I had the opportunity this weekend to see Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” performed by the Chicago Shakespeare Company by an all-female cast. It was set amid the goings-on of the day women won the right to vote in 1919.
What does this have to do with women’s fiction? After all we don’t chat about theater and dramatic productions in the Back Booth. But Shakespeare is certainly a literary figure, and the theme has plenty to do with our discussions of women’s roles.
First of all, there is the ironic sweetness of turning Shakespeare on his ear and casting women as men, when he routinely had men playing women. (Granted, he had to do that, since it was considered scandalous for a woman to be on stage.) But here we had women doing manly things, such as going for their swords when made fun of, rubbing their hairless chins in imitation of stroking beards, stomping about with wide steps, and even grabbing their crotches when they wanted to make a lewd point. It was hilarious to see the posturing that we see every day in the men we love, and I have to say that the men in the audience were amused, not insulted.
These fictional club women are portraying roles that they never would be allowed to have in real life. They were dukes and noblemen, used to running businesses and affairs of the world. When it came to women in their world, they would be the ones to decide who married whom and how the dowry was arranged.
In an age when decency was all-important, this fictional troupe of actresses chose to wear their bloomers as the pants that the men wore in the Renaissance (pre-figuring the real bloomers that Amelia Bloomer suggested for the suffragettes). The leader of the troupe claims that she’s against the women’s right the vote, yet she has a senator that she keeps in her hip pocket via plenty of financial contributions. She tells him how to vote. If that’s not holding power, then what is?
But the most amazing thing about this production was the taming of the shrew herself, a woman named Katherine (Kate) who simply wants to speak her mind. Shakespeare tries to keep everything light and comic for his Renaissance audience, but Kate is in effect raped, tortured, and beaten into submission by Petruchio, the man she weds most unwillingly. It’s all part of a bargain that allows her sister, the mild-mannered Bianca, to marry. In submission, Kate gives the final speech of the play about how a woman’s place is to obey her master—her husband. But at the final sentence the actress stops and says “I cannot say it. I cannot go on.” Because none of these suffragettes believes this outdated claptrap anymore.
At the end, when the Senate votes to allow women the vote, a cheer goes up among the cast, and one person says, “Now we have the right to vote, soon equal pay for equal work!” The real audience in the theater erupts in laughter. Since 1919, we still haven’t come that far.
The women who put on “The Taming of the Shrew” shine a spotlight on all the sexism that still lives today.
(If you live in the Chicago area, it is being produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Company at Navy Pier. Go, if you have the chance.)
Lynn Voedisch is the author of three novels, Excited Light, The God’s Wife, and Dateline:
Atlantis, the last two of which were published by The Story Plant. The e-book edition of The
God’s Wife is available for $2.99 for the month of September 2017.