Shakespeare’s plays offer themselves to be interpreted in infinite ways no matter the context. Starting from discourse and symbolism to subtext and political references, one can find multiple ways to interpret his works. “The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s remarkably popular comedies. The play has been adapted numerous times for stage, screen, opera, ballet, musical theatre, and in many other forms. Despite being one of the most beloved classic comedies of all time, it is also one of the most problematic work of Shakespeare. Throughout the past century, critics and academics have denounced it as barbarous, offensive, and misogynistic. The play illustrates the strong dynamic between men and women, and the conflicts that arise.
Despite all the controversies the play represents for modern gender politics, at the end it comes down to what approach the audience takes to interpret it. Shakespeare offers us his take on the trope in both comedy and tragedy, leading the audience to face a perplexing text whose meaning shifts depending on what approach is taken. One can interpret the relationship between the protagonist couple as harmless and treat their interactions as playful banters based on a comical approach; or one can interpret their relationship as horrifyingly violent and oppressive from a tragical perspective. It will be the end of time before the world will run out of new and different ways to inspect the same story over and over. While these different ways of interpreting and presenting the play offer different insights and understandings, in this article I would like to analyze and interpret this classic from a modern perspective to show how the piece contradicts and supports today’s status of sexism, patriarchy, feminism, and equality in our society.
The role of women in modern society is quickly changing. Times have changed, and statistically women are increasingly taking over in all fields, including politics. Prejudice and discrimination against women have become subtler and more covert over the years, but it’s not gone. Most women are victims of indirect sexism in their daily lives. In the play, one of the main and only prominent female characters, Katherina, is described as this very foul-tempered and sharp-tongued woman. Her behavior and attitude do not fit the social conventions of a noble lady of that time; therefore, she is despised and hated all through the city. Now if one applies this situation to our current society, would there be any dramatic change between the reactions and consequences compared to those times, or would it be somewhat similar?
This play is a celebration of a woman being subordinated. The solution of the main conflict comes with taming. The conclusion suggests that Katherina adopts this view of women for herself and evangelizes this mode to other women. All of this contradicts everything we learn about women’s equality in today’s society. However, it does seem like society’s treatment of women hasn’t changed that much over the course of time; in fact, it has remained fast enough that we see similar reactions against other strong-minded and outspoken women. For instance, let’s take a look at the case of the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Greta has become an international sensation over the period of a short time, and within this period she has spoken out about important climate issues and founded the global movement known as FridaysForFuture.
She has inspired and encouraged millions of students around the world to participate in demonstrations to demand action to prevent further global warming and climate change. Yet there are grown adult men—especially right-wing conservative climate deniers—who resort to bullying, mocking, and demeaning her based on her intelligence, age, and mental health. On her first day of sailing, a multi-millionaire Brexit activist tweeted that he wished an accident would destroy her boat. A conservative Australian columnist, Andrew Bolt, called her a “deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement” (Independent, u.d.), and the British far-right activist David Vance attacked the “sheer arrogance of this petulant child.” (Vance, u.d.). Recently the US president, Donald Trump, also joined in when he said “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!” (Trump, u.d.) in response to “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
While these examples might feel like just a coincidence to some, the idea of white men attacking a teenage girl like Greta is consistent with a growing body of research linking gender reactionaries to climate denialism (Centre for Studies of Climate Change Denialism, u.d.). According to research in the United States, which was published in 2017, many men associate and perceive climate activism as feminism (American, 2017). Which brings us back to square one, did our social perspective and acceptance of female, feminism, and femininity change since Shakespeare’s time? If one takes both circumstances out of context, more parallels can be observed than contradictions. These two situations aren’t mirror images of each other, but they are awfully similar. Katherina is a fictional character created for the purpose of entertainment, yet her portrayal seems to represent women’s position even today.
The language of hunting is a recurring motif in the play and indicates a larger metaphor beyond its simple role to illustrate social standard. In the framing Induction, the Lord has a conversation with his huntsmen about the hunt, which seamlessly turns into a conversation about Christopher Sly. The Lord refers to Sly using dehumanizing terms like “monstrous beast” and “swine.” By setting up that trap, the men in the alehouse display how his low social status makes him nothing more than just a mere animal in their eyes, which they can use for game and recreation. Katherina is similarly dehumanized on several occasions.
“She is my good, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.”
The quote above is by Petruchio describing Katherina. It is noticeable how he positions her alongside animals and household objects, things men tend to desire and consume for their benefit. The fundamental plot of the play is a man taming his wife, which is a theme of animal domestication itself. The protagonist intends to assert his patriarchal dominance over Katherina, a process in which his social standard and intelligence plays a huge vital role. Petruchio explicitly reflects the method of him taming his wife with falconers, a very disturbing metaphor to use as a model for marriage. Shakespeare highlights the inequality of the dynamic by using this metaphor, which might seem like he is manipulating the audience to justify such action, but in reality, he creates a stark contrast to subtly focus on.
This act of degrading a person to the level of inanimate objects is a product of misogyny. One can draw a parallel between Katherina and Sly, who is also treated cruelly except it is based on class rather than gender hierarchies of privilege. Both Katherina and Sly are on the receiving end of patriarchal dominance based on gender and social status. The constant references to hunting made by male characters discussing their social inferiors are incredibly uncomfortable and inhumane. All of these might suggest that the author is trying to critique the patriarchal system rather than advocating it.
Even after all these years The Taming of the Shrew is still one of the most popular plays by Shakespeare. It is still brought into life by different productions everyday with fresh and divergent interpretations. But how does it reflect today’s society? What kind of role does it play in this modern setting? I think the play is an ironic illustration of the ridiculousness of patriarchic standards for society, and it actually exhibits a dark realistic truth of our lives using comical devices and setting. The comedy itself is also not light and simple but instead indicates darker subtext. When it comes to the characters and how one might receive them in current time, Petruchio definitely resembles a big portion of modern male demographic. Men who still consider themselves superior to women and who promote toxic masculinity via postulating socioeconomic standards and political belief. Then there is Katherina, who I believe had the potential to be a great feminist icon in the beginning when she went against social conventions and constantly challenged patriarchy. She is a character who speaks her mind and is more intelligent than her male counterparts. But the conclusion of her arc suggested defeat after being a target of subordination. Despite being the main conflict and goal of the story, solving the conflict and achieving the goal didn’t serve as a happy ending for this piece.
Katherina’s downfall leaves a harsh scar of reality in the text. She was denied food and sleep, she was abused and oppressed and broken day by day. She was forced into a state via physical and psychological manipulation and torment. At the end of the day, she sadly remains a realistic representation of women’s state today. Every woman who dares to raise their voice are collectively shut down, which is exactly what they are trying to do to Greta Thunberg. Inequality cannot be stopped in two days or in many years to come, but it is still possible to start making effective changes towards development. The global population needs to be educated about feminism and gender misconceptions. In this way, hopefully, someday a modern interpretation of a Shakespeare play won’t be this revealing.
Afra Sampreety, Student