50 Shades of Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew, Act V

The final act has proved confounding to many people for multiple reasons, mainly due to the nature of Katherine’s “subjugation speech” delivered to Bianca and the widow (and to all women by implication) at Petruchio’s insistence.  What is she (and Shakespeare) really saying in this ode to male domination?

Subservience itself is a pejorative term, so I must be careful how I describe what she says.  But it seems to me that there are only three fundamental approaches to the text:

1) As a paean to dominant-submissive relations (HINT: that’s where 50 Shades of Grey comes in.)  That blockbuster shocked the masses into recognizing that more than a few women get off on at least the fantasy of a dom-kitten relationship.  Whether that’s what Shakespeare had in mind is another enchilada entirely. 

If I’m persuaded by this argument, I would lean it more Biblical/Medieval ideal than kinky handcuffs and bondage – in keeping with the hotly contested notion (outside of Texas) of “virtuous kingly rule.”  By this parsing, all of creation is inherently hierarchical, starting with  a benevolent God and radiating downward.  Accordingly, males stands above females as king above subjects and God above kings.   This was the 1590s after all – hardly a bastion of progressive feminism even under a strong, take-charge queen.  Shakespeare would only be stating the obvious if he cited this “top-down” approach as his model.

2) Shakespeare, no surprise, was a misogynist like all other men of his era.  In their mind, the subjugation of women was a given.  Men held the power – despite the odd Elizabeth, Margaret or Matilda – and men therefore made the rules.  The only chance a female had to be esteemed as praiseworthy was to surrender her independence of mind, body and spirit – and smile about it.  Shakespeare quite naturally wrote from this domineering male vantage point.  His comedies – like the majority throughout history – were meant to be general, easily accessible, and thus pander to the peccadillos of the crowd.  He neither mocked nor flouted the cliched standards of his day – he goosed them for a good laugh and big box office.

3) Not content to settle merely for types, Shakespeare attempted to satisfy both the audience’s appetite for broad comedy as well as sneak in subtle ideas at work on multiple levels.  Ever-concerned with the nature and limits of perception, he wrote an unconventional love story about a man who teaches a woman a subjective truth buried under the cloak of mass perception.  Rather than bang her head repeatedly against a reality that won’t budge, Kate learns to play the outward game, allowing others to presume she has conformed to the rules while enjoying the private, inner freedom to laugh at them.  Wink wink.  Nudge nudge.  Great lovers always speak in a language that they alone understand.

Of these three options, #1 sounds the most plausible.  #2 the least likely.  And #3 the alternative reading for Bardologists such as myself who defend Shakespeare to the hilt as a singular genius who thought beyond the simple constraints of prevailing normative values.  When scanning the text, this is the only explanation for otherwise confounding scenes. 

It also helps us understand the love banter that develops between them, particularly when Petruchio asks her to kiss him in public:

KATE: Husband, let’s follow to see the end of this ado. 

PETRUCHIO: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.

KATE: What, in the midst of the street?

PETRUCHIO: What, art thou ashamed of me?

KATE: No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.

And yet, by the end of the act, that’s exactly what she does.  In front of everyone.  Unabashedly.

There’s one more telling moment, and I’ll leave the play at that.  The final table celebration is a lot more jovial and banter-y than I had recognized before.  Barbed one-liners and sexual innuendo fly freely between guests, along with more than a few digs at Katherine for being a shrew.  What I love here is not only that Kate defends herself by going on the attack, but that Petruchio backs her to the hilt, taking a great pride in her assertiveness.  We see that she hasn’t subdued her high spirits, but rather learned to master them.  Petruchio not only vouches that he would bet on her in a fight, but he will raise the stakes twenty-fold when it comes down to a question about her character or faithfulness.

Now I realize that my opinion is only one of millions – and certainly not in the mainstream.  Yet, true to my vow, I have sincerely attempted to read the play from scratch with an open mind.  Therefore, I’m sticking to my guns, and ready now to move on.

But before I go, here’s one of my favorite scenes between a man and woman who need to redefine love on their own terms.  Enjoy!

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