Shakespeare 2022: The Taming of the Shrew

This is the third post in a year-long series in which, week by week, I’m reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, more or less in chronological order. In my previous post, I wrote about my hopes and intentions for this project.

I don’t remember actually reading The Taming of the Shrew (written ca. 1590?) when I was in tenth grade, now more than twenty years ago; I remember only that it was assigned reading for my class, probably because 10 Things I Hate About You had just come out on VHS and my teacher intended to buy some downtime by showing us the film instead. In any case, if the premise of the play seemed unseemly for my cohort back then, for sure it’s problematic today — even cancel-worthy. No, Petruchio doesn’t try to “tame” the outspoken Katherine by browbeating her, since his initial efforts follow something closer to a rope-a-dope strategy whereby he’ll bait her into responding to him, then exhaust her until she grows meek. But towards the end of the play he changes tack to dabble in something we’d now call gaslighting, albeit of an absurd variety:

Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

Say as he says, or we shall never go.

Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

I say it is the moon.

I know it is the moon.

Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.

Elsewhere — especially in their first substantive encounter — their exchanges read like a drawn-out dry run for the more sprightly sparring of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: “Asses are made to bear, and so are you.” “Women are made to bear, and so are you.” And so on. Yet for all their spirited back-and-forth, the best lines in the play go to the servant Biondello, the only character who is given a chance to really feel the robustness and rhythm of Shakespeare’s language on the tongue:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman’s crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread.

Who comes with him?

O, sir, his lackey, for all the world caparisoned
like the horse; with a linen stock on one leg and a
kersey boot-hose on the other, gartered with a red
and blue list; an old hat and ‘the humour of forty
fancies’ pricked in’t for a feather: a monster, a
very monster in apparel, and not like a Christian
footboy or a gentleman’s lackey.

As far as juvenilia goes, The Taming of the Shrew is pretty extraordinary: there’s plenty of entertainment, a fast pace to the proceedings, and opportunities aplenty for performers to strike sparks. It is, in a word, well-crafted — at least passably so — though it lacks the philosophical depth, and the contemplative equipoise, of the true masterpieces to come.

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