This weekend I read and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew.
The play left me feeling much as I felt after reading and watching The Merchant of Venice, and also brought up some of the same troubling thoughts as did Prospero’s treatment of Caliban in The Tempest.
In this play, a rich nobleman named Baptista is trying to sell off his two daughters, Katherine or Kate and Bianca. While Bianca is sweet and demure, Kate (the “shrew” of the title) is loud, obnoxious, and apparently in need of correction. While several suitors vie for Bianca, only Petruchio, a poor man looking for money, agrees to take on Kate the shrew (and the considerable fortune that comes with marrying into Baptista’s family, of course).
The rest of the play consists of slapstick humor bookended by cruel mental and physical humiliation of Kate by our “hero” Petruchio. In the end, Petruchio wins a bet by demonstrating that of the three new wives at a gathering (his own Kate, her sister Bianca, and a rich widow introduced late in the play), Kate proves to be the most obedient and subservient. Kate’s closing speech shows that her will has been entirely crushed – she offers to place her own, soft hand below her husband’s boot. Lovely.
Immediately I sought some sort of explanation. Both Isaac Asimov, in his Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and Yale professor Harold Bloom, in his Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, made rather unconvincing excuses for this mess of a play. Bloom in particular seems to utterly disbelieve Kate’s own words. When Petruchio shows up late to the hasty marriage he himself arranged, Kate says,
I must forsooth be forc’d
To give my hand, oppos’d against my heart
Immediately after this passage, Bloom says,”(T)his is not the anxiety of an unwilling bride. Kate (is) authentically in love”
In other words, no means yes.
I don’t think any of this works. I think this play is exactly what it seems to be. It tells the story of a shrewish woman who is abused out of her shrewishness. It is about how a man should rule his wife and force her into the mold he desires. It is a symptom of a society that sees women as property, without a proper will of their own.
I think that later in his career Shakespeare will get better. He’ll learn more about people and he’ll become a more insightful critic of his own, often immoral, society. But here I think Shakespeare is just wrong.
More important, though, is our reaction to Shakespeare. We love Shakespeare for so many good reasons that it’s hard for us to deal with his moral failures, such as those in The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and here in The Taming of the Shrew. How do we deal with those failures? Either we do what Asimov and Bloom do – Shakespeare’s not really saying what you think he’s saying, he’s actually being ironic, he’s showing how Kate is really controlling the relationship, etc. – or we admit that Shakespeare was just wrong. Crucially, never do we say that Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s culture were actually right about women, about Jews, about slaves and servants. Why? Because we’re better now. Again in this play we see that compared to us, Shakespeare in some ways was a moral ignoramus. Compared to us. In other words, we’re getting better. And a moral disaster of a play like The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates the progress we’ve made. It’s something to be proud of.