‘Taming of the Shrew’: Marriage advice from Shakespeare?

Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Shakespeare Project suggest a 'Shrew' without misogyny

Kate—if I may call her Kate—is froward.
Petruchio hears that directly from his dear friend Hortensio:

“Her only fault—and that is faults enough—
Is that she is intolerable curst,
And shrewd and froward so beyond all measure
That, were my state far worser than it is,
I would not wed her for a mine of gold.”

Froward? My spellcheck does not like that word, though it is of fine old English origin. Or Middle English. My Oxford English Dictionary tracks its employment back to 1300, though it agrees with my spellcheck that “it is not now in colloquial use.”

Shakespeare uses it several times to describe Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and it caught my attention each time I heard it, in both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s and Portland Shakespeare Project’s productions of the play this summer. Froward? Sure, in context, I could guess what it meant, but let’s stop the guesswork.

Froward: 1. “Disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, hard to deal with, difficult to please; refractory, ungovernable…” (Again, per the OED.)

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

And yes, when we meet Kate in these productions (or ANY production), she is froward. Not to mention violent and angry, most of the time, though perhaps those are subsets of “froward.” And she’s “shrewd,” too. Shakespeare uses that word in a variety of ways in the plays to mean harsh, dangerous, malicious, nasty, bad-tempered, mischievous, cunning, smart, bitter (via David and Ben Crystal’s “Shakespeare’s Words”). And looking those adjectives over and comparing them to Kate, I’d say that both froward and shrewd fit.

But why is Kate in such an unbalanced state? Why do Nell Geisslinger (at OSF) and Maureen Porter (Portland Shakes) whack suitors and sisters and even speak sharply to fathers? Hey, this is a comedy, not a case study! For “The Taming of the Shrew” Shakespeare borrows lots from Italian commedia, disguises and zany servants and various sorts of romantic foolery, as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner pointed out in the rich series of essays on “Shrew” he wrote for us back in July. Kate is a stock character at the beginning of the play: She’s froward because Shakespeare made her so, not because she and her mother had a difficult relationship (we never hear word one about her mother, by the way).

The play is about how she comes to find some happiness and love in her life, and it’s a comedy because this is accomplished in an extreme and humorous way. I’m about to argue that Petruchio is in a similar state of imbalance and unhappiness, that he’s a stock character, too. And that his journey to love and happiness is just as profound (in a humorous way) as Kate’s.

Although I understand the charges of sexism against “The Taming of the Shrew” (one friend of ArtsWatch wondered why anyone would ever stage it), and I get how deeply it’s embedded in a time and society that is patriarchal (though it allows for different spheres for the genders), I don’t read it as an exercise in misogyny myself. I think it suggests something else to us, the audience of today, beyond the control or “taming” of women by men, something that is modern but maybe also timeless: a description of a successful marriage.

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For a proper dowry, Petruchio is willing to sell himself and his husbandly services to the highest bidder. To flip it around, you can buy Petruchio for gold. Let’s go back a second to that conversation between Hortensio and Petruchio at the beginning of the play.

H: I would not wed her [Kate] for a mine of gold.
P: Hortensio, peace. Thou know’st not gold’s effect.

Petruchio is the worst kind of materialist, a gold digger in the mine of Kate’s father, Baptista, or any other that bears glittering ore. His father has died and he’s out in the world on his own. And apparently, at least when it comes to love and marriage, he is utterly without principles, though we come to believe that his father had them. So, a rank opportunist, a rake, a bad boy, unreasonable and ill-disciplined. Maybe we wouldn’t call him a shrew, exactly, but it’s not a stretch to call him froward, at least in matters of the heart.

Down in Ashland, Ted Deasy’s tall, cowboy-thin Petruchio sports a rockabilly pompadour and cowboy jacket with fancy stitching. Petruchio’s a bit of a braggart with more than a bit of swagger, and Deasy’s got a certain hawkish nature and profile that emphasize that self-regard. In Portland, James Farmer’s Petruchio is a bigger, more muscular guy, and once he sets his jaw to a task, we suspect he’s used to bulldozing it through. Though these two Petruchios are fun to watch, at the beginning we don’t especially like them. They are as crazy as Kate.

We learn that right away in Kate and Petruchio’s delightful first pas de deux, one-liners flashing, voices raised, the threat of physical mayhem hanging over the encounter and occasionally descending with a slap and bearhug, here and there. Porter’s Kate might be a little angrier than Geisslinger’s, but Geisslinger’s snarl contains just as much menace. And the two Petruchios refuse to buckle, though they aren’t going to have their way, either.

But then a funny thing happens.

As we watch him devise a way to change Kate and then begin to implement that plan, we start to like Petruchio a little more. The tactic involves the tried-and-true torture methods of withholding food and sleep, sure, though employed in the name of care or concern for Kate. And violence is suggested by his rough way of handling servants. But Shakespeare gives us a glimpse or two of his vulnerability and uncertainty, too. I really enjoyed the exhaustion Deasy and especially Farmer showed from running this course—after all, they can’t sleep if they are keeping Kate awake, and we don’t see them eating, either. Petruchio is committed to the course (and presumably, Petruchio could marry Kate, stash her in a country villa, and never see her again, right?) of training his fierce falcon, though not to turning her into a passive hen.

And then we start to hear something else from Petruchio, something that sounds a lot like a progressive principle or two: “For tis the mind that makes the body rich,/And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,/So honor peereth in the meanest habit.” I would add that his persistent expression of concern for Kate, though we get that it’s part of a game that he’s playing, a tactic, has an effect, too, and maybe less on us than on Petruchio himself.

At some point we start to understand that he has developed real feelings for Kate. Maybe it isn’t until he sees that his strategy has been successful, but really, I think both Deasy and Farmer somehow suggest it earlier, though I’m not sure how. Just in their obsession with the task, maybe? I don’t know.

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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

In a set of four brief scenes, Shakespeare sketches the final transformation of two froward people into one loving couple. The last of these is infamous in some circles, and if we take it alone, for good reason: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign…” Ugh. But that scene does not stand alone, and in the context of the other three, maybe we begin to see what Shakespeare was driving at? Let’s give it a try.

SCENE ONE (actually Act IV, scene v)

This is the Moon Scene. For the second time Petruchio, Kate and retinue head to her father’s house and the marriage of her sister, Bianca. And Petruchio observes, “Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!” Kate is no fool, and she points out that the orb in question is actually the sun. And Petruchio reacts to the contradiction (“Evermore crossed and crossed, nothing but crossed”) by demanding that they return home.

Finally Kate relents, after Hortensio, who is traveling with them, begs her. This how she explains to herself and Petruchio: “Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun,/But sun it is not when you say it is not,/And the moon changes even as your mind./What you will have it named, even that it is,/And so it shall be still for Katherine.”

And then, finally, Petruchio rewards her. “Forward.” But then immediately another opportunity arises to test Kate’s change of … heart.

SCENE TWO (actually Act IV, later in scene v)

They encounter old Vincentio (the father of Lucentio, who has managed to snag Bianca in a side-plot) on the road.

Petruchio asks Kate if she has ever seen “a fresher gentlewoman.” Hortensio points out that Petruchio must be crazy, but Kate finally gets the idea. She embraces the joke and embraces Vincentio, “young budding virgin.” It’s a great moment in both productions, Geisslinger and Porter seizing the comic possibilities and the character development, as though they were shedding a skin.

And when Petruchio points out that this old man is “not a maiden as thou sayst he is.” Kate plays along! “Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes/That have been so bedazzled with the sun…” And before she says “sun,” Geisslinger (I think, or maybe Porter, or maybe both?) pauses, smiles, and gazes at Petruchio to confirm that it is still the sun and not the moon. Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells points out that the great British actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft did exactly the same thing when she played Kate.

The thing is done! Kate understands the game, she finds pleasure in it, she actually enjoys the bond with Petruchio.

SCENE THREE (Act V, scene i)

Petruchio and Kate stand aside as the subplot, with its disguises, is uncovered, and once it is concluded, Petruchio (imagine Deasy, maybe, as Jerry Lee Lewis) demands a kiss. Kate is slow to comply, and Petruchio starts to leave to return home. “Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee love, stay.” And Petruchio, having pressed his lips to Kate’s: “Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate./Better once than never, for never too late.”

Sweet Kate? No this isn’t a joke, at least the way Deasy and Farmer play it. And just as miraculously (in its own way), they really care, not because they have “won” somehow, but because they love their Kates. A final test is coming, and that’s the one that repels some viewers.

SCENE FOUR (Act V, scene ii)

Kate’s famous last speech is delivered after a set-up, a bet proposed by Petruchio to the other two newly married men on the scene, Lucentio (who has won Bianca) and Hortensio (who has married a rich widow). Which of the three offstage wives will obey with the greatest alacrity her husband’s command to come to him? Of course it is Kate: “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” We have a couple more examples of Kate’s obedience, and then her speech, addressed to the wives and their husbands.

I don’t think you can twist these lines into something they aren’t: Kate argues against arguing, which is amazing for the prototype of Beatrice (in “Much Ado About Nothing”), and for obedience: “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 lord?”

Linked to the previous scenes, the speech can be played with a certain degree of archness. I loved the Southern accent that Porter added when she spoke, “Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world…” And both she and Geisslinger played the scene in an “actorly” way, not altogether earnestly, though not as comedy, either. Petruchio has asked Kate to perform. She has agreed, and her performance is marvelous. And like all great performances, it depends on a great deal of trust (in her director, Petruchio) and her belief, if just for a moment, in the truth that may be contained in the words.

In a way, Petruchio tests Kate’s imagination, her creativity. Can she imagine the sun as the moon, an old man as a young woman, a completely compliant wife? Of course she can! But why would she want to? Maybe because it’s more fun, especially in cahoots with someone who cares about her and whom maybe she’s come to care about, too?

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

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

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Shakespeare presents us with two other young couples, and without a lot of evidence beyond their comic fecklessness, we imagine that their lives are going to be full of the usual marital conflict, as the romance wears off and the day-to-day discord creeps in.

We have seen what Kate and Petruchio have conquered, though: Their own natures. Their stock characters. Their comic failings. And perhaps their absolute individuality.

Maybe Shakespeare is saying that one of the great consolations of marriage is the inside joke! (Bob Hicks pointed this out in his lovely review of the Portland Shakes version for ArtsWatch.) Which takes two trusting, loving partners, otherwise one of them might worry that the joke is really on her (in Kate’s case).

Kate’s speech made in public, means something different to the two of them: It’s richer, full of history, more meaningful, more complex. It’s an affirmation of their collective imagination. And armed with that mutual imagination, we imagine their life together as something more creative and witty, more profoundly understanding and supportive, than Bianca’s and Lucentio’s. Though we hope maybe Bianca and Lucentio will get there in the end.

Having found their balance as individuals, we suspect they will go forward in harmony and something like equality, at least that’s how my modern sensibility considers it.

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A brief coda: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is also producing “My Fair Lady” this year, a production that I deeply enjoyed. Based on GB Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” it takes the remolding of a woman by a man to even greater extremes but with an entirely different outcome. No connubial bliss for Eliza and Henry, oh no.

Here’s what Shaw said about Kate’s final speech, which he called “altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility”: “No man with any sense of decency can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth.”

I am very hesitant to argue with Shaw, except that he is no longer with us. I think I understand his objection, though even if I thought that way, I’d still find the play interesting as a contrast to our “modern sensibility.” Did Shakespeare himself believe that men were “lord of creation”? I somehow doubt it. Would he understand contemporary feminism? Maybe he’d come around to it in time, but I don’t know. Did I feel ashamed to see it in the company of women? I confess I did not. Does that make me a misogynist? I certainly hope not.

What I like about “The Taming of the Shrew” (and why I like it more than “Pygmalion,” though I find Shaw’s play totally hilarious) is that it takes the traditional battle of the sexes idea and spins it in an unusual direction. Maybe it takes a theater of modern sensibility to detect that direction and take advantage of it, as I thought both Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Shakespeare Project did. And maybe that’s why I felt comfortable in my seat: I thought I could trust Geisslinger and Porter specifically to imbue their respective Kates with dignity and humanity; and directors Michael Mendelson (PSP) and David Ivers (OSF) to locate the humor of the right sort, as broadly as they asked the actors to play it.

And somewhere, I imagine, Kate and Petruchio are having a little laugh together, I suspect at my expense.

NOTES

ArtsWatch has NOT stinted on the “Shrew” coverage this summer.

Bob Hicks’ review of Portland Shakespeare Project’s production is a good entry point.

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s four-part, deep-dive into the play and its history provides excellent context for both Portland Shakes and OSF productions.

Bob’s review of “Kiss Me, Kate” adds a touch of music to our considerations.

 

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