For this month on What Happens in Shakespeare, I picked a Thanksgiving-appropriate play. It’s chock full of holiday traditions: family feuding, daytime drunkenness, and men judging women on their eating habits.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of the top most-hated Shakespeare plays, and for good reason. There have been some retellings that attempt to bring it up to date but don’t make me like it any better. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler at least cuts out a lot of the implied violence, and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at least has singing and dancing. But this is a boys vs girls story where the boys win, roundly and unapologetically. Some modern critics say Katherine’s big speech at the finale is tongue-in-cheek, or contains subtext about the balance of power actually being in her favor. I don’t know enough to commit to that interpretation. I would love to see a feminist production, where, say, Bianca is running a lucrative startup out of her dorm room and Petruchio fatally falls onto the subway tracks while taking a selfie. But this is the text we have. Sometimes you love an author for masterpieces like As You Like It and you can only hope his quill got taken over by bots for The Taming of the Shrew. We’ll talk about The Merchant of Venice later. And Othello. Ouch.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Petruchio tames Kate, and vice versa. No means yes.”
What happens in The Taming of the Shrew
We start with a wealthy man playing a trick on a poor and badly drunk man. We dive right into the main plot and never see either man again.
Lucentio arrives in Padua, Italy and falls in love with Bianca at first sight. Her father won’t let her get married until her notoriously independent older sister Katherine is married.
Lucentio disguises himself as Bianca’s teacher to be near her. His servant disguises himself as Lucentio (lost yet?) to negotiate with her father about marriage.
Petruchio arrives in Padua to look for a rich woman, any rich woman, he can marry. He hears about Katherine and decides to marry her, sight unseen.
Katherine and Petruchio meet. She insults him creatively, energetically, and at length (okay, Katherine’s dialog is actually one redeeming thing about the play). He tells her that he will marry her whether she agrees or not.
He tells her father, falsely, that she has agreed to marry him. The wedding date is set.
Petruchio arrives late to the wedding, not at all appropriately dressed and riding a broken-down horse. He interrupts the priest and swills the communion wine. After the wedding Petruchio hauls Katherine off to his house before the feast, saying she is now his property and he can do whatever he wants with her.
At his house in the country, Petruchio starves Katherine and will not let her sleep, saying he loves her so much he cannot let her eat his inferior food or sleep in his uncomfortable bed.
Back in Padua, Lucentio wins Bianca’s heart. His servant in disguise successfully negotiates their marriage by promising her father a huge amount of money. There are shenanigans about getting Lucentio’s father to front the money and give his blessing. Bianca and Lucentio get married.
Katherine and Petruchio return to Padua. On the way, Petruchio forces Katherine to say the sun is really the moon and an old man they encounter is really a young woman. Her spirit is obviously broken.
At a party, Katherine obeys Petruchio’s orders and gives a speech lecturing women about their duty to their husbands. Everybody who knows her is shocked.
There is a contest to see who has the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins.
Katherine and Petruchio leave the party to go to bed.
For a feminist analysis, I liked this 2016 article by Rachel De Wachter: “Power and gender in The Taming of the Shrew.”