Given that it was written approximately 425 years ago, and given that its characters speak in iambic pentameter and argue over such archaic notions as betrothals and dowries, you could be forgiven for thinking that William Shakespeares The Taming of the Shrew might not have a lot to say to modern audiences.
But one of the many pleasures of the excellent new production of the play by Fort Worths Trinity Shakespeare Festival is that it reminds us that Shakespeare never goes out of fashion. Just as in the Bards day, the battle of the sexes is still being waged unfairly by men determined to keep unruly women in their place.
For those who skipped it in high school lit class, The Taming of the Shrew tells the story of the arrogant Petruchio (the excellent Chuck Huber in this new production), who decides partly because he likes a challenge, and partly because hed like to marry into money to woo the foul-tempered Kate (Trisha Miller), an independent-minded merchants daughter who seems to have little interest in romance.
Petruchios means of winning Kates heart involves humiliating, physically abusing and even starving her until, in the plays notorious final scene, Kate delivers a speech saying she has come to see the error of her ways, and that all women should be obedient to their husbands honest will.
Misogyny much? For centuries, scholars and dramatists have struggled to make sense of The Taming of the Shrew. Was Shakespeare, whose work much more frequently celebrates independent-minded women, actually satirizing his male characters vanity and superiority? Or are we supposed to take Kates taming at face value, and regard it as a good thing? (Some productions, like the famed 1967 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film adaptation, try to split the difference. Kate delivers her speech without irony, but its clear to the audience she doesnt mean a word of it.)
Trinity Shakespeare Festivals production, set in 1900, doesnt exactly take sides in this controversy: Director T.J. Walsh plays the material straight, but also tries to emphasize the idea that Kate and Petruchio really are perfect for each other. (Theres a lovely passage, not in the text of the original play, where Petruchio affectionately washes her feet.)
But you cant stage The Taming of the Shrew without forcing the audience to ask difficult questions about gender relations. And whether intentional or serendipitous, Trinity Shakespeare Festivals production arrives at a particularly charged cultural moment. (This is actually the second Fort Worth staging of the play this year, following Stage Wests version this past winter.)
During the 2012 election cycle, we heard a number of male politicians make deeply ill-informed comments about womens reproductive systems. Meanwhile, high on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list is a book called Lean In, by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, which has inspired its own share of controversy for its argument that women arent doing enough to stay competitive in the business world.
On the one hand, you hear about these things and can only sigh in frustration: How is that were still having these arguments when its obvious that men and women are equal, and that one gender should never be allowed dominance over the other?
On the other hand, well, you watch a scene like the one in The Taming of the Shrew where a father conducts a very literal auction between two men for the right to marry his daughter, and you feel with distressing force the maxim about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Is The Taming of the Shrew ultimately a sexist play, or a denunciation of sexism? Trinity Shakespeare Festivals production offers no easy answers, but ultimately keeps the question alive and relevant and perhaps the real point here is that the argument should never be settled, that in the ongoing fight for equality, complacency must never become an option.
And as for William Shakespeare, if you think his work is dated, stuffy and stodgy, you might also want to check out the Trinity Shakespeare Festivals other production this season, Julius Caesar, which is playing in repertory with Shrew. Its a tale of scheming and duplicitous politicians so eager to seize power that they end up bringing about the ruin of a great republic.