Last Friday I taught a group of 16 year olds about the Taming of the Shrew. This is one of my favourite plays to teach because I am fascinated by the way in which people respond to it. The story is basically that of an angry young woman (Kate) being tamed by her husband (Petruchio) using methods which today would seem questionable at best. By the end of the play man and wife appear to have formed a harmonious relationship, although critics cannot agree which one finally wears the trousers.
Readers/viewers (and often directors) seem highly motivated to interpret the story as a romance. Here are some reviews of this play, look at the words used to describe a story in which a man starves a women, in which a woman is forced to marry someone she claims to hate, in which a man beats his servants and knocks down a priest.
‘Kate and Petruchio fall in love at first sight and spend the rest of the play getting to know one another.’
Love at first sight is an odd way to describe a relationship in which the intended wife says she would rather see her fiancé hung than marry him. Getting to know one another is curious way to talk about a marriage that begins with the husband saying of his wife “till she stoop she must not be full-gorged [well fed]”.
This review continues describing Kate’s eventual ‘taming’ as follows
“In surrender she is so whole hearted, so cheerfully serene and happy that a particularly happy marriage never seems in doubt.”
Is a good marriage usually based on surrender? Whether these reviews tell us more about the director’s interpretation of the play or the reviewer’s interpretation of the performance is uncertain but it is interesting that a story about a man taming a woman is so readily read as romantic. And do we see this in our culture today? If a little girl comes home from school complaining that little Peter has been pulling her pigtails what do we tell her? “He probably likes you” And if you wonder whether ‘bad behaviour’ is still seen as a sign of affection in the adult world… well it can be, just pick up a Mills and Boon novel (Harlequin for our American friends) and see what you think……
But in reality the readiness of directors and readers to interpret the play as a love story is because Shakespeare does not himself make it clear if we are supposed to believe the story is a romance or be shocked by its gender politics. Have a look at these two recordings of Ash and Catherine playing Kate and Petruchio. The scene shows the moment when Petruchio first tells Kate he will marry her. The first shows them playing it as a romance, the next as a threatening confrontation. Both interpretations of the text are valid but which do you prefer and why?
Here they are at war…
And here they are in love