Rex Gibson on teaching the Taming of the Shrew. How do you explain the classroom popularity of a play in which females are bartered like farm animals, and an independently-minded woman is mentally tortured into abject submission by a male chauvinist pig?
The answer is not hard to find in a school system committed to encouraging students to think for themselves. The Taming of the Shrew offers endless possibility for challenging the deeply unpleasant stereotype suggested here. It contains irresistible invitations to students to make their own judgments.
The battle of the sexes is very obviously at the heart of the play, but students have great freedom to make up their own minds about how that war is fought. Is Petruchio a bullyboy fortune-seeker inflicting heartless cruelty on Katherina to break her will? Or is he a lovable softie, only pretending harshness to give her a taste of her own medicine and so educate her? Students speak the language to investigate.
Katherina is open to a similarly wide range of interpretive possibilities. Is she really the shrew of the title, vixenish and petulant, beaten into submission? Or is she an intelligent free spirit in an oppressive male world, who achieves equality, even dominance, at the play's end? On stage, the answer lies in her delivery of her final speech promising to "serve, love and obey". It has been variously spoken to show her as cowed and submissive, and as predicting her future mastery, One searing production portrayed her as frantic, driven mad by Petruchio's cruelty.
Crucial questions of staging evoke committed student argument. What to do with the Induction? Some students are initially puzzled by what seems a delayed start to the main play. But acting it out in small groups quickly yields insight into how this framing device contains and predicts major themes that the play will explore; the transformations of disguise, love and dreams. The tricked Sly's concern with clothes, wealth, watching and women, all find strong echoes in the Padua play.
Students enjoy the practical problems of set and costume design that develop their understanding of story, character and themes. What kind of place is Padua? It has been set in a boxing ring, a circus, and many versions of Renaissance Italy. Some productions emphasise the mercantile aspect of the play, with women as saleable commodities. In one, Baptista's electronic calculator exploded, failing to cope with the overload of wealth being offered for Bianca.
How will the characters be dressed in this play where clothing and disguise are so important? Beyond the obvious challenge of Petruchio's wedding outfit lie fundamental questions about the appearance of the host of supporting characters. How far should they mirror the stock characters of commedia dell' arte? Students quickly appreciate that particular decisions (will Gremio appear as a pantaloon?) depend on their wider view of the whole play. Will the dominant mood stress humour or cruelty, farce or serious intent, stylised or naturalistic playing?
Equally quickly, students learn that such polarities reduce the rich complexity of the play. Baptista may want a high price for his daughter, but he is also a father who says that anyone who marries Katherina must obtain "The special thing . . . that is, her love, for that is all in all." Shakespeare may draw upon stereotypes, but he makes his characters uniquely human in their contradictoriness.
How does Gale Edwards's heart-warming production for the Royal Shakespeare Company resolve such questions? She creates Padua as a pantomime world, dreamed into existence by Christopher Sly. It is a world of conventional characters in which only Petruchio and Kate have real humanity.
Two lines of Katherina's embody this production's perspectives: "I see a woman may be made a foolIf she had not a spirit to resist". Josie Lawrence as Kate delivers that resistance in full measure. Clearly attracted to Petruchio from the start, she survives the ordeal at his house and blossoms into the equality of love.
When Petruchio (a good-natured, Byronic performance by Michael Siberry, totally free of malice) shows signs of returning to his old love of money, she shames him into silence with her final speech. He cannot look her in the eye.
The play closes with Petruchio metamorphosing back into his Christopher Sly role, pitifully dependent on the compassionate embrace of his wife. Women's resistance wins out.
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