Why Watch Taming of the Shrew?: On Enduring, Witnessing, and the Comedy of Domestic Violence

Janet McTeer and the company of /The Taming of the Shrew/. Photo: Joan Marcus. Image courtesy of The Public Theater.
Janet McTeer and the company of /The Taming of the Shrew/. Photo: Joan Marcus. Image courtesy of The Public Theater.

This summer, I left the Delacorte Theater with the conviction that I never needed to see Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew performed again. As critic after critic acknowledges, the play is a complicated one for modern audiences: it not only deals with a woman suffering blatant domestic violence but, worse, it asks us to laugh at her pain. More than perhaps any other of Shakespeare’s plays, Shrew delights in the traffic of women: it matters little that we’re given two very distinct examples of feminine strength and self-assurance. Katherine’s courtship boils down to: “if wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.65). Similarly, it is only a happy coincidence that Lucentio happens to be Bianca’s own choice—his negotiations with Baptista make it clear that the richest man will be the one to win her hand. And then, of course, we have that speech on a wife’s duties (5.2.154-97). Is Kate finally broken? Have she and Petruchio come to an agreement about her public demeanor? Or has she decided to play the game for the sake of her own self-preservation?

As we sat on the train on our way to Central Park, I told my partner I had minimal expectations about Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shrew: “as long as they take a stand on Kate’s final speech, I’ll be content,” I said.* Nothing against Lloyd, whose (also all-female) Henry IV part I was funny, poignant, and original, taking place in a women’s prison during rehearsals for the play. But although I am a passionate and loyal fan of Shakespeare in the Park, I’ve come to expect little daring in terms of the plays’ major arguments. Despite its star-power and often-incredible set designs, SitP directors rarely seem engaged in challenging the world order of the plays or responding to them critically. Shakespeare in the Park is an annual ritual for me. Yet, while I’m happy to wake up at 5am to earn one of their free tickets, I’m often miffed by the performances. After all, what’s the point of putting on a 400-year old play if we’re not to learn something new from it?

Admittedly, Lloyd’s Shrew offered much in the way of newness. The framing device, a beauty pageant,** highlighted the demeaning and performative roles imposed on the protagonists, while the all-female cast provided opportunities to explore the play’s misogyny from a different perspective. However, both elements failed for me in their function as arguments. To address the latter: a gender-bending cast, one might expect, offers unique opportunities for reinterpreting the characters themselves, their motivations and behaviors. What might happen, for instance, if Bianca (Gayle Rankin) were pursued by both men and women? How might we read Lucentio’s (Rosa Gilmore) disguise were she in drag as a male tutor? What differences might we identify in Petruchio (Janet McTeer) if she were not a direct proxy for the patriarchy but someone who, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuates the system of oppression onto her fellow women? Alas, these questions remained unanswered, because the cast largely conformed to their text-assigned genders, nearly to a fault: the men in suits; the women in infantilizing full-skirt dresses (arguably in line with the pageant theme).

Domestic violence was in full display in this Shrew. Petruchio’s proposal was physically forceful: Katherine’s (Cush Jumbo) arm was literally twisted as she was made to accept the engagement. Even before the scripted post-marital abuses, Petruchio had pinned Kate to a pillar, forced her onto his lap, and injured her arm. The torments after the marriage (including starvation and sleep deprivation—tortures still used against prisoners and hostages, let’s remember) were all played for laughs, culminating in Kate’s final submission speech, wherein McTeer fulfilled the textual cue and stepped on Jumbo’s laid-out hand—to great cheer from the male characters on stage. Their cheers seemed to re-ignite the framing device, as a disembodied voice announced Kate to be this year’s Miss Verona. The characters brought her flowers, a sash, and the symbolic crown when suddenly, to her shock, Kate “woke up,” exclaiming “this isn’t me!” She had just enough time to pull off her crown and sash before some of the men grabbed and threw her, kicking and screaming, down the trap door. The voice-over immediately announced Bianca to be this year’s new Miss Verona. **** Bianca was happy to be crowned and celebrated, her sister all but forgotten. And just as easily, her role was successfully conscripted within the pageant/performance system of the play and the status-quo thus restored. Shakespeare would have been proud.

Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo. Photo: Joan Marcus
Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo. Photo: Joan Marcus. Image Courtesy of The Public Theater.

The performance closed with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Cush Jumbo returned wearing a “Shrew” promotional shirt (one might wonder who would want to be a shrew after the horrors of the play), whereas the women who played male characters undid their shirts down to their bras. (“free” from their constraints?). But the celebration left me uneasy: did it soothe all the violence and erasure of women’s voices we had just observed for the past two hours? Who, supposedly, did not “give a damn about [their] bad reputation”? The modern-day actresses, invited to embody all characters in this strange, misogynist comedy? Kate, still presumably trapped in a cellar? Is the song meant to evoke a sense of relief that we no longer live in the world presented in the play? (Alas.)

Lloyd’s interpretation left too many unanswered questions. By inviting us to consider Shrew as a beauty pageant, the play seemed to suggest that all the women in the Delacorte – audience, actor, and character alike – were complicit in a system that treats women as commodities and then punishes them for refusing to play along. In crowning Bianca and locking away Kate as the prelude to a happy, rocking curtain call, Lloyd’s production wasted an opportunity to truly confront us with the consequences of what we had just witnessed.

As it happens, “witness,” is one of the central watchwords behind director Caroline Byrne’s own interpretation of Shrew I recently had the pleasure of seeing at the Globe. Shakespeare’s Padua was there reimagined as 1916 Ireland on the brink of Easter Rising. Instead of Sly’s framing device, the audience met Kate (Aoife Duffin), alone on stage, slowly singing a freedom ballad composed specifically for the show (“Numbered in the Song”).**** Duffin’s delivery was slow and deliberate; her words rung across a post-Brexit Globe in a mixture of discomfort and poignancy. “Neither one is free if one of us is bound,” she sang. “I will have my liberty.” One by one, the rest of the actors joined her on stage, picking up shoes set up on the floor to help them embody each respective character (the shoe motif returns at the end). Although not boasting of an all-female ensemble, the casting choices reinforced the civil rights theme—aside from the actresses playing the central characters, the other female actors were assigned to servant roles (Imogen Doel as Tanio; Molly Logan as Biondello; Helen Norton as Grumio). These women sent out a clear message about Padua/Ireland’s social structure: one way or another, women are forced to be subservient to the men in their lives.

A literal twist on the scene from SitP. Edward MacLiam and Aoife Duffin. Photo: Marc Brenner.
A literal twist on the scene from SitP. Edward MacLiam and Aoife Duffin. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Such small choices, including not only the cast, but costumes (Chiara Stephenson), set design (also Stephenson), and music (Morna Regan) contributed to an interestingly somber mood even in the funnier moments of the play. This sobriety was especially enhanced by the constant presence of the Widow/Haberdasher (Amy Conroy).***** Pulling a character with fewer than ten lines in the very last scene of the play and placing her on stage as early as act one was a bold move: what to do with a physical presence that has no lines and is only therefore allowed to observe and react to the action? The easy answer is: nothing. Before taking on speaking roles as the Haberdasher and Widow, Conroy moved across the stage silently engaging with the other characters. Conroy was the direct target of Petruchio’s (Edward MacLiam) bolstering he’d be willing to marry a rich woman “be she as foul as was Florentius’ love/as old as Sybil and as curst and shrewd/ as Socrates’ Xanthippe” (1.2.58-60) She was visibly offended by his comments, and although her reaction elicited laughter from the audience, it informed her next appearance as a stoic witness, smoking overhead while Kate was effectively silenced into marrying (2.1.304-28). She even tried to intervene in the wedding scene, quitely pleading with Kate not to go through with the wedding (3.2). Indeed, throughout the play Conroy’s presence provided the broader moments of sexism in the play with a physical and un-erasable body. A silent, walking reminder of the women just on the outside of the marriage traffic (in fact, a whole other review could be devoted to the double-consciousness required to reconcile the Widow in Act V with this nearly-supernatural figure), this arguably new character demanded that, following her example, the audience bear witness to the play’s violence rather than passively observe it. This character was thus Byrne’s (director) and Regan’s (dramaturg and lyricist) strongest argument: that we must react to, reflect on, and ultimately be enraged by these events. Even as we laugh, we must not forget the continuously injured and disrespected bodies on the stage.

Kate’s body was likewise utilized to indict Shrew’s (Shakespeare’s?) unrelenting destruction of women. The bottom half of the play typically alternates between Kate’s suffering—a more directly recognizable physical and psychological violence—and Bianca’s courtship, the supposed upside to Baptista’s treatment of his eldest. Chiara Stephenson however, placed Kate’s mattress-less bed frame on the center of the stage atop what can only be described as a mound of dirt. The contrast of pristine, coifed, happy Bianca in the foreground against Kate’s dirty, tattered, collapsed body in the bed called attention to the precarious state of women’s well-being, not just in the play but sadly throughout history—from early modern England, to 20th Century Ireland, to our modern days.

The play closed with a challenge: “will you wear my shoes,” asked the concluding stanzas of “Numbered in the Song.” When Kate announced “my hand is ready” (5.2.197), Petruchio stared in seeming shame at his wife kneeling on the ground and, for a brief moment of silence, it was unclear whether he truly would be willing to step on her extended palm. Instead, he took her hand in his, and Kate forced him down to her level as she began to sing. The actors slowly joined in, taking turns removing their shoes and placing them back on the stage before coming together in a circle for a happier Irish jig. And yet, even during this curtain-call celebration, Duffin looked deeply affected, still, by her character’s arch. The shoes we wear every day, the performances we choose to embody, the injustices we witness, each place us at a crossroads between action and denial. And for this audience member, like Kate/Aoife Duffin, I couldn’t walk away in a full state of joy.

Following my initial disappointment in Lloyd’s version, Byrne reminded me that I must continue to watch, read, and yes, even teach The Taming of the Shrew. For those of us invested in any degree of feminism and social justice, this play can seem like a burden. But what The Globe’s production teaches us, I think, is that it remains a necessary burden to bear. It would be easier to abandon the play altogether, but looking away is not an option. Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Shrew offers an unflinching reflection of the sometimes unbearable injustices of our world. That this play remains deeply unsettling and yet incredibly timely therefore demands that we bear witness to its violence (and our own complicity in it). It’s certainly wonderful that an increasing number of women can afford the privilege to seek marriage, self-care, money, learning, or any other path and still find themselves free to make choices. Undoubtedly, it was wonderful for women in Ireland to demand and earn (somewhat) equal rights during their country’s claim to independence. But while the control and destruction of women’s bodies remains a reality outside the stage (not to mention inside our government and laws), we must bear witness to it—and, hopefully, take action in creating a world in which this play will be only a reminder of why we’ve invested so much the emotional and civic labor in the fight for respect.

* Note 1: Full disclosure: I arrived late at the Delacorte and missed the opening act, which involved (from what I can gather from the promotional photos and reviews) a pageant dance in which all the women in the cast were dressed as contestants and Janet McTeer (Petruchio) was crowned Miss Verona. As I discuss here, this framing device returns at the end to questionable results.
** Note 2: This is of course not to imply that suits and dresses are inherently gender-specific. My reading of the performance, however, is that the costumes were used to visually distinguish the women playing male characters from those playing female characters.
*** Note 3: Some of you may find in this scene direct echoes to the fiasco of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, in which Miss Colombia was accidentally crowned after the announcer misread the teleprompter. It seems too much of a parallel to be a coincidence, although I can’t find what this contributes critically to the performance other than another moment in which we’re asked to take joy in another woman’s humiliation.
**** Note 4: Morna Regan is in fact an activist for Irish representation on the stage, particularly for women. You can read her note to Waking the Feminists: Equality for Women in Irish Theater here.
***** Note 5: I’ve discovered upon reading the cast list that Conroy was technically playing multiple characters. The decision to assign her to the Widow, I think, was no coincidence.

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