The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

I thought I’d celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday by getting into another one of his plays. Unfortunately, I picked The Taming of the Shrew.

I read the play while listening to the Arkangel production audiobook, which features Roger Allam as Petruccio and Frances Barber as Katherine – both of whom were excellent in the roles. Despite the stellar casting, the play itself was anything but.

This was one of the plays that I had not read or seen before, not even the Burton/Taylor adaptation, so all I knew going into this was that is was advertised as a “romantic comedy”.

However, a short way into the development of the main plot it became apparent that there was nothing romantic about this – unless maybe one’s understanding of “romance” favours the works E.L. James – and that the only comedic element of the story would develop if Katherine – or Kate – smacked Petruccio to death with her own dowry.

I don’t if the submission of a woman who knows her own mind by ways of starvation and mental cruelty was a fun pastime in Shakespeare’s day, but 400+ years on the appeal of that side of the story has faded somewhat.

And how did this particular line go down at the court of Queen Bess?

“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.”

Well, to be fair, the court would probably have endorsed the lines, but I’d be curious to know if Shakespeare meant to insult the ruling monarch or whether this was meant to be some ill-expressed satire. Tho, there was little indication from what I read, that hinted at this playing being satirical…or a cautionary tale.

Anyway, the main plot of the play made want to reach for the sick bucket a few times.

This is a pity, because there were a few elements at the start of the play which I thought were really interesting, but which were then plotted out by the random bullshit that followed and which seemed to change the play from a play of ideas to a play of cheap laughs.

For what it’s worth, here are a few notes I took at the beginning of the play:

1. The play’s structure is quite different from the earlier Two Gentlemen in Verona, which is astonishing because it showed a lot more complexity and depth of thought on the part of the author. Not only does the play-withing-a-play provide a lot of potential, but the idea of tricking a character into believing an illusion was really interesting.

And how odd that the play-within-a-play should be the one that was told, rather than the one of the tinker who was being tricked. Or was this an intended inversion? And if so, would the idea of things being “the wrong way around” provide a better key to the main story?

I’m not convinced but one thing I have to give Shakespeare credit for here is that the play really makes one think. (I’m still rating it low for the sheer amount of cringing I went through.)

2. Also intriguing was the reference to the Faustian dilemma of trying to discover how the world works without being of the world when Tranio and Lucentio discuss Lucentio’s further studies:

“I am in all affected as yourself,
Glad that you thus continue your resolve
To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy.
Only, good master, while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,
Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured.
Balk logic with acquaintance that you have,
And practise rhetoric in your common talk.
Music and poesy use to quicken you;
The mathematics and the metaphysics,
Fall to them as you find your stomach serves you.
No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en.
In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

It’s just a shame that this isn’t explored any further and that the plot soon after drifts into that of a weird relationship drama.
Still, there are fragments or beginnings of philosophical musings that weren’t present in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and that would come to full fruition in the later plays.

2* (out of 5*)