This play is a little fucked up. Lets just make that clear. I’m not sure how it might have been received at the end of the fourteenth century, but I imagine it would raise the eyebrow of any modern reader. It’s politically incorrect in such a hilariously unapologetic way that you almost have to laugh in mild horror.
I’m going to spoil the plot now. I figure anything over five hundred years old is free game.
The play begins with an induction. A drunk named Christopher Sly is found unconscious in the street, and a lord orders his servants to place him in his nicest room for the night. In the morning they’re to dress him in lord’s clothing and offer him a lord’s breakfast, to trick him into believing that he’s just woken up from 15 years of delusion, that his life as Christopher Sly was all in his head. They do this, he believes it, and in the morning they present to him a play – The Taming of the Shrew. A note in the edition I was reading mentioned that this framing device may have had two purposes: it warmed the audience up to cruel humour and, by presenting the The Taming as merely a performance within the play, it takes away some of the sting of the misogyny.
Sly: […]Ne’er ask me what raiment I’ll wear, for I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet, nay sometime more feet than shoes, or such shoes as my toes look through the over-leather.
It should be noted that this makes Shrew a play within a play within a play. Truly the Inception of the Renaissance.
So, Baptista Minola has two daughters: Bianca and her elder sister Katherine. Bianca is a hottie and Katherine is a complete ho-bag. She’s rude, ties her sister up and hurts her, and is basically a pain in the ass to everyone within shouting or hitting distance. Baptista, for some reason, won’t allow Bianca to marry until Katherine is wed. It’s a bit of a dick move on his part, so that might be a glimpse into where Katherine developed her attitude.
Bianca’s suitors – Hortensio, Gremio and Lucentio – are being cockblocked by this silly rule. Hortensio and Lucentio decide to disguise themselves as tutors so they can woo Bianca behind her father’s back (and also because it’s Wacky Fun).
Hortensio runs into his buddy Petruchio, whose motto with women is the bitchier the better, and sets him up with Katherine. He woos her, in what is the best scene of the play in my opinion, with a witty exchange of banter – every insult she throws his way he graciously endures and returns with a compliment or joke.
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp, i’faith you are too angry.
Katherine: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
Katherine: Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
Katherine: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katherine: Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
He does threaten to cuff her at one point soon after this (warning sign numero uno), in retaliation to her hitting him, but that’s the only time in the play he actually threatens physical violence. They’re both very brash and sure of themselves, so it seems at this point like it’ll be a fun relationship to watch develop. Eventually she submits and they marry. He describes at this point, to Baptista, how he plans for their relationship to work:
Why, that is nothing. For I tell you, father,
I am as peremptory as she proud-minded;
And where two raging fires meet together,
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.
So I to her and so she yields to me,
For I am rough and woo not like a babe.
Petruchio and Katherine get married, and he immediately rushes her off to his country home before the reception even begins (warning sign numero due). This is where it gets a bit messed up. He decides to tame her using the same technique that one would use to tame a falcon – he starves her of food and sleep. He dresses her in rags, keeps her hungry, makes sure that whenever she starts to drift off that she’s woken, and continuously threatens and shouts at all of the servants in front of her (using an exaggerated manner, as if to highlight her previous attitude).
Meanwhile, while Petruchio is waterboarding Katherine with love, things are getting sorted at the Minola estate. There’s much confusion over who’s who, but eventually Lucentio comes out on top and wins Bianca’s hand in marriage.
Petruchio and Katherine make their way back for the wedding, and we see Katherine’s final ounce of dignity and indignation fall away. Petruchio refuses to continue on the journey until Katherine declares that the moon is shining in the sky and not the sun. She’s refuses at first, but quickly gives in. Later in the journey Petruchio tells her that a man they meet is actually a woman, and she immediately agrees.
Petruchio: Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Katherine: The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
Katherine: I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon.
Katherine: I know it is the moon.
Petruchio: Nay, then you lie. It is the blessèd sun.
The final scene involves Petruchio, Hortensio, and Lucentio betting on whose wife is the best behaved. None of them believe that Petruchio has managed to tame Katherine, so they have a servant call each woman and put 100 crowns down on whoever’s wife is first to arrive. Katherine turns out to be the only wife to actually show, but she eventually fetches the other two herself. When they all arrive, she lets them know how she feels.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience–
Too little payment for so great a debt.
This doesn’t come across as sarcastic at all, just the final defeated message from a broken woman. I kept thinking she’d do something hilarious at the end to show a bit of her old fiery self, but no. Play finished! Enjoy the incredibly awkward horse carriage ride home with your loved one now!
A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou mayst slide from my shoulder to my heel with no greater a run but my head and my neck. A fire, good Curtis.
I loved getting back into Shakespeare finally. I really enjoyed the language and imagery while reading this, and I have to admit that I did get a kick out of the bizarre plot. It’s a great concept for a horror, I think, but it is a little strange with this ending.