Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

by Glenn on September 17, 2016

At the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, everyone is in love with Bianca of Padua. Well, there are three. An older man (Gremio) and a younger man (Hortensio) are suitors to the fair Bianca. Then, a student named Lucentio arrives in Padua to further his education, and immediately falls in love with her as well.

The problem for all three suitors is that Bianca’s father, Baptista, will not allow her to marry until her older sister, Katherina (“the shrew” of the title) is married. Katherine is sharp-tongued and ill-tempered. The fair Bianca benefits from the favorable comparison to her sister.

Enter Petruchio, “a gentleman from Verona,” who announces he has arrived in Padua to find himself a wife (read “a fortune”). Hortensio asks Petruchio to win Katherina so that he can be free to win Bianca. Petruchio decides this is just what he wants to do.

The second layer of action in the play is how the three suitors try to win over Bianca during the Katherina-inspired embargo on courtship. There are disguises and status changes (a servant playing the master and visa versa) and deceptions with the goal of winning the heart of Bianca.

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Before I read any commentary about The Taming of the Shrew, I want to say how extraordinarily difficult this play must be to pull off. The main action of the play focuses on how Petruchio can have a relationship at all with Kate and how Kate will be transformed from a shrew into a loving wife.

The way that Petruchio will make all this happen is through some rather tough love (which could be described in less flattering ways), including sleep and food deprivation, putting Kate’s contrary nature back at her (“You say the moon, I say the sun,” “You want to go, I say we stay,” etc.), and demanding subservience (“You will do as I say or there will be consequences.”).

It’s pretty over-the-top and, I think, implausible. Petruchio must bend Kate’s will without coming across as a creepy, Sleeping With The Enemy-style controlling psychopath. Kate must submit in terms of love and self-interest rather than total surrender for no reason.

As theatre goers, we make a deal with the playwright, director, actors, and design team. We agree to pretend it’s real though it clearly isn’t (“willing suspension of disbelief”), if they agree to put on a good show. What’s a good show?

The playwright has to create memorable characters engaged in dramatic actions that illustrate important themes. (Or, at the very least, the play should be really funny.)

The director has to take the skeleton that the playwright has created—the script—and organize the elements of the performance. He or she must get the big picture for what the play is about and how it will be presented and bring together the actors who will make the characters come to life and the design team who will help our imaginations.  It’s not that costumes, lighting, sets, sound, etc. make it real, but they make it important—“Look at the care we have taken to create in this space, you should really pay attention.”

And then we the audience show up and engage with it.

For me, the success of a production depends on the attractiveness of and chemistry between Petruchio and Katherina. Shakespeare has given them some repartee (a foreshadowing of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing), including some bawdiness:

PETRUCHIO   Come, come, you wasp, i’faith you are too angry.
KATHERINA   If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
PETRUCHIO   My remedy is then to pluck it out.
KATHERINA   Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
PETRUCHIO   Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
    In his tail.
KATHERINA  In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO                             Whose tongue?
KATHERINA   Yours, if you talk of tales [gossip; genitals], and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO   What, with my tongue in your tail?
    Nay, come again, good Kate, I am a gentleman.

If the actors can, on some level, make us “believe” them, then we we won’t sit there the whole time thinking, “This simply could not be happening.”

Through Amazon Prime I watched a 1983 production by The Shakespeare Video Society. Karen Austin played Katherina and Franklyn Seales played Petruchio.

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-6-28-28-am

Seales is thoroughly charming and Austin gives us a means for considering the plausibility of all of this. When her Katherina first encounters Petruchio (Seales) there is a brief “love at first sight” moment that tells us that she finds him attractive, showing us at least one reason why her spirit will ultimately submit, even though in the moment she goes back to her normal contrary mode.

I enjoyed this production with two caveats:

One, the costumes seemed like costumes rather than clothes people would wear.

Two, I think this is a film of a stage production. That’s not bad, but it’s not what we’re used to when we watch drama on screen. I don’t know all the differences between acting on stage versus acting on screen, but I know it’s different. On stage you must project your voice to the back corner of the theatre. On screen, you go the other way and draw people in. This performance could feel a little odd in that even though the camera is in close—we’re right there—, the actors  speak as though we are thirty rows of seats away. This is pretty forgivable, though. I actually enjoy hearing the voices of trained actors. And I like this agreement that we make in the theatre to pretend it’s real. One of the things about the screen is that every effort is made to make it look real to bypass that willing suspension.

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Some thoughts about language:

I missed it as I read, but in the video performance, I heard the expression “killing with kindness” offered by Petruchio. I’m always fascinated by how many expressions go back to Shakespeare (or were at least appropriated by Shakespeare and we are now aware of them because of him).

I read an expression that was new to me. Gremio says, “My cake is dough,” which the editors tell us is a “Proverbial expression for a failed project.” I’m not sure I would have caught the gist without the footnote.

I noticed the couplet becoming a thing that Shakespeare does. When characters are at the end of a scene or there will be some sort of change in action, we get a clue about the coming change with a rhyming couplet:

BIANCA   And may you prove, sir, master of your art.
LUCENTIO   While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart.

HORTENSIO   Well, Petruccio, this has put me in heart;
    Have to my widow, and if she be froward [difficult],
.     Then hast thou taught Hortensio to be untoward [unmannerly].

An interesting aspect of this play is the induction at the beginning. I don’t recall any production that includes it. I have very few memories of a stage production I saw in college and it’s been years since I’ve watched either the John Cleese or Elizabeth Taylor films. But I don’t recall ever seeing this opening: A drunk guy (Christopher Sly) causes trouble and passes out. A nobleman, for experimental purposes wonders what would happen if his servants brought the drunk guy back to his palace and treated him like he was a nobleman. Would he act like that nobleman? The drunk is told he has a wife and the two of them watch The Taming of the Shrew, which becomes a play within a play. The problem is that we don’t get any closure about this induction. It opens the play and there is a brief reference to it partway in, but there is no bookend on the other end.

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