A war over Taming of the Shrew has been waged over in the comments section of the Montreal edition of CharPo, for which I’m infinitely grateful. Those who know me know I detest The Merchant of Venice, not because of the anti-Semitism but because of the poor craftsmanship – simply put, it’s a badly-made play. Shrew doesn’t quite suffer from this problem: it has its problems but the real dilemma lies in the subject matter. The story of a man named Petruchio who “cures” Kate, the titular shrew, cannot help but provoke strong opinions. Time and again, productions either ignore the uncomfortable material or attempt to distract us from it with theatrical wizardry and a comedian’s bag of tricks.
We may think that the controversy surrounding Shrew is a late 20th century phenomenon but apparently it’s been raising ire ever since it first hit the stage. In 1888, with the women’s movement on the rise, George Bernard Shaw made his own thoughts known in the Pall Mall Gazette: “Having been told that the Daly Company has restored Shakespeare’s version to the stage,” he wrote, “I desired to see with my own eyes whether any civilized audience would stand its brutality… I hope all men and women who respect one another will boycott Taming of the Shrew until it is driven off the boards.”
A cynic might suggest that Shrew’s very controversial nature is what has driven producers to return to it for so many years - controversy sells, after all, and who wouldn’t want to be the producer credited with finally “solving” this problematic play? Yet this alone cannot account for the great number of times Shrew has reared its sexist head. It’s been adapted into operas, films, TV shows, animated specials and radio dramas. And of course there’s Kiss Me Kate, the Cole Porter / Bella and Sam Spewack musical that remains a classic of the American stage.
One cannot accuse all these artists of being cynics: clearly there is something in Shrew that continues to speak to us. Like Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom, I’d argue that Shrew is a play that is more about marriage then misogyny. Most of Shakespeare plays feature marriage as either the happy end for lovers or an inevitable part of political manoeuvrings. But in Shrew the marriage happens in the middle of the play and it’s possible the play is simply an extreme version of the sorts of crises that all couples face the first years of their union.
No, not every marriage is like Kate and Petruchio’s. But, as Bloom himself suggests, “we all know one or two marriages like theirs.” In Kate and Petruchio, we see echoes of ourselves. We can take notes on what works – and what doesn’t. “Their final shared reality is a kind of conspiracy,” writes Bloom. “Pertruchio gets to swagger and Kate will rule him and the household, perpetually acting her role as the reformed shrew.” Bloom’s take is the ironic one: Kate isn’t truly tamed at all. She simply knows that when facing the world, one must always adopt a certain role Of the two genders, says Bloom, Shakespeare suggests that it’s women who have the truer sense of reality.”