The Roughly Chronological Reread, Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew

Date:  1592 – 4.


First read: Leon Garfield’s abridged version around 1992. I tried the full version about a year later and got horribly bored with the Lucentio plotline. Read the whole thing without skipping bits when I was in third or fourth year at secondary school, so 1997/8?


Productions seen: Shakespeare: The Animated Tales in the 90s, more student and Fringe productions than I care to remember, plus a handful of adaptations ranging from very loose ones like Kiss Me Kate to faithful updates like Sally Wainright’s very clever version for the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold.


Productions worked on:  None, which surprises no-one more than me. Plans are being made for an adaptation, though, so that might change in a year or two if the programming and funding gods smile on me.


Edition I’m using:   A very old Signet Classic with someone else’s cuts marked up in it.





  • Right, so, let’s acknowledge that this is a crazy problematic play straight off. I find it endlessly fascinating for that reason and love to argue over it. Whatever position you want to take I’ll happily oppose it – the beauty of this play is that you can defend nearly any point of view you care to hold. Before I began this re-read I’d have said that my own position was that a writer empathetic enough to create the kind of rounded, sensitively-drawn characters as are found in his later work would be unlikely to write a straightforward piece of misogyny (even allowing for changing social mores)… now I’m not so sure. The re-read has been opening my eyes to the brutality of Shakespeare’s early work and making me realise that I’ve been projecting the depth and nuance of his best work onto his lesser pieces. For someone who considered herself immune to bardolatry and romanticising Shakespeare’s work, that was quite a surprising thing to notice.
  • So, proceeding on the understanding that I don’t have a damn clue what I think about this play, let’s talk about the framing device. Why is it there? Why do we have Christopher Sly being pranked by some nameless Lord? The implication is that Sly and his “lady” are watching throughout, so why is there no reaction from him at the end? Does he ever go back to his old life? Does he test the lessons the play has taught him on the Hostess we saw at the start, and if so how does he take it? That would answer so many questions about what the play was intended to be. I’d also like to know whether the Sly stuff was part of the original play or was added later on.
  • This isn’t a particularly long play, yet I realised as I was reading it that I’ve never once seen it unabridged. This is because the Lucentio/Vincentio parts are boring as all hell (my considered academic opinion) so everyone cuts them.
  • So much commedia influence on this play, particularly the Arlecchino-esque hijinks with Lucentio and Tranio swapping places and wooing incognito to thwart the amorous intentions of a pantaloon character. I suspect the reason I find the entire Lucentio storyline tedious is twofold. In the first place, commedia thrives on the stage and not the page, and while I have plenty of experience of imagining the things I read, nothing compares to actually seeing it done. (I have never seen this play tackled by a company skilled in commedia.) In the second place, I harbour a suspicion that commedia is one of those art forms that is quite culturally specific and that there’s a lightness of touch needed that I just don’t see in these early plays. (I may be wrong. I know a little about commedia but don’t claim any kind of expertise.)
  • I have a note here that simply reads “Fuck off Biondello.” I can’t remember why I wrote it, but I feel inclined to include it here. Judging by the emphatic pen strokes, I meant it wholeheartedly.
  • Reading this aloud within a few days of Richard III was illuminating. We noticed that more of RIII flowed beautifully and felt easy to speak. Much of the dialogue in Shrew, however, is harder work. It’s much more colloquial and we found ourselves looking up slang terms far more frequently, but it wasn’t just that. It’s also the rhythms and sentence structure.
  • So, Katherine. Not an easy character to understand, in no small part because she never really gets to speak for herself. She has no direct address to the audience, no soliloquy, and without that insight into her mind all her decisions can be interpreted in different ways. Was she born a shrew or has she become this way? Does Petruchio break her spirit or win her round? Does she make that speech at the end because it’s what she now believes or because she’s smart enough to realise what’s going on and wants to help her husband win? She reminds me a bit of Coriolanus in this respect – her lack of a relationship with the audience makes sense, but it also makes her a mystery.
  • The other character Kate resembles, and this is perhaps a far more obvious comparison, is Beatrice. They’re both intelligent, sharp-tongued women, and I’ve been thinking recently that the major difference between them lies in how they’re treated. Beatrice gives everyone backchat and the people around her find it endearing. Kate does it and the people around her cower and condemn her. How would they have fared in each other’s environments? Kate is more violent than Beatrice, it’s true, but I wonder whether that would remain true if their situations were reversed.
  • And Petruchio… I’d love more back story on this character. We know he has recently inherited his father’s estate and is determined to marry rich, and that’s about all we do know about him. Why is he so money-hungry? Is it just avarice, or is he land-rich but cash-poor? Would he really have married anyone as long as she was rich – why not reach for the nearest rich widow, then, as Hortensio does post-Bianca?
  • Something struck me about Petruchio laying out his tactics in 2.1. He’s very clear about his game of opposites – if Kate gives him hell, he’ll praise her for all the characteristics she doesn’t show – and then he lays it on thick. Does he continue with these tactics throughout? It’s certainly one way of reading it, and it would change the meaning of his speech in 3.2 considerably if his declaration that his new wife is his goods and chattel is all part of this game of opposites. Is this the lesson that Kate learns from him and demonstrates at the end?
  • All in all, I came away from Shrew with the feeling that it’s a very uneven play. If the dialogue between Katherine and Petruchio weren’t as sparkling as it is, I suspect it would languish in obscurity. But it does, and it’s that feeling of crazy chemistry between them that keeps me feeling that this is a play about two misfits finding each other and uniting against the world, not about a woman having her spirit broken. But perhaps I just really, really want it to be that way. What a bloody frustrating piece this is.


NEXT TIME: Henry VI, Part 1

3 responses to “The Roughly Chronological Reread, Week 7: The Taming of the Shrew”

  1. Similarly, I find Shrew so problematic that it interests me. I have a theory that the Christopher Sly frame is key to making this play work though – gender-bending, class differences, a play within a play…the commedia influences!

    Aside from that, I have to add that the 1 production of Shrew I have seen live featured Biondella and I quite liked that casting.

  2. I find that with this play, it helps to get on solid ground with perspectives. One of, if not THE, primary factor to Shakespeare’s universality and seeming timelessness is his grasp on the potential perspectives audiences might have towards each of his characters. So this is my Kate: we open up on a long, untold history between Katherine and her father, the remnants of which give us some paltry clues as to its source (3.2.27-29, 2.1.31-36), and which leads Kate to, despite her supposed and/or evident shrewishness, quietly accede to her father’s demands regarding her marriage to a man she clearly views as inferior. This is the Kate of acts I-III. Once married off and clearly to a fucking psychopath, her personality disappears. End of story. That’s acts IV-V.

    Seeing the events as otherwise seems to me a vain attempt at exculpating Shakespeare from charges of misogyny. The most damning evidence, in my opinion, is the plot’s shtick itself, that Petruchio will use Kate’s own shrewishness against her, to cure her of it. The irony here is that Kate’s shrewishness, or what have you, is verbal. Petruchio’s starvation, sleep deprivation, and humiliation are more like mental and physical state-sanctioned domestic abuse. Take each character’s infamous speeches for what you will, but there’s nothing debatable about those actions.

    Something crucial happens to Kate as the setup of acts I-III concludes, beginning with Petruchio’s scary “will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1.272), which caps off their initial encounter, a verbal spar that Kate handily wins (she even reduces him to peevishness at one point), and ending with his infamous diatribe on property at the end of act III, a speech that is impossible to deliver comedically. What little we know of Kate — her wit, her strained family relationships — then vanishes as she is at the complete mercy of Petruchio, a man who outdoes Griselda’s husband in being a complete piece of shit (Shakespeare surely knew the tale — the heroine is even mentioned at 2.1.296).

    This drastic difference between the two halves of the play, as well as the (abandoned?) frame narrative, about which nothing definitive can or will probably ever be said, leads me to think that the novice Shakespeare attempted something a little too grand in the first half, whose intended resolution was abandoned in the second, where the only reality he could give us was the sordid and troubled one folks still defend to this day. But hey, at least it IS a reality, as opposed to the inexplicable ending of the contemporary The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

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