The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew

September 28, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign…
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.

-       Katherina, The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare’s Globe, one of the best theatre companies in London visited Hong Kong as part of their global tour from 25th to 29th September 2013. They put on one of the most outrageous and arguably, the most misogynistic of Shakespeare’s works – The Taming of the Shrew.

The Performance

The play was performed by an all-female cast, which was an interesting twist on the original Shakespearean plays, which were always performed by men in Elizabethan times. It adds extra irony to the play because women are portrayed as objects and subject to the sovereignty of their husbands, yet here we see only women taking charge of the play on stage.

Aside from this arrangement, some other things I really enjoyed about the performance was its blend of tradition and modernity. Of course, the play itself was set in the Italian Renaissance period, so one would expect that the costumes, language etc. would resemble that of those times. However it was quite interesting to see some modern elements intertwined with such traditions. For example, in the scene where Katherina complains she is starving to death as Petruchio deprived her of meat (in his course of taming her), Petruchio finally offers her some food, but the food was clearly a food product of our times, it being contained in a plastic wrapper.

The music was equally, if not more, enjoyable than these subtle arrangements that make the play so interesting. The actresses themselves played the instruments – saxophone, guitar, also drums – and they also sang and danced very well, creating the appropriate atmosphere for the audience in enjoying this romantic comedy.

The Story

In a nutshell, the play revolves around two wealthy sisters in Padua, Katherina and Bianca. Katherina is known for her scalding tongue – she is mean to everyone and is particularly so towards men who attempt to woo her. Her sister is the complete opposite. Bianca is nothing but sweet and gentle, a perfect model of a submissive and obedient wife, the kind of woman men preferred in the olden days (perhaps today as well – has the notion of women listening to their husbands really gone out of fashion in modern times?).

Complications arise when the two sisters’ father insists that Bianca cannot marry until Katherina has done so. Bianca’s suitors find themselves forced to seek eligible men to woo Katherina, such that they can have a chance to marry Bianca themselves.

A lot of things happen in between, with some deception and swapping of identities (as is common in most of Shakespeare’s comedies). To cut this short, the upshot of the matter is that a man called Petruchio undertakes upon himself the mission to “tame” this mean-spirited, spiteful and rebellious woman, and he finally succeeds, to such extent that she becomes the most obedient wife among all others in the play. She becomes so tamed she even admits that the sun is the moon and that her husband is her “king”, her “sovereign”, and that all women should obey their husbands.

Misogynists and feminists 

Now it is as clear that the moon is the moon and the sun is the sun as it is that women suffer a lot in this play. It is entirely misogynistic and upholds the archaic notion of a man having the duty to restrain and control his wife’s desires and passions.

In the modern-day context, to me at least, this is one of the most unacceptable ideas that anyone can uphold. Women are certainly not subject to the control of men, and men have no business in controlling what women want. It is certainly not a breach of a woman’s duty for her to speak her mind and be herself, no matter how spiteful or mean-spirited she is. There should be no double standard, for if a man is allowed to be vile and mean-spirited, so can a woman be.  

To me at least, Hong Kong is a relatively good place for women to live in, as jobs and education opportunities are available to women on an (almost?) equal basis as men. Although I feel bad for Katherina when I see her being subdued by her husband, I cannot really feel what she feels because I (and I’m grateful to say this) have never been treated that way.

Which brings me to this sudden revelation that this play is still relevant in the sense that it does resemble certain countries in the world today, places where women are constantly subjected to the abuse and control of men. While it was mildly entertaining to see Katherina break down in the end and weep as she tells the audience how high a wife should regard her husband, and that women should not rebel and just be meek and gentle, it was also deeply saddening to see how the female sex has, for centuries, and till now in some parts of the world, been subjugated to the “superior” sex.

I am no feminist myself, and I don’t believe in true equality because I’m no idealist either. But I believe in gender differences. If men were from Mars and then women should probably come from some other galaxy because that’s how different the both sexes (generally) are. There might just be an ounce of truth when Katherina asserts that women are built soft and weak while men are built to be stronger than we are – biologically, women and men have clearly been assigned different roles. Yet, there is often a grey area between the capabilities of both sexes; especially with today’s economy, where physical labour is no longer the chief mode of economic production, more and more women are being brought to a more level playing field with men. Thus, it is within this grey area that women should strive to make the best of themselves and realize their potentials.