I’m a little ashamed to say that what I remember the most about The Taming of the Shrew isn’t actually the play itself, but the musical My Fair Lady. For those unfamiliar with the plot setup, the play centres around an ‘uncouth’ young lady, and a man’s determination to make her a more perfect woman as part of an agreement (I know, it’s a very loose way of thinking about the play).
However, The Taming of the Shrew as a play is much more than just that simple premise. At first, we’re actually introduced to a not-so-gentle man Christopher Sly, who is tricked into believing he is a lord, and in front of our eyes the main plot of the play unfolds. This might seem like a little aside before the main event but it reinforces the idea of fun behind the play: the notion of people and characters playing parts. This is a thread long explored.
We’re introduced to two wealthy sisters, Katherina and Bianca. The latter is a charming and beautiful delight, with many suitors. However, her elder sister is forthright and tempestuous – exactly the characteristics not desired in a wife. In order to get her married off, her father claims that until the eldest is married the younger cannot. In steps Petruchio just when Bianca’s suitors need her most, who henceforth tires to ‘tame’ her.
Say she rail; why, I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
and say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
I understand why the play makes many feminists wrinkle their noses. The idea of people ‘having’ to be a certain ideal or character in line with their sex is one that is getting eyebrow raises more than ever. But before we start having a go at Shakespeare, I’d like to point out that we’re not as progressive as we think. Hollywood is constantly dropping chick-flicks about girls that are ‘nerdy’ but become femininely beautiful and thus get the happy ending. She’s All That instantly comes to mind – and that was just made in 1999. Before anyone goes off saying that I’m having a go at that much loved film, I’m just pointing out that just because we don’t like some of the ideals The Taming of the Shrew portrays, it doesn’t mean we have to dislike the play.
This is where I think it being ‘a play within a play’ comes into import. It reminds us that the play is just that: all good fun. We enjoy it, but what we choose to take from it is only as much as we want to. Furthermore, as I’ve said before in my other reviews: the image of women in his time is not what it is now. Ideal wives and women were very much a specific ideal, and even though they may not have been as much on a pedestal as in the early Medieval period, they were still not offered as much personality equality as today. If I’m honest, The Taming of the Shrew isn’t my favourite comedy, but mainly because there are just so many I like more that it gets lost. However, it’s still worthy reading, even if it’s just to debate what Shakespeare is trying to say. If anything, even though Katherina looses her feisty demeanour as the play progresses, her attitude pre-Petruchio is still full of wonderful Elizabethan sass.
If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
You go, girl. Give the play a read, and watch the beautiful Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor adaptation: their chemistry is second to none.