The Taming of the 22 per cent

Image: Alex Gabriel

Exciting events in my life are like buses. I spend weeks sat at home, reading, writing, translating, fitting in a bit of blogging here and there. But then, all of a sudden, two fantastic events crop up… on the same night.

My partner and I booked tickets to see The Taming of The Shrew at the RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon, for Thursday 9th February. Within 12 hours of booking the tickets, I found out the University of Warwick was hosting a talk on the underrepresentation of women in public life, with a focus on politics and journalism… also on 9th February.

The event was called We are the 22%, referring to research by Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, which shows that the representation of women in politics and journalism is stagnant at 22%. It was organised by Maahwish Mirza of Warwick Labour and the panel featured two of my favourite feminist journalists – Bidisha and Ellie Mae O’Hagan, as well as Professor Shirin Rai (political scientist, Professor of Politics and International Studies and Director of the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament Programme) and Gabrielle Shine (European Students For Liberty, contributor at Spiked).

Disappointed about missing this talk on an issue which I’m so fascinated by, I used my powers as administrator of The Student Journals to arrange for one of our writers to live-blog the discussion. If you’re interested, that blog can be found here. My friend Eden, who chaired the discussion, is also writing a commentary on the event, which will be available on The Student Journals soon.

After turning up for long enough to introduce myself to Ellie and Bidisha, we ended up very nearly late for the start of The Taming of The Shrew. The performance was fantastic – jam-packed with drunken hilarity, nudity, fighting, and oozing sexuality. It’s a play full of Shakespeare’s characteristic bawdy humour, which the RSC captured to absolute perfection with their giant bed sheet covering the stage, their unashamedly lewd, raunchy spectacle, and Nick Holder’s excellent portrayal of Christopher Sly, who spent much of the performance covering his dignity with no more than a saucepan. The Taming of The Shrew is comical precisely because it is such an utterly ridiculous play. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a performance of Shakespeare.

But amidst the laughter and the romping, Lisa Dillon and David Caves, as Katharina and Petruchio, powerfully touched on the play’s darker side. It is, after all, a morality play about male-female power dynamics and, as such, seeped in misogyny. It’s very difficult, as a feminist, not to view such things through a feminist lens anyway, but the glaringly awful gender politics would be hard for any modern audience to miss. The cast were incredibly successful in highlighting this inequality, as well as making the entire audience roar with laughter in all the right places.

The wooing of Katharina by Petruchio was full of chemistry, attitude and what Uni Lad might call “banter”. Dillon’s Katharina was every bit as truculent, spirited and independent as I’ve always imagined her, yet sadly her obstinance is no match for the patriarchy. The marriage is arranged, against her will, between her suitor and father.

What follows is the taming or, as I prefer to call it, the abusive marriage in which the wife is bullied into submission and obedience. Caves’ Petruchio, behind a facade of wit and charisma, is a bully. There were moments when I felt thoroughly uncomfortable about his behaviour and her obvious distress. This abuse is not something which died out with Shakespeare; imagine a scenario where your friend’s boyfriend persistently undermines and ridicules her, while you sit by, powerless to intervene, feeling that maybe it’s not your place to say anything. By the end of the play, having watched her gradually cowed into submission, it’s easy to understand why Katharina is the most obedient of the wives on stage, willingly jumping at her husband’s every command and lecturing the other women on their “duties” to their “lords”.

The Taming of the Shrew is very far from a high point in Shakespeare’s analyses of gender politics. Written in the early 1590s, it is amongst his very earliest plays and, naturally, was written against a backdrop of late 16th century contexts. Yet many of Shakespeare’s later plays demonstrate far better engagement with the politics of gender and the concept of patriarchy as a social structure. Indeed, in many cases, Shakespeare’s nuanced treatment of gender is far ahead of his time. Take Love’s Labour’s Lost – the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to end without a single wedding, because the women declare that their suitors have proved themselves to be fickle and unworthy.

As You Like It and Twelfth Night brilliantly and humorously explore the idea of gender as a performance by having a woman (who herself, originally, would have been played by a boy) convincingly play a man. The incidents of mistaken identity and gender confusion which follow are amongst my favourite moments of self-conscious metatheatre in Shakespeare, which blur the rigid Elizabethan binary of what it means to be masculine and feminine.

Mediocre Dave describes Measure for Measure as one of the best examples of Shakespeare demonstrating “how a patriarchal society mistreats… women. Juliet, for being pregnant outside of marriage. Isabella for being unable to expose the fact that she was sexually harassed by the ruler of the city. [And] Angelo’s secret former wife, Mariana, who is in a bizarre state of social limbo since he left her.”

Finally, my favourite Shakespeare character, Much Ado About Nothing‘s Beatrice, is a wonderful example of a vivacious, gutsy female lead who Shakespeare does not forcibly tame. Tamsin Greig played the role in the RSC’s 2006 production and perfectly epitomised her wit and strength. Beatrice, like many of Shakespeare’s women, is intelligent, independent and principled, whilst conscious of the patriarchal restrictions imposed on her.

“Intelligent, independent and principled” women seems like an appropriate point to bring this post full-circle, back to where I began: Bidisha, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Professor Shirin Rai, Gabrielle Shine and the knowledge that, almost 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, women remain underrepresented in public life because of the patriarchal restrictions imposed on them. In politics and journalism we are the 22% for one simple reason. In the words of Bidisha:

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. We don’t need to sit around scratching our heads about what the problem is – the problem is sexism. That’s literally it. We’re not making it up.”

Women are still being tamed, but I intend to remain a shrew.

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