Who Are You Trying to Kid, Billy Shakespeare?
By Jeff Salter
I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays and I love fast-paced comedies. There’s my author and genre. And this is a review … of sorts.
I hadn’t correctly remembered the suggested topic options for this week when I asked my wife what her favorite romance was. After thinking a bit, Denise said, “What about ‘The Taming of the Shrew’?”
I assumed she was kidding. “That’s your favorite romance?” I asked. I know it’s a 16th century archetype for a LOT of book, play, and film plots … but I was slightly surprised that Denise liked it.
“What do you like about it?” I inquired. I had read the play in college, seen the wonderful Richard Burton — Liz Taylor screen adaptation, and I’ve enjoyed the movie musical ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ which borrows part of this play in a very different context.
“Well, neither character started out to ‘find’ romance,” explained Denise.
That’s certainly true: Katharine (the shrew) has absolutely NO interest in marriage and Petruchio (the arrogant opportunist) is enamored solely because of her dowry. There are numerous twists, imposters, mistaken identities, and odd motives amid the primary sub-plot of Katharine’s younger sister (Bianca), who’s not allowed to marry until Katharine does. [All those confusing and distracting elements are WAY too complicated to discuss here.]
Enter Petruchio, who’s in Padua to visit a friend. And, by the way, he also wants a rich wife. Katharine’s father (Baptista) eagerly embraces Petruchio – his elder daughter’s ONLY suitor to date – and only requires that Katharine AGREE to the match. After a very funny scene with witty barbs and many double entendres, Petruchio announces to Baptista that Katharine has agreed [a bald-faced lie] and convinces the father that Katharine will deny this out of a desire to appear coy. So (over his daughter’s repeated denials) Baptista blesses the marriage, signs the contract, and gives 20,000 crowns to the brash and dishonest Petruchio. The wedding is set.
Shakespeare got away with a lot: audiences in 16th century England were willing to suspend considerable disbelief. Would the fiery, dominant Katharine REALLY allow herself to be mated to this coarse, stubborn gold-digger? I’m not convinced.
Not only has Petruchio ‘bulled’ his way into a marriage contract with over-powering momentum, but he deliberately sabotages Katharine’s wedding ceremony. [That’s cruel.] And then he hauls her out of town before she can even enjoy her own wedding banquet. A long tiring journey to Petruchio’s estate leaves Katharine exhausted and starving. Yet Petruchio won’t let her rest or eat. Shakespeare handles this by making Katharine seem like a helpless idiot. Why won’t she just march down to the kitchen and grab some vittles? No, she falls into the bizarre idiocy her new husband uses to ‘tame’ her.
This would never work in real-life … and certainly not in modern times. But Shakespeare makes Katharine so exhausted (emotionally and physically), confused, and demoralized that she meekly decides to agree with whatever Petruchio says … basically to shut him up.
All the while Petruchio PRETENDS that his multiple manipulations and continual outbursts are simply acts of adoration. Really? C’mon, Shakespeare! He treats his new bride like dirt and won’t allow her to eat or sleep … and yet Petruchio convinces her it’s out of LOVE? No way.
So, Katharine humors Petruchio. Gosh, that’s a quick transformation! Believable? Not to me.
The climax of the entire play (which also wraps up sister Bianca’s part of the story), is when Petruchio and two other newly married men wager as to which new wife will most quickly OBEY an absurd ‘order’. So, in turn, they ‘send for’ their new wives (in other parts of that household). In turn, each of the other wives refuses to show. But Katharine? She springs to obey Petruchio.
Not content to win that wager, Petruchio adds another layer of dominance and Katharine also passes that test. She goes through her paces and her brash husband wins the larger bet.
So why does this play work? I’m not sure.
But I believe this is the key: In appearing to ‘obey’ her husband – more like a puppy than a wife – Katharine actually holds the controls of this relationship. Until that point, she had put up with all of his bizarre behavior simply as a coping mechanism. But with this public wager, she finally has the upper hand. If she refuses to obey, her husband is humiliated and loses lots of money. [Good revenge.] But she chooses to let him off the hook. At that moment, Katharine has all the power — to ‘make or break’ her husband. Why did she comply and let him appear as the victorious master of their marriage? Because, in my opinion, she knew it made things equal. Petruchio could never again pull all that crap on her because at this moment, she held his ‘manhood’ (so to speak) in her hands.
To ‘appear’ to obey without question was actually Katharine’s way of saying to Petruchio, “From this point on, things are different, Sport.”
In the movie version this is reinforced by the look – first of worry and then relief – on Burton’s face when Taylor sweeps into the room and makes her subservient speech. Yep, he knew she had all the power at that point.