Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” plays that are, on the surface comedies, but have difficulties that rebel against the comedy. The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well are among his other “problem plays.” To be honest, I love the problem plays, not just in spite of their difficulties, but because of their difficulties. I love the fact that the texts rebel against the reader or the audience. How much more fun!
Some times, the problems stem directly from the text themselves, such as Measure for Measure. Measure for Measure is about a terrible town leader, Angelo, who sentences a man to death for the crime of fornication and fathering a child out of wedlock. The convicted man’s sister Isabella, a novice at a nearby convent, goes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life. The man decides that he is love with the novice and makes her and offer. “Do me and I’ll spare your brother, reject me and I’ll torture your brother before I kill him.”
This is a comedy. (Don’t worry, it ends in marriage.)
Other times, the problem stems from the change in societal attitudes. No play exemplifies this more than The Merchant of Venice. The villain of the piece is a Jewish money lender, a common villain at the time. While Shakespeare gives Shylock his “If you prick us do we not bleed?” speech, Shylock is unquestionably written in the mode of earlier stereotypes about Jews. Shylock is greedy and not to be trusted. Shakespeare’s audience probably felt little difficulty with this piece. In a modern context, this play is especially difficult because we live in the shadow of Auschwitz. (I saw a version of the Merchant of Venice a few years ago. The director was Jewish, and he did not shy away from the difficulties.)
Taming of the Shrew is a curious mix of both difficulties, but I want to focus on the second difficulty because I think it highlights a blind spot that Shakespeare possessed.
We often talk about Shakespeare as though he was God. Shakespeare understood the human condition in its entirety, or, as Harold Bloom seems to argue, Shakespeare created the human condition. One sign of his genius is Shakespeare understood women far better than any male writer I can name. While some of Shakespeare’s characters are misogynists, Shakespeare does not treat women contempt or as the suspicious “other.” Despite that, there is one area that Shakespeare did not understand very well in my mind, and that is the role of violence and power in the interactions between men and women.
The most shocking example of that is in Titus Andronicus, as one of my college friends dubbed it, “young, angry Shakespeare.” In the play, Tamara’s sons fall in love with Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. Then Aaron, the villain of the piece, convinces them to rape Lavinia. The boys rape her, cut off her hands, and cut out her tongue to conceal their identities. Think about that. Perhaps I am just hopelessly naive, but I can’t imagine many men hearing, “You know that girl you love? You should rape her, cut off her hands, and cut out her tongue,” and thinking, “Good idea.”
Measure for Measure is another example. Angelo decides to pressure Isabella to break her vow of chastity and sleep with him, threatening her brother’s life if she does not comply. In my Acting Shakespeare class in college, I watched two classmates perform this scene. The teacher emphasized Angelo really does love Isabella, he just doesn’t know how to love. Poor Angelo, making the classic mistake of threatening his beloved’s family members. (Ok, as I write that, I remember how totally obsessed I was with the Phantom of the Opera. But I was twelve, and the Phantom had the excuse of being isolated from all human contact.) In all seriousness, a modern audience would not watch a man threaten to kill a young woman’s family members to coerce her into sleeping with him and think, “Ahh, young love.” We would attribute a darker, more sinister motive to the man, one of power and control. And for my money, we would be right.
We even see this in Othello. Othello claims that he “loved not wisely, but too well.” Othello kills his life. (Oh, spoiler alert.) A man kills his wife because he loves her too much? That’s what OJ Simpson said once. “If I killed her, it would be because I loved her very much.” How sweet. Hearing statements like that makes me glad I am single.
In all seriousness, I love Shakespeare. We should all love Shakespeare. My friend and I visited the First Folio this year when it came to town. We jokingly referred to it as “our pilgrimage.” I joked that we should circle the First Folio seven times, like the Kaaba.
But, Shakespeare is not God. He is not all knowing; there were things that I don’t think he understood very well, and the darker power dynamics between men and women (and what motivates men to threaten and act violently towards women) is one of them.
This plays a part in The Taming of the Shrew, but only tangentially. After all, the only physical violence between Katherine and Petruchio is in their first meeting, when Katherine hits Petruchio. He threatens to retaliate, but never does, as far as we can see onstage. Still, he goes to great lengths to control her. As I said before, I like to call them, “enhanced taming techniques.” He deprives her of sleep and food. He cuts her off from her family and friends, a classic move used by abusive husbands and boyfriends everywhere. In Shakespeare’s world, this can only be out of the motive of “perfect love.”
The more my wrong, the more his spite appears:
What, did he marry me to famish me?
Beggars, that come unto my father’s door,
Upon entreaty have a present aims;
If not, elsewhere they meet with charity:
But I, who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat,
Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,
With oath kept waking and with brawling fed:
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under name of perfect love;
As who should say, if I should sleep or eat,
‘Twere deadly sickness or else present death.
I prithee go and get me some repast;
I care not what, so it be wholesome food.
Act 4, Scene 3
While the play definitely argues that Petruchio loves Katherine, the text of the play rebels against the treatment of poor Katherine at Petruchio’s hands. Moreover, modern audiences have a decidedly different (better) attitude towards relationships between men and women. Add to this, I am a woman.
Perhaps it is easier for me, as a woman living in the 21st century, to see the darker motives that might drive a man to isolate a woman from her friends and family and proceed to starve her and deprive her from sleep. It is these darker motives that I feel Shakespeare fails to portray adequately. This does not detract from the genius of his work, but it is worth remembering Shakespeare’s shortcomings.