note: entire contents copyright 2005 by G. L. Horton/CENTER>
"The Tamer Tamed"
by John Fletcher
directed by Michael Burnet
Ive wanted to see The Tamer Tamed ever since I first
heard of its existence, and this summer Shakespeare and Company is
making an offer no Shakespeare lover can refuse: John Fletchers
feminist sequel to The Taming of the Shrew is being
presented as part of the companys free Bankside program in the
tent-enclosed Rose Footprint outdoor theatre. The theatre itself is
charming, the large acting ensemble mainly youthful but with enough
experience and skill to make a good case for Fletchers script as
a neglected gem that deserves a place in the repertoire alongside other
non-Shakespearean comedies such as Jonsons Volpone or
Middletons A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. But the best reason for
doing or seeing The Tamer Tamed is the light it throws on
Shrew-- which Shakespeare & Company is performing this
summer in its indoor Founders Theatre, right next to the Rose.
Fletcher demonstrates what many social historians have declared
impossible--that an audience in Shakespeares era could be as
easily persuaded to side with a rebellious wife as with a domineering
For those who have yet to hear about Tamer, the script was
written some years after the success of Shakespeare's perennially
popular Shrew, and was successfully presented by
Shakespeare's company, the Kings Men, in conjunction with the
Petruchio/Kate play. Some scholars believe that Fletcher wrote the
play as an audition piece, to prove that he was up to the
companys standard, and that the strategy worked: Fletcher did go
on to co-write plays with Shakespeare, notably Henry VIII, and became
the resident dramatist for the Kings Men after Shakespeare's
retirement. Tamer Tamed, under 3 different titles, held the
stage at least till 1670, when it shows up in an entry in Pepyss
diary, but later seems to have dropped from sight--- apparently when
its bawdy humor and blatant feminism were no longer laughing matters.
In Shakespeare's Shrew, Petruchio presents himself as an above
average specimen but a basically normal guy who simply wants the good
things in life. But Petruchio isnt a normal guy-- hes a
charismatic variation on the Miles Glorious of classic farce,
jaw-droppingly self confident. He doesnt want to wait for his
wealthy father to die to get his hands on ready money. Marry a rich
shrew? No problem for a man who has no doubts about his leadership
abilities. A little behavior modification will make a comfortable wife
out of a sharp-tongued bullying virgin who doesnt give a damn
that shell never be voted Miss Congeniality. Petruchios
friends, like the audience, are aware that the gentleman is a
sharp-tongued bully himself, and nearly impervious to the social
sanctions that keep most gentlemen within the bounds of acceptable
behavior. We feel that the bullies are well matched, not least
because there is attraction between them. But although Kates
tongue is Petruchios equal, in all other ways the man has the
upper hand. Petruchio does outrageous things to Kate, and gets away
with it partly because Kate has behaved so badly so often and so
publicly that public opinion as well as her own family is against her.
But mostly he gets away with it because he can-- women circa 1600 have
no more rights than children or slaves. The church gives a
females husband or father the moral right of command and her the
duty to obey, and the state gives her male guardian the legal right to
imprison or beat her to enforce his commands, however unreasonable.
Audiences from Shakespeares day to this have laughed at the
battling pairs antics as Petruchio fights fire with fire by
holding up the mirror of exaggeration to Kates demands and
tantrums. We buy the happy ending, where Kate capitulates. Why?
Because we enjoy seeing a spirited woman broken? More likely because
weve seen Kate miserable early on, when she gets away with
bullying her father and sister, and are willing to believe from her
wager-winning triumph in the best wife contest with her
sister and Hortensios espoused rich widow in Shakespeare's final
scene that Kate may be happier with Petruchio as mentor and senior
partner. We see that as a team they will command respect within their
community. We are encouraged to take the sparks that have flown
between the couple as evidence of sexual compatibility, and imagine
that love will cement a mutual bond of peace. Skeptical feminists tell
us that we are fools to believe that this is a happy ending: Once the
honeymoon is over, this pair will have a miserable marriage.
John Fletchers sequel to The Taming of the Shrew
shows us that it isnt just PC moderns who are skeptics. In
Fletchers version, Petruchio (Tom Wells) is credited with taming
Katherine, but that victory was really only a moment of truce in the
battle of the sexes. The pairs married life was one long
struggle, as the husband sought supremacy and the wife resisted with
scolding and rebellion. Now a widower --- we never discover when or how
Kate died --- Petruchio has held on to his social identity among his
friends as the notorious Tamer, but his reputation among women is as a
monstrous wife abuser who is a danger even to a female with the
temperament of a dormouse.
The older but not wiser Petruchio has been worn down by constant marital battle. Hes now closer to the normal man he took himself to be, no longer looking for the challenge of a spirited wife with the energy and intellect to stretch his own powers. Hes a shell-shocked marriage survivor. As second spouse he wants a gentle pliant maid who will simply be quiet and obey, never triggering in his traumatized psyche the nightmare memories of battles past:
The bare remembrance of his first wife
Will make him start in's sleep, cry out for cudgels,
And hide his breeches out of fear her ghost
Should walk and wear'em yet.
Petruchio thinks he has found such a maid in Maria (Catherine
Taylor-Williams), a cousin of Katherines but a sweet girl of
modest temper, and one who has welcomed his suit. Once married,
however, Petruchio discovers a very different Maria-- a woman who is
determined to turn herself into a feminist warrior, to set aside her
own modesty and gentleness and fight for the rights of all women. She
is set on this course by Katherine's sister Bianca (Sarah Taylor), who
insists that Petruchios example of tyranny must not be allowed to
stand. Even as he is on his way home from their wedding to bed his
bride, Petruchio is boasting to his friends about how he will excel
them all in bedroom prowess. Tamers rule!
Like Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Maria decides that the way to end war is
to withhold sex. She locks Petruchio out of the house as her opening
gambit, announcing that she will not let him in until he agrees that a
wife has inalienable rights. Petruchio at first assumes that Maria is
joking, and answers with jests of his own. But once he sees that she
is serious, he is outraged. He tries to break down the door, and calls
for his friends to come and help him lay siege to his house. But
Marias cause is trumpeted far and wide, and female reinforcements
pour in from city and country to guard Marias walls and dump
insults and loaded chamber pots onto the heads of the besiegers.
So far, so good, in the Shakespeare & Company production. The
actors are energetic and well spoken, the costumes by Sarah Hilliard
and assistant Ellie Steingraeber are colorful, the Rose stage facade
with balcony above and doors below ideal for the in-and-out movement of
the main plot. The subplot, which concerns Marias younger sister
Livia (Julie Webster) who is in love with a sweet young gentleman named
Rowland (Dave Thier) but promised by her father (Robert Lohbaur) to a
rich old man named Gremio (Jeffrey Kent) --- apparently the Gremio who
courted Bianca in Shrew --- seems less interesting, but may
provide a contrast in the differing ways the sisters will go about
getting what they want from a husband. The sex jokes are working, and
the stereotypes too. When Maria presents an endless scroll containing
her list of demands, Petruchio scans it quickly and summarizes:
"liberty and clothes!" --- which brings down the house.
The Lysistrata-like confrontation is the high point of the show. There
are more ploys and counter ploys, but the play gets less interesting as
it goes on. Im not convinced that it is all Fletchers
fault. It seems to me that Maria should be protean, a quick-change
artist, but that underlying all the forms she assumes is a person of
warmth and empathy. Lysistrata the warrior-woman is but the first
acting role. Each successive persona Maria assumes is more extreme,
calling for a complete change of costume, posture, manner, vocal pitch
and accent --- which ought to add up to the wonderful effect of an
infinite variety rivaling Cleopatras, the Maria who is described
to us by an amazed pair of minor characters:
Ped. Oh her tongue, her tongue.
Gru. Rather her many tongues.
Ped. Or rather strange tongues.
Gru. Her lying tongue.
Ped. Her lisping tongue.
Gru. Her long tongue.
Ped. Her lawlesse tongue.
Gru. Her loud tongue.
Ped. And her lickrish --
Gru. Many other tongues, and many stranger tongues
Then ever Babel had to tell his ruines,
Were women rais'd withall; but never a true one.
This astonishing build-up of effects just didnt happen at the
Shakespeare & Company performance I saw. Im willing to
believe that in trimming the script from full length to an hour and
fifteen minutes without intermission the adaptor cut out mostly the
dull parts, but something is missing-- text, subtext, or direction.
Its my hunch that with a bit of re-working a through line could
be found that would keep the action rising to a climax that is
sentimental as well as comic, and that such an ending would be both
thrilling and emotionally satisfying.
Maria says early on that if she is able to convince Petruchio of the error of his ways it will be a miracle. Why not play it as one? The ending of Tamer is not so very different from the resurrections and reconciliations that mark the endings of Shakespeares late romances, which some believe were influenced by the sentimental strain Fletcher shows in his successful collaborations with other writers. I remember weeping tears of joy during the last scene of "Pericles" at Shakespeare & Companys student production some few seasons back, when the miraculous Marina turned lust and despair to love and hope. In the last scene of Tamer the dead body of Petruchio is delivered to his wifes door. We may suspect that this is just another ploy, but there is nothing in the lines to assure us that he is not dead indeed-- his servants and friends are grieving. In words that ring true to me on the page, a despairing Maria delivers a kind of anti eulogy through her tears, lamenting her husbands wasted life, declaring that if he could not repent and reform he and the world are better off now that he is dead. This is shocking --- and it works on the supposedly dead corpse like shock treatment. Petruchio sits up in his coffin, not vengeful or enraged but in an agony of distress and regret --- and from the few disjointed phrases he utters, presumably he is weeping, too:
PP: Unbutton me, --- I die indeed else. O Maria,
Oh my unhappinesse, my misery. ....
Why, why Maria.
Maria responds to Petruchios breakdown with a plea for forgiveness, which is either a reversion to the modest loving soul she was before she took up arms against Petruchios bullying, or an utter change of heart:
Maria: I have done my worst, and have my end,
From this houre make me what you please: I have tam'd ye,
And now am vowd your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor feare what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
PP: Once againe?
Mar: With all my heart.
PP: Once again Maria!
O Gentlemen, I know not where I am.
Director Michael Burnet has chosen a tough, intellectual style of
staging, going for straight-ahead conflict over ambivalence, and
reinforcing it in his casting, costuming, and direction of the leading
women. Julie Webster lists Antigone as a bio credit; Sarah Taylor has
played Kate in Shrew, as has the leading lady, Catherine
Taylor-Williams, who has also performed Queen Margaret in Richard III.
These actresses have more pliable characters to their credit, too, but
in Tamer they show their heroic side, imposing but cold as
marble. The men seem to shrink and recede into the background when
their opposites draw near. Its very difficult to believe that
these formidable females are meant to engage our sympathies as
underdogs, even though plot-wise the ladies win by using the powers of
the weak that they share with the traditional comedic Clever Servant ---
deception, persuasion, disguise, wit. Whats good about this
production of Tamer is so good that Id love to see
Shakepeare & Company take another run at a fuller version of
Fletchers script, giving it the multidimensional attention that
makes their repeat productions of the Shakespeare plays they have
explored in depth so satisfying. To thank the company for mounting
this silenced play and perhaps encourage them to do it
again soon, I left a generous donation in the money-box the audience
passes on the way out. I can only hope that multitudes will do the
same. This play is well worth it, enlightening as it entertains.