The Taming
of the Shrew

September 16

November 12, 2017

CST's Courtyard Theater

by William Shakespeare
conceived & directed by Barbara Gaines
Columbia Women’s Club scenes by Ron West

A Scholar’s Perspective

Lost and Won
by Stuart Sherman

“When shall we three meet again?” asks the First Witch in the opening moment of Macbeth. The second witch’s answer:

When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

In Macbeth, losing and winning begin as a binary—an either-or—but quickly blur into something more complex. Macbeth decisively wins that battle of which the witches speak, and in the wake of that victory, “wins” the kingship too. And then proceeds to lose it all: self, wife, life. Tragedy, as Shakespeare often shows (and as we can recently attest) can readily begin with “winning,” catastrophically misconstrued.

Comedy is more generous; it generally transmutes losing into winning. For many, though, The Taming of the Shrew looms as a troubling exception. The play draws on a queasy-making tradition of jokes and anecdotes about husbands browbeating their wives into submission, and it culminates (spoiler alert!) in a speech expressing what seems total surrender, delivered by a wife who for most of the play has furiously resisted the attempts of any man (father, husband, wide-eyed onlookers) to mock or thwart her fierce autonomy. The Taming of the Shrew can thereby seem to fulfill its title’s prophecy all too easily. He wins, she loses, patriarchy prevails. In response, readers, playgoers, and show-shapers have for generations echoed the plaintive Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

It’s a genuine and unsettling question. For the play’s many skeptics, the answer is an absolute yes: Shrew is too imbued with the benighted convictions of its own historical moment to do anything subtler than document and (worse yet) advocate them.

But for the Shrew’s admirers (I’m one), the answer can be more complicated, more hopeful, and more fun. Shakespeare does much in the play to mess with our very notions of winning and losing; he blurs the two into something new.

Great drama, we’re taught in grammar school, depends on conflict. The core Greek word was agon, “struggle”—and the dramatic impact of the agon depends in large measure on the intense, matched powers of the agonists. In order to make the struggle work, Shakespeare had to make the strugglers worthy: passionate, witty, theatrically hypnotic.

He never, ever failed. From the first moments of their first confrontation, the mighty agonists Katherine and Petruchio launch themselves far beyond the stereotypes—rabid Fury, bullet-headed misogynist—of then-standard taming tales into a new stratosphere of sexual combat. Exchanging verbal barbs, matching word against word with the speedy dexterity of mighty beboppers trading riffs on a magnificent night, they make their way into one of comedy’s highest places of elation—where characters and audience discover in tandem a new modality of fun. By scene’s end they’re still ostensibly at fearsome odds with one another, and there is considerable cruelty to come. But their sparring has already made them impassioned partners, whether they as yet detect the shift or not.

But what then of Katherine’s seeming submission to Petruchio in the end? Well, to echo Facebook, it’s complicated. From their first encounter onward, we’ve detected in the pair an impulse toward collaboration that underlies the combat; over time they come to see it clearer too, and to bring it to the fore, in a giddy mix of theater and sport: they provide high-wattage performances for each other’s delectation, for ours, and in this final scene for the friends and family who gape at what they take as proof of Petruchio’s victory and Kate’s defeat.

For us, though, who’ve accompanied the couple on their whole hard ride, this moment can read less as contest than as well-learned teamwork, a victory shared (rather than sundered) in the newfound depths of their own souls.

“You complete me,” says Jerry Maguire, in a clause that has become much-mocked shorthand for the way rom-coms generally work. Shakespeare, here near the origins of rom-com, spells out the process in glorious Elizabethan longhand. The object in love, as in any endeavor worth the undertaking, is nothing so simplistic as subordination; it’s the much more complex process of completion.

In the original version of the play, Shakespeare clinched this point with a little skit at the outset, in which a drunken beggar is tricked into believing that he is a wealthy nobleman with a submissive wife; the play of Petruchio and Kate is then performed for his befuddled entertainment. The skit exposes the masculine desire for absolute dominion as a ludicrously misguided self-delusion—a drunkard’s dream if ever we’ve seen one.

Ron West, who has crafted a new frame for Chicago’s all-women production, flips Shakespeare’s premise from the ludicrous to the aspirational. The women’s suffragists, who in West’s reworking both perform and watch the play, are (unlike Shakespeare’s drunkard) possessed by a dream worth dreaming—one that we know they will soon attain, and that will ultimately confer grace and gain on the entire country, even on those who sought to thwart it.

The world is always awash (and perhaps never more so than now) in narrow, impoverished, zero-sum reckonings of winning and losing, whereby one group’s gain must inevitably entail another’s loss. So the play, done this way at this historical moment, may proffer a welcome respite: the opportunity to revel for a few hours of comedic comfort in other times, other paradigms, including our own possible future: a future like the one perhaps conjured by Shakespeare in his Shrew, and by the suffragists in this version of it, wherein what may seem momentarily a zero-sum matter of winners and losers turns out to entail something more tender: everybody wins, in the only ways that really count.

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