Suppose you’re an actress playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. You’ve worked hard in the first half of the play to prove that you’re the most disagreeable young woman in Padua. How can you possibly be convincing in the final act, when you must profess and practice wifely submission and obedience?
It’s ever harder, I would think, than the job of an actor playing Othello, who must somehow show a transformation in his feelings toward Desdemona, so that his full-blown murderous rage won’t come as a surprise.
This year’s Shrew at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), reviewed by Emsworth in this post, Irene Poole, as Katherine, attacks the challenge in a unexpected way. There’s sexual tension between Katherine and Petruchio (Evan Buliung) from their first scene together, and it grows as the insults mount and the blows fly. The hungrier she gets, and the shorter on sleep — the more he teases and torments her, you know the play — the more it seems that this Katherine is being drawn into kinky role-playing that will lead to the consummation of her marriage.
And so, in Katherine’s final re-education session, when Petruchio teaches her that the sun is the moon when he says it is, and that it is the sun again when he says so, Katherine agrees with a triumphant gleam in her eye and a mocking laugh:
Petruchio: I say it is the moon.
Katherine: I know it is the moon.
Petruchio: Nay then you lie, it is the blessed sun.
Katherine: Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, But sun it is not when you say it is not, And the moon changes even as your mind.
With this scene, we understand that Katherine (as played by Irene Poole) is now fully in on Petruchio’s nasty little game — and she’s gotten to like it.
Thus, when Petruchio lays a wager with Hortensio and Lucentio as to whose wife is the most submissive, Katherine knows how to play her part. She ends her “bound to serve, love and obey” speech by offering to let her husband step on her hands.
Delighted with his new playmate, Petruchio is ready for the game to be consummated: “Why there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.”
Will Petruchio always be dominant in this loving relationship? We doubt it. From an earlier scene, in which Katherine ties up her sister and flogs her, we already have a good inkling that Katherine will like giving as well as receiving.
This show’s director, Peter Hinton, prepares the audience for twisted love-play by his decision to cast Petruchio’s servant Grumio as a woman playing a woman (Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock). As one might suppose, this adds sexual overtones to their relationship of master and servant. In their first scene together (Act I, Scene 2), Grumio jests suggestively with her master about his instruction to “knock me here, rap me here, knock me well, and knock me soundly.” Later, when Petruchio finally appears for his marriage to Katherine, he arrives (in this production) in a cart pulled by Grumio with a bit in her mouth!
And in Act IV, Scene 3, Grumio participates enthusiastically in her master’s “taming” of Katherine, showing her a fine piece of beef, then mocking her as she pulls it away. The upshot of this gender-blind casting: we infer that an unconventional relationship between Petruchio and Grumio is already in place before Petruchio comes to Padua to find another woman to add to his menage.
Emsworth reviews this show in this post.