On a beautiful night in late July, 2010, my friend Becky and I attended a performance of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder. I really didn’t expect at the time that it would send me down a new path in my life.
I had always avoided this play because I heard that it was a sexist tale in which a strong-willed woman gets “tamed” by a domineering husband into a submissive, passive (and in the moral judgment of the play, a well-behaved) wife. But CSF does a great job with comedies, and I was curious to see how they would handle it. I went, and I was struck by lightning.
The first revelation came early, in a scene in which the female lead, Katherina — the titular shrew — gets into an argument with her younger sister Bianca. Bianca is beautiful, popular, and possessed of all the outward womanly virtues valued by their society. Katherina is abrasive, aggressive, and (perhaps worst of all) more intelligent than everyone around her. But what this scene between the sisters reveals is that, in private, Bianca is not the sweet and perfect angel that all the men think her to be. In fact, she is mean-spirited and cruel, and, where it comes to men, completely mercenary.
Who knew that Shakespeare understood about mean girls?
Worse, when their father arrives on the scene to break up the squabble, he immediately takes Bianca’s part without knowing what really happened between them. He just assumes Bianca is innocent and Katherina is the aggressor.
Watching this, my jaw literally dropped.
Imagine living like this. Imagine that the world worshipped your sister: that she could do no wrong, that you were constantly being compared to her, that no one ever listened to you, and that they always took her side, even when she was clearly wrong. Imagine eighteen or twenty years of this.
Do you think that you might get a little angry?
The CSF actor did a wonderful job of helping us understand Petruchio. Petruchio arrives in town as a fortune-hunter looking for a wealthy wife. He agrees to marry Katherina to that end… but then he meets her, and something amazing happens. He is captivated. As a stranger, he is capable of seeing Katherina’s true nature in an instant: that her sharp tongue and aggressive demeanor are merely armor she has put on to defend herself. But now he is in a difficult position. Having announced that he will marry anyone for money, how will he convince her that he has married her for herself? And further, how will he convince her to shed her armor once he has her away from the poisonous environment in which she has always lived? Petruchio makes a speech to the audience in which he explains his plan to “tame the shrew” which, if played straight, would sound menacing, but our actor put a spin on it that intimated he was a desperate man doing the only thing he could think of. Brilliant.
The Shrew Tamed
Katherina’s behavior in the final scene is probably the biggest source of controversy in the play. At a party back in her home town, all the men wager on whether their wives will come when summoned. They tease Petruchio, confident that Katherina will not come. But to their surprise, it is Katherina who is obedient while the other wives refuse to go. The only one not surprised is Petruchio.
Is this because he has broken her spirit?
No. It is because they, unlike all the other couples, are true partners in marriage with a genuine understanding of one another. Katherina is not stupid; she knows that something is going on here and she will not do what is expected of her. Petruchio knows this and knows he can safely rely on her.
And when Petruchio asks her to make a speech about the proper role of a wife and she speaks about lords and sovereigns and duty and obedience, the CSF actress’ actions were deliberately in opposition to her words, stressing the fact that she does not mean her words to be taken literally. If that were not enough, we watched our Petruchio go weak in the knees because there is nothing passive about this woman. In the CSF production, Petruchio spends much of this speech standing on a table top. At the conclusion of her speech, he takes her proffered hand and leaps lightly off the table and continues down to his knees. It is a pose of reverence, of absolute love, of surrender.
I went home with a buzz in my veins like champagne. I woke up early with my head full of these thoughts, with the excitement of understanding that this play was completely misunderstood, that this production had been amazing. After a few hours, I went to the computer and started jotting down some notes, figuring if I cleared them out of my head, I could stop thinking about them. Maybe they’d find their way into a blog one day.
By the next day, I was writing scenes. I kept thinking, “Alright, I’ll just get them out of my head and then I can stop thinking about them.”
By the end of the week, I had set aside my other novel and had pulled out my giant Riverside Shakespeare. I was trapped, in the best sense.
I finished the first draft in about three months. I have never had that experience with writing before. Have you?