Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” – Lindsay Gardner

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Depiction of Sly and the hostess. H.C. Selous c. 1830

I had my first encounter with William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as aseventh grader. I vaguely recall puppets, an overexcited student teacher and being forced to “act” with my classmates. Needless to say, it did not end well. As a thirteen-year-old reading the play in English class in Columbus, Ohio, I felt I could not possibly relate to some old dead Brit and his ridiculous play about some crazy lady who was married to a psycho. I hazily remember wishing one William Shakespeare would come back to life so I could accost him for the pain and suffering he caused me. Thus it was with memories of loathing and a severe sense of foreboding that I decided to give Mr. Shakespeare another shot. I even promised myself to give him a fair chance, or at the very least, as fair of one as I could manage.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the play, The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy written by William Shakespeare. For those of you who live under a rock, William Shakespeare is one of England’s cultural landmarks along with Harry Potter, William and Kate, double decker buses, and a historical propensity for attempting to takeover the world. The common people loved him in his lifetime and his works are now alternatively lorded over and inflicted on the general population of the English-speakers under the guise of cultivation. That said, this attempt at brainwashing seems to have failed as we have fallen victim to barbarism and such modern classics as the Twilight series.

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In his introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, H.J. Oliver argues for the originality of Shakespeare’s play because “those passages in [The Taming of] A Shrew […] that make sense only if one knows [The Taming of] The Shrew version from which they must have been derived.”

When exactly The Taming of the Shrew was written is still up for discussion as apparently, for a writer, William Shakespeare was not good at writing things down, and historians being historians love to debate these things to the point of triviality. The play was written sometime towards the beginning of the 1590s. It is also hotly debated as to whether or not the idea for the play was actually Shakespeare’s as a similar play bearing the vastly different title, The Taming of a Shrew, was written around the same time. Shakespeare a plagiarist? It can’t be!

Anyways, the Taming of the Shrew is actually a play within a play and, more importantly, it is infinitely more relatable as a college student than it was to my middle-school self almost a decade ago. The story begins with a drunkard who refuses to leave a pub. After passing out he is found by a local nobleman, who in a moment of idle fun, decides to mess with him. The nobleman proceeds to order his men to dress the drunk up in fancy clothes and jewels so he can convince him he is a noble. Money, it seems, does enable one certain latitude with social interactions with the “lesser” people. As difficult as it is to see the connection between the Shakespearian entertainment of messing with drunks and our current entertainment of watching Jersey Shore, this is still a rather funny moment in the story. After this point the lord brings the drunkard, Mr. Sly, home and when he awakes succeeds in convincing him that he is, indeed, lord of the manor. At this point an acting troupe enters as the evenings entertainment and the true play begins.

The play is the story of Kate and Bianca, two wealthy sisters who live in Florence. Bianca, the younger sister, is beautiful and everything else that is desired in a wife. In contrast Kate, the elder sister, is what is termed a shrew and thus everything one would not want in a wife. She has opinions, is outspoken, opposes being married off to some random stranger for her money, and actually has feelings (gasp). Needless to say, everyone prefers Bianca and wants nothing to do with Kate. This being Shakespeare, there is a catch: Bianca is not allowed to wed until Kate is married. Therein lies the crux of the problem.

I don’t want to ruin the entire play for you, so I will keep the remaining summary brief. Kate is married off for her money to Petruchio. Petruchio makes no secret of his desire for her dowry, leading to various sticky situations between the two. The ending though is one to make any feminist cringe. Petruchio bets the other men that he has the most obedient wife and proves it when Kate exhibits such obedience that even the most ardent member of the he-man-woman-haters club would be put off. Oh, Shakespeare, you old misogynist! In the end Petruchio wins the money and the perfect bride.

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The prolific star of modern adaptations of Shakespeare (O, Hamlet, etc.), Julia Stiles stars in 10 Things I Hate About You. Joining her in this all-star cast are Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, arguably the best actor of our time.

Rereading this play, I was amazed at how thoroughly I managed to forget it. I remembered the gist of the story, sure, but I definitely missed out on some of the finer points. Furthermore, for some strange reason my younger self failed to notice the sheer bawdiness of Shakespeare’s prose, which is the best part. Within the first lines the drunkard insults the barmaid in language that is still considered inappropriate for television. Needless to say, after that point I was up for giving Shakespeare another shot. After re-reading the play I have gained a great deal of respect for his ability to craft the perfect insult. Kate, as a shrew and woman, had many a great comeback. My personal favorite is when she calls Petruchio a “whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-ear’d knave.” For some reason that just has a nicer ring to it than “you jerk.” Perhaps I will steal some lines from Shakespeare the next time I am in the market for a good retort.

Needless to say this summary is incomplete and very, very basic, but I think you get the gist ofthe story. If you want a more in depth look I would encourage you to watch the movie (starring Elizabeth Taylor) or the Hollywood remake teen-flick, Ten Things I Hate About You, or, if you are feeling really crazy, you may even consider reading the play, maybe. At the very least you can then pretend to be cultured and insult all your friends in 16th century prose. Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

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