Friday Hoyden: Katarina, aka The Shrew

Orlando has just returned to Sydney after a time living in the UK, and this article is the response promised to this earlier Friday Hoyden.

What Can a Feminist do with a Shrew?

Shrew: ‘a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; a scolding or turbulent wife’. [Oxford English Dictionary]

Check out the semiotics on that!The Taming of the Shrew: an early comedy by William Shakespeare.

The Problem: why do we still like it, and can we, in all good conscience, allow ourselves to continue to do so?

For those not familiar with the story: Katherine is so shrewish that no man will marry her, until Petruchio decides that her valuable dowry makes her attractive enough, marries, and sets about to ‘tame’ her. He does this by denying her food, clothing, sleep and the means to wash herself (though never actually hitting her), demanding that she agree with everything he says, no matter how patently wrong, until in the final scene she gives a long speech to the assembled company of husbands and wives proclaiming the inferiority of women and the appropriateness of their subservience to their husbands, and offering to place her hand below her husband’s foot. Yes, seriously.

The paradox of The Taming of the Shrew has seemed to be that if we are meant to take Katherine’s experiences as funny and the final scene as moving and romantic, then the play is offensive, but if it isn’t meant to be funny and romantic then it obviously isn’t a romantic comedy. If it’s not a romantic comedy, why would we sit down to watch three hours of brutality presented as farce?

So, why can’t we let it go, if its politics are so loathsome? It’s not because it’s Shakespeare, almost everybody has managed to live without ever seeing Timon of Athens and not felt the lack. Many would suspect that it is because of the delight our society takes in seeing a woman humiliated. But lefty, anti-establishment types like us have something better to cling to: the trick lying in all Shakespeare’s plays whereby they lend themselves equally convincingly to interpretations that support the status quo and those that subvert it.

To illustrate: Germaine Greer, famously, included a reading of the play in The Female Eunuch in which she sees it as exposing the fact that society requires women to develop manipulative skills to survive. She sees Katherine as instinctively above such behaviour, and Petruchio as appreciating that. (Ironically, and duplicitously, the Australian playwright David Williamson later appropriated parts of Greer’s reading and presented it in his anti-feminist play Dead White Males as a challenge to conventional feminist ideology.) Those of us like Greer, who simply have an irredeemable soft spot for Shakespeare, can’t get past the fact that there’s too much good stuff in Shrew for us to let ourselves believe it’s as bad as it seems. You see, there are two really good scenes between Katherine and Petruchio; one when they first meet (which is chock full of the witty, sexy banter we adore when Beatrice and Benedick do it in Much Ado About Nothing), and one on the road from Verona to Padua (when Katherine agrees to call the sun the moon if Petruchio says it is, but says it in such a clever way that it still feels as if she has won the encounter). These scenes make us feel that if we take the play as sexist, we must have missed something. And the search for what it is we must be missing has absorbed people ever since. Unfortunately, this has prompted a few people, especially the poor actresses who have played the part of Katherine and wanted to believe in it, to tie themselves in knots trying to justify it.

A common argument is that Petruchio is inviting Katherine to join him in a game, and that once she realises this, and learns to play too, all is joyous. However, no one is harmed by calling the sun the moon, as no one for a minute really believes that it is. This is a fundamentally different thing from saying that a woman should place her hand below her husband’s foot in a room full of people who are eager to accept that as the truth. Sinead Cusak, who played the role in the 1980s, is one who is convinced that Katherine is freed rather than broken by what she goes through:

‘She can say anything now and she’s still Kate… This so-called submission speech isn’t a submission speech at all: it’s a speech about how her spirit has been allowed to soar free.’

It is easy to see how the desire for this to be true might be overwhelming for an actor, especially in the context of pressure from a director who sees the play as a romantic comedy. She goes on to say:

‘She is not attached to him. He hasn’t laid down the rules for her, she has made her own rules, and what he’s managed to do is allow her to have her own vision.’

Given the nature of the preceding scene these seem extraordinary statements. The man who said ‘I will not go today, and ere I do, / It shall be what o’clock I say it is’ (IV.1.187-188) and ‘It shall be moon or star, or what I list’ (IV.3.7) has not been laying down rules? And ‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband’ (V.1.167-168) doesn’t indicate submission? Are RSC actresses sent on a course in doublethink before being employed by the company? The very clever Stevie Davies puts her finger on why such a rationale is not good enough:

”Whereas before she became Petruchio’s tongue (whether in-cheek or not), Kate was sullen, dissatisfied, unamenable and unpopular, afterwards she is represented as radiant, powerful in utterance, a public success. Why then should we regret for Kate that she has lost the little matter of her own tongue…? Precisely for that reason: that it was hers.”

The play’s apologists tend to assume that the audience will find Petruchio attractive in the last scenes of the play, that he has ceased to be a bully, showing either that he was ‘curst for policy’ only while it was necessary, or that he, too, has been reformed by the proceedings. But Petruchio’s last action, bar his exit, is to make sure he publicly humiliates (in the most literal sense, requiring her to make explicit the extremes of her humility) his wife. This may be the act of a man who considers her better than the other women, but not one who considers her too good to abase herself in front of the other men. The trouble with trying to convince ourselves that the last scene actually shows Kate and Petruchio in an alliance against the others is that the image they present of themselves challenges only what the others thought of them as individuals, but does not challenge at all their idea of what a relationship should look like, so they clearly have not risen above the society from which they come, or got beyond concerning themselves with what people think of them.

So, if these perspectives fail to satisfy, is there any way that we can look at this play that saves it from being grossly offensive? Of course, you can play the whole thing as a monstrous tragedy, but (apart from making for a very grim night in the theatre) you then risk sending the message that the inevitable fate of an independent-minded woman is to be broken. I think there is a key hidden in the special features of a work written as a play to be seen, not a book to be read. When someone writes a script for performance, it is designed to generate non-linguistic material, too. What Katherine’s final speech presents us with is a complete and staggering contradiction between the form of the speech and its content, between the dominance of the voice and figure on the stage and the submission they are describing. Thus, while the content of the speech suggests that it could only be supporting the status quo, its shape and context have always unsettled such an easy assumption. An audience in a theatre is getting only a minimal proportion of its messages from the direct meaning of the words spoken; it will always be absorbing information from the positioning of bodies on stage, the sound, the responses of the performers to one another, and many other elements. Katherine is speaking the longest speech in the play, she is the centre of attention, she is speaking uninterrupted, classical rhetoric, and will almost certainly be either centre stage or roaming freely over the full space of the stage while everyone else is still. In short, as an audience we are being told that Katherine is the most dominant personality by everything except the words. Perhaps more crucial is something we can learn from looking at the whole of Shakespeare’s body of work. Shakespeare wrote no fewer than six other plays in which a man who is basically scum is forgiven by a woman who is much better than he deserves, for the sake of love and community stability. Sure, this still puts women in the role of the good redemptive force, which has been so annoying in a long string of stories stretching from the Odyssey to Knocked Up, but it does give us an answer to the many people who persist in claiming that Petruchio is a hero. He’s not, he’s just lucky. If Katherine wasn’t the real hero, Shakespeare would never have given her these lines, words that every hoyden has spoken in her soul at some time:

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 way, the real reason The Taming of the Shrew is so sexy is because it’s actually all about falconry, but I’ll have to tell you about that some other time.

Image Credit: A theatrical production’s logo, chosen by tigtog (source) due to its fascinating semiotics

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31 responses to “Friday Hoyden: Katarina, aka The Shrew”

  1. QoT

    I remember HAT had an article on an RSC production of Shrew with the awesomely awesome Michelle Gomez. Really good, thought-provoking posts!

    I and my two classmates had a lot of the same problems reading Chaucer this year. On the one hand we love him to bits, and his writing’s awesome, but then you get some pretty bad sexism/racism/anti-Semitism coming through and trying to balance a) the instinct to try and wheedle out of calling Chaucer sexist/racist/anti-Semitic, b) the historic context in which such things were totally normal attitudes, and c) the nagging sense that Chaucer was a brilliant enough man to see through some of society’s rubbish AND is also clearly tongue-in-cheek 90% of the time … it was *exhausting*.

  2. Beppie

    Great post, Orlando.

    It’s so unfortunate, that with so many texts, a feminist reading often changes a happy ending into a tragic one, but it is a useful exercise in demonstrating the way that texts shape our worldviews in such a way that the effacement of women’s subjectivies becomes the norm.

  3. Sophie

    I apologise for the vapidity of my response but it’s true: this is why I prefer “Ten things I hate about you” :)

    (oh god, that rhymed as well. Unintentionally, I promise!)

  4. su

    Wonderful, Orlando. Goodness I got a lump in my throat reading that quote again.

  5. SunlessNick

    I have heard a theory that Shakespeare intended the monstrous tragedy disguised as comedy reading – that the shame of Petruchio’s treatment of Kate should creep up on the men watching it. (The person in question, whose name escapes me unfortunately, had the same theory about Shylock’s fate). I don’t really buy it, sadly; I lean towards thinking it as bad as it looks.

  6. Arctic Firefox

    A few years ago, the BBC “retold” a number of Shakespeare’s plays in a modern setting. I never saw it, but “The Taming of the Shrew” was about a female politician. Did anyone see it, and did it offer a different perspective on the play?

  7. Quixotess

    I always want to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt, because he’s just that good, but also because there is clear evidence that he was ahead of his culture wrt anti-bigotry and seeing subjugated peoples as human. The speech Shylock gives in Merchant of Venice (“if you prick me, do I not bleed?”) did take place in the context of a play that was equally unclear as to whether it was anti-Semetic or not, but that speech represented a creative leap of empathy that simply wasn’t there in the works of his contemporaries.

    I always think of Romeo and Juliet, and how they’ve entered the cultural lexicon as shorthand for both “doomed lovers” and “two people absolutely, completely in love,” when of course reading the play you see that their crush was flimsy and likely would have come to nothing at all if it hadn’t been forbidden.

  8. orlando

    The BBC version was lovely and clever and funny, and was mostly rendered acceptable by making sure Katarina was not powerless, as she is in so much of the original. She ended by becoming Prime Minister.

    Yeah, Sophie, 10 Things I Hate About You is fab.

    Nick, it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare (and Chaucer, QoT) was happy to exploit the sexism/racism/anti-semitism of the dumber portion of his audience, who were getting exactly what they wanted in a play, while he and his clever chums could chortle at all the witty subversion planted in there that the others missed. There are lots of clues in Merchant of Venice that this is what is going on.

    Thanks for the venue, Tigtog!

  9. Bene

    A great post, Orlando. Personally, I’ve not read it or seen it (or Ten Things I Hate About You, for that matter), so I’m not equipped to comment–but it’s great analysis.

  10. Deus Ex Macintosh

    I’ve never found it particularly offensive myself. The ill-treatment is very irritating but the message that I’ve always taken away from the play is that while it is possible to force strong women to conform (either through abuse or social pressure) they will only be pretending and it wont actually change who they are as people. It’s a comedy so Shakespeare doesn’t go into the damage that using this force can actually cause. The strongly positioned woman making the totally OTT submissive speech at the end just signals to me that she is lying through her teeth and the humour is found in the shared understanding of this by the audience.

  11. ken

    What if we have actually got Shakespeare wrong on this one. What if a male played the part of Katherine as I understand the case was in his time. We would come to the play with, possibly, a different outlook. If we had 2 people of the same gender performing these 2 parts, it would possibly show up the absurdity of a more intelligent person having to be subservient because of her gender.

  12. Katarina

    It’s male shrews that are vicious, by the way. The males will fight to the death when they meet, but the females don’t. The English got that wrong.

  13. Rachel

    Surely “Shakespeare got that wrong”? :) I personally have no opinion on shrews, unless I find one in the kitchen! (which would be unlikely at this point in time, living as I do on the third floor)

    I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew, only watched Ten Things I Hate About You… and although I loved it when I was a young teen, before I discovered feminism, and although I still have a soft spot for it now, and I’m not above watching youtube clips from time to time…
    It just doesn’t make any *sense*!
    Most of it is fucking brilliant, but the bit at the end? The “happy” ending? WTF??
    It felt very much like a let-down, dammit. I think this is why I’ve been avoiding The Taming of the Shrew – I don’t think I could cope with the non-prettied-up version.

  14. Deus Ex Macintosh

    I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew, only watched Ten Things I Hate About You…

    You probably have, only it was the musical version called “Kiss Me Kate”.

    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..Unwarranted Intrusion

  15. orlando

    Rachel, it wasn’t Shakespeare who came up with the term ‘shrew’, it was a common expression, and there was actually quite a body of ‘shrew taming’ folk literature – ballads and so on. Katerina, I think the point wasn’t the shrew’s perceived viciousness, it was the noise they make. You see, shrews have tiny little stomachs and so have to eat pretty much constantly, so they make a perpetual, hungry little cheep cheep sound. It’s quite poignant, if you think about it, the idea of noisy complaint being driven by constant hunger, which is exactly what many women at the time must have (metaphorically) been experiencing.

  16. Helen

    Great post, Orlando!

  17. Emily

    I think that anyone trying to justify this play as anything more than a comedy about a man cruelly subjugating a woman with character is reading modern ethics into a play completely outside of it.

    Remember, this play was written in a time when women would be punished horribly for being outspoken. A woman disagreeing with her husband could be imprisoned and women who were too freely spoken could be punished with horrible implements such as the bride’s scold (a metal cage over the head with a piece of metal in the mouth with sharp points on it to damage the mouth with each movement of it) or public punishment on the pillory.

    However brilliant Shakespeare was I just don’t think that we can draw too many parallels between his amazing writing and his views of the treatment of women. He was a man of his time and whilst he was maybe a little more enlightened than the average man, I don’t think we can honestly give him the credit of writing a play with such strong feminist values. I think the way to take The Taming of the Shrew is as it first appears: A man taking pleasure in breaking an independent woman.

    Emily’s last blog post..Vatican opposes fight against death-sentences for LGBT people

  18. Rachel

    Deus Ex Macintosh – um…. no, I really haven’t seen it in any form other than 10 Things…
    Orlando – thanks for the clarification :) what I meant was that in the context of Katarina’s comment, “the English” =/= “Shakespeare” — in other words, just because Shakespeare may or may not have been unable to distinguish between the genders of shrews, doesn’t mean that it’s a problem that affected every other English person. It was pedantry on my part :)

  19. klg

    Emily in comments – Spot on. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  20. orlando

    Emily, while you’re absolutely right about the legal and cultural restrictions on a woman of this period (the implement you’re thinking of, by the way, is a scold’s bridle), it does a terrible disservice to many women who lived then to assume there was no resistance to the dominant system. There are loads of examples of both men and women speaking out against the way things were done, so we know that debate did exist on the matter. Challenges to sexism didn’t begin with Mary Wollstonecraft; she, like all of us, built on what had gone before.

  21. Emily

    Orlando,

    Oh, I most certainly agree with you… There would have been resistance to this horrific treatment and that resistance would have been terribly dangerous since it would have placed those women in danger of exactly these horrible punishments.

    I never meant (nor do I believe I said) that women weren’t fighting against this. I do believe, however, that someone of Shakespeare’s stature, very much part of the status-quo even before installing himself in London, can be credited with writing a play with such feminist leanings. He did create some strong female characters, which was already an advance, but left them very much within the cultural norms of the time.

    I feel it a shame that we are not acknowledging the horrific behaviour of our society at the time by trying to make revisionist interpretations of misogynistic plays. I do love reading Shakespeare, but prefer to read them as a window into the world as it was. I’m leery of giving him more credit than he’s due as an opponent to the treatment of women at the time.

  22. Emily

    Sorry… That’s what one gets trying to do long comments on an iPhone! :)

    That should have been ‘However, I do not believe…’ instead of ‘However, I do believe…’

  23. bellatrys

    I think part of the temptation is due to the fact that Shakespeare *did* write so many strong, dominant female characters who *do* run the shows and *aren’t* humbled in gender-connected ways by the end – Beatrice, Hermione, Perdita, Silvia *and* Julia, Viola, Cleopatra, Helena, Marina, Rosalind & Celia, even minor characters like Maria or Iras & Charmian, just to pick a few that I remember best. Even ones who aren’t *that* strong, or who get depowered or end up seeming fairly passive by the conclusion, still get a lot of good lines and scenery chewing – Lady Macbeth, Olivia, Adriana, Lady Anne, the list goes on.

    The fact that he has so many women who aren’t shrinking violets, who aren’t “tamed” by the end of the play, who get to give great speeches and sometimes Save The Day and show up their menfolk, rocking in ways that you don’t see very often from today’s scriptwriters in Hollywood, no matter our more-enlightened (ahem) times, makes dealing with the oh-so-traditional setups more difficult. Because we know he *can* do better, because he *has* – kind of like Joss, that way – so we want to make excuses when he screws up.

    One thing it’s hard to remember dealing with Bill the Bard nowadays since his centuries of deification, is that back when, he was closer to Steven Spielberg than to auteurs like Ingmar Bergman. He wrote plays to sell tickets, and hacked and reworked them on the fly to make them more marketable. The turnaround time for getting one on stage was crazy fast – there’s a company in the US that specializes in doing Elizabethan plays, mostly Shakespere, in the Elizabethan manner – and they’ve said that it totally reconfigures your understanding of the whole process, to just be concerned with getting it memorized and out there in a week and doing 3 shows a day just like a movie theatre, no agonizing over it, they were marketing a pop-culture mass-media product. So it’s really amazing that they *are* so high-quality and so subversive – and we also have to remember the historical setting, which pulls in two ways. On the one hand, there was ferocious government censorship back then (one of Ben Jonson’s plays is gone forever, it was so thoroughly blacklisted for obscenity and political satire) and on the other hand, England had spent much of the past century wrangling with institutional sexism in the form of being one of the only world powers to have a female head of state who ruled in her own right, not as regent for a son or as “the power behind the throne” etc. This really shook up gender politics in early-Modern Europe and was a hotly-debated topic throughout all of Europe – I once read a poem by iirc a Cavalier poet who snarked at the sexists in her life by saying “what now is folly, once was treason” – meaning you can get away with dissing us women *now*, but just a few decades ago by doing so you’d have been calling Gloriana too stupid and weak to run the country–!

    So it’s all messy and complicated, and it can be hard to remember that Shakespeare was not only a product of his times, but also a major shaper of them, *but* also a commercial artist trying to keep churning out the blockbusters in a highly-competitive market, and not necessarily *trying* to engage in a nuanced critique of society in any given play…

  24. skepticlawyer

    I do love reading Shakespeare, but prefer to read them as a window into the world as it was. I’m leery of giving him more credit than he’s due as an opponent to the treatment of women at the time.

    This has always been my take on Shrew and other literature like it. There is a strong strain of antifeminist satire across many cultures, and some of it is very good (as with Shakespeare) because the writer in question is vastly talented.

    Whether that’s what the writer actually believed – well, we’ll never know short of discovering a bullet-proof way of chatting with the ‘other side’. Shakespeare had to turn a buck, too – as did Chaucer and others. They wrote stuff that they hoped would be popular, regardless of what they personally believed.

    skepticlawyer’s last blog post..Here we go again…

  25. orlando

    I don’t try to paint Shakespeare as an activist. On the contrary, he was exactly the shrewd commercial showman that Bellatrys describes. That’s precisely my point: he was cluey enough to write plays that allowed those who approved of the status quo to go away feeling they’d got exactly what they wanted, while those who liked things edgier also got fed enough to chew on. (Shrew was an early play, he got more subtle at it.)

    Don’t forget that as a crowd-pleasing writer Shakespeare needed to please the whole crowd, and that included women (many of whom were nobility and therefore potential patronesses), intellectual radicals and the Queen, not just the dregs and thugs.

  26. hellonhairylegs

    Me and my feminist teacher decided it was satire (remember, when Shakespeare was writing men played women) and put our fingers in our ears. We couldn’t bear the straight reading of the play.

    I do like 10 Things I Hate About You. I was surprised when I rewatched how much I had edited in my mind to make it feminist. I guess everyone wants Shakespeare and/or the media on their side.

  27. su

    I was intrigued by your comment about falconry and went a’googling , Orlando. I hope you do write another post! The initial two scenes which set the whole thing up as a joke played on a drunk are also thought to lend weight to the ironic reading, if I am understanding the stuff I have read correctly. It has been a while since I studied any of this but I remember from reading Hamlet that the anxiety around Elizabeth I not ensuring the succession gave the “woman question” extra bite.

  28. JahTeh

    No-one has mentioned the Burton/Taylor film version which is a favourite of mine but the last time I watched it, I became very uneasy with the plot, thinking of it as mental abuse. I’m willing to think he really admired her because he could have married her for the dowry and not given her another thought.
    Next time I watch it, I’ll go back to looking at the costumes, thinking how gorgeous Elizabeth was and listening to Burton’s voice.

  29. Clare

    This is a brilliant post.

    As for my own thoughts – Kate represents a commonly derided and ridiculed figure of fun in the popular culture of the time (“the shrew”). However, a whole play is devoted to her which definitely allows her some agency (and some of the best lines). The end scene is definitely problematic but I have often wondered there is an element of that shakespearian trick whereby a figure we are encouraged to laugh at or disapprove of suddenly becomes uncomfortably sympathetic – a little like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night.

  30. Hedgepig

    So Orlando, how is falconry sexy – for the falcon, I mean.

  31. orlando

    Well, Hedgepig, I’m glad you asked. First a brief disclaimer: I don’t claim that the falcon and falconer have an *equal* relationship, and I am anthropomorphising to the extent that I’m looking at the relationship in the context of the falcon = woman metaphor, which was popular in the 16th/17th centuries.

    Falcons were used for hunting , and had to be trained, or ‘broken’, like horses. The breaking process involved depriving the bird of food and sleep (like Kate), but this was considered to be the fire in which a strong relationship with the falconer was forged, so he didn’t sleep or eat either, until they both did. A captured wild falcon (or ‘haggard’) was considered a far superior bird to one bred in captivity, which was thought to be too docile. When a hawk is hunting there is obviously nothing tying her to her master or mistress but loyalty and, if she chose, she could fly away and nothing could be done about it. In a society that spent more time comparing admired women to things like does (docile, silent, timid prey) it’s fabulous that so much admiration could be lavished on a creature that was hunter not hunted, that was not chained up or confined indoors, and was more prized the more spirited/skilled/gutsy she was.

    I met a harris hawk once whose handler told me she once tried to take down a roe deer. She (the falconer) pulled her off and patched her up, but she (the hawk) didn’t want to let go despite being thumped, and that was the kind of spirit that used to get poems written in praise of her ancestors.

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