Katherine. Bianca. The Old Widow.
Petruchio. Baptista. Lucentio. Tranio. Gremio. Hortensio. Grumio. Biondello. Christopher Sly.
(For a story all about how women are supposed to behave, there is a shocking lack of female representation.)
When reading and directing Taming of the Shrew, I found myself hoping that Shakespeare himself would come down from the heavens (or crawl up from hell) and explain what he was thinking.
More importantly, I found myself hoping that the kind, passionate feminist who had dedicated her life to helping young women grow to look me in the eyes and explain what she was thinking.
I am fifteen years old. My only major goal in life so far is to direct a show in a drama program I loved. My only major female role model is a woman, a beautiful woman, a woman has walked me through five years of my life, helping me learn to act and be kind and keep my head held high. She is also in charge of picking a show for me to direct as a capstone to the drama program she handcrafted. I ask for Shakespeare. I ask for a comedy. How could she say no to the one girl who wants to direct Shakespeare? Shakespeare, a literary mastermind. Shakespeare, a comedy genius. Shakespeare, one of the best playwrights and poets to have ever existed. Shakespeare.
I am sixteen years old. I have changed so much. I have grown into myself, grown into something I had hoped she would be proud of. I wait by the mailbox every day, waiting for a package labeled “To me, From her,” waiting for a show. Waiting for The Twelfth Night or A Comedy of Errors Or Much Ado About Nothing to arrive at my doorstep.
And one day, it does.
I rip open the package and see my show. Taming of the Shrew. “One of literary history’s greatest screwball couples,” it says. “A play I might enjoy,” I think. “Shakespeare and comedy,” I think.
(I did not know that I could be so wrong. I did not know my judgment could fail me like it did that summer.)
I feel a desperate need to devour the words on the page. “Shakespeare,” I think. More importantly, “A message from her to me,” I think. “She picked this for me.”
I resist. I pick apart the words, the language, the meaning.
I do not laugh.
I cry for the fictional characters that are Katherine and Bianca. Because I know them all too well, and I know that they are not fictional. They are girls that I see every day. Parts of them are contained in parts of every young woman growing up today, and I cry for them. I cry for the daughters of the me too movement, the teenagers who call a friend when walking home late at night so maybe someone will hear them scream, the college girls who swirl their drug-testing, polish-covered fingernails into red solo cups, not taking a sip until the color does not change.
I cry for the girls that I do not see every day. I cry for the women who cover their bruises with too many layers of foundation and stop going to the ER because one more visit will look too suspicious, the girls who are quiet and obedient because it is their only chance to survive in this world, and the teens who are in a relationship they are too young to handle, one with a man, a boy, who is manipulative and possessive and flat out mean, but she thinks she loves him, knows she loves him.
Spoiler alert: She does. For all the wrong reasons.
I cry for Bianca and Katherine because they each fall into these scenarios in their own ways, even when living in the 17th century.
But I push it away.
“This is funny,” I think. “It is supposed to be funny.”
But I do not believe myself.
I write down my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas. I write about how I think Petruchio is one-sided, and how Katherine is mean and rude but that does not mean she is allowed to be treated like dirt, and how Bianca is just trying to survive. I pour too much of myself onto the page, become too attached to these words and ideas.
Finally, I arrive to her.
I fill her up with my ideologies and what it all means to me and how I connect to the women, Bianca and Katherine alike, in all the oppression they faced.
She tells me that I am putting on an emotionally-disturbed tragedy, not a comedy.
(Does she not find this emotionally disturbing? Do the words he wrote not burn into her soul the way they burn into mine?)
She pushes me. She bends me. She forces me into a box that I do not belong in, an existence that I do not want to live. Soon I am mimicking her words, as I always do. It would be so much easier if I did not want to be just like her.
“People show love in different ways,” I say. “Katherine wanted this, needed it, even.”
(It took me forever to dig myself out of those words.)
I never quite find it funny, but at some point, it stops feeling like a nightmare, and more like the life of a woman I do not quite know. Katherine sits in front of me, and I know her name, but I could not tell you where I learned it. I know her story, but I could not tell you the meaning behind it.
I move onward and upwards with this show, propelling myself more and more out of my comfort zone with every rehearsal, every cast meeting, every director’s chat. I swear to her that I am trying, that I understand, that it is funny. It is supposed to be funny. But watching this man slap around this woman like she is nothing, starving and beating her, tricking and threatening her, is heartbreaking. And I am the one telling them to do these things. I did not write the words, but I am telling the story.
And the whole time, I am thinking about the young women in the audience, the girls too young to understand the language of the play, but I can assure you they will understand what it means when a man slaps a woman, and when everyone laughs at it. Someone in the audience will be in this position some day. I don’t want them to remember this moment, and be resigned.
“It is not funny,” I think. “It was never funny.”
I pull the plug before she can. I stop the story from continuing before she can pull me back into that box, that existence that I cannot live.
I cannot, will not, live in a world where a woman is “asking for it.”
This may be a renaissance piece, but it is being shown to a modern audience. If plays cannot adapt to today’s standards, they should die out, a form of natural selection.
The Taming of The Shrew cannot adapt.
(Burn, Pine, Perish.)