The Taming of the Shrew Play | Sport For Jove

Director's Notes

 

Shakespeare’s plays are about family above all else. Every one of his stories extends outward and inward from that most basic human nucleus. We are all experts on family dysfunction, then as now, and he traded on that. He would typically explore two or three distinct families in each of his plays, setting them against one another, drawing parallels and stark differences, using them to x-ray the fractures and fissures that human beings have always caused each other in living together.

Shakespeare places these studies of family - in this play the Minola family from Padua, the Lucentio family from Pisa, and the Petruchio family from Verona – in the context of a broader community. This community, be it a city or a nation or a village, becomes a central character in the frame, and a wonderful starting point when working on the plays. What sort of world constructs these characters? In this case, how is a ‘shrew’ made, what forces around her have provoked her particular response to the world, and how will those forces respond in turn to her provocations? Is the wandering, fatherless Petruchio as much as ‘shrew’ as Kate?

The community is a particularly powerful force in the comedies. In his Histories, Shakespeare studies the machinations of the people who lead a community, how they rise, govern and fall; while the Tragedies document the impulses, often internal, that destroy that community and the families within it. In his comedies though, he passionately examines the things that bind that group of people together. Shakespeare’s Padua in The Taming of the Shrew holds the key to why the playwright tells a story of the subjugation of a woman. ‘Padua’ is an ugly place – and to what extent do we all live in Padua, even today?

Shakespeare’s Padua is a competitive, socially combative, cynical, narcissistic community driven by mercantile superficiality and a culture bred on gossip, on the fame of one’s family name, public profile or personal wealth, where the most meaningful contracts in life – love, marriage, friendship, education – are traded for profit and prominence. Such a society can only be fuelled by deep anxieties. Every scene is a contest, grasping and desperate, with each character gambling with everything they have at some point in the story. It is a world in which Kate really does have something to be ‘shrewish’ about should anyone care to listen.

Our setting, in the burgeoning silent film era, speaks of a moment when women’s politics and independence were surging into an all-too-brief prominence - on screen through a series of remarkable actresses, in the streets through the courageous suffrage movement, and in the air with the unusual global phenomenon of the solo aviatrix, female pilots who were perhaps the most famous and inspiring people on earth for a time, symbols of freedom and astonishing self-reliance. A remarkable revolution seemed possible for women’s political voice in the world, but it proved an illusion, true freedom would be successfully suppressed or tamed for decades to come. In line with Shakespeare’s vision of renaissance Padua - a famed seat of learning and conspicuous wealth - the advent of cinema in our world in the early 20th Century brought individuals immense fame, wealth and recognition, ushering in a cult of celebrity we remain thoroughly addicted to a century later.

Shakespeare cleverly characterizes the entire play within an almost pre-Brechtian convention of role-playing that reinforces the façade that is Padua, distancing us via an endlessly self-reflexive theatrical game in which almost every character is hiding behind a mask or playing a role – Lucentio, Hortensio, Tranio (Tania in this production), Biondello, the Pedant or traveller are all literally disguising themselves and playing roles for personal gain, while even Petruchio is adopting a new personality, including ridiculous wedding costume, as part of his mirroring back to Kate of her own subversive behaviour. Kate herself has long since adopted a mask that she no longer knows how to remove, the unavailable woman, angry and off the shelf, flailing violently against her enemies. Bianca likewise only shows her true self as the play closes, after years of manipulating her father through a careful performance as the dutiful daughter. Baptista is endlessly duped at every turn in this story and it is quite deliberate that the line that introduces the Minola family to us in the first scene is Tranio’s - “some show to welcome us to town”. The ‘unreality’ of this place, a city obsessed with its own vain self-image, built on entirely artificial ideas of romance, humanity, and love, where the family home has all the reality of a flimsy on-location film façade, provides a means to explore what is so very funny about this play, but also what is so ugly.

Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, this is a very serious play. It offers a unique and incredibly detailed psychological study of a relationship between a man and a woman, between that woman and her family, and the vain and superficial town that has raised and come to condemn her, trading her off to a stranger rather than confront the problem she presents them with. And that problem is that she will not acquiesce to the feminine model of silence. By speaking, answering back, saying her mind – the behaviour that defines a ‘shrew’, making unwanted noise - she raises the temperature and anxiety of the men around her, revealing the fragility of their misogynistic power structures, structures they must therefore protect by pouring their derision upon her. To this day, as we have seen in this country, societies struggle with powerful women, outspoken women who challenge the status quo, in politics, in business, in education, in social circles, even on social media. How commonly are the old words fished out to describe such a woman – a bitch, nag, hag, witch, harpy - as Australian writer and broadcaster Anna Kamaralli points out in her exceptional book on Shakespeare’s women, Shakespeare and the Shrew, one of the most insightful and revelatory critiques of Shakespeare’s plays I have ever read. She not only documents the plays but their power in our contemporary practice, revealing how, both in these old works and in our modern lives, a woman expressing an idea will face analysis of the idea itself, but also of the fact that she is a woman expressing it.

“...the concept remains unchanged since Shakespeare first created his remarkable range of vocal women,” writes Kamarilli, “women who continue to speak their truth about the world, no matter what means others employ to silence them. It has never been a particular virtue for a man to be silent, though one who chose to might be admired as saintly or remarkable… Shakespeare’s shrews repeatedly frustrate tradition by making obvious the harmfulness of the double standard that applies when judging men by what they say, women for the fact that they speak at all.”

But does Shakespeare let us down at the end of this play? We all love an underdog, and the angry, subversive, violent Kate who puts these men in their place is a perfect example of one, genuinely inspiring at times – when she exclaims,

“I see a woman may be made a fool,
If she had not the spirit to resist”

or cries out,

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall I will be free,
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.” (she even extends this last line beyond the 10 syllable rhythm of the preceding lines, already expressing her freedom just that little bit)

How can we possibly watch this magnificent underdog lose? And to a group of men who placed a bet on her losing! Why would Shakespeare do that to us? Is it just an ugly play, driven by conventional gender prejudice from a playwright who unfortunately shared an unevolved vision of a woman’s place in the world? ie. as director Jonathan Miller famously excused it - “the past is another country, they do things differently there”.

Or is it a very domestic and strangely realist look at a horrible system that is not changing, not in his time, and unfortunately not even in ours as so many modern women’s experiences of entrenched sexism suggest. Shakespeare, who wrote dozens of women who fight the power structures, break the rules, defy their fathers, speak the truth, and educate the men in their worlds, gives us here the opposite - a portrait of a female underdog that loses and has been losing for centuries and makes us watch closely the machinations of how she loses. Is he applauding her loss or is he revealing that those machinations should revile us, and as long as the world remains one in which women are cultured toward submissive silence, is it a story we should be reminded of?

RSC and English Shakespeare Company Director Michael Bogdanov has long argued that Shakespeare was such a feminist, “Shakespeare shows women totally abused – like animals – bartered to the highest bidder. There is no question of it, his sympathy is with the women, and his purpose, to expose the cruelty of a society that allows these things to happen”. He believes Shrew is such a story, others powerfully disagree.

Kamarilli is less than convinced by Shrew’s credentials as a feminist work, even going as far as saying, “Katherine is not really much of a shrew…she speaks a paltry 8 per cent of her play’s lines.” She references actress Fiona Shaw’s famous comments – “Supposing we said ‘shrew’ equals ‘noisy one’. Along comes a man to tame the noisy one. And for almost five acts we never hear her speak.” As Danielle King has found, playing ‘the shrew’ means navigating the silence. Kate is quite unlike the more intellectually demonstrative Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Kate’s pain is deeper and her world sadder, sometimes she does not use words to express that pain, sometimes she simply smashes guitars over people’s heads or merely finds the strength to scream “Ha!”.  We have explored several moments where she makes her own symphony of sound, representative of the heaviness of her pain. Sometimes words don’t help and that is true for all of us.

But why does he house Kate’s subjugation within a comedy? Is it just a commedia-based romp, dated and embarrassingly naive in the bright glare of ideological progress? If, in our idolatry of Shakespeare, we are to believe he was not a sexist artist and was doing something more sophisticated in this play than putting women in their place, then why make us laugh along with it? Why not write a hard-hitting drama, as Charles Marowitz and others have done since with their versions of The Shrew – brutalising, raping and physically subduing Kate until she is a broken Stepford wife to ensure that her final submission is purely that of a victim we should pity? When she says she will place her,

“…hand below her husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease…”

- should she hold out that hand to show this room full of men a slit wrist, a document of her horrific pain and turmoil at her captivity, humiliating them in the process? We speculated on such horrors in rehearsal. Or should her final speech just be a game played to win a bet - take the money and run - not meaning a word of it, a nod and wink to the audience? All of these choices exist for the modern acting company trying to ‘tame’ the play, protecting oneself from labels of sexism and misogyny by ‘commenting’ on the ending, rather than playing it as he wrote it. The fact is, he offers us the terrible challenge of a woman who explains her point with great eloquence and means every word of it. And at the end of a very funny comedy, it’s tough to watch.

The play is a satire, a blackly comic story in which our laughter only reinforces the extent to which the suppression of the female voice has become normal, recognisable, even accepted in human culture, certainly then and often now. As Germaine Greer says of The Comedy of Errors, and as can be applied to so many of his comedies, “it wears its profundity lightly” – in other words, Shakespeare tackles profoundly serious themes through comedy, just as he expresses great levity in his tragedies. Even his silliest works explore war, loss, death, exile, displacement, poverty, disease, natural catastrophe – and make us laugh while moving us deeply, but always delivering a bitter pill in the process - in Malvolio’s torture, Caliban’s double slavery and humiliation, Shylock’s conversion, Titania’s taming, Isabella’s forced marriage and silence, Hermoine’s dead child, Constance’s grief dismissed as madness, and in Kate’s submission, to name a few.

As these examples remind us, Shrew bears the bulk of Shakespearean criticism for its misogyny yet we tend to forget the fact that so many of the plays reveal a fundamentally patriarchal norm and mysoginistic worldview that remains the status quo when the plays come to an end. People laugh along and happily accept Titania being drugged and forced into a sexual relationship with an animal by her violently jealous ex-partner Oberon, before being re-drugged and saved by him, brought back to reality, robbed of her adopted child and restored to his bed. We comfortably ignore the truth of it and no-one seeks to ban Dream from our performance canon. Women transgress and speak up and break the rules routinely in Shakespeare but they are generally brought back to the fold by the end, married and becalmed. In Shrew it is made most palpable is all, and the discussion of how and why actually takes place live on stage in front of us, which makes it perhaps the most interesting example, it quite literally provokes discussion of the subject among an audience because the characters discuss it on stage. We just fail to see it in the other plays or will ourselves to ignore it in the happy comedies. When Hamlet's brutality and slut-shaming is made clear in production, it shocks people, displeases them, proving it is hard to accept that the great intellectual hero has a real problem with women. We are offended by Shrew but we cry tears of happiness in The Winter’s Tale when Hermoine gracefully forgives the husband who destroyed her life, murdered her child and convicted her of whoredom for no reason whatsoever.

I am always bemused when the ‘ban the Shrew’ argument is rolled out. While these other stories are cherished and ignored, Shrew names its debate out loud and makes us examine every detail. We can never fully read Shakespeare's personal politics and we can never really know if he was mysoginistic, but he reveals the world as such a place, or responds to it as such a place. Shrew's painful closing sentiments and the vice that grips Kate in Act 4 force us to confront a situation and a series of questions that remain all too prevalent - what freedom do women have to speak without their gender being made the subject of their speech? What economic, civil and marital power do women have in society, in the home, the bed? What entrenched and sometimes very subtle methods do we use to train ‘uncontrollable’ women and maintain the status quo in which they are denied the opportunities and freedoms enjoyed by men in this world?

Kamaralli says, “The shrew…is constructed to alleviate male anxieties through ridicule but, like so many objects of comedy or derision, she is full of power because of her very ability to generate those anxieties. She is a marginalised figure but, like others who hold a similar place (the clown, the lunatic), her exclusion from the centre gives her the power to speak the truth about it. Over the course of his career, Shakespeare used the shrew more and more openly, radically and forcefully as the guardian of justice, the voice of reason and the keeper of a kind of active, positive female virtue far distant in character from the obedient, chaste, silent version. Our attitudes to the wielding of power, verbal or otherwise, by women should have changed since the time these characters were created, but has it?”

A final idea in Shakespeare’s play is that of flight and freedom – specifically the training of a falcon, the fastest creature on earth, an emblem of nature’s magnificence, and the central metaphor for the story. It is a brutal business and when we realise the woman represents the wild bird in need of training, we get to the centre of the plays moral disturbance – that the woman will only reach her potential under the man’s tutelage. There beats the play’s sexist heart. The falconer would starve the bird, watch the bird, not let it sleep, try to look it in its resistant eyes until a trust developed, always tender but ruthlessly committed to the process, before finally releasing it to fly, in the hope that it would return to the arm. It may not, and that’s the moment the falconer fears and cherishes. Kate is the bird, striving for freedom – an aviatrix in this production - an image of self-dependence, with a need for excitement and rush, a death-wish perhaps, a desire for escape at least. While in Petruchio’s language, Shakespeare conjures images of the sea, the indefinable mystery of the ocean, its implacability, its overwhelming force, its tradition of male dominion in storytelling, (a myth that Australia’s young Jessica Watson shattered), an eternal placeless drifter, an image of loneliness, brought up again and again by Shakespeare through the metaphor of being at sea, aboard a ship. At the play’s climax, Petruchio asks Kate to speak, knowing his ‘falcon’ may well fly away from him with a savage rebuke. Ignoring the content of her words for a moment, (only as a technical exercise!) her speech is as balanced, as clear, as soaringly beautiful a piece of poetry as he ever wrote, so easy to say on a verse level, to know when to breathe, to hold and release, to rise and fall – it takes off in flight, it glides, it’s almost effortless and flows like no other speech in the play. Now return to its content and, let’s face it, it makes us feel sick, so difficult for the modern actress to say, so hard for us to hear. A beautiful noise that hurts to listen to – perhaps like Wagner – ‘much better than it sounds’.

It’s a remarkable juxtaposition for a playwright to put on the stage. We feel carried and dropped at the same time. How are we supposed to react? However you like.

 

Marriage – the play’s sustaining ritual

In the treatment of women’s lives as drama in Shakespeare’s work, there are some clear patterns…

The sexual transition point between virgin girl and adult woman will form the basis of dozens of his plays and characters…then madness, or grief dismissed as madness, along with distrust of their sexuality and horrific death will often characterize their tragic journeys…and their typical endgame, in comedies particularly…is marriage. Sometimes romantic, and often, in the histories and final romances at least, as a means to colonise their wombs for political gain.

400 years of searing debate has surrounded Petruchio and Kate’s marriage. One fundamental judgment is the oft-repeated phrase that it accurately and unimaginatively reflects the Elizabethan view of marriage and the ‘woman’s place’ in the family. In other words, unlike his other works, it’s just a play of its time.

Interestingly, traditional views of marriage and the commercial management of arranged marriages were already meeting resistance by the 1590s as the great plagues of the period changed the nature and power of the servant class, spawned an aspirational merchant class, and an enlightened thirst for romantic poetry, drama and art increasingly, and surprisingly, revered ‘love’ as a key marital virtue. Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice are also ‘plays of their time’ but handle marriage very differently with a clear rebellion from the major characters against the tradition of arranged marriages or unions of political economy toward an emphasis on the sanctity of ‘love’ as the central ingredient in marital devotion. If he could be so forward thinking in those plays, why so backward thinking in this one?  

There is even evidence that in 1594 the play fostered a controversial response, as it does today. It spawned a rebuking sequel from John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor in the King’s Men, who wrote “The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed”. In this popular play, his new wife successfully ‘tames’ Petruchio, suggesting there was a market for an audience who wanted to see the woman ‘win’ and the man get his due.  During Kate’s final speech, there are even women on stage with her who reject and disagree with her sentiments.

The traditional view that the play’s first London audience would simply have sat back in placid agreement with her words is fanciful for the simple reason that such an ending has no drama or climax of any kind. Pamela Allen Brown believes the play would never have received a unified response from audiences, from day one. The play is calculated to be divisive according to Brown, and Kate at the climax, is “a performing object fashioned to be deliberately, confidently offensive”.

Our first mutual agreement in tackling the dangerous and unquestionably sexist sentiments in this play was that it becomes all the more sexist to iron out or trivialise its uncomfortable ideas by trying to conceal and excuse them. Or make Petruchio a drunken, belligerent Punch-and-Judy show clown chomping cigars and throwing women around – too silly and far-fetched to be believed in.

It is a play that provokes difficult questions. How unsettling a story does it become for us if Petruchio is not able to be dismissed as a drunken lout, but is instead what Shakespeare makes him? - a highly intelligent, perceptive, ruthless adherent to a philosophy that attacks vanity and hypocrisy at every turn, separating him sharply from the other men of Padua, men he has no time or respect for, and is guided by principles that he believes, wrongly or rightly, are “kindnesses” to Kate. He saves his most bitter arrows for the hypocrisy of religion, making a mockery of the whole tradition and official contract of a marriage before God – dressing with complete disrespect for the institution as an outward metaphor for Kate’s lack of emotional and psychological preparedness for marriage – “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes” - punching the priest in the face, throwing the wine about the church and traducing the reception to a tirade about his new property:

“…she is my goods, my chattels, my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, ass, my anything, and here she stands, touch her whoever dare…”.

Petruchio is here quoting the testament’s official line on the husband’s ownership of his bride, hurling the bible in the faces of his Paduan hosts – men that handed this special woman to a complete stranger simply to get rid of her, even when he did everything he could to ruin the wedding, to test their resolve, to see how far they might be willing to debase themselves, yet they still proceeded with the sham, putting their own self-interest ahead of Kate’s safety and happiness. Get her married and get her out, is the idea. Now at the reception dinner, when he tells them they are leaving without touching a drop of Paduan generosity or a morsel of their feast, they beg him to go through with the empty ritual. He will not. He believes, and states quite literally, that he is “rescuing” Kate from this place, from these people. Calling them out for their own hypocrisy - “Draw good Grumio, we are beset with thieves, rescue thy mistress if thou be a man. Fear not sweet Kate, they shall not touch thee, I’ll buckler thee against a million”, he bellows, carrying her out of town. His distaste for hypocrisy reaches its searing height when Kate asks him, “Now, if you love me, stay”. With his response - “Grumio, my horse” - he is not pretending there is a love in this equation yet - how can there be after one brief interview? Love may or may not come later but these two lonely misfits are hitting the road together and, as he makes abundantly clear, in his typically brusque and beguilingly honest manner, her wealthy dowry was always the initial burden of his “wooing dance” – “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua, if wealthy, then happily in Padua”.

Yet nor is this to say Petruchio is the hero. Anna Kamaralli hits the point perfectly again, “Shakespeare wrote no fewer than six other plays in which an unworthy man is forgiven by a woman who is much better than he deserves, for the sake of love and community stability. This still puts women in the confining role of the good redemptive force, present in a long string of stories stretching from the Odyssey to Knocked Up, but it does give us an answer to the many people who persist in claiming that Petruchio is a hero. He is not, he’s just lucky.”

Perhaps the toughest question is - can we step outside the long shadow cast by the play’s misogyny and see anything else worth learning from it?

Our actors Danielle King (Katharina), and James Lugton (Petruchio) have made some remarkable observations in tackling this challenging play. Dani said during a rehearsal of the plays darkest section (the ‘taming’ at Petruchio’s house and on the road back to Padua) that she felt Petruchio’s fundamental effect is to reawaken Kate’s long lost sense of play. That she is essentially being asked to play games, to say “thank you”, to marvel at people who lose their temper, to consider whether beautiful clothes and possessions really are the secret to happiness, to let go her pride and misname the moon and the sun for the fun of it – to not take life and its heavy weight too seriously. Those games and their effects are then to be extrapolated into the seriousness of real life.  “How long since Kate has smiled”, she asked at one stage.

James spoke of a wedding he attended where the minister observed, very directly, to the congregation, that he was not the least bit interested in the romance of the wedding, or whether the couple loved each other at that moment or indeed how much, he was interested only in what they would ‘do’ for each other in the future. What they would do for the love of each other was the point. What commitment or sacrifice would they make to remain together? In other words, he was interested in a marriage, not a wedding. Of course, one has to wonder how much the sacrifice will run in both directions in Petruchio’s case, but again, that is a question for the audience. In her speech, Kate sets his responsibilities out too.

And Danielle has dared to take as honest an approach to the play’s climax as Shakespeare sets her, with no trick to Kate’s words – no twist in them, no nudges or winks – no distraction from their bare-faced simplicity as a profound declaration of sacrifice and duty from one person to another – an act of love. One that both the onstage audience and the theatre audience can make their own sense of.

And yet, one that carries the inevitable and dark question - does she say it because she has been psychologically tortured and denied sleep and food for two days and realizes she cannot win? Worse still, has she simply become enamoured of her beau through fear and subjection – the Stockholm Syndrome? Or does she perceive that her awful, yet brief experience with Petruchio, has carried with it ideals and lessons that outweigh the ordeal itself? Or is that to give Petruchio far too much credit for an appalling betrayal of her liberty, even if he does believe his methods are “kindnesses". Like every character in Shakespeare, she has as many dimensions as any real human being. And makes available as many perspectives as there are individuals in any given audience, such is Shakespeare’s career-long desire, to ask more questions than he answers.



The first folio - an unfinished play…

What is often forgotten because we almost never see it in the theatre, is that Shrew is – apparently – an unfinished play. We are left with a somewhat incomplete satire. The actual story of Petruchio’s taming of Kate is not the ‘real’ story, it is a hurriedly purchased play, a “kind of history”, performed by a group of travelling players who are being used by a wealthy lord to play a practical joke on a drunken beggar he found asleep in the street. It is a cruel game. The drunk, Christopher Sly, the central figure of the ‘real’ story, has a shrewish wife at home and as part of his gulling, watches a comedy in which he learns how to ‘tame’ outspoken and aggressive women. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to every academic endeavour, the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (the only source for Shrew) contains the beginning of the Sly plot, called The Induction, but not the ending. It disappears from the story, never to return. It is the only such piece of completely failed dramaturgy in the entire canon of his works and the reason is simply lost to us.

Another play, with only the slightest differentiation in title, may hold the answer. The Taming of A Shrew, was also playing in the 1590s and is not lost to us. Written by ‘anonymous’, it appears to be a pirated copy of Shakespeare’s play, most likely made by the actor who played the servant Grumio in the original – almost all of Grumio’s text in A Shrew is perfectly remembered from The Shrew, while all other dialogue is poorly bastardised and misremembered. We have the same Induction about the drunken tinker but, intriguingly, this time we have it’s ending, and 4 other short scenes of interruption to the play-within-a-play. It closes with an interesting scene, where Sly wakes up from his ‘dream’, having lost his false lordship, but thinking he now has the answer to taming a strong woman:

SLY         Sim, gis some more wine: What? All the players gone; am not I a Lord?
TAPSTER      A Lord with a murrin; come art thou drunken still?
SLY        Who’s this? Tapster! Oh Lord, sirrah, I have had the bravest dream tonight that ‘ere thou heardest in all thy life.
TAPSTER    Ay marry, but you had best get you home
        For your wife will course you for dreaming here tonight
SLY        Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew,
        I dreamt upon it all this night til now,
        And thou hast wak’t me out of the best dream
        That ever I had in all my life. But I’ll to my
        Wife presently and tame her too
        An if she anger me.
TAPSTER    Think you?
        Now tarry Sly for I’ll go home with thee,
        And hear the rest that thou has dreamt tonight!

We have no idea if this is reflective of Shakespeare’s original ending in The Shrew, but it is the closest we have, and it clearly portrays the Petruchio/Kate story as the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a drunken dreamer who wakes to the foolish hope that there is any reality in which a man can tame a spirited woman. One can feel the comeuppance Sly will get when he tries his new learning out on his wife, an image his friend the Tapster cannot wait to observe. The framing device distances us from the main action and re-contextualises Kate’s submission into a more ambiguous reality – even a practical joke. They are two Pygmalion stories – a drunken fool and a violent woman who are transformed into a noble lord, and a calm and content wife – and in both cases, we are left to see that no such transformation is actually taking place, except in the ‘dream’.

Unfortunately, we rarely perform the induction because the text is poor and unfinished, and for those reasons we have not used it in this production either. But we also rarely read critics who bring it to bear on the Petruchio/Kate story, even though it clearly changes its meaning significantly, providing a deeper understanding of what Shakespeare may have been doing in this controversial play.
 
 

Context - The Shrew Ballad

Shocking brutality defines the tradition from which Shakespeare drew this story – and it is interesting how he veers away from the horror of his source material.

The ‘shrew ballad’ was one of the most popular genres of oral storytelling and theatrical comedy of the period. Around 418 such shrew ballads are known to us today. They can clearly be demonstrated to have had a precise influence on Shakespeare’s work on Shrew. Below is one song, encountered in countless forms across Scotland:
 
‘Now take a cup in either hand
And bash her up and down, man
And she’ll be an ‘o the best wives
That ever took the town, man’
 
And another verse
 
Jammies turned her round about
He’s done a manly feat
‘Get up, get up, ye dirty slut
And ge me to my meat’

They are sadistically violent stories, unimaginably hideous jingles.
The below tells the plot of a play in print in the 1580’s in England, originally printed as a Shrew ballad in around 1575, in several versions. It is a chief source for Shakespeare’s play as the plot makes clear:

 “The curst and shrewd wife with the Morrell skin”
A man is married to a shrewish wife, who has two daughters, the elder shrewish like her mother, the younger meek and gentle and her father’s favourite. The younger daughter has many suitors, she marries one of them, and they fade from the story. The elder has one suitor, the father tries to dissuade him but he marries her. The wedding is normal and uneventful, and is followed by a fine feast. The marriage night is described at length. She strikes him often in anger, berates him and refuses him food. He orders his old horse to be killed and flayed, and the hide salted. He forces his railing wife into a cellar, beats her mercilessly with birch rods until she bleeds and faints, then fastens her naked body in the salted hide. The pain revives her and he threatens to keep her inside the hide for the rest of her life, to which her “moode began to sinke” and at her release she becomes meek and obedient. The husband gives a feast to demonstrate his new wife’s patience in front of her father and mother. The wife serves them all humbly and quickly but the mother remonstrates with her in the kitchen, but she is told that were she wrapped in Morrell’s skin, she would be equally submissive and obedient.

So…coming into contact with this story, what did Shakespeare do? He follows its plot but removes all physical violence from the tale, the only known shrew story of the period that does not involve any form of beating from the man toward the woman. Kate strikes Petruchio once and he warns her that he will strike back if she does it again, and they never again offer any physical violence toward each other, instead he abuses others in her sight as an example to her of her own behaviour. He consciously writes a psychological play, not a physical one, despite the modern tradition of playing it like a wrestling match.

Does young Shakespeare, at an age somewhere between 26 to 29 (when he wrote Shrew), naively sit down and write a Shrew tale drawn directly from these awful pages and images, thinking he is morally superior simply because this husband never lays a hand on her. If so, he still faces the charge of using deeply abusive psychological methods - sleep deprivation and denying access to food – for a period of around 24 hours. Does that seem like progressive thinking when set against his own context, or is that still repulsively unlike the man who gave such dignity and power to Rosalind and Cleopatra?

Or, does he, through the Induction that frames the ‘play’, along with the hard work he puts into characterizing the revolting nature of the other men in this grubby Paduan marketplace, offer a deliberate and challenging portrait of the ugliness of a gender system founded in religious archaisms, ridiculing the marital customs, prejudices and hypocrisy of his own age. One where the failure and submission of the underdog is off-set by the satirising of the indolent men in the repulsive environment she lives in and told within a framing device that is meant to distance us from the action or provide a wish-fulfillment scenario to the men in the audience who think they could ever tame a shrew?

Either way, the ‘shrew ballad’ genre will remain a chief source for him for the rest of his career. Interestingly, from the 418 known stories, some basic trends are very revealing and throw Shrew’s plot into context with another revered Shakespeare play, but strangely one that does not suffer any of the loathing and controversy Shrew does, despite it’s outspoken and powerful women dying awful deaths for their pains.

The shrew ballad plot trends tended to be:

…three daughters, the youngest being the shrew, the story is of her taming, made a bride by force and tested for her obedience, with the men often wagering on who has the best wife. In that basic structure we find the exact impression of King Lear, with the test or gamble instead being the inciting event of the play rather than the climax – who loves daddy most?  Of course in Shrew, there is one less daughter, and the eldest is the problem child, however, what becomes clear as Kate transforms to her serene ending is that Bianca’s self certainty and ‘shrewishness’ is the play’s final image of female recalcitrance. She journeys from saint to shrew in a clever twist and we see that Lucentio will be the silent partner in that marriage.


The critical war of opinion…

Australia’s most revered Shakespeare academic, Penny Gay, a brilliant and inspiring educator doesn’t hold back on Shrew, asking  – “would Shrew still be in the dramatic repertoire if it did not have the magic name Shakespeare attached to it?” Adding - “The play enacts the defeat of the threat of a woman’s revolt”, and “an audience gets to reinforce their misogyny at the same time as feeling good”.

Dorothea Kehler wrote, “While modern interpreters may see Shrew as a high-spirited comedy about role-playing and game-playing, they suppress the knowledge that men, not only on stage, but off, wrote the play and assigned the roles, chose the game and made the rules.”

Stevie Davies warns us off defending Shakespeare’s intentions. She writes that response to The Shrew, "is dominated by feelings of unease and embarrassment, accompanied by the desire to prove that Shakespeare cannot have meant what he seems to be saying; and that therefore he cannot really be saying it."

George Bernard Shaw called it “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility”.

John C. Bean who argues that, “we can perhaps see that Kate is tamed not in the automatic manner of behavioral psychology but in the spontaneous manner of the later romantic comedies where characters lose themselves in chaos and emerge, as if from a dream, liberated into the bonds of love.” For Bean, the story offers “the relationship of lovers who face together the problem of reconciling liberty and commitment in marriage.” A fairly long bow to draw.

Coppelia Kahn sees an irony from Shakespeare due in part to the clearly ugly portrait painted of the men in the play, who see the women as commodities, most shockingly her merchant father, Baptista: “Baptista is determined not to marry the sought-after Bianca until he gets an offer for the unpopular Kate, not for the sake of conforming to the hierarchy of age as his opening words imply, but out of a merchant’s desire to sell all the goods in his warehouse.”

Kahn argues that Petruchio is Kate’s savior, the wise man who guides her to a better and truer self, almost “a clever doctor following homeopathic medicine”. But, she says, those arguments “miss the greatest irony of the play. Unlike other misogynistic shrew literature, this play satirizes not woman herself in the person of the shrew, but male attitudes toward women.”

Connall Morrison takes up this point, believing it a “very obvious satire on male behaviour and a cautionary tale. This is Shakespeare investigating misogyny, exploring it, animating it and obviously damning it because none of the men come out smelling of roses."

Elizabeth Kantor takes an holistically supportive approach. Shrew is “Shakespeare's celebration of the limits that define us – of our natures as men and women – and it upsets only those folks who find human nature itself upsetting.”

Famously, Germaine Greer, to everyone’s surprise, said,  “The Taming Of The Shrew is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals. Shakespeare contrasts the wooing and marriages of Kate and Bianca. Bianca is younger and prettier and she plays the courtship game to land the more highly prized suitor but after marriage Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman who has no objection to humiliating him in public. Kate, on the other hand, has taken herself off the market by becoming an unmanageable scold but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Petruchio is both gentle and strong and Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written”. These words enflamed almost as much debate as the play itself.

Ruth Nevo agrees that, “criticism has generally misconstrued the issue of the play to be women’s rights, when what the audience delightfully responds to are sexual rites”.








 

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Reviews

"Revamped 'Shrew' still funniest by a mile."
"An outrageously well-staged play, this production boasts something very different, even for diehard Shakespeare or Heath Ledger fans who’ve seen this story told many times before."
"If the most significant trait of live performance is the very liveness of its reality, then The Taming Of The Shrew is a triumph of energy and impulse."
"A four hundred year old satirical farce, there's much ado in this The Taming of the Shrew. Well worth making the shrewd move in claiming a pew."
"CLEVER doesn’t come close enough. Sport For Jove’s Taming Of The Shrew, now showing at the Seymour Centre, is simply inspired."
"...deliver a wonderful, thoughtful and thought-provoking show."
"This production is a big, bold, creative, wondrous marvel."

Cast & Crew

Cast

Traveller / Haberdasher / Ensemble
Vincentia / Ensemble
Gremio / Petruchio's Servant Crew
Lucentio / Petruchio's Servant Crew
The Priest / Petruchio's Servant Crew / Ensemble
Katharina Minola
The Tailors / Petruchio's Servant Crew / Ensemble
Biondello / Petruchio's Servant Crew
Petruchio
Bianca Minola
Baptista Minola / Petruchio's Servant Crew
Hortensio

Crew

Designer
Stage Manager
Director
Filmmaker
Assistant Stage Manager
Assistant Stage Manager
Tech Manager
Assistant Director
Fight Choreography
Lighting Designer
Sound Designer

Venues / FAQ’s

York Theatre, Seymour Centre

The York Theatre is the largest theatre in the Seymour and has a seating capacity of 788 in a semi-circular, amphitheatre configuration, featuring a thrust stage.

Riverside Theatre, Riverside Theatre Parramatta

This is a traditional proscenium arch, 761 seat theatre venue with stalls, circle and gallery levels. The architectural design is based on the common European Opera House concept to provide a very warm, intimate and live performance space.