Andrew McNee & Jennifer Lines, The Taming of the Shrew (2019) Photo & Image Design: Emily Cooper. (Courtesy Bard on the Beach)
“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” – Katherine
My never-ending quest as a high school English teacher is to persuade other teachers, often much younger than myself, to read, teach, live Shakespeare with their students. My argument for doing so is always the same; he knew what it meant to be human, not only in his time but through all time. That is why the themes in his plays inspire everything from The Lion King to Game of Thrones (minus season 8. Don’t get me started.).
The Taming of the Shrew is no different even if the perceived controversy of the content raises the ire of some once again. The players at Bard on the Beach have done a masterful job of displaying a story not for controversy’s sake, but to contravene conventions that are prominent in many parts of 21st century society.
We had a hard time finding worthy speeches for our Coriolanus speeches podcast because there was so much to choose from. In The Taming of the Shrew we have the opposite problem. Except for the passages we’ve picked out below, there just isn’t that much that just wants to stand up and be quoted. That’s because so much of the comedy in the play is physical: a lot of servants being slapped and pulled by the ears. Three Stooges kind of stuff.
All of the speeches for this podcast are from the Petruchio & Katharine subplot, because we’ve found that most of the memorable lines of the play belong to either Petruchio or Katharine. The other main plotline, the courtship and secret marriage between Lucentio & Bianca, just doesn’t have the depth and inventiveness that is so characteristic of Shakespeare. This subplot is just so… well, plot-heavy. Most of the fun is in tracking all of the characters as they swap clothing and identities on stage. Good for a laugh but not quite up to Shakespeare’s best.
“Such wind as scatters young men through the world…”Act I, Scene 2 lns. 48-74 Speakers: Petruchio, Hortensio
Petruchio runs into his friend Hortensio who asks him what brings him to Padua. He’s hoping to find a rich wife here in Padua. It’s not clear how rich Petruchio is but he clearly doesn;t think himself rich enough. Hortensio mentions Katharine to Petruchio who sees himself as up to the challenge of taming her so long as she comes with a rich dowry. While Petruchio is explicit that he’ll be happy with any wife so long as she’s rich, how sincere is he being? Wouldn’t Petruchio – based on what we learn about him over the course of the play – be bored out of his mind if he had married someone like Bianca instead? Isn’t there something ‘right’ about the Petruchio-Katharine match?
“Signior Petruchio, will you go with us…”Act II, Scene 1 lns. 164-196 Speakers: Baptista, Petruchio, Katharine
This is the first meeting between Petruchio and Kate and is one of the few times where these two characters are completely alone on stage. Petruchio tells us first how he plans to flatter Kate no matter what she does in order to win her over despite herself. When Katharine does arrive, she and Petruchio start trading insults and when Baptista returns, Petruchio declares that he’s won her over. When Katharine denies this, Petruchio just says that they’ve worked out a deal; Katharine will be kind and loving when she’s alone with him, but as shrewish as she wants when other people are around. What do you make of Petruchio’s courtship? Despite her denial, is some part of Kate won over despite what she says?
We’ve cut the exchange short but it’s worth listening to the whole thing. It’s one of the funniest exchanges in the play.
“Peter, didst ever see the like?” Act IV, Scene 1 lns. 159-192 Speakers: Nathaniel, Peter, Grumio, Curtis (Petruchio’s servants), Petruchio
This is where Petruchio outlines the final phase of his plan to tame Katharine. He describes how he’s going to “kill her [spirit] with kindness” by taking issue with everything that is done for her: nothing will be good enough for his darling Kate. He’s already sent away her supper and now he’s telling us how he’ll continue to starve her and deny her sleep until she’s reformed. How cruel is Petruchio’s plan? How far do we think he’d actually be willing to go to change Kate’s behaviour?
“Fie, fie! Unknit that threatening unkind brow…”Act V, Scene 2 lns. 140-183 Speaker: Katharine
Petruchio and the men have placed a wager on their wives: the one with the most obedient wife will win 100 crowns from the other two men. Lucentio and Hortensio call for their wives, but they refuse to come. When Petruchio calls for Kate, she arrives right away. He then asks her to fetch the other wives and when they return, Petruchio asks her to give them a sermon on the duties of a wife. This launches Katharine into the longest uninterrupted speech of the play. Does Petruchio actually manage to change Kate or is she just playing along? Does she mean what she says or is she and Petruchio just enjoying getting one over on everybody else? Is this something the audience is expected to take seriously or are we supposed to be laughing when she delivers her sermon?
Did we miss anything? Are there any passages you feel we’ve overlooked? Send us your hate mail / loving criticism!
Also, get your historian hats ready because next week the Brawlers read through part of Shakespeare’s take on the War of the Roses! (Go ahead and bookmark that page. You’ll thank us later.)
At the start of act V, scene 1 Biondello leads Bianca and Lorenzo away to the chapel moments before Petruchio and Kate arrive at Lucentio’s home with his father Vicentio in tow. Vincentio invites Kate and Petruchio inside for a drink but finds the door is locked and the pedant – still pretending to be Vicentio – denies his entrance. While they argue, Biondello returns on the scene. Vincentio recognises him but Biondello claims to have never seen him before. When Vincentio starts beating Biondello, Tranio – still disguised as Lucentio – comes out to me the aggressor. Of course, Vincentio recognises him but Tranio tries to convince Baptista that Vincentio’s crazy. They try to arrest Vincentio but Gremio (who it seems has met him before) identifies him as the true Vincentio. Soon after, the true Lucentio arrives on the scene and reveals his identity. He promises to clear all of this up and the whole party leaves for Baptista’s house.
NOTE: It is best to follow along with a text, as Jay, Eric, and Miki read multiple parts, and, though they alter their voices, and we make transformer noises when they change roles, it is a bit tricky to follow – much like the majority of Taming of the Shrew.
At last, in the final scene, all of the couples gather at a banquet in celebration of Bianca and Lucentio’s wedding: Lucentio and Bianca, Petruchio and Katherine, and Hortensio and the nameless widow. The couples engage in some verbal sparring and the women leave the men alone. The boys try to get in a few digs at Petruchio’s expense, claiming that he’s got the worse and most argumentative wife of all. Petruchio then proposes a wager: each husband will call for their wife to come meet them and whoever’s wife proves most obedient will win the wager: 100 crowns. Lucentio calls for Bianca but she replies that she is busy and cannot come. Hortensio then sends for his wife and she replies that she won’t come, that Hortensio should come to her instead. Lastly, Petruchio calls for Kate. To everyone’s surprise, she comes to Petruchio’s side right away. He then sends her to fetch the other wives. When they return, Petruchio asks Kate to explain to the other wives the duties they owe their husbands.
It’s a strange way to end such a light-hearted and bawdy play. After five and a half acts of good, (dis)honest fun, the play ends with a lengthy speech on the roles and responsibilities of men and women in marriage. What we make of this speech will determine what we make of the play and how we view Petruchio and Kate’s relationship in particular.
The Brawlers have mentioned this before: The Taming of the Shrew is an incomplete play. That is, Shakespeare hasn’t given us all of the information we need to interpret his ending. It doesn’t quite work as written. Is this supposed to be a serious speech, delivered by a wife so broken as to have lost the fiery spark which made her a compelling character – and not to mention, a perfect match for the madcap Petruchio? Or is this supposed to be delivered tongue-in-cheek, as a sort of insincere moral spoken by a Kate only to happy to have the last laugh over Bianca, the widow, Lucentio and Hortensio?
As written, the speech comes out of left field. When The Taming of the Shrew is staged as is, without adding or changing something to explain the nature of the ‘happily ever after’ ending, it can make it hard to believe. That’s why this play often falls flat: it feels either incomplete or rushed. How does the strong-minded Katharine become (seemingly) so meek and subservient so quickly? Why does she put up with this?
However, the play is rarely staged or adapted as is. In fact, this quality of the Taming of the Shrew might explain why it is one of Shakespeare’s most often adapted and staged plays. The Brawlers (Daniel, Miki and Laura) have reviewed three movie adaptations over the course of recording this play: Jonathan Miller’s The Taming of the Shrew (2004), Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). As the play doesn’t provide all of the answers to the questions it raises, it invites outside intervention and re-invention. It’s practically begging for someone to come along to finish writing or editing it.
I suppose if you have to co-write something you could pick a worse partner than Shakespeare.
Having skipped the wedding feast, Kate and Petruchio make their way to Petruchio’s estate at the start of act IV. In the first scene, Grumio arrives at Petruchio’s estate ahead of the new couple in order to ensure that everything is in order to welcome them home. He gives a short account of their trip and concludes that Petruchio is far more shrewish than Kate ever was. Petruchio and Kate arrive and dinner is served. However, Petruchio pretends to take issue with the supper because it’s not good enough for his new wife and he sends her off to bed. Petruchio then confides in the audience how he plans to break Kate: he’ll starve her and deprive her of sleep so that she’ll have no choice but to bow to his wishes.
We return to Bianca and her suitors in scene 2. Lucentio (disguised as Cambio of course) professes to teach Bianca about the Art of Love, most likely a reference to Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. Ovid’s book is basically a handbook for managing relationships, one of the main themes of The Taming of the Shrew. When Bianca wishes ‘Cambio’ good luck in his courtship, Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) pretends to be deeply offended by her lack of constancy: she swore to love only Lucentio and now here she is wishing ‘Cambio’ good luck. This convinces Hortensio to drop his disguise and both he and Tranio swear to give up their pursuit of Bianca. Hortensio will instead marry a rich widow. Once he leaves, the three conspirators – Bianca, Tranio and Lucentio – realise that all they need now is an old man to play the role of Lucentio’s father so he can give his consent to the terms of the marriage. Biondello points out a suitable pedant (a merchant, basically) and Tranio quickly convinces him to play the role of Vincetio, Lucentio’s father.
Scene 3 picks up where Petruchio left off. Kate is begging Grumio for food who keeps offering up alternatives then shooting them down as inappropriate to his new mistress. She bets him for toying with her. Petruchio (and Hortensio who has come to Petruchio’s ‘Taming School’) walks in and offers Kate some food. He threatens to take it away when she fails to thank him for his kindness. He then calls in a tailor and a haberdasher who he had commissioned to make new clothes for Kate. He claims that none of these outfits are good enough for his precious Kate and turns the clothiers out despite Kate’s protests. He decides they’ll head back to Baptista’s house dressed as they are. He thinks they can make it in time for supper but Kate points out that it’s later than he thinks. He responds that it will be whatever time he says it is.
Now that Tranio, Lucentio and Bianca have beaten away the other suitors and found a stand-in for Vincentio, it time in scene 4 for Lucentio and Bianca to sneak away to get married in secret while Tranio and the pedant secure Baptista’s final blessing for the union of Bianca and Lucentio. Tranio brings Baptista inside to finish the paperwork freeing the way for the lovers to slink off in secret. The hope is that once they are legally married, and have a document singed by Baptista’s hand stating that he consents to the marriage, it will be too late for him to do anything about it and he’ll have to abide by the letter of his contract.
In scene 5 Petruchio finishes his taming of Kate: he argues that it is night but Kate points out that the sun is shining. He says that it will be whatever time of day or night he says. When they come across a traveller, Kate greets him only to be told by Petruchio that he is actually a young maiden. She address the old man as a woman but Petruchio mocks her for doing so. She apologizes to the old man. This must be the point at which Petruchio decides he’s won because he doesn’t toy with her any further. They offer to have the old man travel to Padua with them and they discover that they are going to the same place: this is Vicentio, Lucentio’s father.
What are we supposed to make of a play in which one of the main plot points revolves around starving and mentally abusing a woman? This is the main objection of contemporary audiences to The Taming of the Shrew.
Petruchio essentially tortures Kate into submission. He begins by denying her sleep and food. Then, once she’s hungry and exhausted, he bullies her into compliance by contradicting her at every turn. At last, exhausted and exasperated, she has no choice but to agree to whatever inane statements and commandments he feels like making.
One thing which Miki pointed out during our recording of this act is that Shakespeare is adapting a story motif which was very popular in folk tales and fabliaux which, by Shakespeare’s time, had long circulated in England. In many of these stories, the violence done to the shrew is taken to much further extremes, with the very few acts beyond the scope of what was acceptable for a man to use when matched with a shrewish wife.
I said on air that a shrew was a type of bird similar to a small hawk which was used by huntsmen in late 16th century England. In fact, I made a case that the title Taming of the Shrew puns on the notion of training birds of prey. The method most often used to break the bird to the falconer, as described in late medieval and early Renaissance falconry manual, is very much like what is done to Kate. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any etymological evidence to support my claim. So, while I might be wrong about the title and the word “shrew” itself (which actually describes a small rodent), that parallel still exists in the play. In fact, it might partially explain why the whole thing is set up in this way by the prelude’s lord and his huntsmen. This would suggest that Kate is a wild beast – specifically a small rodent thought at the time to possess as venomous bite – that needs to be broken in and civilized by Petruchio. It also suggests that Christopher Sly (and maybe even the audience?) is no better than an animal who the lord sees as his responsibility to tame.
Is that really the purpose of the play? Who is learning what in the end? And does Shakespeare somehow manage to elevate The Taming of the Shrew above the level of misogynist farce?
The Taming of the Shrew is not exactly the first Shakespeare play that would come to mind if you wanted to make a modern-day rom-com romp aimed at (let’s face it) teenage girls. And yet, somehow, director Gil Junger managed to make it work with 10 Things I Hate about You; a loosey-goosey adaption of the play. While you may not have known it is an adaptation of Shakespeare, you most certainly would have known it as the movie that first introduced us to the late Heath Ledger’s dreamy smile.
Why so serious, indeed.
Oh, and there were other people in it too.
The Taming of the Shrew is a notoriously misogynistic play. I mean, the rampant sexism is left unmasked even in its title. Critics and directors have taken different stances when it comes to Kate’s final speech, some reading it as a literal proclamation of submission to the husband, others reading it with an air of mischievousness and controlled rebellion. How you read it is up to you, but presumably the writers saw a glimmer of hope in Kate and were inspired to revive the play and transform it for an audience with more modern sensibilities.
Within the first few minutes of the film we are given the obligatory teen movie walk through their high school campus and all its clique-dom. This scene is an almost carbon copy of a scene from Clueless (1995) which is, interestingly enough, an adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma. Modern sensibilities, my butt! These tongue-in-cheek tours around the campus work to reinforce the established social hierarchies in the same way that Shakespeare’s introduction with Christopher Sly immediately brings them into the foreground in The Taming of the Shrew.
The teens in Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are reminded, as people have been reminded for centuries, that there are just some people who you cannot touch.
In this case, those people are Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) and Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles). They are reminded for two very different reasons; Bianca in that she is beautiful and fills out her floral sun dress nicely and Kat because, in short, flowers wilt when she walks by. We are first introduced to Kat with Joan Jett’s “I don’t give a damn about my reputation” blasting from her car radio. Apropos? Yes. Heavy-handed? Perhaps. But we get the point. She is not to be trifled with.
The shrew has balls. The shrew is also beautiful and indiscriminately bares her navel. The Joan Jett song, while effective, is actually misleading; Kat’s reputation, albeit as a “muling, rampalian wench” has been carefully cultivated over the years.
Ms. Perky: People perceive you as somewhat…
Kat Stratford: Tempestuous?
Ms. Perky: “Heinous bitch” is the term used most often.
For good reason, as it turns out. We are offered an explanation for her “tempestuous” attitude. And therein lies the inherent difference between The Taming of the Shrew and 10 Things I Hate about You – you respect Kat. You like her. And, by the end of the film, you understand her anger. I mean, sixteen year old me wanted to be her; to sit on my couch wearing a crop-top reading “The Bell Jar” or to be so waifish that I could balance (comfortably!) on a balcony railing doing something awesome like sketching or reading “The Feminine Mystique.”
Unfortunately, the feminist angle doesn’t stand up to the test of time. Watching it this time around I had to ask myself why, to show that she is letting her guard down, did she have to be seductively dancing on a table. I mean, how many strip clubs has this feminist high school student been to? And did she really have to cry in front of the whole class when she read her version of sonnet 141? In The Taming of the Shrew even Kate’s final speech is delivered sometimes defiantly, sometimes stoically, always confidently; never snivelling. Especially since Patrick Verona was no Petruchio.
Patrick (Heath Ledger) takes on the role of Petruchio rendering the violent misogynist into a tough-on-the-outside-tender-on-the-inside kind of scone (with Vegemite on it, of course). His bad boy persona quickly falls to the wayside as he undertakes the impossible feat of dating Kat Stratford. Cue Hollywood formula – he ends up kinda, sorta, didn’t-know-he-was-gonna, falling for her. A huge divergence from the play is that he is trying to relate to her, not break her. This is what ultimately softens her; there is a mutual respect.
While I love the movie, it is ultimately unbalanced in its love of all things Shakespeare. The colloquial/valley girl/teen lingo is punctuated with well placed quotes from Shakespeare such as, “I burn, I pine, I perish” (Act I, i). This works. The high school English teacher rapping Sonnet 141 – amazing. The song “Cruel to be Kind” by Letters to Cleo as a reference to a line from Hamlet, I can dig it. But then, it is revealed late in the movie that Kat’s best friend (who up to that point has barely been in the movie, by the way) is a Shakespeare devotee claiming that she is not simply a fan but that they are “involved.” This reference to the bard feels a little heavy-handed and I personally would have been happier if it had been left as simply a poster of Shakespeare in her locker where Jonathan Taylor Thomas should have been. Sometimes less is more.
I wonder if he ever got my letters.
And now is the time that I devolve into the obligatory “Things I hate” segment of the analysis (sorry, folks, I had to).
10 things I hate about this movie (even though I love this movie):
I hate that Patrick does not hold Kate’s hair back when she is hurling. She had a lot of hair.
I hate that Kate goes in to kiss him after hurling; it doesn’t seem to bother him. Gross.
I hate that Bianca and Cameron kiss tenderly despite the fact that his nose is bleeding.
I hate Kate’s version of sonnet 141 (and the poem the movie is named after) essentially sucks right up until the last couplet. And it makes her sound like a flake.
I hate that we don’t see the porno-writing-guidance counsellor with her “quivering bratwursts” nearly often enough.
I hate that we don’t see Larry Miller as the overbearing OB/GYN father nearly enough “Kissing isn’t what keeps me up to my elbows in placenta all day long.” Brilliant.
I hate that this is yet another teen movie that perpetuated the myth of the grand gesture (picture John Cusack standing in the rain with ghetto blaster over his head – now think back on your own life).
I hate that there are too many navels in this movie. Too many.
I hate that I couldn’t make this rhyme.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate this movie. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
Why not watch the whole thing?
Laura still plays for the Bard Brawl farm team and studied English Literature and Playwriting at Concordia University.
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.
By the end of act I, Bianca’s three suitors – Gremio, Lucentio and Hortensio – have called a temporary truce to their wooing war in order to help Petruchio win and marry Kate. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, but because Bianca’s father Baptista won’t let any of them have his youngest daughter until he manages to marry off the older one, Kate.
The only scene in act II starts with a cat fight: Bianca asks Kate to get married ASAP so Bianca can marry one of her three suitors. When Kate asks her who her favourite one is, Bianca assumes that Kate must be jealous of her. Kate doesn’t like that and she strikes her and stars running after her. Their father shows up and breaks up the fight. As he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, Petruchio arrives and declares that’s he’s looking to hook up with Kate. To show his seriousness, he offers his friend Hortensio – disguised as the music teacher Licio – to tutor Baptista’s daughters. The Gremio shows up and offers Lucentio (disguised as Cambio the language teacher) as his tutor.
Petruchio and Baptista then work out the financial details of the wedding. Baptista’s happy to agree to let Petruchio marry Kate provided he can win her over. Petruchio says “no problem, I got this.” While they talk, Hortensio comes back on stage wearing a broken lute. Seems that Kate didn’t like his fingering lesson. This just gets Petruchio excited. Baptista calls Kate over to meet Petruchio and leaves them alone. Petruchio and Kate get into a pretty intense battle of wits. By the end of it, Petruchio tells Kate they’re getting married.
Baptista and the others return. Petruchio says that Kate has agreed to marry him. Kate protests but Petruchio just says that she’s just pretending to be upset not to break character. The wedding is arranged for Sunday. Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) waste no time and now make their case to Baptista as to who should get Bianca. Hortensio drops out of the race early but Tranio (as Lucentio) and Gremio get into a bidding war. The old man loses and Baptista agrees to have Bianca marry ‘Luciento’ (who is actually Tranio in disguise at this point). There is one condition however: Lucentio’s father Vincentio will have to agree to all of the promises ‘Lucentio’ has just made.
Everyone still with me? Good.
Unlike both Merchant of Venice and Coriolanus, where the primary source text adapted by Shakespeare is pretty clear, that’s not really the case with The Taming of the Shrew. The most likely scenario is that Shakespeare adapted the Christopher Sly episode and the Kate and Petruchio storyline from popular folk tales. (Apparently, ‘shrew taming’ stories were pretty popular back in the day.) In the case of The Taming of the Shrew, the only source text which most people seem to agree on is an Italian play called I Suppositi. It was translated into English by George Gascoigne as Supposes (first staged in 1566, published in 1574) and it’s the basis of the Bianca and Lucentio plotline.
I tried to find us some online versions but I haven’t been able to get my hands on it. If you do find them online, leave us a comment and we’ll add some links! That means you’ll have to take my word for this but the main difference between Gascoigne’s The Supposes and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is this: in Shakespeare, the whole point of the deceptions and of Petruchio’s actions (we’ll talk about those next week) is to get married; in The Supposes, the whole point is to get laid. The play is important less as a plot and much more as an indication of the type of comedic tradition that Shakespeare inherited in the 1590s.
Taming of the Shrew, for all of the ways in which it’s different from the rest of Shakespeare’s other comedies, does mark the first step in Shakespeare’s ongoing investigation of the purpose and usefulness of comedy. In the older play, the story ends once the guy gets the girl. It’s all in good fun. It’s entertainment. In Shakespeare, getting the girl is only half of the problem. While it’s still good fun, there’s generally something at stake which is more than a quick fling.
If you read through Shakespeare’s comedies in order, you’ll notice a trend: as he ages and matures, he leaves more and more of the funny antics, penis jokes and slapstick humour out of it and he increases the seriousness of what’s at stake. (If you want to test that out, I suggest you subscribe to The Bard Brawl!)
Here’s what Italo Calvino has to say:
The weightless gravity […] reappears in the age of Cervantes and Shakespeare: it is that special connection between melancholy and humor[:] As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight (a dimension of human carnality that nonetheless constitutes the greatness of Boccaccio and Rabelais). It casts doubt on the self, on the world, and on the whole network of relationships that are at stake. Melancholy and humor, inextricably intermingled, characterize the accents of the Prince of Denmark, accents we have learned to recognize in nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays on the lips of so many avatars of Hamlet. (Italo Calvino’s Six memos for the Next Millennium, p. 19)
I love this quote. One of my favourites.
I mentioned in my previous post that Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s first plays. It’s sensibilities are still a far cry from a Hamlet or a Twelfth Night but it marks one of Shakespeare’s first real efforts to make comedy serious, to use it not only to entertain but to teach… though what the lesson is exactly, I’m not sure.
Go here if you’re interested in a short rundown of some the possible sources for Taming of the Shrew.
Shrew is a tricky one. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it is very entertaining. It does not have the depth or cleverness of say Much Ado About Nothing, but it is produced a lot. It works if done right, and can be very bad if done poorly.
Shrew begins and ends with Petruchio and Katherine. You get them right, and you’ve got a good production.
Cleese, as Petruchio, makes the film work with his manipulative, schizophrenic and quasi-sociopathic bullying through the role. Cleese seems to hate everyone around him, and glares at, taunts or screams at almost everyone in the cast while he tears through scenes. It’s a joy to watch.
His few soliloquies (II, i; IV, i) give the smallest glimpse at his honest intentions, and they are, simply put, to tame Kate like one would a falcon.
Sarah Bedel as Katherine runs the gamut of shrew emotions and pulls it off. Bedel is a match for Cleese, and evens the playing field.
Cleese and Bedel chew up the scenery and highlight the great thing about their characters: they hate the world they live in, and those around him, and must find a way to join forces. Bedel’s knowing glances at the end of the production are very nice. Petruchio and Katherine are together and ready to mock, bully and destroy the flaky aristocrats around them (Hortensio, Gremio, Bianca etc.)
Joining Cleese and Bedel are joined by a stellar cast of theatrically trained actors, who know the bard, and know how to play their parts.
Jonathan Cecil as Hortensio is great verging on the brink of a nervous breakdown at times chattering to the air. Anthony Pedley does Tranio’s transformation from servant-to-lord then back again really nicely with Simon Chandler‘s Lucentio doing the opposite.
One goes to the BBC productions not for camera work, cinematography or set design, but rather to see Shakespeare in its barest form. Most of the BBC’s productions work because they cast the plays right, and Shrew is no different.
That is not to say that sets and design are absent. The transition from Padua with its bright sun to Petruchio’s country house with its bleak darkness and spartan dining area do well to show the transition from the chase for the girl (act I-III) to married life (act IV). Shakespeare mocks the Comedia del Arte ideal of marriage in Shrew and Miller’s clever use of sets and lights does well to show this intention. In Shrew one needs to fight through marriage and be beaten down to be happy. Well, for the women at least.
The play is not one of Shakespeare’s deepest, and is problematic from a modern viewpoint. The insanity of it, though, is what makes it enjoyable. Why is everyone always switching roles? Why are we laughing as Petruchio is torturing Kate through sleep and food deprivation? What is the point of the banquet at the end? These are issues with the play itself, however, and the production does well to somewhat answer if not cover up the deficiencies in the story with quality acting and clever sylistic choices.
Daniel J. Rowe is the co-creator of the Bard Brawl.
The Taming of the Shrew opens with a prologue which takes place in front of an alehouse. It seems the drunk Christopher Sly’s been kicked out of the bar by the hostess after refusing to pay for his tab. The hostess threatens to call the watch but instead of leaving Sly falls asleep in front of the tavern. Soon, an unnamed lord and his huntsmen show up and, for some reason, the nobleman decides it would be fun to take Sly back to his estate, clean the drunkard up and make him think he’s an amnesiac lord whose just awoken from a long illness. Just then an acting troupe shows up and the lord hires them to help him with his prank.
By the start of scene 2, Sly has just woken up and he calls out for some more booze. He’s expecting Pabst Blue Ribbon but greeted by servants who offer him wine and want to know which of his many outfits he plans to wear today. Sly argues with them but the servants and the lord manage to convince him at last that he’s a rich lord and that the cross-dressing page is his wife. Sly wants to sleep with his wife, but the page instead convinces him to watch a play first, in case having sex might bring about a new bout of madness. Doctor’s orders. So instead they decide to watch a play.
The actual play itself begins in act I, scene 1 with the young bachelor Lucentio’s arrival in Padua where he hopes to pursue his studies. He’s accompanied by his servant Tranio who reminds him that while he’s here he may as well have a good time. While they talk, Baptista, his daughters Katharina and Bianca, as well as Bianca’s suitors Gremio and Hortensio, walk by them. The suitors are trying to plead their case with Bianca’s daughter but Baptista won’t budge: neither of them can marry Bianca unless his eldest daughter Katharina (Kate) is married off first. The problem? Katharina’s a shrew which no man in Padua wishes to marry. As soon as they leave, Lucentio admits that’s he’s smitten by Bianca and he and Tranio devise a plan to allow Lucentio to woo her freely: Tranio will pretend to be Lucentio and take care of his master’s affairs in the city while Lucentio will pretend to a scholar which Gremio will offer to Baptista as a tutor for his daughters. This will give him access to Bianca. When Biondello, one of Lucentio’s father’s servants, arrives, Lucentio convinces him to go along with their plan.
The start of act I, scene 2 is similar to the previous scene: a young bachelor, called Petruchio, arrives in Padua with his servant Grumio (not to be confused with the suitor Gremio). There’s a short slapstick scene where Grumio gets slapped around by Petruchio just outside Hortensio’s house. The two friends talk for a few moments and Hortensio learns that Petruchio is in the market for a rich wife. Seeing an opportunity to open the way to Bianca, he tells Petruchio about Katharina. Petruchio decides that he’s the one to take on Kate and the two head off to Baptista’s house. When they get there, they see Gremio, Bianca’s older suitor, and with his is Lucentio disguised as a tutor who promises to woo Bianca on the old man’s behalf. Hortensio and Gremio exchange words until Tranio – disguised as Lucentio – shows up and tells them he also intends to woo Bianca. While they’re not happy to see him, they realise that neither of them can get Bianca unless they first marry off Kate. They agree to collaborate to help Petruchio win Katharina.
If you’re already confused about who’s who in the play, you’re not alone. Taming of the Shrew is a tough play to read because the characters are constantly disguising themselves. Some invent entirely new names while others (to make it even more confusing) pretend to be other characters in the play. With that in mind, here’s a short list of some of the characters and the roles they take on in the play:
A young bachelor and scholar. He pretends to be one of Katharina and Bianca’s tutors,
, so he can woo Bianca.
Lucentio’s servant. He pretends to be Lucentio so his master can woo Bianca without arousing suspicion.
A servant of Lucientio’s father.
The father of Katharina and Bianca.
Baptista’s eldest daughter, a shrew which Petruchio will marry for money.
Baptista’s youngest daughter, who has three suitors: Gremio, Hortensio and Lucentio.
An old man and friend of Baptista’s who wants to marry Bianca. He hires the tutor Cambio (Lucentio in disguise) to woo Bianca on his behalf.
A younger suitor to Bianca and one of Petruchio’s friends. He disguises himself as a music teacher named
Petruchio: a young impoverished bachelor looking to marry into money. Katharina’s suitor.
Petruchio’s servant. He often gets slapped around by his master.
Later on, this character will be recruited to play the part of Lucentio’s father.
I’d bookmark this page: I’m sure you’ll want to jump back here more than once over the next few weeks.
If you’ve ever seen this play staged, or watched an adaptation of it, you won’t remember the prologue. That’s because it’s almost always edited out. In fact, if anyone out there is aware of any production that does include the prologue, let us know.
Truth is, ignoring the prologue is the easy thing to do and removing it doesn’t affect the action of the play at all. So why is it there in the first place? This is a tough question to answer.
Let’s try to imagine how The Taming of the Shrew might have been stage back in 1592. For that, it might be helpful to know what the actual theatre might have looked like as well:
If we’re lucky, we can afford to by a spot in the covered balconies but most likely we’re just groundlings who paid a cheap rate to stand in the pit all around the stage.
Once the play starts, Sly, the hostess, the lord and his attendants come on stage. They play out the first scene of the prologue. Then, after they’ve dragged Sly off-stage, he reappears on the balcony at the back of the playhouse with the page disguised as Sly’s wife. There’s a good chance the lord and the household servants are up there as well. However, at the end of the scene, the players hired by the lord walk out onto the main stage and start performing a play. This is where act one of the actual play starts.
Sly has a few more lines after act I, scene 1 so we know he’s still around. And it’s likely that he’ll stay up on that balcony for the entire show. That means that we’re watching Sly and the page watch the Taming of the Shrew as we watch the Taming of the Shrew. It also means that the actors the lord has hired for his prank on Sly are the same ones acting out the Taming of the Shrew for us, the audience. Are we supposed to be the butt of a strange joke like Christopher Sly? I’m not sure. If so, I don’t really get it. What this weird half-frame does though is make us aware that we’re watching a play because it keeps the audience of the play – Sly – in view the whole time.
Shakespeare’s big on theatre metaphors in his plays. He’s constantly reminding us that we’re watching a play, and that everything else in our lives also involves a lot of acting and pretending too. However, Taming of the Shrew is an early play, one of Shakespeare’s first. Later in his career, Shakespeare will really become a master of using theatre to comment on theatre and life. He just hasn’t really figured it out yet and this experiment falls a little flat.
That about does it for this week. Be sure to read Jay Reid’s critique of Ralph Fiennes’ recent film adaptation of Coriolanus. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to the blog as well as the podcast on iTunes.