Definitely one of Shakespeare’s more controversial works. It’s one of his plays where I feel it’s more important to take it as what it is – a play, a performance guide – rather than judge it purely from abridged performances (many of them excising the framing device entirely), adaptations, or as if it’s a book espousing and endorsing views of the author himself.
The main story, that of Katherina “the shrew”, and Petruchio “taming” her, is a play-within-a-play. The “first level/layer” of the play is a nobleman playing an elaborate prank on a drunkard. I don’t see why I should take the play-within-a-play at face value, when every performative act the lord and his people are carrying on for the drunkard (tricking/gaslighting him about his identity, dressing up a man as a woman to fool him as his wife, then putting on a play in front of him they act like is renowned) is based around tricking and mocking him. My intuitive reading of the play-within-a-play is that it’s just another level of mockery and trickery, a clearly ridiculous model of behaviour. Imagine the drunkard, Sly, trying to treat his “wife” the way Petruchio treated Katherina – it would definitely not go well! The play-within-a-play seems a performed farce to me, hardly an endorsement of any behaviour. Why would this framing device exist if not to set the play-within-a-play on some level of irony, to further distance it from the audience? Why take the ideologies of the play-within-a-play seriously, when it’s performed presumably as yet another trick on Sly?
Furthermore, the idea at the heart of the Katherina story is absurd enough to feel farcial even without the framing device, to me at least – treat an independent women terribly for weeks, then she emerges to give an eloquent speech on why women should be oh so submissive? That could work in some sort of dark Stockholm Syndrome narrative, but that’s clearly not what Shakespeare was going for with this work that’s explicitly a comedy. What’s more, the initially more dainty sister Bianca starts acting more defiant with her partner at the end, which undercuts any supposed endorsement of Petruchio’s philosophy.
Getting all my thoughts on the gender politics and whatnot out of the play…I still am not especially taken with it. There’s some great dialogue and wit, but I don’t find the play-within-a-play hugely compelling, and the lack of any resolution to the Sly framing device disappoints me. Certainly the novelty of the play has seen it withstand and be adapted many, many times, but it’s not one that personally appeals to me much. I give it three pieces of beef, and some mustard.