“The Taming of the Shrew” on the American stage before “Kiss Me, Kate”: An excerpt from “Shakespeare in a Divided America” by James Shapiro

The Taming of the Shrew is often referred to as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because of its controversial depiction of gender roles; last year’s Broadway production of Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, revived discussions of the sexism at the heart of the story and its 16th-century source material.

In his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro touches on The Taming of the Shrew and these complex gender dynamics. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Play Tells Us About Our Past and Future is organized into chapters dealing with specific social issues at specific times in American history. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 6, “1948: Marriage” and is accompanied by related images from the Folger collection.

⇒ Related: Listen to James Shapiro discuss his book on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

James Shapiro
photo by Mary Cregan

Even in its own day, The Taming of the Shrew—a play that delivers on the promise of its title, regaling us with how Petruchio breaks the will of his headstrong wife, Katherine, declaring, “She is my goods, my chattels . . . my ox, my ass, my anything” (3.2.230–32)—seems to have troubled theatergoers. Shakespeare’s fellow dramatist John Fletcher, tapping into this unease, responded with The Tamer Tamed; in this sequel, Petruchio, now a widower, gets his comeuppance when he marries a woman who tames him. What’s notable about Shakespeare’s handling of the story is how Katherine is broken: though she may strike him, Petruchio never hits back. Long before our modern‑day black sites and their enhanced interrogation techniques, Shakespeare understood that the surest way to break people was first to disorient them, then to deprive them of food and sleep (“She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat,” Petruchio brags. “Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not” [4.2.185–86]). What happens in the play differs from what some unruly women actually endured in Elizabethan England, where punishments included wearing a “scold’s bridle,” or, in a precursor to waterboarding, being dunked in a pond while strapped into “a cucking stool.” It’s no surprise that The Taming of the Shrew fell out of favor, replaced by less disturbing adaptations; more than two centuries passed before the original version finally rejoined the repertory in 1844 in Britain—the very last of Shakespeare’s plays to do so.

Photograph of Ada Rehan in The Taming of The Shrew
[Ada Rehan as Katherine in Shakespeare’s Taming of the shrew] [graphic]. FOLGER ART File R345 no.27 PHOTO (size XS)
It took even longer in the United States. It wasn’t until 1887, at a time when American women were organizing in their struggle against discrimination and fighting for the right to vote that would not be won for another thirty‑three years, that American playgoers had a chance to see something approaching Shakespeare’s original, in the socially conservative production directed by Augustin Daly, starring Ada Rehan. The nation’s leading critic, William Winter, considered Daly’s interpretation “one of the few really great and perfect dramatic creations of its time” and heaped praise on Rehan’s transformation as Katherine from “shrewishness to loveliness.” As her resistance to Petruchio wilts and she submits to him as her “master,” Rehan’s Katherine was, for Winter, “unmistakably the same woman, only now her actual self.” When, after the turn of the century, Margaret Anglin, the first woman director to tackle (and star in) the play, brought her production to New York, a deeply offended Winter savaged it for treating Katherine’s final speech (in which she urges wives to abase themselves and “place your hands below your husband’s foot,” then does so herself) “as if it were mere mockery . . . a jest, secretly understood between Petruchio and his wife.” The world was changing and men like Winter weren’t happy about it.

A half century would pass between Daly’s production and the next groundbreaking American one, by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in 1935. Lunt and Fontanne were at this time the leading stars of the American theater, and since 1924, not long after they married, had insisted on performing together. Plays with strong roles for both of them were not easy to find, and The Taming of the Shrew, which proved to be one of them, was a hit, opening on Broadway to rave reviews, then touring across the country. They went all in on the farcical, bringing onstage acrobats, “dwarfs,” and horses, distracting audiences from the ugliness of the plot.

The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The celebrity of the leads also meant, as another reviewer put it, that “at least half the fun comes in watching them enact Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Lunt.” Shakespeare didn’t often write about married life, focusing instead on courtship. Having a power couple play the leads in The Taming of the Shrew gave audiences the rare pleasure of responding to the comedy as one that was also about the push and pull of a real (or at least an imagined) marriage.

Lunt and Fontanne restored the usually cut Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a lord commands a troupe of traveling players to perform at his behest in order to fool a drunkard who has fallen asleep. Their performance creates for spectators a sense that they are watching a play within a play. In Lunt and Fontanne’s production, these players were an irritable troupe worn down by endless touring. They fake‑coughed loudly when anyone in the house failed to suppress a cough, repeated cues, and shouted out lines from offstage. It got violent. Fontanne’s Katherine broke a lute over Lunt’s head, ground her heel into his foot, and bit him; Lunt’s Petruchio retaliated by smacking her on her bottom, kicking her, and dragging her around. For one reviewer, Fontanne accepted “defeat not sweetly and softly as many Katherines do, but with a mental reservation that she still may have something to say about this business of being tamed.” And when at the end she declares that she is ready to place her hand beneath her husband’s foot in token of her submission, the promptbook indicates that “as she swings her hand to punctuate her meaning,” she (accidentally?) smacks him in the face. “You were left to wonder at the finish,” the reviewer for the Boston Globe wrote, “whether her humility was not more mock than real.” In a final gesture meant to puncture (in the very act of staging) the fantasy of eternal marital bliss, the production ended with the lovers departing in a chariot drawn by a unicorn. Esquire’s critic was convinced that once “the curtain fell,” Fontanne’s Katherine “would get revenge for hardships and humiliations by beating the hell out of her spouse.” Katherine, having lost the battle, may well win the war; but if so, that victory is deferred, Petruchio the victor, and patriarchal norms left battered but still standing.

In February 1940, Lunt and Fontanne returned to Broadway for a one‑week, standing‑room‑only revival of their production, a benefit for the Finnish War Relief Fund, staged as the world slid toward war. One of those involved in mounting it was Arnold Saint Subber, who would go on to a long career as a Broadway producer. At the time, though, he was just an ambitious 21‑year‑old trying to make his way in the theater. Thirty years later Saint Subber told an interviewer for the BBC that “one of the jobs I had had was as a play reader in the Alvin Theatre where Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were performing Taming of the Shrew. I was constantly backstage and would listen to Mr. Lunt and Miss Fontanne screaming at each other, in rage, ‘If you ever do that again I will never go on stage with you ever again in my life.’ And then, both appearing onstage cuddly, sweetly, and I thought to myself—that’s quite a sketch.” Saint Subber, convinced that this frontstage/backstage drama would make for a great show, “went about peddling the idea of turning Taming of the Shrew into a musical.” Eight years and a world war would pass before Saint Subber assembled a creative team that transformed the seed of his idea into one of the most enduring and successful American musicals, Kiss Me, Kate.

From Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Play Tells Us About Our Past and Future by James Shapiro. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © by 2020 James Shapiro.