The Taming Of the Shrew is just about as infamous as Romeo and Juliet and just as loved, only for different reasons, since the battle of the sexes is catnip for story lovers. It’s been adapted almost as much as Romeo and Juliet in various forms, but we’ll get to that.
If anyone isn’t familiar with Shrew’s plot, the basic rundown is this: Nobleman Baptista Minola of Padua wants to marry off his daughter, Bianca, who seems sweet and lovely and deserving of a husband. Problem is, protocol dictates Bianca’s older sister, Katherina, wed first, and she’s a bit of a handful. No one can get anywhere near her without bringing down a torrent of wrath.
Enter Petruchio, a cocky young buck who makes a deal with Baptista: If he can turn Katherina into a lamb of a happy wife, Baptista will pay him a handsome dowry. Naturally, Katherina makes things so easy for her new husband he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
The play is a study in trolling. Not only does Petruchio troll Katherina, but this storyline is a play within a play: A nobleman decides to convince a beggar, Christopher Sly, that he’s actually a nobleman himself, and this means telling him Kate and Petruchio’s story.
Shrew is both one of the earliest Shakespearean comedies and very early rom-com. Written sometime between 1590 and 1594, it’s, again, based on the old-as-time Battle of the Sexes trope as well as Ariosto’s poem, I Supositi.
Like most Shakespeare plays, Shrew has a spotty stage history. It used to be de rigueur to adapt and change Shakespeare’s work to fit current times and tastes, and Shrew was no exception. One of the most popular was David Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio, which premiered in London in 1754. While it follows the original story pretty closely, Petruchio doesn’t make a bet with Baptista. Other versions resort to hardening or softening the characters to various degrees. It wasn’t until 1844 that audiences got to see Shrew in its unadulterated form.
Shrew has been adapted and updated for the screen more times than anyone can shake a stick at, so without further ado we’re going to look at a few of the most popular, unusual, and significant. Here we go…
The Taming Of the Shrew (1908)
One of the first times Shrew came to the screen was courtesy of the ambitious but highly overrated D.W. Griffith, and this abbreviated version features Griffith’s then-wife Linda Arvidson as Bianca, Florence Lawrence as Katherina, and Arthur V. Johnson as Petruchio. Our pair fight with each other, they fight with their servants, and it all winds up with a joyous embrace.
The Taming Of the Shrew (1929)
Possibly Shrew‘s first sound film, the 1929 version stars Mary Pickford as the title character and looks remarkably polished for such an early talkie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a jolly Petruchio, who sits back and takes Kate’s rumblings in stride. There are plenty of sight gags and a lot of epic glares from our Kate, but by and large it’s pure Shakespeare and pure fun.
Kiss Me, Kate (1953)
The legendary Cole Porter project isn’t so much about Taming of the Shrew as it is about modern characters putting on a musical Taming of the Shrew. It stars the resonately voiced Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson as Fred and Lilli, a divorced couple who play Katherina and Petruchio. Ann Miller, Bob Fosse, Keenan Wynn, Bobby Van, and James Whitmore round out a sparky cast. This film was also shot in 3D, but that’s just a bonus.
The Taming Of the Shrew (1967)
Right before releasing Romeo and Juliet, our old pal Franco Zefirelli tackled Shrew, and the results are superlative. It’s got a great cast including Michael York as Lucentio and Victor Spinetti as Hortensio, each of whom vie for the affections of Natasha Pyne’s Bianca. Richard Burton as Petruchio and Elizabeth Taylor as Katherina play almost to type, seeing as Petruchio shows up drunk to his wedding and Burton’s fights with Taylor were famous. It’s a wonder there’s any furniture in the Minola abode, seeing as Kate chews the scenery so zealously. No one would ever know it was Elizabeth Taylor’s first time performing Shakespeare, because she and Burton both have a grand jaunt.
“Atomic Shakespeare” (Moonlighting, Season 3, Episode 7, aired on November 25, 1986)
Here’s gold, friends. A nameless, faceless preteen tries to watch Moonlighting only to be shut down by his mother, who tells him he needs to study for his Shakespeare test. What’s a kid to do? Why, imagine David and Maddie as Petruchio and Katherina, of course, with a madcap cast of hundreds, all carousing in trademark Moonlighting style. Petruchio wears aviators, as does his horse, his saddle blanket has a BMW rondell on it, and as soon as the “I dos” are said, he sings “Good Lovin'” to the congregation almost two decades before Shrek and Fiona danced to “I’m a Believer.” What was likely intended as a one-off episode has become the stuff of TV legend and a beloved teaching tool for English pedagogues.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Oh, Heath Ledger. How the world misses him. Playing Patrick opposite Julia Stiles’s Kate was one of the first times Ledger really caught the attention of the American public, and the rest is history. When it comes down to it, 10 Things is a typical high school movie, but it effectively pulls off Shrew‘s story structure. ABC Family banked on 10 Things’ popularity so much that it produced a TV series that lasted a whopping eleven seasons. but the original is pretty hard to beat.
Deliver Us From Eva (2003)
One of the more unusual adaptations, Eva strays ever so slightly from the conventional storyline. Eva’s (Gabrielle Union) two younger sisters think she needs a guy, so they and their significant others pay rich man Ray (LL Cool J) to take Eva out. The inevitable happens, of course. Unfortunately the movie has been panned as sitcom-ish and formulaic by critics (Roger Ebert said it needed cue cards). Oh well, kudos to the cast and crew for effort, anyway.
What’s interesting about all of these adaptations is that everyone has a different interpretation of Kate and Petruchio’s resulting relationship. Some may take offense at the idea of a woman being “tamed,” others may make Petruchio more of a jerk just because they can.
Well, Petruchio can be a jerk. He goes after his servants and gives Katherina such a dressing down that she relents because she wants peace. On the other hand, the overlying message is that submission is a two-way street. Wives and husbands are to love each other and not plague each other’s lives out. Katherina might be the one preaching submission, but Petruchio surrenders his own cockiness as well.
When it comes down to it, Shakespeare’s message here is more timeless and sound than it’s given credit for.
The Joan Collins Blogathon is coming up on Monday. Thanks for reading, all…
10 Things I Hate About You (DVD and Blu-ray) Deliver Us From Eva (DVD and Blu-ray) Kiss Me Kate (DVD and Blu-ray), and The Taming of the Shrew (1908, 1929 and 1967) are available from Amazon.
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