I have to start off by saying that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is not my favorite of his plays. I had to read it in Freshman Honors English, many years ago, and found it sexist and offensive then, and it hasn’t really gotten better since (how DO you stage the scene where a “tamed” Kate lectures her sister about how important it is to be submissive and obedient without making the women in the audience want to throw things?). Hogarth has started a series of modern authors rewriting classic Shakespearean plots (one of the others was Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a reworking of A Winter’s Tale; another was Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, a new version of The Merchant of Venice), and now we have Anne Tyler’s reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, which is called Vinegar Girl, and which is available now at the Field Library.
It’s a little odd when a modern writer tries to rewrite someone else’s work: how much of what comes out is shaped and colored by the modern writer’s sensibilities, and how much needs to be a reflection of the original? In the case of Anne Tyler, whose books are usually family dramas with odd characters all centered around Baltimore, Maryland, revisiting The Taming of the Shrew involves changing the ages of the characters and their relations (sort of) to each other, and setting the whole thing in modern day Baltimore (of course).
Our modern day Kate is a preschool teacher’s aide, 29 years old and a college dropout (well, not really a dropout, since she was asked to leave college after a verbal altercation with a professor). The kids love her for her outspoken and filter-free nature, but the parents of those kids, and her co-workers and bosses, are less enthused. Her younger sister is pretty but ditzy, and her father is a brilliant scientist who’s on the verge of a breakthrough, except that his lab assistant, Pyotor, is about to be deported for overstaying his visa. Kate’s father has what he thinks is a brilliant idea: he’ll keep Pyotor in the country legally by getting him to marry Kate! It’s not as if anyone else is queuing up to marry her, after all, and this will be a big help to him in his work, which he believes is more important than her feelings.
So we don’t have the obnoxious plot from Shakespeare where the younger and more attractive daughter can’t get married until someone marries the older shrewish daughter Kate; we have instead a more modern story about people from different cultures trying to decide whether they’re willing to get married, in form or in reality, just to facilitate someone else’s work. Kate is not so much a shrew as she is a smart woman who speaks her mind and doesn’t think about the consequences. She’s also rather lovable and — fortunately for all concerned — she doesn’t need to be “tamed” by anyone in order to achieve the obligatory happy ending.