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 Gardner (2000) praises director Victoria Liberatori's musically enhanced Taming of the Shrew set in a retro, 1970s style and performed by the Princeton Repertory Theater in 2000. Gardner contends that this seemingly odd setting offered an excellent commentary on the play by evoking the sexual revolution and the women's rights movement. Lastly, D. J. R. Bruckner (2001) comments on Liz Shipman's use of the critically contentious induction scene that opens The Taming of the Shrew in her 2001 production with the King County Shakespeare Company. Bruckner finds nearly all of Shipman's directorial interpretations beneficial to the drama and approves of the ensemble performance.
Recent thematic criticism regarding The Taming of the Shrew has generally focused on two key topics: transformation and the socially dictated roles of women. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1983) explores the theme of metamorphosis in the play, beginning with its induction scene and the mock conversion of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly into a nobleman. Roberts goes on to study the pervasive imagery of transformation in the play, such as the emblematic transformation of a married couple into a single entity represented by a hermaphrodite, and the symbolic metamorphosis of humans into animals—particularly the association between woman and horse. Approaching the transformation theme from a sharply contrasting perspective, Barry Weller (1992) studies the problematic relationship between The Taming of the Shrew's induction and main plot. Noting that Christopher Sly's dream induction to the drama is rife with allusions to theatricality, Weller suggests that Katherina's ostensible metamorphosis from assertive shrew to servile wife, when viewed through this frame, should be regarded with at least a degree of skepticism. Shifting to issues of gender in The Taming of the Shrew, Erika Gottlieb (1986) considers Katherina's rebellious actions in the play as a kind of ideological assault on the Great Chain of Being, a traditional hierarchical structure that dominated early modern thinking. While Katherina rails against her social placement below man in this scheme, Gottlieb observes that Shakespeare's final statement on the matter remains ambivalent. Gary Schneider (2002) presents a feminist-materialist assessment of the social world depicted in The Taming of the Shrew. Schneider maintains that in the play, the theater becomes a site of “social control” where Katherina becomes the mouthpiece for patriarchal rhetoric. According to Schneider, Katherina's final speech is meant to act as a kind of sermon that encourages the female audience members to exhibit proper behavior.