How do you make a play like Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” palatable for a modern audience? At its heart, it is a bawdy comedy about a woman’s “rightful” place, which concludes that wives are “bound to serve, love, and obey”. It is also a story of domestic abuse. Petruchio’s scheme to “kill a wife with kindness” involves sleep deprivation, starvation, shame and denial. The text also implies that the plotting husband hurts his wife: “she yields to me,” Petruchio explains to Katherina’s father, “for I am rough”. To Katherina’s face, he threatens to “cuff” her.
Such torment might have been more acceptable to a Tudor audience, but for contemporary theatre-goers the spectacle of a woman being bullied into submission will be an uncomfortable one. Current estimates suggest that one in four British women will be a victim of domestic abuse in their lifetimes. That is no laughing matter.
Anne Tyler’s new novel, “The Vinegar Girl”, is the latest adaptation to deal with the problem by excising the violence altogether. Part of a series in which authors give Shakespeare plays a contemporary twist, the novel moves the action to 21st-century Baltimore, and retells the story with Petruchio as Pyotr, an eastern-European academic in need of a green card. Pyotr is neither forceful nor cruel; he is often occupied with feelings of loneliness and cultural isolation. Kate marries him out of empathy and, it is suggested, genuine affection. Pyotr is accepting of Kate’s headstrong character. Indeed, her wilfulness is just about the only thing that Tyler preserves from Shakespeare’s original. This is a similar line to the one taken in the teen rom-com “10 Things I Hate About You”, another update of Shakespeare’s plot. The closest the Petruchio character, Patrick Verona, comes to violence is flinging a balloon full of paint at a giggling Kat. She, of course, gives as good as she gets. Such interpretations make the feuding spouses more like Beatrice and Benedick, the quarrelling lovers from “Much Ado About Nothing”.
Others prefer to distract from the abuse in the play by hamming up the farcical elements. In 2012, a production at the Globe Theatre in London was notable for its “roisterous horseplay”; any violence – such as Katherina kicking Petruchio in the testicles – was strictly slapstick, and hardly lent itself to a poignant examination of Katherina’s position. Her final speech was devoid of irony. Through all the game-playing, she had fallen in love.
A third approach is to explore the play’s psychological darkness while leaving out the physical abuse. Directors have been doing so for much of the last 50 years. In the 1967 film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (shot during their tempestuous first marriage), Burton’s Petruchio was hulking and domineering. But the film raised the idea of domestic violence only to drop it. Burton punches the pillars of the bed, tears down drapes and yells. He gives an intimidating physical performance. Yet she is left alone to sleep, when part of the horror of Shakespeare’s play is that she is forced to share a bedchamber with an abusive, unpredictable husband. Taylor smiles wryly to herself, chuckling even, seeing through her husband’s shallow display of strength. Instead of a worn-down victim, she is a savvy opponent. At the close of the film, she delivers her “submission” speech and leaves, trailed by Burton. His attempt to dominate her has been slyly undermined.
When John Cleese took on the role in a 1980 BBC adaptation, he moved away from Burton’s interpretation of Petruchio as a swaggering bully. Jonathan Miller, the director, found inspiration in therapies to realign aggressive children, which break a patient’s pattern of behaviour by disorientating and depriving them. Petruchio denies and scoffs at his wife (played by Sarah Badel) at every opportunity. But once again, the violence of Katherina’s “taming” plot was glossed over. At the close, she shoots Cleese looks of admiration and they share passionate kisses.
The Globe’s most recent production, which ended last week, offered an unusually stark portrayal of Katherina’s trauma. Set in Ireland a hundred years ago, the interpretation opened with Celtic cheer: a jamboree of fiddle-playing, cheeky jibes and bawdy dancing. But the revelling soon gave way to darkness. Even as Bianca and Lucentio flirted and cavorted downstage, Katherina lay on an empty, jagged bed-frame at the back. Aoife Duffin demonstrated the physical strain of Katherina’s “taming”, lagging behind Petruchio in her muddy, increasingly torn wedding garment while clutching her hungry stomach. Disillusioned, this Kate has clearly given in to her husband’s whims: “sun it is not, when you say it is not,/And the moon changes even as your mind.” The closing submission speech was plain and plaintive. There were no winking asides.
The Globe’s production showed that directors can examine darker themes without the play as a whole unravelling. But they should go further, even if it means downplaying the comedy. Edward MacLiam’s Petruchio, though delighting in his wife’s torment, carried an air of gentility. For the taming to really work, fear is a key component: it ultimately forces Katherina to stop her “railing” and comply. By tempering Petruchio’s violence, this production created a shrew that gives up her independence out of exasperation and hopelessness, rather than one that is scared into obeying. Modern audiences may not like it, but marital abuse, physical and psychological, is a phenomenon that needs confronting. A production that admitted the play’s violence would demonstrate how women can be bullied into becoming shadows of their former selves.