The Original Battle of the Sexes Comedy
By Heather Helinsky, Dramaturg
Imagine waking up one morning and your independent and sovereign nation is being threatened by the greatest military force in the world—and a woman is the ruler of your nation. In mid-July 1588, the people of England found themselves surrounded by seven miles of 130 Spanish battleships, sent from King Phillip II of Spain.
Yet like a true warrior, Queen Elizabeth I, astride her white horse, boldly went forth to the troops in Tilbury and delivered an inspirational speech much like the one PSF audiences heard last summer in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” declared Queen Elizabeth I, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too!”Queen Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada turned the tide of history, as England’s second-rate navy conquered the fleet of the mighty colonial Spanish Empire. Queen Elizabeth I had challenged the greatest power in the European world and won. This battle, which stemmed from 30 years of tension with King Philip II of Spain, also had a very personal side.
In 1555, Elizabeth, daughter of the late King Henry VIII, was 22, marriageable, and in a politically vulnerable position. Elizabeth had just been freed from her imprisonment in the Tower of London by her half-sister Queen Mary. Powerful King Phillip II of Spain met and attempted to woo Elizabeth at Hampton Court. It was quite uncommon for monarchs of the time to meet and woo in person. While there is no record of what either of them said in this private meeting, only a few summers later in 1559, King Phillip II made a very unpopular decision with his Catholic subjects to propose marriage to Elizabeth I, the Protestant Queen.
Elizabeth refused the proposal and that summer, King Phillip II prepared his earliest scheme to send his Armada across the Channel. This began 30 years of belligerent threats on which King Phillip II never delivered. Until 1588. Once the Spanish Armada was defeated by “the Protestant wind,” it solidified that England’s monarch, who may have had the body of a weak and feeble woman, was now a confident, powerful, and very popular ruler.
The Taming of the Shrew is known to be one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. First performances could have been seen as early as 1590 or as late as 1594, but some experts have determined it could have been performed in 1589—only a year after Queen Elizabeth’s triumph over the Spanish Armada. For Shakespeare, the “upstart crow” actor and playwright of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the possible 1589 date makes it not only his first comedy, but possibly his first play. We can only imagine how audiences received the strong-willed behavior of Katherine with a strong-willed Queen ruling England. The Taming of the Shrew, both a popular comedy and the iconic dramatization of the battle of the sexes, is a play of contradictions without any easy answers. An audience favorite, it defies the common definition of comedy: a play that ends happily with the main characters dancing at their wedding. Instead, The Taming of the Shrew ends in the third act with Petruchio carrying an unhappy Katherine away from their wedding feast. In one of the rare occasions where Shakespeare dramatizes marriage, he then ends the play with three seemingly happy couples betting which one’s wife is the most subservient to her husband’s call.
While The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s most complete dramatization of the institution of marriage, the questions it raises were important ones to the subjects of Queen Elizabeth I.
For Elizabethans, marriage was not a private affair but a very public one. Brawling spouses were seen as dangerous socially and politically. What knotted a private marriage to English public life stemmed from the dramatic shifts in England from Catholicism to the newly created Church of England. Only a generation earlier, King Henry VIII separated the English church from the Roman Catholic church over the issue of divorcing wife Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, the mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Which was more powerful: the King of England, or the Catholic church? Catholicism holds marriage up as a sacrament, but King Henry VIII wanted to treat marriage as a contract that could be broken.
Yet if marriage is simply a contract that can be broken, the concept creates some very real challenges to other fundamental Catholic teachings, particularly that a man is the head of the household, the king of his domestic castle. And a ruler over his wife.
As Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I worked to establish the Anglican Church, the common man felt these dramatic shifts from marriage as a sacrament to marriage as defined by the Anglican Church.
One can assume that a radical change in the church from the Catholic church’s celibate priests to married Anglican clergy had a direct impact on the homilies that the Elizabethan English family would hear! The publication of the Bible in English was soon followed by publications of sermons as well as “household manuals”—the beginning of an industry of books giving advice on one’s personal life. By the early 17th century, marriage advice books were widely distributed. While all these books called upon the authority of Scripture to assert that households were both hierarchical and patriarchal, the status of the wife was sometimes referred to as a “joint governor” or companion, which complicated discussions of domestic authority.
One of the Anglican Church’s official sermons was A Homily on the State of Matrimony, first published in 1547 but revised 39 times over the next 100 years. Like Shakespeare’s play, A Homily on the State of Matrimony provided no easy answers or common consensus on the roles of husband and wife. One such contradiction concerned a husband’s right to beat his wife. The Christian wife’s response to this violence was to turn the other cheek, pray, and have patience. However, the homily attempts to redefine masculinity as nonviolent and deplores a husband’s use of violence, even as it concedes that violence is a husband’s right. The homily’s ideal of a politic, patient, and gentle husband was not the reality of Elizabethan households. Because of this reality, the homily stressed that marriage tests the patience of both spouses and seeks to counsel the English couple “struggling to conquer the frustrations of marriage and to tame their own rebellious wills.”
In this play about life beyond the celebratory wedding feast, Shakespeare uses the conventions of a play-within-a-play in a unique way. The audience is asked to imagine being in Italy instead of England and to stay conscious that the stage is only a representation of reality. The audience doesn’t have to suspend their disbelief; they can stay aware that this situation is being portrayed by actors playing roles. It’s helpful to remember that in original practice, the audience was accustomed to suspending their disbelief as all women’s roles, including Shrew’s Katherine and Bianca, were played by young boys dressed as women.
Shakespeare’s plays often dramatize dutiful daughters, yet in The Taming of the Shrew, both sisters are only playing at their roles. Baptista believes he is a good parent and values reputation and status above all else.1 Baptista rebukes his oldest daughter Katherine for any word or deed that tarnishes their family’s public image. Bianca seems to be the good, dutiful daughter because she is compliant and outwardly obedient. Yet Katherine, called a shrew for being publicly disobedient, sees through Bianca’s “good girl” act. Shakespeare will not dramatize a pair of sisters competing for parental attention until much later in his career in King Lear, a tragic play opposite in mood and tone from Shrew. Bianca’s name means “white,” which seems symbolic for the traits all her suitors value in her: beauty, a seemingly gentle nature, and purity. Katherine is trapped, then, by a role as an unconventional daughter and Baptista would like nothing more than to “rid the house of her.” Perhaps as a comic foreshadow of King Lear and Cordelia, Baptista has been completely fooled by the true nature of each daughter. None of the men of the town can see into Katherine’s heart, judging her only by her outward shrewish behavior. It’s not until Petruchio arrives that someone can see beyond the act and fall in love with Kate. Almost everyone, from the servants to the lords, ends up disguising their true natures and playing a role as they pursue Baptista’s daughters.
Director Matt Pfeiffer—who PSF audiences know from last season’s Henry V and 2014’s The Two Gentleman of Verona—starts his directing process by embracing the humanity of the actors playing these roles. “It’s clear that Shakespeare knew he was going to write a play that’s challenging. What’s it like for a man and woman to find common ground? Because of this, it seemed important for Shakespeare to remind the audience that this is, first and foremost, a play.”
Pfeiffer also sees Shrew as Shakespeare’s way of turning a typical love story upside down. “The pursuit of Bianca, where two suitors are fighting over a beautiful girl, is the usual love story plot. That’s not what we have with the main plot of Katherine and Petruchio. Petruchio, for all his bravado, admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Kate wants to be loved, but she doesn’t understand Petruchio’s actions until she learns how to play the game. There’s something about the way they fight that adds up to a more satisfying, complicated love story. They’re in it to win it.”
With The Two Gentleman of Verona, director Pfeiffer had musicians casually introduce the action of the play through songs, while last summer’s production of Henry V used music to create heightened ceremonial moments. Pfeiffer uses music not in a conceptual way, but to create an event and remind the audience of the presentational style of telling the story. “If Two Gents used music like a joyous, relaxed summer picnic, and Henry V brought a religious tone, then The Taming of the Shrew will use music with explosive energy. In Shrew, love is chaotic and crazy.”
“Love wrought these miracles,” explains a character in Shrew, after much comic confusion and deceptive role playing, towards the end of the play.
“The play is not an answer or prescription about a woman’s place in society. The playwright has a history of writing very strong female characters,” says Pfeiffer. “For me the play asks, what do we give up of ourselves to be in a relationship?
“Am I a better person with my partner? That’s the real test of true love.”1. In PSF’s production, the role of Baptista is being played by a woman.
Heather Helinsky is a Philadelphia-based dramaturg with an MFA in Dramaturgy from Harvard and a BA in Theatre Arts from DeSales University. Her primary focus is new play development and she has worked for 35+ regional theaters.