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How Kentucky Shakespeare Approached One of the Bard's Most Problematic Works


Amy Attaway has an impressive local and national resume in theatre, including a long stint with Actors Theatre of Louisville.

She's also had some experience with the Bard—last summer she mounted a successful production of "Henry V" for Kentucky Shakespeare.

But this year, Attaway returns to the festival to tackle one of Shakespeare's most problematic works.

"The Taming of the Shrew" is a story of a strong-willed woman named Katherine, and the equally obstreperous Petruchio, who is determined to marry her. Petruchio subjects Katherine to verbal abuse, starvation, and public humiliation—all in an attempt to "tame" her. In the last moments of the play Katherine showcases her reformation, and wins Petruchio a wager by proving to be the most obedient wife among her kinswomen and friends. She even lectures the other ladies on how they too should be subservient.

These aspects of the play caused Attaway to hesitate when Kentucky Shakespeare artistic director Matt Wallace approached her to direct the play.

"I was a little skeptical," she said.

"What does this play have to say to a contemporary audience? What do I as a modern-day feminist have to say to this play, and about this play?"

But no one said Attaway had to stage the play most theatergoers are familiar with—and that gave her the leeway to explore ways to tell the story. Like most directors taking on Shakespeare, Attaway began by picking what version of the play to produce.

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Her efforts were aided by the fact that Shakespeare didn't publish any of his plays, she said.

In Elizabethan era, publishing a play could lead to issues—"other people could do unauthorized productions," said Gregory Maupin, Kentucky Shakespeare's textural dramaturg.

There was no copyright law. Some pirated versions of the plays—called quartos—were passed around during Shakespeare’s life, but his complete works weren't published until seven years after he died. The officially published versions were cobbled together from actors’ memories, or little notes Shakespeare scribbled down and handed out.

"And the thing is when you read a paperback edition frequently you get one that has been edited, in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s. And punctuation and spelling has been changed, and in the folio it has not," Maupin said, referring to first published text of Shakepeare's work.

So, there are multiple versions of each play, and as any grammar nerd knows, a single comma can change everything.

Then there are the shadow texts.

"This is gonna be the super nerdy part," Attaway said. "There is an extant text of the play called 'The Taming of a Shrew.' Scholars disagree on how this text relates to 'The Taming of the Shrew' that we know.

"Some people think it's an early draft of the play. Some people think it's a bad quarto version—an actor with a bad memory after the production just sort of wrote things down wrong."

Others think the texts or unrelated; or maybe 'The Taming of a Shrew' is an early draft, she said.
And, as Attaway sifted through conflicting versions, she noticed something.

"A lot of what we see as the subservient Kate at the end of the play, isn't necessarily so," she said.

And so audiences who see Kentucky Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in Central Park will see a different play than what they may be familiar with.

Attaway found many small justifications for her take on "Shrew," but the biggest support came from a little-produced section of the main text. The full length folio version of 'Taming of the Shrew' contains several extra scenes called the "induction," which occur before the main action of the play begins.

The scenes feature the character Christopher Sly, a drunkard. As originally written, "Taming of the Shrew" is actually a play within a play. Many directors cut these scenes, since Sly never shows back up. He gets drunk and passes out, and disappears before the play audiences are familiar with even begins. So why waste time with him?

But, in the shadow text, Sly shows up repeatedly, calling attention to the fact that the main action is a play within a play.

"So, including the induction, it makes the play feel more like a comedy—not a declaration of how things should be, but an entertainment," Attaway said.

So Attaway emphasizes the play within the play. Maybe that changes the entire play. Or may be it simply changes a part of how audiences interpret it.

Either way, Attaway said she hopes it will at least spark a discussion.

"All of these issues that Shakespeare addresses in the plays are still relevant today," Attaway said.

"What we're all trying to do at Kentucky Shakespeare is to bring those ideas to life through this text, and hopefully have a lot of fun doing it."

Kentucky Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" runs through July in Louisville's Central Park. Here's more information.

(Images via Kentucky Shakespeare)