Performed by the Company of Women at the Globe Theatre, 2003
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign
Kate’s speech on the subservience of women in “The Taming of the Shrew” looks like unpromising feminist material. The play is Shakespeare’s most misogynist, perhaps irredeemably so. One woman is sold off by her father to the highest bidder while her sister is forced into a troubled marriage where her husband deprives her of food and drink in order to break her spirit. There are plenty of lines on women knowing their place and Kate’s long, final speech protesting obedience to her husband is a notorious example. Despite all that, the play is meant to be a comedy.
It was with this in mind that I went to see the Company of Woman perform the play at the Globe Theatre, intrigued to see what they would make of it. Three things especially impressed me. The first was how refreshing I found it to see women play “normal” characters instead of being confined to Shakespeare’s limited female roles which were never intended to be played by women anyway. In Elizabethan times, only men were allowed to act, and so in keeping with the historical ethos of the Globe, there have previously been all male productions by the Men’s Company. This is the first season for Women’s Company, performing “Richard III” as well as “The Taming of the Shrew” and accompanied by an excellent group of female musicians. Here women took on all the roles from errand boy to tradesman to love-struck lord so naturally and efficiently that it almost surprised me things had not always been run this way!
The second point which impressed me was that there was nothing subdued about the play’s patriarchal world; quite the contrary. Everything from the “men’s” posture to their mindset was cleverly observed and guyed. Petrucchio (Janet McTeer) was a boozing, womanising lad, who even relieved himself against one of the stage pillars, wiping himself off on his doublet. Late for his wedding, he made a superb drunken progress with his mistress through the audience in a cart. Hortensio (Yolanda Vazquez) was a good man-about-town companion and together they increased the sense of a boys’ club with its own mannerisms and language. Baptista (Anna Healy) sold off his younger daughter, Bianca (Laura Rogers) to the richest man in a mock auction scene; this was pointed up by the entrance of two officials, one of whom had to write down the dowries bid by the rival suitors. When at the end of the play, the three husbands gambled on whether their wives would come when called, they did so in a rowdy, blokey way, as if they were betting on their dogs or horses. The Company of Women made a thorough and cheeky appropriation of the men’s world. It was brilliant satire and often hilarious.
Finally, Kate (Kathryn Hunter) was clearly not defeated by Petrucchio’s attempts to browbeat her; she simply decided to humour her husband who was equally as wayward and quarrelsome as she was. When Petrucchio famously insisted that she call the sun the moon, she did so, but Petrucchio knew he was being humoured and looked disgruntled. Kate’s final speech on the subservience of women became in fact her tour de force. It turned into a harangue, a tongue-in-cheek lecture on the obedience owed by women which embarrassed her listeners and which they were powerless to stop. She even climbed onto the table for a more emphatic delivery so that Petrucchio was left nervously tugging at her skirts, wanting her to come down. To illustrate her point about the supposed softness and passivity of women’s bodies, she lifted up her dress and shocked Petrucchio into trying to cover her up with a coat. When Kate’s speech was at last over, the “men” sought refuge in a proverb and stood confused as if something had gone wrong, but they were not quite sure what – they had lost control of the stage.
I thought that the subversive power of this performance outweighed the argument about whether the Company of Women ought to have performed such a potentially misogynist play at all. In some ways it was a shock for me to see women acting out all the roles – musicians, clergy, heads of families, whatever. I had not realised quite how exciting and positive it would be to see them cast as people, regardless of gender.