So what do we expect to see in a production of The Taming of the Shrew?
Well, usually, something like this:
Mara Stahl and William Tate in a modern-dress production at Portland State University, February 3, 1966
Sometimes augmented, if we’re lucky, with something like this:
‘Petruchio explains to Katherina that a woman will not wear the pants in his family.’ Dale Krupla spanks Cindy M. Adams in a school production at Brunswick High School, Ohio, on November 15 and 16, 1973.
So when, in 2008, a politically correct reviewer’s ‘sensitivity rating’ warned prospective playgoers that the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production featured ‘Sexual innuendo, some mild sexual gestures, a tiny amount of slapping, pushing and spanking’, it might have seemed obvious that Melinda Parrett’s Kate was destined to end up with the tiniest bit of a sore bottom. But what actually happened was:
Yes, in this production (set in 1947 during the American occupation of Italy) it was Bianca, played by Lisa Ferris, who got spanked by her elder sister. This time the spanking scene was a manifestation of Kate’s shrewishness, not part of the process of taming her.
The play features two big confrontations in its second act: the wooing scene between Petruchio and Kate, and, before that, the sibling rivalry scene between Kate and Bianca. Both can be played as knockabout romps with a lot of rough and tumble, as seen in this German television production:
And that means an inventive director could easily bring spanking into it even without the longstanding stage tradition associating such business with the play.
And Bianca spanking seems to be a longstanding stage tradition in its own right, too, long before Cole Porter rhymed the girl’s name with ‘Poppa spanka’. We have already come across Renee Asherson getting her bottom slippered in the 1947 Old Vic production. Now meet Muriel Hewitt:
She played Bianca in Sir Barry Jackson’s 1928 modern-dress production at the Court Theatre, and was spanked with a hairbrush by Kate, played by Eileen Beldon. I don’t know of a picture showing it happening, but here’s the immediate aftermath:
Exactly a quarter of a century later, at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Mary Watson’s Bianca…
… had her bottom slapped by Yvonne Mitchell’s Kate, though it has to be said it’s not clear whether this was a spanking or just a smacking. Whereas there’s not much doubt twenty years after that, at the other Stratford, in Ontario, when Pat Galloway did this to Patricia Collins:
And another twenty years on, 1993 saw the introduction of another kind of Bianca-beater, in Jude Kelly’s West Yorkshire Playhouse production set on a 1920s cruise ship with its own gymnasium…
Nichola McAuliffe may have felt entitled to some payback, having played Lilli Vanessi in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1987 production of Kiss Me Kate, with Paul Jones as her Fred Graham…
But in Leeds six years later, her Kate had her own particular reasons for resenting Bianca. ‘Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?’ asks Petruchio in the wooing scene. In this production, it was because she really did: Nichola played her with a club foot. So it wasn’t just that her sister was younger and prettier: she was more able-bodied too. And in the sibling rivalry scene, set in the gym, Kate duly proved her own physical prowess by throwing Bianca over a vaulting horse and spanking her with a tennis racket!
That may not be the meanest implement you can imagine, but Kates do often seem to have the habit of severity when they’re spanking Bianca. Here’s a 1980 production set in Latin America:
In 2009, the props department of the Wig and Buckle Theater Company of Annville, Pennsylvania, equipped Casey Goryeb with a cane for use on the rear end of Kiley Lotz:
In the publicity photos, they had to make do with a ruler:
And in Germany the following year:
Meanwhile, in this 1988 student production at Portland State University, siblings have no mercy, because this time it’s a raised skirt spanking for Bianca:
And although it goes back a long way, some of this is obviously about what is acceptable to modern sensibilities. It’s not completely irrelevant that a number of the productions from recent times have been directed by women: not just Jude Kelly at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1993, but also Jane Page (Utah, 2008) and Karen Oulahan (Pennsylvania, 2009), talented ladies all who were never going to present the play as a crude parable of male dominance. Nowadays it’s just not as ‘normal’ as it used to be for a woman to be spanked by her husband (or prospective fiancé), always excepting kink and the weirdness of Christian Domestic Discipline. So we’re perhaps less likely to see a ‘straightforward’ romantic Petruchio/Kate spanking than once was the case, except when it’s overtly presented as part of a period setting, as in the 2014 Los Angeles production set in the 1950s. An alternative way of sidestepping the problem is to present the spanking as part of Kate’s bad behavior, rather than legitimizing it as Petruchio’s response.
And if the result is a well-staged, well-posed OTK spanking such as Derdriu Ring received from Laura Perrotta at the 2004 Great Lakes Theater Festival in Ohio, then who’s complaining?