Of Shrews and Men
George Austin on a recent production of ‘Taming of the Shrew’
The first time that I saw Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was in October 1947, on a school visit to the Manchester Opera House. It was by the Old Vic Theatre Company with a cast that included Bernard Miles, Harry Andrews and Renee Asherton. Katherina was played by Patricia Burke and Trevor Howard was Petruchio. I know that because I am a squirrel and keep theatre programmes forever.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has included an interesting and entirely logical duo of plays at Stratford this season, with The Shrew being followed by John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, written as a sequel about two decades after The Shrew. In it, Petruchio, now a widower following the death of Katherine, woos and weds Maria, an apparently docile girl who in fact proves to be of stronger mettle than Kate.
Directed by Gregory Doran they are both excellent, and in those 56 years I have never seen a better Katherine than Alexandra Gilbreath’s, who is superb too as Maria in the later play. Jasper Britton’s Petruchio is a nasty piece of work, a drunken slob who humiliates Kate and receives only his just deserts when Maria tames him. Or does he? And is there a modern parallel in today’s post-feminist society?
Katherine is often played as one for whom there can be little sympathy. In this production she begins as a screeching harridan, but Alexandra Gilbreath’s portrayal is of a young women for whom meeting Petruchio is love at first sight. Her sudden pause, the look she gives him, show a love that begins to tame her at once and for whom the humiliation she is to suffer is unnecessary, ready as she is to accept whatever nonsense there is in her husband’s demands. (Though not without a hint of rebellion.)
In Shakespeare’s day the wife was of course the husband’s chattel, without rights and with only the responsibility of serving her husband. As the tamed Kate is to say at the end of the play,
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; the one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
And craves no other tribute at thine hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
The cruel mental torture she is forced to suffer from her sadistic husband is matched only by the same treatment meted out to Petruchio by his second wife Maria. She refuses to admit him into the marital home (and marital bed) and when news of her revolt spreads, other women join the feminist cause. Petruchio is at first angry, then puzzled, but finally is reduced almost to a gibbering wreck by continued and persistent humiliation.
It is hard to imagine that the subjugation of women could continue into the twentieth century. When my grandfather died intestate in 1918, his wife was entitled to nothing of his goods or property, such as it was, all of it going to my father (who immediately gave everything over to his mother).
The feminist revolution may have begun with Emily Pankhurst but it really came into its own only in the revolutionary days of the 1960s. A recent Times 2 article traced how it has been reflected in television advertising, in which the earlier concept was that women were either ‘domestic drudges or eye candy’. Although this is still considered to be so by feminists and market researchers, the article records that a recent study comes to the opposite conclusion.
It suggested that current advertising for women is ‘shallow and irrelevant, not because it is so sexist, but because it is too concerned with political correctness’, with a stark contrast between the ‘complex and rounded portrayal of women in programming and editorial and the superficial depictions in advertising.’
I would go further and suggest that, as a result of political correctness, the wheel has often come full circle, with the persecuted Katherine becoming the cruel Maria. Men are idiots who cannot bring themselves even to change their telephone company without the more competent woman to do it for them, who confuse a tampon for a sweet, who prefer a new pair of jeans to taking out AA cover, and who give useless advice about mortgage companies (‘Don’t listen to him!’).
The article went on to claim that a recent survey of 2,000 women showed that 65% of women over 35 consider advertising patronizing and nearly 50% find it old-fashioned. And perhaps more significantly, it showed that younger women don’t mind being portrayed as sex objects ‘as long as they don’t look like morons.’
The blame of course is laid on the shoulders of ‘male creative teams’ and ‘various PC filters, including that of the Broadcasting Advertising Copy Committee, which polices TV advertising scripts.’ The result, the article suggests, is that ‘any residual mirth is purely accidental’ and explains the ‘extraordinary tide of demeaning depictions of men over the past six years.’
Thus in advertising, men become ‘a complete waste of space’, ‘incompetent, dim and ineffectual, and even as fair game for violence’. Yet, the report goes on the claim, ‘women increasingly do not like to see men put down.’ And there lies a message for some in the Church.
Orthodox Anglicans know only too well how the feminist sisterhood, now with a power once felt to be lacking in the Church and with the craven support of the hierarchy, behave towards whose with whom they disagree. If that humiliation was wrong when they perceived they were on the receiving end, how can it be right now that they hold the reins of power? Why must humiliated Deaconess Kate transmute into humiliating Mother Maria, when neither power nor revenge should have any place in a Christian vocation?
Many women priests I know simply want to get on with the job they believe God has given them, and are ready to work in deaneries and diocese alongside men who have theological concerns about women in the priesthood yet who respect their opposite views and welcome their wider ministry.
Why are the feminist fundamentalists of GRAS and WATCH working so hard to drive us out of the Church we have served and in which we wish, in spite of its sometimes extraordinary and eccentric ways, to remain? Perhaps it is they who should come into the real world of the twenty-first century and realize that for many sane citizens of our land, their political correctness has come to be seen for what it is – dogmatic, domineering, dangerous and out-dated.
George Austin is a writer and journalist.
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