Ahhh, William Shakespeare. That wizard of words! That lord of language! That pirate of prose!
If you went to high school, you probably read at least one of Shakespeare’s 38 plays. Born in 1564, Shakespeare became the predominant playwright of his day, evidenced by the fact that his plays are still widely performed to this day. (In fact, Mark Rylance won a Tony Award last night for his performance in Twelfth Night on Broadway.) One can hardly speak the English language without tripping over some of Shakespeare’s own words.
Shakespeare is venerated for many reasons, which, as a graduate student in the performing arts, I have become well acquainted with – his choice of language, his careful organization of words, his timeless stories, and his compelling characters all come into the mix when he is mentioned. He is the most performed playwright on Earth, and his plays have been translated into every language with at least one speaker. And I’m still waiting to hit 100 subscribers.
However, Shakespeare’s work can be confusing sometimes, as you may know if you’ve ever attended a production of his 1590 comedy The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t simply refer to all the “thys” and “thous,” neither.
The Taming of the Shrew is a highly amusing play about a very impolite and headstrong young woman, Katherina. Katherina has an unfortunate tendency to treat people like something she found in her asscrack on a hot summer’s day. Her younger sister, on the contrary, is a docile and sweet-tempered girl named Bianca. Bianca desperately wants to get laid, but their father has made it a rule that Bianca cannot marry until Katherina does, thereby ensuring Bianca’s permanent virginity in his infinite fatherly wisdom.
Well, the virile young men of the village want a piece of Bianca’s pie so badly that they find a sap to woo Katherine, in order for them to get a whack at her sister. For most of the play, Katherina is resistant to his advances, insulting him roundly and occasionally resorting to physical violence. However, she eventually agrees to marry him, and he proceeds to “tame” her through a combination of hard labor and starvation.
At the end of the play, Katherina comes at her husband’s behest and explains to a group of fascinated guests that wives should always be subservient to their husbands, and that obedience is the most important quality in a woman – except, of course, for a nice rack. “Such duty as the subject owes the prince/Even such a woman oweth to her husband,” she snivels.
Obviously, many people have found this ending problematic in its depiction and treatment of its female characters. Bianca, who does whatever the men in her life tell her, is the “sweet” and “desirable” sister, while Kate, who does whatever the fuck she wants, is deemed a “shrew.” Productions of the play have often tried to explain away Kate’s inevitable “taming” by having the actress play off the monologue as blatant sarcasm, or else by having it be a joke between Kate and her husband. In this way, audiences can feel good about the ending, instead of feeling like they should call some sort of hotline. Scholars have even argued that this is the way Shakespeare intended the speech to be made – sarcastically. They come flying to the defense of the Bard, saying that it’s not sexism! It’s just storytelling!
However, I feel that the evidence is overwhelming. For one thing, the monologue in question is 44 lines long – a bit lengthy to be sarcasm. If it is supposed to be played as a joke, it is rather overdone. And there is no hint in the text that Kate is being sarcastic or tongue-in-cheek.
But more importantly, I don’t feel the need to argue that Shakespeare was not a sexist. He lived in the Elizabethan period, for God’s sake. EVERYONE was sexist. It’s just like how your grandparents are big fat racists. (Don’t you dare lie to me. You know that they are.) They grew up in a different time. That’s no excuse for bad behavior, but you’re not trying to sit there and argue that they aren’t prejudiced when they’re telling your cousin they’ll disown him if he ever brings home a brown girl. They’re your grandparents, and you love them anyway – just like we still love Shakespeare. Weirdly enough, being slightly misogynistic does not make him a worse writer. It’s rather like the controversy over Woody Allen – yes, it’s totally possible that he did some despicable things, but that doesn’t mean his films are suddenly different because of what we know about him.
Artistic integrity and flawed morals are not mutually exclusive. I am confident in my ability to appreciate Shakespeare’s plays for what they are, while simultaneously recognizing that he did not have the same open mindedness that we have been enjoying in this country for, oh, thirty years at best. And it would be a shame to boycott his plays just because of one crappy ending. Then you’d miss out on awesome heroines like Viola and Rosalind, strong supporting leads like Calpurnia and Emilia, and devilish villains like Tamora and Goneril. Shakespeare knows how to write a strong female character, not just a weak one, and his own flawed personal beliefs don’t usually produce a substandard lady. I plan on enjoying his works for many years to come – but I refuse to make apologies on his behalf, and I don’t believe that he requires it.
The plays speak for themselves, “trippingly on the tongue.”