The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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Cannonball Read IV: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

By Mrs. Julien | Book Reviews | September 14, 2012 | Comments ()


I wanted to read William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew for a few reasons. Most importantly, it was to see if I could still cope with the text and thus prove my degree in English Lit/Drama is still in here somewhere. But I also chose it for its famous sexism/misogyny, to see how it came across to my middle-aged feminist eyes. I knew the plot, so I'd have no trouble understanding what was going on (or so I thought). Moreover, I have seen two live productions of the play and one of them made an indelible impression on me. It was in 1987 at the Stratford Festival (Ontario) with Goldie Semple as Kate and Colm Feore as Petruchio. When reading the play this week , I could still remember some of their interplay and reactions. It was a truly magnificent production. (I've also seen a filmed version with John Cleese of all people, and he was the best thing in it and the one who made the language most accessible.)

For the uninitiated, and how is that even possible, The Taming of the Shrew is the story of Baptista, a man with 2 daughters, both alike in dignity, but dissimilar in temperament, in fair Padua where we lay our scene. Katherina/Kate is the eldest, difficult and irascible; his youngest, Bianca, is a fair and delicate creature beloved by all the men she meets. Baptista is unwilling to let Bianca marry until Kate is herself settled. The ensuing hijinks focus around each sister: Bianca has a number of suitors performing a number of ruses to secure her hand. Kate is "taken on" by Petruchio as a challenge, and a wife, to allow Bianca's suitors a chance gain their own ends. Petruchio proceeds to comically break Kate's spirit rendering her a sweet, compliant, and therefore "happy", wife.

As I started to read, I recalled, possibly incorrectly, that the modern approach to the play is to have Kate and Petruchio fall in love at first sight to lessen the sting of the abuse she endures and the obedient wife tropes she eventually spouts. If they are evenly-matched, and Petruchio's efforts are ultimately well-intentioned to bypass the protective wall Kate has built around herself, it somehow makes it less awful when she is deprived of sleep, and food, and rational treatment. He is capricious in his behaviour to everyone he meets, and I don't know it that helps exactly, but at least Petruchio is consistent. And Kate is a bit of a pill. They are indeed evenly-matched, if romance is a cage match, and in this case it is.

There was an irrelevant framing device that can be either included or omitted from the play. Its only use to me was as a starting point to accustom myself to the language, a task that would have been simpler, if fewer of the names were Somethingio. As I forged ahead, I knew I was going to be okay when I laughed out loud at this line -

PETRUCHIO: And you, good sir! Pray, have you not a daughter
Call'd Katherina, fair and virtuous?
BAPTISTA: I have a daughter, sir, call'd Katherina.

Some of the idiomatic language was lost on me, but I don't think it undercut the overall effect of the play and, should I continue reading Shakespeare, I suspect that long dormant parts of my vocabulary will rally to the fore. Being a Shakespeare comedy (and from what I remember based on the story structures of ancient Roman plays which were later also used by P.G. Wodehouse) everyone is pretending to be someone else and trading places. The Bianca plot was actually the most challenging with all of those Somethingios to-ing, and fro-ing and woo-ing simultaneously. Had I been watching the play, which is, after all, the point, it would have been a lot easier to follow.

For more of Mrs. Julien's reviews, check out her blog, Mrs. Julien Presents. This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

(Header image by Elizabeth Schuch.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • The Wanderer

    I love, love, LOVE this almost as I love the Scottish Play. I recall attending a performance at a local university and howling with laughter - the performances were spot on, the audience was close up to the stage as with all Elizabethan venues, and even the Prologue was kept intact.

  • BierceAmbrose

    We worked from an annotated edition of Shakespeare back in the day. Each play had a couple of intro essays by scholars, not the book's editor. In the text there were highlighted words or phrases that you'd get wrong as a modern reader, with definitions off to the side.

    Where does a mere civilian find such a thing again? My Amazon-fu is failing me.

  • Odnon.

    The thing that always seems to me to get glossed over is that Petruchio is also a dick. Kate's a dick, and Petruchio is a dick. They learn to "Tame" each other. They learn to communicate. It's not that Petruchio is saying "you have to do what I say Woman!", as much as "at least listen to what I am actually saying, because that is what I am willing to do too: that is the lesson I learned from this".
    He jokes about the moon in the daytime, and the Old Man along the way, and what they learn is that they are hilarious together and all the shit they've clung to in their dickishness doesn't matter in the face of that.
    When he "commands" her to come, she gets the joke and "takes it one step further" with her speech and then places her hand at his feet. Trusting him.
    He totally gets her joke and they laugh their asses off and leave the others who are all still caught up in their shit.
    Maybe I'm wrong. Or an eternal optimist.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That John Cleese version is beyond terrible. I didn't even like him in it. I couldn't watch past Act III.

    But I like the art in your header pic. And I like Kate for her strength, even as I find the play troubling. The wordplay is just stupendous. I also love that Bianca proves to be more than just a bland ingenue at the end. You almost get the sense that Kate was playing the wrong game the whole time.

    When I was a theater apprentice back in the day at NJSF, a young Peter Dinklage was our Christopher Sly. I didn't know how rare at the time the framing device was, but it's become more popular now - I think it helps distance the sexist aspects even a little more.

    I don't think Petrucchio/Kate fall in love at first sight, but I think it's the appreciation (and a hint of heat) that springs from being surprised by a worthy adversary.

    BTW, I saw Colm Feore in Coriolanus at Stratford, and he was fantastic. Talk about vital.

  • mswas

    If you follow the link at the end of the review, @Sara_Tonin00:disqus, you can buy the print from the artist. It is a small section of a larger piece.

  • Maguita NYC

    Mrs. Julien, Bravo! Loved especially the first paragraph in your review: As adults, we tend to disregard past literature, that we have already read as young-uns, and forge forward with new prospects.

    But revisiting the likes of Shakespeare is mandatory, especially for children of the 80s like myself.

    We grew-up in a transforming world where views on feminism and homosexuality alike were taking shape. Not long ago there was a new study on Shakespeare's possible sexuality. There is belief that he was gay, with the many disparaging conflicts of young love, friendships, male-bonding, and having those fair promised ones die unconditionally but beautifully in his plays. And that is why we now need to read Hamlet again.

    Because of your review, I'll be revisiting The Taming of the Shrew, and deeply enjoy my conflicting emotions on the treatment of women. And I'm quite sure by the end, no matter what last "study on Shakespeare" says, I'd still wonder if this was a woman, born in the wrong century, writing her own disappointing views on mankind.

  • BWeaves

    This is my favorite Shakespeare play. As a feminist, it always bothered me that this was my favorite one, but the plot was so unusual and it was funny.

    I remember seeing the John Cleese version and being rather depressed that it wasn't funny. Cleese played it very straight. This was after I'd seen a hilarious, live version in the park in New York, with Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in the lead roles. The video was horribly grainy and taken from a bit of a distance, as they were filming a play and the audience on the lawn was more important than the camera. The audience was howling with laughter and so was I. They made it funny.

    Also, I never felt that Kate fell in love with Petruchio at the beginning. I thought the whole point was that she didn't like him (or anybody), and he killed her with kindness (so to speak), and that made her fall in love with him.

  • $27019454

    I have come back to this play, but only after seeing a few interpretations/renditions a la BBC and sundry etc. The renditions do their best to "soften" the sting of the original text, which it a bit hard to take, even with my tongue planted firmly in cheek. But some of the language is so clever, it's almost Shakespeare at his best. The other play that's hard to take is Two Gentlemen of Verona, but that one is so much more palatable when done Broadway-musical style with Raul Julia as Proteus. Be still my heart. (worth seeing out the soundtrack, just for his voice)

  • Sara_Tonin00

    a very young Stockard Channing in the chorus, too, in that soundtrack.

  • KatSings

    I studied Shakespeare at RADA in London and love him. But it's true that you either need to be prepared to really dig into the language and make a study, or sit back and watch people bring it to life in order to really make the most of it. We did one of the fights in this for my final in Unarmed Stage Combat. So much fun.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    I've been afraid to re-visit Shakespeare - I feel like I need a professor to explain stuff to me. Thanks for a great review!

  • Mrs. Julien

    Honestly, it's like riding a bike.

  • Four Eyes

    So true Mrs.J. So very true.

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