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Photo by Joan Marcus .

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew & Metatheatre

From the Bard to Broadway

Kiss Me, Kate:

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

The Original Play 

The Taming of the Shrew is an early comedy by William Shakespeare, written between 1590-1592.  

In the prologue, drunken tinker (a traveling tinsmith) Christopher Sly is found sleeping by a wealthy lord. The lord brings Sly back to his house and, upon Sly’s awakening, convinces Sly he is nobleman who has slept for 15 years. Sly believes his real life has been a long dream. Then, a traveling troupe of players arrives to present a play about the taming of a shrew.

The play-within-a-play opens in Padua, Italy, where Lucentio, a student, arrives and falls in love at first sight with Bianca, the daughter of the rich merchant Baptista. Baptista forbids Bianca to marry until a husband is found for her older sister, Katharina, who is considered “a shrew” because she is willful and disobedient. Two of Bianca’s other suitors, Gremio and Hortensio, join forces to find a husband for Katharina. Lucentio changes identities with Tranio, his servant, and gets hired as Bianca’s tutor.

A shrew is a small, mouse-like rodent with a sharp bite. According to old superstitions, a shrew running across your feet caused lameness. Around the 13th century, people applied the term to spiteful men and women alike, and by Shakespeare's time, women who were nagging or ill-tempered were derisively called shrews.

Hortensio’s friend Petruchio agrees to marry Katharina upon learning she has a large dowry. Their first meeting is a battle of wits, but he insists on marrying her, and her father agrees. Petruchio arrives late and badly dressed to their wedding; he behaves obnoxiously and refuses to let Katharina stay for the reception. He takes her to his country house and forbids her from eating, sleeping, or wearing nice clothes until she obeys him.

Back in Padua, Hortensio and Gremio see that Bianca has fallen for Lucentio, and decide to give up their pursuit. Tranio persuades a passing schoolmaster to pretend to be Lucentio’s father, Vincentio, and tell Baptista that their family is wealthy. Baptista signs a marriage contract with the fake Vincentio, while Lucentio and Bianca secretly elope.

On their return to Padua for the wedding, Katharina is forced by Petruchio to wear rags. She finally submits to his will, agreeing that the sun is the moon and that an old man on the road is a young virgin. The old man turns out to be Lucentio's real dad, Vincentio, who joins them on their journey. Upon arrival at Lucentio’s house, Tranio and the schoolmaster accuse the true Vincentio of being an imposter and threaten to have him imprisoned. Lucentio and Bianca return just in time, and Lucentio reveals his identity and their elopement. Both fathers approve the marriage.

At a combined wedding reception, the three husbands, Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio (who has married a wealthy widow) bet on which of their new wives is the most obedient. They call the women to come from another room, and only Katharina comes when called. She gives the women a lecture on the importance of wifely obedience. Then, the couples retire to their wedding beds.

The Source 

Most scholars believe Shakespeare borrowed his central taming plot from the oral folktale tradition. Within the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which organizes stories from around the world according to their universal themes and traits, almost 400 variations of the “shrew-taming” tale were told throughout Europe.  

Shrew on Stage and Screen

While the play was popular in Shakespeare’s time, it was rarely revived in the following centuries; the first American production was in 1887. The successful Alfred Lunt/Lynn Fontanne production (which inspired the backstage story for Kiss Me, Kate) toured America in 1935-36. In 1967, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in a well-received film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. The 1999 high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, starring Julia Stiles, was a loose adaptation of the play. Productions in the 20th and 21st centuries often bring critical interpretations to the play’s gender and power dynamics. Notably, director Phyllida Lloyd has directed the play twice with all-female casts, both starring Janet McTeer (seen this season in Bernhardt/Hamlet) as Petruchio.  

On Plays-Within-Plays 

Shakespeare’s use of the play-within-a-play device in Shrew allows the audience to watch Petruchio “tame” Katharina from a critical distance. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the hilarious play-within-a-play pokes fun at theatre by taking itself too seriously. In Hamlet, the play-within-a-play shows the power of drama to provoke a murderer’s guilty conscience, while Hamlet’s conversations with the players comment on how all human behavior is itself a kind of performance.

Meta-Theatrical Musicals

Photos by Joan Marcus

The term metatheatre was coined by theatre scholar Lionel Abel in 1963 to describe a philosophical, self-conscious, and self-referential type of drama, often featuring characters who are aware that they are performing—for each other, and sometimes for the actual audience. Abel pointed to Hamlet as a metatheatrical hero who remains “conscious of the part he himself plays in constructing the drama that unfolds around him.” This season, Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet offered a metatheatrical exploration of how an actor struggles to play Shakespeare’s most challenging role.

Kiss Me, Kate is metatheatrical, portraying the daily workings of a theatre company while they perform their musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. Lilli and Fred are professional actors who, like Hamlet, self-consciously perform offstage as well as on, and their personal relationship mirrors the Shakespearean battle of wills between Katharina and Petruchio. Meanwhile, the themes of money and mistaken identities figure in both Shakespeare’s original and the gangster subplot of Kiss Me, Kate.

Kiss Me, Kate (1948) was the first show to feature an entire musical embedded within a musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein later used the same idea for Me and Juliet (1953), about a secret “showmance” between an actress and stage manager during a production of Romeo and Juliet. The Producers (2001) lampoons the creation of the deliberately terrible show, Springtime for Hitler, while The Drowsy Chaperone (2006) imagines a fictional 1920s musical as seen through the eyes of a fan. Also In 2006, [title of show] found new levels of metatheatricality by portraying two musical writers in the act of writing a musical about the writing of a musical called—wait for it—[title of show] !

Kiss Me, Kate is now running through June 30 at Studio 54.