All right, readers, let’s get to it. The Taming of the Shrew is one of those infernal puzzles Shakespeare has bequeathed to us.
We don’t use the word shrew these days to describe women, so if you want to imagine a current translation, the play might be called The Taming of the Raging Bitch. It’s the most amazing romantic comedy ever. I mean that sincerely.
In this film, Elizabeth Taylor plays the raging—um—shrew.
The chief plot is that Katherina is the oldest daughter of Signior Baptista. She cannot help railing violently against her younger sister who has acquired two suitors, and railing against her hapless father as well.
Signior Baptista is adamant, bless him, that Bianca will not be wed before her older sister is married, since that would disgrace Katherina. And why is Katherina a shrew? Perhaps she resents being little more to her family than an impediment to her sister’s happiness. Perhaps Katherina views the prospect of getting married herself just to make her sister happy as utterly dehumanizing. Perhaps she regards the very role of being a woman—a wife, mother, daughter, gaze object for men, an accessory to her dowry—inherently belittling.
Soliloquies are for tragedies, not comedies.
Katherine is too often lashing out to reveal her own emotions so directly.
The implication is that Katherina’s temper makes the men of The Taming of the Shrew unable to see her physical beauty. Her rage defines her as other than female to them.
What makes this film perfect is that the male lead, Katherina’s suitor, is a bold alcoholic named Petruchio, played by Richard Burton. Can I get a Hell, yes?
In the first half of the film, this performance is giddy, silly slapstick, and Petruchio’s courtship of Katherina comes off like the deranged efforts of a cartoony character, like Pepe LePew who seems oblivious to the horror he is causing.
Katherina is unaccustomed to a man courting her like she is actually desirable, and is equally unaccustomed to a man who will accept and match her aggressions. The way the courtship plays out so physically in this medieval Italian set is both quaint, earthy, and delightful, like collapsing onto piles of cotton.
And yet the drama of this comedy modulates, as these two people, lawfully married, learn to acknowledge accept one another as human beings, even as the psychological terms of their marriage are being negotiated. Tenderness creeps in at moments, despite the fraught nature of their relationship.
Petruchio may be a drunkard capable of violence and gross egotism, but he is also unwilling to advance upon her sexually without her consent.
For all of Shrew’s outrageousness of plot and gender politics, those conflicts are the point. The ironies of the play, that Katherina accepts and simultaneously ironically transforms her new role as wife, need to be there in the acting, for the ironies on the page are subtle, so much so that many people today find the play too patriarchal for current audiences.
What’s interesting about this Zeffirelli film is that the subplots don’t seem to drag or do much more than credibly make us feel the chief plot more intensely. Gremio, an eldery suitor of Bianca’s, and Hortensio, an ineffectually foppish suitor to Bianca as well, come off as comic villains.
Lucentio’s courtship of Bianca, done under the guise of being her tutor, seems to happen in the background, visible without slowing down the primary plot, and Michael York (who played Tybalt in Zeffirelli’s Rome and Juliet) makes Lucentio seem suitably romantic and somehow not creepy.
The costumes and the sets are charming, making the middle ages seem colorful and fun, somehow even making codpieces look good. But if you look closely, there are also less happy details, too, that point out the stakes at play in this dangerous comedy.
You might quite easily try to dismiss the sketchy politics of this comedy, born of a more restrictive, thoroughly patriarchal time, but if you watch with an open mind, you’ll see that the world of The Taming of the Shrew is still recognizable today, and that we still must strive to treat each other with dignity, even if that requires approaching the world with a profound degree of irony, to know the difference between who we are, and who we are told we are.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.