The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Taming of the Shrew

Categorized among the early Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-91) has become one of the playwright's most controversial works. While Elizabethan audiences may have viewed the piece with amusement and approval, the story of the spirited, rebellious, and sharp-witted Katherina (Kate), forced by her father to marry the equally exuberant and willful Petruchio, generally fails to correspond to a modern sensibility of the proper bond between husband and wife. The tactics by which Petruchio transforms Katherina's obstinacy into obedience, as well as the drama's undercurrent of violence and cruelty, are perceived by many critics as unsettling in a play principally concerned with marriage. Whereas nineteenth-century commentators dismissed the drama as a simple farce of little serious consequence, modern scholars find much in the play that merits serious study. Many critics have endeavored to explicate the troubling elements of the play, and are particularly interested in Katherina's apparent submission to her husband in the play's final act. Summarizing its enigmatic appeal, Oxford Shakespeare editor H. J. Oliver (1982) observes the ways in which Shakespeare transformed and improved upon his numerous sources for The Taming of the Shrew to fashion a piece that, despite certain limitations, fascinates with its intriguing subject: the clash of sexes.

Contemporary character-based studies of The Taming of the Shrew have almost invariably focused on the drama's central and dominating figures, Katherina and Petruchio. This volatile relationship is the subject of Ruth Nevo's (1980) appraisal, which emphasizes the dynamics of “sexual battle” that drive the play. Nevo dissects the fundamental subject of The Taming of the Shrew—locating a suitable mate for the “wild, intractable and shrewish daughter of Baptista”—and the conflict of wills that ensues. Analyzing Petruchio's verbal strategies in wooing and taming his wife, Nevo observes that Katherina largely responds to his cues, and suggests that the play steadily informs us that by its final act Kate is truly in love with her husband. Other critics have taken a wider, social view of Katherina's taming. Velvet D. Pearson (1990) sees the process of subduing Baptista's eldest daughter on stage as a barometer of changing social attitudes toward women from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, ranging from a traditional view of Katherina and Petruchio as two individuals learning to love one another to a more modern vision that champions Katherina's assertiveness and intellectual freedom. Harriet A. Deer (1991), while acknowledging that the play presents a strongly chauvinist subtext, argues that in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare creatively undercut conventional stereotypes associated with the shrew and braggart figures, which provide the theatrical basis for Katherina's and Petruchio's characters, in order to reveal the deeply patriarchal suppositions of Elizabethan marriage.

Despite its potentially disturbing representation of gender conflict, The Taming of the Shrew continues to be one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies. Charles Isherwood's evaluates the 1999 Public Theater production staged in New York City's Central Park, directed by Mel Shapiro. Isherwood finds this performance, which primarily appealed to low humor with an unyielding silliness and multitude of crude jokes, an affront to the emotional complexities of Shakespeare's characters and story. While Isherwood admires Allison Janney's outstanding Katherina, he laments Shapiro's overall disregard for the emotional subtleties of the drama in favor of eye-catching comic additions. Similarly, Ben Brantley (1999) finds Richard Rees's 1999 Williamstown Theater Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew disappointing. For Brantley, one of the saving elements of this “fast, furious, and overstuffed interpretation” was Bebe Neuwirth's convincingly performed Katherina. Elysa...

(The entire section is 73,560 words.)