Obviously, there are elements in this play that make it very problematic for modern audiences: but purely as a comic farce, Shakespeare did a marvellous job. It is certainly a far more assured work then The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And for the first time, Shakespeare broaches a theme that he was to explore in greater depth in his later plays – the power of persuasion, the power to change a person’s perception of reality. This is one of the central themes in Othello, of course, but it’s here as well.
Looked at closely, the play is not perhaps quite so misogynistic as a summary of its plot may lead one to believe. Katharina’s behaviour at the start of the play is not that of a woman chafing against the constraints placed upon her by patriarchal society, but of one who really is wild and uncontrolled: she exhibits a behaviour that no society can put up with. It is reasonable to see this, I think, as a psychological problem, and it is reasonable also to see Petruchio’s behaviour as a sort of therapy. For what is noticeable is that once her behaviour returns to normality, Petruchio does not treat her as an inferior: indeed, there seems to be a genuine affection between the two. Even when, in the submission speech, Katharina offers to place her hand under Petruchio’s foot (presumably a symbolic declaration of submission), he doesn’t take her up on this: he merely says “Kiss me Kate!”
However, for all that, the submission speech in the final scene does rankle, mainly because it does not follow from what we had seen earlier. What we had seen earlier was not about the necessity of the female will submitting to the male, but of the importance of moderating extremes of behaviour in order to live peacefully within an ordered society. So it is hard to see why the final scene focuses in so misogynistic a manner on the issue of the wife’s submission to the husband’s will.
It is hard to say just how seriously the young Shakespeare, at this stage in his career, took any of this. Certainly, in later plays, Shakespeare showed great sympathy with his female characters, appeared to have a thorough understanding of them, and, through Emilia in Othello (in the scene where she prepares Desdemona for bed for the last time), expresses very eloquently the sense of wrong women were entitled to feel in their unequal struggle. And if the woman learns from the man in this play, that in itself is no more objectionable than the men learning from the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But that final scene here remains puzzling.
This is obviously the work of a more mature dramatist than the author of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I’m not sure this is a play I’ll be returning to too often.
The BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew featured John Cleese as Petruchio, and I was expecting a riotous and frantic farce, but the whole production (directed by Jonathan Miller) was surprisingly restrained, and even austere at times. John Cleese was very good as Petruchio: this is a man who genuinely craves a decent, loving relationship, and his treatment of Katherine, cruel though it is, is a sort of therapy. Sarah Badel was an excellent Katherine – quite demented at first, but who comes to learn the importance of civil behaviour. This play can certainly be seen in these terms, but no matter how you sweeten the pill, that final scene remains deeply uncomfortable. (And this is not merely for modern audiences: according to the notes in my Arden edition, audiences in the 18th & 19th centuries also found it uncomfortable.) This production made no attempt to sweeten the pill in the final scene: it said, in effect: “This is what Shakespeare wrote – you can take it or leave it.”