Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

I have a selection of Shakespeare plays on my Classics Club list, so when "Classic Play" was a category in my Back to the Classics challenge, I knew right away which texts I would be picking from. I already happened to have The Taming of the Shrew on my shelf, so I went with that one for this year. I was interested in it for two reasons. First, I am a big fan of the musical Kiss Me, Kate. This Broadway show is based on The Taming of the Shrew, and I spent a lot of time when I was younger memorizing its soundtrack. Second, I am also a big fan of 10 Things I Hate About You, which was a teen movie based on this play from the 90s. Since those two things were a big part of my childhood, I was interested to check out their original source material.

The play centers around two Italian sisters from a noble family, Katherine and Bianca Minola. The sisters are completely different from other another in personality. Katherine, the older sister, is bad-tempered and prone to violence. She is rude to everyone she comes across and fights with her sister constantly. Her anger is legendary around their hometown of Padua. Bianca, the younger sister, is gentle and compliant. She is kind to everyone and acts with much more decorum in her social life. As a result of her easy temper, Bianca has several suitors vying for her hand in marriage. Katherine, predictably, has no suitors, as most men don't want to deal with her caustic personality. Their father, Baptista, despairs of ever finding a man to marry Katherine off to. In the hopes of encouraging suitors to take her on, he decides that he won't allow anyone to pursue Bianca until Katherine is safely married off.

Bianca's suitors are horrified at this resolution. They resolve to join forces and come up with a plan to get Katherine married. Luckily for them, an eligible bachelor named Petruchio arrives on the scene. He is looking for a wife, and he claims that obtaining a large dowry is his sole deciding factor for securing a marriage. Delighted, the suitors pay him to court Katherine. They warn him of her temper, but he claims to be able to tame any shrew in short order. He moves quickly to secure her hand in marriage. As he has no competition, he succeeds in marrying her in short order (completely against her will), and takes her away to his home.

Petruchio begins his campaign to tame Katherine by behaving towards her exactly as she has been behaving towards everyone else. He fights, complains,and is intensely disagreeable to those around him. His strategy is to show her what her own behavior looks like to others. In addition to this approach, he won't let her eat or sleep until she becomes more agreeable. Eventually, she breaks and becomes compliant to the point where she mindlessly goes along with everything Petruchio says. 

Meanwhile, Bianca's suitors have been engaging in some clever deceptions in order to win her heart. One of these men, Lucentio, pulls off an elaborate scheme which involves swapping identities with one of his servants and pretending to be a Latin tutor in order to gain access to her. Eventually, his plan works and Bianca falls in  love with him. They elope shortly after Petruchio and Katherine get married, disappointing the other men who had hoped to try for her hand.

Eventually, all of the characters come together for a wedding feast at the end of the play. Petruchio shows off how obedient Katherine has become, which impresses everyone present. Her wifely devotion is now even more admirable than Bianca's, and she winds up lecturing her sister on how their duty as wives is to "place their hands under their husbands' feet" and serve them in everything.

I knew going into my reading that this play was going to contain a lot of problematic elements. It's unfair to judge a play written in the 1500s using modern standards, so I will refrain from criticizing its obviously sexist and abusive elements. Simply put, this work has not aged well and it's not funny in this century. It still contains Shakespeare's characteristic wit and charm, and there are great lines and speeches throughout the play, but its objectionable plot points are a major distraction for a modern reader. It's tough to sit and enjoy Shakespeare's wordplay while you are reading about a women being starved and tortured until she agrees to call the moon the sun.

Some interpret the plot as being an ironic take on marriage and relationships and claim that Shakespeare was being purposely ridiculous here--that he was in on the joke, as it were. I strongly doubt that, but I also don't hold his views against him. He was living in a different time where very different attitudes and traditions prevailed. The modern versions of this play that I enjoyed as a kid definitely softened the sexism and rendered the story much more palatable. It was still interesting to see the origin of this story, but The Taming of the Shrew does not hold up to the other Shakespearean works I have read and loved and as a result, I don't have much to say about it. I'm ready to move past this one and get into some plays that explore more universal and relevant themes.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2019 (a classic play) 3/12 Books Read
Classics Club (#1 on my list): 38/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 10

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