If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
I confess: The Taming of the Shrew is probably my least favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies. In fact, it probably hovers pretty near the bottom in my overall order of preference. Strangely enough, it is my earliest Shakespeare memory – I must have been in primary school when we watched in class the famous Burton & Taylor film.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and genre-wise it’s related to such modern-day Hollywood films as Hangover and Bridesmaid – it is, in short, the sort of farcical sex comedy in which people slip on banana skins and have musical instruments broken on their heads, and which makes some pretty questionable statements about marriage and how husbands and wives should treat one another. To me, it has a strangely un-Shakespearean feel to it; it has none of the wistfulness of the later comedies, coming perhaps closest in spirit to The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s not a genre that I particularly enjoy, so this will probably not be a play that I will come back to again and again.
The story begins elsewhere: a tinker called Christopher Sly falls drunkenly asleep in an inn, and is discovered by a traveling nobleman, who comes up with the brilliant scheme of dressing Sly up as a nobleman and convincing him when he wakes up that he is in face a nobleman himself, and has been insane for the past 15 years. One of the many ways how the Lord then sets out to convince Sly is a performance of a play, put up just for him…
…called The Taming of the Shrew. At the heart of this play are two sisters, Katharina (spelled Katherine in half of my books) and Bianca. Everybody wants to marry Bianca. Nobody wants to marry Katharina. Their father has decreed that Bianca cannot marry before her sister, and so her many suitors are getting nowhere. Enter Petruchio, another gentleman (of sorts) of Verona. Bianca’s suitors tell him that Katherine has a sizeable dowry, and so he decides to marry her, unfazed by her shrewish reputation – he doesn’t care about his future wife’s other qualities, as long as she has money:
Signior Hortensio, ‘twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife,
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance,
Be she as foul as was Florentius’ love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection’s edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas:
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
He, right from the start, refuses to call her Katharina, opting instead to call her Kate. He shows up at his own wedding late, in a disheveled outfit, and rather than stay for the wedding feast, he insist that he and his wife must leave Padua immediately. Once they are married, Petruchio sets out to “tame” Katharina, what with your usual methods of starving her of food and sleep, purposely misinterpreting her words and forcing her to not to contradict him, and just generally humiliating her, often in front of his servants and other strangers.
Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
Elsewhere Bianca’s many suitors are getting up to hijinks, deploying all the usual Shakespearean devices of disguises, mistaken identities, masters and servants swapping places etc. Bianca chooses one Lucentio, and his rival Hortensio goes off to marry a wealthy, older widow. In the end, the three couples come together, and both Bianca and the nameless Widow show their headstrong, froward nature, while Katherine shows herself to be perfectly obedient. It is an uneasy ending, and makes the play as a whole problematic to modern audiences and directors. Shakespeare doesn’t offer many clues in this text on how we are to interpret the relationship of Katharina and Petruchio – are they in fact in love with each other and it’s all a game (or foreplay) between them?; is Katharina just playing along to fool Petruchio into thinking that she’s become the obedient wife he’s set on making her into?; or are they both sincere and she has submitted to an essentially abusive husband? Or – none of the above, as this is merely a play within play and hence we don’t know/care, as some scholars have suggested.
This is how I imagine Katharine, and how I would portray her if I was a director – as a haughty, strong, unconventional woman with a sharp tongue and a very high opinion of herself, and with none of slapsticky screeching and screaming.
Is is any good?
Yes – especially the scenes with Bianca’s many suitors are good fun, and the text generally works well. How much you will hate Petruchio and Katharine will depend on how the director has chosen to present them though.
Films Kiss me Kate, Deliver us from Eva and 10 Things I Hate about You are all adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew.
What say thou?
I love Biondello’s oddly detailed description of Petruchio’s wedding outfit:
Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman’s crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.
I rather like Grumio, the long-suffering servant of Petruchio.
The Globe on Screen production from 2012, directed by Toby Frow and starring Samantha Spiro as Katharina and Simon Paisley Day as Petruchio. 3,5/5.