How Should We Respond to Shakespeare’s Sexism?

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Julia Stiles as Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You (via Flavorwire)

It’s difficult for me to get through The Taming of the Shrew without wincing. One of Shakespeare’s first plays, it tells the story of a difficult, outspoken and often rude woman, Katherina, and her gradual taming under the machinations of her suitor, Petruchio. Over the course of the play she is made obedient by bullying, mockery, captivity and even starvation. It’s a situation very difficult to reconcile with any concept of modern feminism. And yet, despite its rather horrible themes and message, it is a play studied widely in high school classrooms and university programs alongside other problematic plays by Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

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In reading and watching these plays, readers are forced into a complicated position: how do I negotiate between the outmoded and bigoted values of these plays while still opening myself to learning from and appreciating the literary genius we value in Shakespeare’s work? Can works based on such ugly philosophies still be considered works of genius? Is it possible to reconcile these plays with modern values, and is it worthwhile to do so?

Many academics and performers alike have attempted such work—all of which has a distinct air of revisionism, of guilt and of discomfort. Is it morally right to perform a play like The Taming of the Shrew for modern audiences in a way that does not challenge or condemn the play’s misogyny? Stephen Greenblatt, a Shakespearean scholar, observes that many modern interpretations of the play involve rethinking Katherina’s final monologue, in which she acknowledges her happy submission to her husband by the actress winking and gesturing throughout. Such an interpretation maintains the law of the play while editing the spirit to modern values, and, as Greenblatt suggests, “signals a desire to ‘save’ Shakespeare” from now unsavory associations. Other adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, such as the film 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), do not attempt to tame the shrew at all. In 10 Things, Kat, played by Julia Stiles, is a Feminine Mystique-toting high school senior with venom-laced comebacks. Over the course of the film, she is reluctantly wooed by Patrick, played by Heath Ledger, the mysterious school rebel. By the film’s end, Kat isn’t so much tamed as she is better socialized. In fact, the most important lesson of the film is that Kat and Patrick both change as they are both brought into a position of greater understanding and respect for one another.

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One of the great values of theatre and performance is the fundamental right for players to reinterpret scripts and ideas. However, by re-writing the play or reinterpreting the delivery of their most problematic speeches in order to avoid the problematic misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew, the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice or the racism of Othello, we avoid a very important responsibility we have as readers and consumers of media.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We cannot erase Shakespeare’s injustices.[/pullquote] We cannot erase Shakespeare’s problems and injustices. Nor should we. To write them off as a product of another time is simply another way of ignoring them. When we read or watch these plays, I think that it is important for audiences to come face-to-face with the problems that present themselves in the works of even our most beloved literary idols. When we rewrite these plays to be less problematic, we acknowledge that the problems we seek to rewrite are problems that are still extremely relevant in modern society. But instead of challenging the problems, we present them as if they did not exist in the first place. We reveal our discomfort and guilt about holding in high esteem writers who are more human than we are willing to admit.
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It is difficult, though, maybe impossible, to perform or read The Taming of the Shrew in a way that challenges its misogyny without adding to it or rewriting the play itself. How do we engage critically with a problematic play without touching it? How do we negotiate between what Shakespeare is and what we want Shakespeare to be? I’m not sure that I have a good answer, or one that solves every part of the problem. Maybe that’s the rub. Problematic literature is an essential part of canon, and a part we can neither afford to gloss over or retroactively correct. It’s a part of literature that we have a responsibility to keep talking about constantly. We can’t let ourselves be passive audiences who check out after the curtain closes. The Taming of the Shrew is not a progressive play in cahoots with the audience’s more progressive sensibilities, no matter how we try to adapt it otherwise. We cannot consume or study literature in a vacuum. We would be wise to acknowledge not only that, but that as much as we might love Shakespeare, our relationship with him is very, very complicated. As we like it.