Monday, March 02, 2009

So how shrewish is The Shrew?

A few days ago I watched BBC's ShakespeaRe-Told's "The Taming of the Shrew," which rocks hard. It's a great version of the play -- Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell are just awesome with their chemistry and it's screamingly funny.

It also made me remember when I first read Taming of the Shrew and I was really disheartened by the ending of the play and Katherina's speech:

A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? —
I am asham'd 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.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toll and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

Which to me, smacks a little of misogyny. And really, I'm not alone. The weird thing is that this seems to be unlike William Shakespeare. After all, he wrote great female characters, COMPELLING, female characters like Beatrice, Lady Macbeth (who is a villianess, but still, interesting) and others. Even Juliet, poor Juliet, put to the icon status, is interesting in a "watching teen love get messed up," kind of way.

So I guess, WHAT THE HELL? And then I couldn't read the play for awhile. It just kind of weirded me out. I know I'm not the only one. Other people have talked about it. Apparently it's one big debate among Shakespeare scholars.

Then I saw this:

And I think it's the ending line of, "I know he wouldn't do that to me because he wouldn't ask of me anything he's not prepared to do for me," that makes the ending make more sense to me, as a romantic comedy.

If Shakespeare was going for a straight-up bad behavior comedy where no one is truly good or likable, then I can see Taming of the Shrew being what it appears on the paper. But if it's a romantic comedy sort of thing (which it seems to have become, judging by all the adaptations), then I like how writer Sally Wainwright did it.

Because in a way, love is surrender and backing up the other person, even if they act like a git. But that kind of love is also given because you know that person will do the same for you. It's that confidence that you know you have support, even if everyone else calls you a hopeless fool.

But I don't know if that's a common view. Unfortunately (or fortunately), depending on how things go, The Bard didn't give stage directions on how to handle this. So I guess that like anything interesting, it's up to various viewpoints and interpretations.


Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about what you said about Shakespeare's strong female characters being at odds with Kate's last speech. And I have kind of concluded that they are not at odds at all. Well, depending on how you define a strong woman.

With the exception of Beatrice and possibly Hermia, all his women either conform to what was expected of the fairer sex at the time (Desdemona, Isabella, Miranda, Ophelia, etc.) or are punished for their out-of-bounds behavior (Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Titania, Kate, etc). They might be compellingly and believably written, whether they live inside the societal strictures or deviate from them, but in the end, Shakespeare was a creature of his own time with the prejudices of his own time. Normal social order must be maintained by the end of the show.

So, so long as you don't define "strong female character" as one that necessarily breaks out of the subservient mold, Kate's speech doesn't cause cognitive dissonance, but is merely the foregone conclusion that the play and 16th century society set up from the beginning.

Amanda said...

Ooh! Ooh! Shakespeare post! Yay!

Have you ever read "The Tamer Tamed"? It was John Fletcher's "sequel" to "Taming of the Shrew". It takes place after Kate's death (which is never really explained) when Petruchio remarries Maria, Kate's cousin, who then proceeds to pull a Lysistrata-styled sex strike. It is a nice book-end to the question mark morality of Shakespeare's play (It also should be noted that Fletcher and Shakespeare were friends and collaborators. They wrote "Henry VIII and "Two Noble Kinsmen" together.)

And while we're talking about great Shakespearean women, don't forget about the history plays: Margaret is amazing: she spans four plays and never loses her fire. Then there's my personal favorite: Jean La Pucelle- basically Joan of Arc gone to hell and come back awesome.