Several of Shakespeare’s plays are widely acknowledged for their ‘troubling’ elements. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples of what could now be considered anti-semitism, racism and misogyny scattered through his texts for apparent comedy value.
For a student studying Shakespeare’s work, the importance of historical context is often emphasised. But what about the theatre audience? Settling down for an evening’s entertainment doesn’t exactly require advance study or contextual consideration.
This Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend bought tickets to see The Taming of the Shrew, expecting it to be a slightly old fashioned 10 Things I Hate About You. Little did he know, The Shrew bears only a passing resemblance to the American teen drama it inspired all those years later.
I was intrigued to see how the RSC would tackle such an infamous piece, and when it turned out to be a straight comedy I was surprised at how unsettling I found it to be. I’ve always considered the more challenging aspects of Shakespeare’s plays to be part of their fascination; what I wasn’t prepared for, was the idea that a modern audience might not find them challenging at all.
This production included the often-removed opening scene, in which the main narrative is set up as nothing more than idle amusement for an idiot drunk. Lisa Dillon played as fiery a Katharina as you could hope for, and yet there’s no avoiding the fact that she’s forced into marriage and subjected to a regime of psychological torture. And oh, how we laughed.
Petruchio’s treatment of Katharina has long been debated without resolution. Whether you consider it to be exaggerated farce or out-dated patriarchy, there are whole sections of The Shrew that should make for very uncomfortable viewing. Shouldn’t they?
I began to wonder if it was me that was being unreasonable. There’s no denying I’d come out with a certain set of expectations, so it’s fair to assume that others would have too. Anyone who had come to see the 10 Things origin-story would have been predisposed to find humour, and that was exactly what was delivered. So who am I to decide that they’re wrong to laugh?
We might like to think our outlook has evolved since Elizabeth’s day, but the truth is they weren’t exactly ok with the concept of spousal abuse back then either. Maybe the real difference is that I lean so readily towards deconstruction and pigeon holing that I’m simply more inclined to find offence where none was intended.
I don’t think I’ll ever find it easy to watch The Taming of the Shrew, but being confronted by such an unexpected reaction made me revaluate the play all over again. If nothing else it made me realise how easy it is to get settled in an opinion, and I’ve resolved to try and be more open minded in the future.
After all, there are so many people reading Shakespeare’s work around the world that we’re bound to come up with a few different takes on it between us. That’s what keeps it interesting, right?