Classic Remarks: The Taming of the Shrew

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic?  Should we continue to stage it?

William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew features the story of of Petruchio and Katherina, the titular shrew.  Petruchio arrives in Verona hoping to marry a rich woman and his friends suggest he woo Kate, known for her ill humor and sharp tongue.  They are perfectly willing to sacrifice Petruchio because many men love Kate’s sister Bianca–but Bianca’s father has decreed no one shall have her until he can get Kate off his hands.  Petruchio, however, has no fear–he believes he can break Kate to his will.

So follows a tale that sees Petruchio wed Kate, then make her life miserable.  He begins by arriving to his own wedding late, dressed in strange clothes.  He then refuses to stay to the wedding feast.  Once he lives with Kate, he tries to give her a taste of her own medicine by yelling as much as she.  He also ensures that she has no meat and that she is unable to sleep.  All this culminates in a bet where the men in the play wager their wife is the most obedient.  Petruchio wins.  He has “tamed” his wife to do whatever he wants and to say whatever he wants.

This sort of plot has not aged well.  Though some might suggest that Petruchio’s behavior is only mirroring Kate’s, showing her how others feel when she yells at them all the time, these arguments gloss over Kate’s hunger and sleep deprivation, caused by the orders of her husband.  And though audiences still enjoy bodily humor, like seeing Tom and Jerry hit each other in the old cartoon, it’s hard to play what looks like domestic abuse for laughs.  Is it really funny that Kate hasn’t eaten or slept?  Maybe Tom and Jerry never really seem to get hurt by their antics, but Kate is clearly is suffering, begging the servants for food and complaining beggars at the door receive better treatment than she.

In the attempt to soften the plot, some productions play Petruchio and Kate as always secretly in love from the start; Kate is protesting the marriage merely for show.  But if you leave in the scenes where Kate is starved for meat and tired of constant brawling, you still have the problem of domestic abuse.  Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is not less problematic just because the audience believes the two sincerely in love.

I’d be hesitant to label the play as “misogynistic” simply because Shakespeare’s time would not have had the same problems with it as modern audiences.  All the same, when I think about it, I wonder how I would stage such a production and make viewers believe it really has a happy ending with a loving marriage and not a defeated woman.  You could stage the bet as being sort of pre-arranged by Petruchio and Kate; Kate obeys her husband because she wants him to win, not because she is broken and terrified of what he’ll do to her if she refuses.  And yet…what to do with the hunger and sleep scenes?  I’d be tempted to cut them entirely, leaving only Petruchio’s ridiculous behavior and his imitations of Kate’s complaints.

For me, it’s difficult to erase the hunger and sleep deprivation scenes, no matter how hard you try to soften the other aspects of the play.  To get me rooting for Petruchio and Kate’s marriage, a modern adaptation could not stage the play exactly as written; it’s not enough to say, “Hey, Petruchio’s a good guy now that his wife is docile.  She won’t have to worry about abuse again so long as she behaves herself.”  I need to know that Petruchio is not capable of outright cruelty, and that Kate will be safe in their marriage.

Participating this week?  Leave your link in the comments below!

Krysta 64

27 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: The Taming of the Shrew

  1. TeacherofYA says:

    You know, I’ve never read the play or seen it! I can’t believe it’s never come up!
    I wish I was more knowledgable on the subject…but great post. Makes you think. 🤔


  2. bethwade1 says:

    I’ve seen more modern interpretations that treat the end less as “Petruchio finally tamed his wife” and more as “Petruchio and Kate are so sympatico now that they can fleece everyone”. SharespeaRetold did this really well, and I think the Burton/Taylor film adaptation did as well.
    In general, I’m anti-never stage a play because now it’s not PC. That’d be a great way to lose not only great works of art, but also an understanding of a time and place in history that had different attitudes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t seen many takes on this, but from what I’ve heard the strategy tends to be to make Kate and Petruchio love each other from the start and then to depict them as working together at the end. But, for me, this still leaves the problem of the domestic abuse in the middle. What do you do with it? Cut it out entirely? One of my friends said she saw a version where the actors kept the parts where Petruchio deprives Kate of food and sleep, and played it as straight comedy–and the audience laughed. Well, maybe original audiences thought this was funny, but today we’d consider prolonged sleep deprivation as a form of torture. So…is it funny? Should we play it to audiences like it’s funny? I don’t think we can.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. majoringinliterature says:

    I agree, this play hasn’t aged well, and even playing Kate and Petruchio as secretly in love doesn’t make it much less problematic. Modern productions definitely struggle to make their relationship palatable. If I were a director I think I’d personally be inclined to enhance the sense of unease and uncertainty, perhaps staging the play less as a love story and more an exploration of gender relations.

    Here’s my answer:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, whenever this comes up, people tell me, “But they’re in love and they’re working together at the end!” Sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that if today a man prevented his wife from sleeping by making noise all night and then refused to let her have any food, we’d call it abuse. Maybe early modern audiences found it funny, but I doubt many modern audiences would. Actually, if they did, I’d be kind of worried.

      Thanks for participating!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. alilovesbooks says:

    I haven’t read the original but there have been some recentish TV or movie versions which were set in contemporary times and I thought worked pretty well. The most obvious is 10 Things I Hate About You but my personal favourite was a BBC drama with Rufus Sewell and Shirley Henderson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’ve only seen 10 Things I Hate About You, but I think it works so well partly for the reason I mentioned–they delete the scenes of domestic abuse. No one here is being deprived of food and sleep. Patrick is merely paid to go on a date with Kat and then soon repents. He’s kind of stupid maybe for taking money to do this, but you wouldn’t think him cruel, so you can still root for their romance.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Risa says:

    I’ve just been following a trail and ended up here. I’m so glad for that as I’ve been looking for a good literary meme to take part in. This question is interesting, but I’ll need to think about it a bit more.


  6. Jillian says:

    The Taming of the Shrew is my favorite Shakespeare play. This is the guy who created Rosamund. There is no way he’s being serious. If you read the frame story which surrounds the “main” tale, you can see Shakespeare is presenting misogynistic thinking, and then challenging it. The final speech is completely hilarious because it’s SO over the top, and likely many in Shakespeare’s day thought it was sincere. Which is what makes it so funny. Only my thoughts.🙂


    • Krysta says:

      For some reason your comments were going to spam! I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what happened!

      I like this interpretation a lot since it engages with the problem of why Shakespeare writes so many other great, independent women (and seems to admire them) and then goes and writes a play where the independent woman has to be subdued. I also like that you’re proposing a reason for the framing device, which still seems to confuse scholars!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. luvtoread says:

    Oh wow, I really need to re-read this one! I’ve read it and seen the movie, and also the version called Kiss Me Kate with Kathryn Grayson & Howard Keel, and I remember none of the issues here that you mention. It is quite possible that I was too young when I read this so will need to revisit it! I remember enjoying it when I first read it.


  8. Dena @ Batch of Books says:

    Interesting question and interesting thoughts. I don’t know how you could portray it in a better light and stay true to the original play. But some things can be appreciated for their historical value rather than how they measure up to modern society’s expectations.


    • Krysta says:

      Well, I don’t know how much historical value you could say the play has in its representation of domestic abuse since even at the time audiences would have no doubt questioned what was happening onstage. John Fletcher, for example, wrote The Tamer Tamed in response, indicting that even early modern viewers might have found the play distasteful.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Brooke Banks @The Broke Book Bank says:

    Huh. I’ve never read or seen The Taming of the Shrew before. I only heard it mentioned and retellings like 10 Things I hate About You, which I loved.

    So, I had no idea she was abused by him and thus “tamed”. I’m surprised that people can defend it.

    I think removing the abuse and revamping it is the only way to go now. There’s just no way around the abusive factor without doing so and not propagating the problem.

    Thanks so much for this. Very informative.


    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t seen many modern adaptations, but from what people are saying in the comments, it seems like it’s been a common tactic to remove the abuse. This does seem like the best way to go if you want modern audiences to be rooting for Kate and Petruchio as a romantic couple, though I suppose in Shakespeare comedies regularly have problematic endings, even if they seem to end with happy marriages.


  10. Lost In A Good Book says:

    I wanted to hold off on my reply until after I’d finished the play. I just got approved for the ARC of Vinegar Girl. It is the modern re-telling of Taming of the Shrew, and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Oh my goodness. This play. I couldn’t stomach it. Kate just seemed so lost. Of course, she acted like a shrew. No man ever listened to a woman in this play. She seemed a clever, intelligent, independent girl. She never had a chance in this group or in this time. I had hopes for her first conversation with Petruchio, because I thought they could trade some barbs and she could fall for him because here she’d finally met her match. Not so much. It was brutal. I’m eager to see how Vinegar Girl solves the problem.


    • Krysta says:

      It might be interesting to see how Vinegar Girl presents Kate, too. In your reading, Kate is an independent woman who is being judged for being just that–independent. I wonder if Vinegar will also present Kate in a way that we might call “feminist” and make that the reason others react to her so negatively.

      I actually just learned about the Hogarth editions today so I know very little about them, but they sound really intriguing.

      And your comment about trading barbs made me think about Much Ado. Kind of like Kate and Petruchio had the opportunity to be Beatrice and Benedick, but that kind of relationship is never realized for them.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! I’d not read this play in a long time and didn’t remember the scenes you mention as being domestic abuse. It does seem to me that it would be hard for me to see the ending of the play as happy with those scenes included.


    • Krysta says:

      The scenes are, I think, easily glossed over if you’re reading. And from the responses on this post, it seems that most modern adaptations have cut them, seeing as most of the comments aren’t really engaging with the sleep deprivation/food deprivation bits and are instead choosing to focus on the parts of the play that are easier to explain away or adapt.


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