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Misogyny and Understanding in The Taming of the Shrew

Out of all of the Shakespeare shows I’ve assisted with at Stageworks, THIS particular show seems to be stirring up the most drama amongst the students. Why is that? Well, it seems to be the "relationship" between Petruchio and Katherine is a large sore point for many of our players. Not familiar with The Taming of the Shrew? Let’s break it down…

This play was written sometime around 1590. It’s a Shakespearian comedy—full of farce, switched identities, and misogyny. Wait, what? Yes, you read it right: misogyny. However, this theme is NOT a "Shakespeare specialty"—we see this same theme popularly presented in folklore and medieval literature—covered in stories and poetry the world over; most notably, in The Canterbury Tales (which the majority of students read their junior or senior year). Would that theme fly today? Oh, heck no! Did it fly in the 1500s? Yes, yes it did. Society was different. What women and men expected and presented of themselves was different.

You see, the 1500’s were not exactly (not even close) to a 'liberating' time for women. In fact, in the 1500s, women could not work, only learned basic knowledge, married around 12 years old, were expected to bring a dowry to a marriage, were the caretakers and the child raisers (often shown in drawings with a distaff—which you guys would recognize as a spinning wheel), and although an imperative part of society, were the lesser sex. But, no matter how you look at it, it does seem incongruous that Shakespeare would pen a comedy about misogyny. So, what was Shakespeare up to those some odd 400 years ago? He was doing what he did best: “shaking it up.”

Several scholars believe that Shakespeare was, with the thematic gesture of “Taming,” investigating what happens to relationships and society when masculinity is much too dominant (which, again, was the ‘norm’ for his time). Studies have shown that that type of relationship can lead to greed and oppression—with love shown only as a form of obedience (see Stockholm Syndrome). Katherine, as our main female character, tries to re-adjust the balance. But could that be? Because during the run of the show, she is crushed…brought into line…weakened. And in doing so, Petruchio destroys her fiery and independent spirit, which is the very thing he loved about her. So was Shakespeare writing a commentary on masculine dominance and the damage it brings?

Let us recall that the same Shakespeare that wrote this “misogynistic” trope, is the same one that created the witty and capable Rosalind in As You Like It, and the powerful and controlling Lady Macbeth. Fierce, intelligent, and independent women are a staple in many of Shakespeare’s plays—so is it fair to think that held the opinion that all women need to be subservient weaklings? Let’s step back for a moment and remember that The Taming of the Shrew is, indeed, a play-within-a-play. Therefore, called out as fiction from the get-go as a drunken Christopher Sly, believing he’s a lord, sits in disbelief as he watches the hired players upon the stage. It’s a play-within-a-play, roles-within-roles, and nothing is as it seems. It’s also the taking on of delicate social issues, because in the late 1500s, the litigious cases where women decided to speak out exploded. This was a hot topic of the Elizabethan society in which Shakespeare was living. We see Kate as a ‘shrew,’ which is a ‘difficult’ woman. She is headstrong, stubborn, and knows what she wants. She refuses to simply accept a suitor and stands up for herself fiercely. So, is this his way of leaving a commentary on that society? Stating that women are capable, powerful, and intelligent? Could be.

And that, my friends, is the joy of Shakespeare. This class is not the first to question the meanings and text of the show, and they won't be the last. There are HUNDREDS of research papers about it. People spend tens-of-thousands of dollars and years studying Shakespeare in depth; composing deep, annotated research; and speaking to experts the world over--and still have questions (and some of them end up co-directing Shakespeare at Stageworks). Shakespeare is meant to be questioned, to be ruminated over, to spark conversation—and our kids do it well!

Our troupe of young adult actors has chosen to set this play in the 1990s. Although they are setting it in a more modern time, FEMALE SUBMISSIVENESS AND GENDER POLITICS ARE STILL TWO OF THE MAIN THEMES OF THE PLAY. You can take the setting out of Shakespeare but can’t take out the themes…or something like that. With that being said, the directors have run into some heavy discussion topics during the rehearsal process, and for that, we’re thankful. We encourage our students to delve into the true meaning, the writing, and the character analysis of each show we do—but especially with Shakespeare.

We invite you to come see our show and to develop your own ideology of what Shakespeare created. Is Petruchio a misogynistic pig? Is Kate really giving up and bending to his will? Does Kate have a surreptitious plan? Are Kate and Petruchio in this together?

It’s all up to your interpretation.

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