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Is it possible to make a feminist Taming of the Shrew? 2 new adaptations try.

Taming of the Shrew The Public Theater
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

What do you do with The Taming of the Shrew?

It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest and bitterest comedies, and the bulk of its plot concerns a husband “taming” his wife. Katherina, the titular “shrew,” is wild and angry, perhaps even violent: One scene has her tying up her sweet younger sister Bianca as Bianca screams and pleads for mercy. But as Kate’s husband Petruchio systematically deprives her of food, sleep, and clothing, she gradually becomes more and more malleable, until at last she is willing to agree to whatever he says: The sun is the moon if he says it is, and an old man is a young woman if he tells her so.

At the end of the play, she gives a speech about how it is a woman’s place to be obedient and how a wife should place her hand beneath her husband’s foot. “My hand is ready,” she declares; “may it do him ease.”

This summer saw two new adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew that seek to make it more palatable to a 21st-century audience. Anne Tyler, that beloved and clear-eyed chronicler of troubled families, adapted the story into her new novel, Vinegar Girl, for the Hogarth Shakespeare series. And New York’s Delacorte Theater mounted an all-woman production of the play, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, for the annual Shakespeare in the Park program.

The two adaptations take radically different approaches to their source material. Tyler tries to get rid of the violence that is fundamental to Shakespeare’s original, displacing it where it can’t be completely erased, while Lloyd’s production leans into the original’s misogyny. Looking at the two adaptations side by side, you can begin to see just how inextricable the violence and rage of the source material is from its enduring appeal.

Shakespeare’s play is both troubling and appealing

Because the play is appealing. That’s what makes The Taming of the Shrew so difficult to discard — and there are many reasons to want to discard it. Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is abuse by any modern definition, and the play, on paper, is all for it: Kate’s final surrender is framed as Petruchio’s glorious victory, a moment to applaud.

And yet Shrew remains attractive. Despite the play’s thematic flaws, it’s hard to let go of those wildly compelling characters and their charged banter.

Quick-witted, quick-tempered Kate is an early forerunner of later Shakespearian heroines like Beatrice and Rosalind, never content to say a word when she can pun on it instead. Theatrical characters are most interesting when they want something, and Kate wants ferociously: to be respected, to have her freedom, to punish those who would thwart her. On the page, she sparkles; on the stage, she is a force of nature, all implacable will and exquisite, sharp-edged wordplay.

And if she’s angry, who could blame her? She’s living in a world where a man can do to a woman what Petruchio will do to her and never be so much as reprimanded. She should be angry.

And Petruchio — brutal, domineering Petruchio — wants just as intensely and plays with words just as relentlessly as Kate does. In their courtship scene, they trade bawdy puns like blows:

PETRUCHIO: Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.

KATHARINA: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

PETRUCHIO: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.

KATHARINA: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.

PETRUCHIO: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.

KATHARINA: In his tongue.

PETRUCHIO: Whose tongue?

KATHARINA: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

PETRUCHIO: What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again,

Good Kate; I am a gentleman.

It’s a scene that’s clearly designed to be funny and sexy, and Shakespeare knew his stuff; it is funny and sexy. You can see echoes of the same playful battle-of-the-sexes banter that would later be so warm and compelling between Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

This battle is not evenly matched. Petruchio has the entire patriarchy on his side, while Kate has no legal rights and no weapons but her sharp tongue. She can call him a fool in as many elaborately clever ways as she likes, but it won’t do her any good when Petruchio controls her access to food, when her literal survival depends on pleasing him.

But their dynamic, charged with both violence and eroticism, is so compelling that it’s easy to see why so many directors and writers keep returning to Shrew, searching for a way to retell it that doesn’t feel like a ringing endorsement of domestic abuse.

Anne Tyler softens and sweetens the violence in Shakespeare’s original

Tyler’s solution to Shrew’s problematic premise was to soften the battle between the lovers, and to displace most of the malice on to other parties. The result is sweet, tender, and, as adaptations go, anemic. It robs Kate of the focused, righteous anger that makes her so compelling onstage.

In Vinegar Girl, Kate is a prickly college dropout stuck at home with her scientist father, Dr. Battista, and her spoiled younger sister, keeping house for them and working part time at a preschool. Tyler’s Kate is less angry than she is blunt, and when she’s reprimanded at work for her bluntness, she doesn’t understand why:

“Emma asked who you thought Room Four’s best drawer was,” Mrs. Darling said. She was consulting the notepad she kept beside her telephone. “You said” — and she read off the words — “I think probably Jason.”

“Right,” Kate said.

She waited for the punch line, but Mrs. Darling put down her notepad as if she thought she’d already delivered it. She laced her fingers together and surveyed Kate with a “So there!” expression on her face.

“That’s exactly right,” Kate expanded.

Tyler’s Kate would certainly never want to hurt a 4-year-old girl’s feelings. She wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. She’s not malicious; she’s not even really angry. She just speaks her mind, and she’s too oblivious to realize that her lack of tact might be hurtful. She has none of the rage of Shakespeare’s Katherina, despite the fact that her anger would be more than justified.

Though it wouldn’t be justified by the Petruchio analogue, Pyotr, who is downright cuddly. As Dr. Battista’s Russian lab assistant, Pyotr is in need of a quickie green card marriage, but he also genuinely loves and respects Kate. He’s a little awkward, certainly, but he would never try to force Kate into doing anything she doesn’t want to do.

The only character in Vinegar Girl with even vaguely nefarious motives is Dr. Battista. He’s controlling and selfish, pushing Kate to live at home at age 29 so she can take care of the house for him — but only if she follows his domestic system, which includes such efficient innovations as never unloading the dishwasher and living off of a sludge-like mixture called “meat mash.” He even has her do his taxes for him, because she’s so much better at that sort of thing.

But the book cannot commit to Dr. Battista’s villainy, and Kate can’t sustain her mild resentment toward him. He’s not really so bad, the book seems to insist. When Kate learns that he insisted on keeping custody of her and her sister after their mother’s death, in the face of opposition from her aunt, all of her not-quite-anger melts away. Who cares that her father has manipulated her into spending her entire adult life as his unpaid housekeeper/accountant? He didn’t abandon her given the opportunity, and after all, isn’t that enough?

Kate’s insistence on thanking the men in her life for doing the absolute minimum carries all the way into the book’s climax, which is Kate’s obedience speech in the play. Vinegar Girl turns it into an impassioned speech by Kate on how sad it is that men are taught to repress their feelings:

It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something — “Oh, I’m okay,” they say. “Everything’s just fine.” They’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it.

Yes, when you think about it, The Taming of the Shrew, a story all about how men torturing a woman into submission is hilarious, is the perfect platform from which to explain how men are the real victims of oppression in this modern world.

What’s puzzling about Vinegar Girl is that it fails its title: There is no vinegar in it. Kate is just a tactless, obtuse woman who feels a little bit trapped, and Pyotr’s a tactless, obtuse man who needs a green card, and in classic rom-com fashion they save each other. There isn’t a hint of sparkle or charge to their conversations. Dr. Battista might have some less-than-pure motives, but then again, he stepped up that one time, so it doesn’t really matter in the end. It certainly doesn’t matter to Kate, who harbors no ill will. She’s not a vinegar girl. She’s as much of a doormat throughout the whole book as Shakespeare’s Kate is by the end of the play.

Phyllida Lloyd treats courtship as a battlefield

Phyllida Lloyd took a different tack in her all-female staging of the show this summer. Rather than softening the lovers’ warfare as Tyler did, the production leaned into it, with the tagline “Love’s a battlefield” — and it never once pretended that Petruchio doesn’t have more firepower than Kate does. The result was chilling.

Lloyd stripped away the usually ignored framing device from Shakespeare’s original play: Dude passes out in a tavern; everyone decides to convince him he’s rich when he wakes up; they put on Shrew to entertain him. (It doesn’t make any more sense when you see it, and the conceit disappears before the play is halfway through.)

Instead, Lloyd’s play become a beauty pageant with a Trump-voiced announcer: The cast files out in full evening-wear glamour as the announcer enumerates the many ways in which they are fantastic girls, just beautiful. As the play proper begins, it becomes clear that we’re watching the talent portion of the pageant.

It’s not a subtle metaphor, but The Taming of the Shrew has no use for subtlety. The patriarchy makes women treat their entire lives as beauty pageants, the framing says, striving for male approval in order to survive.

What Taming does, in all its incarnations, is exaggerate that dynamic between women and the patriarchy. Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is more blatant than most, but even Bianca’s sweetheart of a husband, Luciento, expects his wife to obey him unquestioningly. Lloyd’s production simply literalized the dynamic.

Which is not to say that Lloyd’s Shrew ignored the comedy and the eroticism that gives the play such sparkle. She cast legendary theater actress Janet McTeer as Petruchio, and McTeer’s charisma is so strong that she can singlehandedly confuse all the straight-girl feminists in the audience about both their sexuality and their politics.

Throughout its run, Lloyd’s Shrew balanced the sparkly comedic appeal of Petruchio and Kate’s courtship with the violent undercurrent running through it. Was it funny or disturbing when Petruchio picks up Kate and carries her bodily offstage? It was definitely funny when Kate, in an impotent rage, shrieked with frustration and kicked her feet through a puddle — but the play didn’t let you forget that she was frustrated because she was getting married against her will.

And Kate’s growing attraction to Petruchio was present and potent, but also dangerous. When he told her to kiss him and she briefly protested before acquiescing, you could see her struggling with the idea that she wanted to kiss him: She was afraid of him and drawn to him in almost equal measure.

It’s that tension that gave Kate’s final speech such power in Lloyd’s Shrew. As Kate instructed Bianca, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign,” she smiled a Stepford wife smile, but her eyes were wide and anxious; she kept darting terrified glances at Petruchio to make sure she was saying what she was supposed to so that he wouldn’t hurt her again.

It’s no wonder that as Bianca listened, her face collapsed into a mask of horror: This is what the world has done to her angry, strong-willed sister. Kate successfully navigated the system, and the system has changed her. She lost herself and won the beauty pageant.

Lloyd’s production was, ultimately, a much more successful treatment of Taming than Tyler’s novel is. It refused to hide from Kate’s rage and Petruchio’s violence. It embraced them instead.

Vinegar Girl is afraid of the violence running through Shakespeare’s original, so it removes it entirely: The characters are all defanged. Any nefarious intentions are easily forgiven, any cruel words are the product of thoughtlessness, not malice. And systemic and institutionalized sexism, it turns out, really hurts men, not women. It’s a well-crafted book — Tyler could write a light dysfunctional family comedy with her hands tied behind her back — but as an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, it’s cowardly.

But Lloyd’s production understood that the face of the patriarchy can be violent and funny and attractive all at once. It embraced nuance. It understood what is appealing about Shakespeare’s original play while unveiling and denouncing the misogyny embedded within it.

While I was waiting in line for tickets to Lloyd’s production this summer, a passing busker tsked over the very idea of an all-female cast. “What did men ever do?” he wanted to know.

“For one thing, a man wrote The Taming of the Shrew,” one of my party pointed out.

With her production, Phyllida Lloyd took it back for women.