This one was ... interesting. For one thing, most of the jokes are so dirty they make Shakespeare's "What, with my tongue in your tail?" sound like "Why did the chicken cross the road?" by comparison.
Stuff That Happens: Petruccio, from The Taming of the Shrew, is a widower who decides to marry a sweet young thing named Maria. Everybody, including Petruccio's closest friends, feels very sorry for Maria. Maria has a younger sister named Livia, who loves Roland, but is being pressured to marry an old guy named Moroso. Maria announces that she intends to refuse to have sex with Petruccio until she has reduced him to a suitable state of meekness. Maria and Livia's kinswoman, Bianca (possibly the same Bianca from the original Shrew, possibly not) cheers her on; Livia is skeptical. The women barricade the men out of the bedroom and empty chamber pots on them. This is a major blow to Petruccio's ego ("Am I Petruccio, feared and spoken of, / And on my wedding night I am thus jaded?"
Livia, at Moroso's order, shooes Roland away, then joins forces with Maria and Bianca and plots to escape Moroso. Roland rails about how evil women are. A bunch of country wenches march forth to Maria's defense. Maria and Livia offer Petruccio and Moroso conditions ("liberty and clothes, / When and in what way she will; / Continual moneys, / Company and all the house at her dispose," etc.); Petruccio decides to play along and humor them. Roland rails some more against women and love; Tranio bets him twenty pounds to two hundred that he'll take Livia back if she gives him the chance, and then bets Livia forty angels that he can get Roland back for her. Maria demands extravagant clothing and household improvements; Petruccio remonstrates with her. When this doesn't work, he pretends to have the plague. All flee, taking the household goods with them. Maria returns and plays the perfect wife, protesting that Petruccio has been unkind in sending her away and sending the household goods after her. Livia pretends to be sick and sends for Moroso and Roland.
Petruccio tells his servants that they are all leaving the country to get away from Maria. Maria dresses as a prostitute and refuses to talk. Petruccio rails at her, trying to provoke her to speak, and when that doesn't work, announces he's going abroad and she can have half her marriage portion as long as he doesn't have to see her again. Maria professes herself delighted that he's going abroad to learn wisdom, urges him to travel in as penurious a style as possible, and compares herself to Penelope -- "For in your absence, it must be my honour ... / To have temptations (and no little ones) / Daily and hourly offered me (and strongly)." Petrucchio hasn't quite bargained for this, and confides to Sophocles that he intends to test Maria another way. Livia, meanwhile, tricks her father and Moroso into signing a contract for her marriage with Roland. Sophocles announces to the servants that Petruccio is dead from grief because of Maria's misbehavior. Petruccio stages a funeral and sits up in his coffin just as Maria concludes her "Good riddance" speech. There is a sudden reconciliation. (Maria: "I have done my worst, and had my end. Forgive me. / From this hour make what you please. I have tamed ye / And now am made your servant.") Livia announces her marriage to Roland. There is an epilogue, assigned by editors to Maria: "The tamer's tamed -- but so, as nor the men / Can find one just cause to complain of, when / They fitly do consider, in their lives / They should not reign as tyrants o'er their wives; / Nor can the women from this precedent / Insult or triumph, it being aptly meant / To teach both sexes due equality / And, as they stand bound, to love mutually..."
Thoughts: The editors, Gary Taylor and Celia Daileader, seem to be reading this as a proto-feminist play. I'm not sure this quite works, in spite of the epilogue -- there are as many things pulling against it as for it. Structurally, the final scene promises an end to comedic reversals and a return to the status quo, and Maria vows that "all my life ... I dedicate in service to your [Petruccio's] pleasure." Petruccio's own comment on the situation at the end of the play is "I have my colt again, and now she carries." Also, Maria's basic strategy is to mimic the stereotypical actions of a Very Bad Wife -- it seems as easy to read the play as a confirmation of the accuracy of such stereotypes as a reversal of them, especially since Maria isn't given a great deal of motivation for her behavior in the first place. (As in many of Beaumont and / or Fletcher's plays, a lot of Stuff Happens, but it's not always clear why it happens -- with the exception of the brilliant Knight of the Burning Pestle, where it's crystal clear that Stuff Happens because the audience demands it. I suspect this is true of Tamer as well -- the real trick is pulling off a play that pleases audience members of both sexes, and Fletcher, I think, is going for that delicate balance. I can imagine a lot of debate over who "won.")
Anyway, a fun romp, with a lot of sly wit in the reversals of Petruchio's strategies in the original Shrew. A great deal more verbal humor in this one, and less slapstick. Many hints that Petruccio's married life with his first wife has been very far from peaceful. (Somewhat to my surprise, this play seems to support the reading that Katharina's final speech in Shrew is ironic -- this Kate evidently gave as good as she got up to her dying day. I had a professor in undergrad who was absolutely convinced that the word "labour" in the final act of Shrew was the key to the whole thing, and nobody could have played the "[Thy husband] ... for thy maintenance commits his body / To painful labour" line entirely straight. Curiously, there's a bit of an echo in Tamer; Roland promises "There shall not want my labour, sir" when Livia's father tells him he wants grandchildren. Not sure what to make of this.)