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The Taming of the Shrew

On the Matter of Political Correctness

Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Potter Center, Jackson, Michigan
Saturday, July 15, 2017, B–105&106 (front middle stalls)
Directed by John Neville-Andrews

Peering out from under my comforter of Bardolatry, I'm about to venture into Shakespearean blasphemy. I intend to—deep breath—endorse a "politically correct" change in William Shakespeare's verse that the Michigan Shakespeare Festival (MSF) made in its production of The Taming of the Shrew. It is only one word, but for me, it goes to the heart of this play's true meaning. So, gripping the comforter, I take another deep breath, and…

Katherina in purple Elizabethan dress with gold brocade overlay runs toward Bianca in white underdress and tan girdle, her hands bound and head covered in a cloth.
Katherina (Janice L. Blixt, left), abuses her sister, Bianca (Janet Haley), in what is presented as the opening scene in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Melissa Szymke Adams, Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

OK, back in the late 1990s, an issue of sexism arose when my wife, Sarah, was the maintenance squadron commander for the 93rd Air Control Wing, one of several units at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. That base's Officers' Wives' Club (OWC) published a cookbook featuring dishes from wives on base, and I submitted a couple of recipes. They were rejected on the grounds that I was not an OWC member (not all officers' wives were, either). I shrugged it off, but the wife of Sarah's wing commander and also an OWC member would not. She negotiated inclusion of my recipes as a "special guest." Then the wife of the base's one-star general got involved. As president of the OWC, she wondered aloud whether I would ever want to join a "wives" club and started urging the organization to change its name to the Officers' Spouses' Club (incidentally, I was one of three civilian males among the seven spouses of commanding officers in the 93rd Wing). When she told me of her efforts, I replied that I didn't intend to join no matter what it was called. She knew that, she said, "But your job is to keep your mouth shut until we get the vote." "Yes, ma'am," I said (she was a general's wife, after all), and I became the poster boy for the OWC becoming the OSC.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet, sayeth Juliet. She's a naive 13-year-old. Even in the context of her own play, Romeo and Juliet, as well as in our everyday lives, what we call things matters. That includes the phrase "political correctness," which has become a term of derision in reaction to this very subject. For me, the problem with the phrase is not its meaning but its lexicography. Correctness might be a positive, but political has negative connotations, as it also does in "political expediency," "political strategy," and "political football." Rather, we should call it "social correctness," for that is the purpose of such matters of word choice. It's all about accuracy (as the general's wife pointed out), courtesy, and recognition of society's evolution. People who spew bile about "political correctness" (I have a label for them, but I would not be socially correct to use it here) tend to dismiss the importance of accuracy, refuse to curtsy to courtesy, and resist evolution of any sort.

Yet, I'm all for presenting Shakespeare in his purity, including those plays seen by many as blatantly misogynist (The Taming of the Shrew) or racist (The Merchant of Venice), two plays a majority of people today don't consider politically or socially correct in their original language and plots. However—now that I'm totally out of my comforter zone on this topic—I am not in that majority. Based on contextual as well as textual evidence, I contend Shakespeare gives a damning portrayal of racist behavior in The Merchant of Venice, and that The Taming of the Shrew is, at heart, a story about a successful love affair leading to a healthy marriage (an argument I more thoroughly press in my 2012 commentary "On Taming Shrews—Who Is the Misogynist Monster: Petruchio, Shakespeare, or You?" on this website). I read these plays in the comparative context of the cultural norms of Shakespeare's and our times. Every age has its own version of political correctness, and Shakespeare, in comparison to the literature and sermons of his day, was at the forefront of his age's social correctness—yet, he could not realistically imagine the social correctness of our age. If he could, he very well might have tweaked a key piece of Shrew's language the way the Michigan Shakespeare Festival production has.

This production comes with an enticing pedigree. Twenty years ago, Director John Neville-Andrews helmed Shrew for the MSF, bringing together two young actors who had never met to play Katherina and Petruchio. The two actors fell in love and married. That Kate, Janice L. Blixt, is now MSF's producing artistic director; and that Petruchio, David Blixt, is the company's fight director and lead actor. The two are reprising their Shrew roles with Neville-Andrews again directing them.

For the Blixts, the passage of 20 years and a marriage that has produced two children has not resulted in any substantially different regard for the play. "People keep asking if playing this role is different than it was 20 years ago," Janice Blixt writes in her program notes. "Well, yes—it's harder. I need some ibuprofen and a hot shower after some of the longer rehearsal days. And two children later, it's not as easy to be flung around as once it was." In a postshow talkback, neither she nor her husband added any other insights into the 20 years' passage of playing time, but they did address the difficulty of staging what they consider such a misogynist play 20 years on. That is one reason the production is set in Elizabethan times, with costumes designed by Suzanne Young and a simple stage comprising Tudor-style, half-timber facades designed by Jeromy Hopgood. MSF rarely sets its productions in Shakespeare's time, they said.

Neville-Andrews, however, did encounter new insights when he returned to The Taming of the Shrew for the third time in his directing career. "The play is very much about wealth," he writes in his director's notes: "gaining wealth, the necessity of money, and a person's status based on prosperity and possessions." He goes on to contend that while Petruchio initially pursues Katherina for her dowry, "when he sets eyes on her it's true love at first sight. It is also true love at first sight for Katherina, a feisty, independent woman who in the past has had many idiotic, opportunistic suitors, and has therefore developed a combative defense mechanism to deal with such men." In the end, Petruchio and Katherina create a money-making team. Given this understanding, though, it's odd that Neville-Andrews would cut from the script Petruchio's proclamation after their wedding that his new wife is the sum of all his possessions, "my goods, my chattels ... my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything."

Many of Neville-Andrews' other textual changes are more defensible. While cutting out the play's Induction—the punking of Sly the Tinker, for whom The Taming of the Shrew is played—is fairly common, Neville-Andrews nevertheless doesn't start with Act I, Scene 1, Lucentio's and Tranio's arrival in Padua where they come across Baptista, his daughters, Katherina and Bianca, and the latter's suitors. Instead, he opens with Act II, Scene 1, with Katherina abusing the bound Bianca (Janet Haley) before Baptista (Tobin Hissong) separates them; the production then moves on with Act I, Scene 1. Neville-Andrews said in the postshow talkback that he wanted to put the immediate focus on the sisters, pointing out that both are less-than-stellar characters. The transposition also serves the plot. The sisters' scene ends with Katherina storming out on the line "Nay, now I see she is your treasure, she must have a husband, I dance barefoot on her wedding day, and for your love to her lead apes in hell." This is motive for Baptista's decree in the play's opening scene (now coming after this scene) to marry off Katherina before hearing suits for Bianca.

The director also corrects an obvious flaw in Shakespeare's composition by inserting Hortensio (Robert Kauzlaric) in the wedding scene to plead on behalf of his longtime friend Petruchio rather than having Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) do so. As Tranio has spent only a brief time with Petruchio, purity of text doesn't serve the sense of this scene. Meanwhile, giving Hortensio his due ramps up the play's overall comic potential, especially if he is cast well, which he is here. Kauzlaric applies impeccable comic talents to the part. His disguise as Litio, the schoolmaster, when he is trying to secretly court Bianca, is particularly funny as he exaggerates Hortensio's already demonstrable cocky pride. When introducing the disguised Hortensio to Baptista, Petruchio mentions his skills in music (Hortensio nods) and mathematics (Hortensio emphatically shakes his head no at Petruchio), and then names him "Litio," at which Hortensio hangs his head in defeat. Later, when he attends the "taming school" that is Petruchio's home, Hortensio scribbles notes as he watches his friend's antics in dealing with Katherina. I've come to realize that giving Hortensio as much comic heft as Petruchio, Katherina, Tranio, and Lucentio separates the great Shrews from the merely good.

The acting talent across the company is generally strong, with significant comic contributions from Shawn Pfautsch as Petruchio's gruff and ever-hungry servant Grumio, Ian Geers as the inveterate dreamer Lucentio, and Eric Eilersen as Lucentio's hyperactive second servant, Biondello. Neville-Andrews inserts a number of stage gags to supplement the textual jokes. Grumio wears the dress for the tailor as if a runway model, bangs coconuts to create the sound of a horse's hooves as he and Petruchio trot into the wedding scene (a direct steal from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), and accidentally kicks a bucket the two times Petruchio mentions his recently deceased father.

Grumio in brown striped britches and jacket over white shirt, knee socks and brown shoes and a satchel over his shoulder holds the fist of Petruchio in Elizabethan blousy pants of gold and black, with a turquoise waist coat over gold brocade shirt and a purple felt cap, a sword at his side and cape over shoulder
Grumio (Shawn Pfautsch, left) contends with the anger of his master, Petruchio (David Blixt), in the Michigan Shakespeare Festival's production of William Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Melissa Szymke Adams, Michigan Shakespeare Festival.

Some key stage business is more subtle. Upon their arrival in Padua, Lucentio and Tranio (Brandon St. Clair Saunders), hiding while Hortensio and Gremio (Alan Ball) beset Baptista and his daughters, simultaneously assess Bianca: Lucentio is instantly mesmerized, Tranio shrugs in disinterest. An even keener textual interpretation—one I've never seen in 17 previous stagings of this play—comes when Petruchio has Katherina greet the traveling Vincentio (Lee Palmer), Lucentio's father, as a "young budding virgin," then ridicules her for her mistake. Palmer's Vincentio looks on the two suspiciously, and then greets them with his first line: "Fair sir" to Katherina, "and you, my merry mistress" to Petruchio. Cut from Petruchio's how-to-tame-his-wife speech is the hawking imagery, which is integral to his methodology though it might go over a modern audience's head; however, rather than delivering what's left of the speech in soliloquy, David Blixt's Petruchio speaks it to his household staff, wasting a wonderful theatrical moment Shakespeare set up for actors through the ages.

The production relies on slapstick (albeit cleverly conceived and delivered) and the Elizabethan setting to soften the play's misogynist thread. Meanwhile, the core romance between Petruchio and Katherina hopscotches to a happy ending while skirting the dynamics of her personal growth. This production's romantic arc centers on Petruchio using a physical signal for Katherina to know when to trust him implicitly, but the psychological evolution of Blixt's Katherina is murky, and we never actually experience the spark that leads to the flame of her passionately kissing Petruchio on the street.

However, the production scores a palpable hit with Katherina's controversial climactic speech on "what duty [women] do owe their lords and husbands," making it resoundingly logical and socially correct for our times as well as Shakespeare's. When she hits on the line, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign," Blixt pauses on that last word in a questioning manner, shakes her head and finishes the line as written but as if she's come up with a more suitable term than sovereign: "one that cares for thee." Her speech begins to shift here, not in tone or point, but in visual context, no longer addressing just the other women but the men in the room, too. Suddenly, the speech has become less about women showing obedience to men and more about true partnership between individuals. And so, when she comes to the speech's climactic point, to "place your hands below your husband's foot, in token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease," Blixt switches out husband's foot for partner's foot.

Social correctness? Yes. Blasphemous? Not necessarily. I've long contended that The Taming of the Shrew is fundamentally a play about forging a marriage based on mutual respect, mutual trust, and all-encompassing partnership. This is something Katherina must learn: "I, who never knew how to entreat, nor never needed that I should entreat." It is something Petruchio understands: "'Tis the mind that makes the body rich, and as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, so honor peereth in the meanest habit." Though Shakespeare teaches us that human nature has changed little in 400-plus years, society nevertheless has evolved: Shakespeare and his audience couldn't even conceive of an Officers' Spouses' Club, though the power struggle that comes with a name is something they knew all too well. At the time Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew, perhaps his first play, his philosophy on marriage (and that of his audience) was grounded in the Apostle Paul's doctrine, a doctrine that has since become more moderately applied in much of Western society. As society evolves, so do words and their underlying and comprehended intent.

If we want this play to be a museum piece, an artifact on exhibit, don't change a word. If we want the living drama that The Taming of the Shrew can be, changing husband to partner, as with wife to spouse, is Shakespeare reflecting on our times.

Eric Minton
August 2, 2017

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