Tell you a funny story.
This old man has two daughters, see? One is beautiful, demure, obedient and everybody wants to marry her, while the other is loud, opinionated, strong-willed—your basic nightmare. So the old man sets up an arranged marriage for the “shrew” daughter, offering tons of money if anybody will marry her. Well, this guy takes the challenge. He—get this—he acts like a crazy man around his new wife, deprives her of food and sleep and decent clothes until she agrees to acquiesce to his every whim, even if it’s an obviously insane notion. He won’t let her see family or friends if she contradicts anything he says, right? So in the end he parades her in front of everyone and even makes her scold other men’s wives for being disobedient.
Funny, huh? Huh? What, don’t you get it?
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company recently finished their run of The Taming of the Shrew, and in the interest of full disclosure, it was incredibly funny and well-performed. Slapstick comedy, running gags, ribald songs, and excellent acting took a lot of the sting out of the story above. In their presentation, the relationship between Kate and Petruccio comes across as more of a mutual joke played on everyone else in the play, and Petruccio’s methods of “taming” do as much harm to him as to Kate.
But consider lines like this, from the end of the play:
Katherine: 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/ When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Good job, Petruccio. Looks like your campaign of domination and brainwashing have succeeded. Indeed, some scholars say this is the underlying strength of Petruccio: he’s only trying to show Kate how much happier she will be if she only surrenders to societal norms. In fact, since women are by rights chattels and property of their husbands, he’s not only within his rights, but he’s being quite clever and patient to show her the error of her ways. He’s the 16th-century version of Alan Alda.
Woohoo. Let’s party like it’s 1599.
In the end, The Taming of the Shrew leaves a bad taste in the mouth, a sinking feeling as though you’ve just caught yourself laughing at some tasteless, ignorant joke. Because when you get right down to it, that’s what it is.