The RSC is staging not one but two productions of The Taming Of The Shrew in the next few months, Tim Crouch’s Young People’s Shakespeare production opens at The Swan Theatre at the end of September, followed by Lucy Bailey’s main house production in January 2012. The Taming Of The Shrew is notoriously difficult to stage for a 21st century audience informed by feminism so it’s interesting to read Germaine Greer on the subject.
Although she’s better known for her feminist writing, Greer’s first love is Shakespeare. Her PhD thesis was on The Ethic Of Love And Marriage In Shakespeare’s Early Comedies and her best-selling book, The Female Eunuch, is littered with Shakespearean references. She contributed the book on Shakespeare in the Oxford University Press A Very Short Introduction series (first published as OUP Past Masters) and she wrote a biography of Anne Hathaway called Shakespeare’s Wife in which she suggests that, rather than being the illiterate and irrelevant drudge of many male-authored biographies, Anne would have read her husband’s poetry and might even have paid for the First Folio to be published.
So what does she make of The Taming Of The Shrew? Surprisingly, she likes it. As she says in Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction, ‘The Taming Of The Shrew is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals’.
In The Female Eunuch she claims that the play celebrates a new idea of marriage. Pre-Elizabethan, feudal society had no place for love in marriage; for the land-owning aristocracy marriage existed to secure the legitimacy of the male succession and, ‘love was a blight, a curse, a wound, death, the plague,’ while for landless peasants, ‘the obsession of romantic love was simply irrelevant.’ The Elizabethan era saw the beginning of the modern world; land enclosure displaced agricultural workers who moved to the developing cities where a new urban middle class began to form. The middle classes earned, rather than inherited, their wealth, they married later and they could travel to find a suitable mate. A new model of marriage was needed based, not on sexual control, but on equality and companionship, and Shakespeare provided it, ‘One of the most significant apologists of marriage as a way of life and a road to salvation was Shakespeare.’
In The Taming Of The Shrew Shakespeare contrasts the wooing and marriages of Kate and Bianca. Bianca is younger and prettier and she plays the courtship game to land the more highly prized suitor but after marriage, as Greer says, ‘Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman who has no objection to humiliating him in public.’ Kate, on the other hand, has taken herself off the market by becoming an unmanageable scold but ‘she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty.’
Actors and directors tie themselves in knots trying to modernise Kate’s submission speech at the end of the play. Is she being sarcastic? Is she playful or bullied? Greer says play it straight, ‘Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written’ and Petruchio is ‘both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever)’.
The Taming Of The Shrew as proto-feminist tract? What do you think?