Shakespearing #8 by David Foley
The Taming of the Shrew
In my memory, The Taming of the Shrew was a rambunctious farce with two larger-than-life roles and a Stepford Wives ending. On reacquaintance, it’s a joyous work of art. But about that ending: the reasons Kate gives for submitting to Petruchio are not comfortable, but they express an ideal of marriage still to be found in many parts of the country today. What rankles is the taming of Kate’s glorious refusal to submit. But there’s plenty to suggest that Kate has not so much been tamed as she’s learned to manage the relationship between self and society more astutely, and in the service of love.
The play is actually quite subversive about the relationship between love and the social forms. Shakespeare worked in pairings, and it’s no accident that Petruchio’s absurdist wooing of Kate is echoed immediately by Tranio and Gremio wooing Baptista for Bianca’s hand. “’Tis deeds must win the prize,” he tells them, only to clarify that by “deeds” he means “dower,” the money, land, and luxuries they then fall over each other to promise him. It’s Petruchio, despite having “come to wive it wealthily in Padua,” who has to remind everyone that you marry a person, not an estate, nor yet a social form:To me she’s married, not unto my clothes. Could I repair what she will wear in me, As I can change these poor accouterments, ’Twere well for Kate and better for myself.
But the play is more subversive still. I don’t know how common it is these days for productions to leave out the Christopher Sly “Induction” (the first productions I saw didn’t have it), but to do so cheats both audience and play—the audience because the Sly scenes are charming and funny, and the play because the Induction provides a key to all that follows. It not only frames the main action of the play as a performance, but, like the play itself, it’s a series of performances by people pretending to be people they’re not. Most significantly, the Lord’s page pretends to be Sly’s wife: “I am your wife in all obedience.” To put this neat foreshadowing in the mouth of a boy who’s pretending to be a woman and a wife suggests that Kate’s final speech is just another performance, that marriage itself is a performance as artificial as all the other performances in the play.
Kate and Petruchio come to terms not in the last scene, nor even on the road back to Padua, when Kate is clearly humoring Petruchio (she’s learning to perform), but in Act V, Scene 1, when they “stand aside” like spectators at a play to watch the unraveling of all the performances in the Lucentio/Bianca story. At the end of the scene Petruchio asks Kate to kiss him, and she at first resists. She’s not ashamed of him, she says, “but asham’d to kiss.” “Why then let’s home again,” he says, but she replies, “Nay, I will give thee a kiss.” It’s a public performance of the privacy of marriage, whose public face, we now understand, is a necessary absurdity, a performance within which love is shielded.
None of this fully accounts for the joyousness of the play, which I put down to something else. According to the Riverside notes, the Sly scenes are full of references to people and places around Stratford. It may be that in Shrew Shakespeare went nearer to home than he ever had before. There’s a sense of fondness in the Induction and the play itself: a fondness for the frantically performing folk of everyday life.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.