The Worth of Taming of the Shrew

Re-post from 2005

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In one of my undergrad classes, 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 liberal writer who could do no wrong—no sexism, no racism, no "isms" at all!)

I thought everyone was nuts, which may be typical for an undergrad but not very helpful. I can articulate better now what I thought then, 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 in the course (at that time) 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 most classic version of Taming of the Shrew [not necessarily my favorite; my favorite is Shakespeare Retold's version with Henderson and Sewell] 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.

Elizabeth Taylor was criticized for not
being a true Shakespearan actor. Whatever.
She turns this scenes into a demand rather than
supplication through sheer force of personality.
In the Zeffirelli version, Petruchio and Catarina have got so much chutzpah, sexual come hitherness and physical energy, they would probably kill anybody else they married (this was also true of Burton and Taylor). This Petruchio, unlike the (ironically) appallingly chauvinistic Petruchio of the "modern interpretation," is never sure of Catarina. They will keep fighting until the day they die, and they will love every minute of it. And yeah, it freaks out most of us but as Joan Armatrading pointed out (possibly also ironically), 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." Not a word wrong. The speech flows.

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 alongside all 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.

[2020 tangent:] What is so sad about all the social justice people who kill art--even my readily offended classmates from many years ago--is that they are so busy focusing on message, they miss not only content but the sheer exuberance of caring about something for the sake of its beauty or wittiness or poetry. I recently watched Ford v. Ferrari. It was way too long for me and seemed a tad uneven though it was totally worth watching for Damon and Bale. The thing that struck me most was the power of hobby. It's the element that underscores Last Man Standing and makes it more than about politics--and it is the element that literal-minded "let's expurgate everything!" types will never understand as they embroil themselves more and more in the mindset of petty politics.

Car guys have fun.

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