Even at interview stage, I knew my piece for G2 on The Taming of the Shrew was going to strain at the limits of its word count and demand extra space here. There were so many contradictions to wade through and attempt to resolve; even people who seemed essentially to agree didn't agree in quite the same way. It's not a play I've seen in a major production, and although I'm sure I reviewed it on the fringe once for Time Out, I don't remember anything about that show. I re-read it a few days before starting to interview and initially struggled to see why it's considered such a problem, at least in terms of the characteristics deemed problematic: I couldn't see the brutality, the disgusting misogyny. The way Baptista favours one daughter over another is obviously repulsive, but that's about bad parenting, not the sanctity of the male hegemony. As I read on, however, lines kept snagging me: I simply didn't know which way to take them. Petruchio's capricious behaviour on his wedding day felt incomprehensible, as did his sleep/food deprivation plan. When Katherine tells him she will henceforth call the sun the moon, or any blessed thing he might choose, I couldn't tell if the voice I heard in my head was wry and amused or weary and resigned. And her final speech, reminding wives that they owe their husbands a duty of “love, fair looks and true obedience”, made me shiver. When I got married, the ceremony text was perfunctory and words such as obey were significantly absent. Katherine's speech may celebrate mutual respect, but it's a respect founded on, in Petruchio's words, a sense of the “awful rule and right supremacy” that put men at the head of the family and women at their feet.
Talking to people who have staged the play and played the roles exploded my idea of it wide open. I found myself in total sympathy with those who understand Shrew as a love story: an uneasy, inscrutable, passionate depiction of what it is to link your hand to someone else's and, no matter how much life buffets you, never let go. Something I wanted to get into the piece, but had to edit out at writing stage, was how even people who have performed in violent productions that present Petruchio as a misogynist felt unconvinced by that interpretation. Michelle Gomez, talking about Conall Morrison's contentious 2008 production for the RSC, said his reading “made sense to me academically and intellectually”, but also felt too emphatic in its relentless violence. “There has to be some humour injected into that dynamic between Kate and Petruchio and we worked very hard to take it out,” she said. “I think we were working against it – I think it's in there.”
Her words echoed what Tim Crouch (lovely, lovely Tim Crouch, whom I didn't even manage to fit into the finished piece) and David Farr said. Talking about that tricky sun and moon exchange, Tim said: “She decides to play with him, so they play together. I don't think she acquiesces: she joins in and that feels like they find an equality.” And on Kate's final speech: “To ironise it, or to deliver it as an act of coercion seems to go against the quality of the words.” Farr, too, felt: “If you go for the ending that is purely punitive and pessimistic, I think you're fighting an inherent spirit in the writing. If you just play the negative, ie she is now just a bullied subservient housewife figure, that may work intellectually but it's not what's actually happening emotionally.”
But what is actually happening? The fascinating thing is that, beyond the consensus that it's a love story, there is no proper consensus – and if some of the misogyny camp suspect they're bending the play one way, some of the love people confess they're bending it another. There was something Lucy Bailey said, when talking about how Petruchio dominates the second half, and Kate is constantly in reaction, that struck me: “If you played it just as it was on the page, the play would tip very quickly into all the difficult areas that people struggle with.” Edward Hall said much the same thing: if you play it as it is written, you get violence and you get misogyny and you get searing irony at the end; you do get love, too, but it's a Stockholm Syndrome love. My suspicion (and really, what the hell do I know?) is that what you don't get is any character growth, only stasis (Petruchio) and reduction (Katherine). Maybe we love-readers are just hopeless romantics, or maybe we think there's more to Shakespeare's characters than that.
For me, Tim Crouch summed up the problem with the misogyny-because-it's-on-the-page reading perfectly. He once played Petruchio himself, in America, in a production set in the Wild West; he was a man-with-no-name figure, the kind of shoot-a-guy-soon-as-look-at-him outsider that makes cowboy movies so compulsive. His treatment of Kate was “an act of subjugation” and her final speech was delivered through tears. What didn't work for him about this was that “the final speech got fixed absolutely, and I felt it lost its ambiguity. Everything became one note, and the note is subjugation, male supremacy and domination.” In the love reading, those notes are still played – but the music is more complicated, and much more intriguing.
Anyway, enough preamble. This is the piece I wrote, before I edited it to fit the word count, which was before the Guardian edited it to fit the page. It's a bit messy and no doubt benefited from the trim but at this stage there doesn't seem much point in trying to be a fraction less verbose. As an aside, another fantastic thing that came of writing this piece was locating the original “personal is political” essay from 1969 on the interweb, a thrilling essay that I should have looked up years ago.
A man acquires a rich but headstrong woman for his bride. At the wedding he punches the priest; afterwards he refuses to attend the family party. He drags his bewildered wife through mud to his country house, where he starves her, deprives her of sleep and contradicts every word she says. By the time they return to her father's home, the woman's spirit has been quashed: she is meek and submissive, ready to put her hand beneath her husband's foot.
When you strip The Taming of the Shrew of its comic sub-plot, in which a bevy of disguised lovers woo a charming social beauty, and focus on the bare bones of the story of wild-cat Katherine and her “tamer”, Petruchio, Shakespeare's early play looks like a nasty piece of work. Indeed, critics and academics have spent much of the past century denouncing it as barbarous, offensive and misogynistic. Yet Shrew is remarkably popular with audiences: the production opening in Stratford-upon-Avon this week is the Royal Shakespeare Company's third (fourth, if you count last year's adaptation for young audiences) in less than a decade. Either theatregoers are secret sadists, who like nothing better of an evening than to witness a spot of wife-bashing, or there's more to The Taming of the Shrew than meets the eye.
Over the past two decades, productions of the play have divided fairly neatly into two camps. On one side are the performances that emphasise the brutality of Kate and Petruchio's relationship. In this interpretation, The Taming of the Shrew can be considered, in director Edward Hall's words, “theatre of cruelty”. His all-male production in 2007 “followed the text through to its bitterest conclusion. Look at what Shakespeare has written: Kate is starved of sleep, beaten, refused food.” Too often, he argues, this abuse is played for laughs, when what should be being communicated is the extent of Katherine's suffering.
What exonerates the play for Hall is that he doesn't think Shakespeare was himself being misogynistic in his portrayal of female subjugation, but questioning the values of his patriarchal society. “He's challenging an audience's expectations of how a woman is supposed to behave. What if, as a human being, she doesn't want to roll over and do what the man wants, as was expected in Shakespeare's day? I actually think he's championing the woman's rights. He reminds us that we need to treat each other with respect.”
The other, less stomach-churning interpretation of Kate and Petruchio's relationship is that theirs is a deeply felt, curiously misunderstood love story. Lucy Bailey, who is directing the new RSC production, believes the attraction between the pair is instant, and what unfolds is “all foreplay to one event, which is to get these two people together into bed”. For this reading to work, Bailey says, it's vital that Petruchio never appears to be superior to Katherine. “In rehearsals the play quickly becomes odd if Petruchio starts to lecture, becomes the educator, or takes any moral position. It becomes punitive, and you start to think: 'This is dead and ghastly.' It is a fantastic battle of the sexes, in which Katherine must always win as well as Petruchio – and it's because they won't allow each other to win that the game continues.”
The trouble with the love-at-first-sight version is that it's even harder to understand why Petruchio should mistreat Katherine so. Gregory Doran, who directed the play for the RSC in 2003, suggests that Petruchio doesn't know how to handle their relationship, because he is as much of an outcast as Katherine is. He points out that both characters are frequently described as mad by the people around them: “Madness is a way that society can label you and put you in a bin. That's what Kate and Petruchio are struggling against – but they find somebody else in their bin. I don't think it's describing an ideal relationship, but it is a real relationship.”
Like Doran, director David Farr, who staged the play in 2002, shifting the setting to 1950s America, believes that Shakespeare offers a key to Petruchio's mental imbalance by telling us that his father has recently died. “Here is a man in grief,” says Farr, “who takes out his disaffection and anger with the world on other people almost as an experiment.” That idea of experimenting is crucial to David Caves, who is playing Petruchio in Bailey's production. He finds the classic characterisation of Petruchio as an innate bully abhorrent; he prefers to see Petruchio as a man whose pride is piqued by encountering a woman capable of outwitting him. “If he dishes something out to her, she dishes it back to him twice as bad. He's constantly having to improvise.”
Nichola McAuliffe, who has played Katherine twice and hopes to direct the play herself one day, believes we misread Petruchio's actions, because we don't understand his references to falconry. She points to Petruchio's key speech in which he relates how he will “kill a wife with kindness”, by depriving Katherine of sleep and food. It is, she argues, “a falconer's speech”: it describes how falcons and other birds of prey are socialised. “If you know anything about falconry, you would know that you have to go through this with the bird: if it's cruel, it's cruel to yourself, too.” Sure enough, Shakespeare gives the impression that it is Petruchio himself keeping Katherine awake – and when she doesn't eat, he doesn't either.
There remains a difficulty in these “torture” scenes: Katharine barely speaks, whereas Petruchio never shuts up. According to Lisa Dillon, who plays Katherine in Bailey's production, this is what makes sense of Katherine's long final speech, in which she advises wives to be gentle towards their husbands. “If you look at the language she uses, all the way into the second half, it's odd,” says Dillon. “The verse is staccato, there's lots of saying 'what?' and 'why?' to people. You get the feeling that nobody ever listens to her. But Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her proper freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed.”
What's so appealing about the love interpretation is that Shrew becomes, not a sappy romance, but a more complex critique of society and attitudes to women, which were changing in Shakespeare's time and have continued to change ever since. Bailey and Dillon argue that Katherine is rescued by Petruchio: so censured was her unfeminine boldness that if she didn't marry him, says Dillon, “she would go from shrew to witch and end her days as a madwoman. He saves her from herself, and from a structured society in which she's never going to change.”
Kathryn Hunter, who played Katherine at the Globe in 2003, says what rankled about the character was that “her father was going to marry her off after a single interview”. For McAuliffe, too, it is the bartering of daughters that looks really misogynistic in the play. Katherine's sister, Bianca, is so popular that their father, Baptista, is able to pit her suitors against each other, promising her hand to the man who has most to offer financially. And, as a portrait of womanhood, spirited Katherine is far preferable to flirty, wily Bianca. As Michelle Gomez, who played Katherine for the RSC in 2008, puts it: “Bianca is the manipulative, backstabbing, awful version of what women are, fluttering her eyelids to get what she wants. She gives women a very bad name.”
One of the abiding tenets of 20th-century feminism was that the personal is political. Perhaps what's so difficult for modern feminist audiences of The Taming of the Shrew is remembering that, in this play, the personal is just personal. Katherine's final speech, says Bailey, “is a love gift. It's so clarifying: out of the chaos and small-mindedness of this town that suffocates both of them, Kate and Petruchio invent a way forward that's entirely for themselves. She's not talking about other people, she wouldn't behave like this if she were married to anyone else. She behaves like this at this moment with him. That's why it's wrong to mix it up with a weird sexual political statement: it's a personal statement.”
Not only that, says McAuliffe, but it's a recognisable statement. “When she says, I'll put my hand under your foot, that's basically what I say to my husband: I will put my hand under your foot if you want – but I trust you not to ask me to.” Shrew, she says, is a warts-and-all portrait of how a marriage works: “You make room for each other, you fit their holes and they fit yours. Yes, they drive you potty – but that's between you two, you are a united front. That's what Kate and Petruchio learn. They are one person by the end, like a falconer with his bird.”