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

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."

That’s probably not why the Globe is touring the production in the UK and as far afield as Malta, Austria and Hong Kong and marketing it as “an outrageous comedy” featuring “one of the theatre’s great screwball double-acts”. Murphy’s production is, like many outdoor Shakespeare productions, a brisk and limpid entertainment, guided by live music and song, daubed with seemingly random regional accents and a hotchpotch of 20th-century fashions that suggest a tornado in the costume department. There are broad sight gags and merry anachronisms, such as a tutor who returns from a music lesson with a guitar smashed over his head, or a starving Kate taunted with a Pepperami.

It is a production that knows its audience and the light entertainment demands of summertime, whether or not the material supports it. The audience whoop early on when Kate kisses Petruchio passionately, and the actor Kate Lamb acknowledges it with a wry smile. They whoop when she submits to her husband's will some time later ("the moon changes even as your mind"), and again when another woman defies her husband's orders. Perhaps they see the play as a far-fetched gag belonging to a distant era. Perhaps they are amused by the frisson of cross-casting. Perhaps they just like whooping.

“I think what Shakespeare does, which is quite clever in the play, is to wrap up a tragedy within a comedy,” says Murphy. “You were concerned about the applause, but it sells itself as a comedy quite strongly from the beginning. If the play had finished just before the wedding, they actually seem quite good for each other. He’s rescuing her from the crazy patriarchal society she’s living in. But because Petruchio is so ingrained in that patriarchal society, he has no concept of love other than obedience and ownership. What could have been a beautiful relationship just sours and sours until the final speech.”

In Katherina’s final subjugation, delivered on the point of tears by Lamb, Petruchio recognises that he has destroyed the spirit he once loved. In Murphy’s version, as in Bogdanov’s, Kate lunges to kiss Petruchio’s foot and he withdraws it, horrified. It’s a startling gesture, yet one that seems to conclude the play as the tragedy of a man: the shaming of Petruchio.

It is nonetheless surprising that the female ensemble neither seems to imitate male behaviour (as Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, does with female roles) nor make male characters appear female.

Everything seems oddly neutral, as though trying to avoid any further comment. “If you’re just going to mimic the other gender, why not cast men?” says Murphy. “To have a female perspective on what those men are is an interesting way to pull apart this play. I guess we’re also trying to honour the fact that misogyny is still very much present. I think it’s an attempt to celebrate how far we’ve come, to say that we’ve got farther to go, and to allow a company of women to own that.”

Murphy, who is also the artistic director of the new writing company Nabakov, admits he was slow to impose any particular slant on Shrew, the first classic play he has directed in a fast-developing career. "It's a really complex play and far be it for me to say what Shakespeare was or wasn't saying," he says.

Storm of controversies
He did know, though, what he was letting himself in for. "When you do Shrew, the first thing you have to do as a director is say, 'Am I prepared for the storm of controversies that can arrive with it?' Yeah, I am prepared, I guess. We're not trying to do a literal depiction of it. We're not trying to trivialise or minimise anything. We're trying to get it out there. Theatre isn't therapy and it isn't a didactic medium. What can it do? It can have a light touch that can get people really thinking."

The Globe Theatre production of The Taming of the Shrew will run at the Kilkenny Arts Festival from August 9th to 18th

Shakespeare's Ireland: Like Hollywood's Vietnam

It’s not surprising that direct references to Ireland in Shakespeare’s plays are both rare and brief.

Direct references to any contemporary events are rare in Shakespeare. He lived in dangerous times. Even his most obvious, but apparently safe, comment on the Nine Years’ War against Hugh O’Neill’s Gaelic rebellion turned out to be dodgy. In “Henry V”, the chorus draws an analogy between the king’s triumphant return from the wars in France and the acclaim that will greet the Earl of Essex when he comes back from Ireland, “bringing rebellion broached on his sword”.

But Essex didn’t return in triumph; he fell out with the queen and was executed as a traitor. The analogy between the traitor and a heroic king became, in retrospect, potentially explosive.

Yet, even though it was best to steer clear of such touchy subjects, Ireland is a significant presence in Shakespeare’s world.

The projection of military power into hostile terrain for such a long period was an immense undertaking for English society. And the ambiguity of brutal military force in the service of “civilisation” exposed the contradictions of the Elizabethan “golden age”.

Ireland is present in Shakespeare in the same way that Vietnam is present in so many Hollywood movies of the 1960s: even those that don’t mention it at all.

The brilliant American scholar James Shapiro explores this relationship in one of the greatest books ever written about Shakespeare, 1599.

Shapiro combines the skills of a great historian with those of an acute literary critic to do what seemed scarcely possible, and say genuinely new things about the most written-about of writers. He also demolishes the cranky conspiracy theories about the authorship of the plays in “Contested Will” and has made the riveting BBC documentary, “The King’s Man”, about Shakespeare’s relationship with James I. – FINTAN O’TOOLE

James Shapiro will be in conversation with Fintan O’Toole about Shakespeare and Ireland at the Kilkenny Arts Festival on Saturday, August 10th, at 1pm.