By David G. Anderson

This season represents the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s tenth production of The Taming of the Shrew, dating back to season one (1962) when it was featured. When analyzing why The Taming of the Shrew is so enduringly popular, the battle of the sexes, comedy, and farce all come to mind.

In the world of Shakespeare there is much discussion in determining the structure of “Shrew.” There are critics who believe that “Shrew” is a farce. Then there are those who consider it to be a “realistic comedy,” where a moral is preached, and there is societal benefit imparted. Those residing in camp farce include Auden, Marshall, and Van Doren. Garber, Hazlitt, and Shaw, with the exception of the last scene, seem to favor the realistic comedy approach. Harold Bloom sits directly on the fence, “The ‘Shrew’ is as much a romantic comedy as it is a farce,” (Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, p. 29).

In a farce, the audience is more concerned with plot and amusement found within stock players, where character development is a wasteland. W. H. Auden elaborates, “Farce is impromptu in nature,” and “The characters represented must be universal—the clown, the shrew, etc. . . . think of Groucho, Chaplin, Grock,” (Lectures on Shakespeare, p. 63). Any significant theme development is normally fatal to a farce.

The moral or intellectual debate surrounds and presupposes the reality of the characters. “The plots are also worth our careful attention, in part because they reflect–and anticipate—Shakespeare’s continuing interest in certain kinds of interpersonal relationships” (Shakespeare After All, Garber, p. 58). The kind of character development portrayed in The Taming of the Shrew, where character affinity resides, pigeonholes this more as realistic comedy.  

There is also debate as to whether the three parts, the Induction, the Bianca story, and the taming plot, form a unified play. All three are championed by various critics to support their arguments whether a comedy or a farce.

The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play, and opens with the Induction. It is a pair of scenes where a mischievous, practical joking lord convinces the drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, that he is a great lord who suffers from an ailment imagining himself a penniless tinker. Sly actually succumbs to this delusion of greatness and begins to speak in verse rather than prose. A play, The Taming of a Shrew, is performed for his edification. As Garber details, “The Induction . . . introduces and mirrors all the major issues that will preoccupy the actors in the main drama” (Garber, p. 59). Its commentary, narrative, and costuming introduce the audience to themes and motifs such as disguise, transformation, role playing, and marriage. It also enlists the audience to become complicit in this battle of the sexes.

The action verbs “take him up,” “carry him,” “hang it about him,” and “balm his foul head,” captivate the audience; we’re curious as to what will happen. Sly’s intellectual limitations become humorously evident when he reports his family line going back to “Richard Conqueror,” an amalgamation of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionhearted. The absurdity of his transformation tickles us, and as Hazlitt delightfully put it, “We have a great predilection for him,” (Characters in Shakespeare, p. 345). Sly presides at the play not merely to observe a comedy, but to comment on it as well, “Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady. Would ‘twere done!” (1.1.251–252).

Unfortunately, the Induction is sometimes cut. This eliminates the play-within-a-play makeup, and thus greatly affects the argument of farce or comedy. As a play-within-a-play, directors seem to employ more license for creativity.

With both the Bianca plot and the Petruchio-Katherine plot, the play deals with outrageously diverse ways of wooing and holding a wife. It also portrays varying types of husbands and wives. We could easily conclude the play a farce given the ludicrous nature of the characters.

At first glance Bianca is predictably seen as the supposed heroine sought by the proverbial hero of romantic plays. She is compliant and beautiful when contrasted at first to her then less attractive and obstinate sister. Shakespeare can’t leave it there, so he meticulously manipulates the narrative. Bianca becomes part of the back story for Kate’s shrewishness. He creates a psychological realism by using Bianca in a “realistic” way. Kate not only resents Bianca’s propensity for her “pretty” tricks and her father’s overt partiality, but also for her very mildness. It infuriates Kate. Then we see Bianca in action. Surrounded by her many suitors, she puppeteers them flawlessly. Lucentio’s impulsive obsession with Bianca, after only hearing four lines, is blatantly based on her attractiveness and “dutiful” manners, doubtlessly illuminating his credulous character. Exerting some self-will, Bianca insists on the decision making process regarding her lessons. In so doing, she gives Lucentio encouragement that flies in the face of her pretended modesty. Lucentio’s trophy is a wife who is not only defiant but adroitly invective, “The more fool you for laying money on my duty” (5.2.129).

The “fires” truly begin with Katherine. All the adjectives, comments and descriptions are designed to engender audience sympathy normally reserved for a stereotypical mother-in-law. Gremio, a potential Bianca suitor, inimically declares to Kate’s father, Baptista, “To cart her rather. She’s too rough for me”(1.1.55), is tantamount to calling Kate a prostitute to her face. Hortensio classifies her “devil,” and Tranio as “stark and mad, or wonderful froward” (1.1.69). Our sympathies shift for a moment with Kate’s first words to her father, “I pray you sir, is it your will/To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”(1.1.57). Audience concerns also elevate with the “taming” tactics employed by Petruchio, the salutary results not withstanding. Ah, there’s the rub, “We sympathize with Katherine—and as soon as we do, farce becomes impossible,” (The Taming of the Shrew Oxford World Classics, H. Oliver, p. 51).

Initially the jury is out as what to make of Petruchio, that fiery, wealthy, swashbuckling, witty, gold digger who says, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua” (1.2.73). Hortensio with access to Bianca solely on his mind, fully discloses that he has a prospect in mind, but she is “curst,” “shrewd,” and “froward.” And it is likely that he has completely understated these traits. Petruchio replies, “Hortensio, peace: thou know’st not gold’s effect” (1.2.92). Intriguingly, his raging fire designates him the right man for the task of shrew tamer and potential mate for Kate.

Kate and Beatrice, in Much Ado about Nothing, are the exceptions to Shakespeare’s penchant for marrying off his comedy heroines to husbands beneath themselves. “Petruchio is worth fifty Orlandos” (Shaw on Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, p. 89). They are equals in wealth, intelligence, beauty, and wit and their language is everywhere spirited and lingua franca. The celebrated appeal of The Taming of the Shrew is witnessing Petruchio and Kate surrendering to the verity of their affections. It’s a bulls-eye, to the connection of the sexes at its liveliest point. “The mutual roughness of Kate and Petruchio makes a primal appeal, and yet the humor of their relationship is highly sophisticated” (Bloom, p. 29). “It’s as if Shakespeare set out to write a farce . . . but had hardly begun before he asked himself what might make a woman shrewish anyway?” Then, “The play changed key . . . it has modulated back from something like realistic comedy to the . . . kind of entertainment that was foretold by the Induction” (Oliver, p. 51–57), logically a farce.

Whether a farce or a realistic comedy, the debate will continue; it remains open ended like the Induction itself. Petruchio and Kate are deeply in love and have reservedly been since first sight, and with that flammable love “tamed” and “tamer” become nebulous. “Kate and Petruchio . . . clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare” (Bloom, p. 28). Petruchio, searching for money, journeyed from Verona to Padua and discovered love as well. Katherina seeking nothing, resoundingly found love. Bellissimo—no?