Re-reading Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

(1) The standard line on The Taming of the Shrew is that it’s a play that needs to be seen in performance. It’s a lot of fun when you see it live, but a chore to read. This is borne out by the evidence of its consistent popularity on stage over the centuries while not being studied much.

Then there’s the fact that the text as we have it is a mess. It may be that we were supposed to get more Christopher Sly interspersed throughout the play and at the end. Also, the already more-than-confusing-enough mash of secondary characters who adopt new identities is made worse by the way a couple of the roles (Hortensio and Tranio) seem to have bled into each other at some point. All of this is easier to follow on stage than it is on the page, especially when some streamlining helps sort things out.

That said, I remember an acquaintance of mine going to see it at Stratford years ago and saying that she hadn’t understood much of it and didn’t think any of it was funny. This is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works (again, on stage) and I figured if that production wasn’t working then there must have been a problem. But I can also understand her feeling that way regardless. Biondello’s description of Petruchio’s horse, for example, is one of the highlights, but it’s impossible for any modern audience to understand. It might as well have been written in Old Church Slavonic.

(2) Petruchio’s ambition “to wive it wealthily in Padua” is a great line (and song too), but just why is he so fixated on the bottom line? He’s after the money and he doesn’t care who knows that “wealth is burden of my wooing dance.” The fact that marriages at the time were primarily economic arrangements has been said to justify his mercenary motives on the grounds of realism, and to be sure Bianca is basically auctioned off. But Petruchio seems, at least to me, to go over a line, especially since he’s already a man of independent means. “My father dead, my fortune lives for me,” he tells us. He has been “Left solely heir to all his lands and goods, / Which I have bettered rather than decreased.” In the 2005 BBC modernization they rationalize his character by having him inherit nothing from his father but a dilapidated mansion and an ancient title. He reallly needs the money. But that’s not in Shakespeare’s play.

So why then such an insistence on a rich bride? I think he’s just that kind of guy. He’s not romantic, but a climber who knows his worth and is looking to increase it through marriage, which is just another deal to be won, to come out bettered rather than decreased. Is this something Katherina sees in him, and respects and approves of? The end of the play is usually read as Petruchio and Katherina recognizing each other as soul mates, and that may be true in a not very nice way.

(3) A lot of one’s response to the play depends on how you read Katharina’s final speech on the necessity of a wife’s submission to her husband. Are we to take it straight, or as her being ironic? And if the latter, how ironic?

Tony Tanner is one critic who says the speech “cannot be heard as irony,” but it still seems to me that she’s putting it on. Such a reading is prepared for by the Induction, when the page boy Bartholomew is instructed in how to play a dutiful lady. Then Petruchio’s tyrannical “taming” or training exercises (gaslighting well avant la lettre) have made the point that life, at least public life, is all a show anyway. That seems to always come up in Shakespeare, and the fact that this is such an early play means it’s presented in starker terms than it usually is.

The thing is, we tend not to like people who are looking to reshape our reality like this. We see them, justifiably, as both cynical and up to something. On the other hand, their cynicism is often justified. All the world’s a stage and they’re the playwrights, directors, and theatre-owners who get to make all the rules. At least until they bomb, or the stage burns down.


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