The Taming of the Shrew: The Mirror of Film

In the late twentieth century, it is not unusual for audience members to come away from productions of The Taming of the Shrew with the impression that they have just witnessed the story of a dynamic woman turned into a Stepford wife.1 There are also Shakespearean critics who hold such views. G. I. Duthie, for instance, describes Katherina as a “spirited woman who is cowed into abject submission by the violence of an egregious bully” (147). John Fletcher’s 1611 play The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio’s second wife treats him as he had treated Kate,2 suggests that even during Shakespeare’s lifetime the battle of the sexes within the play had become a battle of the critics outside it.3
Shakespearean scholars on the other side argue, as Charles Boyce does, that far from being a tale of domination, “the play’s main plot concerns the development of character and of love in a particular sort of personality” (626). Boyce goes on to say that “The violence in The Shrew–except for the beatings of servants … is limited to Katherina’s own assaults on Bianca and Petruchio” (626). Nor is Boyce alone in his belief that Petruchio is physically kind to Kate; as Robert Speaight writes, “It is only to others that he is rough” (59).


Much of the confusion comes from a simultaneous idealization of the twentieth century4 and denigration of the sixteenth, a glorification of the sensibilities of modern critics, directors, and audiences coupled with a condemnation of the “medieval” insensitivity of the playwright. For example, Jonathan Miller, director of the 1980 BBC Shrew, says, “Shakespeare is extolling the virtues of the obedient wife … in accordance with the sixteenth-century belief that for the orderly running of society, some sort of sacrifice of personal freedom is necessary.” He defends his position with an attack, arguing that “If we wish to make all plays from the past conform to our ideals … we’re simply rewriting all plays and turning them into modern ones,” a practice he calls “historical suburbanism” (140).


However, he is himself engaging in a procedure which might be called historical blurring, allowing certain historical trends to obscure individuals and their divergent opinions.5 No period can be correctly characterized as homogeneous, certainly not a time as tendentious as the Renaissance. To maintain that women’s rights were not hotly debated by Shakespeare and his contemporaries is ignorance coupled with arrogance, and to fit the creator of Portia, Rosalind, and Viola into the company of male supremacists requires an adept mental contortionist.6 One need look no further than John Fletcher’s epilogue to The Tamer Tamed for a flat contradiction of Jonathan Miller’s implied Renaissance world picture. In the epilogue, Fletcher claims his play is “meant/ To teach both Sexes due equality; And as they stand bound, to love mutually” (148).


Those critics who acquit Shakespeare of male chauvinism often accuse him of bad craftsmanship. Thus H. J. Oliver writes in his introduction to the Oxford edition of the play, “In The Taming of the Shrew he Shakespeare was dramatizing material from unrealistic literature that was perfectly acceptable on the level of the Punch and Judy show but ran the risk of embarrassing as soon as it rose above that level” (51). He has previously said, “We sympathize with Katherine–and as soon as we do, farce becomes impossible” (51). But rather than assuming that Shrew should therefore be played as comedy and not farce, Oliver decides that Shakespeare has been led astray by his low comedy source.


Directors of stage and film versions of the play must also participate in this long-running and complex controversy, choosing sides and making critical judgements as they make their artistic choices. If the five film versions of the play which are currently available are not likely to give a definitive answer, they certainly provide a representative sample, a set of performance texts with which to explore Shakespeare’s blueprint. They include a “live” television production with Charlton Heston, a full-scale movie version directed by Franco Zeffirelli, a filmed stage production from the 1982 Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival, the BBC’s television studio version made for the thirty-seven play Canon in the Can, and, finally, Bard’s made-for-videocassette version filmed on a replica Shakespearean stage without the audience.


Those directors who see the play as a man’s violent domination of a woman have manipulated the text in two main ways. One is to foreground the violence a la Charles Marowitz, who declares that “The modern technique of brainwashing is, almost to the letter, what Petruchio makes Katherine undergo” (18). Keith Digby’s 1980 Stratford, Ontario, production, for instance, characterized Petruchio’s ministrations as “brutality in a concerted application to destroy Kate’s individuality through her total subjugation” (Loudon 678).7
Another and more “popular means of not dealing directly with the main story has been” as Tice L. Miller writes, “to mock it by turning the production into knockabout farce” (662). This was the strategy of the 1991 Utah Shakespearean Festival production, a strategy which, as usual, pleased most audience members while infuriating those who felt that Kate or Shakespeare or both had been violated.8 Nancy Mellich wrote in her Salt Lake Tribune review, “As interpreted by director Kathleen Conlin, Petruchio is a muscle-flexing bully, Kate a groveling, shrieking victim, and poor Will Shakespeare a male chauvinist…. What a pity, because that is a grave disservice to these witty, feisty, intelligent and immensely appealing characters.”
Both the Charlton Heston “live” television Shrew and the Bard versions employ comic violence and clearly signal Petruchio’s physical domination of Kate. The sparse, sixty- minute production starring Charlton Heston emphasizes the comic violence and eliminates much of the wit combat. Kate first enters at the beginning of Act 2, dressed for equestrian exercise and beating Bianca with a riding crop at 2.1.22.9 Perhaps this is an indication of the horseplay to come.


Because the first scene between Petruchio and Kate is so abbreviated, the physical action therein is concentrated, and the sparring seems more physical than intellectual; of the 88 lines in the text, 34 have been cut. The combat becomes heated when Kate threatens, “best beware my sting” (2.1.210) and bites Petruchio’s hand. When he moves to grab her bottom on the line “Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?/ In his tail” (2.1.213-14), she slaps his hand. After Petruchio proclaims himself a gentleman (2.1.217), Kate lustily exclaims, “That I’ll try” and slaps his face, finally provoking him to anger. His response, after Kate declares, “If you strike me you are no gentleman” (2.1.220), is to slap her twice (not, however, as hard as she slapped him). He holds her wrists behind her back with one arm as he compliments her from 2.1.236-244, and Kate stamps on his foot at “Thou art pleasant, gamesome…” (2.1.239). Then, just before he says, “Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk” (2.1.243), Petruchio puts his hand over her mouth to prevent her from speaking, and she promptly bites it.


Kate has escaped his grasp by 2.1.251, and she begins throwing bric-a-brac and potted plants at him; she then tries to beat him with the broken lute when he says, “be thou Dian and let her be Kate” (2.1.254), but she misses and falls over his lap in a spanking position. And Petruchio does just that on line 260.


The Bard production too includes much horseplay but moves even further in the direction of farce. Throughout the performance, everyone on stage sighs when Bianca is mentioned, and the entire cast leans whenever anyone says “Pisa.” Additional instances of the Bard’s shtick are Lucentio’s unsuccessful attempt to quote a Shakespearean sonnet, “Shall I compare thee to a…. Shall I compare thee to a….” just before 1.1.14; the playing out of the lute-smashing scene on screen; and Petruchio’s and Hortensio’s apparent fear of being struck by lightning after the former says, “though she chide as loud/ As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” (1.2.94-5), and again after Hortensio says, “Her name is Katherina Minola” (1.2.98).


Katherine and Petruchio dive into the violence enthusiastically if not immediately, and when they do, the text becomes subordinate to the action, despite the fact that all the lines in this encounter are intact. The first truly violent action comes at 2.1.217, when Kate punches her suitor in the jaw and knocks him to the ground. Petruchio jumps up, looking as though he’s going to punch her back, but he controls the urge. Some of the most noteworthy bits of roughhousing occur from lines 236-65, during which Petruchio grabs Kate from behind (236), and Kate flips him over her back (237). At line 239, Petruchio grabs her from behind again, lifts her from the floor, then, as he says, “slow in speech” (240), he puts his hand over her mouth. Kate, of course, takes this opportunity to bite his hand (243), after which he lets her go. When Petruchio speaks of “gentle conference” (245), she jumps on his back and grabs his face.


Later, at 2.1.255, Kate lunges at him and falls to the floor, giving Petruchio the opportunity to seize her ankle and bend her knee so she can’t get up. After line 257, “It is extempore from my mother wit,” Petruchio bites her toe; she screams, shakes Petruchio off, pins him on the floor and bends his knee into the same awkward position, before she replies, “A witty mother! Witless else her son” (258). Finally, Petruchio twists around and pushes Katherine to the floor at “Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in your bed” (2.1.260). He kneels between her legs, catches her wrists, and holds her down while he forcefully insists that they will be married.10
Although most productions of Shrew cut the Induction (as four of these five films have done) the play within the play is still part of Shakespeare’s text and his intent, and this pointedly artificial structure can show the actors in the main plot as role players whose actions shift with their situations. Further, inside the play within the play are yet other productions which may be used to distract from any unpleasantness (real or imagined) in the main plot. Bianca’s suitors–Lucentio and Hortensio–disguise themselves to woo her, and Lucentio, who pretends to be the emissary of Gremio, directs his own actors–Tranio and a chance-met Pedant–in a comedy designed to end with Lucentio’s wedding to Bianca. Meanwhile, Petruchio and his servants play out a drama which might be called Petruchio the Shrew.


Indeed, there is scarcely a scene which does not involve a deceptive performance for an on-stage audience. The Induction draws attention to the tricks of actors and to the acting that others do, “And if the boy have not a woman’s gift/ To rain a shower of commanded tears,/ An onion will do well for such a shift” (1.124-6). Preceded by those lines, Kate’s words to Bianca, “A pretty peat! It is best/ Put finger in the eye, and she knew why” (1.1.78-79), show Bianca as a boy actor who plays the role of a girl who pretends to cry. Kate accuses her sister of playing father’s pet, and much of Kate’s shrewish behavior may be attributed to her frustration with the success of Bianca’s role playing. Enter Petruchio to act many parts–fortune hunter, wealthy suitor, swaggering master, true lover, shrew tamer, and–in the pursuit of this last–shrew. In this shifting, indeed very opal of a context it is hard to take Petruchio seriously as an advocate of the right rule of the sixteenth century male and yet the Induction and its implications are Shakespeare’s.


By including the Induction and emphasizing the play-within-a-play aspect of Shrew, the Stratford Festival has foregrounded the kind of performance which a stage production can do best. As H. R. Coursen declared, “The production’s outstanding quality was its theatricality” (286). In fact, the Stratford film goes beyond the lines and stage directions included in most texts of the play to achieve that theatricality. The Shrew players bow, for example, in recognition of Christopher Sly and company and allow Sly to act out the part of Biondello. Later on in the play, Sly takes on directorial authority, demanding from his seat in the balcony that Vincentio not be taken to prison. In addition, Petruchio and Kate, on their way to the bed chamber, walk past and acknowledge their onstage audience, and Petruchio’s taming soliloquy of 4.1.182-205 is delivered on the balcony in their midst.11 The film concludes with lines from The Taming of A Shrew, in which Christopher Sly, waking to find that he is not a lord, decides that he must have dreamt the play and declares that he is going home to tame his own wife.


The violence was minimized in this production, giving more attention to the combat of wits. This reduction did not, of course, please everyone. Ralph Berry complained, “To see the Shrew assimilated into homiletic drama is hard for those of us who regard its vital essences as brutality and sexuality” (200).12 It is, perhaps, significant that Berry links those two words and lists brutality first, but like so much Shakespeare criticism, it says more about the psychology of the critic than the reality of the play.


Nevertheless, not all physical confrontation was eliminated. Petruchio says, “In sooth, you scape not so” and chases Kate when she tries to leave; he then grabs her from behind, lifts her off the floor, carries her to a chair, and places her on his lap. Kate bites him when he tells her she is “passing courteous” and thus escapes from his lap, but Petruchio recaptures her by reaching across the table and pulling her up onto it. There is indeed much fighting over and even kicking of tables.


For this production, the end result of Petruchio’s behavior modification was not a broken or even subdued Kate but a Kate who has seen through the layers of role playing to reality. After Petruchio exits on “what o’clock I say it is” and Hortensio says, “this gallant will command the sun,” Kate suddenly realizes what Petruchio is up to. Her enlightenment consists of a small “oh,” then a larger one followed by quiet laughter.


If the Stratford Festival emphasized that part of Shrew which is best played on a stage, Zeffirelli’s retelling of Shakespeare’s story provided the maximum number of opportunities for a movie camera. Petruchio’s wooing of and confrontation with Katherine becomes a chase scene through Baptista’s house and over the rooftop with opportunities for swinging on ropes, smashing wooden structures, and repeatedly falling into a large pile of wool. Kate in her turn becomes the pursuer after the wedding, tracking her new husband over rough country during a storm.


As a result of this filmic revision, Zeffirelli’s Shrew avoided the direct violence usually included in 2.1 by turning the scene into a series of chases through Baptista’s house. After he says “I’ll crave the day/ When I shall ask the banns and when be married” (2.1.179-80), Petruchio rolls up his sleeves and enters a room to find Kate destroying a music stand. She throws a small lute at him when he says he has heard “her mildness praised in every town” (191), and she kicks Petruchio’s stool out from under him at line 198. But after she insists that she is “Too light for such a swain as you to catch,” she pretends Baptista has entered the room and says, “Father, this man…” and, when Petruchio turns round to look for Baptista, she slips out of the room, initiating a chase through the household.


This Petruchio is, initially, obsessed with money and not much else. When Hortensio says, in lines which exist in the screenplay but not in Shakespeare’s text, “Now Petruchio, if I do plot thy match with Katherine, there is a favor I would ask of thee to help me woo her younger sister, Bianca,” Petruchio responds, “Ask it, and so it be not gold, tis granted.” In addition, when he enters Baptista’s home, he eagerly inspects a silver serving set which is on a table. Zeffirelli has shifted lines so that the first thing Petruchio says to his future father-in-law is, “What dowry shall I have with her as wife?” He repeats the question in its rightful place (2.1.119-20), and when Baptista tells him he shall have twenty thousand crowns, he utters an “Ah!” of pleasure, and smiles. Also, after he tells Kate, “Will you, nill you, I will marry you,” she says, “I’d rather die” and jumps out a high window (onto a roof, we soon discover); he shows no concern for Katherine personally at this point, but mutters anxiously, “My twenty thousand crowns,” looking exceedingly relieved when he finds that he has not lost her dowry.


While this production is less violent than one might expect from a director as concerned with physical action as Zeffirelli,13 Petruchio’s characterization is considerably darker than Shakespeare’s play indicates. After the marriage, Petruchio puts Kate on a mule, and he and Grumio gallop off toward his house without waiting for her. Kate chases after them in the rain and finds a shortcut over a mountain; when she gets to the other side, however, her mule is startled by Petruchio’s horse and throws her into a pond. Petruchio chortles and rides on without offering assistance, leaving her to survive the rain (which soon turns to snow) on her own.


When Petruchio reaches his home, he celebrates by throwing gold to his servants. He looks disappointed and disgruntled when Kate walks through the door, as though he had hoped she was dead and the dowry his with no further trouble, and his complaints to his servants concerning the lack of preparation for his bride’s arrival seem a desperate attempt to cover his surprise and excuse his boorishness. But despite this unpromising (and unShakespearean beginning), by the end of the film, this Petruchio and Kate have realized the love which their first glimpses of each other suggested they might find. As Jack Jorgens says, “Their struggle, really a mutual taming, is ‘the old game’–they test each other, school each other” (68). If this Petruchio is not a conscious improver of Kate, he does change her (as she changes him) for the better, a message of hope which the rainbows and syrupy music have been foreshadowing all along.


Except for its omission of the Induction, the BBC Shrew is the truest to the text of the five films. It is also the one version which foregrounds the words rather than the comedic business of the play. Petruchio’s confiding of his strategy to the audience is given full weight both before his first encounter with Katherine and at his own home. Suddenly, the extended hawk-taming metaphor in 4.1 leaps out as, if not the center of the play, at least the central explanation for Petruchio’s behavior. In his soliloquy, he explains the theory of his taming, using an image that nearly everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood and that few people in modern audiences do. The comparison with the art of falconry is especially significant, since the falconer undertakes only to redirect the hawk’s natural impulses; it is impossible to break such a bird’s spirit. As T. H. White writes in The Goshawk, “Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless” (16). Petruchio speaks of “a way to kill a wife with kindness” (4.1.197), and his words to Katherine are almost always gentle. He praises her wit and beauty in phrases that must ring in her ears with a refreshing strangeness.


This is, of course, precisely the wrong way to break her. If that were his intention, he would be better advised to make her worthlessness clear to her, until in very weariness and despair she does as she is told. Instead, he treats her as a lady who deserves the best of everything, while acting himself as the very mirror of her shrewishness. In no other production is this as clear as in the BBC. John Cleese’s clever glances out at the television audience make it plain that his own shrewishness is mere performance.


Indeed the sole blow between Katherine and Petruchio comes at 2.1.217 when the play’s stage directions indicate that Kate “strikes him.” The only other physical clashes between the two occur at 2.1.234 when Petruchio grabs her arm to restrain her from leaving the room; at 2.1.314 when he twists her arm behind her back and leads her out of the room; and at 2.1.317 when Kate pushes him away. They even manage to maintain a civilized (though sarcastic) tone of voice throughout most of the episode, communicating through the meaning rather than the volume of their words.


The BBC is the only film where Petruchio does not carry Katherine off stage after the wedding scene, and the only film in which Petruchio’s pretense of rescuing Kate from the wedding guests is even mildly convincing.


As in the Stratford, Ontario production, when the newlyweds arrive at Petruchio’s house, Petruchio behaves abominably toward his servants, but, when he speaks to Kate, he is all mildness and manners. For instance, after he scolds and kicks the servant who is removing his boots, saying, “Take that, and mend the plucking of the other,” he exclaims with the greatest gusto, “Be merry, Kate” (4.1.142-3). In addition, it is clear that this “taming” is just as rough on Petruchio as it is on Kate when he wearily reveals his strategy at the end of 4.1; also, he sounds discouraged when he tells Kate, “Look what I speak or do or think to do,/ You are still crossing it” (4.3.190-91).


A particularly amusing instance of Petruchio’s imitation of Kate’s behavior (and his deliberate ignoring of her wishes) comes when she throws a tearful fit because Petruchio has rejected the new hat at 4.3.73-80. He responds by throwing the same sort of tantrum, whimpering, “A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie./ I love thee well in that thou lik’st it not” (4.3.81-3).


Kate sees through and decides to play along with Petruchio’s game at 4.5.12, agreeing that the sun is “moon or sun or what you please” and addressing Vincentio as a “young budding virgin”; it seems that she has learned marital cooperation and equality. However, Kate’s speech concerning woman’s place is not more playacting, but is delivered in earnest, recommending submission rather than equality, a message that is emphasized by the psalm which the dinner guests sing at the end of the play.


It is unfortunate that Jonathan Miller has used subtext to subvert what is otherwise an excellent version of Shakespeare’s text. Having established an intellectual and physical equality between Kate and Petruchio from the opening scenes, he takes it away by sleight of hand at the conclusion.14 And surely the creator of those ludicrous Puritans Angelo, Jacques, and Malvolio deserves better than to have their creed substituted for his own.


If it is not finally possible to point out or even imagine a definitive production of Shrew, it is possible to separate Shakespeare’s play from some of the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that have collected round it like cobwebs. The play does not demand brutality, nor is it a sixteenth century tract for the subjugation of women. As usual, Shakespeare is subtler than his interpreters and more modern than the historians and pseudo-historians who seek to place him in an imagined past with which they themselves are more comfortable. Shakespeare’s great strength is his understanding of human beings, and until actors, directors and critics can better that understanding, they–and we–would be better advised to learn from Shakespeare than to try to give him lessons in the form of revisions.


NOTES
1The term comes from Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives and the film of the same name that was made from it in 1975. In both, women are replaced by docile android replicas with limited vocabularies and insatiable desires to clean house. Return to text.
2It is worth noting in this context that “shrew” was a title which initially belonged to men anyway, the word appearing first (the Oxford English Dictionary indicates) in 1250 and not being applied to women until 1386. Return to text.
3However, Fletcher’s association with Shakespeare’s company and his later collaboration on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen give credence to Ann Thompson’s contention that by writing The Tamer Tamed, “Fletcher was … putting the play into its traditional context of the war of the sexes, a context in which normally … a story about a husband outwitting … his wife is capped … by one in which a wife outwits her husband, the overall moral being that … the best marriages are based on equality and mutual respect” (18). Given Shakespeare’s pre-eminence as a playwright for the King’s Men, his financial share in the company, and the theatrical failure of Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess (published in 1610), it is hard to imagine Fletcher’s sequel to Shrew as anything other than a compliment to its author and a continuation of his themes. Return to text.
4See, for instance, chapter five of Susan Faludi’s Backlash, “Fatal and Fetal Visions: The Backlash in the Movies” (112-139). Return to text.
5As Willcox and Arnstein write in The Age of Aristocracy, “A society, past or present, can be described only in generalizations, which by their nature are unsatisfactory” (47). Return to text.
6If it is objected that these women wear male attire and thus take on male characteristics, one might point to the many women in Shakespeare’s plays who exhibit “masculine” traits without adopting male attire or becoming monsters: Cordelia leads an army in King Lear; Helena, though a “right maid” for her cowardice, chases her lover through the forest night in Midsummer; another Helena outwits and ultimately catches Bertram in marriage in All’s Well, in part because of her skill in the “masculine” profession of physician; Beatrice expresses a desire to eat Claudio’s “heart in the market place” in Much Ado; and Paulina is the only member of Leontes’ court courageous enough to call the King mad in The Winter’s Tale. Return to text.
7Interestingly, Sherry Flett played Katherine in this Stratford Shrew and in the very different 1982 Stratford Festival production which we will examine later. Return to text.
8In addition to the knockabout elements, the USF played down the Kate-Petruchio problem by treating the play as an opportunity for ensemble performance, giving the Bianca subplot and even Hortensio’s widow a prominence they seldom attain. Return to text.
9All act, scene and line references are to the Signet Classic Shakespeare, Sylvan Barnet, editor. Return to text.
10If this is to be taken as a comic threat of rape, it is more in the spirit of the twentieth century and, for example, the 1991 Kevin Costner Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves than of anything Shakespearean. Return to text.
11Performance is emphasized in another way at Petruchio’s home in Act 4 where Petruchio demonstrates how foolish Kate’s shrewish behavior looks to others by playing it himself. He behaves like an outraged monster with his servants, as when he calls a servingman “A whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-eared knave (4.1.151), but is the very epitome of courtesy when he addresses Kate. For instance, just after he curses the servingman, he calmly invites, “Come, Kate, sit down; I know you have a stomach” (4.1.152). Return to text.
12Berry objected to the Stratford Festival’s program notes which suggested “‘Petruchio frees her from this role of shrew by enacting a calculated plan of behaviour modification'” (200). Berry was taken to task by H. R. Coursen, who said, “While I am no fan of a director’s program notes, good actors overcome concepts. And this concept does have textual support. Petruchio is holding a mirror up to Kate” (287). Return to text.
13However, as Jack Jorgens points out, the physical has not been abandoned or even subordinated, “Apart from sentimental romance, Zeffirelli’s major emphasis is upon farce. The film delights in harmless violence and festive destruction” (71). Return to text.
14Scott McMillan sees Miller’s production as more deadly, in fact, “a straightforward piece of shrew bashing. Casting John Cleese as Petruchio was first greeted as a sign of zaniness, but the anti-feminist inheritance from ‘Monty Python’ was here being turned to explicit purpose…. Kate’s concluding speech about the simplicity of women is the most centered and valorized speech in all of Miller’s productions” (80). Return to text.