Monday, September 29, 2014

Taming of the Shrew

Recently I watched Franco Zeffirelli's movie of The Taming of the Shrew. It's always been one of the most problematic of Shakespeare's "comedies" for me and many others and this version did nothing to resolve my conflicted feelings. It's sumptuously filmed, the costuming is beautiful and with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads and other very talented actors as well it is probably about as good a cast as you could get but the subject matter disturbs me greatly and always has.

The main plot revolves around the marriage of Kate, the shrew of the title. She is fiery, says exactly what she thinks without a thought and can be insulting to those she has no respect for.  She has no wish to marry - and even if she did no-one is prepared to take on a sharp-tongued, bitter woman who doesn't know her place. She is made to seem even worse in the movie as she physically assaults her sweet tempered, younger sister, Bianca, after tying her hands. But her father has said Bianca cannot marry until Kate does so the pressure is on to find the older sister a husband no matter what she thinks - and there's a hefty dowry to encourage suitors.

Enter Petruchio, a thuggish, money seeking adventurer - the first time we meet him he is assaulting his servant for not acting on his confusing demands - in search of a wealthy wife. Kate's dowry attracts him immediately. He starts his courtship by completely ignoring whatever she says and claiming any abuse is affection and when he makes an offer her father accepts with alacrity and Kate is forcibly married off. In the movie she's cut off as she tries to say no which makes what follows even more disturbing. From then on things go even more badly for Kate. Petruchio makes it clear that she is now no more than a possession and she's bullied, deprived of food and sleep, left to wear rags, humiliated and abused to force her into submission. Finally she submits to whatever outrageous demands - and there are many of them - that Petruchio makes of her.

The sub plot is a little less distasteful as Bianca - the sweet natured, obedient daughter whose father is basically arranging to marry her to the highest bidder - runs off and marries her own choice but her marriage to the son of a wealthy man (after a number of mix ups) is accepted, when they seek her father's forgiveness. At Bianca's wedding reception Kate's obedience is tested by Petruchio and she obeys him immediately and then berates the other women for not doing as their husbands demand. In some productions - Zeffirelli's is one - her final speech is subverted as she winks at the end implying she is complying but not 'tamed' but, for me, this doesn't fit with the rest of her behaviour. This is a woman who has no other option than to submit.

So what does the play tell us with an abusive and misogynistic husband is being lauded as admirable and a submissive wife as an ideal? I think it leaves an unpleasant taste behind and apparently this isn't just a modern, feminist idea. Even at the time there were those who found the subject distasteful including the playwright, John Fletcher, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, who wrote The Woman's Prize or The Tamer Tamed in which Petruchio, now older and widowed, remarries Maria, a shrewish woman, and gets his comeuppance.

One school of thought is that Shakespeare was writing a satire and the play is awash with irony and another that this is a simple farce. If either was his intention I don't think he succeeded. Petruchio is not in any way an admirable or amusing character - he's brutal, and Kate is not the only one on the receiving end of his brutality - and, while Kate is certainly a difficult person, there is, for me, no humour in the way she is treated.

For all that The Taming of the Shrew remains popular, being performed frequently and even forming the basis for the popular Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.


Satima Flavell said...

Some companies won't present this play because it's so out of tune with current sentiment. But it must be admitted that there is some very funny dialogue, and I do think Shakespeare left it open for the final scene to be taken as irony or even played for laughs. I think all we can say is 'autres temps, autres mores' and accept it for what it is - a commentary on a certain kind of relationship.

Helen V. said...

I'd be happy to accept that it is of its time, Satima, if there wasn't evidence that it was somewhat out of step even then. There's a lot of cruelty in it and not just directed at Kate. Petruchio is physically abusive even to his old servant and the induction is basically about a cruel and nasty trick too.

I do wonder if, because it's one of the early plays, that Shakespeare was pandering to what he thought his audience would like and that as he matured and was more sure of his ability to win them over he was able to develop more depth.

There's always lots of broad humour and people making fools of themselves in Shakespeare's comedies - and often in the dramas too as light relief, Falstaff for instance - and it is funny as are mixups in the Shrew's the subplot. But Petruchio's behaviour just leaves me cold.