The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew was likely written in the early 1590s, although estimates have ranged from the late 1580s to 1600. No specific source has been identified for the play. Scholars once believed the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew (1594) to be the source, but most critics now regard the anonymous piece as a “bad” quarto, likely an erroneous and possibly pirated version of the play known today. The premise of The Taming of the Shrew was apparently appropriate material for comedy during Shakespeare's time, but most modern audiences find the notion of Petruchio “taming” his spirited wife Katherina (Kate) neither amusing nor acceptable. Katherina, forced by her father to marry Petruchio, is subjected to a variety of disciplinary tactics considered demeaning and cruel by most playgoers today. Commentators are particularly interested in Katherina's submission at play's end, which so offends modern beliefs on gender equality that sexual politics often become the focus of critical concern.
One of Petruchio's taming techniques involves control of Katherina's access to food. Brian Morris (1981) notes that: “Katherina is denied her bridal dinner (III.ii), starved at Petruchio's house (IV.i), mocked with the promise of food by Grumio (IV.iii), and not finally satisfied until Lucentio's banquet in V.ii.” Joseph Candido (1990) also highlights the emphasis on eating and drinking throughout the play, describing the deprivation of food as an essential part of the taming process and Petruchio's refusal to partake in his and Katherina's wedding feast as a marker of his own social iconoclasm. Another means of subduing Katherina employed by her husband involves the dispute over her wardrobe. Margaret Rose Jaster (2001) discusses Petruchio's control over Katherina's apparel, commenting that although critics and audiences often consider the dialogue in these scenes to be harmless banter, the exchanges are not as benign as they may seem, since clothing is so closely associated with identity—both personal and social. “Although Petruchio employs less physical abuse than traditional tamers, we cannot blithely disregard any attempts by one party to control another's identity through this most intimate device,” maintains Jaster.
Frances E. Dolan (see Further Reading) surveys the critical controversy surrounding the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio, contending that even “in its own time the play was one text among many in heated debates about women's status, marriage, and domesticity.” Modern critics and audiences alike are inclined to consider Petruchio's behavior harsh, domineering, and offensive rather than amusing and romantic. Some scholars, however, have attempted to recast Petruchio's behavior into more acceptable categories for contemporary audiences. Morris, for example, considers Petruchio's role as that of a teacher, rather than a tamer; he acknowledges that education “is a means of reducing the individual to social conformity through the imparting of approved knowledge and acceptable skills,” but contends that it is also “designed to liberate and bring to full fruition the innate capabilities of the pupil.” Similarly, many scholars have reinterpreted Katherina's submission as ironic and refuse to accept her final speech as a sincere expression of her willing subordination. Some critics, according to Dolan, “argue that Katharina goes so far in her insistence on women's subjugation that she offers a critique of Petruchio's goals and desires.” Others take a lighter view, arguing that her servility is a joke shared by Katherina and her husband at the expense of the other couples; such an interpretation suggests not only a happy ending for the romantic comedy, but casts the couple in the roles of romantic hero and heroine. Winfried Schleiner (1977), however, resists interpretations that posit Katherina as a romantic heroine in the same vein as Rosalind of As You Like It. According to Schleiner, the language of Katherina's submission at the end of the play is “based on a social order so natural and commonplace to the playwright and his audience that the presence of romance is ruled out.”
Modern stagings of The Taming of the Shrew reflect the problematic nature of the play's central premise, often taking unusual casting and staging approaches in an effort to recapture the play's comic elements. Ann Blake (2002) claims that although the work was frequently produced in the twentieth century, “it was rarely staged straight.” Recent unconventional productions include the Yale Repertory Theatre's use of an all-male cast in 2003. Wayne and Dorothy Cook (2003) comment on director Mark Lamos's attempt to “recapture the original vigor of the play,” an attempt that was unfortunately, according to the critics, “thwarted by a cast of mediocre players.” Similarly, in the 2003 Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production, director Barry Kyle attempted to move the audience beyond the usual preoccupation with sexual politics by featuring an all-female cast. Kyle left the company during rehearsals, however, and was replaced by Phyllida Lloyd, who put together a production “that relishes the broad comedy of the play,” according to reviewer Sarah Hemming (2003). “Rather than struggle with this troublesome piece,” claims Hemming, “the girls' strategy is to have fun with it.” In another gender-bending production, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company cast women in the men's roles (and vice versa) in an attempt to restore the comic tone of the work. Kristina Mannion (see Further Reading) reports that the result of this interpretation was “delightfully comical” as “women step in to portray the major male characters with all the swaggering gusto this often testosterone-fueled script calls for.” Laurel Graeber (2002) reviews a more conventionally cast production directed Stephen Burdman for the New York Classical Theater. Graeber notes that Garth T. Mark's tenderhearted Petruchio “makes you forget about sexism and just revel in the fun.” However, such attempts to appease the egalitarian sensibilities of modern audiences are not always successful. Toby Young (2004) criticizes Gregory Doran's politically correct 2004 production as a “touchy-feely, sentimental interpretation.” According to Young, “Doran has got round the usual objection to the play, namely that it is unabashedly misogynistic, by presenting it as a touching love story in which two social misfits, each nursing a cluster of psychological wounds, find salvation in each other's arms.”