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What Can You Do with The Taming of the Shrew?

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the once strong-willed, now tamed Katherina Minola gives a speech to the assembled, unruly wives:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper

Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee

And for thy maintenance […]

And craves no other tribute at thy hands

But love, fair looks, and true obedience. 

It is a cringe-worthy speech for anyone who calls themself a feminist (which should, of course, now be all of us)—and it only becomes more shocking: “Come, come, you froward and unable worms!” Katherina calls to the wives, “And place your hands below your husband’s foot.” 

Even knowing that this speech was coming, I was not alone in my section at Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Shrew this summer to gasp when Cush Jumbo’s Katherina laid herself flat on her stomach, holding out her hand for her husband Petruchio to step upon. I wanted to scream, and held my breath as Jumbo rose to her feet, in her neat, black and white dress, and mechanically beauty-pageant waved to the audience. 

Photo: Joan Marcus.

Then, suddenly, Jumbo ripped off her crinoline and broke from the script: “What the fuck am I doing? This isn’t me! Get me out of here!” The whole cast then threw off their costumes—many to reveal sports bras beneath their bow-ties and suit jackets, as this was an all-female cast Shrew—and danced rebelliously to Joan Jett: “I don’t give a damn about my reputation!” It felt like a weight had been lifted. We all stood up and cheered, and left feeling buoyant.

“But in the real play, it ends with that speech?” My friend asked as we walked off into the darkness of Central Park. Yes, I said. “So, was Shakespeare sexist?” Oh, what a difficult, perhaps unanswerable question. What was Shakespeare trying to say? Was he really instructing audiences on how to maintain the patriarchy within their homes? In her New York Times review of Lloyd’s production this June, Laura Collins-Hughes suggested that Shrew as a play “may be untamable”—that there may not be a way to subvert the inherent sexism of the text.

But what Ms. Collins-Hughes called an effort to “tame” the play’s sexism seemed to me, in fact, an effort to bring out the more subversive elements of the text itself. The weight that lifted when Cush Jumbo broke free of the text she had been given—the burden of playing a prescribed role—is a burden that the play acknowledges, if quietly.

The plot of Shrew—in which a strong woman is “tamed” like a wild animal, while other characters plot to marry her younger sister—was not Shakespeare’s own creation. Like many of his plays, it is based on an older text, George Gascoigne’s Supposes (1566), to which Shakespeare added a frame narrative: several noblemen find a poor drunk named Sly passed out on the street, dress him up in a lord’s clothes, slip him into a lord’s bed, and manage to convince him, when he wakes, that he is a lord, deserving a lord’s entertainment—which is the play itself. Before the story of Katherina and Petruchio begins, the noblemen have a good laugh watching Sly try to play the part of a lord. Sly blunders in his attempt to properly address his new “wife” (a page dressed as a woman for the purpose of the joke); he asks for ale when real noblemen drink wine.

The critic Jean E. Howard has written that the Sly frame introduces the theme that some people (in this case, the noblemen) get to choose what “parts” they play—they can fool around, they can dress up as women and servants to serve their own purposes. But society does not allow others to choose. As a poor, uneducated man, Sly could never “pass” as lord. Similarly, Katherina’s husband-to-be, Petruchio, can show up extremely late and in tatters to his own wedding and be admired for his audacity, while Katherina is scorned for being “froward” or willful. “Unless she is willing to endure severe privation and penalties,” Howard writes, a woman can only play one role: that of “docility and subservience to her husband.” But for Kate, taking on this prescribed role comes at a poignantly high cost.

In an earlier scene, Petruchio is starving Kate of food and contradicting her every word and desire. Kate protests passionately and clearly that she will speak her mind, and speak it freely:

…I am no child, no babe.

Your betters have endured me say my mind,

And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,

Or else my heart concealing it will break,

And rather than it shall I will be free

Even to the uttermost as I please in words.

By the play’s end, Kate has been forced to give up speaking her mind. Petruchio prevents their journey home until she relents and, as he wishes, calls the sun the moon, calls a passing gentleman a “fair lovely maid,” agrees, “What you will have it named, even that it is, / And so it shall be still for Katherine.” She has fought and lost. If we are to look back at her earlier speech, we understand that by her final monologue, Kate’s heart has been broken. We cannot win, she tells the wives in her final speech: “our lances are but straws.”

My own favorite version of this speech, in a Shrew directed by Joe Murphy and performed in England in 2013 by the Globe Theatre, had Kate still wearing her muddied wedding dress. She tried to act proud of the words coming out of her mouth, but when she came to, “I am ashamed that women are so simple,” she began to cry.

That wasn’t the tone Lloyd’s production was going for. Janet McTeer, who played the boisterous and exceedingly manly Petruchio, said in an interview that they didn’t want a Shrew of “just, ‘oh, poor Kate,’” a Shrew that, admittedly, becomes “unfunny […] and rendered so ironic at the end that you’ve lost all the fun.” This show took on the taming of Kate with relish and slapstick humor, rather than solemnity. 

It began with a frame story all its own, opening with Katherina’s sister Bianca singing in a pink dress and cowgirl hat on a carnival podium, while a pigtailed Katherina circled around her on a miniature bicycle. This would be a Shrew that poked fun at visions of femininity and masculinity—the way they both can confine us—from the get-go. A voice on a loudspeaker, a distinctly Trump-like voice, announced that the girls were competing in a beauty pageant for “Miss Padua.”

After Katherina gave her speech at the play’s end, the loudspeaker proudly named her “Miss Padua”—but then, when Katherina broke out of character and threw off her costume, the characters rushed to take away her crown to give it to her sister. (Katherina would have been a Miss Universe who caused “a real problem,” for Trump and his compatriots, we can be sure.)

Throughout the show, male characters unzipped their flies to pee on posts, and women screamed and kicked and ran around when they didn’t get their way. The male stereotypes, played by female actors, were unquestionably funny, but the shrieking women bothered me at the time. Katherina is written as a highly intelligent character, and this somewhat ridiculous portrayal seemed to be missing an opportunity in what was purportedly a feminist production.

But I’ve been re-thinking my criticism. After the first presidential debate, the most-watched televised debate in the history, political consultant Frank Luntz tweeted a text he’d received from a friend and GOP congressman: “[Hillary] just comes across as my bitchy wife/mother.” It’s appalling, in 2016, but “bitchy” is a category that women are often still slotted into for being confident or assertive or smart, or whatever else might threaten the powers that be. In Shakespeare’s day, women who acted like this were called shrews and scolds, and there were a number of punishments to put them back in their place, from the “scold’s bridle” to the “cucking stool” physical limits that defined women’s lives.

The lives of Lloyd’s female characters were circumscribed by our public impressions of “annoying women,” by “hysterical” female characters in movies and TV sitcoms, by men who see a powerful, intelligent woman and think of their “bitchy wife/mother.” Lloyd’s women became annoying, hysterical, bitchy because we often see women that way—as if public opinion can itself mold an identity, a way of being—which of course it can.

RuPaul likes to say that we’re “born naked and the rest is drag,” that all our lives are a performance, though most of us don’t see it. We allow ourselves to play roles that others have written for us—and only when we realize that, when we “look behind the curtain” and see the strings being pulled, are we free. “Then you can have fun,” RuPaul says; then you can choose to play any part you like.

In Shakespeare’s day, perhaps, there was no way out for Katherina. And today too, women often cannot escape being seen as shrews or bitches, when they’re plucky enough to speak their mind. But today, at least, there are parts for women to play other than the obedient wife—one might even, in fact, be both a “bitchy wife/mother” and president. In these 400-odd years, our society has at least progressed that much. And so, to our great delight, Phyllida Lloyd let Katherina Minola look behind the curtain—and choose a different role for herself. It was about time.

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