The Taming of the Shrew
London, Penguin, 1974
Yesterday evening, I was lucky to get to see the Globe Theatre on tour at the Bodleian Library Quad, performing The Taming of the Shrew.
The Taming of the Shrew is controversially my favourite Shakespeare play. I say it is controversial because, in theory, it goes against all my feminist beliefs. It is a story about two sisters, Katherina and Bianca. Thier father insists that the eldest must be married before the youngest; but Katherina is a shrew: angry, stubborn and difficult. Bianca's suitors are relieved when they stumble upon Petruchio, an eccentric gentleman who is determined he can take her.
In theory, I have a real problem with this play: i.e. the idea that a woman can be tamed. We cannot. And yet, I find this to be an intelligent, witty, moving story about relationships between the sexes. Katherina is a headstrong heroine, loud and feisty, and Petrichio is a ridiculous pedant. In my humble opinion, both are tamed: they come fo realise they must manage their behaviour and inhibitions in the company of others. As such, Katherina appears "tamed", but I consider Petruchio to also be somewhat more sedate.
I found it a strange contrast to read a play with so little stage direction. Other than telling the characters when to enter and exeunt, Shakespeare leaves the play in the hands of the director. This means every performance is different and adaptation is flexible. I think this is why there have been so many interpretations and modernisations of his plays.
Before seeing the play last night, I went to a pre-show talk, in which I found two subjects discussed to be of particular interest. First, the repeated references to possessions throughout the story. Money is key: it breeds friendships, supports marriages, and defines relationships. On several occasions, Bianca's suitors debate who has the most right to her hand, arguing over their wealth and land. Elsewhere, Petruchio calls Katherina his possession, and Katherina later declares one's husband is "thy lord, thy king, thy governor". Yet, given the contemporary society, this is understandable. This is a story about bourgeois families vying to out-bid each other for the "love" of a beautiful woman. And this is why Petruchio and Katherina's love seems so much more valid: they are both rich and crazy but they don't need anything from each other. They are whole as individuals, and their union makes them a strong team. (Or maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic.)
The other thing I was particularly interested in was the concept of performance. The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. At the beginning, a lord plays a trick on a drunk, dressing him in finery and pretending he is a lord. He employs a passing troupe to put on a play, and hence the well-known story begins. As such, it has been argued that the play can be seen as a farce, a comic commentary on gender roles and a criticism of the bourgeois values that dictate society (and hence, a misogynist tale it is not. Hurrah!).
And so, I hope I have been able to justify my love of The Taming of the Shrew. And if not, no one can deny the appeal of Shakespeare performed outside on a warm summer's evening.