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the taming of the shrew

21 september 2015

I've only seen The Taming of the Shrew once, in a college production that my father directed many years ago. I thought it was a fun play – and at the time I was an adult male academic unamused by representations of the subjugation of women, as I hope I continue to be. But there's something so energetic about the play, so essentially harmless, that if played lightly and deftly enough it can still be charming. Katherina is a very good part for an actress, and Shakespeare's rhetoric and ideology, for once, are more progressive than some of his adapters. (Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate is pretty hard to take as anything other than a specimen of the post-WW2 backlash against women, even if it includes some nice tunes.)

Now this is not to say that The Taming of the Shrew is anywhere near feminist. Unless you want to remove the culminating speech, you have to end with Katherina telling women to "vail their stomachs, for it is no boot / And place your hands below your husband's foot" (Act 5, Scene 2). H.J. Oliver, introducing the play for his Oxford edition, points to the uncomfortable quality of that big set-piece speech, and to how various stage productions have tried to undercut it or skate past it. Directors may have been able to finesse the problem of Katherina's acquiescence, but the fact remains that acquiescence in patriarchy is the overt message of the text. Men go out and provide for their women, men protect their women; women should STFU and do what men say.

Yet in the run-up to this ideological conclusion, the play offers readers, actors, and viewers a chance to see a dysfunctional relationship transform into something better. Katherina is a pretty rotten person when she enters the play. She learns from Petruchio that it's hard to deal with rotten people. She becomes less rotten. Along the way they say some funny things and play some comic scenes. That's the fun part of the play. Not till near the end does the play foreshadow Measure for Measure in laying out ideologies of order, and what Shakespeare's Ulysses would later call "degree," in the realm of gender.

Fun is of course in the eye of the beholder, and I may be reading Shrew too much through the lens of one light and daffy production back in the 1980s. The play is not all that engaging on the page, I have to admit. The characters are one-note (though Katherina gets to reverse key and sound monotonously opposite). The dialogue, by Shakespearean standards at least, is wooden. The Taming of the Shrew has been as unpopular with critics as it has been popular with audiences, and I'm not in the camp that insists that audiences are always onto something.

In particular, the entire Bianca subplot is tedious and overly complicated. As Oliver points out, the main plot is too thin for an entire play. Petruchio taming Katherina is good for a few scenes, but it's too direct and simple for five acts, even five acts of farce. So Shakespeare constructed a situation where Katherina has to be married off before her sister Bianca, motivating Bianca's various suitors to put Petruchio up to that proposition. The stars thus get married relatively early in the play, and much of their relationship is conducted offstage, leaving the field to various different suitors and servants and relatives who confusingly spend a lot of time dressing up as one another for little apparent reason.

In Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Petruchio spanks Kate; in fact, the publicity for the film prominently shows Howard Keel spanking Kathryn Grayson (see "anti-feminist backlash," above). Readers of Shakespeare's play may be surprised to see that Petruchio doesn't hit Katherina at all; she hits him early on, but he turns the other cheek. Obviously a lot of stage productions have featured the spanking, making The Taming of the Shrew perhaps the most prominent icon of Western wife-beating. (That link goes to a spanking blog, BTW, though the post itself is fairly SFW.)

But since I criticize Shakespeare when due for being conservative, even reactionary, I have to give him justice here for making Petruchio – impulsive and physically and verbally demonstrative though he may be – fairly non-violent. There's some reported business about poor Katherina falling off (and then under) a horse (Act 4, Scene 1), whereupon Petruchio beats his servant; the guy apparently does have some anger issues. But he doesn't inflict them on Katherina.

Instead he starves her and keeps her indoors and won't let her wear nice clothes and won't have sex with her. Depending on how a director plays this business, it might sound pretty sinister. But my sense of a "through-line" that enables someone actually to enjoy the play is that Katherina really is a fairly nasty individual, and it's only by playing at being just as nasty in turn that Petruchio can get her to grow into a relationship with him. He proceeds to show his volatile wife what kind of impression she makes on people with her constant badgering, by doing some relatively harmless badgering of his own: changing his fad diets and his fashion tastes every other minute. Early on he says "she will prove a second Grissel," and though he means that she will be meek and mild, we fear for a while that it means that he'll turn her out naked after pretending to slaughter her children. But Petruchio is a huge teddy bear beside Griselda's husband Walter.

My favorite memory of The Taming of the Shrew onstage is Petruchio almost dropping character in the madcap dinner scene (Act 4, Scene 1) to ask, in a pure South Jersey accent, "Where's my spaniel Troilus?" That's still to me the best line in the play. The guy doesn't even have a spaniel.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. 1623. Edited by H.J. Oliver. 1982. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. PR 2832 .A204