The Taming of the Shrew

Thursday night, Paul and I saw the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. The production is mostly great (especially Kelly Kitchens as a tough biker chic Kate) and the rednecky, rural southern trailer park setting works extremely well. The down-n-dirty vibe fits the lowbrow material much better than the sumptuous period-look movie from 1967, which is the only time I had previously seen a treatment of the play. I didn’t particularly like the movie, when I saw it in high school, although I remember a spirited classroom debate about what Kate’s “Thy husband is thy lord” speech at the end really meant.

I did like this production. The underlying material is still troubling, but the actors do a great job of selling it, and they have a wonderful time with the broad physical comedy and dirty jokes. This story needs to be set in the kind of culture where people chuck cans of Pabst at each other, sometimes at request (Beer me!) and sometimes not.

Kate’s father has been gender-swapped to be her mother, a choice that fits in so smoothly and is used so well that I wasn’t 100 percent sure the character had originally been male. Changing the patriarch to a matriarch certainly blunts the inherent misogyny of the story a bit.

I think they were going for an interpretation of the story that is, more or less, like this: Kate is a terror with a hair-trigger temper and a violent streak, which is a problem for everyone around her: mother, sister, neighbors. Her mother wants to get rid of her by marrying her off. Petruchio sets out to marry her for the money, but ends up falling in love and trying to win her heart. But this is hard, because she’s not actually ready to give that out, and so he ends up going to ridiculous and normally inappropriate lengths to break down her emotional barriers.

Kate, for her part, goes along with this partly because she’s shocked to encounter somebody as strong-willed as she is, and isn’t sure how to respond, and partly because she has also fallen in love, but it takes her a while to realize it. The “taming” portion of the story — after the marriage, where Petruchio messes her head around until she’s too starved, exhausted, and confused to fight back — is motivated more by the fact that she’s really unpleasant to everybody all the time and has huge emotional barriers up. It isn’t, strictly speaking, a misogynist domination game.

When she finally decides to play along with his “the sun is the moon if I say it’s the moon” business, that’s her way of saying, okay, I love you too. You are the moon and the sun to me. Then, the final scene, with its infamous bet over who has the most “obedient” wife and Kate’s speech, that’s mostly Kate and Petruchio messing with everybody else. They’re doing it because they think it’s funny. And her speech, while unfortunately expressed according to highly patriarchal social norms, is less a call for women to be doormats, and more advice about not turning marriage into eternal combat for no good reason — not crossing your husband’s will in little things just to prove you can.

That’s still problematic, but, as an evening of theater, it works. But the play as written? I’ve been puzzling over that ever since.

To start with, for Shakespeare, it’s actually not very good. The B story, involving Kate’s younger sister Bianca, makes no sense even for an Elizabethan farce. She has suitors… and they pretend to be tutors… and one guy pretends to be another guy… for some reason… but nobody has much personality, and it never really takes off. The production effectively adds personality to the secondary characters — Bianca rendered as a tiara-wearing, baton-twirling, eternally pink-clad pageant queen is hilarious — but that’s not really there in the original script.

There’s some snappy repartee between Kate and Petruchio, but most of the dialog lacks the poetic vividness that we look for from Shakespeare. Think about it — are there any famous lines, any oft-quoted soliloquies in this play? The only famous speech is the one Kate gives at the end, and everybody has a problem with that. Sheesh, a hundred years ago everybody had a problem with that. It’s not like nobody noticed it was sexist until the 1970s — even the Victorians found it a bit hard to take.

So, I’m left wondering WHY this play is one of the iconic Shakespeare plays. (By “iconic” I mean the plays that have penetrated the pop culture, the ones people have heard of, that have been turned into movies and things.) There’s something about it that works, obviously, but what is it?

One thing I look for in Shakespeare, is a knack for accurately representing character and emotion. We don’t need to consult the DSM to recognize an expression of grief turned to depression in Hamlet’s soliloquies. But this aspect at first examination seems absent from Shrew. I didn’t watch Kate’s surrender and think, “yeah, I’ve been there, I’ve seen that, I understand that, I get that.” I have to contrast this with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which isn’t exactly at the vanguard of feminist thought — it invented the “catfight” for heaven’s sake — but everything they do feels right for the characters at the time. (And the “catfight” is hilarious, so there’s that.)

But on that topic — the way his iconic plays established the tropes and patterns of storytelling that we still use today — I have to consider the tropes established in Shrew. It’s icky to think about, but isn’t it the blueprint for any story where a woman falls in love with her kidnapper?

During this production, in the scenes where Kate demonstrates her obedience to Petruchio showily, in front of other people, it seemed to be developing an idea that Kate and Petruchio live in their own little world together. It felt intimate, and a bit naughty. They gang up and confuse a strange man, by pretending to think he’s a woman. He tells her to throw away her hat, and she does it. He utters the only really famous line in the play — Kiss me, Kate — telling her to go against social norms and kiss him in public. He makes her go to a social occasion in rags. Then, during the speech at the end, she talks about kneeling — and in this production she does kneel as she says the final lines, “for it is no boot, and 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.”

And suddenly — I think I know what makes this play work. That’s not normal wifely obedience, not even five hundred years ago. That’s BDSM obedience. It feels naughty because it IS naughty, and always has been naughty. Kate and Petruchio are playing out their private BDSM relationship in public, involving other people in their games — and they are games.

The Taming of the Shrew is the 50 Shades of Grey of Elizabethan England.