As part of my current course in Shakespearean drama, I viewed a videotape of a performance from 1976 of The Taming of the Shrew. It was part of Public Broadcasting’s Great Performances series and features members of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. Petruchio is stunningly portrayed by a gorgeous Marc Singer, later of Beastmaster fame. The other performers are no slouches either, and the direction and staging is brilliant. It is one of Shakespeare’s plays that truly benefits from the watching rather than the reading, since many of the verbal jousts that lie flat on the page spring vividly to life when spoken. Or, as is often the case, shouted.
In case you’ve been away from the Bard for a while, The Taming of the Shrew is about a wealthy Italian patriarch who refuses to marry off his youngest, ladylike daughter, Bianca, until he finds a suitable husband for her elder, ill-tempered sister, Katherina. As Bianca has many suitors and Katherina none, it behooves all those involved to hustle up a guy for the nasty wench, much to her annoyance and violent resistance. The forced submission of feisty women in relationships is a meaty topic for literature, film and the stage, and has been for centuries. This particular Shakespearean tale was retold as a 1950’s movie called Kiss Me, Kate, and again more recently with a high school setting in 10 Things I Hate About You. By the time my kids have kids, there’ll no doubt be an even fresher version.
And why not, since domestic violence and marital subjugation were long considered to be acceptable in resolving discord between a man and (his) woman. Male society in Shakespeare’s time considered itself burdened with irascible women who made unreasonable demands. I have to tell you, I’d be pretty irascible too if I was born three hundred years before the tampon. In fact, the Bard was responding to newly introduced marital reform measures when he restrained Petruchio from physical violence toward Katherina, and only had him deny her food and sleep as a means of educating her to her rightful place as her husband’s servant. The truth is, the majority of Shakespeare’s audience would have been fine with watching a sound beating, and were maybe wondering what was up with this Petruchio fellow who acts like he forgot to eat his Wheaties.
In addition to clever wordplay, hilarious theatrical flourishes, and a dizzying array of identity switches, The Taming of the Shrew has at its heart a genuine respect and regard for love. Within the confines of his era’s almost barbaric acceptance of violence against women, Shakespeare treated his female protagonists right, and always managed to give them their sly wink at the audience to show they knew the score. Even though the deck was stacked against them and would be for centuries to come, Kate and Co. played the game with class and sass. Every strong woman today owes them a wink.
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