Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Problem Plays: The Taming of the Shrew

Great River Shakespeare Festival

The Great River Shakespeare Festivals 2008 offerings include two plays that are often described as “problem” plays. These type of problem plays use stereotypes or social attitudes that might seem offensive to contemporary audiences. Both of the GRSF plays this summer, The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, have seen periods where theater companies refused to stage them. Luckily, both plays receive regular productions as theaters and audiences welcome the opportunity to enjoy these important works, often by finding ways to confront or diffuse the racism or sexism that contribute significantly to their plot development. I am excited that GRSF has brought these two plays to Southeast Minnesota this summer, and I look forward to seeing them both.

The Plot

The Taming of the Shrew is a Shakespearean comedy, which means an audience can expect a plot driven by coincidence and chance, characters in disguise, clownish characters, and a happy ending replete with multiple marriages. Shrew does not disappoint.

Baptista, a rich gentleman, has two daughters of marriageable age. The younger daughter, Bianca, has attracted several competing suitors, while Katherine has none. Baptista decides that he will not entertain any suits for his younger daughter until a match is found for his older daughter who has a reputation as a “shrew.” This declaration sends the suitors on a search for someone crazy or desperate enough to marry Katherine—a task they view as impossible, even with the generous dowry and their own bounty added to the mix.

Enter the clownish gentleman from Vienna, Petruchio, who not only willingly takes on Katherine, her sizable dowry, her future inheritance, and the payments from Bianca's suitors, but undertakes the seemingly impossible task of “taming” her.

The Problems with the Text

Great River Shakespeare Festival
Carla Noack as Kate and Christopher Gerson as Petruchio in the Great River Shakespeare Festival’ The Taming of the Shrew. (Photo: GRSF)

While the play is very funny and very clever, the humor can be dampened by the sexist portrayal of marriage and women in the text. It should make us squirm a bit—and I suppose it might have made some early 17th Century Londoners squirm too. Some scholars point out that the abundance of surviving treatises and sermons dictating the proper role of women in marriage and society suggests that many women were not exactly embracing the role of obedience and servility in the early 1600s.

  • Katherine is called shrew and devil and freely described as curst and rough. But like derogatory terms used for women today—terms such as bitch, slut, whore, and feminazi—the terms are difficult to define, and they are nearly impossible to refute because of their ambiguous meaning, illogical application, and malicious intent. The function of these words is to bully women into silence and conformity.
  • Another troubling aspect of the play is that the daughters are not allowed any voice in who they will marry. Even though Bianca has many suitors, her father chooses without consulting Bianca. And in this case, Baptista chooses the highest bidder. One of the suitors, Lucentio, utilizes a two-prong strategy to try and win Bianca. He devises a way to secretly spend time with Bianca while his servant negotiates the financial deal with the father. But the disguised meetings with Bianca are simply for sport; only the financial deal holds any weight in marriage considerations. Another suitor, Hortensio, also disguises himself to meet directly with Bianca. But he fails to enter into negotiations with the father and, therefore, has no chance.

    Katherine's marriage is also arranged between suitor and father. But here it is the father (and Bianca's suitors) who makes the payments. Both daughters are traded as property by father and suitors. Petruchio even puts it in words on his wedding day:
    She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
    My household stuff, my field my barn,
    My horse my ox my ass my anything. (III.ii.220-222)
  • A final problem is with the main comic device of the play—the “taming” of Katherine. Petruchio marries Katherine with the assurance that he can turn her from curst devil into a model wife, mild and obedient. His methods are those of a falconer taming a wild bird—and Shakespeare uses rich metaphors from falconry throughout:
    My Falcon now is sharp and passing empty
    And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
    For then she never looks upon her lure. (IV.ii.159-161)

    He captures her, removes her from her native place, refuses her food and sleep, then makes sure she knows that she can only get food and clothing through him. And before allowing her to return to her native home, she must accept his word as truth—even going so far as to embrace an old man as a young girl and calling the sun the moon. While the falconry metaphor is brilliantly written, this brainwashing is chilling when applied to a human being.

Playing to a Contemporary Audience

Katherine finally is allowed to speak for herself at the end of the play, and her words lay out the ideal for a loving, obedient wife—a final speech that leaves the play's characters astonished in admiration at her transformation and leaves the reader/audience cringing. It seems to me that this scene can only work for a contemporary audience if a couple of things happen. One, the audience buys into the “shrew” conceit and accepts that Katherine is better off in her new reincarnation. A more likely strategy is to play Katherine so large that she is seen as an equal to Petruchio, despite the limited text Shakespeare gives her to define herself. If the company can achieve this portrayal, the final speech can be viewed as a truce or understanding between equals who hold each other with mutual respect and love.

The text of the play seems starkly oppressive (and I'm contemplating the play entirely from the text here), but the play in production can be very different. Actors, directors, and designers are able to make choices that allow the audience to enjoy Shakespeare's keen wit while allowing Katherine to have a voice. The choice of Carla Noack as Katherine in the Great River Shakespeare Festival's production is a good indication that Katherine's voice will be heard. I expect that most theater companies who undertake this play will find ways to make the play work for an audience without asking them to accept a view of women as property to be exchanged between men.

The Taming of the Shrew plays in reperatory with The Merchant of Venice through July 27.
Visit the Great River Shakespeare Festival for schedules and tickets:

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