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August 21, 2007

David Womersley asks, is The Taming of the Shrew really as phallocentric a play as it seems? The Taming of the Shrew - Creation Theatre Company at Oxford Castle

Posted by David Womersley

William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew
Creation Theatre Company
Oxford Castle, Oxford
16th July - 25th August 2007

The Taming of the Shrew has been durably topical since the confinement of women to the sphere of domesticity was questioned, and in consequence the roles of the two sexes within marriage were rendered freshly debateable and negotiable. (When exactly was that? Probably earlier than we think.) Here, it must have seemed to many exasperated defenders of the status quo, was Shakespeare, towards the beginning of his career, writing a play which made completely unambiguous statements about the role and nature of a wife, and subscribing unapologetically to the most entrenched traditional attitudes. Petruchio brags that "I am he am born to tame you Kate" (II.i), and having married her expresses the theory of male ownership in its most emphatic and brutal form (III.ii):

I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household-stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,
And here she stands. Touch her whoever dare,
Iíll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua.

Having begun his taming of Kate, he reflects on the principle underlying his policy in terms which once again take no prisoners in the battle of the sexes (IV.i):

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Nor does Kate, in the end, seem to rebel against this usage. Her final speech appears to chime with the notes struck by Petruchio, as she chides Bianca and the widow Hortensio has married for not understanding the true relation of the sexes (V.ii):
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; . . .
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
So much, one might think, for women's liberation. In the classroom or the lecture theatre there is ample leisure and opportunity to explore how these stark positions are in fact qualified and nuanced by the totality of the play. But actual performance is necessarily a more rough and ready medium than academic discourse. Refined interpretative possibilities which can, in discussion, be made to float almost indefinitely need, in the theatre, either to be backed or rejected.

So the renewal of academic interest in The Taming of the Shrew has brought with it increasingly sharp choices for directors. Either they play it "straight", accept the speeches I have quoted as bearing authorial endorsement, and so imply that this really is as phallocentric a play as it seems. Or they try to rescue the play for enlightened, liberal sensibilities, by using dramatic action to ironise the play's ostensible values, typically by suggesting at the end of the play that Kate has somehow intuited Petruchio's wager, and plays along with it in a piece of improvised theatre to match Petruchio's own. In this view, it would be a very naive spectator who expected Kate to be a docile wife.

This spirited, clever production by Creation Theatre Company manages to surmount that harsh dilemma in part by tackling the play with huge energy and style. The production has a breakneck physical tempo, aided by the fact that many of the company are gifted dancers. There is a great deal of exuberant fun to be had here, particularly when Petruchio takes Kate away from Padua and back to his country house. More subtle comedy is provided by Heather Davies's ingenious use of an Elizabethan theatrical technique, doubling: the doubling of Tranio with the Widow created much hilarity. This alliance of levity and invention meant that the audience's awareness of harsh eventual choices to be made was kept at arm's length.

More ingeniously and thoughtfully, that evasion of harsh alternatives was also achieved by making ingenious use of a part of the drama which is often treated as nothing more than an awkward appendage: namely, the presentation in the Induction of the deception of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly by an anonymous "Lord" into believing that he is himself "a lord, and nothing but a lord". It is for Sly, tricked into believing that his earlier life as a tinker was nothing but a dream, that The Taming of the Shrew is performed.

However, the play ends without that framing narrative being unwound; we are not finally returned to the world of Christopher Sly and the heartless aristocrats who make sport of him, and we are not told how his deception is resolved. In this production, a clever stroke of stage business links the incompleteness of the framing narrative to the essence of the play's ethical debate about marriage and the roles within marriage allotted to men and women. Once again, doubling is the technique upon which the effect depends. The same actor plays Christopher Sly and Kate's father, Baptista (Sly is pressed into helping out the travelling players by assuming a role in their play, initially reading from a script, then discarding it). At the very end, Kate hands Baptista the tinker's clothes taken from the drunken Sly when he was dressed in lordly garments, and he looks upon them in puzzlement and mystification. The implication is that, through drama, the part has become more real than actuality. Just as Sly has, through drama, become Baptista, so through the drama of Petruchio's "taming" has Kate become another woman. But Petruchio has also become another man. The brute who at the outset calmly claims that he has (I.ii)

. . . come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua
in the end looks at Kate with real love, mixed with an enlarged awareness of the woman he has married.

It is well worth catching this production in Oxford, where it is acted out in front of what used to be the prison. There is an odd pleasure in seeing this play, which pivots around the possibility of character being exchangeable and malleable, using for its backdrop a building so overwhelmingly predicated on a whole series of opposite premises about the nature of identity.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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