We recently went to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe.
It was a great experience. The acting was superb – so lively and athletic that it thoroughly held the attention of my eight- and ten-year-olds. The building was fascinating. And one had the sense that the whole package was as authentic as it could be.
The play itself is also an interesting one. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story – one of the main plot arcs involves Petruchio, who wishes to marry Katherina on account of the size of her dowry. However, the one snag is that Katherina is a “shrew”, i.e. a wayward woman who shouts, screams, is physically violent and refuses to do anything that she is asked (or expected) to do. Petruchio therefore sets about “taming” her. He does this by starving her, depriving her of sleep, and denying her decent clothing unless she concurs with everything he says and does, even if that is patently false. (He insists that it is the moon that shines in the middle of the day rather than the sun, for example.) Deprived of her most basic needs, Katherina succumbs to Petruchio and becomes a perfectly “obedient” wife. She is, literally, forced to succumb in order to survive.
Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? And indeed the play can be extremely difficult to stomach for a modern-day audience. But, of course, all of this needs to be understood in its historical context. Women were expected to defer utterly to their husbands. What did choice did they have, after all, when their husbands owned all their worldly goods, they had no personal freedom, no independent wealth and no means of earning a living? They relied on their husbands to provide for them in every way.
Given that this was the context in which Shakespeare was writing, the play becomes more understandable. But even so, Katherina’s personality and Petruchio’s attempts to subdue her are extreme. This allows for a number of interpretations. "The Taming of the Shrew" can be seen as a straightforward farce, or a piece of social commentary (the extremes of the play serving to highlight the unjust situation in which Katherina, and indeed all women of the time, found herself), or a depiction of the battle between two incredibly strong personalities (the fact that they are man and wife only being part of the picture).
Or maybe it’s none of these things and we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better by putting a modern spin on the blatant brutality of the play. Either way, the actors did a grand job and put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. A visit to Shakespeare’s Globe comes highly recommended!