by William Shakespeare
directed by Barry Woolhead
Background & History:
Shakespeare is thought to have written The Taming of the Shrew between 1590 and 1594, although the only version that has survived is the one published in the First Folio in 1623. It appears to have been staged several times during Shakespeare’s lifetime at both the Globe and the Blackfriars theaters, and a sequel written by John Fletcher between 1604 and 1617 attests to its popularity. It was also produced in 1633 at the court of Charles I.
The play has a complex structure. It begins with a two-scene “Induction” or introductory segment, which concerns an elaborate practical joke played by a nobleman on a drunken tinker. At the end of the Induction, the various characters settle down to watch a play. This “play within a play,” which in turn consists of a main plot and a complex subplot, constitutes the main action of The Taming of the Shrew.
The character of the “shrew”—a word used to indicate an opinionated, domineering, and sharp-tongued woman—is found in the folklore and literature of many cultures. The earliest example in English drama is thought to be the character of Noah’s wife in the medieval mystery plays. In the sixteenth century shrewish wives were featured in a number of plays, many of which depicted cruel physical punishments for the shrew. The principal source of the Bianca-Lucentio subplot is George Gascoigne’s play Supposes (1566). Gascoigne’s play was itself derived from an Italian play, Ludovico Ariosto’s I Suppositi (1509), and many of its elements can be traced back to the classical Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence. As for the Induction, the story—of a poor man tricked into thinking he is a nobleman—was common in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth century and is at least as old as the story of the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid and the beggar Abu Hassan in The Arabian Nights.
The Taming of the Shrew opens with an Induction. Here we meet Christopher Sly, a tinker by trade and a drunk by avocation. As the action opens, he is being thrown out of an alehouse. Drunken, he falls asleep before a nearby Lord’s house. When the Lord returns from hunting, he spies Sly and immediately concocts a plan to convince the beggar that he is a nobleman. The Lord orders Sly to be taken into the house, bathed, and placed in the estate’s nicest bed. He also orders his servants to wait on Sly and treat him as if he were the lord of the manor. In the midst of this merry planning, a troupe of actors appears and is enlisted for a performance that evening.
Upon waking, Christopher Sly is understandably confused. He immediately calls for a drink and is attended to by three servants (supposedly his). The Lord himself assumes a subordinate position and takes great delight at Sly’s consternation at the situation. Before long, Sly falls into the Lord’s trap and believes he is, in fact, master of all he surveys. The Lord and his servants, though, have a laugh at Sly’s expense. When Sly requests his wife join him in bed, he is told that the doctors have warned that sexual activity may cause a relapse, and so rather than risk returning to his beggarly self, he agrees to wait, opting instead to watch the play put on by the acting company.
The story of The Taming of the Shrew itself really begins at this point. As Act I opens, we meet Lucentio, a young man who has traveled to Padua from Florence. His servant Tranio accompanies him, and together they secretly witness quite a scene. Before them enters Baptista Minola, his daughters Katherine and Bianca, and two men, Gremio and Hortensio, both wishing to be suitors to Bianca. Minola explains, however, that no one shall court Bianca until her older sister is successfully married. The problem, as the two men point out, is that Kate is so forward and unruly that no one they can think of would possibly want to marry her. Baptista declares he will allow tutors into his house, but no suitors until Kate is wed. After Minola and his entourage leave, Lucentio reveals he has fallen utterly in love with Bianca. Because he knows her father will admit no suitors, he decides to disguise himself as a schoolmaster and secretly court Bianca. Because Lucentio is expected in Padua and his absence would be noted, he instructs his servant Tranio to assume his persona.
Shortly Petruchio, a gentleman from Verona, and his servant Grumio arrive. Petruchio has come seeking his fortune in the form of a wealthy wife. His friend, Hortensio, informs him he knows just the woman, but the drawback is she is a shrew. Petruchio doesn’t care. He’s sure he can handle the most unruly woman so long as her dowry is ample. Before the two men venture to Minola’s house to meet Kate and her father, Hortensio asks Petruchio to presented him to old Baptista as a schoolmaster so he can court Bianca privately. Petruchio agrees and, on their way to Minola’s, they meet Gremio who has agreed to present Lucentio (whom he thinks is really Cambio, a tutor who will speak to Bianca on his behalf) to Baptista. Finally, Tranio (disguised as Lucentio), who also wishes to become one of Bianca’s suitors, joins the group.
As the second act opens, Kate enters dragging her sister, providing spectators with a peek at what fuels her anger and spite: Bianca is clearly the more favored daughter, and Kate resents it. Soon Baptista enters, and the girls leave. The bevy of suitors arrives, and all men begin to explain their purpose in calling on Minola. He accepts the gifts of tutors and sends them in the house to begin work. He then discusses Kate’s dowry with Petruchio and ends by claiming that, when he has won her love, then he may marry her.
Petruchio and Kate’s initial meeting features an embittered and passionate volley of insults and slurs, each person meeting the linguistic challenges posited by the other. Petruchio remains undaunted despite Kate’s vehement denial of his advances and insists they will be married on Sunday. In order to save face in front of his peers (after all, Kate’s putting up a valiant struggle against him), Petruchio explains that Kate is gentle as a lamb in private, but they’ve agreed she will be shrewd and curst in public. Baptista, satisfied that his eldest daughter has been won, turns his attention to the marriage of his younger daughter, choosing Tranio (Lucentio) as Bianca’s groom, provided he can produce proof of the wealth he claims to have. Lucentio and Hortensio, disguised as Cambio and Litio respectively, continue their attempts to woo Bianca as they pretend to instruct her. She clearly prefers Lucentio, although she is cautious in her judgment.
Kate’s wedding day approaches, and all the arrangements are made. However, one thing is missing: the groom. When the wedding party waits at the church, wondering if Petruchio will show, Kate is visibly disappointed. When Petruchio finally arrives, he is dressed inappropriately, purposely causing an uproar in his subtle attempt to mirror the senseless bad behavior of his wife-to-be. After the wedding ceremony, Petruchio insists he and Katherine head back to his house immediately, forcing her to miss their own wedding reception. When the newlyweds arrive at Petruchio’s house, we hear that they fought the entire way. Upon arriving, Kate is denied food or sleep all under the guise of Petruchio taking especial care of her (no food is good enough nor bed fit enough).
Back at Baptista’s house, Hortensio is beginning to realize that Bianca may, in fact, favor his rival, Cambio (the real Lucentio). In his anger, he renounces his pursuit of Bianca and vows to marry a rich widow. He leaves as Tranio enters, informing the lovers of the new development. In order to expedite the marriage of Lucentio and Bianca, though, Tranio needs to find someone to impersonate Vincentio, Lucentio’s father, in order to confirm Lucentio’s riches. A Pedant approaches and is soon convinced that it would be in his best interest to impersonate Vincentio. Later he will meet with Baptista and convince him that Lucentio (Tranio) is his son and that he does, indeed, possess the riches he claims. When Baptista agrees to the marriage, Biondello informs Cambio (the real Lucentio), and a secret marriage between Bianca and the real Lucentio is arranged.
Back at Petruchio’s house, Kate is beginning to lose patience with her husband’s seemingly erratic behavior. After his friend Hortensio arrives, Petruchio finally provides Kate with some food but threatens to remove it if she doesn’t thank him properly for providing it. Later he proclaims they will return to Padua dressed in the finest array but then rejects the goods of the haberdasher and tailor who were to dress them for their journey. As the party prepares to leave, Petruchio again turns tables on Kate, claiming (purposely in error) that it will be noon when they arrive. When she corrects him (rightly), he calls the trip off until such a time as she obeys what he says. Once they finally get underway, Petruchio still holds fast to his power. He claims the sun is the moon and refuses to let the travelling party continue until Kate agrees with him. She begins to see how Petruchio’s system works: If she agrees with him, she gets something she wants. She is tested when Petruchio calls an old man (the real Vincentio) a young woman. Kate agrees, much to Hortensio and Vincentio’s befuddlement, and her real transformation begins.
Upon arriving in Padua, Vincentio finds a man masquerading as him, and the disguises begin to become unraveled. After all the impersonators have been found out, the play ends with a banquet in honor of all the newlyweds: Kate and Petruchio, Bianca and Lucentio, and the Widow and Hortensio. As the feast is winding down, the women adjourn, and the men begin to wager on who has the most obedient wife. They wager 100 crowns, each man sure his wife will come when he calls. Lucentio calls for Bianca but she refuses to come. Hortensio calls for the Widow, but she refuses as well. Petruchio calls for Kate, and much to everyone’s deep surprise and amazement, she comes directly. She then astounds everyone by not only following Petruchio’s instructions to the letter but also offering a long and important speech on a woman’s duty to her husband. The play ends with the banquet guests stunned at what they have just witnessed while the newly tamed Kate and Petruchio leave the party together.