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Shakespeare & Beyond

"The Taming of the Shrew" on the American stage before "Kiss Me, Kate": An excerpt from "Shakespeare in a Divided America" by James Shapiro

James Shapiro
James Shapiro

The Taming of the Shrew is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of its controversial depiction of gender roles; last year’s Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, revived discussions of the sexism at the heart of the story and its 16th-century source material.

In his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro touches on The Taming of the Shrew and these complex gender dynamics. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Play Tells Us About Our Past and Future is organized into chapters dealing with specific social issues at specific times in American history. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 6, “1948: Marriage” and is accompanied by related images from the Folger collection.

⇒ Related: Listen to James Shapiro discuss his book on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast


A lot of ink is spilled, but still the essence of Shakespeare’s message remains occluded. Here are a few key lines: “But now I see our lances are but straws,/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,/That seeming to be most which we indeed least are” (5.2). The key is “weakness.” Sure, Shakespeare writes as a misogynist, but prejudice against women is not his point. His point is to portray weakness as a sign of disobedience. He uses the figure of a woman to portray disobedience, simply because women were considered “weak” in Elizabethan England (because of childbirth). So get over it, postmodern world. The play is awash in emblems, and those emblems are key to Shakespeare’s meaning. Again, what’s he is truly getting at can be found in the religious controversies of the day.

Andrea C Campana — March 19, 2020