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Monday, 29 March 2021

The Taming of the Shrew

1/ The Taming of the Shrew is an unusual play, in that it has a frame narrative (the Induction)—indeed there’s also a play within a play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet, but in those cases, the play inside is only a small, secondary part of the plot whereas the play within The Taming of the Shrew is the main text. In fact, the Induction isn’t necessary as such, and he doesn’t return to the Sly plot at the end. 

So why does Shakespeare write it? There must be some meaning.  


2/ Everyone knows the premise: Bianca is a lovely girl and has 2 (and then 3 suitors) but her father Baptista has decided that she cannot get married till her elder sister Kate (Katherina)—the shrew—is wedded.  

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, everything is neat: the king loves the princess of France, Berowne loves Rosaline, Longaville loves Maria, and Dumaine loves Katharine. 

In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca is wooed by Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio whilst Petruchio sets out to tame her sister Kate. Shakespeare complicates matters by making the suitors Hortensio pretend to be a music teacher named Litio and Lucentio a Latin teacher called Cambio to woo Bianca, whilst Lucentio’s servant Tranio impersonates him and gets a pedant to impersonate Lucentio’s father Vincentio. 

As though that’s not confusing enough, Petruchio has a servant named Grumio. 

We can see from the start that the men are assess: Baptista creates a rule to get the shrewish Kate out of the house and doesn’t care who marries her (as we can see in his reaction to Petruchio); the men agree with each other to get Petruchio to court Kate, like schoolboys challenge each other to win over a girl for fun*; Petruchio openly says that he means to marry for money; Baptista tells Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) to bid on his daughter Bianca and agrees to give her to the richer Lucentio, without regard for her feelings. 


3/ There’s lots of debate surrounding The Taming of the Shrew, and many people think it’s a misogynistic play about a strong-willed woman broken in a cruel manner—some even think it is proof of Shakespeare’s misogyny. 

First of all, the forgetful readers who call Shakespeare a misogynist must be reminded that he also creates sharp-tongued, intelligent and/or strong-willed female characters such as Rosalind (As You Like It), Rosaline and the princess of France (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Emilia (Othello), Adriana (The Comedy of Errors), Cordelia (King Lear), and so on. Luckily there’s no “strong female character” trope in his days so there’s a great range of female characters (and characters in general) in his plays: Shakespeare also depicts traditional women, saintly women, simple-minded women, ambitious women, dangerous and merciless women, etc. 

In The Taming of the Screw, as we can see in the final scene, the widow isn’t soft and Bianca isn’t as submissive as she seems either.  

Secondly, the tender-hearted readers who think of Kate as just a strong-willed woman seem to forget that she verbally abuses everybody (not in jest), hits Hortensio (as the music teacher Litio) on the head, unprovoked; hits Petruchio the first time they meet; even ties up and hits her own sister Bianca and chases her. Is that acceptable behaviour? Kate is different from Beatrice or Adriana. She’s not just strong-willed and sharp-tongued, but stubborn, unreasonable, and violent. 

If we forget about gender, this is a play about a strong will that meets a stronger will. Before Petruchio, nobody wants Kate (even her own father wants to get rid of her). In a way, Petruchio and Kate are a match for each other, like Benedick and Beatrice are a perfect match—Petruchio of course is not Benedick, but neither is Kate Beatrice.

Petruchio says he wants to marry for money, but I don’t think that’s the only reason he marries Kate—there are plenty of other rich women that are easier to deal with, I think he’s in it for the sport. His method is cruel indeed, but in his defence, he tries to mould her into a more suitable partner and one can tell at the end that they’re likely to be happy together, whereas Bianca’s marriage is less certain. 


4/ Another question is: is Kate tamed at the end? How should we interpret her final speech?

Some critics think The Taming of the Shrew is a misogynistic play. I don’t think so. Some others think it’s a proto-feminist play, a satire on objectionable male behaviour. I don’t think so either. 

I think the play is a study of a strong will meeting a stronger will. There is attraction on both sides: for Petruchio, this is a challenge, a game; for Kate, he’s unlike anyone else, a difficult woman like her may find all other men boring and pathetic, and feel drawn to him. 

In the end, does she yield out of tiredness and frustration? Or does she play along, calling the sun the moon and an old man a maid? Does she really submit? Or does she put on a role? 

Shakespeare leaves it open enough that it can depend on the interpretation and approach of the director and the actors. The main point though, is that Petruchio’s method does not change Kate’s nature—she’s still sharp and confrontational, as we see in the conversation with the widow at the wedding; it only changes her behaviour, and her behaviour needs changing.  


5/ Here is Tony Tanner’s argument: 

“When [Petruchio] comes to his wedding in that grotesque tattered motley of hopelessly ill-matched and shoddy garments […], it is as if he is saying to her, in visible, material signs—this is how prepared you are for marriage, given your dire inner dishevelment. When he makes a messy parody of the wedding, with his loud rudeness, blows, and sop-throwing, he is saying—and this is the sort of respect you have for the solemn ceremonies of society. And when he throws the food, and pots, and clothes around, and behaves with incomprehensible contrariness, he is offering a representation, for her benefit, of the kind of domestic chaos which sustainedly ‘shrewish’ behaviour would bring to the household. […] Petruchio is educating and ‘taming’ Kate in, as he sees it, the only way in which she will learn.” (Introduction) 

And: 

“… it is possible to see Petruchio as curbing, rather than crushing, Kate; making her into a worthy companion instead of an all-over-the-place wild-cat, beating her head against every convention in sight (the possibility that her father has contributed to this by his manifest favouritism towards Bianca is clearly hinted). Seen this way, he is liberating her from a pointless, self-lashing, ‘beast-liness’—the Herculean labour.” (ibid.)  

Tony Tanner says there’s no getting around Kate’s final long speech about women’s obedience, but I note some irony there:

“KATE […] Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, 

Thy head, thy sovereign—one that cares for thee, 

And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labor both by sea and land,

To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,

Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe…” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

These lines she says to the widow, whom Hortensio marries for money—in other words, the widow’s the one providing “maintenance”. How ironic. 


6/ I’ve just seen the ACT production of The Taming of the Shrew from 1976**. It is hysterical. 

Petruchio (Marc Singer) is quick, dynamic, full of energy and magnetism, and—shall I say it—so hot. You can see that his energy matches Kate’s, his quick wit equals hers, he can impose his will on her, and they’re attracted to each other from the start. 

I probably wouldn’t enjoy another production as much as this one. 


*: This is something I saw in several high school movies. Have no idea if it happens in real life or not. 

**: Watch it here, with subtitles. 

23 comments:

  1. Interesting take on this play. I've read and seen it performed, but I was seeing the surface: one of Shakespeare's comedies with a large dollop of misogyny.

    However it raises the question of what do you do when culture (in this case, feminism)takes a great leap away from the mores of a brilliant author's times.
    -Nancy

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    1. Haha, check out the ACT production (link in my blog post) and see what you think then.
      I can understand people feeling uncomfortable with the play, because Petruchio's method is cruel (though the question is, what are people supposed to do with someone unruly like Kate?) and the final speech can be interpreted in lots of ways, but I think the misogyny charge is unfair. Shakespeare has created enough independent, strong-willed women that I don't believe it. Some people think he was a misogynist at the beginning of his career and became more "progressive" over time, starting with Kate and creating Beatrice, etc. but then I've read The Comedy of Errors, one of his early plays, around the same time as The Taming of the Shrew, and Adriana is portrayed sympathetically.
      The other day I also saw a female review calling Much Ado About Nothing misogynistic.
      As for your question, I don't know, but generally I'm rather tired of the way feminist criticism distorts literature and other arts.

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  3. Feminism is not something I'm wound up about, but I have a daughter who is! She was incensed after seeing the production of "Taming".

    In the last sentence I was thinking more about "The Merchant of Venice". I'm not keen on discussing that particular play in a public forum right now because of the current right wing craziness going on, at least in this country.

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    1. Tell your daughter that the text of The Taming of the Shrew is very open and a lot depends on the interpretation of the directors and actors. The ACT production is good, I think Kate's final speech shouldn't be played straight. I'd like to know what you think about it.
      I haven't read The Merchant of Venice, but a friend of a mine, a huge Shakespeare fan, thinks it's not anti-Semitic. I wouldn't know, but lots of people also say Othello is racist but I don't think so.
      Where is "this country"?

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    2. Another point: Kate makes me think of Wang Xifeng in Hong lou meng, a sharp, witty but also cruel, calculating, and merciless woman. Wang Xifeng is much more cruel, somebody should tame her!
      I have come across readers who like Wang Xifeng however, and think of her as a strong-willed, independent, sharp-tongued woman. I have never understood those who like strong female characters regardless of everything, and see them all as the same.

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  4. I clicked on he link to the ACT production (haven't watched it) and was interested in the comment alluding to the influence of commedia dell'arte in this performance. I'm wondering if the 1950's American setting of the production we saw might have increased the dissonance.

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  5. ..between attitudes now and then.

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    1. The 1950s!?!
      No wonder your daughter hated it.

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  6. This country is US.
    Yeah, it was a little weird...a 50's architectural house with lots of orange and lime colors in addition to bright-colored period clothing.

    "text of The Taming of the Shrew is very open and a lot depends on the interpretation of the directors and actors."
    Yes, I remember this from a Shakespeare class I took. Even stage directions are usually omitted.

    I commented on some "Madame Bovary" blogs from a couple of years ago and it doesn't seem to be working right. I can't see my comment or the reply. Is it a bad idea to comment on old blogs?

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    1. Oh commenting on old posts is fine, I can see them. Blogspot sometimes eats comments, I think, so you might want to copy your text before hitting publish.
      I saw some of your comments from hours ago, do you mean them or new ones?

      The idea of the play in 50s America sounds so wrong to me.

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  7. I mean the ones from hours ago. I can see the comments now.

    "The idea of the play in 50s America sounds so wrong to me." This is an outdoor Shakespeare company that has used unusual settings for other productions. Some of them don't work very well.

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    1. I see.
      The other day I saw a film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (2012) that was set in modern day. That one still works.

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  8. Another year they used an American West setting, as in cowboys. I didn't see that one.

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  9. One of the comedies. I'm guessing As You Like It or Much Ado.

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  10. Oooh thank you for the link to that production of the play: that scene of their first meeting is indeed sizzling!

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  11. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE OBSERVATION THAT KATE IS NOT THE ONLY WOMAN SHAKESPEARE WROTE. *huffs* Such a good point, and a much overlooked one.

    Ooh ooh I've seen that 1976 production! It's so fantastic! Man, now I wanna watch it again...

    And I really like Tony Tanner's reading of the wedding scene. In that case Petruchio would be acting as a mirror for Kate...which could be interesting, cuz in Heywood's A Woman Killed With Kindness the wife sees herself as a mirror for her husband, which my Renaissance Tragedies class read as a pretty sexist symbol. So it's kind of like Shakespeare is turning that dynamic on its head: instead of the wife reflecting the husband's mood/behavior, the husband is reflecting the wife's.

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    1. That thing about Shakespeare's other female characters is a pet peeve of mine, people keep forgetting it.
      I've heard of A Woman Killed With Kindness but haven't read it so don't know the story and full context. Why do they read it as a sexist symbol?

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    2. I they read it as sexist because it can make the wife seem so passive. She doesn't /do/ anything, she just reflects what her husband does.

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