The Bardathon: 2- The Taming of the Shrew

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.”

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5 responses to this post.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You is based on The Taming of the Shrew.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Strathistle on October 30, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I think you rather miss the point of the play and in particular the last scene. If this play has any relevant meaning to today’s audience it is this – Kate is tamed because Petruchio makes an effort. Neither Lucentio or Hortensio are obeyed because they haven’t. They expect their relationships to work simply by virtue of being married and this, according to Shakespeare, is not enough.

    Reply

    • Your interpretation of the final scene may well be valid, but it is in the subtext rather than in the text itself. What worries me about this ending is what is explicitly in the text.

      Even if we were to accept your interpretation as valid, it does not explain why Kate should advocate, as a general principle, female submission to the male. It is this advocacy of female submission I find problematic – both on moral grounds, and on the grounds of the internal logic of the play itself: what had been required of Kate was civil behaviour, not submission. For a wife to submit herself to her husband so completely and unequivocally, as Kate does, does not seem to me indicative to me of a marriage “working”.

      In short, even bearing your interpretation in mind, the problem, I think, remains.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Strathistle on November 15, 2013 at 10:47 am

    I would have replied sooner but I was in Florence for a couple of days! It’s different from Belfast – no Chelsea buns! Anyways, I see where you’re coming from – the submission speech seems to come out of nowhere. I wonder though if we are not projecting today’s morality and expectations on to the past. Nowhere in the play does anyone actually say they just wish Kate were more reasonable and open to consensus and dialogue. Petruchio, in his falcon speech, certainly indicates he expects submission from Kate and in the final scene there is no dissent from anybody in regards a woman’s role in society. Perhaps Shakespeare’s audience would see the play as a comic power struggle between the sexes and not so much the romantic comedy we want it to be.

    Reply

    • Hello Strathistle, I believe it’s my turn to apologise for this late reply: I have been very tied up recently, I’m afraid.

      When I read Shakespeare, I get the impression that there is nothing we can think about these characters that Shakespeare has not himself thought about. In admittedly a later play, Emilia, in her final scene with Desdemona (V,i), gives a very heartfelt account of what women have to put up with in marriage, given her status. Shakespeare was well aware of this. I suppose it is indeed possible to see this play as a portrayal of the breaking of a woman’s independent spirit, but if we are to see it in such a way, there seems to me little to celebrate at the end.

      At the end, Katharina offers to put her hand below herghusband’s feet – a gesture of submission. But what prevents this scene from being distasteful is that Peteruchio does not take her up on this offer. He says instead: “Come an and kiss me, Kate!” This seems to indicate to me that it is not submission he had been aiming for, whatever he may have said (and he has indeed said much that is crazy, and which need not be taken entirely seriously!)

      I think it is legitimate to see the “taming” not as a breaking of teh woman’s spirit, but as a sort of rehabilitation. For if we do see it as the breaking of a woman’s spirit, there is no ground on which the play can be morally justified.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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