I’m certainly not the first to say it; for modern audiences the Taming of the Shrew is often a problem. Yes, there’s plenty of boisterous and bawdy slapstick comedy, and some hilarious and confusing role reversals, but how to accept a play that so thoroughly breaks the spirit of its lead female character? There’s no possible way to address the role of Katherine without touching on the play misogynistic elements, yet instead of a literary or feminist critique allow me to bring up two iconoclastic females: Cinderella and Elizabeth Taylor.
We all know the story of Cinderella, or Cendrillion. But shew tales, as they were called, were once as widely known as the story of maltreated daughter and her glass slipper. Different shrew versions mucked about with the details, but the basic plot stayed constant: a good husband, saddled with a surely wife, turns her obedient through intimidation and violence. The violence is always brutal, on par with the Brother’s Grimm’s or Charles Perrault. (In one version the wife is sewn up in the skin of a dead horse and beaten.) Yet shrew tales share another trait with the fairytale or fable; they function around a dependable and repetitive plot in order to convey a moral lesson. In allegory, plot takes precedent over individual character, the sine qua non of modern literature. Why exactly is Cinderella’s stepmother evil? Hard to say, really, because in most versions she’s devoid of any personal qualities. Why does Cinderella get the prince? As a moral lesson that the oppressed and long suffering will eventually be rewarded. (A witty feminist view on a similar fairytale Beauty and the Best can be found here.) For a Shakespearean audience to ask why the shrew is tamed would be akin to asking why Cinderella’s stepsisters are bitchy. The general fairytale plot dictates that stepsisters are jealous, and so they are a dependable nasty piece of work. Or, in other words, the shrew is tamed because the shrew is always tamed.
It’s fare to conclude that a play peopled with allegorical type characters isn’t concerned with individual behavior or personality. In Shrew, Shakespeare seems more interested in the comedic friction of common love tropes, intertwining two well-known love narratives, the shrew tale of Petruchio and Kate, with the courtly love story of Bianca and Lucentio. Still, Kate’s transition, or capitulation, from feisty broad to tamed submissive wench, has always left some audiences uncomfortable, and any director or actress taking on Kate does so fully aware of the sexual politics.
Franco Zeffirelli’s solution is to cast the all mighty Taylor as Katherine against Richard Burton as Petruchio. The couple, together in real life, poured millions into the production and took a salary cut, which probably edged them out over his original choice, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. (Pause for a moment to envisage that screen version.)
Taylor and Burton’s notorious love affair works perfectly for Shew. Much like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the power struggle often seems snatched from the dynamics of Liz and Dick’s private off screen relationship, which was epic, scandalous, fiery, and loud. More importantly, in the Liz and Dick saga, everyone knew Elizabeth Taylor was no push over.
Liz was a powerful screen presence, with an off screen taste for excessive jewelry, for men, for furs, and for all round luxury. The woman had appetite. It’s hard to imagine, in our world of corporate produced starlets, such a fiery, fleshed out female allowed demi-goddess status, but in her prime, Liz was magnificent, and she brings all that hot loud beauty to Katherina Minola. She hurls furniture and ripostes at a world that allows no place for her enormous energy, or the largeness of her personality. Defenders of the play claim Petruchio and Kate are an equal match, and in Zeffirelli’s version the statement passes. When Burton, as Petruchio, comes swaggering into Kate’s life the films slows to a swoon as one pair of blue eyes size up the violet gaze staring straight back.
Watch Kate, or Liz as Kate. She moves from anger, to desire, to fear, then back to anger again usually in a single scene, skipping across the gauntlet of emotions as smoothly as a peddle skips across a lake. That’s Liz. Petruchio throws her a slew of humiliations and in return she takes control of his house, and wins over his servants. She seethes. She schemes. She smirks. She quite likely has the hots for him. Their relationship falls into the angry passionate sexy category. We’ve all had those friends, the couple who bicker in public, and make everyone uncomfortable. At least in this version the dynamic plays out, building as a climax towards the famous final scene.
Endings, whether in plays, film, or novels, are usually read as the summation on whatever themes have been explored. When Kate declares obedience to Petruchio, offering to place her hand under his foot, Shakespeare stays faithful to the shrew tale formula.
The scene often falls flat, not only due to the sexual politics, but also because the comedic shenanigans drop completely, leaving not a pin prick of humor in Kate’s final speech. The debate is still ongoing over the how-to-be-a-good-wife lecture because who wants to believe the greatest writer in the English language was an all out misogynist?
The words alone, on paper, can make you wince.
Whatever Shakespeare’s true intentions, Zefferelli’s version makes Katherina’s speech work. Liz delivers it straight without knowing winks, or ironic smirks, yet she summons up a fury that hurls the definition of an obedient woman back at the society that came up with the classification in the first place.
And then she declares love to a man.
And then in the next instant she bests him.
Kate’s speech is delivered as a knock out punch to her family and society, as well as her husband, before she exits head up, triumphant. As for Petruchio, he’s left to stumble through a crowd after her.