The Taming of the Shrew

Content Group

Overview
The Taming of the Shrew: Ada Rehan (1859-1916) as Katherina at the Gaiety Theatre 1888

In modern times, like The Merchant of Venice, this play has proved one of the most controversial and censured of any by Shakespeare, because critics have chosen to read it in the light of present-day perspectives. Feminists have chosen it to exemplify the vices of male patriarchy, even though most of Shakespeare's comedies illustrate the virtues of female initiative via such examples as Rosalind and Marina, not to mention Katherine of Aragon. Like Orlando, Katherina Minola starts in a condition of violent, even suicidal resentment at the neglect of her talents. She alone in the play specifically strikes others on several occasions. The Induction of the original script stresses that Katherina would be played by a boy actor, as the youthful Olivier confirmed, so anyway no direct female physical abuse could occur. However, having already outwitted Petruchio at his own game in 4.5—the famous "sun is moon" scene (as demonstrated brilliantly by Elizabeth Taylor in Zeffirelli's film)—in the last scene of the play Katherina has learned how to dominate a whole assembled society (see this 1893 staging) in a way impossible for them to resist. In view of current censures, it is ironic that this is one of Shakespeare's most popular scripts, as seen in the success of Zeffirelli's film, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, which cleverly blends the drunken Sly with the cynical Petruchio to create a plausibly clumsy maverick. Indeed, the play, like Coriolanus, investigates the dangers from mistreated talents. It was written for audiences including many bold women (no doubt including a very assertive queen); England in Shakespeare's time was already known as a "paradise for women" because of their freedom to appear unescorted in public places such as theatres. As in his other "problem plays", Shakespeare was writing provocatively to excite such people in the spirit of Ibsen's A Doll's House, not to mention G. B. Shaw's version in Pygmalion. It is true that over the years some naïve Petruchios have rescripted the play to validate their own misogyny (George Clarke and John Drew come to mind), but the original text never justifies their whips and brutality. Instead, it assumes from the start of their relationship a mutual interest between two non-conforming personalities, as convincingly established in the Burton/Taylor reading and others (like this 1946 German production). At least Victorian and Edwardian Katherinas (like Ada Rehan, Mary Anderson and Lily Brayton) were able to establish her verve and attractiveness.

Images
*Kiss Me Kate [Musical based on The Taming of the Shrew], New York, 1950.

Pages

Slideshows
Bibliography

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The Taming of the Shrew at Talkin' Broadway.

Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond