A couple of weeks ago, my lover and I watched BBC Television 1980 production of Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew . I watched it without no prior knowledge about this play except that this is a comedy play and it has John Cleese in it. In my experience with Monty Phyton, there is very little that could go wrong with him in it. Well, apparently I am in for a surprise.
The play begins with a mischievous nobleman tricks a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly into believing he is actually a nobleman himself. The nobleman then has the play performed for Sly’s diversion. The main plot depicts one Baptista who is at the moment seeking suitors for his daughters Katherina and Bianca. The father finds himself a troubling situation where the older Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew whom he foresee trouble in finding her a husband and Bianca, the lovely obedient daughter who will find no trouble in finding a suitor.
Like any marriage at that time (16th C), there is distribution of wealth involved and the news spread fast. One Petruchio, a former soldier finds Katherina a challenge, and he likes a good challenge (but also the ducats involved). In a way Petruchio charmed Katherina with his perseverance and wit in dealing with her. So, she decides (well also decided by her father) to marry Petruchio and with this agreed, Bianca could be married off as well. Plenty suitors tries to woo her into marriage.
At the day of the wedding, Petruchio showed up late and dressed up like a madman. Somehow they got married in a church and Petruchio takes her away (against her will) to his city. Then began the taming, Petruchio did reverse psychology in tricking her into obedient wife. In many ways, step by step, he broke into her and turns her into the perfect obedient wife.
At the day of Bianca’s wedding, both of them attend. That night they have a giant feast where at some point the wives went to other room to sit by the fire while the husbands stays at dining table. Petruchio then made a bet with others to see who has the most obedient wife. Each husbands calls their wives into dining table without giving any reason and whomever shows up, that is the most obedient wife. The only one who shows up was Katherina. And then the play ends with Katherina preaching on how blessed she is to be at her husband’s mercy and that all wives should be grateful for their husbands by showing them obedience and loyalty:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor, both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience—
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.146–54)
All of them husbands and wives then sing together in a choir afterwards. The End.
By the end credits, my face must looked so horrified by this comedy play. I was caught off guard and not quite sure how to respond nor think about this play. And it really does takes a while for me to wind down and think about it more calmly. One thing is everyone did a marvellous job acting in this play. I have never seen John Cleese in the manner in fact he plays Petruchio so well, you wonder whether he is actually like that in real life. (I sure hope not, though.)
The play nicks the feminist side of me, the word “obedient” as I knew now is a dirty, dirty word to use in the same sentence with the word “women”. The psychological torture that Katherine experience was a terrible thing to watch scene after scene. The pinnacle for me was Petruchio had Katherine believe the moon was the sun and the sun was actually the moon.
However, having all that aside, there is also another side that got me thinking about the order of society. I understand the appeal of patriarchy. Having a man supporting and giving all that is best for the wife. And the wife seek to beauty, giving all loyalty and obedience while staying at home safe and sound. It is all obvious and safe. (Well, until it isn’t.) And The Taming of the Shrew have brought me into visit my thoughts about feminism and question it yet again. It brought me to an understanding on how patriarchy is rooted.
Watching the play and thinking about it somehow brings me to think of Hypatia (circa AD 351-370 to 415). For many of you who have watched Agora, you probably know a bit about her from this film.
To put things in perspective, while it is easy to think things are different (and better condition for women) today in the 21st Century than it was in the 16th Century where Taming of the Shrew was staged, I can’t help but think that woman endeavours in other than domestic ground have been through challenges after another, in rare times women managed to show amazing breadth of skills, like Hypatia in the 4th Century Greek society but most times women are shrews to be tamed and confined in a ‘safe’ place.
Today, I ,for one, would like to think that in an ideal society, women are humans too and that means ‘faber est quisque fortunae suae’, any woman have the right to architect their own future.