Anyone who chooses to tackle The Taming of the Shrew is a brave individual. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, this has arguably aged the least gracefully, with modern audiences interpreting the script’s tricky sexual politics as uncomfortable at best and grossly misogynistic at worst. It was an issue that certainly crossed the mind of David Caves, who is currently playing Petruchio in Lucy Bailey’s new touring production with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I didn’t know the play very well,” Caves confesses as we discuss his cautious approach to the role of ‘taming’ husband Petruchio. “I only knew that it contained some rather dodgy sexual politics as far as we’re concerned these days. I also thought beforehand that it was perhaps a play very much of its time. Then I read it and I thought yes, there is a bit of that happening on the surface, but actually there’s something more interesting and complex going on underneath.”
Since becoming much better acquainted with the play, Caves has found a different route into his character, describing Petruchio as “quite a troubled person”. Such a fresh, thoughtful approach to the character is vital if the audience is going to feel any empathy for a man who, on the surface, dominates his wife. “It’s very easy to play him as the stereotypical bastard,” Caves says, “but it’s never as simple as that. If someone behaves like that then there are probably good reasons for it.”
Caves posits that these reasons may be connected to Petruchio’s relationship with his father, who has died shortly before the play begins. “He has just lost his father, so he’s alone in the world,” he explains. “I think that the relationship with his dad has been fairly tempestuous and there’s a lot of guilt going on there. His father has recently died and he’s left with this big estate and I don’t think he’s ready for that.” Kate, meanwhile, is similarly alone, “a woman who has been completely abandoned within her own world”, a source of common ground for the two sparring characters.
“I saw it as a weird kind of coming together of two troubled people,” Caves says of the troubling, twisted relationship between Kate and Petruchio. I suggest that implicit difficulties remain, but Caves is adamant that “this doesn’t need to be a story about a man dominating a woman and the woman being submissive”. Instead, he and director Bailey have seen the pair’s dynamic as much more equal, a reading that makes this play far more palatable for modern audiences. As Caves stresses, both Kate and Petruchio give as good as they get.
“It’s a good match because Petruchio’s as wild, if not more so, than she is,” he continues. “She then sees that in him and is shocked and surprised by that – I think they’re continually surprised by each other. It quite quickly builds into trying to out-do each other with wit and not lose face and always have the last word.” There is also an instant physical attraction between Kate and Petruchio which is drawn out in this production, while Caves tells me that it was very important to make it clear that Petruchio “celebrates Kate’s anarchy as opposed to quashing it”.