Cancelling The Taming of the Shrew?
Valanci Villa | June 7, 2021
Hulu’s 2017 anxiety inducing show, The Handmaid’s Tale, had come off its two-year hiatus right when I was studying for my exam on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1594). Both The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaption of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel where women are treated as property of the state, and The Taming of the Shrew, a play about the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina and how he “tames” her through psychological abuse, caused me to loathe such fictional characters due to their sexism, yet I couldn’t stop watching. This feeling sparked my interest in finding out why people love watching entertainment that infuriates them. With cancel culture criticizing many problematic figures from the past and present, I couldn’t help but wonder if the controversial The Taming of the Shrew would be next on the list of reviews. This was my first time analyzing this play; I had read Shakespeare before, specifically Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth. Although all of them were visibly misogynistic in different ways, The Taming of the Shrew stood out to me, partially due to its more blatant sexism and obvious abuse of the female characters. Within The Taming of the Shrew, we witness Katherine’s husband, Petruchio, withhold food from her, deprive her of sleep and verbally abuse her in front of her family and fellow townspeople. Although this type of mistreatment was not uncommon in the comedy genre of the early modern period, I can’t help but ask myself, “Should we still be comfortable with plays like The Taming of the Shrew?”
Prior to reading The Taming of the Shrew, most directors provide a content warning, relaying the fact that this play contains dialogue and actions that could be triggering, but is that enough? When viewing Franco Zefferilli’s film adaption (1967) of the play, I felt my inner-feminist blood boiling. Watching a group of men not only determine a woman’s future, but then mock her because of their decisions made my stomach turn. Of course, being an early modernist, I have come across many texts similar in content to The Taming of the Shrew. Perhaps it was due to the discussions I had listened to in my undergraduate Shakespeare class regarding this play that made me wonder about the effect it still has on people today. This class was made up of undergraduates ranging from eighteen years old to roughly late twenties, with many remarking on some of their first encounters with Shakespeare. There were disputes as to whether or not Katherine indeed wanted to marry the obnoxious, belittling man who was hungry for property and control; however, the comment from class that struck me most was the theory that Katherine wanted to be tamed by this man. Immediately, the discussion of the schoolyard theory that boys pick on girls they like, came up. Today, I know the schoolyard postulation is being cast out, along with the “boys will be boys “ rhetoric when wrong doings occur. I hadn’t given much thought on whether or not Shakespeare’s problem play should be taken from the shelves and off teachers’ lesson plans. Yet, I can see why some people would argue that it is feeding centuries-old ideologies of women tolerating abuse from men. Professor James Shapiro suggests that “even in its own day, The Taming of the Shrew—a play that delivers on the promise of its title, regaling us with how Petruchio breaks the will of his headstrong wife, Katherine, declaring, ‘She is my goods, my chattels . . . my ox, my ass, my anything’ (3.2.230–32)—seems to have troubled theatergoers” (Shakespeare In A Divided America, chapter 6). It is comforting to know that there were people in the sixteenth century that detested spousal violence and abuse against women and that not everyone turned a blind eye.
However, when looking at the why instead of the how, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much the actual play, or even Shakespeare, that people today would find offensive, but rather Shakespeare’s society back then. Contrary to Katherine’s character, many women faced far greater torture when they committed the same acts of disobedience against their husbands. Instead of being starved or deprived of sleep, some “women who were said to scold or argue with their husbands were often punished with a ducking stool in a local river or pond or led around the town wearing a Scold’s Bridle — a heavy iron cage for the head with a tongue iron in the mouth,” (BBC, Attitudes to Punishment). Like any great entertainer, Shakespeare created works of art that would grab his audiences’ attention, lure them in, and leave them waiting for his next big reveal. No one can say he believed in the mistreatment that he put on stage, but rather that he recognized societal norms and beliefs enough to make a profit off of them.
I find myself caught in the middle of a never-ending war of trying to negotiate being an avid Shakespeare fan while also a present-day feminist. I often get asked how I can praise a male writer who puts such material on the stage and, to that, my answer is I simply don’t know. I guess you could say I admire the idea that, perhaps, Shakespeare created his plays as a way of expressing ironic humor, mocking the general public for such sexist beliefs. I also find solace in the strong and defiant female characters, representing a majority of historical women’s vexation with trying to be silenced by men who sought control in any way they could. I like being able to travel back on these times, through pages and stages, to see how far women have come and how much further we have to go. It brings about the question, though, do works labeled “timeless” such as Shakespeare’s ever meet an expiration? And if so, who determines that? I think “cancelling” anything that surrounds the idea of history has both its pros and cons. Spanish philosopher George Santayana stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Part of me would like to believe that ridding bookshelves of texts that produce sexist and prejudiced rhetoric would help society move forward in a positive fashion, but I also don’t think that’s realistic. By keeping works like The Taming of the Shrew around, we as a society are able to reflect and avoid repeating such horrific history. Should we be comfortable with toxic texts like The Taming of the Shrew? Absolutely not. Should we rid the world of it? Absolutely not.