The Taming of the Shrew is alive and well today: a queer, crippled analysis
Updated: Nov 16
This article originated as a chapter of my dissertation. All authors and works cited are credited in the bibliography below and all opinions are my own unless quoted from other practitioners' work. To read the full dissertation, contact me via the form on this webpage
Rachael Hile invokes Peter Hinton’s 2008 production in which Katherine was played with a limp to present Shakespeare’s shrew as physically disabled, citing the semantic field of the ‘halt’ and ‘limp’ used by Petruchio to refer to her as compelling textual evidence (Hile, 2009) and interrogating intersections between gender, class and perceived disability in the play’s original economic and social context. Hile’s analysis is focused on the physical, though she does emphasise that ‘in the absence of a visually represented disability on stage, verbal references to disability form part of a constellation of traits perceived as undesirable in a woman — shrewishness, ugliness, disability — important to the play's consideration of the limits of the mercenary marriage market’ (Hile, 2009). Taking this further, Katherine’s shrewishness itself could be said to disable her; ostracized for non-normative social behaviour and speech, both of which also transcend gendered expectations, the shrew’s social identity is brought into being by her Otherness, an identity defined in relation to Baptista and Bianca as model of patriarchal authority and feminine ideals.
Queer theorist Judith Butler writes that ‘hate speech acts in an illocutionary way, injuring in and through the moment of speech, and constituting the subject through that injury’ (Butler, 1997, p24). Considerations of what constitutes transgressive and/or aggressive ‘shrew’ speech are particularly pertinent not only to how non-conforming speech is perceived, but also to contemporary perceptions and understandings of disability. Katherine’s experiences as well as other characters’ descriptions of and attitudes towards her within the play chime with the ‘masculinity’ ascribed to “excessively” direct, socially-blind or outspoken speech characteristics in autistic women, most of whom identify as disabled by social norms, which overwhelmingly celebrate and prioritize the neurotypical communication style, rather than viewing themselves as inherently defective for transgressing these socially-constructed norms. Katherine too, both as a fictional character and as a person in her play, is ‘constituted…through [the] injury’ of social exclusion; in my personal experience, autistic femme identity and self-determination can feel just as reactive, rooted in deficit-based models defining our behaviour as the inverse of the “normal” neurotypical and involving concerted effects transgress and reclaim these traits to the point of rebellion, something implicit in the character of the shrew.
When viewed through a crip lens or the social standpoint on disability, The Taming of the Shrew always represents a disabled Katherine. As [proponent of 'quip theory' Alison] Kafer asserts, it is inaccessible norms which disable individuals; none more so than our present society's attitude to ‘invisible’ neurological differences like autism, which remain pathologized as ‘disorders’ under the medical model in a manner reminiscent of how minority ethnicity and sexual identities were, up until recently, medically categorised in diagnostic statistic manuals as diseased or inferior. As Butler’s suggestion of speech constituting subject suggest, even without a limp, it’s clear that Kate – ‘scold, jealous, and angry, [with] only wealth to increase her attractiveness’ (Hile, 2009) is disabled by her socially-imposed condition of “shrew”. Schwartz (2021) points out ‘the “shattered” ego that is a result of attentiveness to the social.’ When viewed through this lens, Katherine is “simply a shrew”, but only insofar as she is consciously performing her reactionary shrew identity; ‘shattered’ and reconstituted by her socially-imposed identity, she is understood as inherently other, one that doth literally or metaphorically ‘limp’, her shrew identity constituted by the disabling reaction from other characters to her innate way of being.
Butler, J. (1997) Excitable Speech: a politics of the performative. New York: Routledge
Hile, R. E. (2009) ‘Disability and the Characterization of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew’ in Disability Studies Quarterly. Available at https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/996/1180 (Accessed: 18/11/21)
Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/maxweberstiftung-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1189107 (Accessed: 16/4/22)
Schwartz, A. (2021) ‘Low Femme’ in feral feminisms (7). Available at: https://feralfeminisms.com/low-femme/(Accessed: 24/1/22)
Footnotes  adjectives commonly ascribed to autistic women according to multiple surveys (Lloyd Willams, 2018)