I have a dim memory of the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew. It was on television. I’m sure I was watching with my parents, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor falling in the muddy stream and being left behind by her laughing husband is pretty much all that has stuck with me for forty years or so.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet I saw in High School and many times since. I’ve always thought it a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare’s play with a great deal to recommend it. On returning to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, however, I found little to recommend. Yes, Zeffirelli has assembled lush and beautiful costumes and sets of great detail. But those sets have too much of a smell of polystyrene, the beautiful Italian light of Romeo and Juliet is missing, and the pacing despite large cuts and rewritings of Shakespeare’s text, is, frankly, plodding. Elizabeth Taylor discharges her roll as Katherina professionally, but Richard Burton as Petruchio and the rest of the cast have been set free, or directed, to chew the (polystyrene) scenery with gay abandon.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for a contemporary audience. When the fundamental theme of the play, the breaking of a strong woman through starvation and sleep deprivation, is combined with the swinger misogyny of the mid-Sixties, the result is unbearable. Petruchio’s country house here is a grubby man-cave, complete with lecherous douche bro retainers. “And Philip’s dagger was not fully sheathed”, a line not in Shakespeare’s text, is inserted apparently for the sole purpose of making an open codpiece joke, a bit of wit Petruchio and his buds think wonderful. And then they start the torture of Katherina.
I’m not sure that Zeffirelli had any awareness of the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew. But there is one very odd detail which suggests he, or a set dresser, did look more carefully.
As Lucentio (Michael York) arrives in the streets of Padua, he passes two criminals enduring public punishment, one in a suspended cage, the other below in stocks. Large signs are lettered with their crimes: “Drunkard” for the caged man; “Wife Stealer” for the man in stocks.
I’m not sure that “wife stealing,” phrased that way, has ever been a recognized offense in Padua. Almost immediately, Lucentio falls in love-at-first-sight with Bianca (Natasha Pyne), then he witnesses his new love chased through Padua by a gang of young men who eventually corner her and force her veil from her face. As Zeffirelli portrays it, this is, if you’ll pardon the image, a thinly-veiled gang rape, a gang rape which seems to greatly amuse everyone, including the victim.
Later in the film as the drunken Petruchio hauls away his forced bride Katherina, Bianca’s sister, they pass the same two unfortunate prisoners, signs again prominently displayed. “Drunkard” and “Wife Stealer”.
What to make of this subversive bit of set-dressing associated with two rape scenes? In no way does it ameliorate the symbolic gang rape of Bianca or the misogynistic celebration of Katherina’s forced marriage and later joy that she has been broken under torture. The cage is where the drunkard Petruchio belongs, and his wife stealing logically deserves the stocks. But he is presented by Shakespeare and Zeffirelli, and played by Burton, as the hero, not only for his drunken wife-stealing, but more so for his triumphant success in inflicting the Stockholm Syndrome on Katherina.
I don’t know the intention behind the small gesture of putting those prisoners into the two scenes. But I certainly don’t feel any better about The Taming of the Shrew, either Shakespeare’s or Zeffirelli’s, because of them.
As I did when considering The Freewill Players’ The Taming of the Shrew, I again am considering whether it is possible to stage The Taming of the Shrew without a profuse apology for its pervasive misogyny. In my wondering I have come up with a curious thought: what would be the effect of a modern dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, but in the modern dress of Kandahar or the Swat Valley of Pakistan. What would happen if The Taming of the Shrew were staged completely faithfully to the script but with burkhas or niqabs instead of Elizabethan dresses? Zeffirelli’s Bianca enters veiled, and, Petruchio, after all, has more of the Taliban or Boko Haram about him than he does of Sir Walter Raleigh dropping his cloak in the puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon. Such a staging would remain faithful to the text, but no contemporary Western audience would be able to ignore the misogyny. Would some say “you’re insulting Islam” or “you’re taking Shakespeare out of context”? Possibly. But the text is unchanged – is Shakespeare insulting Islam? And modern dress is routine in Shakespeare production today. Why is it any more “out of context” to set The Taming of the Shrew in the Swat Valley than it was for Ralph Fiennes to set his Coriolanus in the former Yugoslav republics?
Doubtless such a production would offend all over the place. But somehow I think it would be worthwhile for the shaking up it would bring.
In the end, such a production would demand an answer to the question “Can you defend this play?”