The Tamer Tamed. The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Directed by Gregory Doran.

Chris Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Chris. "Review of The Tamer Tamed." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.2 (September, 2003): #.1-9 <URL:

Directed by Gregory Doran. Designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Lighting by Wayne Dowdeswell. Sound designed by Martin Slavin. With Jasper Britton as Petruchio, Alexandra Gilbreath as Maria, Naomi Frederick as Livia, David Horovitch as Petronius, Daniel Brocklebank as Rowland, Christopher Goodwin as Gremio, Rory Kinnear as Tranio, Eve Myles as Bianca, Paul Chahidi as Hortensio, . Nicholas Tennant as Grumio, Oliver Maltman as Peter, Patricia Gannon as The City Wife, Natasha Gordon as The Country Wife, Walter Hall as A Doctor, James Staddon as First Watch, Branwell Donaghey as Second Watch, Amy Finnegan as A Maid, Edmund Moriarty as An Apothecary, Alistair Robbins as Another Apothecary, Christopher Duncan as Bluebottle.

  1. This lively production of Fletcher's 1611 sequel to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1594) brought out nicely the play's striking and carnivalesque rejection of patriarchy, and its outright championing of female activism and solidarity. The production made clear how intriguing is the play's exploration of gender identities within marriage as a series of competitive strategic performances, independent of any core identity, designed solely to gain advantage for the tamer.

  2. Unlike in Shakespeare's play, where it is clear that Petruchio is the tamer, here there is a sustained competition throughout to assume that role. At the beginning of the play we learn succinctly that the widowed Petruchio did not, in fact, ever reach any point of rest in his quest to tame Kate: she has died while their marriage was in a continuing state of struggle. His whole view of women is based on his desire not to repeat in his second marriage the mistake of his first. If he takes a less shrewish wife, he must still make sure that he attains the victory which eluded him last time, to exorcise the horror of that unmanning which, as the first scene makes clear, haunts him still:

    Tranio: 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. (Act 1, Scene 1, p. 4)

    Petruchio's identity is given him by Kate's rebellion against hers, and this in turn determines his newly married wife Maria that she must tame what is, in effect, the male shrew she inherits.

  3. In the second scene, Alexandra Gilbreath's Maria enters dressed as a model wife, with her hair respectably covered by her white bonnet, accompanied by Katherine's sister Bianca (quickly identified as widowed by her black and sombre attire). Bianca advises Maria that Petruchio will make her "continual anvil to his anger": "Nay, never look for merry hour . . ./ If now you make it not" (Act 1, Scene 2, p. 8). Maria, protesting that she has no experience of rebellion, nevertheless accepts that she must transform her and Petruchio's identities to make marriage with him viable. She makes herself instantly into a different Maria by tearing off her bonnet and shaking her hair free. She is at once "perfect" (Act One Scene 2) in this new part and Petruchio in his turn will get nothing but spite and anger until (anticipating Ibsen's A Doll's House by some two hundred years, and showing more faith in the achievability of change) "I have wrought a miracle" (Act 1, Scene 2, p.9).

  4. The set is a simple one, based on the Swan's brick back wall and on plain timbered buildings and doors, which admirably support the play's insights into the everyday politics of marriage and domestic relationships. For almost the whole of the play, the set remains the same: Petruchio and Maria's house is represented by its front door and its upper story balcony, while the street outside is simply an open space bounded by the brick wall at the back. The only major set change comes in Act 5, Scene 1, when Livia, Maria's sister and the heroine of the play's other love plot, is apparently near to death in her sick bed at their father's home, and her bed is cramped between the four internal doors through which crowd a mixture of welcome and unwelcome visitors. Here, for the only time, we enter into a domestic space, rather than seeing it only from the outside. However, the scene in Livia's bedroom is, as it turns out, a continuation of the power struggle we see in the street, by other means.

  5. In the first half of the production, there is a distinct sense that while the women live in the house, the men live in the street (they even urinate realistically against the bricks in a comradely moment). Thus the domestic and the public seem distinct, and distinctly gendered, but we quickly see that what happens between Maria and Petruchio inside their house is actually of great public interest. Moreover, where in The Taming of the Shrew, the main battle is between two individuals, here the struggle becomes immediately collective, with men and women joining opposed sides, an effect brought out well here in several ensemble scenes. Petruchio, confident of his mastery in this second marriage, insists on drawing attention to his private life by inviting all his drinking buddies to bet on which of them will be most sexually active tonight. Thus Maria is seen as fully justified in making their forthcoming private struggles public, as she takes possession of the house and denies Petruchio entrance to the domestic relationship he has been so keen to boast of in the street amongst his male friends and acquaintance: "All the doors are barricado'd" (Grumio, Act 1, Scene 3, p.16). Petruchio, expecting to enter his own house on his wedding night, finds that Maria and Bianca have recast the situation: the house is now a fortress, fully defended, and he its besieger, not its lord. The house is explicitly presented as microcosm of the state through the references to rebellion: "These are the most authentic rebels, next /Tyrone" (Act 1, Scene 3).

  6. Jasper Britton's version of Fletcher's Petruchio does not display the zaniness and extravagant command which Shakespeare's Petruchio does, but that seems appropriate. Despite our expectations, and his somewhat eccentric wager, this Petruchio, at least in the first half of the play, seems a much more ordinary chap whose idea of mastery is that husband and wife should play out their conventional roles without any fuss. Jasper Britton, reacting to Maria's self-fortification, tries out in a natural-seeming manner a whole range of low-key ordinary responses to persuade his wife to let him in: "Why who offends you?," "You'll let me in, I hope, for all this jesting," "You will come down, I am sure" and then an explicit and wholly reasonable reminder that actually Maria married him of her own will:

    Prithee, Maria, tell me what's the reason,
    and do it freely, you deal thus strangely with me?
    You were not forc'd to marry; your consent
    Went equally with mine, if not before it
                              (Act One, Scene 3, p.19)

    Soon,though, these reasonable responses having no effect, he turns to harsher means: "'No sport, no pie' . . . We will beleaguer 'em and starve 'em out" (Act 1, Scene 3, p. 23). However, solidarity again comes into play and an army of women comes to Maria's relief, bringing food and drink, and singing a song celebrating women who "wear the breeches" to the accompaniment of a battery of beaten saucepans.

  7. Petruchio seems to have been defeated when he accepts Maria's terms (allowing her, as he summarises it, all the "liberty and clothes" she can desire), but in fact he is merely trying another strategy, intending to restore 'normality' as soon he is allowed into her bed. Needless to say, she wins this round too, and Petruchio now turns to more extravagant devices, taking on a new identity -- that of the sick man -- to win over his wife (Jasper Britton brilliantly suggests Petruchio suddenly seeing this possibility in the line where he expresses his shame at being so far defeated: "I'll die," and then shows him rehearsing a vomiting fit to the consternation of audience members in the front row). This too misfires: before Petruchio was dispossessed of power by being locked out of his house, now he is dispossessed by being confined, as Maria immediately flees the house with all her possessions, crying that he has the plague. and must not be let out.

  8. Nevertheless, sickness turns out to be a crucial way for characters in this play to achieve their ends. Livia, whose father wishes her to marry the old man Gremio (played with disgusting verve by Christopher Goodwin), manages during her sickbed scene to trick her father and Gremio into signing the marriage contract permitting her to marry her beloved Rowland (played hilariously by Daniel Brocklebank -- Sam/Juliet in Shakespeare in Love -- as far more feminine and prone to love than Livia, performed by Naomi Frederick as a highly capable manager of her own affairs). And despite the failure of Petruchio's less than patriarchal attempt to trick Maria into 'love' through illness the first time round, his second more radical attempt is, in a way, successful. This time he is brought back from a voyage abroad even sicker - dead, in fact. He is carried on stage in an open rectangular coffin, wrapped in a shroud. Maria, however, takes it for granted that this too is part of the game and weeps that she will not have the pleasure of the folly that such a fool would have begotten had he lived another two years. As Maria unwraps the shroud, Petruchio cries in real anguish, as at last his stratagem and some authentic-seeming moment of misery collapse into each other: "Unbutton me, I die indeed else. O Maria, / O my unhappiness, my misery'' (Act 5, Scene 3). Once all the performances, all the ways of acting designed to make his wife act as he wishes her to act, are exhausted, and stripped away, then Maria can love him, indeed, can sustain a ' natural' identity with him, instead of a strategic one (or so the happy ending of the play implies). Petruchio has been deprived of respect, reputation, sex, house, possessions, dignity, liberty and thus suffers something akin to death - and can now joyously declare: "I am born again."

  9. The psychological depths of the play's ending were also evoked by two scenes, one entirely additional to the text, in which a grotesque bear appeared (suggested by the reference to one in Act 2, Scene 4). In the scene where the army of women relieve the besieged Maria, the bear was muzzled and led, suggesting the subduing of masculine identity. In the added scene, Petruchio has a nightmare vision of a charivari, partly recalling Tranio's speech about him in Act 1: in front of all the assembled and masked men his breeches fall down to reveal the pink bloomers he wears beneath, and then he is embraced by the bear wearing a polka-dot patterned skirt. The resolution of the play, though, shows a less nightmarish version of competition between genders, with both Maria and Petruchio declaring a more normative view of companiate marriage, of abiding within conventional understandings, as the key to happy marriage. Petruchio reminds us of the kinds of mutual respect expected of the institution: "whoever marries next / Let him be sure he keep him to his text," while Maria strikingly ends by declaring the purpose of the play to be "to teach both sexes due equality." Other changes to the text included the alterations of some character names (Moroso to Gremio, Sophocles to Hortensio, Jaques to Grumio. Pedro to Peter) so that they are consistent across Shakespeare's and Fletchers plays. As Gordon McMullan rightly points out in his excellent introduction to the edition/programme, this is "the first recorded occasion since 1633 that a major company has chosen to perform both The Taming of the Shrew and The Tamer Tamed in tandem. Although both plays work perfectly well in isolation, together they are a revelation" (xv).The production, indeed, brought out admirably the qualities of The Tamer Tamed as a response to Shakespeare's play, but also its capacity in its own right to delve startlingly and movingly into the relationships between identity and performance.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).