The Southwest Shakespeare Company's production opens this weekend in Mesa. The plot is familiar: The fortune-hunting Petruchio agrees to marry the shrewish Kate, for a large dowry, plus payoffs from the suitors of Kate's seemingly demure younger sister Bianca. He then proceeds to "tame" her through a sort of psychological warfare, the major tactic of which is "killing her with kindness"--he behaves with deranged rudeness to everyone but her, thus forcing her into a more reasonable role.
"Shrews"--obstinate, domineering wives--were a standard comic type in the English theater by the time Shakespeare got there. Even Mrs. Noah, in the miracle play cycle of medieval times, refused her husband's demands that she get into the Ark. But it's possible that, of many "jest ballads" of the period, it was the so-called Merrye Jest, published circa 1550, that had the strongest influence on the structure of Shakespeare's play. In it, as in Taming, the shrew is the elder of two daughters--she's the mother's favorite, while the submissive younger sister is the father's favorite.
As in Taming, a man agrees to take on the challenge of marrying the shrew. It's there that similarities between the two works end. From that point on, the Merrye Jest turns into a shockingly savage tale of misogynistic torture--the man beats the woman into submission. When she faints from pain, he kills and skins a horse (named Morelle, hence the title) and binds her in the hide until she promises to obey him. Thereafter, the story concludes, she becomes a model wife.
Seen in this light, and such stories were a standard genre of the era's "humor," Petruchio's playful head games come across as amazingly progressive. There's no doubt that Taming is, by our standards, sexist, as Othello is racist and The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic--all three hold generally accepted attitudes that a modern sensibility would consider offensive. Yet seen in the context of their own period, all three seem remarkably forward-thinking.
Jeannie Naughton, the Bronx-born actress who plays Kate in SSC's production, agrees. "From a feminist standpoint, I know it's not the most popular of plays," says Naughton. "Myself, maybe because of how accustomed I am to Shakespeare, I was never all that taken aback by how Petruchio 'tames' Kate, if you can even call it taming.
"I see it as more helping her to be who she wants to be, which is an emotionally happy person. And I also think Petruchio learns many lessons in the course of the play. So it never really bothered me that much." Opening performances of Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew are at 8 p.m. Thursday, January 21; 8 p.m. Friday, January 22; and 2 p.m. Saturday, January 23, in the auditorium at Mountain View High School, 2700 East Brown in Mesa. The run continues through Saturday, February 6. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors, available at Mesa Community Center and Dillard's box offices; call 644-2560 or 503-5555.