I read The Taming of the Shrew and I watched the 1980 BBC production of it, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring John Cleese as Petruchio.
It has a reputation as a better play acted than on the page, and I think this is probably true. The only part of any great interest – and the heart of the play – is that of Petruchio. It’s almost as if Shakespeare isn’t interested in the rest of the action. This is, in its way, similar to As You Like It: the traditional romance – boy loves girl, boy courts girl in a romantic fashion, boy and girl get married – occurs as it were in the background between two fairly uninteresting characters (Bianca and Lucentio); what comes to the centre-stage is the unorthodox courtship of Petruchio and Katherina.
Petruchio is a curious part to play. Like Rosalind is As You Like It (and possibly a few other Shakespearean characters) certain scenes seem to me at odds with other scenes. The first scene between Petruchio and Katherina, for instance – where Petruchio is very complimentary towards her – seems out of kilter with his attitude in the rest of the play, where he simply plays the madman – almost as if that first scene were too good an idea to pass up (though the jokes, I fear, are wasted on a c21th ear), and Shakespeare couldn’t really care if it didn’t entirely fit in. The rest of the play though is just a great idea on Shakespeare’s part – and it’s occasionally quite funny too.
Although it didn’t strike me as such reading through, the part of Biondello was well (amusingly) played in the production and is indeed quite well written. It has the following good Naked Gun-style moment too:
Biondello: Master, master, news! And such old news as you never heard of.
Baptista: Is it new and old too? How may that be?
Biondello: Why, is it not news to hear of Petruchio’s coming?
Baptista: Is he come?
Biondello: Why, no, sir.
Baptista: What then?
Biondello: He is coming.
Baptista: When will he be here?
Biondello: When he stands where I am and sees you there.
Is the play then deeply misogynistic? – No, I don’t think so. – OK, so we are talking about a time which the ideal of society was that women should be subordinate to men; but if this ideal were also the actuality, then the play wouldn’t actually make much sense. The relationship between man and woman is ever a conflict (not in life, I mean – just in Shakespeare), a fluid thing I imagine like a jelly which sets into a particular pattern (a fish, for instance) when it’s put in a mould. One shouldn’t generalise anything from some characters in a play – particularly not a comedy – particularly not a comedy where the basic characters of the people in conflict are chosen for their comedy value, rather than as a reflection as social mores. Katherina’s shrewishness at the beginning is as extreme as her subservience at the end: I don’t think we’re meant to come away believing either is a good thing; – entertaining maybe, but aren’t we all, in our mediocrity, much more like the lovers in the background, carrying on our dull prosaic courtships which are of no interest to anyone?
Next up: Shakespeare’s curiously queer play Twelfth Night.