Framing the Shrew: Tips for Teaching Shakespeare’s Controversial Comedy

Framing the Shrew: Tips for Teaching Shakespeare’s Controversial Comedy

by Rachel Jennings

As a long-time teacher of Shakespeare, I do not subscribe to dumbing down his language to make his works accessible to students. I flee from the No Fear paraphrase series, for example, and am vindicated in this by recent research on the ways in which classic texts stimulate the brain (Henry, Keidel et al.). However, I do encourage students to use frames of reference from today’s culture through which to view Shakespeare’s plays; to use an area where they have some expertise to interpret texts which are new to them. This builds their confidence because it demonstrates that they can contribute to the debate. Reality TV is such an area.

Annette Hill notes that “reality programmes arrived en masse in peaktime television schedules during the 1990s” (24). She divides them into three genres: infotainment, docusoap and lifestyle, and reality gameshows (24-40). A substantial subgenre of the middle category, the makeover show, was born with Britain’s Changing Rooms in 1996 (which was made-over to Trading Spaces in the United States) (Moran 6). Makeover shows, therefore, emerged roughly around the time most of our students came into the world. As a result, many of them are steeped in the Cinderella format of these scenarios in which a (scrubby, dysfunctional, or conventionally ugly) car, or house, or person’s wardrobe, or person’s person (in the case of plastic surgery shows), is apparently transformed by style gurus within a mystical three or seven-day period.

So, in what specific ways is The Shrew analogous to a makeover show? And how can you use the makeover show subgenre as a lens in the classroom?

First, Shakespeare’s play could be seen as a makeover of an earlier published play titled The Taming of a Shrew; or A Shrew could be a bad quarto version (make-under) of The Shrew (Dolan 144-46). However, I wouldn’t recommend a comparison of the two for a 200-level class project, as it would involve specialist expertise in historical source criticism and wouldn’t use students’ prior knowledge as a base.

The second way The Shrew could be treated as analogous to a makeover show is that, from the mid-twentieth century onwards, it has been one of the most frequently adapted of Shakespeare’s plays. Adaptations include Kiss Me Kate, a musical (1953); “Atomic Shakespeare,” an episode of the TV series Moonlighting (1986) (the top-rated episode, according to; the teen movie Ten Things I Hate about You (1999), and the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-told version (2005). There was also speculation last year that there was another movie adaptation in progress, to be written by Abi Morgan, and to star Anne Hathaway (“Anne Hathaway”). So, I often open up a class discussion by asking why this might be the case. How do we judge when something is crying out for a makeover? Is there something in the play that speaks to each succeeding generation? (Diana Henderson’s very thorough article, “A Shrew for the Times,” goes into this in-depth, but her very formal style could be off-putting for students.) Or is it incomplete and needs to be reworked to tell the whole story? For example, the fact that the Induction plot is not revisited and tied up at the end could be an imperfection that needs to be addressed.

After such questions have been asked in general, they can be applied specifically to one adaptation. In an essay prompt option that I use in various Shakespeare and English Literature survey courses, I ask students to select one version of a set text and explore whether it is an adaptation or a mutation. To be more specific, when I teach The Shrew, one option is to write an essay titled, “Ten Things I Hate about Ten Things I Hate about You,” and argue why this teen movie isn’t Shakespeare. Another would be to argue why, if Shakespeare’s language is often assumed to be his essence, the ShakespeaRe-told version using today’s English still feels like the real deal. (Those are my views–I encourage students to disagree and switch them around.) In such an assignment, I recommend that students focus on three to four key scenes or speeches.

One obvious key speech is Kate’s controversial conversion spiel at the end. On the surface, and out of context, she is very submissive and makes traditional claims such as the following:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,

And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labor, both by sea and land. (150-53)

How many interpretations can these lines support? What strays too far?

To judge whether an adaptation of this speech is a mutation, it can be compared to filmed versions of the original text. These remind us that the text is inherently fluid and can be performed various ways. I usually show Franco Zeffirelli’s movie; the San Francisco Actor’s Conservatory Theater version, directed by Kirk Browning; and the ShakespeaRe-told version, directed by David Richards. (I own DVDs of these, but all are available on Youtube). In the first, Elizabeth Taylor reportedly acted this straight (to the appreciation of Richard Burton) (Henderson 156). But I find it very hard to receive it as un-ironic, considering her audience principally consists of moronic, indolent aristocrats (Hortensio, for example, is very much ridiculed in this and other versions). In the second version, Kate delivers the speech very meekly and seemingly straight, but winks to the audience at the end. My interpretation here is that Kate, having earlier figured out in the sun and moon scene (4.6) that Petruchio has been having fun acting the role of the chauvinist to an extreme, has begun having fun acting the role of a submissive wife to the extreme. (In the sun and moon scene, she mocks the role of husband as head of the household by first agreeing the sun is the moon, and then that an old man is a “Young budding virgin,” if Petruchio says so (4.6.11-14, 38)). Zeffirelli’s film ends with Petruchio running after his wife–clearly demonstrating she is in control, at least for now. Richards’s version is not at all ambiguous. The tagline for this television show is, “A young harridan MP marries a title in order to advance towards her goal of becoming party leader”–firmly putting the pants on Kate. Richards’s Kate acts the role of a submissive woman, saying women like to watch TV and eat chocolates all day while men work hard (whereas everyone knows she is a workaholic politician and her husband unemployed) and that, echoing Shakespeare, she would “place her hand under her husband’s foot” (5.2.181), but (adding to Shakespeare) would expect her husband to do the same for her. The question is, does this version take the potential irony in Shakespeare’s last speech too far for an adaptation? Is it a mutation?

At this point, the BBC Kate’s audience consists of her supermodel passive-aggressive sister Bianca, her mother (a makeover of Baptista), and her mother’s fiancé Harry (Bianca’s manager and a makeover of Hortensio). Following this speech, when Kate is alone with her husband, she tells him she is pregnant with triplets and he must look after the kids because she is not going to give up her campaign to be Prime Minister. The closing credits reveal what happens next in a montage: she becomes P.M., he becomes a house spouse, and they are very happy and well-suited. We have closure, whereas the text of the play is more open. The dimwit Hortensio is convinced Kate is tamed (“Now go thy ways. Thou has tamed a curst shrew”), but the smarter Lucentio is skeptical (“ ‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so”) (5.2.192-93). I ask students whether the adaptation’s ending is legitimate, because a play, unlike a television show, can’t fast forward in time and show what happens next.

A third way to compare The Shrew to makeover shows involves close comparison of

specific scenes from the play to a specific episode of a clothing show such as What Not to Wear. In “ ‘Kiss me Kat’: Shakespeare, Big Brother, and the Taming of the Self,” John Hartley claims that the reality show Big Brother “is a latter-day version of William Shakespeare’s ‘the taming of the self’ ”(303). However, I argue that The Taming of the Shrew is a former-day version of What Not to Wear. This is because many of this show’s episodes take women who dress in a masculine way (baggy sweatshirts, tennis shoes, messy hair, no make-up), and transform them into Barbie dolls (curve-hugging attire, high heels, coiffed locks, make-up). Such episodes, because they mirror Kate’s apparent transformation from aggressive shrew to submissive woman, are parallels that provoke dissection of the controversial questions regarding gender and performance that The Shrew entails. You can introduce Judith Butler’s theories on gender as performance (in Gender Trouble) to students here.

Various parts of The Shrew can be compared productively with What Not to Wear. One example is the Induction (in which Sly is dressed as a Lord, and a male page is dressed as his wife). Another is the report of the marriage scene (in which Petruchio is described as wearing mismatched worn-out clothes “a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced,” etc.) (3.2.40-55). This scene is interpreted brilliantly in Richards’s ShakespeaRe-told version, when Petruchio turns up to his wedding dressed in high heels, a skirt, and make-up. He does this not to shame Kate, but to show her his true self, as he has transvestite tendencies. He believes she needs to marry the real him and exposes the traditional wedding ceremony as a sham performance.

Another interesting scene in the play occurs in Petruchio’s house after the marriage, when Petruchio abuses the tailor who has come to bring new clothes to the newly-married Katarina and claims clothes are superficial (4.3). This could fit Richards’s version and Petruchio’s feminine wedding attire. The BBC version is romantic in this respect, as it posits that two people could plan to marry for bad reasons (he needs money–she needs to marry for credibility and wants a man with a title), but, ironically, turn out to be perfectly suited due to their mutual extreme behavioral eccentricities. The question is, is that a possible interpretation of Shakespeare’s Shrew? Does it fit Petruchio’s claim that “where two raging fires meet together / They do consume the thing that feeds their fury” (2.1.128-29)?

While the ShakespeaRe-told version is overall romantic and feminist, comparing the play in detail to a specific episode of a makeover show brings up problematic anti-feminist issues once again. I have had much success addressing these in class by showing an episode of What Not to Wear and following it with a discussion of Kate’s controversial conversion speech at the close of the play (5.2.140-83). I show a relatively old episode from the original British series, starring Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine as the style gurus, and Liz as the victim. Without commercials, it only takes thirty minutes. I prefer the British series, because Trinny and Susannah (who I term “scary godmothers” in my article on makeover shows and national identity (Jennings 274)) are more brutal and Petruchio-like than Stacy London and Clinton Kelly (the hosts of the American show). In addition, it complicates issues of gender to have two females in Petruchio’s role. However, there are many examples of episodes for you to choose from on Youtube. (Another interesting choice would be Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, in which gay gurus transform slobby heterosexual men into metrosexuals.) I also selected this episode because Liz has a quirky individual style at the outset (combat trousers, clashing pink tank top, socks with homemade pompoms, multi-colored hair) and a combative personality reminiscent of Katarina’s.

At the outset of the show, Liz is nominated behind her back by her friends, family, and boss. It’s reminiscent of the way that Baptista, Bianca, Hortensio, and Gremio think Katarina needs to change. The gurus watch secret footage of Liz’s bad style, ambush her on a golf course, then offer her £2000 for a new wardrobe if she follows their rules (just as Kate is indirectly promised a quiet marriage if she alters her behavior). After a process including brainwashing techniques somewhat akin to Petruchio’s food and sleep deprivation strategies in Act 3 (humiliation in a 360 degree mirror, absence of opposing views, two exhausting shopping days that break her spirit), Liz emerges a new (feminine) woman. Just prior to the credits (accompanied by multiple glamor clips of Liz, set to pulsating cat-walk music), Liz confesses to the camera that her “mind has been trained” when she shops and she is now much more happy and self-confident.

I set students up, because they usually watch the show with uncritical eyes and agree that Liz is better off at the end. It’s hard not to. She looks like she just walked off the cover of a fashion magazine and seems more than well-equipped to lure a Ken doll.

However, once we begin to compare the episode to Kate’s conversion speech (which we can now see is a “reveal” in makeover show parlance), students’ critical thinking skills kick in. This pays off in two ways: they simultaneously gain a deeper understanding of Shakespeare and their own culture. We generate and discuss questions such as the following: To what extent is each woman better off at the end of each show? To what extent has each lost her individuality? How genuine is the conversion speech of each? To what extent is it a performance? Does the makeover show expose The Shrew to be a disturbing tale of spousal abuse? Or does The Shrew criticize makeover shows by using farcical elements (e.g., it’s a play within a play, not reality). Framing The Shrew as a makeover show is a fun and stimulating way to discuss whether Kate’s transformation is a result of conversion or coercion, a makeover or a fakeover.


Works Cited

“Anne Hathaway In ‘Taming of The Shrew?’: Oscar Nominee Could Star in Shakespeare Update.” Huffington Post Online. Jan 15 2013. Jan 27 2014. Web.

“Atomic Shakespeare.” Moonlighting. Dir. Will McKenzie. Perf. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. ABC. 25 Nov. 1986. Television.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge,

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Browning, Kirk, dir. The Taming of the Shrew. Perf. Marc Singer and Fredi Olster. Broadway Theatre Archive, 1976.

Changing Rooms. Dir. Heather Darroch and Duncan Hess. BBC. 1996-2005. Television.

Dolan, Frances, ed. The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts. Boston: Bedford St. Martins, 1996. Print.

Hartley, John. “‘Kiss me Kat’: Shakespeare, Big Brother, and the Taming of the Self.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Ed. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouelette. New York: New York UP, 2004. 303-22. Print.

Hill, Annette. Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Henderson, Diana E. “A Shrew for the Times.” Shakespeare the Movie. Ed. Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt. New York: Routledge, 1997. 148-67. Print.

Henry, Julie. “Shakespeare and Wordsworth Boost the Brain, New Research Reveals.” The Telegraph Online. 13 Jan 2013. 27 Jan 2014. Web.

Jennings, Rachel. “From Making Do to Making Over: Reality TV and the Reinvention of Britishness.” Journal of Popular Culture 44.2 (2011): 274-90. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Keidel, James, et al. “How Shakespeare Tempests the Brain: Neuroimaging Insights.” Cortex vol. 49. Issue 4. April 2013. Web.

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Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Dir. Brendon Carter et al. Bravo Cable. 2003–present. Television.

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Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al . New York: Norton, 2008. Print.

Sidney, George, dir. Kiss Me Kate. Perf. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. Warner Home Video, 2006. DVD.

Ten Things I Hate about You. Dir. Gil Junger. Perf. Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. Buena Vista, 1999.

Trading Spaces. Prod. Gary Folsom et al. TLC. 2000-2011. Television.

What Not to Wear. Perf. Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. BBC America. Apr. 2005.


What Not to Wear. Perf. Clinton Kelly and Stacy London. TLC. 2003–present. Television.

Zeffirelli, Franco, dir. The Taming of the Shrew. Perf. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Columbia, 1967. Film.