By Diane Grant
This summer, I saw a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew at Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon. It was well acted and directed, fast paced, full of movement and meant for fun.
But I felt as if I were being plunged into a cold bath.
My God, I thought, what was that?
I went home to read about the play, written between 1590 and 1594, and soon realized that it would take years (or at least a semester or two) to go through all the literature and the reviews.
It is according to the Folger’s Edition, an “entertaining farce on a topic of eternal interest,” – the battle of the sexes. According to George Bernard Shaw, it’s a play that is ‘altogether disgusting to modern sensibility.’ (Perhaps it wasn’t just modern sensibility that was offended. John Fletcher, a contemporary of Shakespeare, rebutted Shrew saying in his epilogue to The Tamer Tamed that his play was “meant/ To teach both Sexes due equality; And as they stand bound, to love mutually.”)
Ellen Geer, the director of the production at Theatricum, says, “The many years of discussion and scholarly investigation about this dear and loved piece is endless and changes throughout the ages as societies decide what it REALLY means. Yada, yada, yada.”
Sir Laurence Olivier, who played the role Katherine, when he was fifteen, also thought it was a farce.
But could it really be a farce? A farce is something you laugh at.
How can you laugh at the arranged marriage between a man, Petruchio, who marries an angry and unhappy woman for money and who says of his wife, Katherine, “She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house.?” How can you hope that this marriage can be saved when Petruchio deprives his wife of food and sleep, subjects her to public and private humiliation and who on subjugating her, makes a bet with other men about whose wife is the most obedient?
Here Katherine, in her ending monologue, speaks as the tamed shrew and advises women:
KATE: Fie, fie, unknit that threat’ning unkind brow
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience–
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
Whey they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.
In the 1929 movie with Mary Pickford as Katherine and Douglas Fairbanks as Petruchio, as Katherine delivers the ending monologue, she winks toward her sister, Bianca, unseen by Petruchio. Bianca smiles back, an acknowledgment that Katherine has not been tamed at all.
I don’t know. Wink or no, it still makes me feel pretty damned chilly.