The purpose of the theater is to present themes, not to teach lessons to the audience
Thank you for your response to our production of The Taming of the Shrew. Indeed, the text of The Taming of the Shrew can be challenging to audiences, sometimes troubling. It is a hilarious farce in places where it seems like it shouldn’t be. In response to your article, many members of the show have written responses. Below are anonymous excerpts. There are two common themes:
(1) Theatrical events do not have an inherent purpose. Shakespeare did not write morality plays that beat the audience over the head with a lesson. Our goal as actors is not to interpret the text for the audience but to faithfully bring characters to life (in that regard, your response suggests that we were successful). The responsibility of interpreting the play rests with the audience, not the actors.
(2) While your reading of the play is certainly valid, it is only one of many. How do we account for the fact that every action Petruchio performs on Kate he performs in equal degree on himself? Does Bianca really represent the ideal woman or is she just better at getting what she wants in a world already filled with misogyny? What should we make of the moments when Petruchio and Kate are harmonious, laughing together in the street or happily kissing? Ultimately, does male dominance really “win” at the end?
Even in Shakespeare’s day, Petruchio and Kate’s relationship wasn’t blindly accepted. There is a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, written by John Fletcher, the playwright who succeeded Shakespeare in his theater troupe. In The Tamer Tamed, Petruchio is left a widower after Kate’s death and remarries Maria, a woman even more headstrong than Kate. She refuses to consummate their marriage until he repents his “unmanly, wretched, foolish life.” Elizabethan audiences obviously were disturbed enough by Petruchio that they were eager to watch him get his comeuppance. The Taming of the Shrew was a “problem play” from the day it was written — when you stage a production of Shrew, you continue a dialogue about gender dynamics that has been continued the 1600s.
Q1: “As actors and producers, the Ensemble members’ job is to host a conversation between Shakespeare and the audience. The Shakespeare Ensemble, as a group of honest artists, has no agenda to push, but simply the responsibility to perform to the best of their abilities. [...] The value of a piece of art lies in how invested it is in exploring these themes. Its message may be beautiful or perverse, but that is not the point.”
Q2: “I think what’s important is to emphasize the fact that “male dominance” as an ideal does not “win” in the end. The characters of Lucentio and Hortensio are both punished for their views of women as objects to be won—Lucentio’s plan to deceive Baptista, which barely accounts for the fact that he needs to make Bianca fall in love with him, and Hortensio’s view of the “widow” as a woman for the taking, land both of the men with unhappy marriages in which they will in no way enjoy the tyrannical control over their wives that they envisioned. Petruchio and Kate’s relationship does not end in male dominance, but in a like-minded consummation.
“The show is a farce, but what makes the show an acceptable show is that the characters are real people. If we took the characters we didn’t like and dehumanized them, that would be the real crime. What becomes funny then are the acts themselves and not the characters performing them. This would completely rob the play of any of its hints of tragedy. …One effect of a subtle performance is that there are many possible interpretations of intention, and to single out aspects of the show that point out the most negative one doesn’t really prove anything.”
Q3: “In the vignette between the two where Petruchio asks (not demands) for a kiss, you would have to plug your ears not to hear what has become a loving union. I could continue in this vein, scene by scene, where the play supports a reading that doesn’t automatically assume an ideological point of view (examples being when Kate strikes Petruchio he doesn’t retaliate, the speech at the end where the wedding company listens awestruck where they had previously ostracized Kate who, by the way, has found a voice that demonstrates her own will, etc.) I think the director, Peter Brook put it best when he equated the interpretation of Shakespeare’s works with looking into tea leave — you see what you want.
“Alas, the prism differs for everyone. Here is the crux of the problem — that an audience might be confounded and frustrated by the ambiguity of the play or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s canon in general. His genius lies in a disappearing act and the audience is left to speculate on his intentions which will undeniably be influenced by our historical moment and culture. Where I take exception is propping up Art as moral examples. Why? Do we always need to have our egos flattered by examples of politically correct 21st century ideas? Theatre is meant to astonish, confront, shock, cajole, ridicule and tantalize. An audience not only watches plays that represent what we aspire to, but, also, what we fear in ourselves.”
Q4: “The purpose of art is to make us think, to make us react, to make us more than what we were before we read/saw/heard it. Art is not something that happens to an audience, it is something they need to engage with. If it doesn’t challenge them, offend them, make them think, make them feel, then it is useless. The only people for whom Taming of the Shrew was useless would be anyone who walked out unchallenged, who saw their own misogyny reflected onstage. Can the production be held responsible for attitudes an audience member walked in with?”
None of these responses are identical. The director, each cast member, each person on the production team, each member of the audience has a different take on this play - and that’s as it should be. Between characters, drama comes from conflict So, too, does interesting theater arise from conflicts in opinion. Theater is designed to evoke, not to preach: plays with obvious moral lessons are intolerably boring. It’s eminently okay if you disagreed with this production, but to accuse it of being immoral is to wholly misunderstand the reason we do theater. We choose to put on challenging plays precisely because the issues they address are as relevant now as they were when Shakespeare lived.