How to Tame a Shrew?

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Photo. by Christoph Mueller

Our revered guardian of theatrical values, Michael Billington, has recently joined Twitter. The news provoked a flurry of excitement among regular tweeters. His first message to what is already becoming a large band of devoted followers both posed a question and offered a recommendation. ‘Saw the Shrew in Stratford last night. I once called for a ban on the play. Was I wrong? Read my review tomorrow.’ I tweeted back ‘I don’t believe you really think that any play should be banned. But some productions ….’

I feel sure Michael disapproves of censorship on any grounds. But his comment echoes a complaint that was made over a century ago by Bernard Shaw when he wrote of the play ‘No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth.’ For some people Kate’s final speech is as much of an obstacle to enjoyment of the play as for others are the nationalistic sentiments of the final chorus of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

Since Shaw’s time this complaint has been vociferously echoed by feminist critics, and the view that Kate’s long last-act speech of submission to Petruccio forms a deplorable endorsement of patriarchal attitudes towards marriage has been reflected in numerous productions. Michael Bogdanov’s iconoclastic RSC version of 1978 portrayed Petruccio, played by Jonathan Pryce, as a hell-raising bully from the start, emerging drunk from the audience and demolishing the romantic, Italianate set on to which he climbed after a fake tussle with an usherette. Yet at the end, as Paola Dionisotti’s Kate spoke in praise of marriage and offered to place her hand beneath his foot, he writhed in embarrassment. And other inventive directors have attempted to defend Shakespeare from the charge of endorsing misogynistic values to which they themselves cannot subscribe.

In the production now running at the RSC that provoked Billington’s comment, Lucy Bailey seeks to explain Kate’s apparent submission by ascribing it to sheer lust. She was so keen to get her athletic, tattooed Petruccio beneath the sheets of the vast bed that formed the set that as soon as she had spoken her final lines the couple tore off their clothes and descended into copulatory bliss. This was one way of attempting to excuse Shakespeare from belonging to his time.

But there is a simpler one. The shrew story is framed by that of Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker who in the play’s opening scenes is shown being fooled by a lord and his followers into believing that he is himself a lord, that he has a wife who grieves for his loss of memory, and that the travelling players who come conveniently upon the scene will enact the taming story for his personal entertainment. In the version of the play that was printed in the first Folio of 1623 the Christopher Sly framework is abandoned as the play that is being performed for his benefit progresses, and he fades out of the action. But another play based on the story, and possibly on Shakespeare’s own play, printed in 1594, rounds off the story with a final episode in which Sly is carried back on to the stage ‘in his own apparel again’. A tapster wakes him, he calls for more wine, sees that the players are gone, and asks ‘Am not I a lord?’ The tapster disabuses him of his illusions, and Sly says he’s had ‘the bravest dream tonight that ever thou / Heardest in all thy life.’ Now he knows ‘how to tame a shrew’, and he sets off for home confident that he can tame his wife if she angers him.

Some directors, including Jonathan Miller in both his television version and his RSC production of 1987, in which Fiona Shaw played Kate as an initially neurotic psychopath who finally accepted the status quo as a situation that had to be endured rather than enjoyed, have abandoned the framework altogether. In doing so they have jettisoned some of the play’s finest verse and diminished its imaginative complexity. Most importantly, they have lost a perfect opportunity to redeem Shakespeare from charges of misogyny (supposing they had wished to do so) by presenting the shrew story as a romantic tale of wish fulfilment on the part of Christopher Sly. John Barton did this in his directorial debut at Stratford in 1960. For me this remains the benchmark production. Peter O’Toole and Peggy Ashcroft’s quarrel scenes crackled with wit. The Irish actor Jack McGowran was a credulously volatile Sly. The young Ian Holm played an almost senile Gremio who touched the heart as he said ‘And may not young men die as well as old?’ And Patrick Wymark’s Grumio gave full value to the character’s beautifully shaped prose account of Petruccio’s journey. In the final scene as Petruccio strummed his lute and sang, giving a sense that far more than a hundred crowns hung upon the successful outcome of the wager, we awaited Kate’s entry in delighted anticipation. And finally, as the players packed their costumes and props and wandered back into the night, Sly was left to enjoy the thought that he knew now how to tame a wife.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Elleoneiram

    The Stratford production I saw several years ago has stuck in my mind. At first, I thought the crude commedia dell’arte comedy was way over the top. It skewed the play to make Petrucchio look almost as bad as possible. But by the end, the whole audience hung on every word. It became a powerful and disturbing denunciation of sexism that my friends and I will probably always remember. I really enjoy Taming of the Shrew, but I’m often bothered when the play is a relatively straightforward love story. The production I saw indeed was not.

  • Sylvia Morris

    The Taming of the Shrew always poses difficult questions in production. For more comments especially about the Bogdanov production see

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