Since its debut on the Elizabethan stage, William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” has incited controversy on all sides. A rowdy comedy replete with vim and vigor, the play has captured the hearts of theatergoers across time and space. Nonetheless, at face value, it has established itself as a hotbed for literary controversy. Despite the lighthearted comic subplot, the bare-bones plot of “Shrew” is, from the perspective of even the most fair-weather feminists, barbaric.
For those of you who’ve yet to treat yourself to the cinematic delicacy that is Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1967 adaptation of the play, or have somehow lived through the early 2000s without watching Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in the modern-day take on “Shrew,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” I’m sorry. Watch both films immediately. But if you insist on depriving yourself, I’ll provide a brief contextual summary.
The original play begins with a brief induction: a dramatic framing device designed to construct a play-within-a-play narrative structure. A sly nobleman convinces a drunkard that he is a nobleman himself, then proceeds to put on a show for his diversion. The play depicts the respective courtships of the two daughters of Batista, a wealthy Paduan lord. His youngest daughter, Bianca, is exceptionally beautiful and well-mannered and has attracted multiple suitors. However, Batista contends that none of them are permitted to marry her until his fiery-tongued eldest daughter, Katherine, finds a husband. Bianca’s suitors enlist the help of an equally spirited man named Petruchio to woo and consequently “tame” Kate in order to free up her sister for courtship.
The ensuing power struggle between antagonistic Kate and stubborn Petruchio is a saucy altercation whose syntactic craftsmanship set the precedent for rom-com construction for centuries to come. The prose is as vulgar as it is vivacious, striking the perfect balance between comedic tension and relief. It’s the content, however, that has sparked an ongoing debate on authorial intent and the limits of social satire.
When examining “Shrew” through a feminist lens, the picture isn’t pretty. The placement of Katherine as undesirable due to her outspoken nature and hot temper, especially when juxtaposed with her sister’s much sought-after submissiveness, leaves scholars and spectators uneasy, if not downright repulsed. Furthermore, Petruchio’s method of “taming” Katherine through emotional manipulation, verbal conflict and even starvation is often interpreted as abuse.
The male characters in “Shrew” see women as commodities and treat them accordingly.
It’s a harsh reality to reckon with, and the common refrain is that “the play was a product of Shakespeare’s time and biases.” It’s a reasonable assumption, a safe assumption. An assumption, in fact, that could be applied to any piece of literature on the planet. It’s extraordinarily reductive, and the Bard’s work is anything but.
The crux of “Shrew,” from its underlying themes to its very construction, is the idea of performativity. Take the induction, for instance. It’s a common dramatic device; Shakespeare utilizes the “play within a play” trope within many of his works, most notably “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It predates the work of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who coined and perfected the term “theatre of alienation.” The underlying intent is to make the observer intently aware that the events presented on the stage are not to be conflated with their own experiences. Put succinctly: This Is Not Realism.
“Shrew”, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, plays on the concept of disguise in the pursuit of love. Bianca’s suitors put on elaborate disguises in order to court her without her father’s knowledge. Likewise, Petruchio taunts Kate by presenting her with a new cap and gown to replace her ruined wedding dress only to have them sent away at the last moment. “Shrew” is continually concerned with the idea of switching roles and changing oneself to appeal to others.
Perhaps the most poignant and disturbing transformation of the play is that of Kate in its final act. After days of battling it out with her new husband Petruchio, she finally succumbs to his will, transforming into a well-mannered bride: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,” she says in her final speech. It’s a far cry from the spirited outspoken woman we see at the play’s beginning.
To Kate’s fans, of which there are many, it’s a heartbreaking volta. Her final costume change is marked by adherence to the cult of the domestic, the cult of submission. An unprecedented ingenue, crushed by the whims of the patriarchy. We ask ourselves, how could Shakespeare betray us so?
The creator of Lady Macbeth, Portia, Rosalind and Beatrice would do nothing of the sort. The central thesis of “The Taming of the Shrew” can be derived from its most integral device: disguise. “Shrew” is veiled feminism. It places gender roles in front of funhouse mirrors to expose their underlying absurdity.
We laugh, and often we know not why. If “Shrew” is truly a manifesto of misogynistic bullshit, why has it stood the test of time? Granted, public reception of the play has undoubtedly evolved throughout history. Spousal abuse is no grounds for comedy in a modern context, but in an Elizabethan context, all bets were off. In that way, “Shrew” is a product of its time.
We can and may quibble over authorial intent, but it’s a fruitless discourse. If we choose to view the play as a living evolving entity, one whose implications grow with every passing performance, “The Taming of the Shrew” gives its audience enormous power. It’s the power to view gender roles critically, to reject patriarchally dictated measures of worth. It’s the power to ensure that the plays we watch remain nothing more than plays. It’s the power to differentiate between man and mask.
Daily Arts writer Darby Williams can be reached at email@example.com.