“Thou must be married to no man but me,
For I am he born to tame you, Kate
And bring you from a wild Kate”
—The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare: Act II Sc i. 277
A friend once described me as “a shrew longing to be tamed”. Whilst I thought the “shrew” bit an egregious slur on my soft, sweet feminine nature, I confess that I found the “longing to be tamed” bit surprisingly perspicacious
for a man. (Oops, that just slipped out!)
Perhaps it will come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that my favourite Shakespeare play is The Taming of the Shrew, the one that not even the venerable Royal Shakespeare Company now dares to interpret correctly. They do, however, admit that “a recent box office survey suggests that it is Shakespeare's second most popular play with audiences at the RSC.”
My guess is that this popularity owes very little to the current RSC production directed by Gregory Doran. As I watched this production in Stratford Upon Avon recently, I found myself wondering whether anyone involved had actually bothered to read the play and think about what it means. I was amazed by their misinterpretation. Women go to see The Taming of the Shrew because they are intrigued by the idea of Petruchio, the main male character, who is calm, confident, determined, and dominant, without having to appear intimidating or bullying. The RSC's current Petruchio is a bumbling, weak, incompetent fool who appears to fail entirely to tame the shrew, the title of the play notwithstanding. In 1988, Jonathan Miller said:
I think it's an irresponsible and silly thing to make that play into a feminist tract. It is not simply the high jinks of an intolerably selfish man who was simply destroying a woman to satisfy his own vanity, but a sacramental view of marriage.
And indeed, the production I recommend is the 1980s BBC TV one by Jonathan Miller. It is available on DVD and video in America, and (dramatically cheaper when I last looked) from the RSC online store in England. It is exquisite, full of famous faces, and stars John Cleese, of all people, as Petruchio.
In this masterful interpretation, Cleese is hilariously witty, as one would expect, but he is more than that. He manages to capture the full richness of Petruchio's character so well that even if you are not interested in The Taming of the Shrew, this production is worth seeing just for the evidence that Cleese is a phenomenally good actor. His Petruchio woos Katherina, the shrew, with gentleness and good humour backed by total confidence and a little highly politically-incorrect force at times. It never seems to occur to him that Kate might get the better of him, even when she is resisting most loudly and angrily. When at last she submits, he is tender and loving with her, and the passion between the two is evident.
To tempt you to consider seeing this fabulous production, here are some of my favourite lines from the play. Notice Katherina's sharp wit at the beginning... then read her final speech:
You lie in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst:
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate-hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation,
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.
The dialogue continues with Kate replying:
Moved, in good time, let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
You were a movable.
Petruchio: Why, what's a movable? [One who is easily moved]
Kate: A joint stool [A stool made by a craftsman]
Petruchio: Thou hast hit it: come sit on me.
Kate: Asses are made to bear, and so are you. [“to bear” means to carry passengers, and also carry children i.e., she is taunting him by calling him an ass and a woman]
Petruchio: Women are made to bear, and so are you [bear children plus support a man during sexual intercourse]
Each time Katherina snaps at him, Petruchio ignores her snapping and mildly calls her “sweet Kate, gentle Kate” and tells her that he is going to marry her. Here is another fun bit:
Petruchio: Come, come you Wasp, y'faith you are too angry
Kate: If I be waspish, best beware my sting
Petruchio: My remedy is then to pluck it out
Kate: I, if the fool could find it where it lies
Petruchio: Who knows not where a Wasp does wear his sting? In his tail. [note the “tail” pun!]
Kate: In his tongue?
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Kate: Yours if you talk of tails, and so farewell.
Petruchio: What with my tongue in your tail. Nay, come again, good Kate, I am a Gentleman,
Kate: That I'll try.
She strikes him.
Petruchio: I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again.
And so the banter goes on, witty riposte after witty riposte. Undeterred, Petruchio says:
I find you passing [i.e., very] gentle:
'Twas told me you were rough, and coy [i.e., disdainful], and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar:
For thou art pleasant, gamesome [i.e., spirited, fun], passing courteous,
But slow in speech: yet sweet as spring-time flowers.
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip, as angry wenches will,
Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk:
But thou with mildness entertain'st [i.e., receive] thy wooers,
With gentle conference [i.e., conversation], soft, and affable.
Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?
Oh slanderous world: Kate like the hazel twig
Is straight, and slender, and as brown in hue
As hazelnuts, and sweeter than the kernels:
Oh let me see thee walk: thou dost not halt [i.e., limp]
After yet more banter, Petruchio concludes:
Marry so I mean sweet Katherine in thy bed:
And therefore setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife; your dowry agreed on,
And will you, nill you [i.e., whether you like it or not], I will marry you.
Now Kate, I am a husband for your turn [i.e., suitable for you],
For by this light, whereby I see thy beauty,
Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well,
Thou must be married to no man but me.
For I am he am born to tame you Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other houshold Kates:
Here comes your father, never make denial,
I must, and will have Katherine to my wife.
Petruchio: Father, 'tis thus, your self and all the world
That talked of her, have talked amiss of her:
If she be curst, it is for policy,
For she's not froward, but modest as the Dove,
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn,
For patience she will prove a second Grissell,
And Romane Lucrece for her chastity:
And to conclude, we have agreed so well together,
That upon Sunday is the wedding day
Kate: I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first.
Gre: Hark Petruchio, she says she'll see thee hanged first!
Tra: Is this your speeding? nay then goodnight our part.
Petruchio: Be patient gentlemen. I choose her for myself,
If she and I be pleased, what's that to you? '
Tis bargained twixt vs twain being alone,
That she shall still be curst in company.
I tell you 'tis incredible to believe
How much she loves me: oh the kindest Kate,
She hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss
She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath [i.e., kissed me for every kiss I gave her],
That in a twinkle she won me to her love.
Oh you are novices, 'tis a world to see
How tame when men and women are alone,
A meacocke [i.e., cowardly] wretch can make the curstest shrew:
Give me thy hand Kate, I will go unto Venice
To buy apparel 'gainst the wedding day [i.e., in anticipation of the wedding day].
Provide the feast father, and bid the guests,
I will be sure my Katherine shall be fine.
On their wedding day, he firmly takes control. A wedding feast has been prepared, but Petruchio announces that he and Kate will not be staying for the feast. To which Kate replies:
Do what thou canst, I will not go today,
No, nor tomorrow, not till I please myself,
The door is open sir, there lies your way,
You may be jogging while your boots are green:
For me, I'll not be gone till I please myself.
But as she is about to march off defiantly to the wedding feast, Petruchio holds her back, saying:
They shall go forward Kate at thy command, [...]
But for my bonny Kate, she must with me:
Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret,
I will be master of what is mine own.
To the others at the wedding, Petruchio explains:
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My houshold-stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing,
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare,
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he that stops my way in Padua:
Grumio Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves.
Rescue thy Mistress if thou be a man:
Fear not sweet wench, they shall not touch thee Kate,
I'll buckler thee against a Million.
In the final scene, Kate valiantly defends their relationship in this classic monologue:
Thy husband is thy Lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign:
One that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance.
Commits his body
To painful labour, both by sea and land:
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, faire looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the Prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband:
And when she is frorward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending Rebel,
And graceless Traitor to her loving Lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple,
To offer war, where they should kneel for peace:
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions, and our hearts,
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you forward and unable worms,
My mind hath bin as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason happily more,
To bandy word for word, and frown for frown;
But now I see our Lances are but straws:
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most, which we indeed least are.
Then vale your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
UPDATE: Adam, of singlesouthernguy.com, describes the above article as:
a quite delicious exploration of one of the most loved Shakespearean pieces of all time, The Taming of the Shrew. [M]y personal favorite version is the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor film.
Thanks, Adam! However, I fear I must take issue with you on the Burton/Taylor version. Burton's Petruchio is a most unattractive drunken lout who shouts altogether too much and has no finesse and no subtlety whatsoever. He might as well have been playing a gladiator in one of those 1960s gladiator films. I had the distinct impression that Burton and Taylor were simply playing themselves, fighting non-stop, instead of playing Shakespeare's characters. That is not a compliment! It was tiring and uninteresting to watch, and horribly dated, I thought, what with the dreadful singing and other music. What am I missing?