At first glance, The Taming of the Shrew looks like the Shakespeare play most irrelevant to our times. I know, the butchery of Titus Andronicus is hard to swallow, but that play doesn’t end with a long speech about the virtues of hacking your enemies to pieces. Kate’s paean to wifely submission is certainly the most embarrassing classic English text that any actress today is ever called on to declaim.
No one knows why the Bard chose to write this play. He lived apart from his own wife, so he had no reason to seek revenge. But I have a theory. I have no documents or scholarly tradition to support it, but I can cite in my favor a writer’s intuition. Shakespeare was a writer, I’m a writer. QED Shakespeare and Watzman think alike.
In this play Shakespeare was protesting the female tyranny over literature. In his day, it was personified in Queen Elizabeth, which according to reliable sources such as the film Shakespeare in Love told him what plays to write and when. In our day, publishers cater to women because, they say, women purchase close to 70 percent of all books.
It’s hardly a new problem. Reviewing John Stape’s new biography of Joseph Conrad in the June 11 issue of The New Republic, William Deresiewicz quotes H.G. Wells warning the ambitious young Pole:
“you don’t make the slightest concessions to the reading young woman who makes or mars the fortunes of authors.” Conrad proudly ignored the advice. Of “The Secret Sharer,” another of his great short works, he would boast that it contained “no damned tricks with girls.” But tricks with girls- romantic interest, as scarce in his major work as it is in the record of his life-was exactly what the reading young woman … wanted.
Yes, high school students from Idaho to Alice Springs are now forced to read “The Secret Sharer” and get no closer to anything by Wells than the latest film version of War of the Worlds. So what? Posthumous fame doesn’t put bread on the table (broad hint to my agent: Conrad stayed afloat by grace of loans from his literary representative, James B. Pinker).
Being British, Shakespeare probably didn’t subscribe to The New Republic, but I can imagine him reading those lines and saying to himself: “Tricks with women? I’ll give them tricks with women!” Cut to Petruchio throwing his Kate over his shoulder and carrying her off to reeducation camp.
Note that Petruchio’s method hints that Shakespeare’s real subject was literature. He breaks Katherine’s spirit by denying her food and sleep. Food and sleep are two of the three human activities classically associated with reading (the third is one that Shakespeare couldn’t show on stage, even in a bawdy comedy). This macho brawler is not only out to make his wife obedient; he’s out to kill her penchant for the romance novel, the family saga, and the parenting guide. By the Act V, it’s Petruchio, not Kate, who buys the books “in fair Padua, nursery of the arts.”
Scholars have yet to discover the notes and sketches of the great plays that Shakespeare would have written had he not had to appeal to his overwhelmingly female audience. While he was writing chick tragedies like Othello, with its swooning Desdemona, and Hamlet, with its oh-so-sensitive portrayal of a mother’s grief over her incoherent adolescent son, he could have been applying his talents to truly worthwhile subjects.
By the end of the Center Stage Theater’s quite good, if slow-paced production’s of Shrew in South Jerusalem last Wednesday evening, I was ready to go out and burn some Jane Austen. It’s time for women to start buying the books men want to write.