The Taming of the Shrew (2012)
Directed by Damien Ryan
Written by William Shakespeare
January 8, 2012 to January 20, 2012
400 years of searing debate has surrounded this famous play, which many consider a farce, others a serious political diatribe on cruelty in its many forms. One fundamental misjudgment is the oft-repeated phrase that it accurately reflects the Elizabethan view of marriage and the ‘woman’s place’ in the family.vIn other words, it’s just a play of its time – easily dismissed as we squirm embarrassingly at the great playwright’s lack of forward thinking. In many ways, that is a simplistic stance and may not have been the play’s point.
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 deified ‘love’ as a key marital virtue. Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It and Merchant of Venice are also ‘plays of their time’ but handle marriage very differently with a clear 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 brought a controversial response, as it does today. It eventually 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”, telling the story of Petruchio’s remarriage after Kate’s death. 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.
This throws a further enigma at the mystery of what Shakespeare wanted his audience to experience, or indeed what he himself believed or wanted us to believe. As with all of his work, it is almost impossible to discern his personal opinions or politics from the rhetorical skill and balance of his characters’ words. What exactly is he saying to us in Shrew? Kate displays overwhelming feminine submission and loss of status at the end, yet has a remarkable voice in earlier moments, and the men are a minefield of prejudices and uglinesses that don’t add up to an entirely glowing image of man’s place near the top of the chain of being.
Then when one considers that the play is actually a ‘play-within-a-play’, it takes on another potential meaning, as the wish fulfillment fantasy of a man who lacks all control over himself or his fraught relationship. The full text is framed by an Induction (not presented in this production) where an unconscious drunk, Christopher Sly, is dressed as a lord and presented with a performance of The Taming of the Shrew about another unlikely transformation – an overbearing violent woman turned into a sweet subjugated wife. In an anonymous play of the period (The Taming of a Shrew), Sly attempts to go home and ‘tame’ his wife in keeping with the lessons in the play he has watched but he is summarily rejected and beaten up for it. A further theatrical twist is applied when one considers that ‘Kate’ in that ‘play-within-a-play’ was really a boy, representing a submissive woman for an on-stage auditor who is drunk, feverish and learns that such remarkable transformations don’t necessarily happen in the real world.
Shakespeare’s play also comes amid the context of a whole genre of ‘shrew’ plays, novellas and a rich folkloric oral tradition of shrew stories. In almost all of these the woman is beaten and physically abused into submission. In A Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, (considered a plot source for Shakespeare’s play) the shrew is beaten with birch rods until she bleeds, and wrapped in the flesh of a plough horse which was killed specially for the occasion. Shakespeare’s is the only ‘shrew’ story of the period that features no violence toward the women. Petruchio warns Kate once of physical repudiation in response to her assault on him but never touches her. In this sense, Shakespeare is well ahead of his own time. So again, the play’s intention is as mysterious and ambiguous as the racial and sexual politics in The Merchant of Venice or Troilus and Cressida respectively.
Our first mutual agreement in tackling this dangerous and unquestionably sexist play in rehearsal was that it becomes all the more sexist to iron out or trivialise its uncomfortable ideas by trying to conceal and excuse them. Or bury them in cartoonish romp. 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. Or worse still, trying to pretend that Kate’s final words are dishonest or said with a nudge and a wink to the audience or are simply an attempt to win a bet.
It is a play that provokes questions and we believe audiences are clever enough beasts to comprehend and respond as individuals to what the play makes them feel, for better or worse. Those questions for us are:
How unsettling a story does it become for us if Petruchio is intelligent, perceptive, ruthlessly adherent to a philosophy that attacks vanity and hypocrisy at every turn, and is guided by principles that he believes, wrongly or rightly, are “kindnesses” to Kate.
What if Kate’s final speech is the heartfelt response of this woman in this situation to the question of how she perceives her marriage and her role in a partnership? What if there is no trick to Kate’s words – no twist in them – no distraction from their bare-faced simplicity as a profound declaration of sacrifice and duty from one person to another – an act of love.
And yet, does she say it because she has been ‘tortured’ and denied sleep and food for 2 days and realizes she cannot win? Worse still, has she simply become enamoured of her beau through fear and subjection? Or does she perceive that her awful, yet brief experience with Petruchio, has carried with it ideals and lessons that outweigh the ordeal itself?
Is Kate a poster girl of feminine strength and independence who is crushed by the patriarchal belt of rule that suppresses her? Or is Kate an unworthy poster girl for anything - a wealthy, spoilt young woman, who has never wanted for anything and turns to violence to get what she wants, criminally assaulting the men and women around her? Is she actually a very unhappy person who, regardless of her gender, needs help and a firm lesson in decency and humanity by someone willing to hold a mirror up to her behaviour, denying her comforts only because she lacks the grace to know what ‘thank you’ means?
Is Petruchio the same firebrand Kate is, wild and dangerous, or is he actually, and ironically, behaving “out of character” for most of the play in order to reflect Kate back to herself?
Either way, perhaps the important question is - can we step outside the long shadow cast by the play’s misogyny and see anything else worth learning from it? Like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, this is a very serious play. It is a unique and incredibly psychologically detailed 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.
Our setting is the rarefied atmosphere of a film ‘city’ (an early MGM or Universal Studios world), in an era when women’s politics and independence were surging into an all-too-brief prominence. The ‘unreality’ of film and the 20th/21st Century cult of celebrity captures for me the Padua of Shakespeare’s play - the vanity, narcissism and mercantile superficiality of a culture bred on artificial ideas of romance, generosity, family and love, where people and what they represent are traded for profit and prominence. A world in which Kate really does have something to be ‘shrewish’ about should anyone care to listen.
Our actors Danielle King (Kate) 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) that she felt Petruchio’s fundamental effect is to reawaken Kate’s long lost sense of joy and play. That she is essentially being asked to play games, to say “thank you”, to marvel at people who lose their temper, 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”, Dani 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 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. In this play, Petruchio is not willing to take seriously a wedding in which the family and community have no respect or love for the bride they are handing over to a man they do not know and have every reason not to trust. He dresses outrageously as a visual metaphor for both the emotional unpreparedness of Kate for such an adult commitment, and for the hypocrisy and lack of integrity of the entire day’s ceremony. He cries out at the end of the wedding that he needs to “rescue his mistress” from these people and it is perhaps his most accurate remark.
Interestingly, I have dealt heavily in the education sector with troubled young people whose lives are characterized by criticism and negativity as Kate’s is. The only path back to the light is praise and acknowledgement of what is good in them, letting go by the mistakes they make for a period of time, focusing only on their strengths until they begin to esteem themselves as worthy of such praise. This would appear to be Petruchio’s method, which, as the play makes clear, is to never say a bad word to Kate or about Kate.
A central idea in Shakespeare’s play, and in our approach to Kate in this production, is of flight and freedom – specifically for Shakespeare, the training of a falcon, the fastest creature on earth, an emblem of nature’s magnificence, yet only able to reach its full capacity as a bird of prey through training and taming. 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. Its an offensive and fundamentally Elizabethan idea and very clearly defines this play’s action. At the play’s climax, Petruchio asks Kate to speak, knowing she 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 screams of 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’.
What a remarkable equation 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.
Critics have made powerful points on both sides:
Dorothea Kehler wrote, “While modern interpreters may see Shrew as a high-spirited comedy about role-playing of 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 from doing what I have done above, which is to defend Shakespeare’s intentions somewhat. 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's called It “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility”.
Others see deeper artistry in Shrew, including 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.”
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 can see the possibility 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 believes 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, wrote ‘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”
(No director's note available for this production)
Petruchio | James Lugton
Grumio | Michael Cullen
Katharina Minola | Danielle King
Bianca Minola | Lizzie Schebesta
Baptista Minola | Chritopher Tomkinson
Vincentia | Amy Mathews
Lucentio | Christopher Stalley
Tania | Ellie Winestock
(The Sydney Hills Shakespeare Festival)
Tania | Bella Macdiarmid
(The Leura Shakespeare Festival)
Biondello | Edmund Lembke-Hogan
Gremio | Barry French
Hortensio | Terry Karabelas
The Widow | Amanda Stephens-Lee
The Priest | Eric Beecroft
Musician Curtis | Eric Beecroft
The Tailors | Matt Edgerton, Amy Mathews
The Traveller | Amanda Stephens-Lee
Musicians | Eric Beecroft, Damien Strouthos
Petruchio's Servant Crew | Eric Beecroft, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Christopher Stalley, Christopher Tomkinson, Matt Edgerton, Barry French
Anna Gardiner | Costume Designer
Anne-Maree Magi | Front of House Manager
Barry French | Set Construction
Christopher Stalley | Design Co-ordinator
Damien Ryan | Director
David Stalley | Videography
Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator
Jess Martin | Stage Manager
Kelly Ukena | Production Manager
Kyle Rowling | Fight Director
Lizzie Schebesta | Dance Choreography
Nick Catran | Properties Construction
Oliver Burton | Business Manager
Sarah Grimaldi | Assistant Costume Construction
Toby Knyvett | Lighting Designer
Tom Allum | Sound Designer