Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Should we continue to stage it?
William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew features the story of of Petruchio and Katherina, the titular shrew. Petruchio arrives in Verona hoping to marry a rich woman and his friends suggest he woo Kate, known for her ill humor and sharp tongue. They are perfectly willing to sacrifice Petruchio because many men love Kate’s sister Bianca–but Bianca’s father has decreed no one shall have her until he can get Kate off his hands. Petruchio, however, has no fear–he believes he can break Kate to his will.
So follows a tale that sees Petruchio wed Kate, then make her life miserable. He begins by arriving to his own wedding late, dressed in strange clothes. He then refuses to stay to the wedding feast. Once he lives with Kate, he tries to give her a taste of her own medicine by yelling as much as she. He also ensures that she has no meat and that she is unable to sleep. All this culminates in a bet where the men in the play wager their wife is the most obedient. Petruchio wins. He has “tamed” his wife to do whatever he wants and to say whatever he wants.
This sort of plot has not aged well. Though some might suggest that Petruchio’s behavior is only mirroring Kate’s, showing her how others feel when she yells at them all the time, these arguments gloss over Kate’s hunger and sleep deprivation, caused by the orders of her husband. And though audiences still enjoy bodily humor, like seeing Tom and Jerry hit each other in the old cartoon, it’s hard to play what looks like domestic abuse for laughs. Is it really funny that Kate hasn’t eaten or slept? Maybe Tom and Jerry never really seem to get hurt by their antics, but Kate is clearly is suffering, begging the servants for food and complaining beggars at the door receive better treatment than she.
In the attempt to soften the plot, some productions play Petruchio and Kate as always secretly in love from the start; Kate is protesting the marriage merely for show. But if you leave in the scenes where Kate is starved for meat and tired of constant brawling, you still have the problem of domestic abuse. Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is not less problematic just because the audience believes the two sincerely in love.
I’d be hesitant to label the play as “misogynistic” simply because Shakespeare’s time would not have had the same problems with it as modern audiences. All the same, when I think about it, I wonder how I would stage such a production and make viewers believe it really has a happy ending with a loving marriage and not a defeated woman. You could stage the bet as being sort of pre-arranged by Petruchio and Kate; Kate obeys her husband because she wants him to win, not because she is broken and terrified of what he’ll do to her if she refuses. And yet…what to do with the hunger and sleep scenes? I’d be tempted to cut them entirely, leaving only Petruchio’s ridiculous behavior and his imitations of Kate’s complaints.
For me, it’s difficult to erase the hunger and sleep deprivation scenes, no matter how hard you try to soften the other aspects of the play. To get me rooting for Petruchio and Kate’s marriage, a modern adaptation could not stage the play exactly as written; it’s not enough to say, “Hey, Petruchio’s a good guy now that his wife is docile. She won’t have to worry about abuse again so long as she behaves herself.” I need to know that Petruchio is not capable of outright cruelty, and that Kate will be safe in their marriage.
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