While the term “Problem Play” is meant to refer to three specific Shakespeare plays that are situated in a gray area between Comedy and Tragedy (All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus & Cressida), these “problems” seem mere trifles in the wake of the 21st Century’s criticism of two other Bard plays: The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice. These two plays present a completely different type of problem, but one that’s much more troubling for modern audiences.
In Merchant the problem revolves around anti-Semitism which, in the wake of the Nazis, certainly is more of a serious issue today than it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. For Shrew the problem is one of gross misogyny. The difference between them is that one can make a legitimate argument that there is no genuine anti-Semitism in Merchant, but merely a reflection of Elizabethan attitudes towards Jews and usury, and this argument is strengthened by the fact that Shylock is given the most eloquent speech on egalitarianism in English literature. But, in my experience, there is no such salvation for Shrew which, despite its hilarious linguistic comedy, seems more sadistic and perverse the more one looks at it.
For those who don’t know, the plot revolves around a Paduan merchant, Baptista (Michael Hordern) who is sworn to marry off his oldest daughter, Katharina (Elizabeth Taylor) before he’ll accept the many offers of marriage for his youngest daughter, Bianca (Natasha Pyne), who is being courted by three men including Gremio (Alan Webb), Lucentio (Michael York), and Hortensio (Victor Spinetti). But Baptista (and Bianca’s suitors) have a problem in that Katharina is a fiery, obdurate shrew whom nobody wants to marry. That is until Petruchio (Richard Burton) appears and hears of Katharina’s wealthy dowry. Caring more about money than love, Petruchio sets about “wooing” and eventually taming her via starvation and sleep deprivation.
The film’s first half has no problem finding the light-hearted and witty humor in the play. Richard Burton is surely one of the more affable Petruchios and even with all his boisterousness still comes off as likable rather than misogynistic. Of course, Elizabeth Taylor is one of those “duh” casting decisions that makes one realize there could be no other choice for the role. Much has been said about how the film and indeed the play seems as if it captures a scene from their legendarily tumultuous marriage. In the first half this works and it’s a definite delight watching the sparks fly by two such stones banging against each other. Petruchio’s “courtship” is a delight to watch, and it’s never been filmed as delightfully as here.
Zeffirelli’s direction and production is consistent with the organic naturalism that he likewise displayed on other Shakespeare adaptations like Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet. Zeffirelli really likes to get the audience into the dirt and grime of the late 16th Century, bringing everything down to an everyman level. He also benefits from the ever effervescent and charming music of Nino Rota. Unfortunately, like most everyone else, Zeffirelli seems at a loss as to what to do with the entire second half of the play. One can sense his (and likely the whole cast’s) uncomfortableness in approaching what are, essentially, the torture scenes. Zeffirelli seems to take the more modern approach of having Katharina acknowledge to the audience that she’s merely “putting on” an obedient disposition in order to please Petruchio while ultimately getting her way (though he mercilessly leaves out the “wink” in the final speech).
As with many Stage-to-Screen adaptations much had to be cut, and Zeffirelli keeps attention squarely on the Katharina/Petruchio relationship at the expense of the complex courtship of Bianca. This is probably for the better, but it also serves to highlight the play’s “problem.” As much as the first half is a load of physical and linguistic fun, the second half bogs down, loses its sense of humor, and finds Zeffirelli and co. wrestling with and losing to the problem. At this point I’m convinced there’s nothing that can be done to save the play, which is probably one of Bill’s weakest even without the misogynistic problem. Zeffirelli, Burton and Taylor have done all they can, and it’s certainly an admirable attempt, but it only further convinces me that this is one Bard play that can’t be made into a masterpiece.