William Shakespeare… Sympathetic or Misogynistic?


‘Taming of the Shrew’ at Victoria Park, Bermuda. Directed by Kelly Johnston

Apparently for freelance theatre directors, the Taming of the Shrew is one of the least liked assignments and one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. This isn’t even a recent change in audience attitude, as more than one hundred years ago, George Bernard Shaw judged it as “disgusting”.  The text and premise is far too provocative for today’s theatre goers and unpalatable for many feminists.

A brief storyline. Petruchio (Maxwell King, very funny) woos headstrong Katherina (Brooke Burfitt, manically brilliant) to tame her until she becomes a compliant and obedient bride.  At the same time there is serious competition between suitors of Katherina’s sweet and compliant sister, Bianca.

We flew from London to see an open-air performance in Victoria Park, Bermuda directed by the formidable Kelly Johnston who’s been doing Shakespeare for twenty-seven years since his Masters at the California Institute of the Arts, through the Sirius Theatre in LA, The Arizona Shakespeare Festival and in umpteen regional theatres around New York, where he now lives. Back home, fellow directors, Alice Mottola and Pitr Strait, are running in Central Park with an all female nude cast of ‘The Tempest’, we were sweltering in the heat and humidity observing a traditional true to the Bard rendition of ‘the Shrew’.  A brilliant, high energy, rollicking performance which had even the youngest children bewitched.

Taming of the Shrew can go down two routes. If it is done “serious”, it’s basically a play about an abused woman.  As a comedy, it is something entirely different – more an ironic take on the male/female relationship.

As a historical exercise it is great this work is still out there, because it is factually based. The play is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592. At the time, there was in fact quite a bit of feminist activity focused on the dispelling of established thinking that society was founded on the rule of the father. For a nation with a female Queen, women in Elizabethan times had few rights at all.  Only those of noble birth were educated. If a girl did get schooling, she had nowhere to exercise her learning. Women were not allowed to enter the professions. There were no female doctors, lawyers or actresses. This play is obviously inspired by just that predicament. Indeed, that is brought out in the story, as Bianca is wooed by her Latin and music tutors (who are dressed in disguise to court her). Even though Katherine and Bianca’s father, Baptista, educates both his children, the play is very clear that his greatest concern is marrying off his eldest daughter.

So was the Bard actually a feminist trying to help the cause?

Unfortunately some of the lines like the following do incite passions….

PETRUCHIO: She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing; (Act 3, Scene 2)

KATHERINE: 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. (Act 3, Scene 2)

Or is it, as Kelly Johnston suggests in his interpretation a game between men and women. The fascination with it can be reflected in the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold more than 100 million copies. A trilogy based on bondage and servitude. The jury is out.

This has been and always will be a big tongue in cheek. But when you write about something, you don’t necessarily endorse it, so to claim that because of the content of this play the Bard was a beast may not be entirely fair. What do you think?





About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
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