BBC Complete Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s worst play. I don’t even feel the need to qualify that with an “I think” or “In my opinion” or “the worst in terms of…”. The play is simply reprehensible on most any conceivable level; the characters range from bland to offensive, the language is mediocre, but it’s truly the misogyny of the theme that’s impossible not to take offense to. It essentially boils down to the idea that if you encounter a willful woman, it’s merely a matter of torturing her so that you can bring her under control. Likewise, of all Shakespeare’s plays it seems to suggest that words can used as potently as weapons to achieve the most despicable of ends. I will concede that the play is occasionally as funny, mostly in the verbal sparring matches, but once it becomes one sided it’s as fun as watching Mike Tyson beat down Larry King.

The plot revolves around a father, Baptista (John Franklyn-Robbins) who is sworn to marry off his oldest daughter, Katharine (Sarah Badel) before he’ll accept the many offers of marriage for his youngest daughter, Bianca (Susan Penhaligon), who is being courted by three men including Gremio (Frank Thornton), and Hortensio (Jonathan Cecil). Lucentio (Simon Chandler) has just come into town and disguises himself as Cambio to court Bianca as her Latin tutor, while his servant, Tranio (Anthony Pedley) pretends he’s his master. But Baptista (and Bianca’s suitors) have a problem in that Katharina is a fiery, obdurate shrew whom nobody wants to marry. That is until Petruchio (John Cleese) appears and hears of Katharina’s wealthy dowry. Caring more about money than love, Petruchio sets about “wooing” and eventually taming her via starvation and sleep deprivation.

Yet, if the play is so bad, why has it remained so popular? In this case I’d argue that it’s more infamous, and that its controversy has sustained it more so than any inherent quality. Critics and interpreters have fallen over themselves throughout the years, as Stevie Davies eloquently said, “(to prove) Shakespeare cannot have meant what he seems to be saying, and that therefore he cannot really be saying it.” Of its apologists, Conall Morrison most convincingly (and recently) argued that the despicableness is so apparent that the play is (and was intended by Shakespeare to be) a moral tale, essentially saying “don’t be like this”. I’m not sure Morrison is engaging in a bit of sophistry, or if he’s simply giving Shakespeare credit for having a ton of respect for his audience to see the play like that, but I find it difficult to call the argument plausible.

But, as I said in my Two Gentlemen of Verona review, the job of a critic reviewing a Shakespeare production is to discuss the quality of that production and not factor in the quality of the play itself. In that respect, this BBC production is quite respectable, yet I still find it underwhelming in the context of the series. The somewhat drab art design lends the production a faux-earthy feeling, at least in the respect that it sets the play mostly in a market square. Most of the other sets are darkened and spare by comparison. Miller’s direction, like most in the series, wouldn’t be confused with the direction of a great cinematic master (all the more reason it is to lament that big names like Bergman passed on taking part in the series), but it’s capable for the most part.

Of the cast, John Cleese is the great surprise as Petruchio. Apparently, the casting was quite controversial, and Cleese, who had never played Shakespeare, was quite reluctant to take the part. In my estimation, the casting is a near masterstroke, as Cleese brings an unheard of intelligence to the role. He certainly couldn’t be farther away from the Richard Burton’s gregarious tyrant in Franco Zeffirelli’s version. Cleese does what he can to make the character kinder, gentler, more human, which is immensely difficult given the evils he puts Katherine through. While he may not ultimately make Petruchio sympathetic and forgivable, he does at least lend the character some humanistic substance. As the production wears on, he does his best to convince he does really care for Katherine on some level.

The rest of the cast is less successful, but there are no major weak points. Sarah Badel is perhaps too bland as Katherine, and her rantings and ravings come off as slightly exaggerated and melodramatic. Admittedly, Katherine is a hard part to play because even though she’s labeled as a shrill shrew, she’s given surprisingly few lines and often finds herself on stage with nothing to do but stand or sit around while the other characters talk. In every production there always seems to be extended scenes of Katherine standing around and making confused, bug-eyes at everyone in the cast (or every place on stage) in the absence of having anything to say, and never knowing what to do with her in the meantime. Badel doesn’t exactly reverse this trend, but she’s rather good when she’s playing directly opposite of Cleese.

The Bianca sub-plot is so weak that it’s immensely difficult for a cast to make it interesting. While Susan Penhaligon is a lovely Bianca (and, thankfully, a bit more spirited than the typical actresses who play her as the direct opposite of Katherine), her suitors are less so. Most would be forgettable if not for Anthony Pedley’s Tranio who spends most of his time making bizarre faces under his ludicrous mustache. Simon Chandler is a good-looking but dull Lucentio, and Frank Thornton and Jonathan Cecil to little to enliven the roles of the other suitors. Ultimately, perhaps I’m destined to bring my biases against the play into any production, but it’s telling that I’ve now seen two that, in their own ways, are intelligent, fun, and quite competent, but have still utterly failed to redeem the play in my eyes. If only I could easily buy into Morrison’s argument.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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