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.

  • tambascot

    Try the 1594 quarto text: it was downright progressive for its time.

  • Jordan

    Yes, I agree that there are Shakespeare texts that downright condemn women to a life a servitude. However, there are also many plays where he shows them to be the most powerful and clever of his creations. He would give them strength in a time where that would have been impossible. To take a couple plays out of his cannon to condemn him is like taking parts of the Bible to condemn the rest of the world. Also, ignoring when it was written, knowing there is a man censoring work, is also a tish jaded. History cannot be ignored when evaluating truth, and doing so does not help us move forward. It allows us to remake tragic mistakes.

  • walt828

    We could remember that our values are not the best all and end all, that other cultures and eras were different than ours, and that it’s possible to watch a play with historical awareness.

  • Ian Thal

    Let it stand. This is how we understand that our 21st century enjoyment of liberal, pluralistic, democratic societies (however flawed and corrupt they may be in practice) is a unique and fortunate circumstance for those of us with the luxury to debate Shakespeare’s sexism.

    We should be genuinely uncomfortable with the moral dissonance between our era’s values and those of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Shakespeare, his protagonists, and his audiences considered sexism, racism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism to be, to some extent, necessary to the functioning of a well-ordered society.

  • australiavoice

    We are not the first to think that we know the correct answers to life and all its undulations. The bowdlerism of the Victorian age , for instance, was a reaction to the bawdiness and the sexual nature of Shakespeare’s plays, a practice which today we find unthinkable.

    To begin with, the very expression [quote] “many academics and performers alike have attempted such work—all of
    which has a distinct air of revisionism, of guilt and of discomfort.” [unquote] This suggests that many academics have a set mind, and performers are forced to interpret via some imagined “correct way,” or politically acceptable way.

    Then there is the odd question [quote] ” 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?” [unquote] It is not a matter of challenging or condemning, it is a matter of examining and structuring a set of values that may or may not be our own. Is it misogyny? For instance, Katherina may be a Shrew, a troublesome person, without representing the universal woman, and likewise for Petruchio, who is anything but the universal man. Two points : a play within a play, and a comedy.

    Shakespeare’s plays are theatrical works, entertainment and comment upon the world and the people in it. Othello is not a racist play, it is a racial play about power, jealousy, elements of racism and other human conditions, it is possible to play Iago without preaching the virtues of racism, greed, jealousy or wife abuse. it is possible to play Othello, without making a virtue of mendacity or uxoricide .

    We may expunge or launder Shylock or Othello or Katherina, but we will be left with a few “squeaky clean” PC adaptations of Shakespeare, to be performed in a world where racism, antisemitism and misogyny are still practiced daily.

    Shakespeare’s plays are challenging, even vexing at times, they are sometimes brilliant, sometimes not very good, some, may not even have been penned by him, but they are, by and large, a collection of masterpieces of English theatre; they are not above, but apart from fashion, fancy or political correctness. They must be read, studied, work-shopped, and rehearsed, in order to live and breathe, and this challenge is up to the actors and ( if it must be so) the individual directors, not academics or social commentators.

  • carsondyal

    We of the 21st Century, who allow 1 billion people to go hungry, while 62 individuals have more wealth than the bottom 50%, or 3.5 billion people, are hardly in a position to talk about morality. And folks, since we care so much about Shakespeare and language, why are we still using the term anti-Semitism to refer exclusively to Jews? That’s as absurd as saying anti-Chinese when you only mean those living in Hong Kong. There have been many Semitic peoples throughout history, and Arabs are far and away the largest group of Semites still around. So please, say anti-Jewish, not anti-Semitic. And try to be neither.

  • freelancewriternyc

    Good grief, even the most superficial reading of “Shrew” reveals it as a bildungsroman. Kate starts out as a, well, shrew. She ends, not as meek — “meek” women don’t throw women around the way she does.

    She learns to behave like a grown-up. Petruchio wants a wife who is an equal. You obviously would prefer a wimp like Hortensio, a “sensitive man.”

    Far from misogynist, “Shrew” is a landmark in proto-modern theater’s treatment of the battle of the sexes as a level playing field — a field Shakespeare visited often, most notably in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedict are the first truly “modern” couple.

    You could bowdlerize it. You wouldn’t be the first. Or better yet, if it bothers you that much, there are plenty of other Shakespeare plays that might interest you.

    • Lewec

      I highly disagree with that interpretation. She does not become a grown up, she becomes submissive and obedient. Petruchio doesn’t want an equal. He wants to put her in her place which is lower than him. He starves her, he ridicules her, and mentally tortures her. He wants obedience and he wants to be dominant. She agrees with everything he says in the end even if it is totally wrong like the sun is the moon or that a Vincentio is a woman and her will is totally broken in the end if you read her final lines as sincere that a wife’s place is beneath her husband. If you think that there was a level playing field between Kate and Petruchio, then you are ignoring history. She was being bargained off. Whatever power she had was an illusion. Quit trying to retcon Shakespeare.