Thoughts on The Taming of the Shrew

My family has tickets for an upcoming performance of The Taming of the Shrew at a local community college. My teens are familiar with the story, sorta, from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which they really enjoyed.

The Taming of the Shrew is among the few Shakespeare plays I think often improve when adapted. 10 Things added to the story, while preserving its basic plot and even a few gags. A generation before, there was a wonderful episode of the detective drama/comedy Moonlighting, starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, called “Atomic Shakespeare” (1986). It’s a retelling of The Shrew as a retelling of The Shrew in a brilliantly erratic mash-up of period dress, original dialog, and anachronistic references.

On the other hand, I find Kiss Me Kate (1948, 1953), McLintock! (1963) and the first-season episode of The Saint (“The Golden Journey,” 1962) to be condescending and regressive compared to Shakespeare’s play. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what a college drama department makes of it today.

To prepare, I read the play (Riverside) and watched two versions. The first was an American direct-to-video stage production starring Karen Austin and Franklyn Seales as Katherina and Petruchio (1982, currently available free via Amazon Prime). The second was the BBC-TV version starring Sarah Badel and John Cleese (1980).

To my surprise, neither included the introductory Induction with drunken tinker Christopher Sly being fooled into thinking he’s a nobleman watching a play put on by his servants. To me, that scene sets the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for a farcical view of events unfolding in a self-aware, self-mocking performance. Without that initial set-up, the viewer is dropped into first-world events happening as realistic comedy, instead of second-world events presented as parody.

In contrast, the Moonlighting episode not only preserves the framing device, but returns to it at the end, giving the story a final dismissive fillip in a snarky parody of Alexander Pope’s additions to the Sly character. That may be why I like that version so much.

However, with what we have of Shakespeare’s play, a complete framing device is non-canonical. Often, directors opt to delete it. What remains, though, then rests on a fundamental misogyny that takes considerable interpretive effort to soften or redirect.

This, by the way, is not a modern issue. Shakespeare’s successor, John Fletcher, wrote a popular sequel called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which a widowed and remarried Petruchio finds himself on the receiving end of such treatment as he dished out, with echoes of Lysistrata, and with similar results.

Many modern interpretations turn Katherina’s submission speech at the end into a spoof of obedience, during which she indicates to the audience that she means none of it. In other words, she isn’t “tamed.” That approach, though, calls into question the central love story, and turns the play into a mere contest between con artists – in which case, if Katherina is the wittier, why marry Petruchio?

(I feel, although the story is a farce, it’s still a love story. So Katherina and Petruchio should, for the sake of the story, be struck by real, passionate love for each other at first sight.)

Of the non-adapted versions, I rather heretically think the Yankee one surpasses the British in solving the problems. The American version begins with a physical setting of the stage, and continually reminds the viewer that one is watching a farce by incorporating vaudevillian performance jokes: everyone leaning to one side every time the word “Pisa” is said, en masse sighs at every mention of Bianca, and frequent direct eye contact through the fourth wall. That establishes and maintains the action within the realm of unreality, even without the Induction.

Every generation creates its own version of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m very excited to see a fresh one in a few days!