Stage history

The Taming of the Shrew (1960) Photo shows Petruchio (Peter O'Toole) claiming that Katharine's (Peggy Ashcroft) clothes are not good enough. Photo: Angus McBean Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of The Taming of the Shrew from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.


The Taming of the Shrew was originally performed in daylight on the thrust stage of an Elizabethan playhouse, where the balcony at the rear of the stage allowed the Pedant to look down from the window of his borrowed house.

No scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to enjoy both the physical comedy and the language of the play.

Music added to the effect as did costume, especially in this play where a character is frequently defined by the clothes he or she is wearing. Following the convention of the time, the female roles were all played by skilful and talented boys.

Testimony to the continuing popularity both of Shakespeare's play and of the theme of the war of the sexes can be found in John Fletcher's comedy, The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed. Fletcher wrote his reply to Shakespeare's play in 1611, 20 years or so after the original. Now a widower, Fletcher's Petruchio, marries again, only to find the roles reversed as his new wife brings him to heel and asserts her control over the marriage. Performances of both plays were given before Charles I and his court in 1633 and both were liked.

The first of many adaptations of Shakespeare's play appeared in the late 1660s, not long after the theatres reopened with the Restoration of Charles II. This was John Lacey's Sauny the Scott, or The Taming of the Shrew. Sauny was a version of Shakespeare's Grumio, now speaking in an outlandish Scottish dialect. Other changes helped the relocation of the action to England. Lacey drops the Induction and has his Petruchio threaten his wife with violence and premature burial.

A similar simplified version of Shakespeare's main plot can be found in James Wordale's 'ballad-farce', A Cure for a Scold, which was performed at Drury Lane in 1735. Other early eighteenth-century adaptations, such as The Cobbler of Preston, chose another approach and took the Induction alone as the basis of their action.

David Garrick's Catharine and Petruchio, first performed in 1754, was the most successful of all adaptations. Garrick concentrated on the taming plot to the exclusion of all else. His Bianca is already married, in this case to Hortensio. Since this resulted in a three rather than a five act play, Garrick sometimes doubled it with his cut version of The Winter's Tale. Garrick himself took the role of Petruchio and it was in his hands that the notorious whip first appeared: this was to become an essential prop for Petruchio right up until the twentieth century. Tempering this hint of potential violence, Garrick's new dialogue for his husband and wife attempted to explain and justify their behaviour. His Catharine confides in the audience that she intends to marry Petruchio in order to get her revenge on him by taming him in her own way. Her speech on wifely obedience is not as long as in Shakespeare's original and Petruchio responds by declaring that he will now:
'...doff the lordly Husband; / An honest Mask, which I throw off with Pleasure.'

He promises that they will henceforth live in mutual love and happiness. Catharine responds to this with humility and gratitude. It is characteristic of Shakespeare's open-endedness and toughness that no such consolations are afforded us in his original. This was The Taming of the Shrew available to audiences throughout the next 100 years. Leading actors found success in the star parts of Petruchio and Catherine: Garrick himself, Hannah Pritchard, Henry Woodward, Kitty Clive, Sarah Siddons and her brother, John Philip Kemble, and in 1867, a young Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

It was not until 1844 that Shakespeare's original text, complete with its Induction, could be seen on the London stage. J.R.Planche produced it at the Haymarket Theatre in an attempt to recreate an Elizabethan style of simplicity and swift staging. Samuel Phelps followed up its success by staging his own production at Sadler's Wells in 1856, in which he gave a memorable performance as Christopher Sly.

Across the Atlantic, the success of Augustin Daly's New York production was largely due to the brilliance of his leading lady, Ada Rehan. The production ran for over 120 performances. Hermann Goetz's operatic version, performed in Mannheim in 1874, was unusual in expanding the roles of Bianca and her wooers in order to balance the energetic wooing of Petruchio and his bride.

The play has continued to be popular throughout the twentieth century, in spite or perhaps because of its controversial subject matter. Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton, themselves a married couple, won great success with their production at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1904. Likewise, the husband and wife team, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, had a run of 129 performances in the 1930s. In these productions the play was presented as a fun-filled, physically exuberant romp and this has certainly been a popular approach to the play's challenges in many subsequent productions.

Martin Harvey's production at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1913 was the first to take scenes from The Taming of A Shrew in order to expand the role of Christopher Sly and the framework of an on-stage audience around the taming story.

In Sir Barry Jackson's 1928 production, at the Court Theatre, Sly and the Lord sat in one of the theatre's boxes and remained watching throughout the play. This production spoke directly to a society much engaged with the rights of women. Its modern dress costume and design, including a Ford car and flash photographers from the newspapers, brought the play right up to date. In this production, reviewers felt that Katherina's long final speech was given with sincerity.

On the other hand, Mary Pickford played Katherina with delightful independence in Sam Taylor's Hollywood film of 1929. Despite having a redoubtable match in Douglas Fairbanks's whip-cracking Petruchio, she undercut her speech on obedience with a naughty wink to the camera. This was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be filmed as a 'talking' picture, although the script owed as much to Garrick as to Shakespeare.

Cole Porter's popular musical version, Kiss Me Kate, first performed in 1948, cleverly sets the unfolding comic drama of a modern failing marital relationship within a staging of Shakespeare's play.

Off-screen drama was also part of the appeal of Franco Zeffirelli's lavish film version in 1966. By casting Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles, Zeffirelli ensured an energy and physical chemistry at the heart of the story, together with the thrill of the audience's knowledge that the stars' real-life marriage was itself famous for high-octane quarrels and reconciliations.

Charles Marowitz's 'free adaption' of Shakespeare's play in 1975 unleashed what he saw as the true ugliness of the essential story. In his frightening version, Katherina was subjected to various cruelties by her savage husband, culminating in anal rape. She uttered her speech of loyalty as a brain-washed automaton.

Phyllida Lloyd directed an all-female production at Shakespeare's Globe in 2003. Janet McTeer brought the full force of her imposing physical presence to her performance as Petruchio, playing against the tiny but equally powerful Kathryn Hunter as Katherina.

The play was filmed as part of the 1980 BBC television series of Shakespeare's plays. Jonathan Miller directed Sarah Badel and John Cleese in the leading roles.


Written by Rebecca Brown © RSC
Photo shows Petruchio (Peter O'Toole) claiming that Katharine's (Peggy Ashcroft) clothes are not good enough.
Photo: Angus McBean Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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