Centuries before Ted Cruz publicly fantasized about spanking Hillary Clinton (and unfortunately realized those fantasies with his daughter instead), Shakespeare knew how charged the idea of a man “taming” a strong woman could be. Ever since it first burst onto the stage in the 1590s, The Taming of the Shrew has challenged, titillated, amused, and infuriated audiences with its politically incorrect romp through gender roles.
“I had been offered Shrew many times, and I always turned it down,” says Phyllida Lloyd, director of the Public Theater’s all-female production of the controversial play, which opened May 24 at the Delacorte in Central Park. “I just didn’t see how you could do the play in the 21st century and make sense of it.”
It’s a popular point of view. In Shrew, a man named Petruchio marries an independent and unruly woman named Kate — or rather, he marries the ample inheritance her father guarantees. He then begins the uncomfortable and alarming process of “taming” Kate, through deprivation of food, sleep, and clothing. The all-female cast, Lloyd says, transforms the play: “It’s like playing the same score with different instruments.”
Is The Taming of the Shrew a play about love? Is it a play about abuse? Where does one stop and the other begin? The answers aren’t always clear; after all, Cruz, like countless American parents, beats his kid because he “loves” her, I guess. Petruchio, too, muddies those waters in his deprivation of Kate, insisting that she is too good to eat his inferior food or sleep in his inferior bed. After sending away a platter of meat, he remarks: “I tell thee, Kate, ’twas burnt and dried away;/And I expressly am forbid to touch it,/For it engenders choler, planteth anger;/And better ’twere that both of us did fast.”
These questions — and the arguments they provoke — are as culturally resonant today as they were during Shakespeare’s life. “I don’t actually see Shakespeare as ‘universal,’ ” says James Shapiro, a professor at Columbia University and the Public Theater’s Shakespeare scholar in residence. “We’re just stuck in the same battles that were being waged during Shakespeare’s day. The reason his plays seem universal, but are actually quite timely, is because the pulse that Shakespeare had his finger on is still relevant today.”
It’s been relevant for four hundred years. For a few decades, criticism and performance of Shrew circumvented the play’s problematic gender politics with overtly feminist — and, in some cases, textually unsound — interpretations. Kate’s controversial final speech, in which she appears to have submitted to patriarchy’s gender expectations and even says, “I am ashamed that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace,” was variously edited, circumcised, sometimes blunted with sarcasm and rolled eyes. (In one production, the actress playing Kate delivered that speech while swinging a purse apparently made from a severed part of Petruchio’s anatomy.) In other productions, an abused Kate is broken by the time she delivers that speech, and the men around her are horrified to see what they have done.
And, of course, a few contrarians still insist that Shrew depicts a healthy and sincere love story. I must confess that I’m among them. Some people have non-normative sexual identities, and BDSM, without question, existed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. (In 1599, a collection of epigrams described a graphic erotic whipping: “When Francus comes to sollace with his whoore/He sends for rods and strips himselfe stark naked:/For his lust sleepes and will not rise before,/By whipping of the wench it be awaked./I envie’him not, but wish I had the powre,/To make my selfe his wench but one halfe houre.”) Unlike abuse, BDSM is consensual — and Kate’s devastated disappointment when she fears Petruchio has left her at the altar makes their marriage seem consensual to me. When Kate doesn’t eat, after all, neither does Petruchio.
But interpretation of the Bard’s work is up for grabs. The Public Theater’s production, for one, will embrace an exciting financial angle. When Lloyd first reached out to Shapiro to discuss the text, his advice was simple: Follow the money. “It’s a play about women being sold by their fathers to the highest bidders,” says Lloyd. “And about how women make themselves marketable or not marketable in their society: their behavior, how they look, how they dress.”
As Shakespeare scholar Stephen Orgel has pointed out, Kate’s “shrewish” behavior in the early scenes may very well be her only way to control the terms and timing of her own sale. As he writes in Nobody’s Perfect; or, Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?, “The idea of a rich man’s daughter deliberately rendering herself unmarriageable through antisocial behavior [would have had] a great deal of cultural resonance in the England of 1590.”
Olivier Award nominee Cush Jumbo will play Kate, and actress Janet McTeer, a dignified theater veteran and Tony Award winner, is tackling the role of Petruchio. She says that playing one of Shakespeare’s most widely loathed male characters hasn’t inspired sympathy for his tactics — but that the role itself is a blast.
“Playing the most misogynistic man is vast good fun, as long as you’re not in a production where anyone is saying, ‘This is a good guy,’ ” says McTeer. “Is [Shrew] funny? Is it tragic? Hopefully it’s both, a very subtle exercise in stagecraft.”
Gender roles, like great Shakespeare, have always been thus, from Kate’s seeming submission to Petruchio to Megyn Kelly’s apparent surrender to Donald Trump after the barrage of barbs he leveled against her. Shapiro is right: The questions and themes Shakespeare explores in Shrew aren’t timeless, they’re timely. We’ve just been singing the same song all this time.
“There’s a lot of social and cultural baggage both then and now, and any director who takes on [Shrew] will inevitably be seen as making a statement about men and women today,” says Shapiro. “You’ll feel it in the audience: All the muck that is being kicked up right now in politics is going to flow through the production.”
That’s the genius of Shakespeare, right? Ultimately, his stories and characters reveal more about ourselves — and our world — than they do about anything else. According to Lloyd, “six and a half” people have seen early performances of the play, and they left with a satisfying mix of reactions: Some found the production touching and emotionally cathartic, while others found it “kind of shocking.” (My bet for most frisson-inducing scene is Kate’s final monologue, wherein she encourages women to submit to their husbands.)
“We are holding a mirror up, we hope, to the audience,” Lloyd says. “We’re trying to give people an outrageously entertaining evening, but we hope it will provoke conversation, too.”
Jillian Keenan’s first book, Sex With Shakespeare, was published in April by William Morrow/HarperCollins.