Yesterday I saw the Boston-area Actors’ Shakespeare Project‘s production of The Taming of the Shrew. It was the first production of theirs that I’d seen; I’d heard great things about them and it didn’t disappoint.
But what are we to make of a play that so unabashedly supports male dominance of marriage? I saw the play on Sunday afternoon, and that performance had a brief question-and-answer session with the cast. I asked them how they dealt with the issue, ending up by saying (in jest, mostly), “How do you look at yourself in the mirror each morning?” Clearly, it was something that they all struggled with, and how could they not? One actor said that while it is true that the play is patriarchal, it’s not true that the play is misogynist, that they’re not the same thing. True enough. The woman who played Katharina, said, if I’m recalling correctly, that she tried to look at the play mainly as a love story and she was glad that while she was playing the character she didn’t have to think about the broader implications. She did a fantastic job, so I’m glad she didn’t have to look at them while she was at it either. I don’t mean to be getting down on the cast here in any way, incidentally: they did a great job with a play that can’t be anything but deeply troublesome these last forty years or so.
In any case, there’s no need to needle the cast: how can I look at myself in the mirror after acknowledging that at the end of the play, Katharina’s apparently total subjugation to Petruchio felt to me to be not merely acceptable, but happy and even necessary? After such feelings, what forgiveness?
Here’s the best answer I can give you (and myself): Katharina is a woman in a bind. She is difficult to the point of being loathsome, not just to suitors, but to her sister and everyone else who is unfortunate enough to cross her path. Even her father’s generosity seems to spring more from fatherly duty than fatherly affection. Putting aside the question of what might have driven her to be like this, she has painted herself into a corner: obviously, the more she treats people this way the more they despise and shun her, and the more they despise and shun her the more hostile she becomes. It is a way of being in the world that dooms her to misery and isolation.
Enter Petruchio: though he starts in search of a fortune, there is something of her spirit—at least as ASP plays it—that he is drawn to; he sees a way that they are made for each other. But how in the world can they arrive at a place where they can enjoy that? How can they achieve peace?
For them, peace is achieved through her subjugation and obedience. I believe that you feel a sense of “rightness” at the end because you could see that they had achieved peace, and you can’t imagine any other way that they might have. Certainly there would be no peace if Petruchio had subjugated himself to Katharina; and in this relationship there would be no peace without some subjugation, only endless struggles, because that is Katharina’s nature throughout most of the play.
In other words: obedience is not the end, it’s the means. Peace is the end.
Why does Katharina subjugate herself to Petruchio? Is it because he deprives her of food and sleep? (Thankfully, ASP did not play up any parallels to Guantanamo, at least not that I noticed). Certainly that’s not what this production leads you to believe. In the play we saw, it’s because she comes to love him, and (to borrow a word from her sister) to trust him. She loves him, in part, because he is the only person to offer her an escape from the prison she has constructed for herself: but the only way out is through peace, and the only way to peace is through obedience. Obedience is the way to peace not because Petruchio is a man, it’s the way to peace because Petruchio has not just strength and power, but wisdom and love to guide it—which she doesn’t have. While he uses his behavior toward others to hold up a mirror to her own behavior, he treats her with courtesy and (in some deep sense) respect. She learns not just that Petruchio is trustworthy, but also that she is untrustworthy. And he shows her an escape route—not to escape hunger and fatigue, but to escape loneliness, isolation, and spleen. He offers it to her, patiently, over and over, until she finally takes it.
So to my mind, it’s not that subjugation of women to men is the answer, it’s that subjugation of wilfulness and spite to wisdom, kindness, generosity, and love (including, when necessary, tough love) is the answer. In this case, that turns out to look like patriarchy.