Updating Shakespeare — Part 2: Modern Film Adaptations of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in ’10 Things I Hate about You’

How well do modern adaptations of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ keep faith with both our feminist values and Shakespeare’s text?

As one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and one that anticipated the romantic comedy, one of our most popular film genres, it is not surprising that The Taming of the Shrew would be an obvious candidate for modern film adaptations. However, given the ambiguity of the gender politics of the play, how gender politics have changed since Elizabethan times, and how they have evolved even since the invention of the moving picture, it is no wonder that attempting to update The Taming of the Shrew can be full of pitfalls.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

The first talking feature film of The Taming of the Shrew was made in 1929 starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the Hollywood couple of their day. (Available on Shakespeare on YouTube) In this brilliant showcase of their talents, Fairbanks makes Petruchio an athletic and cocky swashbuckler, while Pickford shrugs off her elfin persona to make Katherina the fiercest shrew you could ever meet. However, although the full title of this film is ‘William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew’ there is little of Shakespeare’s original left.

Kate and Petruchio’s relationship takes an unexpected direction when Katherina overhears Petruchio boasting to his dog about how he aims to tame her. From this point, Katherina is able to match Petruchio blow for blow and then conquer him. Her final speech is presented as a set piece for her family and although we can see that Petruchio has been fooled into believing he is the master, Katherina’s wink to her sister shows us who the actual master is.

The film’s message is very much of its time — that a woman can be the boss as long as she lets her husband believe he is. However, to convey that message, a large part of Shakespeare’s text had to be discarded and replaced.

Almost forty years later, in 1967, the Hollywood couple of their day, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, starred in another version of The Taming of the Shrew directed by Franco Zefferelli. (Available on YouTube Movies) Zefferelli’s version is a comic, romantic romp, a true battle of wills and wits between a rough, brutal male and a sensitive if feisty female. Elizabeth Taylor’s Katherina is spirited, but her anger, though often violent, is not out of control. One can see that she is reacting to the constraints placed on her, and the hurt she feels at being overlooked in favour of her beautiful, but hypocritical and manipulative younger sister. Petruchio is a brute of a man, but Richard Burton manages to make him both obnoxious and attractive.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (Zefferelli)

While remaining more loyal to Shakespeare’s text than the earlier film, Zefferelli places more emphasis on Petruchio’s initial courting of Katherina than on his ‘taming’ of her once they get back to his house. Rather than showing Katherina being cowed and starved into submission, Zefferelli has her turning the tables on Petruchio, asserting her feminine authority by taking over his household and bringing cleanliness and order to its chaos. At Bianca’s wedding feast the relationship between the couple is beautifully expressed simply through body language. Now in love with Katherina, Petruchio is uncomfortably aware of how badly he has treated her. Though not in love with Petruchio, Katherina wants to make the best of her situation and knows that if she is to make a go of this marriage, she must make Petruchio love her and at least offer him the possibility of love in return. She uses her final speech not only to get her revenge on the other wives who have scorned her, but also to make Petruchio that offer of love.

Zefferelli’s production, while not adhering strictly to the text, uses visuals and subtle acting to bring out its underlying humanity, overturning its overt misogyny to bring out its feminist sub-text, showing that in the end it is Katherina who tames Petruchio

Perhaps the most famous modern adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is the musical Kiss Me, Kate. The play opened on Broadway in 1948 and was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. (Available on Shakespeare on YouTube) In 1953 it was adapted into a Hollywood film starring the inimitable Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson with a screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley. (Available on YouTube Movies)

Kiss Me, Kate gives us a backstage view of the cast of a musical adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. Very little is left of Shakespeare’s play which is but a slender excuse for some great song and dance numbers. However, the themes of the play are played out in the relationships between the cast members, especially in the volatile relationship between ‘Katherina’ and ‘Petruchio’ who are played by Fred, the director of the play, and Lilli, his recently divorced ex-wife. However, despite their animosity and while both have moved on — Fred is involved in a dalliance with Lois, the young actress playing Bianca, while Lilli is planning to marry a rich and powerful older man — they are still in love and very much subject to jealousy.

Kiss me, Kate

Unbeknownst to Fred, Lois is in a relationship with Bill, the actor playing Lucentio, a problem gambler, who has just put Fred’s name to a substantial IOU. When two inept gangsters turn up at the theatre to claim payment, Fred makes use of them to force Lilli to stay when she threatens to storm off in a jealous rage. Trapped and frustrated, Lilli acts out her fury for real on stage and, in retaliation, Fred puts her over his knee and spanks her. Refusing to tolerate such behaviour, Lilli calls on her fiancé to come and rescue her. However, before she goes off with him, Fred declares his undying love for her. Lilli leaves, but returns to make a belated appearance in the final scene after which both couples — Petruchio and Kate, and Fred and Lilli — are reconciled.

The original stage play adheres to the classical principals of unity of time and place so that it all unfolds over the course of a single day and gives us little context as to what led Fred and Lilli to take part in the stage production together despite their differences. In adapting the stage play to the screen, Dorothy Kingsley makes numerous changes while keeping the basic plot intact. As well as creating a scene which shows how Fred cleverly plays on Lilli’s jealousy of Lois to persuade her to take part in the production, Kingsley also gives the film a more feminist spin than the stage play.

The onstage Lilli’s fiancé is a chauvinistic General that she is willing to submit to for the sake of wealth and security, but in the end she follows her heart and returns to Fred, who, while not as domineering as the General, still aspires to be the dominant partner. The movie Lilli also aspires to wealth and security, but her choice is a much less domineering man, and she does not return to Fred until he takes responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage.

Kiss Me, Kate is very much a product of its era. The play was first produced in the aftermath of the Second World War when the women who had manned the factories were being forced to give up their jobs and independence to the returning servicemen and return to their homes. By the time the film was made, women were again beginning to assert their independence. So while the Spewacks’ original play reflects its era, the film’s screen writer, Dorothy Kingsley, has taken a much more feminist approach, and one that is closer to The Shrew’s actual subtext.

The 1980 Italian comedy Il Bisbetico Domato is an Italian take on The Taming of The Shrew, but with a twist: the shrew is male. (Available in Italian with English subtitles on Shakespeare on YouTube.)

Elia is a forty-year-old farmer who has managed to alienate all his neighbours in his small community with his belligerence, and who refuses to have anything to do with women. One evening, during a heavy downpour, Lisa, a beautiful and spirited Milanese socialite, knocks on his door. Her car has broken down and she demands shelter. Elia would happily throw her out into the rain, but his housekeeper insists that Lisa should spend the night in the guest room. Lisa is immediately intrigued by Elia and sets out to seduce him, but Elia is impervious to her charms. (For more see Il Bisbetico Domato: an Italian Take on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’)

As a comedy, the film is light-weight and makes a few dubious choices. However, my biggest problem with it is that, despite the reversal of gender roles, the gender politics is not very far removed from the original. While Lisa, who is a liberated, sexually adventurous woman, takes the initiative in this relationship, it is always Elia who has the upper hand, so that the film’s message seems to be that, despite women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, gender relations have not really changed that much since Shakespeare’s time, in Italy or elsewhere.

A more feminist adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is the 1999 teenage romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, which transposes the play from Renaissance Padua to the Italianate Padua High School in California. (Available on YouTube Movies) Cameron falls in love with Bianca on his first day at Padua High, but when he discovers that Bianca’s father will not let her date until her older sister Caterina does, he enlists his friend Michael and the well-heeled school Adonis, Joey, to help him find someone brave enough to ask her sister out. Kat, the school’s ‘heinous witch’, is an assertive feminist intellectual, who disdains dating rituals and is renowned for kicking in the balls a boy who groped her. Patrick Verona, a notorious young man with a mostly undeserved reputation as an eccentric tough guy, needs the money so takes on the challenge. However, he is soon in Kat’s thrall.

While, structurally, the film is very close to the original, when it comes to the core of the story the writers have very boldly turned its premise on its head. While an angry young woman, Kat is no out of control shrew, but a rebel against female stereotypes. And while a bit of a rough rogue, Patrick attempts to win Kat over not with cruelty but with kindness; not by trying to change her personality, but by convincing her that he accepts her for who she is. The film ends, as does the play, with a final speech from Kat, but while it is a declaration of surrender, it is to her own feelings that she is submitting, not Patrick’s will.

In 2005 the BBC produced Shakespeare Retold, a series of four modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Taming of the Shrew. (Available on Shakespeare on YouTube)

BBC Shakespeare Retold

Katherine Minola, petite but frighteningly fierce, is a Conservative member of the British parliament with good prospects of becoming party leader if she can soften her image by getting married. Lord Crick is an impoverished and eccentric peer with an enormous unpaid tax bill around his neck who needs to marry a rich woman. Despite a bad start, when Katherine finds out that Crick has a title, she readily agrees to marry him. On their wedding day Crick turns up for their formal wedding drunk and in women’s attire. He then whisks Katherine off to a Tuscan villa for their honeymoon where he duly treats her monstrously. However, all is resolved when Katherine acknowledges that she is in love with Crick and takes him off to bed.

Meanwhile, her sister Bianca, a celebrated fashion model, has met Lucentio, a beautiful young Italian who speaks barely a word of English, and is about to marry him. However, on the very day of the wedding she calls it off when he refuses to sign the prenuptial agreement. A now much mellowed Katherine disagrees with her sister and gives an almost word for word rendition of Kate’s final speech on the duty of wives towards their husbands.

Despite giving us two strong and independent sisters, for the most part this film keeps close to the original play, even to the point of giving us a driven career woman saying that women should respect men because they sit at home watching TV all day while their husbands are out hard at work. In attempting to make Katherine both liberated and submissive, Wainwright has ended up with a confused screenplay that is trying to have it both ways and succeeding in neither.

As we saw in the first part of this study, in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare has given us two strong personalities that are a match for each other, belying the play’s seeming misogyny. This suggests that Shakespeare’s intentions were that the play should be taken ironically and that in fact it is satirising the established gender attitudes of his time. In order to bring this out, the best way to make a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew, while being true to Shakespeare and at the same time adapting it to the modern environment, is to make the feminist subtext explicit. Of these film adaptations, the most successful in doing so are Zefferelli’s version of the play, the movie of Kiss Me, Kate and 10 Things I Hate About You.

© Pauline Montagna 2021

Read more about Shakespeare and his World

Originally published at http://www.paulinemontagna.com.au.

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Pauline Montagna

Pauline Montagna

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Writer and Self-Publisher. Author of The Slave, Suburban Terrors and Not Wisely but Too Well. You’ll find my books on Smashwords and me on Facebook and Twitter.