I wanted to read William Shakespeare’s the Taming of the Shrew for a few reasons. Most importantly, it was to see if I could still cope with the text and thus prove my degree in English Lit/Drama is still in here somewhere. But I also chose it for its famous sexism/misogyny, to see how it came across to my middle-aged feminist eyes. I knew the plot, so I’d have no trouble understanding what was going on (or so I thought). Moreover, I have seen two live productions of the play and one of them made an indelible impression on me. It was in 1987 at the Stratford Festival (Ontario) with Goldie Semple as Kate and Colm Feore as Petruchio. When reading the play this week , I could still remember some of their interplay and reactions. It was a truly magnificent production. (I’ve also seen a filmed version with John Cleese of all people, and he was the best thing in it and the one who made the language most accessible.)
For the uninitiated, and how is that even possible, The Taming of the Shrew is the story of Baptista, a man with 2 daughters, both alike in dignity, but dissimilar in temperament, in fair Padua where we lay our scene. Katherina/Kate is the eldest, difficult and irascible; his youngest, Bianca, is a fair and delicate creature beloved by all the men she meets. Baptista is unwilling to let Bianca marry until Kate is herself settled. The ensuing hijinks focus around each sister: Bianca has a number of suitors performing a number of ruses to secure her hand. Kate is “taken on” by Petruchio as a challenge, and a wife, to allow Bianca’s suitors a chance gain their own ends. Petruchio proceeds to comically break Kate’s spirit rendering her a sweet, compliant, and therefore “happy”, wife.
As I started to read, I recalled, possibly incorrectly, that the modern aprroach to the play is to have Kate and Petruchio fall in love at first sight to lessen the sting of the abuse she endures and the obedient wife tropes she eventually spouts. If they are evenly-matched, and Petruchio’s efforts are ultimately well-intentioned to bypass the protective wall Kate has built around herself, it somehow makes it less awful when she is deprived of sleep, and food, and rational treatment. He is capricious in his behaviour to everyone he meets, and I don’t know it that helps exactly, but at least Petruchio is consistent. And Kate is a bit of a pill. They are indeed evenly-matched, if romance is a cage match, and in this case it is.
There was an irrelevant framing device that can be either included or omitted from the play. Its only use to me was as a starting point to accustom myself to the language, a task that would have been simpler, if fewer of the names were Somethingio. As I forged ahead, I knew I was going to be okay when I laughed out loud at this line –
PETRUCHIO: And you, good sir! Pray, have you not a daughter
Call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?
BAPTISTA: I have a daughter, sir, call’d Katherina.
Some of the idiomatic language was lost on me, but I don’t think it undercut the overall effect of the play and, should I continue reading Shakespeare, I suspect that long dormant parts of my vocabulary will rally to the fore. Being a Shakespeare comedy (and from what I remember based on the story structures of ancient Roman plays which were later also used by P.G. Wodehouse) everyone is pretending to be someone else and trading places. The Bianca plot was actually the most challenging with all of those Somethingios to-ing, and fro-ing and woo-ing simultaneously. Had I been watching the play, which is, after all, the point, it would have been a lot easier to follow.