The Rest is Silence: Musings on life and language from a twenty-first century shrew

Last summer, I participated in a debate entitled “Should we stop staging Shrew?”, referring to Shakespeare’s infamous comedy in which the aforementioned shrew is “tamed”. Perhaps surprisingly among a largely female audience of actors and academics, the answer was a resounding no.

This is perhaps less surprising considering the discussion’s context- a week-long seminar on Shakespeare’s dramatization of female voices. Over the course of five days, participants discovered the role of fictional ‘shrews’ like Shakespeare’s Kate in early modern proto-feminist discourse and were introduced to the ‘taming’ in its precise narrative context as a play-within-a-play. Alternately defined as misogynist propaganda written by the quintessential dead-white-male or a somewhat sentimental pantomime of sexy mutuality (1967 Zeffirelli film, I am looking at you), the Kate/Petruchio story is, first and foremost, a farce staged in honour of a drunken fool.

Theatre’s Greek origins also play a part in feminist readings of the play. Beginning as an arena of political debate and evolving through various degrees of satire into the comedy we recognise, theatre strolled hand-in-hand with democracy through the eras since its advent in the sixth century and was one of very few public platforms for female speech, albeit fictional speech composed by male playwrights and spoken by boy actors.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a shrew as an “aggressively or vocally assertive woman” (as well as the diminutive rodent possessing a venomous bite, piercing cry and a propensity to drop dead from stress). ‘Shrews’ in their two-legged state trace their history back to the institutionalised patriarchy of the medieval era, in which ‘aggressively assertive’ women were violently subdued. Stage shrews also experienced a surge in popularity in the early modern era. Today, despite its violent coinage, the noun ‘shrew’ is considered archaic- ‘tame’, even: certainly not pejorative, nor a word we often hear.

It is through playing a succession of Shakespeare’s most articulate ‘shrews’- ruthless advocate of mercy Portia and vociferously passionate wife/rhetorician Adriana to name but two- that I have had the pleasure of speaking such essentially feminist witticisms as Adriana’s in the second act of her Comedy of Errors: “Why should their liberties than ours be more?”– and realised that the staging of Shakespeare’s comedic shrews in the twenty-first century can be both empowering and necessary.

In a social climate which remains uncomfortable with ‘shrews’ and their voices, verbal transgression- whether through conventionally ‘unladylike’ linguistic traits or simply the assertiveness associated with shrews- is a crucial weapon against the post-truth politics threatening women’s rights across the globe.

Whilst I have never in the words of Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice “professed apprehension” beyond an actor’s insight into the words I’m lucky enough to speak regularly, I believe that “shrewishness” should be celebrated as a positive trait in a society learning to truly value equality- and one where not every group represented by intersectional feminism has the option or privilege of a speaking part on the political stage.

Not everyone is privileged enough to enjoy freedom of expression, and it is the duty of those who are to use our voices, if not to be a ‘shrew’ then to celebrate the revolutionary impact assertive voices have made and can continue to.

Of course early modern texts such as ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ will always reflect their cultural contexts. Indeed, the beautiful passage cited below (taken from Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid) is followed by the violent silencing and subjugation of its speaker. However, as Hamlet advises the players, drama’s function is to hold “a mirror to the world”, and for all their compelling representations of historical patriarchy, works such as those of Shakespeare and Ovid contain poetic gems exemplifying generations of articulate women refusing to be silenced:


“I may be lost,
You may have taken whatever life
I might have had, and thrown it in the sewer,
But I have my voice.
And shame will not stop me.
I shall tell everything”

In the words of Anna Kamaralli, the shrew “is constructed to alleviate male anxieties through ridicule, but like so many objects of comedy or derision, she is full of power because of her very ability to generate these anxieties. ‘Shrew’ is supposed to be an insult, but has often been used to describe women enacting behaviour that can be brave, clever, noble or just”. From antiquity to the present day, fictional and actual ‘shrews’ share the flaws, strengths, opinions and incongruities that make us human– and, like many of their male counterparts on the early modern stage and in the 21st-century office, we are utterly unafraid to articulate them.

In my experience (in the occupational sociolect of the acting world at least), the word ‘shrew’ is increasingly being used as a compliment, and I am certainly proud of the traits I would have been condemned for 400 years earlier. Although our society is incredibly liberal in comparison to the embryonic democracy from which theatre was born, female vocality is still deplored, ridiculed and shamed (very occasionally and sadly by self-styled feminists). In my limited experience, communicating with assertiveness, verbosity and passion is too often perceived as ingratiating, sexualised or attention-driven in women while accepted as normal in male colleagues.

While in Dante’s words “the secret of getting things done is to act”, it is through the celebration of language- and the female voice- that those who remain silenced can be spoken up for on the social stage. Just as Shakespeare humanised the archetypal shrew of his source texts by giving her a name- first Adriana and Kate, later Beatrice, Rosalind and Portia- the modern-day ‘shrew’, often subject to “comedy or derision”, can provide a mouthpiece to her less privileged sisters- and empower the next generations of men and women to speak with eloquent authenticity. Speech is evidence of our shared humanity, encompassing the ability to communicate, empathise, reason and love. In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, language is the sphere in which Kate can triumph over her adversaries, and a means of liberation from ideals to which she doesn’t conform. In lucid and beautiful verse (amid a play specialising in rollicking slapstick violence), the archetypal shrew proclaims

“My tongue shall tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.”

They are words I aspire to live by.

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Georgia Andrews is an actor fortunate enough to have played a variety of Shakespeare’s women including Bianca, Rosalind, Helena and Adriana. She is an ardent feminist and avid enjoyer of theatre, classics and early modern literature who is thrilled to begin professional theatre training this September.

This is an entry from our most recent Call for Submissions – Language Matters!

How does the language people use within activist and academic circles impact the meaning of the message, and is this a good or a bad thing? Are swear words appropriate for activism, and is the criticism of swearing classist? Can a word be reclaimed? Can it be reclaimed for everyone, or just some people – and what are the privileged implications, if any?

Learn more here to join the conversation.


 

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