Updating Shakespeare – Part 1: Modern perspectives on staging ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

How does a director present ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ to a post-feminist audience?


A romantic romp that has always been a favourite with audiences, The Taming of the Shrew anticipates many of the tropes of the modern romantic comedy. Despite its popularity, however, it has always been seen as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays for its apparent misogyny. To a modern audience, Petruchio’s method of taming Katherina, by depriving her of food and sleep, might not involve physical beating, but it is clearly psychological abuse. Kate’s final speech, in which she exhorts women to respect and obey their husbands because they are totally dependent on them, seems to portray women as mere slaves to men’s needs and desires. In fact, the play’s gender politics caused unease even in its own time, so much so that Shakespeare’s successor, John Fletcher, wrote a sequel, The Tamer Tamed in which Petruchio is tamed by his second wife (after driving poor Kate to an early grave.)

Most modern productions set the play in its original time and place, Renaissance Italy, to indicate that the gender relations of the play are of that time, and not applicable to the modern age. In order to counteract the play’s seeming misogyny, they play up the comedy to the highest degree, and make Kate as strong a character as Petruchio, if not stronger.

Petruchio woos Kate
Petruchio woos Kate (Shakespeare Video Society)

In his feature film (Columbia Pictures, 1967) Franco Zefferelli enters wholly into the comic spirit of the text, producing a romp of a romantic comedy, making it a true battle of wills and wits between a rough, brutal male and a sensitive if feisty female. (Available on YouTube Movies) In his studio production (Shakespeare Video Society, 1982) John Allison embraces the play’s physicality, absurdity and sexiness. The comedy is highly stylized, with lashings of sexual innuendo and slapstick, cartoon violence. (Available on Kanopy) In his stage production (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2012) Toby Frow milks the play for every laugh he can get, even including a few lewd musical numbers. (Available on Globe Player) And for the Stratford Festival (2016), Chris Abraham directs the play with a light touch, and a great deal of slapstick and bawdy humour. (Available on Stratfest@Home)

Other directors, however, choose to eschew the conventional staging and take a different approach, with varying degrees of success.

In his production for the BBC Shakespeare Collection (1980), Jonathan Miller made a deliberate choice to ‘reject the simple “romp” approach’ and instead places the play within the context of the time’s Puritan family values. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a production which is not only unfunny, but one that disturbingly emphasises and even exaggerates the misogyny of the text. Petruchio comes across as coldly cruel, selfish and manipulative, and Katherina’s total capitulation at the end makes for uncomfortable viewing. (Available on Broadway HD)

In his production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (2019), Justin Audibert sets the play in an Elizabethan age re-imagined as a matriarchy. He attempts to tackle the play’s apparent misogyny by reversing the genders so that the principal male characters become women and the female characters become men. In all other respects the production is broadly conventional. Despite the gender reversals, the characters still behave as their originals do. Petruchia is still boorish and Katherine (yes, despite being male, the character’s name doesn’t change) is still rebellious. Nor is the matriarchal theme carried through to its logical conclusion in the production design. While the male costumes are a little more feminine than usual, despite being in charge, the women are still trapped in corsets and encumbered by heavy skirts. While this is an interesting exercise for the actors in playing roles that would not normally be accessible to them, for the audience, in the end, it does not add much to our understanding of the play. (Available on Marquee TV)

Kate gives as good as she gets
Kate gives as good as she gets (American Conservatory Theatre)

William Ball and Kirk Browning’s production for the American Conservatory Theatre (1976) is probably the funniest production of The Taming of the Shrew you will ever see. In the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, it gives us the kind of knockabout, physical, bawdy and highly stylised comic performances the original Elizabethan audience would have enjoyed. (For more see The Taming of the Shrew and Commedia dell’Arte). At the same time, it takes a feminist approach which makes it appealing to a modern audience. Young, strong and agile, Petruchio is all masculine bravado. He and Katherina are strongly attracted at first sight, but stubborn pride keeps them apart. Katherina gives as good as she gets and those occasions in which she agrees with Petruchio are performed with heavy irony so that, rather than submitting to him, she is showing him how idiotically he is behaving. Kate gives her final speech with great sincerity, but, despite her seeming submission to an astonished Petruchio, over his shoulder, she gives the audience a big wink. (Available on Shakespeare on YouTube)

Each of Shakespeare’s plays presents its own challenges when presenting it to a modern audience. For The Taming of the Shrew, there are two main issues. The first is to render the gender politics in a way that would be both acceptable to a modern audience but still keeps faith with the text. The second is to understand what drives the two main characters.

A director might start by trying to discern what Shakespeare’s intentions were when writing The Taming of the Shrew. The title itself is Shakespeare’s most loaded. Technically, a shrew is a small insectivorous nocturnal mammal resembling a mouse, with a long, pointed snout and tiny eyes. Metaphorically a ‘shrew’ is a bad-tempered woman – the term is never applied to men – and who would tame a bad-tempered woman other than a man? Therefore, the title of this play not only tells us immediately what it is about – conflict between men and women – but also about the social assumptions that inform it – that a woman is a creature of instinct rather than intellect and that she must be made subject to her husband.

Stories of a husband trying to handle a shrewish wife were very popular in most cultures in Shakespeare’s time. However, in the folk tradition, the husband usually resorts to beating or terrifying his wife into submission. Petruchio’s psychological method is an innovation Shakespeare seems to have brought to the story. Meanwhile, Kate gives as good as she gets, and even when, at the end of the play, she declares her submission to her husband, she displays an intellectual independence which makes it clear she has made her own choice. This would suggest that Shakespeare does not intend the play to derive its comedy from the brutal subjugation of a woman to a man, as a folk tale would, but rather from the energetic interplay of two strong personalities.

The director’s next consideration would be to understand Kate and what motivates her. She might begin by asking who was considered a ‘shrew’ in Shakespeare’s time? Did the term apply only to women with uncontrollable tempers, or could it be applied to women who stood up for themselves and refused to be passively controlled by men? What kind of shrew is Kate? Or, in other words, how angry is she and what makes her so angry?

Kate can be portrayed in a range of registers. She could be a fury seething with inexplicable anger, a spoilt brat who falls into temper tantrums, a virago who lashes out with her fists at anyone who crosses her. Alternatively, she could be a strong-minded woman who acts out her disdain for the fools who surround her, or a sensitive woman, hurt and angry at being overlooked in favour of her younger sister.

Perhaps the clue to the root cause of Kate’s anger, and to her family’s dynamics, comes in a short scene that is rarely given much attention – the argument between Kate and her sister Bianca which opens Act II. The encounter is usually played as a vicious Kate going after her poor defenceless younger sister who cringes before her fury. However, a close reading of the text reveals a Bianca who is no innocent, but capable of goading Kate into making a scene in which she can portray herself as the victim to their father who immediately takes her side and chastises Kate. In such a family, Kate’s anger and frustration would be understandable.

Petruchio courting Kate
Petruchio woos Kate (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Petruchio is a more complex character than Kate and harder to pin down. On the one hand his treatment of Kate is obviously psychological abuse, but at the same time, in an age when a man was free take to his wife with a stick (as long as it was no thicker than his thumb), he can seem almost benign. Perhaps reflecting Shakespeare’s inexperience in this early play, the text gives us no real insight into Petruchio or his motivations. While this may have done well enough for the folktale from which the play springs, it gives actors and directors little to work with.

Petruchio has been portrayed as a self-satisfied adventurer who merely wants to mould Katherina to his will, a sexually potent brute with a hidden soft side, or an unstable would-be lover who swings between rational and insane. However, any portrayal of Petruchio still leaves a swathe of perplexing questions. Is he really so crazy or is it all put on? Why does he treat Katherina as he does? Is it sheer egotism that makes him want to win the battle with her? Is it that once he has acquired her wealth, he is determined to mould her into the wife that would be most pleasing and convenient to himself? Is it because he loves her and wants them to have a happy life together?

Apart from her wealth, we have only a few lines that give us any insight into what Petruchio wants in a wife, yet he seems to want it both ways – both love and supremacy. In the final scene, when Katherina has obeyed his command to go and fetch the other wives, he declares that he can now look forward to:

…peace…and love and quiet life,
And awful rule and right supremacy;
And, to be short, what not, that’s sweet and happy?

However, note the ambiguity in those lines. He does not say who should exercise ‘awful rule and right supremacy’. Perhaps in the end he is conceding to Kate, having recognised that she is the stronger and the smarter of the two. It may well be that Petruchio’s machismo is just a cover for his feelings of inferiority towards her.

Elizabeth Taylor as Kate
Elizabeth Taylor gives Kate’s final speech (Franco Zefferelli)

As for the play’s gender politics, the key lies in Kate’s final speech. The common reading of the speech is as a sermon in which Kate preaches that a woman can only be happy if she totally submits to her husband. Not only is this reading jarring to a modern audience, the speech is incongruous in many ways and does not seem intrinsic to the play. It is long, static and serious where the play has been fast-moving and comic, and it contradicts what we know of the characters. Can Katherina really be serious when she tells her fellows that a wife should respect her husband because …

… for thy maintenance [he] commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land…

…when all three of their husbands will be living off the money their wives bring to the marriage?

I suspect that the original ending was more along the lines of Kate getting her own back on her husband by taking to him with a stick and embarrassing him in front of the other men, but Shakespeare may have been forced to change it in response to public opinion. The extreme piety of Kate’s final speech may have been a satirical response to such censorship and is meant to be ironic.

Kate’s speech can be performed in many ways. It can be read literally and sincerely as a total submission to her husband’s will, as a declaration of love or as an offer to make a go of the marriage. Alternatively, it can be followed by a big wink to the audience. However, while the common reading of the text is that Kate has had an epiphany and has come to the decision to submit to her husband, a close reading of the text can reveal an alternative interpretation.

The text does not reveal what transpires between Kate and Grumio when he is sent off-stage to summon her. In fact, there is ample time for him to tell her about the bet and it is plausible that she comes on stage knowing what is going on and what is at stake. This allows for another interpretation of the final scene: that she and Petruchio have come to an understanding and are collaborating in winning a personal victory over the people who so disdain them.

In this reading, Kate is not preaching to her fellow wives, but rather taunting them with their own failings, and showing them that they have no right to be critical of her, while her seeming submission to Petruchio can be read as sexually charged provocation, so that, in the end, when Petruchio announces that he and Kate are going home, he means they are going home to bed.

In the second part of this study, we look at how well modern film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew keep faith with both our feminist values and Shakespeare’s text.


© Pauline Montagna 2021






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