Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture
Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…
This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.
Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.
The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.
In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
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. (Act 5, scene 2)
What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.
A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.
It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.
I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:
This I want to tell us briefly:
You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).
This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.
Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.