Taming the shrew, two ways: Shakespeare for the stage and the page

Vinegar Girl and The Globe's Taming of the Shrew offer two new takes on a contentious play.

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In an otherwise straight-faced letter, written in 1932, T S Eliot grumbled, “What I chiefly dislike about Goethe is the fact that he is having a centenary,” adding, as if to clarify: “I always dislike everybody at the centenary moment.” Eliot had a taste for unlikely acts of repudiation and this is far from the common view. “We all love a century,” Frank Kermode wrote, on the occasion of the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1964 – a couple of years before the Eliot exception came to light – “and four centuries we love even more; so this has struck us all, without serious question, as a good moment to honour him.” This was the feeling that struck us in April, when Shakespeare’s death received its turn. Though the idea of Bardolatry – loving him not wisely but too well – has passed its own centenary and Bard-bashing is now a popular sport, there wasn’t much doubt expressed at any of the recent, star-stuffed events.

It might have seemed perfunctory, not to say party-pooping, and it would certainly be futile. As Orwell wrote of Leo Tolstoy’s celebrated hatchet job: “[T]he most striking thing is how little difference it all makes.” Tolstoy’s target was King Lear, as Eliot’s was Hamlet, so you possibly wouldn’t expect much damage to be done. But nowadays, even Shakespeare’s most irritating plays appear to have shaken off their stigma. Polly Findlay’s production of As You Like It closed in March, having occupied the Olivier Theatre in London for almost six months. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, never unpopular at this time of year, is proving that you can have degrees of ubiquity. And The Taming of the Shrew, once an object of disdain, just goes on being tinkered with.

Shakespeare may have been alive when John Fletcher wrote his sequel/riposte, The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. Between the early 17th century and the 1840s – a period in which the play was not performed, not a single time – two adaptations, one by John Lacy and the other by David Garrick, were often staged. It is typical of Shakespeare’s wily robustness that even when he gets something wrong – even when he writes a play that is sexist, silly and badly paced – he still exerts a potent influence on his fellow playwrights, not to mention practitioners in half a dozen other forms. The Taming of the Shrew, the source for the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the high-school comedy Ten Things I Hate About You, as well as operas by Vittorio Giannini, Hermann Goetz and Vissarion Shebalin, exerts a fascination that thrives in spite of the play, as if its DNA outwits the defects of its form. This year, along with another staging, by the Birmingham Royal Ballet (of John Cranko’s 1969 ballet), and with Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Bolshoi production at the Royal Opera House in London, there is Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl, published in Hogarth’s Shakespeare Retold series. The play is now firmly in the repertoire, yet it rarely receives a straight rendering. The Globe (until 6 August) is staging a version set in 1916 and with the characters as Irish visitors to Padua, though in other ways it is as faithful and unflinching a production as the play could ever hope to get.

The central case against The Taming of the Shrew, at once moral and technical, is that the story of a free-spirited woman (Kate) sold into marriage with a vulgar and greedy man (Petruchio) who enslaves and humiliates her into submission isn’t ideal fodder for a farce. Unpopular touches, such as the framing device that presents the story as a play within a play, are generally excised. But you can’t excise a plot, so what do you do? Recent answers include: show Petruchio as damaged or Kate as collusive. Caroline Byrne, in her vibrant yet harsh production, offers no such revisionism. She forges her distance from the play by emphasising Petruchio’s unpleasantness (“She is my goods, my chattels”) and by presenting Kate’s closing sermon on wifely obedience (“Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,/And place your hands below your husband’s foot”) without any irony or softening.

The Irish details place Kate in a context of oppression of the weak (Yeats’s “Easter, 1916” is adapted as a refrain). In line with the trends of modern staging, there is high-fiving and cock-grabbing together with the backbiting and mudslinging that George Bernard Shaw – who coined “Bardolatry” – long ago identified as one of the least ­delightful things about Shakespeare. Yet Byrne’s departures from the text – and even her deft handling of the interminable comic set pieces – are less notable than her refusal to look away. The effect is not to solve what is problematic about the play but, by illuminating its problem, to forge an implicit sense of distance.

The irony of Hogarth’s novel series is that Shakespeare’s survival has always depended on acts of innate shape-shifting. Frank Kermode, though keen to emphasise that Shakespeare “differs from other writers rather less than is sometimes assumed”, was able to concede that “in one respect he is on his own . . . his enormous patience, his ability to answer to anything and everything, to absorb speculation”. This patience may not quite extend to absorbing speculation that Kate might be seen as a nursery-school teacher in 21st-century Baltimore persuaded to marry her father’s research assistant for Green Card purposes. To that extent at least, Tyler’s update does things that the original didn’t. But her decision to present Kate as an equal match for Petruchio (here renamed Pyotr) has already been identified as one of Shakespeare’s intentions. As long ago as 1961, in his powerful if overgenerous essay “The Strengths of Shakespeare’s Shrew”, William Empson argued that Kate is “bullied not because she is weak but because she is strong”. And it is hardly a reading that directors have ignored.

Far from showing “another side”, as Tyler puts it, Vinegar Girl exacerbates the play’s structural problems, devoting virtually its entire length to the arrangement of the marriage. It also uses forms of dramatic irony more obtrusive than those in the original. As the story unfolds, a parenthetic commentary runs in tandem: “(Aunt Thelma was on the board there. She was on many boards.)” “(The unsatisfying thing about practising restraint was that nobody knew you were practising it.)” “(Bunny was the kind of person who thought the more people, the merrier.)” Kate shows all the regulation-issue bad-girl traits: a rejection of ego-coddling, a tendency to swear, a taste for the tough one-liner. (And like the shrew in another recent pastiche, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, she doesn’t “have much use for novels”.)

Tyler exhibits none of her habitual precision, displaying instead a fluffy levity that will serve as ammunition to her doubters. Perhaps the largest area of overlap between play and novel is in the profusion of weak jokes. The Taming of the Shrew is full of the Shakespearean equivalent of Tyler noting that Bianca turns “declarative sentences into questions”. With its chugging narrative hydraulics and charmless, scrappy haste, Vinegar Girl occupies roughly the same position in this author’s body of work as The Taming of the Shrew does in Shakespeare’s: as something like the exception that proves the rule, though it’s hard to imagine future generations paying tribute to Tyler’s version, or making an effort to mount a defence – even when she’s having a centenary.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

For details of the Globe’s “Taming of the Shrew” visit: shakespearesglobe.com

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is published by Hogarth (233pp, £16.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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