Taming of the Shrew

Summer of Shrew, Part 4: Which end’s up?

17th century audiences loved John Fletcher's ribald retort "The Tamer Tamed." Now, it's coming back.

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Why have we forgotten about a sequel to “The Taming of the Shrew” that turns its gender roles upside down?

In the previous two installments of this series, which ends today, I’ve tried to show how looking closely at Shakespeare’s scripts in their cultural context can make “Shrew”’s depiction of taming much more ambiguous. The assumption seems to persist that a Kate who isn’t fully tamed departs from the spirit of Shakespeare’s play. In an otherwise laudatory review, for example, Dennis Sparks objects to the Portland Shakespeare’s Project’s mocking treatment of Kate’s final speech, claiming that she needs to express a “subservient tone” because “unfortunately those were the times in which the Bard was writing.” Yet as we’ve seen, a winking performance of obedience might actually come closer to rendering the many ironic layers that texture “Shrew.”

The times in which the Bard was writing also turn out to include room for debate. Recent scholarship has emphasized the range of views about gender roles that circulated in the Renaissance. For every pamphlet that denounced outspoken women, another responded in women’s defense. Alongside the ballads I mentioned in Part 2 that depict shrew-taming in violent terms, rival folklore collections chronicled wives who taught their husbands a lesson. Playwrights participated in this dialogue as well: the early seventeenth century saw a host of plays that questioned the status of women, including Ben Jonson’s “Epicoene, or The Silent Woman,” Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton’s “The Roaring Girl,” and Nathan Field’s “Amends for Ladies.”

Among these plays, one took “The Taming of the Shrew” squarely in its sights. John Fletcher’s “The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed,” probably written between 1609 and 1611, is the only sequel to a Shakespeare play not by Shakespeare that was performed during his lifetime. It offers some of the best evidence that even Renaissance audiences didn’t always buy Petruchio’s taming strategy. “Tamed” puts women on top of the men who would tame them. It’s outrageously funny. It’s being performed in rotation with Shrew at the Portland Shakespeare Project this month. And hardly anyone has heard of it.

Here’s the main plot: After Petruchio’s first wife passes away, he plans to marry a new wife, Maria, whom everyone pities because she’s going to get the harsh treatment from the taming master. But once Maria has a chat with her cousin Bianca, she decides that she’s going to stand up for women’s equality by taming her husband instead. After the wedding, Petruchio bets the other guys that he’ll have the best sex that night. (It’s a really raunchy play). But he loses when Maria and Bianca emerge up on the balcony, having borrowed a tip from Lysistrata and barricaded themselves inside Maria’s father’s house to prevent Petruchio from consummating the marriage. A siege begins: the men try to force the women out by cutting off their supplies, but wives from all over the country flock to Maria’s taming school, and the women have a big party, singing that they’ll wear the breeches from now on.

The Country Wife (Holly Johnson) and the City Wife (Jane Vogel) rally to flank Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (David Bodin) is nudged aside in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

The Country Wife (Holly Johnson) and the City Wife (Jane Vogel) rally to flank Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (David Bodin) is nudged aside in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Petruchio has to agree to their terms: liberty and better clothes. He thinks the battle is over, but Maria hasn’t finished. She rejects her new clothes and refuses to obey Petruchio, proclaiming that men and women are equal. As a countermove, Petruchio pretends to be sick, so Maria locks him in the house and runs away with their possessions, telling everyone to keep away because he has the plague. He breaks free and threatens to go abroad; Maria says it’ll do him good. Out of desperation, he pretends to be dead, and Maria gives a eulogy lamenting the waste of a life he led. He gives up his pretense; Maria declares that she has tamed him and asks him to kiss her; and Petruchio celebrates being “born again.”

Fletcher’s written a point-by-point refutation of “Taming of the Shrew.” Instead of Petruchio the tamer, he gives us Petruchio the tamed. Instead of isolated wives, he creates a community of vibrant women. Instead of sweet Bianca, he salutes Colonel Bianca, the rebels’ commander-in-chief. Even on the level of language, Fletcher reverses Shakespeare. As I discussed in Part 2, Petruchio uses a hawk-taming analogy to explain his strategy for quieting Kate: he would “man [his] haggard,” his wild hawk, by keeping her hungry and awake until she obeyed him. Bianca turns this metaphor upside down: she celebrates “the free haggard”–the unmanned hawk–“which is that woman that has wing, and knows it,” who will “show her freedom” and “command / What she desires.” Rather than learn to please their husbands, these women let their own desires drive their action.

What’s most subversive in “The Tamer Tamed” is the suggestion that Petruchio never really tamed Kate, after all. Maria says she fears “Neither Petruchio Furius, nor his fame,” with the suggestion that his fame rests on a false rap. One of his friends admits that “the bare remembrance of his first wife / Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often / Cry out for cudgels, cowl-staves, anything, / Hiding his breeches out of fear her ghost / Should walk and wear ’em yet.” This sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder; Petruchio’s still reliving his battles with Kate because they were never over. Despite her final speech in “Shrew,” Fletcher suggests, Kate was still trying to wear the breeches. I think that’s our clearest evidence that even a seventeenth-century audience thought that the ending of “Shrew” was open to more than one interpretation.

Petruchio (Peter Platt) starts to grasp Maria’s strategy as the Country Wife (Holly Johnson) keeps watch in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Petruchio (Peter Platt) starts to grasp Maria’s strategy as the Country Wife (Holly Johnson) keeps watch in a rehearsal for Portland Shakespeare Project’s staged reading. Photo: Kate McMullan

Seventeenth-century audiences adored “The Tamer Tamed.” When it was performed back-to-back with “Shrew” for King Charles I in 1633, the Master of the Revels recorded that “Shrew” was “Likt” but “Tamer” was “Very well likt.” There is, of course, the possibility that “Tamer Tamed” was very well liked because the audience thought it was a spoof; that is, instead of arguing subversively for female power, the play was just caricaturing disobedient women through rowdy misogynist stereotypes, and was actually quite conservative. That is a possibility, but I don’t think it’s likely, for two reasons. The first is that “The Tamer Tamed” was censored for that 1633 court performance, and when something’s censored, it’s usually because it challenges the official order. The Master of the Revels said that “Tamer Tamed” contained “foul and offensive matters” and that he had to purge it “of oaths, profaneness, and ribaldry” so that there wouldn’t be any “offensive things against church and state.” We don’t know exactly what those offensive things were, but the censorship certainly suggests that Fletcher was perceived to be going against the norm. The second reason is that an epilogue was added to “The Tamer Tamed” for its court performance reassuring the audience that the play didn’t advocate female supremacy, and you don’t need an epilogue saying that you’re not advocating female supremacy unless you’re worried that someone would see your play and think that you were advocating female supremacy. There are limits to Fletcher’s critique: the women still work within the institution of marriage (except perhaps Bianca; it’s not clear in the text whether she has a husband), and once Petruchio capitulates, Maria announces, “I have tamed ye, / And now am vowed your servant.” But Maria commands the play with wit and savvy, masterminding each plot twist and flummoxing the men with her good-humored resistance.

A “new love” for Petruchio (Platt) and Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (Bodin) and the Country Wife (Johnson) applaud. Photo: Kate McMullan

A “new love” for Petruchio (Platt) and Maria (Kayla Lian) as her father (Bodin) and the Country Wife (Johnson) applaud. Photo: Kate McMullan

Even the spectacle of women reveling in bawdy humor, not just suffering as the butt of men’s jokes, could be enough to qualify Fletcher’s play as radical in the twenty-first century. (I’ve been trying to make the case for “Tamer” as the “Bridesmaids” of the Renaissance.) Working on a speedy rehearsal schedule with the Portland Shakespeare Project acting company, my Linfield student Kyra Rickards and I developed three rules for glossing unfamiliar words in the script:

1) If it’s a food object, it’s either an aphrodisiac or a purgative.

2) If it’s a non-food object, it’s a euphemism for male or female genitals.

3) If it’s a reference to riding horseback, it’s not about riding horseback.

This embrace of bodily pleasure and social inversion–what literary scholars call the “carnivalesque” mode–makes Fletcher tremendously entertaining, but may also have contributed to his obscurity today.

Fletcher was arguably more popular than Shakespeare in the seventeenth century, and Restoration critics like John Dryden suggested he might have been a better playwright as well. (Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as the playwright for The King’s Men and collaborated with Shakespeare on several plays: “The Two Noble Kinsmen,” the lost play “Cardenio,” and perhaps “Henry VIII.”) The success of “Tamer” seemed to have spurred revivals of “Shrew,” rather than the other way around. At the end of John Lacy’s 1667 “Shrew” adaptation, for example, the male hero concedes: “I’ve Tam’d the Shrew, but will not be asham’d, / If next you see the very Tamer Tam’d.” “Tamer” was revived throughout the eighteenth century, but when the cult of Shakespeare began to flourish around his bicentennial celebrations in the 1760s, Fletcher started to lose ground. The scholar Gary Taylor has proposed that “the logic of bardolatry typically deifies one writer by demonizing others”; in the case of Shakespeare-worship, the victim was Fletcher. His plays (and his collaborations with Francis Beaumont) were called “gross and indecent” even by their own editors, and “Tamer” seems not to have been performed again until the feminist movement revived it in the late 1970s.

Recently, “Tamer” has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. The Royal Shakespeare Company paired “Shrew” and “Tamer” to great acclaim in 2009, and closer to home, Bag & Baggage Productions tried a double-bill in 2010 with a slimmed-down “Shrew” as the first act and a truncated “Tamer” after intermission. When I’ve taught the plays together in a Linfield seminar on Shakespeare and his rivals, students tend to replicate the 1633 court verdict: “Shrew” is liked, but “Tamer” is very well liked. It’s the retort so many people crave to redress Kate’s taming in “Shrew.” The Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Shakespeare Project productions of “Shrew” are so rich and entertaining that audiences won’t leave in need of a palate cleanser. But if you want to see Shakespeare in dialogue with one of his most celebrated contemporaries, and you want to see the play that was originally preferred to “Shrew,” then you won’t want to miss The Tamer Tamed. The times in which the Bard was writing won’t ever look the same.

NOTES:

There are two widely available editions of “The Tamer Tamed”: one edited by Celia R. Daileader and Gary Taylor for Revels that champions the play’s feminism; the other edited by Lucy Munro for New Mermaids that takes a more cautious approach.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is Assistant Professor of English at Linfield College and scholar in residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project.

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WEDNESDAY: An introduction to the Portland and Ashland productions.

THURSDAY: Who does the taming, and who’s getting tamed?

FRIDAY: A Sly figure and an alternate text shift the balance of the play.

TODAY: The final episode–Fletcher’s “The Tamer Tamed.”

 

Summer of Shrew, Part 3: a Sly conceit

How a drunken beggar and an earlier version of the script shift the brawling balances of the play

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Is there another ending to “Shrew”? And who’s the real shrew in the play?

In the last installment, we looked at evidence from the script of “The Taming of the Shrew” to see if Kate might not be tamed after all, and we explored the many layers of irony that frame her final speech. There’s one more layer to consider: What if Kate’s story isn’t the play’s only reality? What if it’s a play within a play, or even a dream within a dream?

This isn’t just an Inception-fueled fantasy; this is actually what happens in the original “Shrew” script. The play that was printed in the 1623 First Folio begins not with the world of Kate and Petruchio, but with a drunken beggar named Christopher Sly getting kicked out of a tavern for failing to pay his tab and passing out on the floor. (Note the English name: we’re in Shakespeare’s contemporary world, not a fictional Italian setting.) Along comes a Lord on a hunting trip who decides to play a prank on Sly. He instructs his servants to dress the beggar in a lord’s attire and tell him he’s been suffering from madness until now, and he hires a troupe of traveling actors to put on a “comedy” for Sly’s entertainment. What’s the comedy? “The Taming of the Shrew.”

So the whole Kate-Petruchio business is not the play’s claim to nature; it’s an act that’s staged as a practical joke on a drunken beggar. What’s more, part of the Lord’s prank involves dressing one of his poor male pages in drag and presenting him/her to Sly as his wife, whom Sly eagerly greets and invites to bed. The play is a kind of diversion to defer that consummation (like the plot of any romantic comedy, which piles up obstacles to postpone the final union). We’re watching Sly, dressed as a lord, with a boy dressed as his wife, watching actors act out “The Taming of the Shrew,” a play about lords and wives. The Lord even suggests to his page that being a conventional lady is itself an act: he has to trot out “kind embracements” and “tempting kisses,” and if he can’t cry on command, a concealed onion held to his eye should do the trick. It’s über-meta. Before the main story has started, the Sly beginning primes us to note that all the power relations that the story relies on—husband/wife, father/child, master/servant—are just mutable roles that actors play. All you need is a costume change, and a beggar becomes a lord, or a boy becomes a wife, or a male actor from the traveling troupe becomes Kate.

Editors often quarantine the Sly scenes from the rest of the play, calling them an “Induction” (following an eighteenth-century tradition) and numbering them on a different system, reserving Act One, Scene One for the entrance of Lucentio and Tranio in Padua. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s snappy production this season excluded Sly for an understandable reason: he stretches out the running time.

But in the First Folio, Actus Primus, Scoena Prima opens with Sly’s drunken entrance. He’s the beginning of the play, and in fact there are no act or scene divisions when the players start their Italian show; they’re part of the Sly prank, too. Given Sly’s importance to the way we perceive the rest of the play, the Portland Shakespeare Project decided to keep him (with compensatory cuts later on), and the result is quite remarkable. With Sly sitting in the front row of the audience, a reluctant cross-dressed page on his knee, you’re always conscious that you’re watching a (very funny) staged entertainment with actors taking on stereotypical social roles.

Bartholomew (Matthew Kerrigan), a page in drag, cozies up to Christopher Sly (Nathan Dunkin) at the Portland Shakespeare Project. Photo: David Kinder

Bartholomew (Matthew Kerrigan), a page in drag, cozies up to Christopher Sly (Nathan Dunkin) at the Portland Shakespeare Project. Photo: David Kinder

In the Folio, Sly just fades away once the Italian business gets going. He seems to fall asleep and tells his man-wife that he wishes the play were over—presumably so they could go to bed—and then we don’t hear from him again. But here’s the tricky part. There’s another version of “The Taming of the Shrew” that was published anonymously in 1594, thirty years before the First Folio, called “The Taming of a Shrew.” Scholars are still debating whether “The Shrew” was based on “A Shrew” or vice versa, or whether they both derive from some lost earlier “Shrew.” Until the end of the eighteenth century, they were treated as variant scripts for the same play. Editors often conflated material from both texts, which Portland Shakes chose to do as well. Artistic Director Michael Mendelson and the production dramaturg, Linfield graduate Kate McMullan, interpolated scenes from “A Shrew” into “The Shrew” to infuse the contemporary world of Sly into the imaginary world of Padua.

In “A Shrew,” Sly never vanishes; he keeps commenting on the play and at one point even interrupts the actors to protest a plot twist. The Lord has to remind Sly (still dressed in borrowed finery), “My lord, this is but the play. They’re but in jest.”

A stagehand (Rusty Tennant) looks on as Sly (Dunkin) interrupts the play at the Portland Shakes. Photo: David Kinder

A stagehand (Rusty Tennant) looks on as Sly (Dunkin) interrupts the play at the Portland Shakes. Photo: David Kinder

That sense of a jest on Sly–both by the Lord and by the actors–continues in “A Shrew” through the end of Kate’s final speech. Sly has conked out again by this point, and after the actors depart, he is returned to his beggar’s clothes and woken up by the Tapster, the guy who keeps the keg at the tavern. Their concluding dialogue highlights the challenge of taking any easy moral away from the play.

TAPSTER: Come, art thou drunken still?

 SLY: Who’s this? Tapster? O lord, sirrah, I have had the bravest dream tonight that ever thou heard’st in all thy life.

 TAPSTER: Ay, marry, but you had best get you home, for your wife will course you for dreaming here tonight.

 SLY: Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew. I dreamt upon it all this night ’til now, and thou hast waked me out of the best dream that ever I had in my life. But I’ll to my wife presently and tame her, too, an if she anger me.

TAPSTER: Nay tarry, Sly, for I’ll go home with thee and hear the rest that thou hast dreamt tonight.

If this is the true ending to the play, then it offers a different attitude toward Kate’s taming. Sure, it might suggest that the play teaches men how to tame their wives. But for most viewers, the point is that only a drunken beggar would think that the play teaches men how to tame their wives. Such an interpretation is just a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a henpecked husband. That, at least, seems to be the tapster’s view, as he pulls Sly back from his shrew-taming ambitions.

What’s more, the entire Sly story raises the question of who the real shrew is in the play. If you look up the non-rodent sense of “shrew” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition is: “A wicked, evil-disposed, or malignant man.” That’s right, a man–not a woman. The example the OED provides that’s closest in time to Shakespeare’s play comes from Thomas Dekker’s “Ravens Almanack”: “Such as were shrewes to theire wives”–the opposite of the gender roles we would typically imagine. Shakespeare draws on that definition midway through Shrew when one of Petruchio’s servants hears about his wild behavior toward Kate after their wedding and exclaims, “By this reckoning he is more shrew than she.” And if we think about the subsequent terms in the OED’s definition, “a mischievous or vexatious person,” and recall that the first mischievous, vexatious person we meet is the drunken, obstreperous Christopher Sly, he emerges as a shrew candidate as well.

There’s an interesting connection between the transformation Sly undergoes and the journeys Kate and Petruchio experience. To rise in status from a beggar to a lord, as Sly does in jest, was to become a gentleman. Renaissance England had a word for that ennobling process: “to gentle” (as when King Henry V tells each common soldier at the battle of Agincourt that “this day shall gentle his condition”). To become “gentle,” though, also had begun to acquire the sense it has for us today: to be kind and considerate, as befits a gentleman. The two senses converge in “Shrew” when Kate covets a cap that Petruchio has ordered and then dismissed. Kate protests that “gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” and Petruchio replies, “When you are gentle you shall have one too, / And not till then.” Kate has to become gentle in order to dress as a gentlewoman. Yet Petruchio’s gentle status is also in doubt. When he threatens to cuff Kate if she strikes him again, she warns him: “If you strike me you are no gentleman”–neither kind nor dignified. Petruchio, Kate, and Sly all have to learn how to behave gently, in both their rank and conduct.

Petruchio (Farmer) and Kate (Porter): ungentle behavior. Photo: David Kinder

Petruchio (Farmer) and Kate (Porter): ungentle behavior. Photo: David Kinder

Petruchio (James Farmer) and Kate (Maureen Porter) demonstrate ungentle behavior at the Portland Shakespeare Project. Photo by David Kinder.

Productions that show Petruchio being tamed as well as Kate are often seen as distorting the play, blunting the plot’s apparently misogynist thrust to make it more palatable today. But after looking at the Christopher Sly frame and the Renaissance definition of a shrew, we can see that expanding the range of the titular “Shrew” to include male characters is actually a return to its original meaning. In the next installment, I’ll explore how a long-forgotten Renaissance sequel to “Shrew” takes the taming of men even further.

NOTES:

  • If you’d like to read the full script of “The Taming of a Shrew,” Cambridge University Press offers a scholarly edition edited by Stephen Roy Miller. Hackett Publishing has also put out a convenient paperback called Three Shrew Plays, edited by Barry Gaines and Margaret Maurer, that includes “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Taming of a Shrew,” and “The Tamer Tamed.”
  • In a provocative essay, “The Shakespearean Editor as Shrew-Tamer,” Leah Marcus argues that the editorial tradition of preferring “The Shrew” to “A Shrew” and cutting Sly’s ending has made editors complicit in a patriarchal strategy to tame Kate.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is Assistant Professor of English at Linfield College and scholar in residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project.

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WEDNESDAY: An introduction to the Portland and Ashland productions.

THURSDAY: Who does the taming, and who’s getting tamed?

TOMORROW: In our final installment, a long-forgotten sequel further tames the men.

Summer of Shrew, Part 2: Tamed? Really?

Who's the boss of this house? In 'Taming of the Shrew,' appearances can deceive

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

Is Shakespeare’s shrew really tamed?

 That’s the question that every production has to tackle, and it’s the prospect that gives many theatergoers pause. “I just can’t take the ending,” one of my English department colleagues told me recently, and she’s not alone. “The Taming of the Shrew” probably outranks even “The Merchant of Venice” on the list of plays that smart, educated people think they don’t want to see. They don’t worry that it’s going to be boring; the fear is actually that it will be too entertaining—it’s a very funny, fast-paced comedy—and that it will put us in the uncomfortable position of being asked to laugh at the taming of a fierce, independent woman. The fortune-hunting Petruchio marries fiery Kate against her will, calls her his “chattel,” carts her away from her family, deprives her of food and sleep and clothes until she parrots whatever he says, then commands her to teach her neighbors the duty a wife owes her husband–which she does, at length, finally offering to put her hand beneath her lord’s foot to “do him ease.” This is a comedy?

 Of course, there’s lots of comic business swirling around Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, to divert us from the taming plot. Borrowing liberally from Italian farce, Shakespeare piles on the commedia tricks: an ardent lover in disguise, ludicrously inept rival suitors, zany servants to speed the matchmaking along.

Portland Shakes: Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz) woos Bianca (Foss Curtis); rival Lucentio (Peter Platt) peers on. Photo: David Kinder.

Portland Shakes: Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz) woos Bianca (Foss Curtis); rival Lucentio (Peter Platt) peers on. Photo: David Kinder.

Still, a nagging sense persists that you’ve got to ignore the moral to enjoy the show. The Portland Mercury’s review of the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, for example, said that it offered “superb” comedy, “but only if you can stomach the ‘obedience of women’ thread that runs throughout the entire play.” Having seen the versions at OSF and the Portland Shakespeare Project several times, I’m convinced that thread is much more tangled than you might think. Shakespeare’s play does raise challenging questions about the way we define gender roles. But the answers aren’t as obvious as they seem.

 There is, admittedly, a long performance history to bolster the view that Shrew remains popular (to quote the editor of a new Cambridge edition) because it presents “the acceptable face of sadomasochism.” Just as you can spot a Hamlet by his skull, you could spot a Petruchio for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth century by his whip, which he cracked like a lion-tamer to subdue his beast of a wife. And the allure of titillating violence continued well into the twentieth century. A poster for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 film version showed Richard Burton carting a busty, smiling Elizabeth Taylor over his shoulder with the caption: “In the war between the sexes, there always comes a time to surrender–unconditionally!” Even Cole Porter’s clever musical adaptation, “Kiss Me Kate,” traded on this erotic tease: with a poster showing a coquettish Kate bent over Petruchio’s knee as he raises his hand for a smack, the 1953 movie might have been titled, “Spank Me, Petruchio.” Rather than offer pleasure despite the taming plot, these shows promised pleasure through the spectacle of taming itself.

Given this tradition, any production that offers a Kate who doesn’t surrender unconditionally risks being branded “revisionist” or “apologetic.” If you create an untamed Kate, the argument goes, you’re pandering to audiences at the expense of Shakespeare’s play–reading it against the grain to make it politically correct. But what’s struck me most in working on the play, both in the scholarly archive and in production, is the deep ambiguity of Shakespeare’s own script. (Really, scripts plural, but we’ll get to that in a later installment.)

 Shakespeare was a revisionist himself, of course, taking popular narratives and recasting them in much richer, more complex terms. (Comparing “Hamlet” to earlier revenge tragedies is like comparing “The Wire” to “Lethal Weapon 2.”) “The Taming of the Shrew” is no exception. Many versions of the shrew-taming narrative circulated in Elizabethan England, and most would strike a reader today as violently misogynist. In a ballad called “A Caution for Scolds: or A True Way of Taming a Shrew,” for example, a husband takes his outspoken, disobedient wife to a doctor, who ties her to a bed, shaves her head, lets out her blood, and tells her that he’ll cut her tongue and let her bleed another gallon unless she quiets down. Happy ending: “Thus has he made a Sweet Wife of a Shrew.” In the ballad often proposed as Shakespeare’s folkloric source, “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife,” a husband can’t control his wife, so he beats her bloody and knocks her unconscious, and then he kills his old horse, skins him, salts the hide, wraps his unconscious wife inside, and leaves her in the cellar. (That’s the “merry jest,” I presume.) When the wife comes to, she promises to be obedient; her husband takes her out of the horse’s hide; and all the neighbors congratulate him on knowing how to tame a shrew.

 If that’s what Shakespeare’s audiences expected to see when they went to a play called “The Taming of the Shrew,” they would have been thrown for a loop. Instead of torture porn, Shakespeare dishes up the template for a romantic comedy. Kate and Petruchio meet cute: we’ve seen Kate beat her simpering sister and brain her music tutor; we’ve heard Petruchio boast of the battles and tempests he’s braved; and when they finally face off, the sparks fly.

Kate (Maureen Porter) gives Petruchio (James Farmer) as good as she gets. Photo: David Kinder

Kate (Maureen Porter) gives Petruchio (James Farmer) as good as she gets. Photo: David Kinder

They quip, pun, thrust, and counterthrust with such rapid-fire synchronicity that it can only be called verbal foreplay:

PETRUCHIO: Come, come, you wasp, i’faith you are too angry.
KATHERINA: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
KATHERINA: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
KATHERINA: In his tongue.
PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?
KATHERINA: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail?

In their first encounter, their tongues are already leading them to that promised comedic tail-end: the bedchamber. And it’s very much a match of equals, at least on the linguistic level; every line one-ups the previous with a paired length and rhythm. (You can see why the scholar Stanley Cavell argued that 1930s screwball comedies like “The Philadelphia Story” were indebted to Shakespeare for their strong heroines and witty banter.) In the Portland Shakes production, Maureen Porter and James Farmer circle each other during this dialogue in a simmering pas de deux, drawn together by their interlocking language. Nell Geisslinger, who plays Kate at OSF this season, points out in an interview on Dmae Roberts’ Stage & Studio radio show the importance of this scene in establishing her rapport with Petruchio so that the audience will root for them to pair up despite all the obstacles that ensue. In a nifty visual reveal, Ted Deasy’s tattooed Petruchio rips off Kate’s sleeve to discover that she’s tatted up, too. They’re made for each other!

At OSF, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) and Petruchio (Ted Deasy) size each other up. Photo: Jenny Graham

At OSF, Kate (Nell Geisslinger) and Petruchio (Ted Deasy) size each other up. Photo: Jenny Graham

Okay, but what about Kate’s final speech of submission, after Petruchio wins the bet that she’ll prove the most obedient wife? Are we supposed to imagine that a screwball heroine like Katharine Hepburn would stoop to say “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign”? (Kate the Great actually did play Katharina in 1955, and gave us the wonderful retort: “I never realized until lately that women were supposed to be the inferior sex.”) There are many ways that actresses can dance around the speech–Mary Pickford famously winked at the camera in the first sound film version in 1929–but they’re often accused of sidestepping its intent, adding a feminist spin to distance themselves from Shakespeare’s patriarchal message.

I’m not so sure about the singularity of that message, however. (Not to mention the danger of conflating what any of Shakespeare’s dramatic characters say with what the playwright actually believed.) The first thing to notice about Kate’s speech is its length: at 43 lines, it’s nearly twice as long as any other speech in the play. That in itself is surprising for a play called “The Taming of the Shrew.” One of the primary goals of shrew-taming in the Renaissance was to make an obstreperous woman stop talking, and there were a host of unpleasant devices to threaten her into silence. (Exhibit A: the notorious scold’s bridle. Exhibit B: the cucking stool.) If that’s the goal, it’s clearly a flop. Kate’s doing all the talking here; it’s the actress’s star turn. And consider what she says a little bit more closely:

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 labour, both by sea and land:
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe…

This is a classic account of separate spheres—the husband goes out to work for a living while the wife stays at home—but is that what happens in this play? None of the husbands has worked a day; they’re all gentlemen with lots of servants who’ve inherited wealth from their fathers, and they’re planning to live in the future off their wives’ dowries. “Commits his body to painful labour”? Forget about it. Petruchio’s come to “wive it wealthily.” And let’s not forget that the “sovereign” of the land when Shakespeare wrote was a woman: Queen Elizabeth I. I think Mary Pickford could do a double wink here. Porter and Geisslinger both make a smart choice to address this part of the speech to Bianca’s new husband, Lucentio, as a forceful reminder that he’d better do some labour to keep his wife secure. Rather than a speech of subordination to women, it becomes an instruction to husbands on their duty, too. (Of course, there’s also the irony that on Shakespeare’s stage, these lessons on marriage would have been delivered by a sixteen-year-old boy in drag, making them perhaps a little harder to buy as nature’s law.)

Take one more example of the way the text itself challenges taming. I’ve typed Petruchio’s final lines below, exactly as they appear in the First Folio of 1623:

Come Kate, weee’le to bed,
We three are married, but you two are sped.
’Twas I wonne the wager, though you hit the white,
And being a winner, God give you good night.
Exit Petruchio

The rhyming couplets suggest that all the marital couplings are complete, but do you notice something odd here? “Come Kate, weee’le to bed,” says Petruchio, but then the stage direction just says, “Exit Petruchio.” What about Kate? Why doesn’t she exit, too? Doesn’t she want to go to bed with her husband to do her duty? Since about 1700, nearly every editor has changed this stage direction to say “Exit Petruchio and Katherina,” which is what you need for a comic resolution, but that’s not what the Folio says. When the Folio Petruchio issues his final call, Kate doesn’t come. There are also no explicit stage directions to indicate whether Kate actually puts her hand under her husband’s foot, or whether she kisses him when he asks her to. There’s plenty of room for actors to make choices. (Tracy Ullman famously put her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot and then grabbed it and pulled it out from under him.) I don’t want to fetishize the Folio, since it has oodles of printing oddities (it prints “weee’le to bed” with four “e”s!), but I think it’s useful in opening up possibilities for interpretation that later, more standardized editions foreclose. And it suggests that productions that don’t present Kate’s unconditional surrender might actually be more faithful to the original version than those that do.

 Geisslinger and Porter have different takes on the final speech, but both stay true to the text without give any hint of being tamed. They’re fully in control, relishing the opportunity to hold the stage and order the other actors around. When Geisslinger’s Kate offers her hand to Petruchio, he demurs, but she jabs him into position like a dominatrix directing a client, and then clasps him in an embrace of her choosing.

Kate (Geisslinger) and Petruchio (Deasy), with a bemused Bianca (Royer Bockus) at OSF. Photo: Jenny Graham

Kate (Geisslinger) and Petruchio (Deasy), Bianca (Royer Bockus) at OSF. Photo: Jenny Graham

Porter adopts a cutesy Southern drawl on the line, “Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,” as she waltzes across the stage, sidling up to the men; she’s having fun surprising everyone once more by playing the part they didn’t expect her to take. Rather than the harsh voice she uses for the rest of the play, her voice is supple, modulated, manipulating her audience at will.

 Watching these virtuosic performances, I thought back to Petruchio’s own description of his taming method in an exhausted soliloquy to the audience. Rather than call Kate a shrew (a little rodent reputed to have a venomous bite), he draws on the aristocratic pursuit of falconry. To tame a falcon or wild hawk, a gentleman would keep it awake and hungry until it learned to fly to his lure (to “stoop,” in falconry parlance). When Kate is at Petruchio’s house, exhausted and famished, he sees his plan in action: “My falcon now is sharp, and passing empty, / And til she stoop, she must not be full gorg’d / For then she never looks upon her lure.”

No meat for Kate! Servant (Crystal Munoz), Kate (Porter), Petruchio (Farmer), Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz) at Portland Shakes. Photo: David Kinder

No meat for Kate! Servant (Crystal Munoz), Kate (Porter), Petruchio (Farmer), Hortensio (Sam Dinkowitz) at Portland Shakes. Photo: David Kinder

It’s still an animal metaphor, of course, but the goal is not to take away the hawk’s sharp power but rather to redirect its attack on the chosen prey. When Kate lights into the onlookers in her final speech, she has the speed and acuity of a falcon on the hunt. I was reminded of the times I’ve seen one of those bird of prey demonstrations at the Oregon Zoo, when the hawk swoops over your head to catch its hunk of meat. It’s technically been tamed, but when those talons zoom by, you don’t feel as though you’re in the presence of anything domestic. You feel the thrilling current of a body taking flight.

So to question the orthodoxy of the taming interpretation, I’ve noted the untamed length of Kate’s speech, the inaccurate and perhaps ironic way she describes gender relations, and the ambiguity of the stage directions. Next time, I’ll explore whether there’s another script for Shrew that might change its ending entirely. And I’ll ask a question that goes back to the Renaissance: who’s the real shrew in the play?

NOTES:

  •  For excellent materials on “The Taming of the Shrew” as a Renaissance audience might have interpreted it, check out Frances Dolan’s Bedford edition that offers “Texts and Contexts,” or David Wootton and Graham Holderness’s collection of scholarly essays, Gender and Power in Shrew-Taming Narratives, 1500-1700.
  •  For a thoughtful analysis of Kate’s names in the play and their significance (is she Kate? Katherine? Katherina?), see Laurie Maguire’s essay, “The Naming of the Shrew,” in the Norton Critical Edition.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is Assistant Professor of English at Linfield College and scholar in residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project.

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YESTERDAY: An introduction to the Portland and Ashland productions.

TOMORROW: A Sly figure and an alternate text shift the balance of the play.

SATURDAY:  In our final installment, a long-forgotten sequel further tames the men.

MARITAL ADVICE, FROM SHAKESPEARE: Barry Johnson looks at the “Shrew” for a description of a successful marriage.

Summer of Shrew, Part 1: a tale of two cities

In Ashland and Portland, Shakespeare's battle of the sexes takes center stage. What's up with that?

By DANIEL POLLACK-PELZNER

In Oregon, it’s the summer of Shrew.

 Shakespeare’s dangerously entertaining, endlessly controversial comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” boasts two high-concept professional productions this season.

 Down south, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sets Kate and Petruchio—those sparring, witty, violent, stubborn, possibly loving combatants—on a rockabilly boardwalk, strutting and fretting beneath neon signs while their snappy supporting cast wonders whether these tattooed soulmates will ever sing a duet.

Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr, left) and Tranio (John Tufts)  at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham

Lucentio (Wayne T. Carr), Tranio (John Tufts), Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Photo: Jenny Graham

And up north, the Portland Shakespeare Project opened its “Taming of the Shrew” last Friday, decked in the candy colors of a ’60s TV comedy, with Petruchio and Kate perhaps the only sane people in a farcical entertainment ordered as a prank on a drunk guy in the front row.

Portland Shakespeare Project: From left, Kate (Maureen Porter), Baptista (Gary Powell), Petruchio (James Farmer), Lucentio (Peter Platt), Bianca (Foss Curtis), Gremio (David Heath). Photo: David Kinder.

Portland Shakes: From left, Kate (Maureen Porter), Baptista (Gary Powell), Petruchio (James Farmer), Lucentio (Peter Platt), Bianca (Foss Curtis), Gremio (David Heath). Photo: David Kinder.

For Bardophiles, it’s a rare chance to compare two fun, smart, thought-provoking takes on a popular play. For Shakespeare scholars, it’s wunderbar!

 Full disclosure: I’m one of those scholars. This dubious distinction comes with a title, in fact: I’m the Scholar-in-Residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project, and I was a visiting scholar last month at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Thanks to a grant from the Linfield Center for the Northwest, my students and I consulted on the Portland Shakes production, and I’m giving talks to Ashland and Portland audiences about the play. So it’s certainly my summer of Shrew. But I hope it’s more than mine.

 You don’t have to spend weeks researching Shrew, comparing textual variants, reading academic criticism, discussing the play with actors and directors, and screening film versions to find it a great occasion for thinking about the definition of marriage, the nature of comedy, and the place that Shakespeare holds in our culture.

 Since that’s how I’ve been spending my summer, though, I can start the conversation by posing some central questions that scholars often raise about the play. And I’ll share how seeing Shrew in rehearsal and performance has challenged me to reconsider the answers I thought I’d found.

 So tune in to the next few installments to find out: Is Shakespeare’s shrew really tamed? Does Shakespeare’s play have a lost ending that changes its meaning? Why have we forgotten about a sequel to Shrew that turns its gender roles upside down? And why do we care whether Shakespeare agrees with our social views at all?

 Maybe this will become your summer of Shrew, too. As the Portland Shakes banner promises, it’s anything but tame.

NOTES:

  • For a rich, lively introduction to the play’s language and central concerns, I always start with the relevant chapter in Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All. Yes, she was my dissertation adviser, but I’m not the only who likes her book.
  • If you’re in the car or on a run, you can listen to an accessible overview of the play’s critical controversies in Emma Smith’s podcast on Shrew for her invaluable Oxford series, “Approaching Shakespeare.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is Assistant Professor of English at Linfield College and scholar in residence at the Portland Shakespeare Project. He will lead a pre-show discussion about “The Taming of the Shrew” at 6:30 tonight (Wednesday, July 17) at Artists Rep.

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TOMORROW: Who does the taming, and who’s getting tamed?

FRIDAY: A Sly figure and an alternate text shift the balance of the play.

SATURDAY: In our final installment, a long-forgotten sequel further tames the men.

A lively kick in the problematic pants

Portland Shakespeare Project's "Shrew" jumps for joy; "Greater Tuna" is (disturbingly) us

Yucking it up: a "Shrew" for the funnybone. Photo: David Kinder

Yucking it up: a “Shrew” for the funnybone. Photo: David Kinder

“The Taming of the Shrew” is popping up all over the place these days, which is like a delightful flowering of geraniums to some theater fans, and an infestation of musk thistles to others. The master-and-obedient-servant relationship between Petruchio and Kate makes people wince, and among the mutterings from the sidelines and back rows you can hear the words “problem play.”

Well, they’re all problem plays – pretty much any play worth its salt. Something happens in a play, and it has consequences. Why else would we watch if not to confront the problem, and the way the characters deal with it? But Shakespeare, writing across the centuries to us from a place that is both familiar and surprisingly alien, presents meta-problems: problems not just of psychology and emotion but also of cultural assumptions and agreed-upon patterns of belief and behavior. One of the many things that still attract us to him, besides his sheer skill as a dramatist and poet, is the sense that, while he shared the beliefs of his time, he also saw the flaws in them and created suggestions of a different way of looking at things: little windows of possible change. We read and see “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” very differently from the way their original audiences did, and very likely from the way Shakespeare meant them when he wrote them. Yet by presenting their characters so vividly, he also created alternatives to the accepted prejudices and platitudes of his time. (It can come as a mild shock to realize, for instance, that to the Elizabethan mind “Merchant” was a comedy, and Shylock wasn’t its main character.) And so, now, we experience Shakespeare most rewardingly by keeping one eye on the early 17th century and one on the early 21st. That means accepting, if not embracing, the cultural meta-problems embedded in the plays – and understanding that a lot of things we take for granted now are most likely going to be viewed with a wince by our descendants. To pretend the past was different than it was destabilizes the present and the future.

But enough of this background blather. What about Kate and Petruchio, whose hold on our imaginations remains tight in spite of our very different beliefs about equality between the sexes, and despite the flaring war on women in the United States and around the world? And what, more to the point, about the Portland Shakespeare Project’s new production of “Shrew,” which opened over the weekend on Artists Rep’s intimate Alder Street stage?

I’m tempted to say, Just go see it. It’s a rich, funny, self-assured production, tumbling with witticisms high and low, and it whets the appetite for John Fletcher’s rarely performed “response” play, “The Tamer Tamed,” which the Shakespeare Project will open later this month and run in repertory with “Shrew.” (Yet another variation, the Cole Porter/Sam and Bella Spewack musical “Kiss Me Kate,” opens August 3 at Clackamas Rep.) Director Michael Mendelson has fluffed the thing up with period visual touches, reinstated the usually dropped “dream” bookends featuring the drunken tinker Christopher Sly, and goosed the action with a circusload of physical shtick.

The company talks about taking inspiration from the old Rowan & Martin “Laugh-In” TV show, with its quick-paced sneak attacks of visual and verbal gags. The production also reminds me of “I Love Lucy” slapstick with its frenetic comedy of embarrassment, and mobster-movie conventions, and very much of commedia delle’arte, the vigorous physical comedy that was also on Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote this early play, which is from the early 1590s, when Shakespeare was still in his 20s. “Shrew” abounds with vivid and muscular rhyme, which the players must suggest rhythmically without lapsing into singsong.

A huge amount of the fun comes from the supporting players here, among them canny veterans such as Ted Schulz (a mock-menacing Vicentio) and Gary Powell (a ridiculously mustachioed Baptista); adaptable clowns (Rusty Tennant in a passel of roles; Nathan Dunkin as the credulous Sly); a Mary Quant-ified mod sister Bianca (Foss Curtis); and the tumbling, flopping, cartoon acrobatics of Grumio (Nikolas Hoback). The pace can be frantic, and sometimes the bits fly too thick: I could have done without the Marlon Brando “Godfather” routine, for instance. But if at times the clatter seems a little like a used-car salesman’s pitch, it’s also fluid and funny and under just enough control. And with its witty sets and costumes (by John Ellingson and Jessica Bobillot, respectively) it’s a pleasure visually.

The heart of the play, though, is still the fearsome misfits Kate and Petruchio and their squabble royal for supremacy or equivalence. And Mendelson’s antagonists are pretty scarifying. James Farmer gives Petruchio a feral, calculated psycho edge: he’s a pretty scary guy, with a head harder than limestone. As Kate, the wonderful Maureen Porter moves from fevered wildcat anger to a lovely underlined humor that widens her outlook and frees her from the curse of understanding both too little and too much. Shakespeare streamlined and improved on the model of beloved enemies with Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing,” but Kate and Petruchio make up the difference in their very roughness. As a metaphor for a successful marriage, “Shrew”’s brilliant insight is that good partners are equals in each other’s eyes, and create an in-joke front for the rest of the world. It’s the sun? Great. It’s the moon? No doubt. Whatever you say, dear. Wink-wink. When accommodation turns to true partnership, the marriage begins, and in this production it’s Porter who carries the weight of that transformation. What seems a capitulation – she will be obedient – is actually a coping strategy, a front to present to a society that expects a man to be the lord of the manor. What goes on behind closed doors is very much up to the man and woman who make their own private agreements. Kate’s submissiveness can still make us shift uncomfortably in our seats. But it’s not much different from the agreements that Jane Austen’s heroines and heroes strike: create a private relationship of mutual respect, and build a Potemkin village of outward propriety to smooth the passage through the culture around you. My guess is that with this particular Kate and Petruchio, Pete’s going to continue to be an occasional lunkhead, and Kate’s going to find a way to bring him back in line. In a 1592/2013 kind of a way.

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THE NIGHT AFTER “SHREW” OPENED I drove to Lake Oswego to take in the second night of Lakewood Theatre’s “Greater Tuna,” with those reliable comic veterans Jay Randall Horenstein and Gary Brickner-Schulz playing all the residents, male and female, of the third-smallest town in Texas. Part of the pleasure of “Tuna” is watching the quick switches of character and costume, and part is the sense of the play’s spoofery, its affectionate knocking-about of the stereotypes and exaggerations of an ingrown subculture. When it came out in the 1980s it was embraced by Southerners and urbanites alike, in the way that “Nunsense” appealed to devout Catholics maybe even more than to people who didn’t know the insides of a church from a chalupa. I’ve seen a few “Tuna”s over the years, and I’ve always looked on it as an agreeable, farcically accomplished, only slightly caustic romp.

Horenstein and Brickner-Schulz. Photo: Lakewood Theatre

Horenstein and Brickner-Schulz. Photo: Lakewood Theatre

But this time I found it a little more unsettling. The actors were good. The design was tops. The pacing might have dragged just a bit, but I put that down partly to second-night letdown, and I fully expect these two actors, whose work I’ve known for years, to spread their wings and fly.

Something’s changed, though, in the last quarter-century, and for me, at least, it’s given “Tuna” an edge I hadn’t seen before. In 1985 these comic exaggerations of Texas good ol’ boys and girls were funny because the realities they were based on seemed to be fading away: the world was becoming more progressive, and that hardscrabble backwardness was becoming the past. It’s easy to be amused by a defanged snake. Today, Tuna feels like the future. Ignorance and aggression are on the rise; pettifoggery shrouds our statehouses and airwaves and national capital; everywhere we look it’s Tuna Tuna Tuna. From sea to shining sea we’re becoming the third smallest town in Texas – and suddenly, it’s not so funny anymore. The empathy for these small-town folks is still there (I’m from a small town myself). But these days it comes with a slight chill down the spine.

Still, there are very good things about the world of “Tuna,” and that’s what makes our national tumble down the beady-eyed rabbit hole of willful ignorance so distressing. The morning after I saw the show I made a grocery run, during which I endured over the supermarket’s loudspeaker yet another of those vaguely annoying, blandly scripted and intolerably sung attempts at country-pop that clog the radio bands and smother the senses like little drops of musical morphine. I thought back wistfully to the previous evening’s mix of Bob Wills and Kitty Wells and the like: genuinely good music from a distinctive culture with its own sense of the world. But can you have the rhythm without the blues? Ah, there’s the rub. And I’m not talkin’ barbecue.

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  • “The Taming of the Shrew” continues through August 4; information here.
  • “Greater Tuna” continues through August 18; information here.

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