by Regina Buccola
Regina Buccola is an Associate Professor of English at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she specializes in Shakespeare, non-Shakespearean Early Modern Drama, and Women's and Gender Studies.
It was Shakespeare’s cronies who first divided his plays into three categories in the First Folio—comedies, histories, and tragedies. Four centuries of performance history (and performance criticism) have suggested another trio: the good (Hamlet), the bad (Pericles), and the ugly (Measure for Measure with its forced marriages, The Merchant of Venice with its anti-Semitism, Othello with its racism, and The Taming of the Shrew with its sexism, among others). Those ugly plays can often prove to be the best of the bunch, however, since there is immeasurable value in recognizing that cultural pressure points in Shakespeare’s world still cause strains in our own. Rather than simply shuddering at the vicious battle of the sexes waged in Shrew and Petruchio’s decisive win, perhaps we should be asking what it means about our culture that this fight still seems so relevant.
The Taming of the Shrew holds the record as the most frequently performed Shakespeare play that is most seldom performed in its entirety. Most stage and screen productions cut Shakespeare’s Induction and its frame story of a character named Christopher Sly completely. When the Christopher Sly frame is included, The Taming of the Shrew becomes a play-within-a-play, designed to entertain a drunken tinker who is tricked into thinking that he is a lord.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production retains the concept of the frame, reworking it for our world as we encounter a group of contemporary actors staging a spot-on sixteenth-century production of Shakespeare’s Shrew. The resulting script may be innovative, but the concept of reworking this play is not; Shrew is also one of the most adapted and altered of Shakespeare’s plays.Internationally renowned playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute replaces Shakespeare’s Lord of the Manor with a character named by the function she serves—the play’s Director, who enjoins her Kate to “tackle the problems of a text that’s outdated by looking them squarely in the eye.”
With a drunken tinker in a starring role, Shakespeare’s frame narrative quickly tends toward the earthy; so does the new one at Chicago Shakespeare. The bawdry of the frame narrative in both instances is resoundingly echoed in the play proper, where Petruchio famously baits Katharina—petulantly calling for his departure after a duet about her “waspishness”—with the line, “What, with my tongue in your tail?” The line zips across the centuries to us, its frisson of salaciousness flawlessly intact (but hardly tactful).
Shakespeare’s Kate demands of her father if he intends to make a “stale” (whore) of her. It’s her first line. It’s quite indecorous. Shocking, really. However, not to us. “Stale” is obsolete, and even if a director replaces it with “whore” it’s nothing any worse than what we might witness in a catfight on a primetime reality TV show, like The Bachelor. In order to be true to the spirit of the original play and its rude, crude Induction, LaBute faced the challenge of restoring the frame’s shock value in his adaptation in order to adequately set up the shocking spectacle of the main narrative: the methodical taming of a wife characterized as a “fiend of hell.”
Shakespeare, of course, would have depicted a male actor in the role of Katharina, repeatedly enjoined by the male actor playing Petruchio to “Kiss me, Kate”—a stage direction that is clearly followed. LaBute’s frame reverses the gender of the kissing couple, showing us two women kissing one another; and, as in Shakespeare’s play, Kate is resistant to the public staging of this intimate act. Shakespeare’s Induction, like the play itself, makes private business between a couple public. So, too, in LaBute’s frame developed for this production, which stages a couple’s ugliest intimate moments both to an onstage audience of other actors and to the theater audience.
Perhaps The Taming of the Shrew poses problems not because it is “outdated” at all, but because it still holds a mirror up to our natures, showing us things that we would rather not see. Shakespeare seems to have been consistently drawn to the most troubling aspects of his world; he seemed to know, as we should, that the things we would rather not see are the precise things to which we should devote the most attention.
Explore The Taming of the Shrew and learn more about the production.