1. The Taming of the Shrew
I start my Shakespeare challenge with one of his most problematic plays (to a modern audience anyway), The Taming of the Shrew. Believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592, Shrew is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s earliest (if not the earliest) plays. And it is certainly an interesting place to start my journey through the Complete Works!
First off, this is a play I have actually got more experience of than any other Shakespeare. I assisted on and then directed my own version right at the start of my career; then several years later, I was cast in another version in my final year of university – it was actually during this production that I met Victoria Hamblen, who I would go on to found Cyphers Theatre Company with. So, by complete chance, it is a piece that I’m quite familiar with and yet haven’t looked at for many years.
Coming back to Shrew after nearly ten years has been quite enlightening! Where I used to view it as being less problematic than most people thought it to be, I now recognise how much of a challenge it is to stage. I used to see the Petruchio/Katherine relationship as quite a fun, bombastic bit of comedy – the two giving as good as they got and actually being well-suited to each other. How my views have changed!!
The main thing that struck me on this reading was how little evidence there is of Katherine’s ‘shrewish’ behaviour. We see her having a fight with her goody-two-shoes sister, Bianca, and we see the aftermath of her hitting Hortensio (disguised as a music tutor) round the head with a lute, but on the whole Katherine actually behaves quite sensibly and reasonably. All the evidence for her misbehaviour comes from the men surrounding her – in particular, her father, who constantly moans about her and favours her younger sister, Bianca. When one actually looks at Katherine’s behaviour, she is upset that the suitors give all their attention to Bianca and none to her, she is embarrassed by her father dismissing her chances of getting married, she is offended by Petruchio’s forwardness and her father’s willingness to go along with Petruchio’s behaviour towards her, she bursts into tears at the humiliation of Petruchio arriving late to her wedding, she begs Petruchio’s servants for food when he is starving her, and she delivers a long speech to end the play on how women should be obedient to their husbands. In short, if we are to judge Katherine by her actions, rather than what people say about her, she is far from shrewish.
Instead, she is clearly highly intelligent – her quick-witted responses to Petruchio’s absurd wooing are as on point as any of Beatrice’s from Much Ado About Nothing – and seems to feel an acute sense of injustice at the way she is treated by her father and, by extension, the other men in the story. Eventually, she seems to just give into Petruchio because it is easier than keeping up a fight that she knows she can’t win. Now, I’m sure many people will have other opinions, but this is what struck me when I read the play in a much more questioning way – not accepting what anyone says on face value.
By contrast to Katherine, Petruchio seems frankly completely bonkers! He arrives in Padua following the death of his father, in need of a financially beneficial marriage. Rather than a happy-go-lucky, cheery jack-the-lad, he seems to me to be a man driven by desperation, who is putting a brave face on things. His behaviour is completely erratic – he leaves Verona immediately after his father’s death, arrives in Padua, agrees to marry the first wealthy woman he sees, then disappears again after only one conversation with her, returns late and seemingly drunk to his wedding, then leaves straightaway after the ceremony to go to his poorly furnished home for a few days, before returning to Padua again! Even if you are looking at this as part of his ‘taming’ strategy, it is pretty irrational and worrying behaviour! I think we often give Petruchio too much credit for being in control of his actions. I’d be interested to see a production where he is much more on the edge, making erratic and desperate decisions as he goes along rather than as part of some elaborate plan that only he understands.
Besides the problematic gender-politics of the play, there is the structurally confusing half-frame devise. The play we think of as The Taming of the Shrew, is actually a play within a play but one that is never formally concluded. It opens with a slightly cheap practical joke being played on an unsuspecting drunk named Christopher Sly. A nobleman finds him and decided that it would be hilarious to dress him up as a nobleman and get all the servants to pretend the drunk is the lord of the manor who has been mad the last seven years. Some actors then arrive and perform The Taming of the Shrew to this ‘lord’ and his ‘wife’ (a page boy in a dress!). After the first act, we never see Sly and company again. Frankly, it feels like a piece of sketch comedy, shoved on the beginning of the play to warm up the audience and get them laughing.
This leads on to what I think is the most challenging aspect of this play to a modern director. It is the fact that this was clearly conceived as a light-hearted, slightly absurd comedy, in which gender politics wasn’t seriously considered at all. This was conceived as a bit of a farcical jape, borrowing extensively from comedia dell’arte. In many ways, the scenes are more a series of comedy sketches stung together into a loose story – you can almost hear Shakespeare saying to himself ‘what would make this scene funnier would be…’. It is very difficult to reconcile this flippant humour with the complex and problematic nature of the Petruchio/Katherine relationship that a modern audience sees.
It is also in this problematic juxtaposition that I think it becomes evident that this is one of Shakespeare’s first plays. His later plays are exceptionally good at mixing high and low and getting them to complement and enhance each other. Here, it feels much more like he is simply seeking laughter and audience appreciation. The way he borrows so extensively from an established theatrical style (comedia dell’arte) also suggests a young writer finding his feet through imitation.
I enjoyed reading The Taming of the Shrew again and would urge others who have dismissed it as sexist to approach it again with an open mind. Clearly it is a problematic play in multiple ways, but I do think it is possible to create a version that is both entertaining and pleasingly challenging for its audience. I’m not in a great rush to direct it again but I’d certainly welcome the challenge if the opportunity ever arose!