Romance is complicated in Bard on the Beach's The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew has always provoked intense reactions. William Shakespeare’s story of the strong-willed Kate, who has been deemed unsuitable for marriage until new hubby Petruchio “tames” her (by depriving her of sleep, food, and any reliable grip on reality) into a docile, obedient wife, has been attacked as misogynistic by viewers of both sexes for well over a century. Despite its controversial content, the play is perennially popular: the Bard on the Beach production that opens this week is Bard’s third take on the play in just over a decade. So how does actor Lois Anderson, who plays Kate, feel about the complex politics that surround this script?
“I keep thinking Shakespeare had a queen on the throne that always viewed his work,” says Anderson, on a dinner break from rehearsal in Bard’s main-stage tent with director Meg Roe. “How could he have shown that queen a statement about oppression and diminishment?
“In every other play,” Anderson continues, “he examines love—between lovers, but also between father and daughter, and servant and master. He has profound examinations of love, so I can only assume that this is also a profound examination of love.”
Roe concurs. “My take on the story is that it’s a romance—a complicated romance, with two very complicated, not always likable people,” she explains. “Kate and Petruchio to me are two misfits who don’t totally fit in their world, but together they create a whole new world, which is way more exciting and nuanced than the world around them.”
Before she meets Petruchio, Kate’s place in her community is defined by her reputation for being difficult. “I really thought this play was about belonging,” Roe comments. “We have all these titles that we get given, and you either fit them or you don’t. If someone treats you like a total bitch, at what point do you just become one?”
Anderson points out that Kate “never seems to just lash out for no reason”. Instead, she feels constrained by social expectations: her father, Baptista, won’t allow Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, to be married until he’s found a husband for Kate. “She’s an intelligent woman and she’s stuck in a society where she has to be married off,” Anderson observes. “She’s not just running through the house overturning pots for no reason.”
Still, Kate stirs up her share of trouble. “What I love about Lois’s performance,” Roe says, “is she does delight in the chaos she causes, too. It’s sort of horrible, but she has no other pleasures than the agony she causes everybody.”
That is, until Petruchio offers Kate her first taste of freedom from the labels she’s been living under. “He’s not the one that calls her a shrew,” Anderson notes. “I think she can see herself through her encounter with him. It’s like he holds up a mirror. No one has ever told her she’s beautiful, for example, and in that last monologue, she uses the word beauty several times. She can see herself as beautiful for the first time in her life.”
But wait a minute, isn’t that the same speech in which Kate urges her fellow women to “place your hands below your husband’s foot”? That monologue, seemingly extolling female subservience, has long troubled the play’s critics.
“Initially, I would have thought that last speech would be the biggest challenge,” Anderson admits, and Roe shared her dread: “I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I’m not sure I should take this job—that speech,’ ” she says with a laugh.
But when it came time for Anderson to deliver the lines in rehearsal, she and Roe were both surprised and relieved by how easily they flowed. “I just looked at John [Murphy, who plays Petruchio], who I’ve known forever, and we have a great chemistry,” Anderson recalls. “I just looked at him and I thought, ‘I’m going to try to say this speech as if I’m in love.’
“I think that whole last monologue is a profound definition of love,” she says. “How to make the person you love the winner in the world—not the winner over you, but the winner, you know?”
“I think there’s an implication in the speech that she’s forging a team,” offers Roe, “and I think we do do that with our partners—you give over, you sacrifice, you compromise, you willingly share the more vulnerable parts of yourself with them in the trust that they will keep them, they will be your keeper.”
In this view, Kate’s transformation from headstrong to compliant signals a happy ending. “You can rail at the world or you can laugh at it,” Roe observes. “And Petruchio teaches her how to laugh.”
The Taming of the Shrew runs at Bard on the Beach until September 22.