William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is classed as a comedy in the First Folio, though the term “comedy” had a slightly different meaning in Shakespeare’s day than it does today. A comedy then was simply any play that concluded with a happy ending, usually a marriage or reconciliation between the principal characters. Shakespeare’s comedies tend to be more focused on situations, rather than depth of character. While most of the comedies, like “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Much Ado About Nothing” include many modern comedic elements (slapstick, mistaken identity, puns, etc.), several of the comedies have a much darker tone.
A number of Shakespeare’s darker comedies were labelled “problem plays” by F.S. Boas in his book Shakespeare and His Predecessors (1896), and included “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure.” Several scholars have since extend the term to include “The Winter’s Tale,” “Timon of Athens,” and “The Merchant of Venice.” A problem play is characterized by a more sinister dramatic element, often focused around a moral dilemma or social problem.
Having seen two extremely different productions of “The Taming of the Shrew,” I would argue that this so-called comedy would be better classed as a problem play. The socio-ethic dilemma in the case of “Shrew” is women’s rights. Connall Morrison’s 2008 production at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was my first introduction to the “comedy,” and I can tell you it was quite a jarring experience. Morrison portrayed Kate’s situation as straight-up marital abuse. Michelle Gomez‘s Katherina was not wicked enough to want to see tamed. If anything, she was a precocious bossy sister who was obviously intelligent enough to know what she wants out of life. There was little to love about Stephen Boxer‘s Petruchio, who was not given a single moment through the length of the play to form any link of empathy with the audience. Morrison’s prodection makes it impossible to view this play as a comedy, for, as Lyn Gardner points out in her The Guardian review,
“Katherina has no escape, and will die for it. No amount of funny business can turn that ugly truth into light comedy.”
Franco Zeffirelli’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is another story altogether. While the RSC’s production is modernized in most respects, its script is unadulterated Shakespeare. In Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, the Shakespeare is slightly trimmed, but the costuming and set is entirely Elizabethan. The 1967 film presents the characters as exaggerated caricatures – the humour is in the camp and ridiculousness of each player. Tayler’s Kate is extremely destructive. Her temperament is humorous in its absurdity. Burton’s Petruchio is funny because he is never serious, except when he hesitates in his abuse or betrays his weariness in the “taming.” Because the audience is given some glimpses of his humanity, they are better able to laugh at his antics as harmless. The result is that Kate’s taming seems both deserved and humorous, rather than as a despicable defeat.
That said, the way the 1967 movie was marketing was nothing short of a “we-need-a-second-wave-feminist-movement-now” debacle of misogyny:
“A motion picture for every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved… and for every woman who deserved it. Which takes in a lot of people!”
“In the war between the sexes, there always comes a time for unconditional surrender.”
Certainly, this is not the first time marketing taglines have reached past the reality of the movie in order to draw in the punters, but in light of what was about to happen in the women’s movement in America, and how subsequent productions of this play have been presented, such poignant marketing serves as a good example for why “The Taming of the Shrew” can now be labelled a problem play. Although women’s issues were not articulated with the themes portrayed in Shakespeare’s play at the time Shakespeare wrote it, historical events have unfolded in such a way that would suggest that this play can now be classed as a dark comedy focused on the social/moral dilemma of women’s rights.
It is even more interesting that THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1967) has escaped the feminist critic more or less unscathed due to the fact that its two stars, Taylor and Burton, were at the time very happily married. Interestingly enough, the only previous feature-length version of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1929) starred another married couple, none other that the Queen and King of Hollywood Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. SHREW was one of eleven films Taylor and Burton would make together, a whopping number that pales Tracy and Hepburn‘s nine. Having recently flopped in another big-budget costume drama, CLEOPATRA (1963), Taylor and Burton put $2 million of their own money into production, waiving their salaries in lieu of a percent of the profits. This proved the be a shrewd business move as the film went on the become a popular success.