The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

North Shore Music Theatre, Boston, MA 2003


“It’s down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb
Ah, ah, say it’s alright.”

*****

“I will be kind, won’t be so cruel,
I will be sweet, I will be true,
Because of you, a brand new start,
Because of you, a change of heart,
I got a brand new set of rules –
It’s just like I was back in school
I’ve got a brand new set of rules I’ve got to learn.”

Mick Jagger wrote the first set of lyrics in the mid-1960s, and the second set in early 2001. In these career-spanning songs, Jagger demonstrates the bipolar complexity of our ongoing relationship with the shifting and inequitable balance of power between the sexes. To dismiss The Taming of the Shrew as a sexist and patriarchal story from a distant time is to miss both the fun and the point. Shakespeare is rarely an advocate for a particular position; far more often, his plays hold up an attitude or an idea for consideration, and then explore that idea from as many perspectives as the main story and the subplots can accommodate, like holding a multi-faceted crystal up to the light. In her introduction to the New Cambridge edition of The Taming of the Shrew, editor Anne Thompson concludes, “The real problem lies outside the play in the fact that the subjection of women to men, although patently unfair and unjustifiable, is still virtually universal. It is the world which offends us, not Shakespeare.”

Our Elizabethan pop cultural shorthand is faulty

These characters are not precisely who we often think they are; these plays have become so embedded in our popular culture that we have in some ways adopted shorthand emblems for characters such as Hamlet (inevitably stuck with Yorrick’s skull in his hand), Lady Macbeth, Juliet and even Kate the Shrew. Shakespeare scholar Harold Goddard wrote in 1951: “It is Shrew that is possibly the most striking example among [Shakespeare’s] early works of his love of so contriving a play that it should mean, to those who might choose to take it so, the precise opposite of what he knew it would mean to the multitude. ” Listen to what Kate says and doesn’t say. Listen to what is said about her. Watch Petruchio’s behaviour and listen to his words. Then ask again, just who exactly is the shrew here?

Shrew is just as likely to mock the male proclivity to control female behaviour as it is to endorse male domination. The moment of Kate’s capitulation to Petruchio’s will, when she agrees, “Be it moon, or sun, or what you please. / And if you please to call it a rush-candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (IV, v), undermines the myth of male domination through its requirement of female complicity. Petruchio no more believes that Kate actually sees the moon instead of the sun than he believes it himself; Coppelía Kahn perceives that Petruchio can take Kate’s playful mockery for compromise. In her last speech, Kate reminds Petruchio that a woman owes her husband the duty that a subject owes a prince: that is, obedience “to his honest will” (V, ii). If he becomes tyrannical, we rebel or revolt against an unfit leader, and so may one partner in a relationship rebel against an arbitrary other. Before you give free rein to righteous indignation at the sight of a woman placing her hand beneath her husband’s foot, I encourage you to consider: why shouldn’t one offer that kind of commitment and trust to one’s lover, partner, or husband? Of course this gift must be freely given and should ideally be a circle of exchange, one to the other and back again, but perhaps that is the site for indignation, and not that Kate comes to better understand herself, her universe and finds a way to make the offer.

Wrangling pedants

For additional insights into my approach to the story, please read my essay, “Talking Amiss of Her” Speech, Silence and Shrewishness in The Taming of the Shrew.

I directed Shrew at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts in late February/early March 2003; the final performance was March 21, 2003. The production featured Ryan Shively as Petruchio and Beth Bailey as Kate. The design team included Tal Sanders (Set), David R. Zyla (Costumes), Marty Vreeland (Lights) and John Stone (Sound).

Reviews

Because the production was primarily for student audiences, there was no press.

Jon Kimbell, Executive Producer, North Shore Music Theatre:
“The production is beautifully designed, a pleasure to watch, clear as can be, and wonderfully funny. It is the only Shrew I have seen that emotionally involves me with the characters… we watch Kate and Petruchio fall in love and negotiate a relationship we know will last. All the characters are beautifully drawn and true to the text… no small accomplishment.”

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The director who cannot collaborate with his (or her!) actors has mistaken his (or her) vocation.
– Harley Granville-Barker

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i