March 8th was International Women’s Day 2013: a celebration of the ‘economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future’ (www.internationalwomensday.com).
The first International Women’s Day, in 1911, was a product of the rallying cries of women’s suffrage from across the world. From the 1870s, the campaign for women in the UK to have the right to vote became prominent as a national movement with the foundation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), but it was only after 1905, with the formation of the more radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), that a militant campaign began. Women in the UK were not given the right to vote until 1918, and this first legislation only enfranchised women over 30 who fulfilled certain criteria; in 1928, all women over 21 were given the right to vote.
In the early 20th century, The Shrew held a particular significance for campaigners and audiences alike: it simultaneously encouraged woman’s submission and urged woman’s fight. During the 1909 Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the play (which saw married couple Frank and Constance Benson in the leading roles) was performed moments away from suffragists vocalising ‘what we want and why we want it’ on their own stage at the Corn Exchange: the campaigners had the opportunity to be seen and heard by hundreds of playgoers. Although one reviewer simplified the play to ones that ‘appeals to an innate love of submission in a great number of women and a supreme domination in man’, The Shrew’s 20th century revival of the discussion of gender politics was echoed across the country. Ellen Terry, a celebrated Shakespearean actress and a member of the Actresses Franchise League (founded in 1908), delivered a 1911 lecture on Shakespeare as ‘one of the pioneers of women’s emancipation’, claiming his strong female characters ‘have more in common with our modern revolutionaries than the fragile ornaments of the early Victorian period’. Of Katherina’s controversial final monologue (in which she says that ‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband’), Terry claimed that she ‘gave one the impression that she was hoodwinking everybody when she professed to have been tamed by Petruchio’. In 1915, Mrs Edgar Scriven addressed the Stratford Shakespeare Club with a talk on The Shrew being Shakespeare’s support for woman to be treated as enfranchised citizens.
Shakespeare and feminism have had a difficult but progressive relationship throughout the 20th and 21st century. One play that is frequently returned to by feminist critics is The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s 1590s ‘comedy’ of the battle of the sexes, where the ‘shrew’ Katherina is ‘tamed’ by her new husband Petruchio. Critics are divided between reading the play as a cultural document of early modern England’s inherent, repressive misogyny, and as an ironic, proto-feminist farce.
The Stratford Festival saw The Shrew return a subsequent five times between 1910 and 1916; in 1912, Constance was replaced by Violet Vanbrugh (a former Vice President of the AFL), who caused reviewers to change their minds on their set perceptions of Katherina. Her Kate, unlike Constance Benson’s violent portrayal, was gentle and fearful, a ‘frightened prisoner, longing to escape’. One reviewer even wrote of such taming as out of joint with the time, claiming that Katherina’s final speech ‘could hardly be endorsed in these days of women’s suffrage’. By 1913, Dorothy Green played her Kate as ‘a shrew outshrewing the most militant of ‘militants’’.
The Taming of the Shrew has proved to be a continuously popular and thought-provoking play throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, whose gender politics some directors have attempted to negotiate through playing it straight, treating it as farce, and reworking gender roles through casting. This summer, the Globe brings you an all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew – what impact do you think an all-female cast will have on your interpretation of the play?
Read a review of the midnight matinee of The Taming of the Shrew, 2012 by Digital Officer, Sîan-Estelle.
Listen to interviews with Katherina (Samantha Spiro) and Petruchio (Simon Paisley Day) from the 2012 production.
By Sophie Harold
Susan Carlson, ‘The Suffrage Shrew: The Shakespeare Festival, “A Man’s Play”, And New Women’, in Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Los Angeles 1996, eds. Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl (London: Associated University Presses, 1998), pp. 85-102