A common theme of William Shakespeare’s plays is romantic love and the quest for it; a vast amount of Shakespeare’s most celebrated works include plots which concern heterosexual romance. It can be argued that, for a lot of Shakespearian plays, this theme has a role in the plot of being a catalyst for the events that unfold. It’s typical; for Shakespeare’s works to include men or women on a quest for an idyllic form of ‘true love’, an idea that is commonly represented throughout Shakespeare’s works. This concept of love comes with certain gendered expectations: the images of romantic love that Shakespeare paints in his plays stem from certain traditional expectations on the role of males and females in relationships. In the Taming of the Shrew for example, the character Petruchio- who is attempting to ‘woo’ the “shrew” Katharina- approaches the idea of marriage with expectations of proper, gender-appropriate behaviour, though specifically regarding female etiquette. It is possible that Shakespeare wrote this play with the intention of representing traditional views on marriage and gender behaviour, and at a superficial level this can seem to be the case. However, one could also argue that the storyline of attempting to “tame” a woman so that she is fit for marriage is Shakespeare’s attempt at ironically providing a critical commentary on the unequal positioning of men and women within the realms of traditional marriage. It can thus be said that gender has a large significance in his plays, with women being a key aspect as to why this is so.
The Taming of the Shrew is a play written by Shakespeare sometime between 1590 and 1592. While contemporary readers may impose their own views regarding current socio-political issues, for a long time the presentation of women in the play remained unchallenged. The ‘taming’ of Katharina in the play was largely an inoffensive concept; it is only in recent years that people began to question the treatment of women in the play. This is likely due to a significant change in our culture, where women now have much more of a voice than they would have had at the time Shakespeare wrote this play. In recent years, the feminist movement has brought to light the issues regarding the way women have been, and still are in some cases, subordinated under our long-standing patriarchal societies, causing some readers to question the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. This questioning can be seen in some modern renditions of the play such as in Phyllida Lloyd’s 2016 adaptation of the original work, where she offers a more ‘ironic’ reading of the play. In Lloyd’s adaptation of the play, she employs an all-female cast, and attempts to make light of the gender politics of Shakespeare’s original work. For example, her version of the play opens with a piece of self-aware and ironic dialogue, performed by the character Gremio, who says:
“You want to know what’s inappropriate- the fact that the director of this show is a woman… Who the hell does she think she is? Telling me where to stand, how to act, what to wear?”
The irony lies in the fact that the actress performing the dialogue is female themselves and is criticising Lloyd for being female and for doing their job. The irony is humorous, and sets the tone of the play, showing the audience what they can expect from this modern rendition’s handling of the problematic themes of misogyny and sexism which plague the original production. Lloyd’s presentation of the misogynistic trends within the play is hyperbolic; she places emphasis on these motifs to allow for them to be opened up to criticism. This exposes Shakespeare’s text for what some interpret it to be: a play condoning misogynistic attitudes and behaviours in the realm of traditional marriage.
On the other hand, some would argue that to read the play in such a way is a somewhat naïve way of interpreting the meanings behind the original text. Shakespeare gives valid reason for Katherina’s supposed shrewishness: her potential suitors are very rude and shallow, and her father seemingly treats Katherina’s marriage as a financial transaction. Katherina has no control over whom she wishes to marry, instead the decision is made in relation to the economics of those attempting to woo her- she is treated like a commodity, and a means for financial gain. This shows that the play’s treatment of gender goes further than what we as an audience see on the surface; if one were to take the connotations of the basic plot of the play as Shakespeare’s intended reading, then perhaps one could argue that they are missing the point as to why the play was written, especially when considering Shakespeare’s wider works where he challenges social conventions of gender roles, behaviour, and identity. For example, Twelfth Night is a play in which exists transgressions of gender identity; cross-dressing is a motif that is central to the plot of the play, provoking ideas of trans-identities, something that would have been taboo at the time the play was written. Shakespeare has shown that he is not afraid to challenge conventional notions of gender, so why would one assume that this type of social commentary and criticism does not exist in The Taming of the Shrew? Shakespeare’s representation of the institution of marriage in the play is intended to be a social commentary, written with the purpose of drawing attention to the unequal and unfair grounds on which women marry in Shakespeare’s time.
With this in mind, it is clear that, at least in the case of The Taming of the Shrew, women play a central role in the course of the plot. The subjugation of Katherina and the other female characters in the play act as a catalyst for the development of the story. More specifically, Shakespeare’s exploration of the female identity in relation to marriage, especially the way in which Katherina feels towards how she is treated, provides ground for the plot; it introduces the ‘dilemma’ of the story, which is a common and necessary practice of story writing. Without having the politics of the misogynistic practices of traditional marriages put at the foreground of the play, there would be no plot development, Katherina would acquiesce to the marriage and the story would be over. The very fact that Shakespeare includes Katherina’s rejection of expected stereotypical gender behaviour shows that he is aware of the issues that exist regarding the institution of marriage relating to female identities in the 16th century. He brings the issues that women faced at the time of writing to the front and centre of his play.