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Not the shrew I knew

In August of this year my taller half spoke words that can only be described as magic to the ears of a literature nut who took every Shakespeare class available at her university:

"I was thinking of getting tickets to the Globe. Do you want to see The Taming of the Shrew or Richard III?"

Insert moment of Shakespearean drama: Which child do I love more? I love thee both! etc. etc.

As the other half is not quite the Shakespeare fan that I am, we went for the comedy. A raucous but definitively uncomfortable evening followed last Monday night.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

For starters, it was uncomfortable because the seats are the same as they were in the 17th century. This  means narrow and without backs. That said, I stood for an entire performance of Macbeth (no intermission) here about ten years ago and the narrow backless seats are definitely better than that. I was more impatient than the good Lady that Macbeth just get on with it and start killing folk. This time, we made no such mistake - truth being, the other half was willing to go to Shakespeare, but not willing to stand for him - so we took the plunge, paid a bit more than the £5 "groundling" ticket price, plus an additional £1 each for a seat cushion. The seat is worth it and hire the cushion, you won't regret it.

The real reason that it was uncomfortable though, was the fact that we went to see The Taming of the Shrew. Despite having taken a fair few courses on Shakespeare and an undying love of his plays, I'm no expert, but I feel confident in saying that The Taming of the Shrew does nothing if not attract controversy. 

For those unfamiliar with the play, it is the story of sisters, Katherina and Bianca, who must be married off. Starting on a strong feminist foot, eh? Unfortunately, while little sister, Bianca, is demure and well-behaved, Katherina is a shrew. She has opinions, a way with words and isn't afraid to let people know just how strong and intelligent she is. Of course, this means that no one but the money-hungry Petruchio will marry her. In a rather nasty trick, he marries her and then takes her to his home where he proceeds to "break" her. The play concludes with her proven the "best" (most obedient) wife and with her admonishing other women to be the same.

Of course, I knew the play going in. I knew she would offer her hand to Petruchio to step on. I knew that audiences primarily fall into two camps on the final speech: Kate is playing a role and pretending to be submissive; or Kate has seen the error of her ways and reformed. I knew. So why so uncomfortable? It's only a play.

"Groundlings" take a welcome chance to sit at intermission
The director of the Globe production, Toby Frow, committed fully to the comedic side of the Bard, really playing up the slapstick laughs. From the introduction of the play by drunken England football fan, Sly, to the starvation of Kate everything is physical. These means that the laughs are fast and frequent, but it made me think about what was making me laugh. Many of the jokes were funny and harmless, like Grumio kicking a bucket every time his master mentions the death of his father, but some didn't sit as easy with me afterward.

Petruchio's breaking of Kate amounts to nothing short of torture. He starves her, deprives her of sleep and plays endless mind games with her. Perhaps in an attempt to lessen the harshness of the situation, Frow has his actors play with great physicality, but for me it just highlighted the abusiveness of the relationship. Kate is still no shrinking violet, in fact, she is as physically abusive as Petruchio in the beginning. While others might applaud this show of female power, I cannot. Her behavior is not that of an intelligent woman, upset with the gender role society expects her to play, it is that of an aggressive person looking to exert power over others. With a description like that, one can almost side with Petruchio, at least until starts channeling his inner war-on-terror interrogator.

I think it was the violence of Kate that really disturbed me. I had always read her as the victim of Petruchio's cruelty, another of Shakespeare's strong, smart women brought to her knees (whether truly or only in word). But what if she was a participant in the abuse?

I think I miss the Kate I've known in my mind since I first read the play at least 15 years ago. It's like suddenly finding out that a friend you've know for years has a dark secret that changes how you view them entirely. While I want the old Kate back, I have to admit that this new Kate gives me the opportunity to revisit an old play and to think about it in different ways. Unfortunately for you, you've all been privy to the very disorganized and decidedly unformulated ramblings that come at the beginning of a complete reordering of thoughts.

After all of that, all I can say with clarity and confidence is that this is a production worth seeing. It closes this Saturday so, "Get thee to the Globe!"


  1. This calls for some 10 Things I Hate About You comfort.

    (I know what you mean, I saw a physical-violence reading in the City Theatre of Amsterdam a few years back - though not so distinctly unfeminist, mostly 'just' disturbing.)


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