By Brett Abelman
The Taming of the Shrew is often considered one of the most troubled works in the Shakespearean canon—a misogynistic, painfully outdated “comedy” that is nearly impossible to play straight today. Consider its plot:
- Suitors wish to marry the sweet and beautiful Bianca.
- Bianca’s father will not allow her to be wed until her “shrew” of an older sister, Katherine, is married.
- The suitors convince their friend Petruchio to “tame” and marry Katherine.
- Petruchio and Katherine trade insults.
- Katherine slaps Petruchio in response to a sexual innuendo, at which point he threatens to “cuff” her if she strikes him again.
- (Most productions insert a spanking scene at around this point, although nothing in Shakespeare’s text mentions Petruchio spanking Katherine.)
- Petruchio refuses to let Katherine eat, doesn’t let her keep a wonderful dress that is made for her, and generally wears her down.
- Petruchio forces Katherine to pretend that the sun is the moon, a man is a woman, etc.
- Once Bianca’s hand has been won, Petruchio and the other men getting married have a contest to see whose new wife is more obedient; the formerly independent Katherine is the only one who comes when called.
- Katherine scolds the other wives for their disobedience, saying:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee…
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience…
…place your hands below your husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
In this light, we should not be surprised that Taming has left a history of alternative interpretations and adaptations in its wake. In order to make sense of the apparently abusive relationship between Petruchio and Katherine, some have staged their courtship as a mutually shared joke. Others have played Katherine’s final submission to Petruchio as a façade. And still others have seen the play as itself critical of the sexism that it portrays. Conall Morrison, who directed the play in 2008 for the Royal Shakespeare Company, had this to say in its defense:
By the time you get to the last scene all of the men—including her father are saying—it’s amazing how you crushed that person. It’s amazing how you lobotomised her. And they’re betting on the women as though they are dogs in a race or horses. It’s reduced to that.… It is so self-evidently repellent that I don’t believe for a second that Shakespeare is espousing this.… It’s very obviously a satire on this male behaviour and a cautionary tale.
Critics and other playwrights began wrestling with Taming almost immediately after the play’s first production circa 1594. Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Fletcher, wrote The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio gets his comeuppance at the hands of his second wife, mere years after the original’s debut. Jonelle Walker’s TAME. takes this revisionist tradition as its starting point—though to treat this play like a direct adaptation would be a grave mistake.
There are similarities: both plays feature a “Cat” who behaves in a way considered inappropriate in her society (1590s Padua in Taming, and 1960s Texas in TAME.). Both are handed off by their families to men who aim to mend their ways: Petruchio then, Patrick now. Both have a younger, sweeter sister (Bianca and Bea) who is doted upon.
But Shakespeare’s play does not feature a mother for Kate and Bianca, only a father, while Walker’s has both; the older play has a trio of additional characters trying to woo Bianca, while the newer one excises them; and while Petruchio is brought in to tame Katherine as a husband, Patrick is brought in as a Christian savior and a minister-in-training.
And, perhaps most crucially, unlike Walker’s Cat, Shakespeare’s Kate was not a lesbian poet.