What I remember best about that production was that I was having a lot of trouble playing the outrage the director desired from Gremio in his description of Kate and Petruchio’s wedding, so I asked him to let me play it as if it were the funniest thing I had ever seen, which worked a good deal better, at least for me, and taught me that an actor can, and should, make a contribution to his/her portrayal, not just try to follow a director’s orders blindly.
Then I directed (also designed the set & lights and TD’d) a production of the play at Western about 1974 with Bobby Funk and Karen Furno in the leading roles. This is one of the productions I remember most fondly from my years at Western, although it is only one among a fairly large number which I remember affectionately.
While I was doing my doctoral course work at UGA, I remember writing a paper for Gerald Kahan in which I attempted to make a case that the play, rather than just being an example of Elizabethan misogyny, was, in fact, about the development of a strong, loving relationship. I also remember that Dr. Kahan didn’t agree with my interpretation, suggesting that in the Elizabethan era women were not viewed as much more than property to be married off for social, political or financial advantage. One can find a good deal of support for such an attitude. Certainly women, as a group, were pretty much pawns of their fathers and/or husbands during that period.
However, I found it hard to accept (still do) that it would have been acceptable to Elizabeth to suggest that, as a woman, she should accept the idea of being beaten into total submission by a husband. This was the woman who is said to have stated, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too.” It still seems likely, at least to me, that it would have been unwise to emphasize the “inferiority” of women with Elizabeth on the throne.
Still, for a long time productions of The Taming of the Shrew have emphasized the idea that Petruchio, for all intents and purposes, simply beats, starves, and brow beats Katherine into submission to his will. To suggest that this sort of thing didn’t happen during this period is almost certainly incorrect. However, I’ve never been comfortable with it. It is believed that Garrick introduced the idea that Petruchio carries a whip in his 1754 adaptation which was, of course, a good deal after the Elizabethan period. In fact, Garrick’s adaptation was the most popular version of the play until late in the 19th Century; but Garrick was not Shakespeare, so I think it wiser to rely on the script as Shakespeare wrote it.
Given the tradition, however, one way folks have tried to make the play more acceptable to more modern audiences has been to have Katherine play her final “submission” speech with a bit of a subtle, sarcastic twist, often with a wink (at least to the audience) to suggest that she is playing along with him, but doesn’t mean it at all. I find that a bit hard to accept: it seems to contradict the tenor of the speech and it is a significant bit of business to add to the play, and Shakespeare certainly didn’t write this in, as we have no stage directions to suggest this. It also appears true that such business would have been unlikely at the time.
This post was precipitated by my recent discovery that the Omaha Public Library had a DVD of the BBC/Time-Life production of Shrew with John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) playing Petruchio. I had heard this production rather highly praised, so I took it out and watched it. I enjoyed it a lot, so I also watched the DVD of the famous American Conservatory Theatre production which featured Marc Singer (best known for his roles in the Beastmaster film series, as Mike Donovan in the original 1980s TV series V, and his role in Dallas as Matt Cantrell), whom I had known, slightly, at Indiana. In fact, we were both in a production of “the Scottish play” there, although I was a couple of years ahead of him and didn’t know him at all well. The ACT production really emphasizes the commedia aspects of the play. Most would agree that there is a strong influence from commedia in this play, but this production, like so many others, uses the “wink” to suggest that Kate is not really “tamed” at all.
The Cleese production, however, seems to pick up many of the ideas which Gary Wills discusses in relation to this play in his book Making Make-Believe Real. In this book, he suggests that Shakespeare is using (and having fun with) the courtly love tradition in Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine, while also drawing on the practices of falconry. It is worth noting that, as the script suggests, at least the way I read it, that Petruchio is never actually shown, or described, insulting or beating Kate. Everything he does, he does “under name of perfect love.” His anger is directed at others whom he accuses of insulting her and he refuses to offer her “inferior” food, bedding or clothes as not being “worthy” of her. This, for understandable reasons, confuses Kate, who has been portrayed as always coming out second best to Bianca, who always struck me as “sucking up” to her father with too much of a “butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth” sort of attitude, which is occasionally played up in some productions. Thus, Petruchio is defending and denying her because she isn’t receiving her just due, something she hasn’t been led to expect without fighting for it.
Wills also points out (from various sources) that, just as a falconer actually had to suffer various hardships (going without sleep, food, etc.) right along with the bird he was taming, Petruchio is shown doing much the same (although it is not always played this way). It is quite clear, at least to me, that Cleese is playing Petruchio as undergoing the same sorts of trils. And, Petruchio’s language is that of the courtly love tradition, which we never see Kate experiencing from anyone else.
Ultimately, of course, the play leads up to Kate’s speech to her sister and the widow, which seems to be the major problem many have with the entire play. If one reads the speech carefully, however, Kate is really speaking of mutual duties (a civil contract, if you will) and the sort of duty which a knight owes to his prince (and vice versa) which would not have been considered demeaning to either party. In fact, in the courtly tradition, as I understand it, this “duty” is what defines the knight (or in this case, the wife) as well as the prince (the husband).
I think this play has been much maligned by the coarsening it has had to endure over the years. This may be particularly seen in movie versions where the visual nature of physical violence has taken the place of the verbal by-play which is so much a part of many of Shakespeare’s work(s). I understand that this was emphasized in the 1929 Douglas Fairbanks/Mary Pickford version and it certainly receives major emphasis in the Zeffirelli/Burton/Taylor one. That doesn’t make them bad movies, although I think it does make them less sound as adaptations of the play.
One has to remember that Shakespeare didn’t write plays to be “seen,” like a movie; but to be “heard” (see Hamlet II, 2). The Elizabethan theatre was not, primarily, a visual event, but an aural one. That means that the language has to be viewed as extremely important, as the audience was not focused on the spectacle so much as the words. Written stage directions are pretty few and far between in the First Folio and the early Quartos, so we know relatively little (for sure) about visual staging practices, but the words we do have, apparently pretty accurately. Shrew was not published prior to its appearance in the 1623 Folio, but, a number of folks seem to think that the Folio editors may have used Shakespeare’s “foul” papers as their source, so the printed version may well be pretty accurate. In any event, as Wills points out, Shakespeare, generally, uses the language of courtly love in the Sonnets pretty well, except in #130, where he suggests that that sort of language expected doesn’t work for his “mistress” except in his mind/heart. His eyes see her flaws perfectly clearly, but his mind/heart rejects them as unworthy of his “love.” This suggests, at least to me, that Shakespeare knew the courtly tradition well enough to play with it.
I doubt that I will convince many that The Taming of the Shrew is acceptable in this day of “feministic correctness,” but I think that’s too bad. I found the BBC/Cleese version to probably be the best I’ve ever seen (or heard). It captures the ribald humor of the play, but it also provides the clearest understanding of the idea that Kate and Petruchio end up by forming a true partnership. In it, the so-called “road” scene made complete sense to me for the first time when I saw it here. Also, by eliminating the visual violence, the innate comedy of the language came through to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I’m glad to have seen the ACT version, I just plain enjoyed the BBC one.
I would urge anyone to take another look at this play. Like most of Shakespeare, it’s worth a second (possibly a third) perusal. At least try to get a copy of the BBC video so you can view Cleese’s work as Petruchio. I liked it a lot! I hope you will, too.