Teaching and Taming: On Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew and #MeToo

Scholars and theatre professionals have long questioned the viability of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew for the modern stage. Again and again, directors, actors, and academics have called out the comedic presentation of abuses Katherine endures at the hands of Petruchio and other men in the play as reprehensible. Stagings today often choose to play up this violence against Katherine or erase it completely, portraying the couple as engaging in a playful game of cat and mouse.

Bianca and Hortensio (photo by Lee A. Butz)

The urge to make the politics of the play more palatable to modern audiences is understandable: Katherine undergoes verbal and physical abuse throughout the play and, in the text, is tamed. However, in trying to reclaim Katherine as a feminist figure, we have ignored the ways in which the character of Bianca, Katherine’s younger sister, is also manipulated and harassed. As I revisit this play, I cannot help but wonder how Bianca’s narrative reads in 2019, in the midst of #MeToo, across theatrical, entertainment, and academic spheres, as well as in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings. Bianca is a student who is preyed upon in the classroom and tricked into a relationship. Do we, as audiences and critics, care?

In The Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio and Lucentio disguise themselves as tutors in order to woo, seduce, and hopefully marry Bianca. In act one, Hortensio discusses his plan to make Bianca his:

Now shall my friend Petruchio do me grace

And offer me, disguised in sober robes,

To old Baptista as a schoolmaster

Well seen in music, to instruct Bianca,

That so I may, by this device, at last

Have leave and leisure to make love to her

And unsuspected court her by herself. (1.2.129-135)

Hortensio explicitly states that he first wants to make love to Bianca and then he wants to court her, “unsuspected,” under the illusion of education. Though this speech is supposed to be funny, how might the last few years affect depictions of this scene and Bianca’s plot?

It is no secret that academia has a sexual harassment problem. In the past two years alone, there have been a slew of articles on this issue, ranging from debates over the innocence of certain scholars to The Professor Is In’s crowdsourced survey of sexual harassment in academia. Although it might seem obvious to condemn sexual relationships between students and their mentors, there have been defenses of this kind of practice. In their essay for The Boston Review, “The Erotics of Mentorship,” Marta Figlerowicz and Ayesha Ramachandran discuss the ever-changing boundaries of student-mentor relations: “we need to recognize and condemn sexual harassment in an academic context—and also to acknowledge that, even at our most metaphysical, both we and our students are embodied beings.” Figlerowicz and Ramachandran’s essay indicates that no consensus currently exists among academics about the ethics of pursuing sexual relationships with students, though most institutions do have policies. Yet, the ever-growing number of Title IX cases in the United States suggests that university harassment policies are often ignored, and universities have a tendency to sweep issues under the rug. However, it is not just on universities to change the culture of academia. While it can be easy for academics to state that there is an ethical way to engage with students, this can alter when it affects people they know. Recently, this came to light with the case against Avital Ronell and the way leading scholars supported her against the word of a graduate student.

Amidst the growing conversation surrounding sexual assault and violence, Bianca’s narrative reads differently. After all, Hortensio and Lucentio are using the so-called “erotics of mentorship” in order to gain intimacy with a young woman–and it works. While they may not actually teach her anything, they are drawing upon a perception of education in which power dynamics between a mentor and a student are erotically charged. Productions may attempt to “fix” Petruchio and Katherine by playing down violence or by having her in on the “joke” of her debasement, but how do practitioners and audience members reconcile what happens to Bianca?  Hortensio and Lucentio attempt to seduce her in the classroom and Lucentio succeeds, marrying Bianca at the end of the play, making his tactics of seduction viable. These seduction scenes are comic and are rarely, if ever, shown as immoral. The Taming of the Shrew continuously stages the educational sphere as an erotic one, where teachers (real or not) are free to seduce students. Baptista tells Hortensio in Act 2 to “Proceed in practice with my younger daughter. / She’s apt to learn and thankful for good turns.” Scene 1 of Act 3 couples erotic and instructional language as two men fight for Bianca’s attention in the classroom: “Madam, before you touch the instrument / to learn the order of my fingering.” This line is often accompanied by a leer to the audience, drawing attention to the line’s double entendre.

Theatre professionals and critics have rightly called The Taming of the Shrew’s stageability into question because of the way domestic abuse is framed as a curative for Katherine and other women. However, the focus upon Katherine’s plot line has occluded Bianca’s. Going forward, how might the “erotics of mentorship” impact staging? Is this idea culturally contingent? Are there ways of grappling with this idea on stage? How might staging and costuming choices stress or gloss over Bianca’s plotline?

If theatres insist on continuing to produce The Taming of the Shrew, they must revisit how they depict Bianca and her suitors. Doing so will entail further exploring the ways women are controlled, manipulated, and seduced in the play. In addition, Bianca’s storyline provides academics and theatre professionals alike an opportunity to confront our cultures of dealing with and acknowledging sexual harassment in our own professions. Bianca can help us think about the young actor dating the director, the member of the artistic team hitting on an intern, and the graduate student in a relationship with a professor. These relationships can be consensual, but there is a marked discomfort in both professions around discussing the ethics of mentor-student relationships, and the ways in which some people get a pass and some do not. In staging The Taming of the Shrew for modern audiences, Bianca can offer us new ways of discussing and grappling with power imbalances in our own lives and institutions.

Emily Lathrop is a PhD student in the Department of English at The George Washington University. Her current work is concerned with the ways in which modern theatres construct and enact audience engagement. She is also a stage manager, dramaturg, and teaching artist. She is a member of Actors’ Equity.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

Emily Lathrop

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