[Publisher's Note] | A Night of Political Theater, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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"In the next four months, Hillary Clinton will be promoted as a female pioneer. But she'll also be ridiculed as a caricature of feminine success, a woman who owes everything to her husband and is at the same time constantly humiliated in the light of his past infidelities."

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 4, 2016. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Is Hillary Clinton a feminist or just another submissive woman? In the real world of politics, the question has been asked for many years, but it suddenly crossed my mind during a performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. This play—a comedy about the war between the sexes, full of irony and double entendres—is normally regarded as an amusing spectacle.

But we don’t live in normal times. And so there I was the other evening, sitting in the audience and watching an “anti-misogynist” interpretation of Shrew staged by Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, and the British film and theater director Phyllida Lloyd. Performed by an all-female cast, this production is, like others, meant to make us laugh, but in a totally different way. By using rock music and frequently interrupting the text with contemporary language and new dialogue, Eustis and Lloyd are looking to reverse the masculine domination celebrated, according to Eustis, by the great playwright. We have, therefore, two unmarried sisters—Bianca, the younger, sweet-tempered and docile, and Katherina, the elder, who is vehement, selfish, and independent—presented as contestants in a beauty contest organized by Donald Trump. Foolish sexist remarks made by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate blare through loudspeakers while women in sexy outfits parade across the stage.

The message is clear: this evening, the phallocrat Trump’s grotesque manners will be mocked, and consequently Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will be supported. Toward the middle of the play, one of the actors gives a speech not in the original text, lamenting the loss of yesteryear’s privileges, when a gentleman could pay his mistress a visit before calmly going home to find the table set and dinner ready. Not far from me, a lady of a certain age, wearing a Hillary campaign button, expresses her approval.

I’m not a big Shakespeare expert, but all the same, I’d like to advance the notion that Oskar Eustis’s justification, as offered in the program, is frankly simplistic: “The Taming of the Shrew is the only major Shakespeare play which I have never produced or directed.… The reason is simple; I have never been able to get behind the central action of the play, which is, well, taming a woman.” I imagine that his distaste goes back to the nineteenth-century tradition of providing Petruchio, Katherina’s suitor, with a whip (in the twenty-first century, he often gives her a spanking) to evoke the application of sadistic discipline. According to Richard Hosley, the editor of the play in my Pelican edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, the text contains nothing that could authorize this brutal bit of stage direction. Furthermore, Hosley writes, “Kate’s speech on the subordination of wife to husband is sometimes misinterpreted as the blueprint for a husband’s tyranny.… Certainly the Elizabethans, in their view of the marriage relationship as of other things, were much more conscious of ‘degree’ than we are.” 

Apparently, the paradoxes of a politically incorrect marriage are contrary to the order of the day at the Shakespeare festival in Central Park. None of this is so important in itself, except that it’s no longer a merely theatrical matter.  In the political drama to be played out in the next four months, Hillary Clinton will be promoted, on the one hand, as a model of the successful woman, a female pioneer. But on the other hand, she’ll be ridiculed, portrayed as a caricature of feminine success, a woman who owes everything to her husband and is at the same time constantly humiliated in the light of his past infidelities. In defense of Hillary, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state in Bill Clinton’s second term, denounced the lack of solidarity demonstrated by the young women who support Bernie Sanders: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” she thundered. In an article in The Nation, the writer Liza Featherstone, for her part, denounced Hillary’s lack of solidarity with poor women. According to Featherstone, “It would be hard to imagine a bigger blow to the material well-being of poor women in America than” President Clinton’s 1996 welfare-reform bill. “As first lady,” she points out, “Hillary wasn’t a mere spectator to this; within the White House, she advocated harsher policies like ending traditional welfare, even as others in the administration, like Labor Secretary Robert Reich, proposed alternatives.” Considering our obsession with the private lives of candidates for political office, the debate about Hillary’s feminist credentials will inevitably concentrate on her conduct with regard to her husband.  Writing in The Spectator, Emily Hill opts for derision: “Achieving power by means of marrying, and putting up with, a shitty husband is something women have been doing for centuries.” 

As for Trump, he won’t hesitate to attack his rival for her alleged support of Bill’s extramarital escapades: “She’s not a victim.  She was an enabler.… Some of these women have been destroyed, and Hillary worked with him.”

In the final analysis, Hillary is neither Katherina nor Bianca. And in any case, I would never vote for her. That would amount to backing an inseparable couple who have led us into a situation where the richest Americans, in alliance with the political class, are crushing the spirit of democracy in our country.  As far as I know, oligarchy has no gender.

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