The Worth of Taming of the Shrew

In undergrad school, the issue of sexism in Shakespeare came up. We had just gone to see Taming of The Shrew, and the class was divided into those who thought it might be sexist but hey, women can be jerks too; those who thought it was totally sexist; and the professor who thought that it wasn't sexist at all. (He was a huge Shakespeare fan and basically saw Shakespeare as a modern, thoroughly unspoiled writer who could do no wrong—no sexism, no racism, no "isms" at all.)

I was too young to put into words what I thought. I basically thought everyone was nuts, which may be typical for an undergrad but not very helpful. However, I can articulate now what I thought so I will.

What I thought was (1) the play we had seen stank; (2) so, it's sexist, so what are you going to do about it?

Concerning (2), I don't think anyone was gunning for censorship. I think, if the issue had been pressed, education would have been promoted as an answer. That is: every production of Taming of the Shrew should begin with an apology from the director and actors; it should end with a discussion led by a women's group, and the program should be embellished with essays by concerned professors who are afraid that the audience will, by watching the play, assume that wife-beating is okay.

I'm not particularly opposed to apologies, discussions or essays, but they all so miss the point.

The best version of Taming of the Shrew is Zeffirelli's Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor production, and it is magnificent. It is magnificent for several reasons. First, the play is allowed to speak for itself. I don't mean that interpretation isn't involved, Zeffirelli's hand is omnipresent, but there's no attempt to create an application to our modern day. The play that I saw as an undergrad, the one that stank, made such an attempt. Instead of being a beer-guzzling, larger than life, obnoxious, funny and ultimately chauvinistic nutcase, Petruchio was portrayed as a mild-mannered, sweet, well-meaning bleeding heart. Yeah, right. The relationship between Petruchio and Catarina was mended when Catarina realized that Petruchio was just trying to save her cultural embarrassment; it's all a game, honey, play along.

In the Zeffirelli version, Petruchio and Catarina have got so much huztpah, sexual come hitherness and physical energy they would probably kill anybody else they married. This Petruchio, unlike the appallingly chauvinistic Petruchio of the "modern interpretation," is never sure of Catarina. They will keep fighting until the day they die, and love every minute of it. And yeah, it freaks out most of us but as Joan Armatrading pointed out, some people are into that sort of thing.

The second reason Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew is amazing is the last scene. I'm not a huge Elizabeth Taylor fan, but when she sweeps into the banquet hall, hauling her sister by one ear and the newly married widow by the other, she takes the room and the screen by storm. And then she gives the speech—THE speech—the chauvinistic speech about a woman's place. And it is a thing of beauty. It is gorgeous. You sit there, thinking, "An ordinary, mortal, money-making playwright wrote this." And it's hard to believe.

Which is the final wonderful thing about Zeffirelli's production: it lets Shakespeare sing. The cinematography is plush and colorful; the scenes are full of extras; the pace is hyperactive and amongst all of this, are the words, those stunning words that explain Shakespeare's reputation down the ages. Yeah, the man could descend to bad writing, but when his verse was good, oh my.

And this, I think, ultimately is the reason Shakespeare lasts. Because whatever the man might have believed in his personal life (and I think he was probably a capitalistic, morose, sexist Anglican with indifferent politics), when he wrote, he couldn't help but create. Catarina's declaration of independence, like Shylock's declaration of equality, are stuck in the middle of plays that do not treat them kindly, and yet their speeches remain alive and valid. Even if you think, as I do, that Shylock was probably played for slapstick laughs in the 16th century, his forceful questioning of Salarino—"Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?"—overrides any laughter. Likewise Catarina's unhappiness, voiced to Petruchio, "My tongue will tell the anger of my heart/Or else my heart concealing it will break" is more real than anything said by her sister. So we are brought to prefer the termagant to the angel, and that is no small feat.


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