Southern Shrews: Marriage and Slavery in American Appropriations of Shakespeare

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I. Introduction

To state the obvious, The Taming of the Shrew takes place in Italy. Like most Shakespeare plays, however, it can be translated to foreign climes, including the Southern United States. Philip C. Kolin, for instance, describes a Taming of the Shrew, "Southern style," that was performed at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976: "Gentlemen in the cast wore high silk hats and dapper frock coats; ladies sauntered in wide hoop skirts and bright silk dresses. Baptista dressed and talked like a Kentucky Colonel; Kate hurled insults like a shrew but looked like a Southern belle; and Petruchio's servants looked like field hands." (1) While the Southern Miss version of Shrew claimed a certain ideological innocence--there were no slaves in this imaginary South, only "field hands"--a 2002 production of Shrew at the Nottingham Playhouse in England "Southernized" the play as part of its cultural critique of American capitalism and racism in the 1950s. The set was adorned with advertisements for Brylcreem, something called the Real-pro bra, and Barbie dolls; and while the romantic lead Lucentio and his father sported Southern accents, black actor Andrew French was cast as Tranio, the clever servant of Lucentio who successfully poses, for much of the play, as his (white) "Master." As Chris Hopkins notes, this is the America not only of Barbie, but also of Brown vs. Board of Education. (2)

While the Nottingham production of The Taming of the Shrew might seem to be an anomaly, in point of fact the metaphoric connection between marriage and racial discrimination, and more specifically, slavery, in American performances and appropriations of the play goes back to the nineteenth century, as both national and regional character are defined through women in relation to the nation's most troubling political and ethical legacy. Is marriage slavery or slavery marriage? The responses produced by nineteenth-century writers indicate how Shakespeare can serve as a forum for American cultural politics and simultaneously bring Southern voices into dialogue with those of other regions and nations. And their answers find resonance in appropriations of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew well into the twentieth century.

II. Shrew on Stage in the Antebellum South

Between 1750 and 1776, a number of Shakespeare plays were performed in the future United States, Shrew among them; Shattuck records an early performance (of the Garrick adaptation Catharine and Petruchio [1756]) in Philadelphia on November 21, 1766. (3) The United States was generally slow to warm to Shakespeare, but this situation changed in both North and South during the nineteenth century, as plays were legitimated by more and more cities, native companies were formed, and English stars found a market for guest appearances in America. (4) For instance, between 1800 and 1860, "the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, had the opportunity to see approximately 600 performances of twenty-three of Shakespeare's plays, from the ever-popular Richard II to Love's Labor's Lost, with its one performance." (5)

The Taming of the Shrew, or, more accurately, the adaptation by David Garrick entitled Catharine and Petruchio, was generally popular on Southern stages during the first half of the nineteenth century. The Shakespeare plays performed most frequently in Charleston were, in order, Hamlet (83 performances), Macbeth (76), Othello (64), and Romeo and Juliet (64). Nevertheless, William Stanley Hoole's exhaustive study of Charleston antebellum theater also shows thirty-two performances of Catharine and Petruchio between 1800 and 1860. (6) In 1851 and 1855, there are listings as well for The Taming of the Shrew, although the play was probably the Garrick adaptation going under its Shakespearean name. My own review of notices in the Charleston Courier between 1804 and 1860 yields a total of fifty performances for Catharine and Petruchio. …