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Short Shakespeare!

The Taming
of the Shrew

March 24, 2012

in CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Rachel Rockwell

Listening to Silence

by Frances E. Dolan

Whenever I see a production of The Taming of the Shrew I cannot wait to see how the director and actors have chosen to handle several key moments in which the text leaves us guessing. It’s not hard to figure out why Katharine (whom I so call because she says imperiously that “they call me Katharine that do talk of me”) might prefer marriage to staying at home with her father and playing second fiddle to her annoyingly popular little sister, Bianca. It’s also fairly obvious why she might prefer Petruchio’s swaggering, intimate confrontation to the way that everyone else in the play shrinks from her. But despite the fact that Katharine seems to be bursting with emotion and opinions, despite the fact that she is criticized for talking too much, she falls silent when I, for one, long to hear what she has to say.

When Petruchio reports to her father on his success in wooing Katharine and their plans to marry, she says she'll see him hanged rather than marry him. But as he goes on to insist on her love for him, and to explain the bargain they have struck, she says nothing. I’ve seen productions in which he holds his hand over her mouth, productions in which she’s too busy biting him to talk, productions in which she simpers in complicity, and productions in which she’s dazed and muzzled by her own desire. In the Zeffirelli movie version of 1967, Richard Burton as Petruchio literally locks Elizabeth Taylor (who was, of course, his off-screen wife) into a closet while he went on speaking the lines of the text; the camera then lingers on Katharine’s thoughtful face as the scene ends. The text leaves all of these options open.

In an earlier play whose relation to Shakespeare’s Shrew has been much debated, A Pleasant Conceited Historie, called The Taming of a Shrew (1594), she says in an aside “But yet I will consent and marry him, / For I methinks have lived too long a maid.” When the eighteenth-century actor-manager David Garrick adapted the play as Catharine and Petruchio (the version most often performed throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century) he assigned his Catharine her own agenda: "I'll marry my revenge, but I will tame him." That other versions of this story supply Katharine with a covert gameplan makes it all the more noticeable that Shakespeare’s play does not.

While many Shakespearean comedies end in weddings, Shrew edges into darker territory by placing its wedding in the middle of the play, thus leaving us several acts in which to explore the unsettling fact that marriage is not a happy ending as much as it is an uncertain beginning. After Petruchio has refused to attend the wedding feast and Katharine has defied him, she has no lines during his closing remarks and their departure. Petruchio's lines provide what amount to stage directions for Katharine: "Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret; / I will be master of what is mine own." But what is she thinking?

Finally, Shakespeare’s Katharine never has a speech in which she explains her decision to submit to Petruchio or her attitude toward that decision. However Garrick gives Catharine a soliloquy at the end of Act I.

Look to your seat, Petruchio, or I throw you.
Catharine shall tame this haggard [wild hawk];—or if she fails,
Shall tie her tongue up, and pare down her nails.

The 1929 film directed by Sam Taylor, starring real-life wife and husband Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, lifts these lines from Garrick, and thereby fills a gap in the text by giving Katharine her own scheme to try for mastery but submit to Petruchio if he can best her. Taylor’s film also elaborates on the stage tradition of having Petruchio carry a bull whip, a tradition that seems to have begun in the eighteenth century, by having Mary Pickford crack her own rival whip. In this film, Petruchio and Katharine achieve a curious kind of equality as they face off, whip to whip.

According to the minimal stage directions in early editions of the play, Katharine initiates physical violence by, among other things, tying her sister up and hitting her and “striking” Petruchio. Performance and editorial traditions have tended to exaggerate Petruchio’s violence, adding actions that are not made explicit in Shakespeare’s First Folio, which leaves us free to imagine a Petruchio who is routinely violent or one who, in collusion with his servants, stages his violence to taming effect. Whatever his means, Petruchio’s end is clear. It is hard to watch the play without reflection on the very idea of taming. The goal of taming a spouse assumes that spousal equality leads to endless conflict as each spouse strives for dominance. Husband and wife can only achieve peace when one emerges victorious—and the other knuckles under. This is a strikingly violent and pessimistic vision of equality!

Whether we see Petruchio as the triumphant tamer, or Katharine as a sly tamer who gets her way by acting the part of the proper wife, the play’s conclusion suggests that both spouses win when one is on top. The battle of the sexes can only be resolved when husband and wife decide which one that will be. Whichever one we think triumphs or tames at the end of Shrew, the question remains: why does there have to be one tamer and one tamed? (This, by the way, is what makes Coward’s Private Lives such a remarkable contribution to the long battle of the sexes tradition. One spouse never tames the other. Coward wryly suggests that to be perfectly matched is to be in a perpetual, passionate duel, lustily breaking things over one another’s heads.)

For me, the most satisfying production of Shakespeare’s Shrew is one that does not try to resolve its ambiguities. I think that most of Shakespeare’s comedies are “problem” plays in the best sense, in that they draw us into interesting, irresolvable conundrums and leave us with loose ends and reservations.

By the end, Katharine has learned not to hit or contradict her husband. But her rewards for good behavior include a chance to lord it over the other women. Triumphing over others in the game of So You Think You’ve Tamed Your Shrew?, this couple offers us a funny, sexy and somewhat scary picture of what it might look like to find a mate and stand together against the world. The ending leaves the question open of what marital “peace and love and quiet life” cost and who pays that price. My nagging doubts pull me into the theater to see Shrew yet again and keep me on the edge of my seat wondering how that supposedly happy ending will make me feel this time.

Frances E. Dolan is Professor of English at UC Davis. Her teaching and research focus on early modern English literature and history, although she is increasingly interested in how that particular past bears on the present. Her most recent book is Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy.

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