Home > Screen > Shrew Who?: John Cleese as Petruchio

Shrew Who?: John Cleese as Petruchio


Shakespeare is and was in his time no stranger to controversy. He approached topics such as royal succession, what makes a good ruler and the war between honour and life, all of which were extremely controversial in his time. As we move closer to our time, Shakespeare courts different kinds of controversies, especially where the sensibilities of his time clash with our own. Usually this has a detrimental effect on the frequency of stagings of certain plays, and this week’s play is one of the victims of this.

The Taming of the Shrew was for most of its existence an extremely popular play. Fairly unique among Shakespeare’s plays – depending on how one wishes to classify other, similar storytelling tools – it has a framing story, which has not always been deemed worthy of inclusion in its staging. This framing story – a drunk commoner being played a practical joke on by his liege lord, in that he is being duped into thinking his life has been a dream and now he is a lord, for whom the actual play is being staged – has occasionally been adapted into full-fledged plays, for example by the Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg in his Jeppe of the Hill, or The Transformed Peasant.

But in our time of at least ideological – if rarely practical – equality between the sexes, the story of how a spirited and individual-minded woman is cowed by a brutish man in an arranged marriage, as the main story of the play goes, presents us with some problems. Consequently as is depressingly more often the case, we cheerfully ignore its existence, preferring to stage it much more rarely than plays such as Hamlet, where the controversy is not unpalatable to us.

Thus The Taming of the Shrew is relegated to two kinds of staging. The experimental – of which Hall’s 2007 all-male staging, that I did not have the opportunity to attend myself is an example – and as part of completionist staging such as the one in the BBC’s project to film all of Shakespeare’s plays that ran in the years leading up to and following 1980.

The Text

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a short look at the text first, foregoing the framing story.

A nobleman in Padua has two daughters: sweet Bianca and wilful Kate. Suitors abound for Bianca – two men of Padua, Gremio and Hortensio, and a young man of Pisa, Lucentio – but no one pines for Kate. The father – Vincentio – therefore decides that none shall be allowed to court Bianca unless Kate is also courted, promptly causing the three rivals to concoct elaborate ways to sneak into the household to, as it were, pre-court Kate in preparation for the actual courtship to begin.

Enter Petruchio, an old friend of Hortensio, who bursts onto the scene looking for a wife of means, who can make his relatively impoverished life tolerable. He agrees to court the well-endowered Kate and proceeds to do so in a fashion that takes her quite aback – he simply tells her they will be married, which they eventually do in a ceremony that is designed to humiliate Kate publicly.

Taking Kate with him back to his crummy household in Verona, Petruchio proceeds to grind the wilfulness out of her to an extent that, when they at the end of the play return to Padua for a feast, Kate is the most pliant of all the wives of the men dining there – including fair Bianca, who turns out to have become quite shrewish almost overnight after marrying the poor Lucentio.

The Production

As I intimated above, the BBC produced all of Shakespeare’s plays in the years around 1980 in the vein of the old ‘filmed theatre’ school. That is to say that the cinematography is not lush, the costumes are not impressive, the sets do not evoke a sense of realism, but the acting and the direction of the actors are at centre stage.

Directed by Jonathan Miller, their Taming of the Shrew is populated by well-meaning actors who ranged from quite good – such as Anthony Pedley as the servant of young Luciano – to the merely average – such as Susan Penhaligon’s Bianca.

But overshadowing them all is a surprising performer in this context, the performance of whom is the key to Jonathan Miller’s solution to the problem of how to film a play, that basically condones domestic violence and makes light of it: John Cleese as Petruchio.

The Cleese

Cleese brings a quality to the boisterous role of the gentleman from Verona that it is frankly astonishing for whoever discovered it in the text to have found, and which demonstrates the range of Shakespeare’s play. Where Petruchio is traditionally seen as a staunch defender of the status quo as regards to gender roles, Cleese shows him to be a quiet rebel and a person with a knack for noticing absurdity and hostility in the world and trying to make the best of it.

While most productions have Petruchio dominating Kate at the end, it is obvious from the performances that such is not the case here. Rather the two have developed an understanding and an actual respect for each other.

Indeed while the most poignant scenes for Petruchio are often made out to be his battles of wit and violence with Kate, it is obvious that Cleese and the production considers the pivotal scene to be his short, poetic soliloquy at the end of act 4, scene 1.

Delivered by candlelight after an exhausting day, Cleese wearily speaks the words that lesser Petruchios would be bolstering all over the place. Quietly and calmly, he outlines his plan with a tonality in his voice like that of a man who meticulously chooses exactly the most absurd response to any stimuli simply to prove a point. It is not that he must decide everything for Kate, however, but simply and reasonably that they cannot function as a married couple if they fight about everything. Thus he meets her irrational demands not with demands of his own, but instead with well-designed, absurd responses.

We see it again later on, in act 4, scene 5 where Petruchio is mostly seen and played as simply wanting compliance from Kate to his every whim, when he insist that the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun. Cleese adds a touch of awareness of his own absurdity to Petruchio, which makes it clear that this sort of behaviour is not his nature, but is being undertaken by him to prove a point to Kate.

But which point? Well, rather than admonish her for being wilful or engaging in a misogynist battle of the sexes, Cleese’s Petruchio is on a mission to show Kate that her wilfulness simply will not do, because it is not possible for people to live like that. He demands not compliance from Kate because he wants it, but because he wants to show what she is demanding from the world.

In another scene usually only played for laughs, the wedding in act 3, scene 2, Cleese’s absurd bluster in waving about his ridiculous hat and his clearly inappropriate posturing in the ludicrous costume he expects to be wedded in, has the wonderful subtext of showing Kate that this is how she seems with her insistence on doing things her way or not at all.

The Shrew

Quite apart from the dismal message that productions of The Taming of the Shrew usually have to contend with, the message of this production is instead that we are not set in our ways and that we can change our nature if we work at it.

All of this hinges of course not just on the performance of Cleese, but also on the wonderfully faceted performance of Sarah Badel in the role of Kate. She starts out in the proud tradition from Elizabeth Taylor’s version in Zefirellis production from the 60s, portraying Kate as essentially a spoilt child who rebels without any sense of direction. It is clear that she finds the demands of society idiotic and inconvenient, but she does not try to change them, she just acts out her rage very much like a child would.

As she struggles to comprehend Petruchio’s outlandish behaviour, we see that Badel – unlike Taylor – actually uses this character choice moving forward. This is not so much a taming as a maturing of the shrew, as Kate grows up. Petruchio is holding up a mirror in front of her and like a child she at first does not recognise that it is herself she’s seeing.

It seems to her that Petruchio is just one more instance of a world being unreasonable, harsh and repressive, but gradually Badel shows us Kate coming to grips with the fact that the person in the mirror is her. Like a child finally recognising herself in the mirror and not attempting to play with this new friend anymore, Kate grows up and becomes a reasonable person. She learns, and we learn with her, that the proper response to an unfair world is not blind rage, disgust and self pity, but instead reason and thought.

If I make no outrageous demands of Petruchio, he will be reasonable towards me. It is a madman who fights fire with fire, and Cleese’s Petruchio makes this abundantly clear to Badle’s Kate.

The Kate we see in the final scene where she answers the summons of her husband, though the other wives will not, is not a cowed and repressed woman in a dysfunctional relationship. No, this is a woman who – solely among the women of the play – has grown up from daughter to wife. And as is plain from Cleese’s acting and he and Badel’s interacting in this scene, Petruchio is the only man in a roomful of boys, however ancient some of the others may be.

The Message

This message – that what Petruchio does is that he rescues a child into adulthood rather than dominating a poor woman – seams through the production. The outlandish plans that Bianca’s suitors conduct are highlighted as idiotic by the advanced age of Gremio and Hortensio. Hortensio’s buffonish winking and pointing during his lesson with Bianca in Act 3, scene 1 is the perfect example of this. He is clearly not of the persuasion that he is addressing an individual capable of actual thought, but a child. Petruchio does not want to be married to a child. He needs a woman for a wife.

Reportedly Jonathan Miller had problems with persuading Cleese to act in this, the first Shakespeare production the comedian did. It is fortunate that he was successful, though. Although we cannot in good conscience acquit Shakespeare himself or his contemporaries of misogyny, we can however – with this production in hand – show that the text must not necessarily be interpreted thus.

And this is really the most we can hope for in a performance: to show us things about the text that we had not considered.

This has been a review of the 1980 BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew directed by Jonathan Miller. The picture was found via Google.

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  1. Robert Craft
    July 6, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    This is the best review I’ve read of the best version of the play I’ve seen. If I’m correct, Cleese was at that time associated with family therapist Robin Skynner. (They wrote a book together, Families and How to Survive Them, and later served as system consultants to corporations.) Many of the “techniques” Petruchio used to “treat” Kate were part of the armamentarium of family therapy—the abrupt changes of scene, the absurd non-sequiter, the paradoxical instruction…. I remember a training video of family therapist Salvador Minuchin forcibly restraining an obstreperous (if memory serves) 14-year-old boy and saying, in effect that “some people have to grow down before they can grow up.” (I’ve done the same.) Such is necessary if Kate is ever to claim a rewarding life.

    To feminists understandably offended by the play I can only note that the play is not entitled The Taming of the “Woman,” but the Taming of the “Shrew.” A shrew, like a tyrant among males, is a three-year-old in an adult body, flailing away at a world that does not bend to its childish purposes. It is a miserable state and will not result in a life that “works” in any world, much less in Shakespeare’s time when women were chattel. In his genius, Shakespeare anticipates just what therapists have discovered about helping such a person “grow down.” In effect Petruchio saves Kate through “tough love” and receives for his efforts a partner with a fire and a wit to match his own—not to mention a dowry that will let them enjoy their life together. (Therapists get paid for their hard work!)

    If we moderns have anything to learn from the play it is that our shrewish or tyrannical moods or modes of behavior have little to offer in a loving relationship. I extend thanks again to Shakespeare, our eternal teacher.

    • September 2, 2014 at 6:56 pm

      Thank you very much for this comment, Robert. It has been sitting unannounced in my WP-filter for three months it seems, before I was alerted and could approve it. Weird.

      What really stays with me from Cleese is the determined, weary sadness in the candlelight scene. He knows Kate is smarter than she acts, and it really saddens him that she has been conditioned by society to think being a shrew is the only option for a smart woman. In a modern version, this is one of the few plays I really feel could gain a lot from a gender reversal in staging. This would bring out the universality of Petruchio’s compassion quite well, I think, instead of retaining what – in a feminist view must be – an uneasy sliver of patriarchy (ie the man teaches the woman to grow up, where it should just be one human teaching another human).

      It is often said that Shakespeare’s heroines cannot find men in their plays that are worthy of them. Cleese’s Petruchio would be a most interesting playmate for Portia in Merchant or Beatrice in Much Ado, I think.

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