Confession time: I’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew. It wasn’t one of our compulsory Shakespeare readings in high school, so I’d never really gotten around to it. I came to the Shakespeare Globe with no preconceptions or expectations – I had a good spot near the stage, so I was content and ready to experience it. As it turns out, I was also ridiculously unprepared for the emotional maelstrom that was about to engulf me that evening.
The first half of the play was an absolute riot, filled with strong, colorful characters, plenty of interaction between audience and actors, and jokes that were inappropriate and hilarious by any era’s standard. Constantly, the actors would turn to the groundlings when making a witty aside, as though to bring us in on their joke. When Gremio spit on his hand to shake on a solemn agreement with Hortensio, we all made sympathetic noises when the latter looked at us imploringly, and groaned in disgust as he was forced to follow through. Never before had I felt so involved in a production. It was as though the cast was constantly breaking the fourth wall to address us and make sure we didn’t feel left out.
Intermission found me cheerful and optimistic – there was a subplot going on that would likely end with timid Bianca happily married through some silly shenanigans, Tranio had proven to be humorous and wily through the entire production thus far, and though strong-willed Katherine had just been forced to be wed to an obnoxious man by the name of Petruchio, the tone of the play to that point led me to believe that she’d get back at him somehow and finally be free and independent, just as she always wanted. I settled in for part two with an eager anticipation that was soon to be crushed.
Immediately, I could tell that everything was going to be different. No longer was the stage lit in cheerful yellows and oranges, but somber blues. The setting was not in a lovely estate, but a slovenly hovel that Petruchio apparently called home. His behavior had taken a complete 180 from earlier – while he had once been an affable, if pushy, fellow, he was now a brooding menace who’s temper would snap at the slightest provocation. As he began to deprive Katherine of food and sleep, a terrible feeling began to settle in my gut – I realized she wasn’t going to get a happy ending. The psychological abuse only got worse, as he wouldn’t let her leave the home, would tempt her with food and proper clothing, only to snatch it away, all because she wouldn’t bend to his every wish, agree with everything he said.
To my dismay, Petruchio won in the end. He could say the moon was in the sky when it was clearly daytime, but Katherine would agree that it was a lovely moon, for fear of what he would do to her. He broke her. When they returned together to her family estate, I was hoping, praying that someone would speak up – that they would notice how unnaturally timid she was being and rescue her from her abuser. But Bianca was happily married to her love, so everything was just sunshine and roses. As far as they were concerned, Katherine was just finally a respectful lady and a good wife – good riddance.
I was trying to remain quiet so I wouldn’t disturb others in the audience, but I was openly weeping for most of this half of the production. The broken, haunted look in Katherine’s eyes as she spoke of how a wife should be faithful and loving just broke something in me. The ragged clothes she wore, her blank face, her unseeing eyes – clearly there was something wrong. This girl who was once so witty and passionate and rowdy was so subdued, yet her family remained willfully ignorant and turned a blind eye to her suffering. Oh yes, I cried, and I cried hard.
Katherine's drastic transformation was unnerving, to say the least.
I suppose that was partly because I have a few family members who have been trapped in abusive relationships, and I’ve seen what that kind of treatment does to people – I have too many Katherines in my life, and I’m powerless to save them from their Petruchios. That same feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me as I watched Katherine mechanically make her way through the end of the play; that same frustration of seeing that someone isn’t okay, of knowing exactly why they aren’t okay and knowing who’s responsible, but still not having any means of helping them. When Katherine’s will broke, so did my heart.
From beginning to end, through all the highs and lows, The Taming of the Shrew had me completely invested. Despite the immense distress I left with, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the reaction Shakespeare was hoping the audience would have. In this play we see two marriages: one where a young woman is forced to marry an awful man and is constantly abused by him, and one where the young lady gets to fall in love and go through some lighthearted hijinks to eventually marry the man she chose. One is the kind of romance that was often written about – the romance everyone pretended could happen – and the other was the reality of the time – the kind of marriage that usually happened. It was a brutal appraisal of their social conventions, and I can only hope that it moved the audiences of old as much as it moved me.