Monday 16 January 2012

Devouring Books: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Ah, The Taming of the Shrew. Right now, I'm struggling to say anything nice about it at all, but I have just read Kate's speech at the end so I'm more or less just simmering with anger because WHAT THE HELL SHAKESPEARE, I THOUGHT YOU WERE ON MY SIDE! Okay, I just have to remember to breathe and think of Lady Macbeth (who is completely awesome, at least until she goes crazy). I just... it's so... I can't even... ARGH, Shakespeare what have you done?!

Ok, now actual sentences that make sense. The Taming of the Shrew is basically the story of Kate, an extremely angry woman- I'd like to defend her anger as some kind of primitive form of feminism, but really she just seems angry for no real reason; who gets tamed by Petruchio, the only man in town willing to take her on, with all her anger issues and 'difficulties.' He's convinced to do this by Hortensio and Gremio (not to be confused with Grumio, his servant [I never confused them, except for all the time]) both of whom have a vested interest in Kate's marriage because they want to marry Bianca, Kate's sister, who their father will not allow to marry until he's offloaded the difficult one on some sucker.

AND THEN, there's this entire farce around Bianca's marriage that I genuinely don't understand that for some reason requires someone else to dress up like Lucentio (this other guy who likes her) even though her dad totally says she can marry Lucentio, even when he isn't Lucentio. It's probably less confusing on stage, but it seems really unnecessary anyway in terms of the story. I just don't know! But that all turns out ok in the end anyway, everyone forgives who they're supposed to and it's a comedy tralalalala! The height of comedy at that time, unfortunately, seems to have been things like this:
"Baptista: When will he be here?
Biondella: When he stands where I am and sees you there."
I HATE these jokes. Hate them. With a passion. Vom all over them. Stupid Elizabethan lack of humour.

Anyway, besides all of those problems (and I didn't even mention the induction which was highly unnecessary and didn't even get finished off properly- where was my conclusion to that, with Christopher Sly being humiliated, huh?) the main horrorshow is between Kate and Petruchio. At the beginning, I thought he was all sweet and charming, and I was basically going, 'oh go on Kate, marry him!' because, you know, I thought he was nice, and I thought that he would just generally be kind of hot at her, and get her to calm down a bit and be nicer to people. Instead, he kind of starved her and then brainwashed her into being his love slave and general yay-sayer to all his doings. It's literally like, instead of going to live with her husband, she went to some weird cult where she was starved of meat (not that kind of meat, don't be gross) and watched people be shouted at until she thought her husband was the best thing since sliced bread (not that they had sliced bread. Since flushing toilets? Did they have them?) And I can't even... I didn't even like angry Kate, because she seemed angry for no reason, but subservient Kate I really can't stomach. Observe:
"Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign...
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey." 
Dammit Shakespeare, I knew you'd throw those old fashioned wedding vows back in my face! Oh yeah, those stupid women who don't do everything their husbands say as soon as they say it. What fools they are! If they do it, they'll get their meat fed to them! I think Kate might just be suffering some PTSD from having been starved those couple of days, and now she's just saying the right things so Petruchio lets her eat! Except that's definitely not what's going on here, and oh my GOD I could just sob about it!

A final little quirk about The Taming of the Shrew is that, when I was reading it, all I could think about was 10 Things I Hate About You (a review of that will be coming soon. For definite now I've read this.) and I was trying to figure out who was who and stuff, except I pretty much had to give up on that because no one is anyone, except for Kate, Petruchio, Bianca and Lucentio who are basically the four main characters. And you know what? I'm going to have to say that I like the 90s teen movie better than the Shakespeare play, a statement not all that shocking for the average person, but for me it's like a crazy exploding bombshell because I'm a little bit like the girl in 10 Things who is in love with Shakespeare (but mostly I'm just Kat. She was/is my feminist ICON!). But not this time!

It's a great comfort to me that this was one of Shakespeare's earlier plays, and, having read quite a few of his other plays, I know that these views on women are not really the norm. If I'd read this and no other Shakespeare play, I probably would have been so put off by him that I would refuse to read any others, and I am deadly serious about that. So, read this play with caution, and only after quite a few other plays (especially, I'm going to say, Macbeth and Twelfth Night, both of which I know have quite strong female characters). Unless, of course, you're a giant misogynist, in which case, well, I know a play you're really going to love...


  1. Ok HERE'S THE DEAL, right -- I'm not a big Shakespeare person, but for whatever reason, TotS has been thrown in my face again and again over the years, and that speech has made it what has been described as "a problem play" (i.e. one that might not stand up to our current sensibilities and just makes everyone feel awkward). Chicago Shakespeare Theater, though, did what I considered a WONDERFUL interpretation of the end.

    So, the abuse throughout is not funny. It's violent and disturbing. At the latest production I saw, Kate at the end is so beaten down, so tired and so finished that the way she says the speech is as if "This is what you want to hear, so here it is." And the look on Petruchio's face was just "Omg what have I done to this woman." It was fantastic.

    Other productions I've heard of as playing it with both her and Petruchio being extremely sarcastic about the whole thing. I'm all into pathos, so I prefer the one I saw. ;)

    Have you seen any of Shakespeare Retold? The TotS one has Rufus Sewell and Shirley Henderson. It's great.

    1. I'm liking the whole 'look at what you've done to me!' interpretation of the play, and Petruchio's guilt and all, and I would totally go for that. BUT it's annoying when critical commentator people defend it fully and say 'actually, all this stuff is ok because Shakespeare didn't *really* mean it' because, while he maybe didn't think people should starve and bully their wives to tame them, I think maybe he did think women should be tamed- Basically, I haven't heard anything convincing enough to tell me that The Taming of the Shrew isn't, to whichever extent you want to go to, sexist.

      It's tricky though, because I don't think Shakespeare on the whole *was* sexist- Lady Macbeth is really progressive, and the women are always answering the men back- I'm reading Richard III at the moment, and literally all the women in it are fully abusing him, it's great! So, yeah, it's a tricky thing.

  2. I prefer 10 Things to the actual TotS as well, since it's pretty much just the first half of the play and cuts out before all of the psychological torture and starvation starts.

    Like Alice, I've heard other productions where they do the last speech sarcastically. I'm pretty sure the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton version does it that way. Still, it's kind of a stretch to be like "oh remember when you starved me and denied me sleep so you could break my spirit? How hilarious!"

    When I took at 16th cent lit class at school I ended up reading the original poem/drinking song that this is based on and sadly, the Shakespeare version is toned down. In the poem I read the lady is flayed and then has to wear a salted horses hide. When she complains to her mom about all the beatings and whatnot her mom is pretty much like "oh suck it up, wimp". Oh Elizabethan England, you had some odd sensibilities.

    1. GAH! Bad original poem! Maybe then, because Shakespeare was just starting off in his career, he didn't have too much originality and didn't know how else to finish it and so just went pretty much with the original? I'm down with that interpretation, because any other one makes me want to cry!

      Also, while I *guess* the end speech can be done sarcastically, that's not AT ALL what it's like in the play (at least just reading it, you know?) because it seems totally sincere. And it's definitely a stretch! GOD!

      Ten Things is so much better- I loved the first half, because Petruchio was sort of charming and Kate could do with a bit of changing (she really is TOO angry, over nothing, it seems!) and I thought that he would just charm her into being nicer like in the film but NO! I was horrified! Clearly...

    2. I don't know that Shakespeare ever went for originality with his work. I fear that this was the story he wanted to write or at least the story that he knew would put butts in the seats.

  3. This is one of the few Shakespeare plays I haven't read, primarily because I KNOW it will make me angry. I tend to dislike stories about 'taming' disobedient women for some reason :p

    I am kind of curious about the original poem. I never knew it actually existed until I read this.

    1. Me neither! Red is full of useful information :). I love Shakespeare so much, and this made me really disappointed in him- I'd recommend keeping on not reading it, because I don't really think there's that much merit in it at all. Made me grrrrrr all over the place!

  4. I read this in school and the teacher who taught it LOVED Shakespeare and somehow mastered teaching it in a way that I didn't even notice that it was sexist. I kind of balked at your blog post at first but now it all makes sense.

    Secondly, I kind of stay away from Shakespeare's comedies. I don't find them humorous. They usually involve racial or ethic slurs, men in drag that fools everyone (which in Elizabethan times, really?) and sexist behavior. Kind of a yawn for me. I greatly prefer his histories and tragedies.

    I do love Ten Things though. One of my favorite movies ever. Even my mom likes it and that never happens.

    1. I LOVE Shakespeare, but I can't just ignore his sexist-ness you know? But fair enough that your teacher just side-stepped that whole thing entirely! I know what you mean about the comedies though- my English teacher once said that she thought tragedy translated a lot better than comedy, just because tragedy is such a universal thing, whereas what's seen as funny changes all the time, which I definitely agree with and is why I've remembered it so long!

      Ten Things is amazing! I rewatched it this weekend for a review later this week (probably Friday) which will, obviously, be glowing! So, yay!

  5. YES YES to everything you said.

    Strangely, this was one of my favorite Shakespeare plays for a while because I saw a musical adaptation called "Kiss Me Kate" when I was a wee small child and thought it was hilarious. I must have somehow transferred the essence of that humor into the play when I read it, which lightened the blatant sexism just the tiniest bit. But then I had to watch the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton movie adaptation, and Petruchio was actually physically abusing Katharina. I liked it not.

    I tried to watch "10 Things" with my best friend when I was about 15, and my dad made me turn it off (I think directly after Bianca says, "I'm a crack-whore who should have made my skeezy boyfriend wear a condom?"). So I went to my friend's house the next day and watched it three times in a row. And now I own it. Take that, Dad!

    1. Kiss Me Kate was on TV the other day, and I tried to watch it because me and my friend were discussing it, but I couldn't because my family were watching something LAME. So now I hate them. And yeah, physical abuse isn't nice. At all. Even when a woman clearly has to be 'tamed' (which is never! Obviously!)

      Also, I LOVE how your dad's attempt to provide some kind of moral decency in your life failed so completely! Not that Ten Things is morally indecent at all- Kat doesn't even have sex with Heath Ledger, which, excuse me, but I would be all over that! (HEATH! sigh.)

    2. HAHA! Yes...let that be a lesson to parents everywhere!

  6. Oh Shakespeare (shaking of head). I might leave this one until the very last. There we thought Shakespeare was enlightened for his time. I would be annoyed too and it would probably put me off if I had read it first and wasn't aware of Lady Macbeth's existence.

  7. I hopped over to this review from your TTT post today. I had a different interpretation of this play, if you're curious?

    I'm not begging for comments -- only sharing. :)