Last fall Hogarth Press published the first in a series of novels by contemporary writers re-imagining Shakespeare’s plays on the 400th anniversary of his death. So far we’ve had Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold and Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, an interpretation of The Merchant of Venice.
Now Anne Tyler has written a charming and witty adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, moving it to Baltimore, where many of her novels are set, and dialling down Shakespeare’s brutal depiction of the war between the sexes.
The Vinegar Girl of the title is Kate Battista, an unaffected, intelligent, headstrong beauty living at home with her dad, Louis, an eccentric scientist at Johns Hopkins, and a ditzy younger sister, Bunny, who, like her namesake Bianca, is pretty and popular with the boys.
Petruchio is a problem, of course. Modern readers aren’t likely to accept a character whose “taming” of Kate amounts to spousal abuse, or, for that matter, the plot-driving premise that the older sister has to marry first before the younger one can wed.
Enter Pyotr, a goofy but brilliant research assistant who works in Louis’ lab and has a green card problem: His is about to expire. Louis, who believes he’s on the verge of a lifesaving medical discovery, proposes a sham marriage between Kate and Pyotr so the two men can continue their work.
At first Kate is mortified, but eventually she comes around, especially when Dad explains that he doesn’t expect them to actually live together as husband and wife. Needless to say, they fall in love.
For the most part Tyler does a good job of finessing the play’s patriarchal view of marriage with modern notions of gender equality. Until the end, that is, when she tries to “translate” the speech that Shakespeare’s Kate delivers in the final scene defending the submissive role of wives.
Modern Kate doesn’t quite say, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” etc. But what she does say - “It’s hard being a man ... It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.” - doesn’t sound true to the feisty character we’ve gotten to know. However, it does give Pyotr the opportunity to put his arm around her and say a Russianized version of “Kiss me, Kate.”