not text. People are comfortable reading and watching those plays as products of their times.
    Both the frequency of the Taming spinoffs and the desire to change the story makes me think that the original plot is actually considered less acceptable.

  31. http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/09/is-mcdonnells-thesis-his-macaca-moment.html
    wimminz lib is ruiningz everything versus macaca…which wrecks the electoral prospects?

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