When I was in college, I took two classes on Shakespeare; one devoted to Tragedies and the other devoted to Comedies. In the Comedies class, we met each Friday in the black box theater to read and act out Taming of the Shrew. It was an awkward time, since many members of the class were not theater students and since we didn’t always have time to read ahead, it could be difficult to read and rehearse at the same time. Perhaps this experience played into my opinion of Taming of the Shrew.
At first, I did enjoy the story, which is very straight forward. A man has a beautiful daughter named Bianca, and all the men in Padua wish to marry her. However, her father will not allow her to marry until her older sister, Katherine is married. Since Katherine is a shrew, none of the men wish to marry her. Into this mess comes Pertruchio, a man who is looking for a wealthy woman to marry. He hears of Katherine’s family wealth and decides to marry her, regardless of her reputation. I loved the confrontation/meeting between Katherine and Petruchio. The scene sizzles and sparkles with energy and wit, far and above all other scenes in the play. I got to read that scene and it was a hoot.
However, the play soon takes a darker turn when Petruchio begins taming Kate. He takes her away from her family, confiscates her fine clothes and possessions, starves her, and deprives her of sleep. Is this domestic abuse? I am choosing to call it “enhanced taming techniques.” At this point, my opinion of the play began to shift, irreparably. The Taming of the Shrew left me angry and sad.
I was angry because Shakespeare, overall, loves women. It may not show in every single moment of every single play (the character of Hamlet is particularly misogynistic, though the play is not), but Shakespeare has a respect and affection for women that is found in few other male writers of any time period. The very first Shakespeare play I ever read was Much Ado About Nothing, another play which portrays a “merry war” between the sexes. Beatrice is a truly remarkable woman, fiercely intelligent and very much Benedict’s equal. Hero, her cousin, is a far more traditional woman (she even faints!) but she is still able to stand up for herself. When the priest questions Hero about her purported lack of chastity and her supposed lover, she responds as follows:
They know that do accuse me; I know none:
If I know more of any man alive
Than that which maiden modesty doth warrant,
Let all my sins lack mercy! O my father,
Prove you that any man with me conversed
At hours unmeet, or that I yesternight
Maintain’d the change of words with any creature,
Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death!
That summer, I went on to read Othello, which contains Emilia’s famous speech about infidelity in women.
But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
I could easily go on, but by the time I got to college, I had learned to love Shakespeare and his women.
That’s why Taming of the Shrew inspired such anger. How was it possible, I thought, that the man who wrote Katherine would go on to write Beatrice, Emilia, Helena, Juliet, Rosalind, Viola, Portia, Lady Macbeth, Regan, Goneril, Paulina, Hermione, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Helena, the Countess, Isabella, and Miranda? The mind boggles.
At the same time, the play also made me sad.
It made me sad because of the scene in which Petruchio meets Katherine. As I said before, the scene sizzles and sparkles with wit, humor, and sexual energy. It reminds me of a skit from the Daily Show in 2013. John Oliver was subbing for Jon Stewart and he showed footage of a heated exchange between member of Congress and a witness. After the exchange was over, John Oliver said, “Oh, you know those two are going to fuck like rabbits later on.” That’s how I felt when I read the duet (and in a way, it really is a duet) between Katherine and Petruchio. In the way they match wits, the way they trade barbs, the audience senses that they are very well matched. Sadly, this is pushed aside in the end of the play. During my time in college, I described Kate at the end of the play as a Stepford Wife, even agreeing with her husband that the sun was now the moon and that old men were now little children. Perhaps this is unfair, but there is an element of heartbreak in this turn of events. I cannot imagine Orlando demanding such absolute power over Rosalind, or Benedict ever exerting such power of Beatrice.
Needless to say, I have not read or seen the play since then, though I did very much enjoy Shakespeare Uncovered’s analysis of Taming of the Shrew. I am curious to see if performances of the play will change my attitude.
I do not expect that Taming of the Shrew will ever be one of my favorite plays, even if I could accpet the story. The writing is too rough, unpolished, and simple. Shakespeare was young when he wrote it (this is possibly his first play) so he had not yet mastered and harnessed his unsurpassed gifts as a writer. I can sense the potential and promise in the text. The text is a harbinger of greatness to come, though the writing is by no means great.