Shakespeare without the Shrew


Boys played all the women’s parts in the theater of Shakespeare’s time, so it’s probably just as well that there’s not a single solitary spanking scene in any of his plays.

01 Shrew

No, not even in The Taming of the Shrew – that’s a later stage tradition, not part of the original script as Shakespeare wrote it.

But even without the Shrew, Shakespeare is a rich field for spanking speculation. In King Lear, the Fool – who, like all fools in Shakespeare, always tells the truth – makes a remark that could be taken to mean that, instead of giving away his kingdom to his daughters and so putting himself in their power, he should have spanked them. But obviously, if he had, there wouldn’t have been a play.

However, there are Shakespeare plays which could, without undue adaptation, accommodate a spanking scene. The jealous Othello actually strikes his wife Desdemona in Act 4 Scene 2, a public indignity that might, if it suited the production, be played as a spanking rather than a slap to the face. I’ve never heard of it ever being done that way, but – and here we’re getting to the point – this kind of thinking is exactly how directors approach the task of turning a script into a performed play: Shakespeare’s plays are so much less prescriptive about stage action than those of, say, George Bernard Shaw or Samuel Beckett, so business needs be added over and above the scripted action, which often serves us well in The Taming of the Shrew and occasionally does in other plays too.

‘I have not deserved this,’ says Desdemona after she has been slapped, which might perhaps make playing it as a spanking as uncomfortable for the audience as it would for the actress. So who in Shakespeare most deserves to be spanked? Step forward, Phoebe in As You Like It, the disdainful shepherdess beloved by Silvius who herself falls in love with Ganymede (who is really the heroine Rosalind in disguise) and contemptuously sends poor Silvius to carry her love-letter to his own rival. Murray Ross, who directed the play for the Colorado Theatreworks company in 2008, wrote about the couple:

‘Both Silvius and Phoebe are comic caricatures, yet both are particular and wonderfully familiar. Our Phoebe, Jessica Compton, is a pint sized pistol with flashing dark eyes and a fabulous figure. You could make a woeful ballad to her eyebrow. You understand immediately why Silvius is besotted with her, and you also know right away this is a girl who needs a good spanking. Ironically, it is the verbal smacking Rosalind gives her that makes Phoebe so hot and bothered: she’s getting what she needs and deserves and what Silvius can never give her. When Phoebe tells Silvius about how rude the youth was to her, we see her–in our production–getting very turned on, and using the always pliant Silvius as a sort of love doll as she considers the features of her new infatuation.’

And, should you be in any uncertainty about how spankable Jessica Compton’s Phoebe was, here she is:

02 AYLI Jessica Compton

03 AYLI Jessica Compton

But who says Silvius is incapable of giving her the spanking she deserves? Not Edward Payson Call, who directed a production with a Victorian setting at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, back in 1966. It opened on June 3, with Michael Moriarty playing Silvius and the 22-year-old Helen Carey as Phoebe. I don’t have a photograph of her in the production to show you, but here she is a little later in her career:

04 Helen Carey

She was nominated for a Tony Award for playing Lady Gay Spanker in the 1997 Broadway revival of London Assurance. If you’re disappointed that neither London Assurance nor Lady Gay have anything to do with spanking, cheer up… because Helen had already been spanked 31 years earlier when she played Phoebe!

From the Shrew onwards, Shakespeare was often drawn to sparky relationships between pairs of lovers, but I know of no productions of Much Ado About Nothing where Benedick spanks Beatrice, nor of Henry IV, Part 1 where Hotspur spanks Lady Percy. But one love story that becomes unexpectedly acrimonious is that of Lysander and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, after a magical love-potion has made him temporarily fall for another girl. Here are Esmond Knight and Christine Lindsay playing the roles at London’s Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, in August 1940:

05 Dream Regents Park 1940 1

And here they are in Act 3 Scene 2, once the love juice has taken effect:

06 Dream Regents Park 1940 2

That wasn’t the only production in which Hermia wound up getting spanked by her once and future sweetie. In 1957, the Old Vic staged the play over Christmas, in a production by Michael Benthall that opened on December 23. Among other things, it was notable for an appearance by legendary comedian Frankie Howerd as Bottom the Weaver and for featuring early performances by Judi Dench and Nancy Kwan as fairies. But for our purposes the most important cast member was Rosemary Webster as Hermia. Here she is getting what for at the hands of Richard Gale:

07 Dream 1957

A fifteen-minute extract (not including the spanking) was televised live by the BBC on New Year’s Eve, and at least some of the production was also filmed (a little of Frankie Howerd’s Bottom later turned up in an episode of The Saint), but regrettably the present whereabouts of the footage is not known.

But for the ultimate pair of quarrelsome Shakespearean lovers who aren’t named Petruchio and Kate, we need to switch genre from comedy to tragedy. At London’s Haymarket Theatre in 1986, after a six-week pre-London run at Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, Antony and Cleopatra were played by another golden couple, Timothy Dalton and Vanessa Redgrave. They were midway through their own decade and a half as an item, but had reached what she later called ‘a natural pause’ at halftime. And you don’t need to know the story of Kiss Me Kate to know that actors’ relationships offstage can have an impact on how their characters engage with one another onstage. ‘The pairing of Redgrave with Timothy Dalton,’ said the Financial Times, ‘provides the best sexual chemistry since Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson, with an extra dollop of lissom carnality.’ It also provided a spanking.

The reviewer Martin Hoyle wrote perceptively about the production in the magazine Plays and Players:

‘The first few minutes of Vanessa Redgrave’s Cleopatra are haunted by an elusive presence. Whose spirit is it that hovers over this red-curled tomboy, physically exuberant, an attractive crack to the voice? Comic display, bubbling wisecracks (there aren’t any but you feel there are), a wacky skittishness – whose image emerges from this elegant, long-legged, knockabout energy? Inexorably the mist clears as there stands the great model – Lucille Ball. And La Redgrave sees Shakespeare’s play as a crackly TV sitcom entitled I Love Cleo.’


Actually the curly red hair was a piece of serendipity. For the first performances in Wales, Redgrave wore a long blonde wig that she loved and everyone else hated, and, when she was eventually persuaded to relinquish it, they turned in desperation to the wig she had worn to play Arkadina in The Seagull at the Oxford Playhouse the year before. Its Lucille Ball connotations may have been accidental, but they were certainly to the point.

This version of Antony and Cleopatra began with what reviewers variously described as ‘an atmosphere of frisky decadence’ or ‘scenes of nursery sex play’. The Daily Telegraph charted the territory precisely: ‘The gangling queen revels in ribald games: she likes shutting her lover in a chest, or having her bottom smacked.’ The play opened with Cleopatra dragging a dressing-up box onto the stage, and opening it to reveal Antony inside. The first scene then showed the couple walking the line between affairs of state and lovers’ games; and trying to make Antony receive ambassadors, when he’s more interested in what they will be doing in bed that night, is what earns Cleopatra a place this article. ‘Fie, wrangling queen,’ he replies,

Whom everything becomes, to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired!

Timothy Dalton is probably the only actor in history to have spoken those majestic lines whilst giving Cleopatra a spanking. After that, he threw her over his shoulder and carried her off as the scene came to an end. You might almost think they thought they were in The Taming of the Shrew. And, as it happens, they were, in performances alternating with Antony and Cleopatra!

Of course, there are other kinds of spanking situation than between lovers, such as within a family – hopefully with less of an overt sexual edge than the scenes we’ve been considering so far. Sometimes there are even spankings between siblings. Take, for example, the 2005 Marlowe Society production of The Comedy of Errors, which played at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from February 8 to 12, with a cast that included Lydia Wilson as the married, worldly-wise Adriana, and Holly Strickland as her virginal younger sister Luciana whose knowledge of life and love comes entirely from books and not experience. Here’s Luciana on the left, in pink:

09 Comedy of Errors 2005

And here’s how one reviewer described her:

‘Luciana is a sort of Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm in pink gingham pinafore dress and pink-ribboned hair bunches – a winning just-adolescent whom her big sister, so priggishly lectured on wifely duties from an etiquette book, alternately spoiled and spanked until, in a carefully timed climax, she got a convincing sexual awakening from the double of the brother-in-law she had clearly always fancied.’

Looking at Holly Strickland, who now acts professionally…

10 Comedy of Errors Holly Strickland

… one really hopes that ‘spoiled and spanked’ was more than just a smart reviewer’s metaphor!

We are on more solid ground when we turn to Hamlet, but only in one respect. In Act 1 Scene 3, Laertes is preparing to go to France, but before he leaves he has some advice for his sister Ophelia about how to behave in his absence. And in one production, he reinforced this advice with a spanking. This fact is recorded by the scholar Marvin Rosenberg in an enormous book called The Masks of Hamlet about all the different stage business that has been added to the play over the centuries. The problem is that there have been so many productions of Hamlet – tens of thousands, surely – that he didn’t have room to go into detail about exactly which production featured which bit of business… so although we know for sure that the fair Ophelia has been spanked, we don’t know who she was at the time!

In a comic poem published in the New York Sun in 1938, Minna Irving commented on how Shakespeare’s characters would be treated if they were alive in modern times:

We’d think the love-lorn Juliet,
However gently bred,
A brazen flapper to be spanked
And promptly sent to bed.

Part of the process of staging classic plays for a modern audience is bringing them closer to the audience’s actual experience of life. When he was directing Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1989, Terry Hands found it especially familiar because his own daughter Marina, who’s now a successful actress…

11 Marina Hands

… was then around Juliet’s age. ‘I began to wonder what would happen if all these terrible events happened to her.’ He also decided to use a very young cast: his Juliet, Georgia Slowe, was 22 years old, but she convincingly portrayed a teenage combination of coquetry and awkwardness.

Georgia Slowe as Juliet

‘She is,’ wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian, ‘the first Juliet I have ever seen to fall backwards on her bottom when surprised by Romeo’s voice below her balcony.’ All of which helps to explain why some reviewers found it an uncomfortable moment when her father gave her a sound spanking. As Billington put it, ‘The way Bernard Horsfall’s Capulet slaps Tybalt’s face and his daughter’s bottom with equal ferocity suggests a debased world high on blood and anger.’

It happens well into the play, in Act 3 Scene 5. Capulet has spent a long time trying to get his only daughter a good marriage to Count Paris. At the masked ball in Act 1 she was even seen to flirt with Paris, before she met Romeo and lost her heart to him. Things are going badly wrong for the family by the time Capulet is able to get the engagement set up – not the least of his woes being the murder of his nephew Tybalt at the hands of that no-good tearaway Romeo – but at least Juliet’s marriage will be something good to look forward to. He hugs his little girl as he announces the engagement… but she just won’t have it; by now, after all, she is secretly married to Romeo, but can’t tell her father that. To him, she is childishly refusing a hard-won treat – and with that, his temper finally snaps. He chases her round the stage, and when he catches her, Minna Irving’s prediction comes true: ordinary family life catches up with Juliet as she gets spanked – hard!

Another uncomfortable father-daughter relationship, in The Merchant of Venice, produced one of the most memorable stage spankings of all time, thanks in no small part to the fact that the production was staged in Berlin and therefore appealed to central European tastes in spanking scenes. The show, which updated the period setting to Berlusconi’s Italy, premiered at the Maxim Gorki Theater on October 25, 2009, and remained in the repertory for several years. Regine Zimmerman was Shylock the Jew:

13 Regine Zimmerman

In that picture, the mustache is more relevant than the bra: Zimmerman may be an actress, but she is playing Shylock as written, as a man. His daughter Jessica was played by that fine German actress Julischka Eichel:

14 Julischka Eichel

Here she is in some of her other performances:

Gorki Theater We are Blood16 Julischka Eichel Madame Bovary

And here she is as Jessica:


It has been said elsewhere online that Shylock spanks Jessica for stealing money from him. If you only knew the excellent trailer produced by the Maxim Gorki Theater, and had never seen or read the play, you might well get that mistaken idea:

Trailer 1Trailer 2Trailer 3Trailer 4

But in fact, once Jessica has stolen the ducats to finance her elopement with Lorenzo, Shylock never sees her again. The spanking doesn’t punish her for the theft; if anything, it contributes to it by compounding the tension in the household.

Jessica’s real problem with her father is that he won’t let her have any fun. She’s dressed herself up to the nines for a night out on the town…


… but he just won’t hear of it, and the outcome is a row between father and daughter…


And when fathers and daughters fall out, fathers have one sure way of reasserting their authority:


A good spanking – in fact, an excellent spanking – on Jessica’s Proper Girl’s Panties!


All of which goes to show that, for anyone with an interest in spanking, Shakespeare without the Shrew is nothing at all like Hamlet without the Prince!

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