The Taming of the Shrew by Jonathan Miller (dir) - review by Kate Kellaway

Kate Kellaway

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew


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How tamed should the shrew be? How is she to deliver these lines?

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey?

Should there perhaps be an option to alter the word ‘obey’ as there is in certain wedding services? Fiona Shaw, in Jonathan Miller’s production, is the best shrew I have seen. She starts off in a mustard yellow dress with a mustard sharp tongue and suitably pointed features screwed up into a vexed expression. She is given to blood-curdling yells, intimidating her family, hand-cuffing her sister and chopping bits off her ginger plait when particularly aggravated. She is a pain to behold and to hear. Miller exaggerates her crimes; while Shakespeare organised the destruction of her music teacher’s wind instrument, Miller goes further and has the subdued tutor walking in with half a lute in his hand. Petruchio looks with admiration at this delinquent handiwork – he sees the lute before meeting Kate and holds it like a warning that is none the less splendid, a symbol of his future wife’s personality.

Miller emphasises that Kate has some reason to be out of sorts: in particular, she is stung by jealousy of Bianca who is prettier, more pampered and more pursued than she is. Meanwhile, Kate’s pursuer Petruchio (Brian Cox) is, as he himself announces ‘rough’ – stocky, laconic and makes no secret of his interest in Kate’s money, saying with world-weary conviction: ‘Thou knowst not gold’s effect.’ He is impatient to get the courtship over: ‘I would feign be doing.’ The first words spoken about Petruchio by Grumio are: ‘My master’s grown quarrelsome …’ so we know that, however urbane and calm he may appear, he has got the perfect credentials for shrew-taming.

But when the two meet, Petruchio paces the courtship much more slowly than is usual, allowing his forced compliments time in which to seem forced; and allowing a moment in which we glimpse that Kate is briefly against her better – or bitter – judgement, flattered by Petruchio’s odd, weary compliments about ‘Kate of Kate Hall’ and hazel twigs.

It is to be the last time we see him weary. As an offensively-dressed, unpunctual groom with a coiled spring attached to his hat, boorishly announcing ‘to me she’s married, not my clothes’, Petruchio immediately, colourfully and infuriatingly upstages Kate as a male shrew.

And then he takes her to his home – it is a place of pewter jugs, icy socks, frightened servants and no dinner. When she arrives, her mustard coloured dress covered in mud, the process of change is already underway. Petruchio has turned nasty; he overturns the table and calls in vain for Troilus his spaniel who is, presumably, sheltering safely out of the way.

By this time, we long for the rowdy discipline to end. But although we sympathise with Kate, great care is taken that she should never be pitied. When Petruchio schools her in obedience, trying to get her to agree that the sun is in fact the moon, she gives in to him with a laugh.

The effect of this is that he seems mad and she, in humoring him, seems humorous.

Pardon old father, my mistaking eyes That have been so bedazzled with the sun…

And as she says ‘sun’ she comically turns it into a question as though to say ‘Or are you in the mood for calling it the moon?’

Witty, natural touches like this are Miller’s great strength as a director. This talent for naturalism is evident even before the beginning when, against Stefanos Lazaridis’s heavenly scalloped creamy curtains and mediterranean sky, a troupe of musicians entertains us and then relax and chat among themselves or nonchalantly eat apples exactly as if the audience were not there. The same knack is demonstrated later when Tranio takes no interest in Lucentio’s conversation and stares ahead of him. This is amusing, right and rare. Often a director’s assumption is that if a character is seen to be bored on stage then the boredom will spread to the audience.

Miller’s approach to taming the shrew is also unforced and simple: he makes us want her to be tamed. He does not distort the play or twist Kate’s final speech into an ironic lecture (as was done with some success by Paola Dionisotti in 1978). Thus when Kate says

A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty

we agree with the sentiment having seen how disagreeable muddy, ill-temper can be. The argument of course applies as much to Petruchio as it does to Kate – his bad temper is unattractive too. The message here seems to be ‘anything for a quiet life’ and this even extends to silencing those who cannot cope with the final speech by showing that Bianca is thoroughly put out by her sister’s docility. She makes it quite clear that she has become a shrew who will not be tamed.

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