When I began teaching Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in 2014, I didn’t expect we’d end up talking about the NFL with my English composition students. Ray Rice, who had been playing for the Baltimore Ravens was suspended for assaulting his then-fiance Janay Palmer, who married him after the incident much to the consternation of the feminist blogosphere. However, when my students compared Ray and Janay Rice to Shakespeare’s Petruchio and Kate, I started talking about domestic violence more openly and so did they. Students followed the #WhyIStayed hashtag on Twitter, watching the news unfold as public pressure made an impact on the NFL decision. They also found statistics about victims of domestic violence that changed the way they viewed Kate’s shift in character in Petruchio’s domestic “taming school,” where Petruchio’s psychological abuse and animalization of Kate lead to a sinking feeling for a modern audience in the middle of a supposed “comedy.”
Despite its positioning as a comedy, Shakespeare’s play proved timelessly relevant to today: issues of misogynist humor, domestic violence, rape culture, victim-blaming, and consent are extremely polarizing and of the utmost importance to college students. Most unfortunately, the frequent occurrence of domestic violence and rape in the news has made The Taming of the Shrew as relevant as ever every semester I have taught it.
Instead of doing students the injustice of using rape as a metaphor (reading Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” for instance), we discussed rape as content. In addition to closely studying Acts 2 & 3, and talking about Kate’s silence/silencing, we discussed protests such as the “Carry That Weight” performance at Columbia University, surveys conducted like those at University of Michigan and MIT, and the CDC statistics of sexual violence on college campuses. By studying the real world and Kate’s side by side, students found ways to talk about slut shaming, the difficulties of establishing consent when the whole situation removes the possibility of really giving consent, and the lack of questions posed to Petruchios in the world today. The hardest question I ask them is: Why does Petruchio need to “tame” Kate in the first place?
In our close reading, I point out to them that in Act 2, when Baptista is convinced enough by Petruchio that Kate has consented to the marriage, there is no stage direction indicating whether or not Kate actually offers her hand. I show them a brief clip of the wooing scene in Zeffirelli’s 1967 film adaptation, when Petruchio clutches Kate’s arm behind her back to silence her. Before then, however, it appears that what made us laugh took a serious turn when Petruchio threatens to strike Kate. The end of the scene appears to suggest Petruchio has “man-handled” Kate or metaphorically raped her, which, if read as content in the text, would mean she would have to marry him to maintain her respect in Elizabethan society. Thus Kate isn’t in a position to give consent or no; a male-dominated society forces her compliance, and she makes the best of her nonconsensual marriage. In the statistics above, my students have already learned that victims of domestic violence leave, on average, 7 times before they leave for good. It is safer to stay, and safer to comply without having given consent. Shirley Garner reads this play as bad because she finds herself “outside” of the joke, and my students find themselves outside it, too, although we had all been laughing together at the hilarity of the wooing scene between Richard Burton (Petruchio) and Elizabeth Taylor (Kate).
To approach this text through a critical lens, I first ask my students to read George Hibbard’s “The Taming of the Shrew: A Social Comedy” and we discuss it in class, focusing on the importance of historical context when reading a play from almost four centuries ago. Then my students write a critical evaluation (basically a preci) outside of class on Shirley Garner’s “Inside or Outside of the Joke?” from “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon. I ask them to write rough drafts first and then combine their drafts in partners after we have gone over some of Garner’s main points together in class (to view a PDF of the assignment, click here). Both of these texts are available in the back of the Norton Critical Edition of the play. When we have finished reading the play, I assign my students excerpts from Susan Bordo’s The Male Body, which addresses the humor and shame associated with the male body. This opens up Petruchio’s character to a modern audience, and brings out another side of the conversation: namely, that of the male students in the classroom. I do this purposefully to not only keep asking the hard questions, but to also bring out more of the complexity of Petruchio’s character and to bring more of a gender studies approach to the text that includes all of the bodies in the classroom.
Students usually focus their papers about The Taming of the Shrew on making the argument that Kate has not been tamed, partially because they don’t want her to be, and they view her as spirited and cunning. We also spend the majority of our close reading time in class finding evidence to support this claim: she’s motivated by jealousy of her sister Bianca and wants her revenge; she finds a witty match in the wooing scene with Petruchio which quickly turns into a sparring match of sexual innuendos; she’s tired of Petruchio’s taming tactics and wants to live happily, conscious of his methods and calculating in her outward shift; she only adjusts to Petruchio’s foolish logic to get to the banquet, not because she’s brainwashed; her shift is so sudden almost none of the characters believe she has really changed; and her diction is so overly performative and hyperbolic, she sounds more like she’s mocking Petruchio and the men at the banquet than actually believing what she’s saying. The play only remains a comedy for students if it is, in the end, Petruchio the shrew who has been tamed by Kate.
What I love about teaching this play is how closely students have to read it in order to make an arguable claim that Kate has or has not been tamed. Most evidence they use could equally support a counter-argument against their reading. They have to choose their evidence carefully, and draw from both beginning and end of the play to demonstrate how they read Kate’s shift, or how they read Petruchio’s character and what’s at stake for him: 1) is he really motivated by money, 2) is his masculinity determined by Kate’s femininity, and 3) has he been duped by Kate? Finally, we next move on to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, which I will talk about more next time… Thanks for tuning in!
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