Making a merry jest of Shrew’s misogyny
Shakespeare’s early ‘screwball’ comedy, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, is one of his most popular and controversial – so can an all-female cast take the edge of its sexism
More tame than shrew: the Globe Theatre production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
More tame than shrew: the all-woman cast of the Globe Theatre production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
There was once a popular English folk ballad called A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for Her Good Behaviour. It is the tale of a “curst” headstrong daughter broken down by her new husband who beats her body bloody then wraps her in the salted skin of a dead horse, named Morel.
In Renaissance England, this grotesque scenario wouldn’t have sounded exceptionally cruel. To question a husband’s authority was to be a “scold”, an offence punishable by law. Although it is inspired by the ballad, The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, never depicts anything as physically brutal, but violence always seems to be waiting in the wings. “To cart her, rather,” whispers one character when he is encouraged to “court” Katherina, the Shrew of the title – meaning he would prefer to chain her to a cart and drag her through town, one of many punishments reserved for a woman who dared to speak her mind.
This is the intractable problem with one of Shakespeare’s most popular and most controversial comedies: does it make a “Merry Jest” out of misogyny? Its early encounters between the raffish but money-grubbing Petruchio and the fiery Katherina are equal in wit and almost sexual in intensity. But after a humiliating wedding, he will starve her, deprive her of sleep and persuade her that the moon shines in daytime. It is mental torture played for laughs.
This has led to a long tradition of subverting the play by adding contemporary comment or unnerving shocks. Michael Bogdanov’s 1978 version for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, began with an audience member verbally assaulting a female usher; they would later return to the stage as Petruchio and Katherina. In Rough Magic’s 2006 production the director, Lynne Parker, staged the play as a wicked parody of 1970s rural Ireland, trimmed with fright wigs and against-the-grain comic performances.
Now a new outdoor touring production of the play for the Globe Theatre, which will run at the Kilkenny Arts Festival next month, has taken a different approach and cast the show entirely with women. This could make for a radically different performance: an acid comment on misogyny past and present, perhaps; a late riposte to the Elizabethan culture of boy-players; or a provocative take on power and submission in same-sex relationships. At the very least, in an act that would appal the “shrew-tamers” of centuries ago, it could be an opportunity to answer back.
More tame than shrewd
As a light summer drizzle falls over the recreated outdoor Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank, though, we appear to have something more tame than shrewd. “Welcome! How y’all doing?” calls out one of the eight performer-musicians to the families and school tours seated in wooden stalls and the groundlings that stand around the stage. “I just have to ask, are you ready for some ladies?” The audience hoots back. It would appear that they are.
Shortly after the show, its director, Joe Murphy, an enthusiastic and agreeable Dublin-born man in his late 20s, considers the choices any production of the play has to make. “When you’re doing Taming of the Shrew, you come up against so many ideas and such complex relationships to it,” he says. “I think that what we learned by doing it with an all-women cast was that there was an opportunity just to play the play as the play. Because the most powerful argument against its misogyny is just to show its misogyny. It’s very obvious that these eight intelligent, empowered women on stage are not condoning it. They’re putting it on so you will be repulsed by it.”