In the summer of 1995, I found myself in my first production of The Taming of the Shrew. Fifteen years old, playing Lucentio, and in way over my head, I was exploring this language for the first time. I was struck by how seamlessly the subplot was woven into the fabric of the story, and how even the simplest stock characters had intricately drawn backstories buried ingeniously in the text. The production was straightforward, simplistic in nature and a little barbaric in its treatment of Katherine. Even at a young age, I knew we had swung heartily and missed.
Katherine, the “shrew” of the title, is a bold and misunderstood woman surrounded by a Paduan society that values only wealth, position, and the societal rules that govern it. Katherine is the intellectual and moral superior to every inhabitant of this town that we meet, and as she rejects the hypocrites and fools she is surrounded by, she is pushed to fringes of her own home. She is rejected by suitor after suitor, and just as 16th-century spinsterhood is threatening to marginalize her further, we meet Petruchio. A man in mourning, mentioning the recent death of his father three separate times, he is a fortune seeker who, strangely, doesn’t care about the trappings of wealth; someone who will play by this society’s rules, only to upend them completely. When the two meet, sparks fly, wits duel, and hormones go into overdrive.
Nearly all relationships in this play are transactional in nature, and Katherine and Petruchio are no exception. Katherine’s family strikes a bargain with Petruchio to be rid of the constant in-house challenge that is Katherine, and Petruchio inherits a handsome dowry for his trouble. Instead of trying to understand Katherine’s struggles and actually communicate with her, her family is quite eager to hire someone else to do it for them and rid the house of her. When the wedding day arrives, Petruchio attends, but systematically rejects every social expectation the Paduans have for him and his wife. He spurns their traditions, facades, and hypocrisies and, in taking Katherine to their home to start a new life together, begins his odd courtship.
While it can be troublesome behavior for a contemporary audience to witness, it’s hardly malevolent. Misguided as his methods are, they are earnest attempts to bring the couple closer together while going through a shared experience. Hunger, sleeplessness, and the absence of finery and affectation are what Petruchio, this young veteran, knows. The closest relationships of his past were forged suffering on the front lines of battle and not in a velvet-draped drawing room. Petruchio’s methods, callous and ham-fisted, are always in pursuit of bringing them closer. While Katherine and Petruchio learn to speak with a common voice, and, through pain, learn to see their world in a new way, they also discover how to subvert it. By the end of the play, Katherine speaks and is heard for the first time by the very people who were so eager to buy, sell, and barter her and her sister away.
Petruchio is not an example to follow or a hero, but a problematic and challenging partner for Katherine. He forces us to imagine what may have become of Katherine had she been left with a family so willing to ignore and treat her as a piece of currency. Katherine and Petruchio are both called “mad” many times throughout the play by other characters in their world. Shakespeare boldly challenges his audience and questions society’s treatment of women in The Taming of the Shrew, leaving us to ask ourselves who the mad ones truly are.
–Jesse James Kamps, Director of The Taming of the Shrew