Taming the Tamer

Theatre director, Marco Ghelardi, who directed The Taming of the Shrew at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in February 2003, talks about how the Elizabethan issue of women’s place in society can be seen through contemporary eyes, and can be made relevant on the stage today.The following lecture was given in Cambridge, in February 2003.

At auditions for The Taming of the Shrew, all the actors asked me the same question: “Is Kate tamed? How does she say the final speech” And, every time, my answer was, “I don’t know”. This is the short answer.

The long answer is that I don’t think that’s really such an important question when you look at the play as a whole. The plot is not just about Kate being ‘tamed’.

“Shakespeare created two plots […]
We need to understand one in the light of the other.”

You might think this is a controversial statement – and certainly there is a temptation to think The Taming of the Shrew is just about Kate and Petruchio, and then to look at the final speech as though it’s the moral of the story. And indeed, in all the adaptations since the 18th century, from David Garrick [an 18th-century British actor and dramatist, who helped repopularise Shakespeare on stage] to Charles Marowitz [a modern American dramatist and director who has made a series of radical adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays], they’ve tended either to delete Bianca’s plot completely, or to keep it as a very minor event and focus only on the ‘taming’ process. This type of adaptation can be interesting and successful on its own terms, but it’s not the play that Shakespeare wrote. The fact is that Shakespeare created two plots – and yes, one does have more importance because it’s the plot of the title – but Bianca’s plot provides a counterpoint, and we need to understand one in the light of the other.

If we ask ourselves what Shakespeare is doing in this play, the first thing we notice is that Shakespeare has chosen a very specific world in which to set the ‘taming’ process. It’s a society taken from Renaissance comedy, the kind of comedy which came from the Latin and the Greek models. The world the play depicts is all about wealth, all about money and power, about the family you grow up in, about the connections that you have. And the characters within this society are absolutely honest about their values – they say straight out, “Wealth, power and family is what matters”.

But unlike traditional Renaissance comedy, there’s no intense, genuine romantic love in this play. Lucenzio, Bianca’s lover, is presented in a very ironic way. It’s more of an infatuation than true love. So we’re in this very dark world, and there must be some reason why Shakespeare has chosen that.

A world where social change is impossible

Looking at the Induction sheds a lot of light on the themes of the play as a whole. We see a beggar, who is made to believe he’s a lord for a joke. There’s no sense here that the Lord wants to help Sly in any way: it’s simply a trick for his own amusement.

And, if we then look at the play as a whole, we see this preoccupation with a change of status constantly repeated: Tranio, the servant, disguises himself as a nobleman; Lucentio and Hortensio, both noblemen, disguise themselves as humble schoolmasters; a stranger is persuaded to disguise himself as the rich Vincentio. Again and again, we see an apparent change of social status – and every time, they are returned to their original role in society. Shakespeare is showing us a world where social change is impossible.

It’s worth saying here that in modern copies of the play the characters of the Induction are given proper names: the page is called Bartholomew, because he’s addressed as such in the text, the beggar is called Christopher Sly. But in the Folio copy of The Shrew, the speech prefixes are simply ‘Beggar’, ‘Lord’, ‘Page’, ‘Serving man’ etc. The name’s not important – it’s their position in society which matters.

A world which is stable, and fixed, and harsh, and unjust

So, I think Shakespeare is making a social point, and portraying, in a comedy, a world which doesn’t change. This is a world which is stable, and fixed, and harsh, and unjust. The Shrew is a comedy, so we might expect it to be very jolly and hopeful and light and bright – but it isn’t. It’s very cynical, it’s very dark, it’s very hopeless.

So the story of the two women is really the story of two powerless people in a society which worships power. And what Shakespeare shows is a way to cope with a society which doesn’t change. So, you have the head-to-head battle of Katharina against the way things are, and she fails because the society in which she lives won’t let her change. And then she has to change strategy. She has somehow to accept the way things are and then find another way to change it. Bianca’s interesting, because Bianca does the opposite. She’s very conformist, and she behaves in the way that everyone expects a good girl to behave. But what we see is her using her marriage to gain the freedom that she didn’t have under their father. Bianca is much more cunning than Katharina.

These two plots illuminate each other. They say, “This is society. This is how it is. If you go against it face-to-face you’re going to fail. You have to be more wily and cunning than that”; And whether, during her final speech, Katharina really is completely beaten or whether she’s trying out a new strategy, I think is a personal decision for the actress and the director. That’s why I always say that I don’t know whether she’s tamed or not, because it’s up to the actress playing her, the actor playing Petruchio, and the director. The type of person that Katharina is and the way in which the final scene develops can’t be planned out in advance, but has to be discovered in rehearsals.

I don’t know whether this ‘taming’ is more of an issue for us than it was for Shakespeare’s audience. Perhaps for them it was normal to see her defeated at the end, or perhaps they didn’t see it as a defeat at all, as an improvement for her. As a director, I’ve looked at the play in detail, trying to find out if the ambiguity was in our own minds, or whether it was really in the text and really, it’s an unanswerable question.

There are some things which suggest that it wasn’t such an easy play for contemporaries either – for example, about 20 years later, another writer, John Fletcher, wrote a sequel called The Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio marries again and his new wife, Maria, tames him. Perhaps this tells us something about the purpose of the Induction – it’s there to point out that this is just a play.

“You can’t run away from making some kind of social point.” The other practical point I want to make as a director, which ties into the social issues, is that Shakespeare uses a dialectic to construct the play. In terms of directing, dialectic is a storytelling device: in order to tell a fuller story, you try always to present the main event of the scene and a counterpoint which illuminates it.

Looking at The Shrew in this way, you see that play is constructed so that the nobility and the servants are always placed in contrast with each other, to give a fuller picture. A lot of Shakespeare’s plays have one ‘masters’ plot and one ‘servants’ plot, whereas The Shrew has characters of different social status in both plots all the way through. And if you’re aware of this in directing the play, you begin to make a social point – it’s up to your sensibility and values what that point actually is, but you can’t run away from making some kind of social point.

For example, we can look at the relationship between Petruchio’s two servants. Tranio is a servant who is disguised as his own master, Biondello remains a servant all the way through.

It emerged, during rehearsals, that the contrast between them creates its own story. Tranio is destroyed by his own ambitions – he ‘becomes’ a lord, and by the end of the play, he’s lost everything. Biondello remains a servant all the way through, and he’s exploited, not only by his usual master, but by his new master, Tranio in disguise – but then at the end, Tranio’s back as a servant and the order is re-established. There’s a contrast there which the director needs to explore.

The detail that Shakespeare gives to each single character is striking, and that too encouraged me as a director to look at the play from a social perspective. For many Renaissance playwrights, minor characters are simply used as plot devices: you can imagine the playwright thinking (we need someone here to come on and deliver the news). Shakespeare very rarely does that.

The relationship between power and wealth

The scene with the tailor is an excellent example – Petruchio, as part of the taming process, shows Katharina a nice dress, starts to criticise it and destroy it, and then sends the tailor away. He treats the tailor very badly – he’s not even the master tailor, but the craftsman’s apprentice, who comes to bring the dress. But this man is not just a plot device – Shakespeare lets him have a voice, lets him fight his corner, and, at the end, Petruchio has to pay him.

This is real attention to detail, to make us believe that this is really an apprentice and that he has to be paid. And the play gains from this level of detail: paying the apprentice, for example, is another instance of the relationship between power and wealth that is so important in The Shrew.

Bringing the Play to Life

As an actor or director, it’s looking at the text in this detail which really allows you to bring the play to life – not going with the easy answers. It would have been easy to say straight off, “This is a play about Kate being tamed”, but as I said, I don’t think that’s the play Shakespeare wrote.

It’s a matter of honesty, of the relationship between the actress, actor and director. Something will come, and it will be found between the three people involved and it will be inevitably the right thing in that context.

If you decide what’s going to happen in advance, it won’t be right in a particular context, and you’ll have to change your mind. It would be like deciding in advance how someone will deliver the speech describing how Petruchio looks when he comes to the wedding, for example; the director has to find it with the actor. If you’re honest, between you you’ll find something more than the director would have found alone.

Marco Ghelardi (Director) and Mauro Tinti (Set Designer) in Discussion

Why did you choose The Taming of the Shrew?

MARCO GHELARDI: It is a good comedy, it’s good craftsmanship, but it’s also a problem play. It’s a farce with a bite, and that’s where you get it coming to life. There are also practical reasons – it’s very much a ‘young people’ play, so it can be performed by students. The characters are all very young – they’re out to find adventure, to discover.

The text says that Petruchio’s father has just died, and he’s come abroad to see the world. He’s taking a Gap Year. When Hortensio says ‘What blows you to Padua?’ Petruchio says, ‘Such a wind as blows young men through the world’. It’s like students of the time – and like today – taking the chance to visit the world. It always seems to me that Petruchio is a young man who wants to say ‘treat me as a man’, which is the opposite to Lucenzio, who’s a son, just about his father. Like there’s a contrast between Katharina and Bianca, there’s the same contract between Petruchio and Lucenzio.

Were you influenced by other productions?

MARCO GHELARDI: I’ve tried not to be. I know there’s a book called ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in Performance, published by Cambridge University Press, and I was tempted to buy it, but I resisted till after the performance. It would give me never-ending possibilities, and that could be harmful. You need to find what is right here, now. Just to find out that in 1957 someone played it like this doesn’t help us – that was probably the right thing then, but it doesn’t help us. I’ve seen the Zeffirelli film, but a long time ago. I’d like to see the RSC production.

Did you see the movie Ten Things I Hate About You? What did you make of it?

MARCO GHELARDI: I have to say, I saw it just as a teen movie from America – it was very frothy. It didn’t give me any further light into Shakespeare’s play.

Marowitz’s film adaptation is much more interesting – there’s a sadistic Petruchio, who carries out physical torture on Kate, and climaxing with a big rape scene, and then, in the final scene, she’s completely brainwashed. And of course, this isn’t the Shakespeare play, but on its own terms it’s very interesting, and it reminds you that, in the play, there’s a very thin line between making Petruchio sadistic and underplaying what he does.

What do you think about the relationship between Petruchio and Katharina?

MARCO GHELARDI: I think it’s very clear, for example, that Petruchio never hates Katharina, there are a lot of other vibes. And the implication is that Petruchio has somehow to undergo his own torture – if she doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t sleep; if they don’t have sex on their wedding night, he’s not having sex; we don’t know whether he eats or not, the text doesn’t say.

When Garrick played Petruchio, he ate huge meals – but in our production you don’t see him eat. So he’s awkwardly participating in his own process. And you see Petruchio becoming hungrier and hungrier and angrier and angrier over the course of the play, because he’s set himself this near impossible task to prove that he’s a man.

When you were casting the play, did you have a very specific image of how each character should look? Did you have to compromise your image of how the character looked in order to get a better actor?

MARCO GHELARDI: Not really – I simply tried to cast the best actors. But this does give you slight difficulties – for example, Grumio is clearly written for a short guy, and the guy playing Grumio for us wasn’t at all short, in fact he was quite tall and big, so there are little adjustments you make to the text, where you try to make sense of the line in another way – talking about length instead of height, for example.

The point is, that Shakespeare had a company of actors and he wrote for them. The costumes he refers to are just what they had. So it would be pointless to worry about it too much, because Shakespeare wrote for what he had. If he hadn’t had a fool in his company, we wouldn’t have had Twelfth Night.

MAURO TINTI: The other problem with obeying descriptions exactly is that many words have changed in meaning over the years. For example, there’s a description of a ‘scarlet’ cloak. We think that scarlet means red, but in fact, we can also read about ‘blue scarlet’ or ‘peacock scarlet’ – scarlet was a word meaning a very fine cloth, the most expensive, and because it was so expensive, people usually dyed it in the most expensive colour, which was a bright red. So from meaning ‘fine cloth’, scarlet came to mean ‘red’.

Now, if we try to show that accurately on stage, do we show someone wearing red, or someone wearing fine material? In fact, we’re going with a blue cloak.

MARCO GHELARDI: We’ve altered the text there to refer to ‘a blue cloak’, and it’s prose, so there’s no problem about the metre.

So are you happy to alter the text of the play for your production, or do you think that you should keep exactly to what Shakespeare wrote?

MARCO GHELARDI: Oh yes. Clearly, The Taming of the Shrew as we have it today is a play which has been cut, adapted and rearranged.

I always think – this is very much my own idea though, and there’s no exterior evidence to support it – that what Shakespeare originally wrote was a much longer play, which made much more of the characters who appear in the Induction, and possibly had one extra character as well, and that he then had to cut it down and realised that this was a much better version.

For example, having the Induction only at the beginning makes the point [described above]. When you read it through carefully, you notice all sorts of little details – there are characters who know things that no-one has told them. For example, when Hortensio is in Petruchio’s house, he says that Bianca and Lucenzio are already married, which they’re not.

Shakespeare’s company had no problems in adapting plays – they didn’t have a canon of established works which no-one could alter – they simply made the necessary changes for that performance. And Shakespeare himself doesn’t appear to have been concerned about publishing his plays – which suggests again that they didn’t have a concept of the final version of a play.

Were there any moments which you found particularly difficult to stage – where you thought “I don’t have a clue how I’m going to stage this in a 21st century context”?

MARCO GHELARDI: Well, we decided to set it in a more-or-less Renaissance time, in the past, so it’s not about today. So, in a sense, everything makes sense just because of that. For example, the lute lesson, which includes a lot of references about how the lute was taught at the time, which are just lost today. But, in production, the audience accept it as long as they see that for the other characters it makes sense – you see that the world of the play is coherent, and you accept that world, even if you don’t understand every word.

It would be very easy to put in jokes which are relevant to today, but which weren’t available at the time, but we’ve avoided that. There are no overt anachronisms.

Why did you decide to set it in the past rather than in modern dress?

MAURO TINTI: When I told British friends that we were going to put on The Taming of the Shrew and set it in the Renaissance, they all responded as if this was highly controversial. I’d imagined that a Renaissance setting would be very traditional, but I found out that it’s more popular in Britain to set Shakespeare’s plays in modern dress. So we’re being a bit radical, and I like that.

MARCO GHELARDI: It’s a story from the past, and it makes sense set in that world. If we had to set it in modern dress, I honestly don’t know where I’d start. It’s not set strictly in any one historical period – it’s a bit mix-and-match.

Following Marco Ghelardi’s lecture, he and Mauro Tinti, the set designer for his production of The Taming of the Shrew, presented a seminar, using a scale model of the set, on approaching the set design of Shakespeare on today’s stage, and on presenting the text on stage.

MAURO TINTI: We’re using a thrust stage, with a quite simple set, and putting the emphasis on the costumes, which are very, very colourful. We wanted a contrast between the simplicty of the set and the visual impact of the costumes.

The idea is that each character has a coat of arms which symbolises their mood or their aims with a motto. The crests are also emblazoned on banners which are hanging from the ceiling – a bit like banners in a medieval hall. So each costume has a crest on it, and everyone is dressed in the colour of their crest. So Lucenzio is a blue unicorn rampant with a motto which says ‘No profit grows where is no pleasure taken’. Battista’s is a merchant family and so their motto says ‘Wealth, Money and Business’. So hopefully after ten minutes the audience will feel quite secure about who’s who.

The coats of arms are also on the curtain, which we’re using to create two different spaces. When the curtain is shut, we’re playing on the thrust of the stage, and when it’s open, we’re playing further back. It’s very theatrical, which is the way we see the play – we’re also using the curtain to give the set more of a dynamic, more sense of levels.

MAURO TINTI: The set itself is raised up on levels to look like the audience at a joust – we wanted that sense of the past, and it’s also another level of theatricality. You’re pulling back the curtains to reveal another audience, but this time an audience from the past. Originally we wanted to have the floor covered in earth, to look like a joust, but the theatre weren’t too keen on that. So we’ve painted it black instead which is even better, even more simple.

“…we’re working on an ‘idea’ of the medieval, as it’s held in the audience’s imaginations…” We chose the curtain because the play begins with a company of actors arriving. The idea is that they’ll arrive and the stage will be bare, and they’ll start to create a little improvised theatre, putting up the set and the curtain. They’re a travelling band of actors, so although all their props are brightly coloured, they’re quite rough – that’s why the curtain is patchwork. It’s a patchwork of medieval style patterns – which is a bit of a visual pun, in that we’re working on an ‘idea’ of the medieval, as it’s held in the audience’s imaginations. It’s also intended to show that it’s a symbolic story that will be told – it reminds us of theatrical performance.

We’re playing with conventions, rather than sticking rigidly to them – it’s traditional but twisted.

MAURO TINTI: The set design looks a bit like the jousts in The Knight’s Tale, which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t conscious when I was designing it that this was an influence, but in retrospect, I think it was.

How do you began designing a set for a production? You read the script. Though there was a very famous set designer who said “I never read the text, it’s too confusing. I never speak to the director either: he’s too confusing. I just do my own thing at home.” Then you meet with the director – we met in October (for a performance in March) – and you talk about the way he sees the play, the things that strike him the most. Usually at the first meeting and after I’ve read the text, I start with some sketches, just so that I’ve got something to begin with.

And the first idea we had was of a big bed – there’s a room in the V and A Museum where they have on display the Great Bed of Ware, which is absolutely enormous and very impressive. And that’s the first idea I had when I read the script – and also because the Great Bed of Ware is mentioned in Twelfth Night – so I thought, “Why not have the Induction set in the bed, like the bed that the Lord comes out of?” Because a canopied bed is a bit like a stage – it’s raised up with these large columns holding up curtains. So that was our starting point.

A sense of colour and pattern

And then the director had the idea of having these very colourful bed curtains – and he said that we should retain the sense of colour and pattern, like a medieval Miniature painting, with fleur-de-lys and all these typical patterns. So he said we should have these colours which are very typical of miniatures – royal blue, bright red, bright green, gold.Then, all of a sudden, I had the idea of having a wooden stage with a couple of poles sticking up. We wanted it wooden because we wanted that sense of the medieval, the natural rather than the artificial, made by craftsmen. Like with the acting, we’ve avoided tongue-in-cheek anachronisms, like people coming in with watches. It’s rough wood – because we wanted that sense of the temporary. And around the stage we were going to put earth. So, it would look as though this travelling Renaissance theatre company had come to a village and put up a rough stage.

“…we realised that we needed to think again…” But then we looked at the theatre where the production was to be put on more carefully, and we realised that we needed to think again. Because we’re used to working in less traditional theatres – theatres in the round, for example – whereas this theatre has the traditional proscenium arch, where most of the acting takes place a long way from the audience, and the audience looks at the set straight on. It’s based on the Baroque theatre.

So the focus is on the vertical, not on the horizontal. You need to put your emphasis on the backcloth, not on the floor. Why put soil on the floor if no-one can see it? And the stage would just make people look taller, but wouldn’t really make a point. So then we came up with the idea of a flight of steps like the audience of a joust.

It’s also much easier to build a simpler set, and since I couldn’t be there overseeing it all the time, it was much easier to create.

We’re adding in a chorus, which isn’t really from Shakespeare. That came about because there’s a moment in Petruchio’s house when he calls for his servants, and he calls out about 12 or 13 names but only about six people come on, and there’s a real sense of identity being interchangeable all the way through.So we took inspiration from the Noh theatre of Japan, where you have people watching the action and adding concentration to it. They’re dressed all in black, as in the Noh theatre, but in a medieval way, and they have very heavy make-up, which is a touch we borrowed from the Beijing Opera. Originally, we planned to have them wearing masks, but it would have been too time-consuming to make masks for 17 people, so we decided to have heavy make-up instead. And, in a taming play, to give more of a sense of the artificiality of it.

“It’s quite over-the-top, but that’s what we wanted…”

It’s quite over-the-top, but that’s what we wanted in terms of visual impact. Like Shakespeare’s company, we imagine them having very little of a set, but a great deal of costumes, and that was where they put the main visual emphasis.

There’s no sense of historical accuracy – the Elizabethans didn’t really have a concept of that. In paintings of the period you see historical events fashioned according to the look of the time, which was intended to make it look as though it was happening now. Especially with catholicism – to look as though Jesus was coming to you now, the painters showed him dressed in contemporary clothes.A lot changes in rehearsal, though. It’s a very organic process. It’s not just text at one level, design at another level – it should be one thing. But you don’t have much time. You have to trust your instinct.I drew sketches for the characters, but we had to hope that the drama wardrobe would have something suitable. It will never be like the drawing you did, but there might be something with the same feel, and then you have to look at it and ask yourself why this has the right feel so you can then apply it to others. When you see the actors in costume, you have to change some things. Perhaps someone feels uncomfortable in a particular dress when his character wouldn’t, or vice versa.

“The challenge is always to refine your vision, to be more specific…” The challenge is always to refine your vision, to be more specific. We hadn’t thought about how people’s hands should be – it’s the only part of the body apart from the face which is visible, so it becomes so important: do we ask people to wear black gloves so they’re hidden, or do we make their hands a feature by asking them to make very thought-out gestures?

Our Petruchio, for example, is very thin, and in his costume he didn’t look sufficiently imposing next to his servants. So we added in a cloak to give him a little more weight, make him look more imposing.

We won’t actually see the set until Sunday, because the theatre works in repertory and the previous play is on till Saturday, so the actors have no time to rehearse in the theatre. It will be quite a shock for them, since we’re having to rehearse by miming the first two steps. We don’t know how it will actually work out in practice. We can imagine the set, but we don’t know what it will look like to have them playing so high and so far from the audience.