Monday 28 May 2012

Taming of the Shrew : sexist misogyny ?

Plot quicky : Younger sister Bianca is a hottie and the lust in many suitors’ eyes. But older sister Katherine (Kate) is not yet married. So father Baptista rules Bianca is off-limits until sis ties the knot first. Enter Petruchio. He marries the feisty Kate who is what cowgirls today might call “hard twist”: a strong, no-nonsense, shoot-from-the-lip kind of free agent. The rest of the play tracks their marriage demonstrating how Petruchio overcomes (“tames”) Kate’s hard twist mind and tongue (“shrew”) until she becomes compliant and adoring – to a fault.

The controversy continues : To say the play has been disparaged as male chauvinist piggery writ large hardly captures the debate that has raged for centuries – even from its first performance in 1594.

I have no doubt that as a nascent suffragette in 1895 my grandmother would likely have agreed with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of this play: "No man with any decency of feeling can sit [the final act] in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed", he said, dismissing the popular 300-year-old play as “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility”.

Still, many see Petruchio’s words as irony, not misogynistic sarcasm. For example, Kate hisses to her father that Petruchio is “one-half lunatic” and “a mad-cap ruffian”.  Petruchio immediately retorts that to his mind Kate “is not hot, but temperate as the morn” and “modest as the dove”.  Some academics claim Petruchio’s words are but reverse psychology to woo her into genuine affection and love for him despite the fact she became his “chattel” via a steal-of-a-deal – a dowry with lots of cold hard cash from her papa.

Given all this, what is it that keeps acting troupes performing Taming of the Shrew and audiences flocking to see it now 400 years later ? The word to explain it is simply “art”. Shakespeare at his worst is still art unlike any previous or subsequent drama practitioner has managed to create. On an utterly facile level think of Shrew as analogous to the Joel and Ethan Coen film Fargo that “celebrates” greed, dishonesty, and wife-slaying amidst assorted other scenes of mayhem and murder. All conduct and values I, like most, abhor. Still, Fargo remains one of my favourite all-time USA movies. Such paradox might help explain Shrew, too.

Starting May 31st at Bard on the Beach main-stage at Vanier Park on English Bay with the Pacific Ocean as backdrop.

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