How to Tame a Swedish Shrew

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As Elizabeth Schafer reminds us in the Shakespeare in Production edition of the play, ‘The Taming of the Shrew has been phenomenally popular outside English-speaking countries’. Sweden is no exception in this respect; The Taming of the Shrew has been one of the five most popular Shakespeare plays in this country for well over a hundred years. The Shakespeare Survey International Notes section reports on yearly stagings of the play in Sweden in the late ‘40s; the summer of 1950 saw no less than three productions. More than a decade later, the popularity of The Taming of the Shrew remained high; reviews consistently describe it in terms of light comedy or droll farce.

However, whereas the other four plays of the top five (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, in that order) have gone on increasing their popularity on Swedish stages, The Taming of the Shrew alone has become less popular in the last few decades. The sea-change seems to have happened around 1968;
before that year of protests and movements, the play made up 12-14% of all professional Shakespeare productions per decade. In the ‘90s, the corresponding percentage had dwindled into 4%; in the ‘noughties, it was 3%.

One review from 2006 reveals how the play is usually perceived (and played) today: ‘The supposedly entertaining disciplinary methods in this bitter, dark version of the play recalls the interrogation techniques of the Guantanamo Base’.

A couple of years ago, I worked on The Taming of the Shrew with a group of students, who studied the play as literature as well as performed it on stage with me as their director. In performance-based courses, students develop a strong partisanship, defending their characters in their written work, finding motives, creating back-stories, pleading extenuating circumstances; they are their characters, warts and all. Our version therefore had no Guantanamo overtones whatsoever; it became about two socially inept people finding each other. ‘Kate’ ironically described her character as a misfit, ‘a Goth rocker in a society of Backstreet Boys fans’. ‘Petruchio’ (who saw his character as an impulsive person who ‘does and says a lot of things out of sheer bravado’) fiercely denied having any economical agenda in marrying Kate, maintaining that he does really fall in love eventually, and said: ‘Initially, it is just one more feat of boldness – she is so difficult, of course he has to marry her!’

Even given the generosity of the actors towards their characters, I knew that Kate’s final speech would be a difficult hurdle for us. We discussed different solutions; after much experimenting (and laughing), we ended up turning the speech into a piece of stage property, which could be examined, spoken, shared and reacted to from an external point of view, and by several people – not just Kate. It was scripted by Petruchio, and read by Kate from a scroll he gave her; she started reading, initially with some relish, directing the first fire-and-brimstone lines straight at the Widow (who did indeed look unkind and threatening), then, more gently, reasoned with Bianca (‘It blots thy beauty…’). Then her tone changed – she read on, with amused incredulity. Bianca became curious (‘What is this guff you’re reading?’ said her face), and came up to Kate, who handed the scroll over, and Bianca read the next few lines. By ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper’, Baptista (played as a woman) had joined her daughters and taken over the reading, her natural, well-bred authority revealing the absurdity of the lines. (Nobody knows better than Baptista, payer of the 20,000-pound dowry, exactly how little ‘painful labour both by sea and land’ Petruchio will have to do to maintain his wife.) Baptista’s politely incredulous looks towards the men made them shrink, and gather together in an uneasy little group at the very back of the stage. At first, they had been united in self-satisfied laddish approval; now they were getting distinctly uncomfortable – perhaps this wasn’t such a great idea after all?

The women read on, with increasing hilarity, curiously crowding around the offensive document and reading over each other’s shoulder; after the last line, they stepped forward, down from the stage, revealing the men huddled together in the background, and turned their inquiring looks towards them. The men appeared to be divided between wanting to pretend that nothing had happened, and wanting to put the entire blame on Petruchio; an uncomfortable silence ensued, punctured by an uneasy attempt on Petruchio’s part to laugh the whole thing off. Constrained silence again; then the women began to laugh, and almost immediately, with enormous relief, the men started laughing too.

The play ended with a spirited rendition of Henry VIII’s ballad ‘Pastime With Good Company’; while the association to this Tudor serial monogamist might be said to bode no good for the marital happiness of Kate and Petruchio, at least there was the ‘true concord of well-tunèd sounds’ in the happy young voices marrying so harmoniously.

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Dr Kiki Lindell is a lecturer of English Literature at Lund University, Sweden.

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