Allison Janney, Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Karen McCullah, Kristen Smith, Larry Miller, Taming of the Shrew Adaptation
79. Gil Younger’s 10 Things I Hate About You [The Taming of the Shrew] (1999)
Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s only story fixated on teenagers in love, but Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith adapted The Taming of the Shrew to do so.
Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most outrageous plays. (It’s the comedy equivalent of Tis Andronicus, if you ask me.) That comedy dramatizes the institutional stresses of matrimony in Shakespeare’s time. Women were, from a legal view, property. They required a dowry—a pile of money, property, or other valuables—to protect their socioeconomic security as well as that of their husband at the time of marriage. Occasionally, this would result in a happy marriage, but security, not happiness, was the goal of this business transaction.
If a rare woman rebelled against this order (in which she was a commodity), she was a bitch, or a shrew. If such a bitch had a younger sister, by rights, the younger sister should not marry unless her elder sister did first, so a spinster could bring discord and shame upon her family.
An alcoholic bachelor of some means could bolster his security by marrying that shrew, if he were just drunk and brave enough. Shakespeare had a daring sense of humor.
This is not polite humor, or drama, for that matter.
Because the playwright worked towards a paradoxical reconciliation of these values (a woman could be her own person and yield herself as property to a patriarchal order), some dumb modern viewers become uneasy at the conclusion, as if Shakespeare were confirming that the patriarchy he has been skewering for two hours is mostlyokay, once characters have the wisdom to understand that love is required for the system to work.
Similarly, the conclusion of The Merchant of Venice has viewers wondering if Shakespeare was anti-Semitic since Shylock never does get his vengeance for losing his daughter and property (again reinforcing a woman’s identity as a commodity), and because Shylock is punished for being so inhumanly Jewish (according to the gentiles in the play).
The way comedy worked in Shakespeare time was to pretend that all was mended at the end.
Comedy ends in marriage. Tragedy ends in a pile of corpses.
By ending in such a reassuring way, Shakespeare could complicate the world in fairly tragic ways in the middle of the play. Through clowning, Shakespeare could sneak in a lot of truth about the odd ways we live our lives, even though he had to pretend like he was only kidding.
Which brings me to this question: as a young American actress, how did Julia Stiles come to star in three Shakespeare adaptations? She was in Tim Blake Nelson’s excellent O, and in Michael Almereyda’s diarrheal Hamlet.
10 Things I Hate About You is a loose adaptation that doesn’t use Shakespeare’s language and seldom nods to the wording of the original play, though pedestrian meta-references to Shakespeare abound.
The high school setting for this adaptation is a strength. Today, the parental limits for a daughter’s sovereignty makes more cultural sense than Renaissance norms for marriage. Instead of marriage, the boundaries here are for adolescent dating.
The title sequence and title make clear that this is supposed to be a teen rom-com. While the predictability of the Shakespearean comedy is often blissfully undercut, the predictability of the teen rom-com genre is, alas and fuck, sometimes grating. Occasionally, 10 Things I Hate About You seems to try too hard to be cool and outré. But the wild romantic scheming of the original is there in this adaptation, along with the surprises that this scheming brings to the schemers.
The cast takes the movie pretty far.
Allison Janney plays Ms. Perky, a dean who can instantly see all of the conniving neuroses of adolescence from a billion miles away, and dispatches their problems as quickly as possible in order to steal more time while on the job to write a lurid romance novel.
Perky suggests the fate of the spinster, whose love life is imaginary despite being pretty and smart. (This character seems to disappear halfway through the movie. I guess Janney could only get one day off from The West Wing.) This could be Kat’s fate, which doesn’t seem terrible, actually.
Comedian Larry Miller plays the concerned dad to two daughters. Miller’s posh monotone deadpan always makes him seem a bit sinister, which makes the hand-wringing of the father character of Shrew much easier to handle. (The character is pathetic at best in the original play.)
Our Petruchio, the drunken shrew-wooer, is played by Heath Ledger, who plays the part with a verve that will remind one as his turn as the Joker later in his career. Instead of a drunk, though, McCullah and Smith make his character a chaotic juvenile delinquent with a reputation that makes him beyond the respectable pale. He is dreamy, yet wrenches out of this part some real sophistication of emotion.
Both Stiles and Ledger have exquisitely downturned mouths, which became distracting once I noticed it. Do you notice it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays—who cares?
Julia Styles plays Kat, the shrewish lefty alternative feminist whose contempt for the entire high school system makes her critical of everything, which was more or less me in high school, or college—actually I’m still that way. Stiles does not generally play Kat’s anger with a broad sense of comedy, allowing the situations and dialogue to do the comedic heavy lifting.
What ultimately makes me not quite love this movie is its disappointing conventionality. It’s zany comedy tends to feel forced when Heath Ledger is not there to deliver it, and as the story proceeds, the moral component of the film makes the attitude of Kat more about her own personal experience, her own disappointing psychological and sexual journey, than about her entirely appropriate critique of the world she is living in. Her motivation ultimately becomes a bit paint-by-numbers, and the various plots of the family cohere in ways that border on the sentimental.
One of the few graces of the end of the movie is that the love stories don’t have sentimental closure. The younger sister will give Joseph Gordon-Levitt a chance, and Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona makes a grand gesture that provisionally returns him to Kat’s good graces, even though college makes their future uncertain.
I can’t help but think that if Allison Janney and Larry Miller each had one more scene that the movie could have deepened its edge more.
10 Things I Hate About You is a virtual time capsule for the late 1990s for its style and music, with just a hint of the Renaissance about it. Mostly, though, it’s a teen rom-com that compares poorly with Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.
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.