14 August 2012

Tame sexism? Shakespeare, oppression and us

Last week I went to see the Globe’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. By the end of the play, I sensed that a question lingered on the lips of many in the audience: can performing this play really be justified nowadays? 

On the face of it, the story is irredeemably tainted by chauvinism and sexism. Katherina, daughter of the extremely wealthy Baptista, is headstrong, mouthy and rude, while her younger sister Bianca appears to be demure and modest. Baptista insists he will only allow Bianca to marry after Katherina has. Enter the swaggering (and slightly unhinged) Petruchio, who vows to tame the shrewish Kate in order to obtain her substantial dowry, much to the delight of Bianca's competing suitors. Petruchio, half dressed, literally drags Katherina to the alter. On their honeymoon he deprives her of food and sleep, and insists she agree with everything he says, including calling the sun the moon. This “taming” eventually succeeds: Kate proves herself to be a more deferential wife than her tricksy sister.  

Inevitably it is Katherina’s closing speech that is the most uncomfortable for a modern audience to hear: 

A woman moved 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; 

She concludes: 

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. 

Of course, for much of the preceding action Katherina has been charging about the stage smashing lutes over the bloke’s heads, kicking them in the bollocks and so on - but this sets up the submissive resolution that follows. Petruchio succeeds in clipping her wings and, indeed, her name: imperious “Katherina” is reduced by his repeated demand, “Kiss me Kate”. 

For anyone not familiar with the play, it’s worth repeating: most of the performance isn't taken up with sexist lectures on the weakness of women, but on comedy that hinges (as so often in Shakespeare) on mistaken and misleading identities. The subplot involves Bianca's competing suitors trying serendipitously to woe her by dressing up as tutors, getting hired by Baptista to teach her. 

Why bother? 

Still, this is pretty standard Shakespearean fare – why bother with Shrew when there are so many alternatives that are not so tainted by crude sexism? Infact Shrew has been performed a lot recently. This Globe production follows an RSC production earlier this year, their fourth in ten years. Why? Surely, in a society where expressing the view that women are inferior to men is thankfully considered unacceptable by most, we can quietly shelve this play that parades the blatant sexism of a past age? 

The Globe's season brochure provides an important clue: “Shakespeare's most outrageous comedy, The Taming of the Shrew introduces one of theatre’s great screwball double-acts, a couple hell-bent on confusing and outwitting each other right up to the play’s equivocal and controversial conclusion.” 

This is a very interesting apology (i.e. justification). Petruchio and Katherina are presented here as an equal double-act: she’s going to give as good as she gets. Presumably, this should assuage our outrage at the sexist premise. But again, the ending cannot be glossed over so easily. “Controversial” seems straightforward – but surely the play is not innately controversial? Strictly speaking, no work of art, literature or drama can be innately controversial - controversy is created socially, it is a common response that cannot be abstracted from the context within which it is generated. We may find Shrew controversial, but Shakespeare’s original audience may not have done. 


An answer to this is suggested by the use of the word “equivocal”. This is a very significant word, which means that something is open to multiple, possibly contradictory interpretations. Depending on the context, it can imply an attempt to deceive. The implication in this context is that, while we might find the argument for women’s inferiority “controversial”, we shouldn’t necessarily take it at face value 

Anyone who watched James Shapiro’s recent documentary for the BBC, The King and the Playwright [1], will be aware that the word “equivocation” came into common parlance in England with the Gunpowder Plot. Henry Garnet, who was executed as a Gunpowder conspirator, was revealed to be the author of a treatise on equivocation, which argued that Catholics might legitimately make false statements when questioned about their faith, while secretly remaining faithful to God and Rome. Shakespeare uses the word in Macbeth (“Faith, here’s an equivocator” II.iii), but in truth his plays had long relied on equivocal speech and equivocating characters. This is true of virtually all drama, in which ambiguity, deception and confusion between characters gives rise to “dramatic irony” in which the audience is aware of information that is unknown to one or more characters. 

An interesting article in the Guardian a few months ago related some alternative interpretations from various directors of the plays who point to some of the more ambiguous or equivocal parts of the play which may make its conclusion easier to swallow. [2] Peter Hall thinks the cruelty of Katherina's treatment should be foregrounded because Shakespeare is "championing women's rights" by showing just how badly they were treated. Lucy Bailey thinks Katherina and Petrucio's fighting is all just foreplay, just a kinky game. Gregory Duncan and David Farr think we should pay attention to Petruchio's disturbed mental state - early on in the play we learn his father has recently died. Kathryn Hunter, who has twice play Katherina, says that we can't understand the central relationship unless we understand falconry. Pertuchio's denial of food and sleep to Katherina mirrors the methods used to socialise birds of prey. Crucially, he endures these deprivations alongside her.

Hmm. Methinks the directors doth protest too much. There is a whiff of desperation in some of these attempts to explain away Shrew’s misogyny. Perhaps the most convincing argument starts by pointing out that the misogyny in the play is by no means limited to Petruchio's abuse. Baptista can plausibly be regarded as the real villain. He is the one who insists that Bianca cannot be married before Katherina and takes for granted his right to bargain away his daughters at the right price. He places the "taming" within the context of much more deep rooted sexism, encoded within accepted common practices in society. Though of course this can reinforce the apparent horror of the "taming", it could also provide its excuse. Katherina's speech comes after the men (including Petruchio) all bet on whether their wives will appear when called for. Katherina here does seem to be knowingly playing along with the game, perceiving the situation and decided to help Petruchio win the bet. It's possible to think therefore that Katherina, having fallen in love with Petruchio, is now conspiring with him to punish her conniving family. This is the kind of ending seen in the BBC's "Shakespeare Retold" adaptation of Shrew from a few years ago; the modern Kate still says she would put her hand beneath her husband's boot, but immediately qualifies it by saying he would never ask her to, because he only expects her to do what he would be prepared to do himself. [3]

Such an interpretation is, I think, tenable in a modern performance of the original text - but only just. I'd agree with Michael Billington that the Globe's interpretation is "a broad, knockabout Shrew that doesn't g in much for psychological depth and presents Katherin's final specch of submission without irony." [4] Part of the trouble is that hints that Katherina may be ironically subverting sexism are not woven into the heart of the plot of Shrew. Though its possible to detect some unease about the sexist premise (the "taming" is technically a play within a play, the drunken dream of Christopher Sly presented in the Induction), the "taming" is not really the subject of our critical attention in the same way that the crushing of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, for example, definitely is. We're supposed to accept the "taming" frame and then concentrate on the unfolding farce. I think this is why attempts at a “progressive” rendering of the play, though they are not without some textual justification, are always likely to feel a little forced. 

Emer O’Toole, in a recent Comment is Free piece, also for the Guardian, is less generous: 

Shakespeare is full of classism, sexism, racism and defunct social mores. The Taming of the Shrew (aka The Shaming of the Vagina-Bearer) is about as universally relevant as the chastity belt. I'm sick of directors tying themselves up in conceptual knots, trying to frame poor Katherina as some kind of feminist heroine. The Merchant of Venice (Or The Evil Jew) is about as universal as the Nuremberg laws. What's that? Shakespeare allows Shylock to express the progressive sentiment that Jews are people before confiscating his property and forcing him to convert to Christianity, therefore Merchant is actually a humanist text? Come off it, sister. [5] 

Comment is free but as ever, subtlety is at a premium. O’Toole is right to be irritated by yawnsome claims for Shakespearean “universality”, and her reminder that Shakespeare’s plays have been used in the service of imperialism is true as far as it goes but doesn't support her conclusions. Sadly she can’t be bothered to deal with any sophisticated counter arguments, so simply dismisses them as sentimental claptrap. O’Toole seems to want to condemn Shakespeare not so much for being offensive as for being offensively old fashioned in comparison with our enlightened age - hence the weird objection to “defunct social mores” along with classism, sexism and racism.  

If I wrote a play about the Nuremburg laws, no doubt it would be full of classism, sexism and racism, but asserting that fact wouldn’t get you very far in assessing whether it was any good or not - and it might be a tad unfair to label me a bigot simply because I wrote a play about bigotry. Of course, it’s possible to argue that the racism, sexism and classism expressed by Shakespearean characters (some of whom are villains) is endorsed by the narrative logic of the plays – that they are a celebration, rather than an examination, of these forms of prejudice. But in reality this is a difficult argument to sustain. 

The difficulty lies in the fact that Shakespeare always resists playing the ideologue. He’s a literary thief, forever stealing and recreating old stories, histories, myths and plot structures. His ability lay in introducing huge complexity into otherwise fairly straightforward, familiar or hackneyed narrative structures. He delights in evoking sympathy for villains and encouraging critical distance from heroes.  

The social making of meaning

But I’m still repeating a conceit that we ought now to ditch. We cannot base our assessment of Shakespeare’s plays on our guesses as to his personal intentions, opinions or political inclinations, and not just because information about Shakespeare’s life and career is notoriously scant. Not only is it impossible ever to know the inner motivations of a dead writer, in fact it is not possible to arrive at a "pure" original meaning from which interpretations deviate. Even living writers are not at liberty to dictate what is and isn't a true understanding of their work. 

Even if I jot down a few ideas on a page that I never show to anyone, or speak aloud in an empty room, I am still creating meaning socially. I still rely on socially excepted codes of expression, ideas, language and communicative conventions created by human society. There is no escaping language. 

In a play this process is clearly manifest and multi-layered. The playwright, director, actors, backstage crew and audience all actively collaborate to create the meaning of the performance – though naturally this meaning can be, and usually is, both ambiguous and contested. A writer's biography might give us clues to the meaning of their texts, but the danger is always that this is taken to be the "correct" meaning - a position which obscures, and abrogates our responsibility for, the social making of meaning.  

This argument does not have to lead into a pit of complete relativism. That meaning is socially created doesn’t mean that anything goes: there are not an infinite number of possible interpretations of Shrew that directors can conjure. All productions are powerfully shaped by Shakespeare’s text on the one hand and the prevailing ideological climate (or, better, structures of feeling) of the society receiving the performance, which finally manifests itself in the audience’s response, mediated by their active consciousness. Given all this it is possible to observe, as I have done above, instances where modern directors are stretching the meaning of the play, as it were, against the grain of the text, making full use of amenable ambiguities. This tendency speaks volumes about our society as well the play itself.  

Nonetheless, this reasoning does lead to the rather uncomfortable conclusion that we, audiences, are at least partly responsible for the meaning of a play like The Taming of the Shrew. 

Telling Petruchio to piss off 

In the Globe performance of Shrew I saw, the actor playing Petruchio used one of his lines to appeal to the audience, pantomime-style, to support his taming of Katherina. The vast majority of the audience, swept up in the pacey performance, responded positively - but there were also a few pointed shouts of “no!”. Does this mean that, save a few brave dissenters, most of the audience were sexist? Of course not - no more so than that an audience which cheers the coronation of Richard III are condoning the murder of small boys. 

However, I was relieved that some in the audience shouted “no!”. At the same time I was well aware that the performance wouldn’t work unless the majority of the audience consented, suspending their beliefs along with their disbelief. A show of dissent cannot dissolve the real contradictions this play plays on.  

I reckon that an audience in a society free from sexism would be unlikely to feel uncomfortable watching this play – they probably wouldn’t bother going to see it at all or find it of any interest. There’s no reason to think that any of Shakespeare’s plays will seem meaningful to audiences for ever, in all kinds of future societies. The frisson that Shrew continues to create for modern audiences is based on the fact that we recognise many of the characteristics of Early Modern misogyny in contemporary capitalist society.  

Katherina’s speech is difficult to listen to because she expresses the logic of sexism pushed to its extreme but logical conclusion – a husband’s boot crushing his submissive wife’s hand. Watching The Taming of the Shrew today is an uncomfortable experience because it reminds us that oppression has not disappeared, but endures, cloaked in new forms and old prejudices, lurking beneath both crude and equivocal phrases. 

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01h23lr