The Taming of the Shrew is the story of how Petruchio, the money-grubbing wife hunter, transforms the aggressive and bad-tempered Katherine Minola into an obedient, honey-tongued trophy wife. Written by William Shakespeare between 1590 and 1594, it's one of Shakespeare's earliest Comedies – it's also one of his most controversial works. For modern audiences (let's face it, we're a lot more sensitive to social injustices), the play's critical controversy is perhaps second to that of The Merchant of Venice (Merchant of Venice is a play that portrays and analyzes blatant anti-Semitic attitudes and has sparked heated debate over its complex depiction of Shylock, the demonized Jewish villain that is forced to convert to Christianity at the play's end.)
The Taming of the Shrew has been criticized for its representation of abusive behavior and misogynistic attitudes toward women, and the play has pretty much been dogged since it was first performed. There's much evidence that Shrew made even Shakespeare's contemporary audiences more than a little squeamish. The playwright John Fletcher was particularly keyed to potential objections to Petruchio's behavior – so much so that he wrote a play in response called The Woman's Prize or, The Tamer Tamed (c. 1616). Fletcher's play fast-forwards many years from the end of Shrew, when Petruchio is a widower and has remarried the shrewish Maria, who gives him a dose of his own medicine. Though Shrew continued to be staged and adapted, in the late 1890s, Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw wrote that "No man with any decency of feeling can sit [the final act] out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed" (source). On the other hand, the play has also been adored by many fans from the get-go.
There's no denying that Shrew portrays patriarchy at its worst – the question is, what is the play's attitude toward such action and behavior? Does it condone domestic abuse and celebrate painful and humiliating tactics to reform "shrewish" behavior? Or, does it satirize (mock and ridicule à la Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert) unfair social attitudes toward women? Or, is it merely a light-hearted farce that is not meant to be taken seriously at all? These are important questions that have sparked centuries of debate. Whether or not one thinks the play is vile, hilarious, or some combination of the two, asking tough questions and thinking hard about the problems posed by the text are good things.
For all its controversy, Shrew remains one of the most performed and adapted plays in Shakespeare's body of work. (The most popular adaptations include Cole Porter's 1948 Broadway musical Kiss Me Kate, the 1999 teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You, and the popular BBC production ShakespeaRe-Told: The Taming of the Shrew, 2005. One of the most famous film versions of the play is Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 production starring Elizabeth Taylor.) Given that the text is subject to so many interpretive possibilities, it's pretty common for one performance of the play to look completely different from the next. (This is why you shouldn't watch the movie as a mere replacement for reading the play. You should do both.) One director might play up the text's farcical elements – lots of silly, slapstick humor that undermines any seriousness in the play. Another director might emphasize the play's darker elements to highlight Petruchio's abusive behavior. Really, the staging possibilities are endless.
Of course, the play is also regarded as one of the great grandfathers of the "battle of the sexes" story line, a formula that has inspired countless movies (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The War of the Roses, etc., etc.) and television series (take your pick, but see especially a young Bruce Willis go toe-to-toe with Cybill Shepherd in the old-school Moonlighting ).
A lot of movie producers like to call The Taming of the Shrew the classic "battle of the sexes" story. They're right, in a way, and it's true that Shakespeare's play has inspired a ton of films and televisions shows that fit this genre. Katherine and Petruchio do in fact go toe-to-toe when they first meet and they do fight for the upper hand in their marriage throughout most of their honeymoon. It's also true that many of these scenes can be hilarious, especially when Kate holds her own with Petruchio.
But, anyone who has read the play knows that it's by no means a simple story about a bickering couple. They also know that the fight is hardly equal or fair. The truth is that Kate is subject to some really brutal treatment because she refuses to be the silent, obedient, and mild-mannered wife that society demands. Unlike Angelina Jolie's character in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Katherine Minola doesn't get to parade around in stilettos and a killer black dress with a revolver strapped to her thigh. It's true that Kate puts up a pretty good verbal fight, especially when she first meets Petruchio, but The Taming of the Shrew actually ends with Kate on her knees telling Petruchio that he is her king. Seriously – here's a little excerpt from Kate's final monologue:
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (5.2.7)
Whether or not Kate actually believes any of this is up for debate. (You can read what we have to say about the final speech in "What's Up With the Ending?" but come right back.) The point is that Katherine really doesn't have any other choice in the matter. She has to give this speech if she wants any kind of tranquility in her marriage because she has no legal rights as a 16th-century wife – she's basically her husband's property, which means she has to play nice if she wants Petruchio to let her eat, sleep, or pick out her own clothes.
The play makes us stop and think about what it means to portray men and women duking it out on stage, film, TV, whatever. We also dig the way it forces the audience to question their assumptions about "proper" gender roles and their attitudes about the power dynamics between romantic couples (friends and blood relatives, too).
Ever felt pressured to conform to somebody else's expectations and values (at school, home, in a romantic relationship)? Ever been told to act more like a "good girl," or to be a "man"? We thought so. And we think you'll like the way this play makes you think about what that means.