"The Taming of the Shrew" reinvented as a feminist triumph

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking in Vancouver’s annual Shakespeare Festival, ‘Bard on the Beach’. We were only in town long enough to see one play, so my wife and I decided to try The Taming of the Shrew, because it was being done in a Wild West motif and that sounded fun.

Not going to lie to you, in general The Taming of the Shrew isn’t top of my list of Shakespearean comedies, mostly because it’s kind of offensive in its misogynistic message. Basically, Kate is an outspoken, “untamed” woman who is a wealthy heiress but considered a terrible prospect for a wife because of her bad social behaviour. The leading man in the play, Petruchio, sets out to “tame” Kate by humiliating and depriving her, ultimately breaking her and transforming her into an ideal, compliant wife.

Yikes! Not exactly what I’d consider wholesome entertainment today.

But here’s the thing. The ‘Bard on the Beach’ acting company did something remarkable. Without changing a single word of the script they transformed The Taming of the Shrew into an empowering story where Kate begins the play as a misunderstood victim and grows in confidence until she finally commands the entire last scene as a free woman. The relationship between Petruchio and Kate is no longer a battle for control but rather a Bonnie & Clyde style partnership where they find true understanding of each other even as they, as equals, thumb their noses at the establishment.

Definitely a story that resonates better with modern audiences.

No big deal, you might be thinking: anyone can reimagine a classic and recreate it for a modern audience; Hollywood does it all the time. But in this case it IS a big deal, because ‘Bard on the Beach’ managed to turn the original meaning of the play completely on its head, without altering the original script. The actors say the same lines that were said in 1592. The scenes progress in the same order as they did when The Globe Theatre was new. But with body language, expressions and new emphases in the delivery of the lines, the play takes on a new meaning nothing like what Shakespeare’s original audience would have seen. The final scene concludes with a single short speech by Kate which is new material, but by then the story has been told so effectively and so completely that her additional lines act as an elegant capstone to a story transformed.

That, my friends, is the genius of the performing arts. And I’d like to think that Shakespeare himself, had he been in the audience this weekend, would have led the standing ovation at the end. I think he would have recognized just how clever these actors had been and greatly admired them for it.

After that performance, The Taming of the Shrew has vaulted into top spot in my list of favourite Shakespeare comedies, and I look forward to being further surprised and delighted by ‘Bard on the Beach’ in future years.

Bennett Coles