I admit it. I’m a Shakespeare geek. I like to read the plays, I like to watch the plays, I like to talk about the plays, I like actors who regularly perform the plays, and I love Stratford-upon-Avon and all it’s Shakespearian tourist traps. I fondly remember sitting in The Swan theatre in Stratford and listened to an actress from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) lead a seminar about the why she portrayed Isabella in the latest production of Measure for Measure (a very disturbing play) the way she did. I don’t care if he really wrote the plays or not, I like them any way.
But I’m not a snob about it. I think alternative interpretations are great and don’t have to see men in tights professing loudly in iambic pentameter. I love seeing different versions because it’s always interesting to see how a director/actor/screenplay adaptor interprets the work. A production at my college had A Comedy of Errors set in the Wild West, and a production of Taming at the Shrew here in Nebraska was set in the 1950s of Las Vegas.
I love The Taming of the Shrew; it’s one of my favorites. I think it’s hilarious, and feminists and chauvinists who think it really is about taming a woman aren’t paying attention to what’s written (my take on that to come later). And a fantastic adaptation ran on BBCAmerica recently as part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told series. It ran in England in 2005, so we’re getting a little late, but thank goodness we got it! And BBCAmerica, by the way, is the only reason we have cable (well, that and the Speed Channel for Al).
So, anyway, in this version, Katherine (Shirley Henderson) is a successful politician, being primed to take over as leader of her party, by suggesting that she get married. She’s also wildly outspoken and all emotion, usually anger. Pete (or Petruchio—Rufus Sewell) is an eccentric rogue whose family fortune is gone and who needs to “wife it wealthily.” (By the way, if they do a bio-pic on Freddy Mercury, Sewell is a shoe in.) Katherine and Pete are a perfect passionate match. Henderson and Sewell are amazing in these roles, as are all the actors. Sally Wainwright has written one of the most clever adaptations I have ever seen. She’s interspersed actual lines from the play, which seem completely natural for a crazy but educated Pete to say. All of the plot lines and scenes are there—Bianca falling for Lucentio, Katherine’s mother (in this version) who obviously prefers her beautiful and famous younger daughter, Pete showing up in bizarre clothes to the wedding, the country house where Pete “tames” Katherine, Harry (Hortensio) losing Bianca but marrying a wealthy widow, and even the final monologue where Katherine scolds her sister and mother for not treating her husband as “her lord, her life, her keeper.”
But in this 21st century adaptation, when Bianca challenges Katherine’s last speech and tells her to put her hand beneath her husband’s foot if she truly feels that way, Katherine says she would if he asked, but he wouldn’t because she would not ask the same of him. Pete and Katherine, man and wife, are on the same level. Of course, when they are alone in the elevator, Katherine tells Pete she is pregnant but he’ll have to stay home with the kids because she is not giving up his career, which he readily agrees with. So, who tamed whom?
Now, whether you like it or not, I’m going to indulge in a little literary criticism here and tell you why I think this is the only way The Taming of the Shrew can end. In the final scene (Act 5, Scene 1), Petruchio and Katherine have come home for Bianca’s wedding. Petruchio bets the other newly married men that his wife is more obedient than theirs. One at a time, the men send an order through a Page to come to them. Bianca tells the Page she is busy and will not come. The widow sends the Page back to say, “She says you have some goodly jest in hand:/She will not come: she bids you come to her.” Katherine has heard all of this and has seen the Page come twice, now, to ask the same thing of a wife. There is no doubt in my mind that she has figured out what is going on, since this is just the kind of test that Petruchio would have given her. So when she is called, she comes, and when he tells her he doesn’t like her hat and to take it off, she does. Then she drags those ungrateful wives in and gives her over-the-top speech on how women should honor their husbands—those hard-working husbands who ask nothing more than “love, fair looks, and true obedience.” The speech is indulgent and hits on every aspect (or stereotype) of what it is to be a woman and a wife. And because Kate does this, her husband wins the bet, another dowry, which she will most certainly benefit from. Petruchio and Kate kiss and are off, victorious as a partnership.
Does Katherine really believe this speech? I don’t think so. As has been set up in other scenes in which Katherine and Petruchio try to outdo each other in outrageousness, this seems like another contest. The difference is that this time, they win as a couple against the others. And Katherine knows this is a contest when she enters the room because she has seen her sister and the widow turn away the same request from their husbands. And, she gets one up on her family and the town, and revenge is oh so sweet to Katherine.
Besides, do you really think Shakespeare would have written a serious treaty on how a woman should behave with Queen Elizabeth in the audience? I don’t think so. I think he found the balance of stating what the masses want to hear but making it so outrageous that there’s no way the speaker can mean what she is saying.
Oh, and that hat that Katherine takes off? Many times the scene is staged so that as they are leaving, Katherine points to the hat, which Petruchio quickly picks up and hands to his wife.
But don’t take my word for it. See it! Rent it! Read it! Revel in it! Then make up your own mind.