The Taming of the Shrew: a feminist portrayal of domestic abuse?

// 3 February 2013

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Saranga reviews Propeller’s new production of The Taming of the Shrew. Saranga is a 32 year old bisexual feminist reading many many comics. She runs New readers…start here! reviewing comics for people new to comics and also Pai where she talks about comics, feminism, BSL, comics, feminism and yet more comics. Her favourite hero is Supergirl. Also on twitter as @sarangacomics.

Shakespeare.jpgI will start by saying I am not a theatre critic. I don’t go that often and my choice of performances is dictated by whether there is a BSL interpreter there (I’m not Deaf but I am learning BSL and I have to justify the cost of tickets somehow). The only Shakespeare play I really care for (and know) is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is interesting to me mostly because of the fairy tale aspects.

Before going, I didn’t know much about the play, other than it featured a wilful woman who no one liked and a man who persuaded her to be pleasant. I was intrigued by it and a little sceptical. After all, it sounds like a feminist nightmare, doesn’t it? I thought that the man would be portrayed as the hero and the woman as the villain. I thought it would be a cautionary tale to all women. Repent, play nicely or you’ll never be content!

How wrong I was.

The play was a bizarre mix of comedy and tragedy. There were two main plot lines:

– Lucentio wants to wed Bianca and pretends to be someone else in order to get close to her. This is the comedy bit, all played for laughs.

– Petrucio decides to wed Katherine (the shrew of the title) and tame her. This is the tragedy bit. Petrucio forces Katherine into marriage – she doesn’t get any say, but her father willingly weds her off. Petrucio treats her like a challenge, a thing to achieve. She is never attracted to him. Once married, he plays mind games with her – saying the sun is the moon and correcting and beating her when she states it is the sun. When she capitulates and calls it the moon he calls her daft and states no, it is the sun, how can she not know the difference between the two?

They are travelling and meet some people on the road. Petrucio declares the man a woman and Katherine agrees, even stating to the others that the man is a woman. Petrucio then calls her daft again and says how can she not recognise him as a man.

It’s classic abusive behaviour, destroying her confidence, making her reliant on him, causing her to fear him and doubt herself. It was quite upsetting to watch.

As the play progresses their moral degradation is reflected in their clothes, which get filthier and filthier. The violence starts on their wedding night (not rape, but throwing Katherine around and smacking her) and continues. Petrucio is an utter utter bastard. He planned how to break her from the start, you could see it in his eyes, in his body language. He tests her and tests her and tests her, then he moves in and starts to destroy her.

One of the worst parts though was at the end when Petrucio and Katherine rejoin the rest of the characters. They have known Katherine for years, and have always known her as mouthy, confident and bending to no person’s will. The three husbands (Petrucio, Lucentio and another fella) have a competition to see whose wife is most obedient, and of course Katherine is. They cannot believe it. They congratulate Petrucio. They haven’t seen the horrors he has put her through, they are blind to the physical evidence of his filth, they just see a polite, agreeable woman, who is helping her husband. I guess they thought he persuaded her to be nicer with kind words and good food. I have no idea.

We do see the horror, and it is made even worse when in stark contrast to Lucentio and Bianca’s lusty, happy marriage. To me, this was quite clearly a feminist play. Petrucio is a monster and Katherine is the victim.

I wonder how other productions deal with this. I am sure people have told me this is an unfeminist play, portraying women as nasty little harpies that deserve to be taught a lesson. From the words I heard on stage it seemed like it was actually a study in abusive behaviour but I think that different directors and costumers and actors could develop it in an entirely different manner. Perhaps with more humour and more friendliness. I’m not sure how – I’m not a theatre buff, but I’d love to hear other people’s experiences of it.

The image shows a painting of Shakespeare, shared by Book 18 under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Saranga // Posted 3 February 2013 at 8:22 pm

I just wanted to add something else that I didn’t put in the review, and that someone on Twitter asked me about – Propellor’s policy of using an all male cast.

I left it out of the review for 3 reasons:

1) I was really close to the word limit

2) I don’t know enough about theatre to have an informed opinion

3) I think that the all male cast is a subject for another blog post because I bet you could write loads on it.

Hope this is ok as a comment.

Clodia // Posted 4 February 2013 at 6:09 pm

Do you know, I have ALWAYS thought this about this play; iIlove Shakespeare, and have a degree in English, but I have always hated The Taming of the Shrew and just can’t understand why he wrote it or whether he was even serious. And so many (male) tutors have rubbished my views when I was a student that I eventually thought they must be wrong and there was some abstruse aspect of the play I somehow didn’t get!

Thank you for affirming so well what i have always thought of this dreadful play about abuse!

Orlando // Posted 6 February 2013 at 11:17 pm

If you’ll forgive a moment of shameless self-promotion, the issues you raise about this play are really complex, and I discuss them in a lot of detail in the ‘Katherine’ section of my book. I also talk about Propeller’s all-male casting, but not in relation to this play, but rather in the ‘Margaret’, ‘Adriana’ and ‘Paulina’ sections.

Saranga // Posted 22 February 2013 at 7:59 am

Self promotion is fine by me!

Ellen // Posted 26 February 2013 at 6:53 pm

I love Shakespeare, Propeller and The Taming of the Shrew, although I have not seen Propeller’s production of this play. However, I have no problem with them being an all-male theatre company because they are very, very talented actors and I find their handling of female characters sensitive and appropriate. Besides, I want my own all-female Shakespeare group one day to see how that affects the reading of the plays :P

I directed The Taming of the Shrew at school and did it in, what I believe to be, a feminist way. I was at an all-girls’ school, with strong emphasis on the importance of women in society and our ability to achieve whatever we wanted, and counted myself a feminist long before I directed the play. We chose to play it ironically, using some textual hints to imply that the whole thing was agreed between Petruchio and Katharina and really only makes the men look silly. There is evidence of this, if you take Katharina’s speech about how women should bow to the demands of their husbands as ironic. This, when added to the refusal of Bianca and the widow to come when they are called, shows the expectations of the other men in the play to be ridiculous and places the power with women. Equally, the only violence specified in the script is Katherina hitting Bianca, Katherina hitting Petruchio and Petruchio hitting a servant boy. I know this might sound like rubbish written down, but it is possible onstage.

It also must be remembered that, whilst Shakespeare cannot really be called a feminist (to paraphrase a lecturer of mine!), as he lived too early on, he has been called a proto-feminist by several critics. He lived primarily under a strong female queen and there is evidence of strong female characters within his plays. Equally, his comedies are often used to highlight issues within society which are less-than ideal, marriage particularly, and the fact that the story of The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play suggests that there was a serious message for the audience. Plays such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Much Ado About Nothing present traditional marriage in an unfavourable light, showing the choice that Beatrice has to marry Benedick over the idea of the overly romanticised, chosen-by-father kind of love between Hero and Claudio. Like Beatrice and Benedick, Petruchio and Kate have their banter which marks them out as equals.

Basically, (sorry for the long rant, English student!) you can either read it as entirely ironic, or as a chance for Shakespeare to present this kind of abuse as entirely unacceptable and therefore try and change their minds. Having an entirely un-feminist play doesn’t really fit with the other plays of Shakespeare’s I have read as he tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of women, war and other difficult topics.

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