Tonight I went to a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at Bicentennial Park in Glebe. The last time I saw this play was in high school. I remembered really loving it, so was prepared to love it again, but was conscious that I might like it for different reasons this time than I did when I was a teenager.

I did enjoy it; it was funny. But Katerina’s taming completely rubbed me the wrong way. Petruchio comes to the wedding wearing awful clothes and then pretty much drags her off to his house, where he starves her and deprives her of sleep and company until she finally sees that if he says the sun in the moon, then it is in fact so. She turns from a witty, independent woman to a wife who jumps at her husband’s bidding.

Katerina’s last monologue in the play, which I so loved when I was a teenager, now turns my gut. Here it is for reference:

Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

Even if I thought this was right back in Shakespeare’s time, which I don’t, it is certainly not the case any longer. We are not required to do nothing while our husbands risk themselves for our livelihood. Now we all go to work. We are as entitled to be shrewish as they are.

There are modern interpretations which say that Katerina had worked with her husband on this speech and is in fact play acting so that they could win the bet that showed how completely she had transformed. They also say that she is showing how she can use her independence to make choices which benefit her. That’s not how I read it. I read it that if a woman is threatened with starvation, isolation and lack of sleep, as Katerina was in this case, of course she will give in. I also can’t imagine that Shakespeare, or whoever else wrote it since many say he couldn’t have written all his plays, would have written in all the allusions which people say he did. He was, after all, a man, living in a time where a woman’s place was to do her husband’s bidding — exactly the views which Katerina spouted in that monologue.

How do you read the play?

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