The Taming of the Shrew is a rape story. Barring discussion of its historical significance in a time when misogynistic thought was yet undifferentiated as an academic job, not an opining one, we need to ask how to react to the play today.
I recently saw the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s production, and by the end I felt sick. I was reacting not only to the quality of the production, which The Tech’s November 9th review failed to adequately critique, but to its content as well. The audience witnessed a gleeful portrayal of partner abuse, and a relationship premised on the rejection of emotional intimacy. A poor tradesman is tricked into believing he’s a nobleman. He is presented a comedic play where a “shrew-woman” is first quasi-sexually assaulted and later physically and emotionally abused until her independence is wilted by the man “born to tame” her. The man subjects the woman to starvation, sleep-deprivation, and humiliation, and the success of these techniques is celebrated.
The cherry on top comes at the play’s end, when the woman is forced by the tradesman to deliver a speech about good wife-hood: “I am ashamed that women are so simple / To offer war where they should kneel for peace … Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth, / Unapt to toil and trouble in the world, / But that our soft conditions and our hearts / Should well agree with our external parts?”
The play is a parable on gender domination. A man arrives in a town and hears rumors about a feisty woman. The female devolves into a mere object of conquest, desired not for romance but for the sake of revenge for her public expressions of anger and assertions of independence. Her sister is an object of admiration for her deference. The rest of the story is practically a catalogue of an abusive relationship.
Every character continues to drip with cruelty. In this context, the question of author’s intent is hardly relevant. If the play is taken at face value, it’s repulsive. If the play is a farce, it’s not funny. The most difficult case is if the play is meant as a satire: the burden of dramatic and ethical integrity rests on the actors. So what does it take to carry out a work charged with moral trouble? And is a successful production of The Taming of the Shrew no more than an effort to raise awareness through averse conditioning?
Clearly, the act of performance can be imbued with sarcasm, criticism, or protest. But doing so isn’t easy. At the same time, a performance cannot be a neutral act. The immediacy of gender violence today putrefies the core of this play. It gags and is no longer a gag. The real crime here is dispassion in the face of wrong. The problem is not the choice of the piece but a performance distanced from its utter ugliness.
The question is, what is the value of The Taming of the Shrew? More broadly, are “value” and “purpose” attributes rightfully assigned to dramatic material amongst other art forms? How can we interact with unethical art? This doesn’t suggest censorship, only that as moral people we need to think carefully about whether, why, and how to perform a play like this.
To be explicit — I am not accusing anyone involved in the production of a misogynistic play. Yet the actual show gave no sign of its generative impulse. Viewed as it was, absent of directorial guidance for the audience, its meaning and intent were precariously ambiguous, and still more so for viewers like me who didn’t know about the history of controversy over interpretation of the play. We could have easily walked away from the theater having enjoyed a humorous rehearsal of brute subjugation. The most coherent strand of the piece was played by Katie Roe ’14, the shrew herself, whose performance gave the solitary perceptible hint of implicit tragedy. Otherwise, if the actors aimed at mass giddiness and caricature, they succeeded, but it’s not obvious what sort of success that really is.
Daniel Parker is sophomore in the Department of Political Science