The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1591 and first published in about 1594. It is his second play and his second comedy following The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589-92).

Be warned: I discuss the ending in this post. I don't feel I can do anything but!


It's one of Shakespeare's play-within-a-plays: it opens with a prank - a local 'tinker' (the definition of which is "a person who makes a living by travelling from place to place mending pans and other metal utensils") named Christopher Spy is found intoxicated by a Lord. He and his men convince Spy that he too is a Lord, and has wrongly believed himself to be a tinker for many years. They put on a play for his amusement, and the play is, of course, The Taming of the Shrew.


It is one of Shakespeare's bleaker comedies. It's set in Padua, Italy, and tells the story of sisters Katherina (the 'shrew') and Bianca and their suitors Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio (Bianca's) and Petruchio (Katherina's). Their names give an indication of their personalities: Katherina is derived from Katherine, which, among other things, may derive from the goddess Hecate (the name of one of the three witches in Macbeth, 1606), and also from the Greek word "αικια" meaning "torture". Tellingly, 'Katherine' may also come from the Greek 'Hekaterine' (‘Εκατερινη'), itself derived from 'hekateros' ('εκατερος') meaning "each of the two". Bianca, meanwhile, is a derivative of the name 'Blanche' meaning "white" and "fair".

Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina, 1967.
Baptista Minola, the father of Katherina and Bianca, has declared that no one may court Bianca,  the younger sister, until Katherina is married. The rub is that Katherina is virtually unmarriageable  owing to her vicious temper and sharp tongue. Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio attempt to overcome to situation by disguising themselves to get close to her, and other general trickery, but they realise that they must get Katherina married off in order to solve their problems. Enter Petruchio, an old friend of Hortensio, who wishes to marry a rich woman. They decide Petruchio must marry Katherina, and he sets out to "tame the shrew". 

In Elizabethan times a common and much enjoyed sport was hunting with falcons. The way to tame falcons was particularly cruel: one would deny them sleep (this is one of the kinder methods), starve them, and engage in a 'battle of wits' which, if successful, will subdue and tame the falcon. This was Petruchio's method of subduing Katherina:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come, and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I'll find about the making of the bed;
And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets;
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her-
And, in conclusion, she shall watch all night;
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamour keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; 'tis charity to show.
Latham's Falconry by Simon Latham (1615).
Easy to discern Petruchio's character from this vile speech. And he is successful: he wears Katherina down and the play, in my eyes, climaxes in the disappointing stage direction of Act V Scene II:
She obeys.
And thus marks the death of Katherina's fighting spirit.

The Shrew Katherina by Edward Robert Hughes (1898).
It's a well-written play, and has some of the finest comic speeches and exchanges and for that I enjoyed it. But with my modern eyes it's an uncomfortable play. Katherina is highly spirited and exceptionally witty, a sharp and able equal to Petruchio in the war of words. But how much more fun would it have been if Petruchio had have been defeated! That said, there are interpretations that suggest Katherina's speech about the importance of submission is meant ironically - if so, how good it would be to see a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew! Is it meant ironically? Could Katherina ever truly be tamed? Ah, that is the question.

In short (and there is much more to discuss than what I've written about here) it's an awkward play beginning with a rather harsh joke on Christopher Spy and ending with Katherina's submission and Petruchio getting patted on the back for his success. Humiliation, whether it be the joke played on Spy or the treatment of Katherina drives this play on. And yet I recommend it - it's one of William Shakespeare's major works, for a start, and the themes of the role of women, marriage, and money make for a fascinating read. I hope one day I'll see it performed - I'll at least try to get a hold of the 1967 film starring Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina and Richard Burton as Petruchio.

Finally, some illustrations. These are by Byam Shaw and were published in 1902 by G. Bell.



I read this for the fourth week of the Deal Me in Challenge: next week - Émile Zola's Death by Advertising.

Comments

  1. Taming of the Shrew is I think my favorite of Shakespeare's works (it's hard to chose... there's a lot of great ones). It's just funny and there's a lot of interesting thoughts on marriage as well, as you said.

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    1. I think my favourite's Midsummer Night's Dream, but I'll never forget this one :) I did like it, uncomfortable at times as it was.

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  2. I'm glad that you alluded to it as a bleaker comedy because I honestly didn't find that much really funny in it, but I self-admittedly struggle with Shakespeare's comedies, so there you go. I'll have to read it again. I didn't necessary get the feeling that Kate was really tamed but I can't remember why. I would hope neither of them would have to "win" because otherwise I don't think it would be much of a marriage. Did humiliation really come through as if it was an element of the play (written at that time), or was it something that popped up when viewing it from modern eyes?

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    1. I think maybe humiliation was from a modern eye viewing. Perhaps, with regards to Spy, I'm being a bit priggish, though :)

      And yes, agree about the comedies - I think (I'm delving into the back of my brain) "comedy" simply meant a union or marriage at the end, so they're not necessarily supposed to be funny anyway! I'll have to look that up... :)

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    2. Ah, I didn't know that about comedies. I've learned something new today!

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  3. There is a sequel by John Fletcher first performed in 1611 called 'The Woman's Prize or; The Tamer Tamed'. After Katherine's death Petruchio remarries but finds himself with a new wife who intends to tame him as he tamed her.
    The Burton/Taylor film is, if memory serves, good and looks amazing.

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    1. I'll look for that - sounds interesting. Bound to be on Internet Archive at least :)

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  4. I saw it performed at a community theater ages ago, and they put a lot of effort into reinterpreting/downplaying all of the patriarchal humiliation -- I didn't realize until I actually read the play that the cast really had to work to make it funny instead of offensive to a modern audience while still remaining true to the original play.

    Have you seen the "teen" movie 10 Things I Hate About You? It's based on this play, and it isn't perfect by I think it does a pretty good job of modernizing the story.

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    1. I have - really enjoyed it! It's the only kind of performance I've seen, though.

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  5. O, I enjoyed reading your view of this play. When I read it three years ago I got a totally different view. I'll have to reread it sometime. I hope you can find the movie--it's great!

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    1. I'm on the lookout for it, I'm looking forward to it! :)

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