Classic Remarks: Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Should we continue to stage it?

Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Should we continue to stage it?

Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Once again, I am at a disadvantage. I have not read the play in Shakespeare’s own words, and am mostly familiar with it in summary, by reputation, and by…the 1953 MGM film Kiss Me Kate, which I gather is a fairly loose adaptation. I have skimmed the Sparknotes document on The Taming of the Shrew, but admit that this is hardly a firm foundation from which to pass substantive judgment. So please forgive me if I seem over-cautious in my answer. If I say something which seems contradicted by the text, forgive me my error and kindly correct me in the comments!

Honestly, I’m not the biggest fan of the story. Katherine and Petruchio both seem unlikable and unhealthy personalities. She acts rudely, angrily, and violently to most people without cause. Everyone else around them seems to think that Petruchio’s giving her a taste of her own medicine, and is right to force her into submission.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Petruchio seems to come out worse than Katherine. He decides to marry her solely because of her money, and decides to “tame” her through public embarrassment, verbal (and again, public) reminders of his legal power over her, lies designed to give him even more power over her, and even denial of her food and sleep for several days. While her actions mark her as antisocial and rude, none of them seem to warrant the abuse she receives. At every turn he asserts his social superiority as a man to make her dependent on him.

And yet, she lets him get away with it. This woman who is shown to mince no words, to be afraid of no one, and who fights him so stubbornly in the play’s early stages, curiously gives in at key points when she could perhaps have stopped him. Why? Is it because she, having made herself lonely and depressed through her antisocial behavior, is secretly relieved that someone is insisting on paying her so much attention? That even pain and embarrassment are preferable to her than loneliness? Perhaps so.

Why does he do it? I have a harder time parsing Petruchio’s inner motivations. He wants her money, we are told. I think he also wants the local fame of having “tamed” the untamable, shrewish woman that everyone else has written off. Perhaps, being a poor drifter, he wants to finally assert control over someone rather than being at the mercy of life’s whims. Perhaps someone more intimately familiar with the text of the play can enlighten me as to his motivations and value system?

Courtesy of IMDb. From the 1967 film “The Taming of the Shrew” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
The story is a comedy, which means that beneath their squabbling Petruchio and Katherine are supposed to love each other and have the hope of a happy future together. Even taking that as granted, though, I’m still uncomfortable with their relationship. It does appear, outwardly, to condone some abusive behavior in husbands, and plays it for laughs.

So is The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic? Or rather, let us first ask, is Shakespeare misogynistic? For this latter question, I would venture to say no, I don’t think he is. His other plays present women as the inherent equals of men. Not the same as men, but equal in value, and their strength is often lauded. I think of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who match sharp tongues and acidic wit to mask their heart’s longings, and end up a well-matched, healthy couple. Or Lady Macbeth, who while evil, is stronger in her resolve than her husband.

Benedick and Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993). Photo from IMDb.
Misogyny is the hatred of women, or the belittling of them as being inherently lesser than men by nature of their sex. Cultural beliefs which assign different roles to women, even roles that place them beneath men’s authority, but do not treat them as inherently inferior, are not necessarily misogynistic. Looking at Shakespeare’s entire ouevre, to the extent that I am familiar with it, I would place him as a believer in the latter camp, and not a misogynist.

But what of the the play itself? Here it is difficult for me. Because I don’t believe Shakespeare to be a true misogynist, I am reluctant to call his play misogynistic. Also, because I haven’t read the original. And yet I dislike the story because it seems to denigrate women, and not just women but marriage in general.

Some scholars read the play as ironic. After all, the story of Katherine and Petruchio is technically a fiction being told to another character in a “frame story” of which we only get the beginning. Perhaps Shakespeare isn’t saying that husbands should act like Petruchio, but is merely observing that some do, and is doing his job as a dramatist of human nature by making a comedy out of the behaviors that exist, whether or not Shakespeare himself likes those behaviors.

Honestly, that sort of final judgment on the play is something I cannot do without examining the text in some depth. And even then, a simple judgment may not come easy. So forgive me for not being able to say “Yes, The Taming of the Shrew hates and denigrates women” or “No, it certainly does not.”

From IMDb.
But supposing it is misogynistic…should we stage it uncensored today?

Yes, although I understand if theaters want to provide helpful commentary in the playbill to help audiences engage with it. To only play censored versions of an artistic work is to distort our view of the original and its author. Staging a play like The Taming of the Shrew takes some tact and care. And I also grant that there are works which may be so wholly offensive that they really should not be staged at all. But I take for granted that there is enough redeeming value in Shakespeare’s play that makes it worth staging, and we shouldn’t lose that just because it contains material many people are uncomfortable with. If we start banning plays on that sort of ground, we shouldn’t be able to stop until our theaters all become empty shells.

Next up:

Recommend a diverse classic. Or you can argue that a diverse book should be a classic or should be included in the canon. Or you can argue that the book should be a classic, but that you don’t want to see it in the canon.

1 Comment

  1. Krysta says:

    I’m not sure that Petruchio’s motivations are fully examined. I think he just 1) wants the money and 2) doesn’t want to be mocked for having a shrewish wife. There might be something there about his wanting the distinction of being the only man who could tame Kate, too. The other characters don’t really question his actions, though, other than trying to warn Petruchio away and feeling glad that he’s willing to suffer in order to free up Bianca!

    I think that contextualizing the performance in the playbill is a great way to get audiences thinking about some of the issues the play raises. I think it’s also helpful for audiences to be aware that the theatre is also aware that the play has raised questions, and they’re not trying to play Petruchio’s actions as pure comedy (I would hope) but rather considering the implications of the play as a work of art and in light of Shakespeare’s other writings.

    It can be difficult to reconcile Kate with Shakespeare’s other strong women. I’m still not sure why she exists or what Shakespeare was trying to do with her. Though it’s been suggested that Shakespeare doesn’t mean audiences to take this play seriously, there seems to be little to me to indicate that it’s not supposed to be serious. Half a framing device isn’t quite enough to suggest, to me, that what we’re seeing is someone else’s vision of marriage and not Shakespeare’s. But then he gives us Beatrice and Benedick who are a much more equal match!

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