Wednesday, 13 June 2018

13 June, 1594 - The Taming of the Shrew

Here's what the Admiral's Men and/or the Chamberlain's Men performed at the Newington Butts playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ye 11 of June 1594 ... R at the tamynge of A shrowe ... ixs

In modern English: 13th June, 1594 ... Received at The Taming of a Shrew ... 9 shillings

Whoah! You wait ages for a Shakespeare play and then two come along (almost) at once! Following on from their staging of the ur-Hamlet a couple of days ago, the players at Newington Butts today performed The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare's famous comedy about a headstrong wife. Of course there is a complication, as always, but this time only a small one.

Shakespeare's play is entitled The Taming of the Shrew. However, today's play was recorded by Henslowe as The Taming of a Shrew, which is the title of an enigmatic, anonymous play from the same period. That play essentially rewrites Shakespeare's with different words and some different character names, but relatively few plot differences.

So, if taken literally, Henslowe's entry refers to a Shrew, the rewrite. But let's be honest: accurate titling was hardly Henslowe's strong point. And since one of the companies sharing the Newington Butts theatre was the Chamberlain's Men, the company to whom Shakespeare belonged, most scholars assume that Shakespeare's the Shrew was indeed the play staged today.

The story of the shrew

Shakespeare's play begins with a framing device: a drunken tinker named Sly falls deeply asleep and is found by a lord who takes him to his house and tricks him into believing himself to be a lord when he wakes. Sly is then entertained with the play of The Taming of the Shrew.

The play that unfolds is set in Italy. A rich man, Baptista, has two daughters: Bianca, the young and docile one, and Katharina, or 'Kate', who is disobedient (in the parlance of the time, a 'shrew'). All the bachelors in town want to marry Bianca, but her father insists that she may not marry until Kate is wedded first.

To get a sense of the challenge Kate poses to potential husbands, look no further than this fantastic clip from D.W. Griffith's 1908 silent film adaptation, starring the great Florence Lawrence - it's 90 seconds of sheer badassery:

So, the bachelors search for a husband for Kate, and discover that their friend Petruccio is prepared to accept the challenge and win her large dowry. Shenanigans ensue as the young men don disguises and plan stratagems to get close to the two secluded daughters. But the key to everything is whether Petruccio will succeed in wooing Kate. He does so by praising her beauty and by not getting angry at her disobedience. He then cunningly tells her father that she has agreed to marry him but intends to remain contrary until the wedding; when Kate responds that this is a lie, her father thus assumes that she is disagreeing for the sake of it.

The wedding goes ahead, and when it does, Petruccio's personality changes from indulgent to domineering. He wears outrageous clothing at the wedding and when he takes Kate home, he tries to tame her. He is violent and abusive, refusing to let her eat or sleep. When the couple prepare to attend the weddings of the other two bachelors - to Bianca and a rich widow - Petruccio refuses to leave until Kate declares that the sun is the moon, entirely submitting herself to him against the evidence of her own eyes.

At the double wedding, the men get into an argument over which of their wives is the most obedient, each insisting that their spouses will come when they are called. But when they test their beliefs, only Kate responds to her husband's call, and she delivers a speech about the obedience a wife owes to her husband.

In the play's final lines, the other two husbands comment on Petruccio's success:
Hortensio. Now, go thy ways. Thou hast tamed a cursed shrew.
Lucentio. 'Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.
What are we to make of this today? The play's gender politics are antiquated, to put it mildly. But whatever the original intentions, it's possible for modern performers to extricate a less oppressive tone out of the ending. For example, here's Mary Pickford in 1929, delivering Kate's speech of obedience in a tone of extreme sarcasm to a disorientated Petruccio suffering from concussion; keep watching for one of the most famous winks in film history:

What we learn from this

On the face of it,  The Taming of the Shrew, being a comic farce, doesn't have a lot in common with the plays we've been seeing in the Diary of late, which have been largely about war, revenge and bloodshed. But I do wonder how much it had in common with the lost Fair Maid of Italy, which received a few performances a while back.

More intriguingly, it's hard not to notice parallels with Esther and Ahasuerus, the lost Biblical play performed yesterday. Both highlight the theme of wifely subordination, featuring contrasts between disobedient and obedient wives. Could they have been performed one after another as kind of themed pair?


Taming of the Shrew information

  • Barbara Hodgdon, ed., The Taming of the Shrew, Arden Shakespeare (Methuen, 2010), 7-15
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 916.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

1 comment:

  1. Given you just had an urHamlet, why not an, "the", ur-Taming of the Shrew? Was a very reasonable play itself as shown in The Globe's Read Not Dead staged reading recently.