Houston Ballet closes its 2014-15 season with John Cranko's wonderfully comic ballet The Taming of the Shrew, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Origi- nally created for the Stuttgart Ballet and the legendary pairing of principal dancers Marcia Hayd_e and Richard Cragun in 1969, Cranko's work is now a classic,performed by ballet companies around the world.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's most enduringly popular plays, and Cranko turned to it to find appropriately dynamic and expressive roles for Hayd_e and Cragun. As the warring central couple, Katherina and Petruchio, they enacted the age-old battle of the sexes. Shakespeare was himself inspired by Italian slapstick comedies when he wrote the play at the beginning of his career, around 1592. Although it was probably only his second play and his first comedy, he crafted an intricate dual plot, revolving around the daughters of Baptista Minola. The younger Bianca, pursued by many suitors, can only marry after a husband is found for her elder sister Katherina, dubbed "the shrew" for her "scolding tongue." Petruchio, in the market for a wealthy wife, resolves to marry Katherina and make her into the ideal Renaissance woman: silent and obedient. Their relationship is combative from their first explosive meeting, in which Katherina hits him and he insults her. There is also ample physical comedy in the other plot, involving multiple suitors donning disguises to woo Bianca. The Taming of the Shrew is typical of Shakespeare's comedies in its exploration of marriage as a central theme and its use of disguise and mistaken identity. Yet over the course of his career Shakespeare's comedies became less farcical and more serious: darker, and with less clear-cut endings.
Of course, many readers and viewers of The Taming of the Shrew have found it disturbing, due to its depiction of the forcible conversion of a strong, outspoken woman into a docile wife. In the play, Petruchio outlines his taming strategy in a lengthy soliloquy, describing how he will deprive her of food and sleep, and comparing her to a wild animal who must be broken. He concludes, "This is a way to kill a wife with kindness"; yet some spectators have found it less than kind. George Bernard Shaw famously commented of the play, "No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed." He was especially appalled by the final scene, in which Katherina has a public speech of submission, proclaiming to the other women, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign." Shakespeare drew on an extensive popular literary tradition depicting women as scolding, disobedient nags who needed to be brought into line. These songs, stories, and jokes portrayed domestic violence as humorous, much as The Taming of the Shrew ultimately does. Shakespeare's play fits with the views of women, men, and marriage that were accepted in sixteenth-century English society. As gender roles have changed over time, however, the play has come to seem antiquated, if not downright offensive to some.
Cranko's ballet version, which premiered during the burgeoning women's movement of the late 1960s, worked within performance traditions that attempted to rehabilitate the play, toning down its misogyny and providing a more romantic view of the marriage between Katherina and Petruchio. Their relationship gradually develops over the course of the ballet, and is primarily portrayed through their three pas de deux, which evolve from them aggressively trying to dominate each other, through tentative acceptance and grow- ing gentleness, to real joy at their partnership. Cranko has them mischievously collude in the scolding of the other wives in the final scene, rather than having Petruchio command Katherina to show her submission, as in Shakespeare's play.
Katherina is a very strong presence onstage, adopting a strikingly individual physicality from her opening appearance. She does not move like a traditional ballerina; instead, she stomps with flexed feet, pumps her arms aggressively, and makes her hands into fists, ready to strike and kick suitor, sister, father, or neighbor. She skillfully mocks the other charac- ters, imitating their poses, laughing at their distress, and effortlessly tripping men twice her size. She is, in effect, a twentieth century feminist in Renaissance clothing. By the end of the ballet, Cranko shows that she is still herself; she storms around and hurls the other wives to the floor to scold them. Yet she has also been exalted by her marriage to Petruchio, which Cranko reveals through the changes in her movement. Her partnering with Petruchio is romantic and beautiful in the end, rather than comic and aggressive. The British actress Fiona Shaw, who played Katherina for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, observed that Katherina's language grows over the course of Shakespeare's play, moving from "jangly rhythms" to "pure rhythms." Cranko's choreography creates a similar journey, from antago- nism to harmony, that is realized through the bodies of the dancers.
Cranko also ensures that Petruchio changes for the better over the course of the ballet. Petruchio's first appearance shows that he is fallible rather than authoritative; he is falling- down drunk, and has his purse and clothing stolen by two prostitutes. He has to be rescued by Bianca's suitors, who convince him to woo Katherina. Cranko's choreography reveals that Petruchio grows to love Katherina over the course of the ballet, effectively redeeming him. The ballet therefore does not prop up male authority at the expense of women. Indeed, there are a plethora of comic male characters, particularly the foolish Gremio and Hortensio, Bianca's rejected suitors who are tricked into marrying prostitutes. Cranko retained the physical comedy of Shakespeare's play while undercutting the violence of the taming narrative.
As an art form, ballet is built upon balance, strength, and partnership, and upon male and female dancers working together to create beautiful movement. As John Cranko shows us through his Taming of the Shrew, It is the perfect medium in which to realize Shakespeare's story of the delicate balance between marriage partners.
Elizabeth Klett is Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and women's literature. She is the author of Cross-Gender Shakespeare and English National Identity, and is currently writing a book on Shakespeare and dance adaptation.