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About the Play: Shrewd Ambiguities

By Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Manager

There is perhaps no Shakespeare play that has come down to us in more damaged condition than The Taming of the Shrew. Scholars agree that the play was among Shakespeare’s earliest, written before the plague closed theatres from the early 1590s to 1594. Not yet a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare was an aspiring young freelancer, acting in, writing and selling plays to the highest bidder.

A version of the play, The Taming of a Shrew, surfaced in 1594. This garbled “bad quarto”—lines cut or reconstructed from memory, names and locations changed—nevertheless boasts the same plot and a number of identical passages. Most striking, it features the same framing device as Shakespeare’s Shrew: Christopher Sly, a Warwickshire beggar, watching a play-within-the-play in which Katherine the shrew is tamed. In this version, however, Sly’s narrative returns at the end. The version of Shrew that we know, from the 1623 Folio, features no such return.

The Folio, moreover, is filled with mysterious gaps and sudden swerves: characters change motivation multiple times (Hortensio), are suddenly provided with set-piece speeches (Biondello), or simply materialize for plot exigencies (the Widow and the Pedant). The only conclusion is that the Folio and Quarto are both cut versions of a lost, original Shrew. Neither presents the play as Shakespeare originally wrote it in the early 1590s.

Fittingly, Shrew is a Shakespearean anomaly. From its inception, it seems to have struck viewers as disturbing as well as entertaining, morally ugly if not downright barbaric. In the modern era, it has been performed ironically if not adapted outright, most directors concurring with George Bernard Shaw: “No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed.”

The play’s structure reveals its medieval mindset. Shrew is the only Shakespeare comedy in which a marriage transpires in medias res, after which Petruchio takes Katherina to his house in “Verona,” i.e. the sticks. At this inverted Arden, Petruchio and his servants force Kate to endure a series of monastic deprivations. As in Petruchio and Kate’s bumptious first encounter earlier in the action, this sequence has the texture of an ancient wooing ritual, one only partially transparent to our modern sensibilities.

In the decades before Shakespeare, anonymous playwrights inaugurated the genre of “shrew-taming,” drawing from such models as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Noah’s Wife from the York Cycle. In one horrifying Tudor ballad, a husband beats his wife severely, “taming” her by wrapping her in the salted skin of an old horse.

Compared to previous shrew-tamers, Petruchio is more subtle in his methods, if not less cruel. Rather than resorting to physical beatings or theological sermons, he works on Katherina through a metaphor closer to Shakespeare’s heart: theatrical performance. His “taming” comes in the guise of repeated offerings for Kate to join him on a series of mountingly absurd games of pretend. Pretend that rags are fine clothing, and vice versa; that good meat is bad, or the sun the moon. Ultimately, in a case of art imitating the all-male life of Shakespeare’s theatre, pretend that a man can stand in for a woman.

Shakespeare carefully, cryptically characterizes Katherina. She is his only comic heroine without a female friend, and as such we have no direct window into her thoughts. We are never certain how much of her behavior is performed or authentic, just as we are not sure how much we see the “real” Petruchio. Her infamous final speech, like the rest of the play, is curiously open-ended: Is it a triumph of self-mastery, or a tragedy of self-abnegation? Has Petruchio helped her to a fuller understanding of herself, or brutalized her with a show of social control? Later in his career, Shakespeare would codify romantic comedy, but he already had a gift for understanding the equivocal nature of desire.

The play’s subplot, derived from Ariosto, compounds this theme of performance, as the “good” Bianca is bethronged by a rotating cast of male suitors, most of them disguised. Romantic on the surface, it is in fact a world of love commodified, its dramatic action Bianca’s auctioning off to the highest bidder. In a shrewd irony, Shakespeare asks us to compare the two sisters’ worlds and ask: Which is the more romantic? Who is the real shrew?

At the onset of his career, then, Shakespeare was dramatizing the thorniest problems of our modern world. They are problems that remain: women’s uncertain status within a patriarchal society; the rising merchant class and their nouveau riche culture of runaway consumption; the ambiguities of love and the mysteries of the self. Abounding with thrilling juxtapositions—English earthiness and Italianate sophistication, rustic folktale and Ovidian metamorphosis—Shakespeare was already creating, at the very beginning of his career, a kind of drama that no one in the world had ever seen.

In this production, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar and I have sought to repair the play’s damaged structure. Using the non-diegetic music of Duncan Sheik in select moments, characters denied soliloquies by Shakespeare are now given a transparent inner life. By moving key characters’ entrances earlier in the play, we have added to their arcs, creating a more human rise and fall. Most of all, by utilizing an all-male cast, we have shifted the focus from the war of the sexes to the war within the self. Without resolving any of the play’s modern cruxes, we have sought to close the gaps in the narrative caused by the corrupted transmission of the text, telling the story through its ambiguities, not its absences.

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