This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak. ‘Tis charity to show.William Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew
When I went to see the RSC’s new production of Taming of the Shrew, I had few expectations. I had never seen a performance of it before and I had got through school and an English Literature degree without having to study it in detail. But a casual awareness of the plot and strikingly sexist title alone is enough to put many people off this problematic comedy. In a way I count myself lucky that I was spared having to debate it in a seminar room full of Literature students that are either too hesitant or blinded by “genius” to criticise the great Shakespeare.
But when I saw a touring production from the RSC advertising a reimagining of Elizabethan society as a matriarchy – gender swapping all the roles – I was intrigued. I bought tickets for the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and tried to keep an open mind.
For those of you who are not familiar with Taming of the Shrew, lets catch you up quickly: Baptista Minola, a rich gentleman of Padua wants to marry his two daughters to the highest bidder. The youngest, virginal and docile Bianca has many suiters. But Baptista insists that his eldest Katherine, must be married first. Katherine, the shrew, is wilful, disobedient and sharp-tongued. In other words, not wife material! No gentleman dares to take her on and see her unwomanly independence as an obstacle to the hand of her much more appealing sister. That is, until Petruchio of Verona shows up and relishes the challenge of marrying and taming this shrew. Once he has her as his wife, he deprives her of sleep, starves her and mentally tortures her into submission. The play ends with Katherine as the perfect dutiful wife, obeying Petruchio’s every whim.
Now, imagine all of those characters as the opposite gender. Baptista is now a mother to two sons Bianco and Katherine; Bianco’s suitors bidding for his hand are women; and our so called “romantic hero” is now a heroine, Petruchia, hell bent on taming her husband.
There’s something telling in the fact I found it difficult to imagine how this play would work. Really because misogynistic perceptions of gender roles are deeply ingrained in our society to this day. I strongly identify as a feminist and believe in equality of all genders. But when I tried to imagine these characters as the opposite gender: a mother selling off their son to the first brute who would take them; a wife who unmercifully torments their husband and a man who bows to it. This contradicts conventions of femininity and masculinity that permeate our culture even now in 2020 when it is still difficult for men to come forward as victims of domestic abuse. But I have to confess, a convincing picture of how these characters would work as the opposite gender just did not come naturally to mind before I saw this production.
This new reimagining of Taming of the Shrew from RSC was clever, thought provoking and honestly, very funny. Its humour was one of its great strengths, poking fun at the conventions of gender and almost luring you into a false sense of security with its effortless whit. The light whimsical tone leaves the audience ill-prepared for the scene of abuse that is to come. When we return from the interval, setting a new scene at Petruchia’s home at the beginning of act 4, the lights are darker, the atmosphere bleak and Katherine in the middle of all that – a young man stripped down to a long white shirt – whom Petruchia brutally dehumanises and torments. Katherine is her hostage and her victim. When they meet earlier in the play they seem on equal footing, verbally sparring with each other, you would think that the two had met their match. But the speed and intensity at which Katherine as a husband is brought down to the status of prisoner and victim, is a startling reminder that in this world, there can be no equals. That scene stood out from the rest of the play and was honestly quite shocking and uncomfortable to watch.
In the final scene, Katherine returns to Padua a broken man. He proves himself the most obedient of husbands, more so than Bianco, and defeated he shares a monologue on the duty of a husband owed to his wife. A duty of subservience and unwavering obedience. This final monologue was one of quiet reflection. You could have heard a pin drop in the theatre. Compare this to the same speech performed by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film. Her portrayal is not one of somebody broken. She speaks with confidence and gratitude, while orchestral music swells behind her telling us to think “thank god she finally gets it, now she can be a good wife and have a happy ending that she must have surely wanted all along!”
Katherine played by Joseph Arkley in this new RSC production however, speaks with sadness and quiet resignation. This was not a person who had realised the error of their ways but a person who was brainwashed, whose spirit had been so entirely crushed that they believe they have no other choice. They learn the hard way to conform.
Let’s take these different interpretations that are decades apart, as a positive sign that our cultural view on gender roles and control in relationships is slowly but surely evolving.
The play ends with the power dynamics of this world set right. The gentlewomen sitting tall, and their husbands dutifully sat by their feet on cushions on the floor. Like pets. They have been successfully domesticated. Animals tamed into being the submissive husband.
Now you might ask, does swapping the genders of Taming of the Shrew make its subject any more palatable?
No, of course not!
Its themes of control and abuse are as problematic as ever. But it starts a conversation about the relevance of gender roles as a social construct and the weaknesses of our humanity.
Going back to my earlier point, that it was hard to imagine these gender roles reversed, it was impressive how naturally women slotted into these traditionally masculine roles. They were powerful, dominant, they commanded the stage with ease. They made eye contact with the male characters, which was a big no no for Elizabethan women. They invaded men’s space moving freely around the stage, the male characters at their mercy.
Some of you might be reminded of The Power by Naomi Alderman – a dystopian novel where women become the dominant sex. Well, there is a reason for that. In the show’s programme, the director Justin Audibert cites the 2016 book as the inspiration for this new production:
“I’m interested in seeing what happens when you get female actors to play traditionally powerful male roles, and visa versa. I wanted to see what it would feel like when the male voice is not the dominant one.”Justin Audibert, director, Taming of the Shrew (RSC) 2020
For those of you who haven’t read The Power, I strongly recommend it. In Alderman’s book, the young women discover they have electricity running through their bodies, giving them the power to overthrow men as the dominant sex in society. It’s a chilling read, where women leave behind their identity as victims in society, by becoming the perpetrators. They are the abusers, the murderers and the rapists. They commit crimes that are perverse and shatter any idea of inherent femininity.
Like in Alderman’s novel, by shifting the power to the women in Taming of the Shrew we challenge cultural perceptions of masculinity and femininity. How can we say women are more naturally nurturing and gentle, when we see them fit so comfortably into these dominating and even violent roles: two traits that are perceived – rightly or wrongly – as masculine. It reveals that these cultural perceptions of what a man or woman should be have nothing to do with gender, but everything to do with who has power in society. It is a weakness of our humanity not of gender that makes a person easily corrupted by power.
Alderman sums it up perfectly in her book:
One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’
And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’
That is the only answer there ever is.Naomi Alderman, The Power
Both The Power and the RSC’s new version of the Taming of the Shrew both make a bold statement about gender. One that is smart, daring and seriously feminist. That all genders are capable of anything. Man or woman, you are capable of power. You are also capable of abusing it.