The Taming of the Shrew Review

There's never anything too clever attempted in modernising Shakespeare in the Globe's productions, but every effort is made nonetheless to wring out all the wit and wisdom that is in the Bard's words and find the best way to communicate them to a modern audience. That's often achieved through attention to the humour and satire in the works (and a certain warranted playing up of crude and lewd references), even in the most seemingly "serious" works. Conversely, it just as important not to let the farce and the humour overwhelm the serious points that Shakespeare makes about human relationships in the comedies, and by and large the Globe productions also manage to do that exceptionally well.

It's particularly difficult to achieve that balance in a work like The Taming of the Shrew, where a modern audience could quite conceivably consider that whatever serious points the work makes about relationships between men and women, if indeed there are any, are somewhat outdated by modern standards. Leaving aside the questions that the work brings up about the nature of arranged marriages, which obviously still has relevance in some communities, the real contention in The Taming of the Shrew is largely based around the characterisation of the fiery Katherina, who is considered unmarriable by her father since she won't submit to the authority of any potential husband, remote though the likelihood of any such alliance seems.

This rather contentious view of married life is best exemplified in the behaviour of Katherina herself (leaving no questions about her highly temperamental nature whatsoever), but it's summed up early on by Gremio, one of the suitors for the hand of her sister Bianca. The girls father, Baptista Minola, will not allow the younger girl Bianca to marry until a husband is found first for Katherina. "Think'st thou Hortensio, thought her father be very rich, any man be so very a fool to be married to hell?". What are the chances of that? in other words. Fortunately for both Gremio and Hortensio, and for Lucentio (another suitor who has been beguiled by the younger daughter and is attempting to woo her in disguise as a tutor), Hortensio's friend Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, is just the man so disposed to "woo her, wed her and bed her ...and rid the house of her".

That, alongside the redoubtable Petruchio's description of Katherina as a "lusty wench" and his confidence that the superiority of his sex can tame the wild beast in any woman, kind of opens up The Taming of the Shrew to accusations of misogyny with its rather unenlightened view of the nature of women and their inequitable role in relationships. It's very easy to allow this view to predominate, since the cut and thrust of this epic battle of wits (and fists) in the drama is just hilarious, particularly when it's played with as much verve as it is here by Samantha Spiro and Simon Paisley Day, both equally adept at the physical interplay as much as the verbal.

The characterisation of Bianca however is not to be underestimated and she's given good expression here in the Globe's 2012 production directed by Toby Frow. This Bianca knows her own mind and gives as good as she gets. She's certainly not given as much personality as Katerina, but one has to bear in mind that The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy, and there's no need to overshadow the crowd-pleasing antics of Kate with too much philosophy. It is there though, even in the supposed comedy. There are the usual role-reversals between master and servant that open up questions of who is really in charge, there are the disguises that suggest that one can be who one pleases to be. There's also the question of the play's 'Induction', making it effectively a play within a play to make fun of Christopher Sly. Everything need not necessarily be as it seems on the surface.

The Globe production is so well played, injecting life and personality into all the characters (and even successfully seeming to define personality through the lack of liveliness in the case of Pearce Quigley's wonderfully dry and sarcastic Grumio) in a way that certainly gives voice to those alternative ideas without necessarily subjecting them to any modern revisionism. The real test of where a production stands is of course in how it treats Petruchio's appalling taming of the shrew through his starvation of Kate, dressing her in rags and his psychological breaking her down through charging her never to cross him, no matter how absurd his orders or statements. The physical and comedy of cruelty in these humiliating situations is less funny than the verbal sparring that precedes it in their initial meeting, and some of this domestic abuse (let's call it what it is) does bring some nervous laughter from the audience.

As of course does Kate's uncomfortable speech on the merits of unquestioning obedience to one's lord and master, which is delivered here entirely straight without any hint of subverting the message. I think that the Globe's production can get away with this, partly because it retains the period setting so you can comfortably resign this to the thinking of less enlightened times, but also because I don't think Shakespeare's view of human relationships is quite as chauvinistic as it appears to be here. You might be prepared to accept that there are plenty of other alternatives that suggest that this is not necessarily the right or the only view of how to achieve a successful relationship. There are plenty of other alternative matches that show that the real message of the play is that each couple must find their own balance of harmonious accord and that therein lies whatever happiness they might find.

The Taming of the Shrew is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer, region-free and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility.

Recent Globe productions have been filmed in HD and have found their way onto Blu-ray discs, but curiously not the current batch that includes Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, which have been released on DVD only. The video quality on this release of The Taming of the Shrew isn't particularly good. In close-up, detail is relatively good, but the limitations of the transfer are more evident in the wider shots of the stage. There you'll notice a lack of sharpness and detail, dot crawl in the backgrounds and a strong contrast that tends to blow out any graduation in colours and skin tones. The lighting of the Globe theatre for a live performance doesn't always lend itself well to video reproduction requirements, and that's probably part of the problem here, but the lower-resolution NTSC format probably doesn't help matters either.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The soundtracks are probably more vital than high image quality, and thankfully the recording of the live performance is very good. All of the dialogue is well enunciated and cleanly delivered (with a few rude gestures to assist meaning when the occasion warrants) which helps matters, but the actual recording is clear enough to follow without the need for subtitles. Optional white subtitles are however available in English and in German only. Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extra features on the disc, but there is an essay and an outline synopsis included in the booklet that comes with the DVD.

The charge of protesting too much is probably the best rejoinder to attempts to read too much into The Taming of the Shrew, either in accusations of misogyny, or in attempts to counter those arguments. The play is primarily a comedy and a farce and the verbal and physical sparring in the Globe's production is riotously funny. That's not to say that there aren't many other ways of viewing the play and, with customary attention paid to secondary plots and characters, the Globe's 2012 production directed by Toby Frow doesn't neglect the other qualities to be found in the work. The absence of a HD video transfer or BD release is disappointing, and there are consequently some shortcomings with the video transfer, but the essential quality of the performance of this hilarious work at the Globe is clearly evident.

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