I don't say that often, but I did recently. I went to the Great River Shakespeare Festival at Winona State University and saw their production of The Taming of the Shrew. Seeing it (I think for the first time live) made me realize again just how much I hate the play. But that's different from hating the production, if that makes sense.
The Great River Shakespeare Festival is fairly new (this is their fifth season), but I've been to a couple of their productions and they do a good job in a great venue. Their work is a great addition to the area. Winona State is a beautiful campus, at least near the theater (that's where I've been), with lots of nice prairie style plantings and a lovely fountain. The theater at the Performing Arts Center is smallish (maybe 300 seats), but nicely designed with good sight lines and decent accoustics. It's a nice place to see a play.
This play was no exception to the good job thing. The costumes stood out, the acting was fine, and the overall design/conception worked well. But the play!
I have a much stronger visceral reaction to The Taming of the Shrew than to Titus, Othello, or Merchant (though my reaction to Merchant is probably next in line, along with All's Well). Why is that?
After the play ended, one of the students asked how I'd liked it, and I said "I hate this play." She looked shocked. (The Shakespeare lit person hates a play? Is that even allowed? Won't I be disbarred or something?) And asked why. And I told her that I just couldn't get beyond the domestic violence.
As I was driving home, I thought about that. Other plays are deeply violent. Titus, for example. But there's something that hits home more deeply with Taming, and I think it's that the violence is somehow mundane and common, and oh so easy for society to laugh at, enjoy and accept. In the play's logic, and indeed in early modern English culture (and our own), women must be subject to male domination. I get that, and yet... We're "supposed" to be horrified by the rape in Titus, horrified that Titus kills Lavinia, but Taming asks us to applaud Petrucchio's abuses, or at least accept them as a necessary evil. If only, it suggests, Katherine weren't naughty, then Petrucchio wouldn't be forced to abuse her. (I'm putting aside the violence against servants here, but it's part and parcel of the way patriarchal violence works in the play. So as I go on, keep it in mind.)
When I think of my personal experience, I've known straight couples where the male was, if not actively violent, at least actively threatening, actively keeping a female spouse apart from her friends/family, or making it hard for her to have their support, pretending that his domination was in her "best interests." And our society pretty much supports male privilege to do that to his spouse, excepting only certain levels of physical abuse. And even then, the male cops who inevitably show up seem to take the man's side to whatever extent they can. It's vile.
But Shakespeare makes it sort of appealing, and I think that's all the more reason why I hate the play. The double plot is well-integrated; I especially like the part where Petrucchio and Kate meet up with Vincentio to bring the two plots together just so, in a sort of unexpected way. The dialog is quick, with lots of word play. As a play, it's a good one in all sorts of ways.
In recent years, some productions of Taming have tried to rehabilitate the play somewhat, by making Katherine's final speech firmly tongue in cheek, with her sort of playing a game rather than really submissive. The Great River production didn't do that, but played it sort of straight, with Katherine not looking subdued, but not playing a tongue in cheek game, either. Yes, she'd learned her lesson, and golly, if we women just know our place and are obedient, then men will treat us right. But that brings us back to Petrucchio's violence against his servants, because despite the servant's obvious efforts to do their jobs, he abuses them violently. That abuse should remind us that the system is based on and supported by the violence of those with power against those with lots less power.
I know that about the system. Really, I do. And yet I don't like to be reminded so amusingly that we're supposed to laughingly accept our place in it.