I recently saw the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. It was entertaining enough, though admittedly I’m not a huge fan of the play (and not merely because of its misogyny – as a piece of dramatic fiction, I find the fight between Katharina and Petruchio to be the climax of the play – but this occurs in Act Two, Scene One of a FIVE act play…which makes for a far-too-long denouement, in my book), but in any performance of this classic, the play’s world-view of “a woman’s place” cannot be ignored, and must be dealt with when producing it for a modern audience.
This production, oddly, chose to set the show post-WWII (immediately post, mind you: we get the radio announcement that the war is over during the show’s prologue, and Kate is seen wearing a WAC uniform) in New York’s Little Italy. Aside from its not-terribly-clever swap of city names into street names (We see street signs for Lombardy St. and Pisa Ave. and Petruchio has ‘come to wive it wealthily’ on Padua St., presumably), this conceit doesn’t buy us much. Grumio talks in a Brooklynese accent, which some found humorous, but the setting actually worked against the play in most other ways. One obvious example: if Vincentio’s father lives over on Mantua Street, why must they convince a travelling salesman to impersonate him? Is it really so far to go to get the real one? But the largest error, of course, is that Kate’s capitulation to Petruchio simply does not fly in the modern era. (Especially once she has been a WAC!)
There were some weak attempts at political correction: Petruchio’s “She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat” became “WE ate no meat today, nor none shall eat…” How equitable of him. If only a swapping of pronouns could fix the play’s problems. Kate’s famous “I am ashamed that women are so simple” became “I am ashamed that WE are so simple,” which didn’t fix the problem, but certainly shattered the poetry of the piece. While it still wouldn’t have fixed the problem, replacing the word ‘women’ with ‘partners’ or ‘spouses’ would at least have left the meter intact.
We know history. We know there were times when a woman had – or seemingly had – no option but to marry a man in order to make her way in the world. We can understand (when left in the original setting) that our otherwise headstrong heroine must – in order to avoid spinsterhood (that horrible fate!) – swallow her pride, lower her eyes and say “yes” to the boorish Mr. Darcy… Oh, wait, wrong misgynist classic. I always get those two confused.
Whichever “woman selling out” story you choose, they only work if they remain set in a place and time (Elizabethan, Regency…heck, even the Antebellum South) where a woman’s options were so relatively few. As soon as you encounter, say, women’s suffrage…it gets dicey. It becomes extremely difficult (or in my case: impossible) to buy either Katharina’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s 180-degree turns in a post-emancipation setting.
Which raises the question… Why stage The Taming of the Shrew at all? What does it bring to the table in this era? Why read Pride and Prejudice? Do we really need to be reminded of how far women have (or, sadly, have not) come in the intervening years? Aren’t there more relevant stories to tell? Shakespeare’s own The Winter’s Tale shows us how two women (Hermione and Paulina) game the system to their own ends (and in a complete reversal of Shrew – it is the MAN who starts out headstrong and winds up chastened and obedient). Perhaps it is time to retire some of these sacred texts and write (or rediscover) others. It has been too long coming. After all, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written in 1792. I’ll do the math for you: that’s 225 years ago. We gave minstrel shows the heave-ho; isn’t it time we did the same with misogynist ones, as well? I think it is. I hope it is. Meanwhile, I’ve made my decision: I have seen my last Shrew. Hallelujah! It’s a great relief knowing that. I won’t miss it.