Why Shrews Should Never Be Tamed

A couple of years ago I went on a nice family outing to see the RSC perform The Taming of the Shrew. We enjoyed the twists and turns of the first couple of acts – who will win out? Surely the feisty, funny Katherina? Let’s sit back and enjoy watching her turn the tables on those boorish men! But as the final curtain went up, I was left stunned in my seat, waiting for the punchline. There wasn’t one. Kate, ‘the shrew’ had been well and truly tamed by Petruchio and I realised that Shakespeare for once hadn’t given his leading lady the last laugh.This doesn’t come across in the teen movie adaptation of the play, the brillaint Ten Things I Hate About You. There we get spiky Julia Stiles meeting her match, quite literally, in Heath Ledger (sigh). It’s cute, romantic and ultimately satisfying, because you know she’s strong enough to take him on, and he loves her for it. But that’s not what the original seems to be saying.Just to make sure I hadn’t got it completely wrong, I watched Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 film of The Taming of the Shrew starring Elizabeth Taylor as Kate with Richard Burton as Petruchio. Nope, it was all there – the grotesque, masochistic humiliation of Kate, until she finds herself completely cowed and subservient to her lord and master, and chastising other wives for not showing their own husbands the same ‘respect’ (total submission and absolute obedience.) To me, there’s no sadder scene in all Shakespeare than when the headstrong Kate tells her fellow women:

“Come, come, you forward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.”
see the full speech here)

I’m not alone in my uneasiness – The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ plays that sits particularly uncomfortably with a modern audience. We’re so used to ol’ William giving his female characters the best lines, we like to think of him as an early feminist, who understood the power of women and delighted in celebrating that on stage (think of Beatrice in Much Ado, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, erm… Lady Macbeth? Ok, maybe not – but there is something Maggie Thatcher-esque about her – powerful lady!)

George Bernard Shaw described Kate’s domination as ‘altogether disgusting to modern sensibility’. But of course things are never quite that simple. There are different readings of the play, where Kate is seen as triumphing despite her apparent subjugation – maybe, just maybe she’s pretending all along and has found a cunning twisty-turny way of taming Petruchio? Some think the whole play is a farce and not meant to be taken at face value, and given how Shakespeare treats his heroines in all his other plays, showing them as brave, intelligent and determined, there could be something in that. Many argue that because all the men in the play come across as so deeply unpleasant, particularly the obnoxious Petruchio, it’s actually Shakespeare’s crushing attack on misogyny. But it got me thinking about the women I know, and I realised that we are all, by Shakespeare’s definition, shrews!

We demand, we assert, we argue, we’re unruly, we believe our opinions are as valid as our partners. We poke fun at them, boss them about, and it seems they love us for it. Life with a shrew will never be easy – expect tears, shouting, ominous silences, door slamming and probably regular existential crises – but it will never ever be boring. Life with a shrew means impassioned debates (whether about world politics or Mad Men Season 4), adventure, passion, a unique perspective on the world and much more besides. Smart men understand that if you want a quiet life, you go for a nice girl like Bianca, but if you want a rollercoaster ride, always opt for a Kate. I’ve written before in Pamflet about how indie boys can be just as sexist as ‘mainstream’ blokes – just because they listen to Belle & Sebastian, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re interested in your opinions, girlie! But there are men out there who are willing to embrace our shrewish tendencies – they’re as feminist as we are. Of course being a shrew shouldn’t mean being cruel, allowing a sharp tongue to wound just because you can, nor should it mean being intolerant of other people’s failings and frailties. It just means not being afraid to use your voice. So on this one, I have to say Mr Shakespeare, I think you got it wrong. Embrace your inner shrew.

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