Cinema Retro contributing writer Nicole Pfeiffer revisits director Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 film version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and finds his interpretation more suitable for thespians named Moe, Larry and Curley.
When the film went into production in 1966, Burton and Taylor were arguably the hottest celebrity couple in the world, having tantalized the press with their illicit affair on the set of Cleopatra years before. They had since starred in films such as The V.I.P.S and The Sandpiper - both critical duds that made huge profits at the box-office. The release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, also in 1966, represented the artistic pinnacle of their careers. With The Taming of the Shrew, the couple had hoped to build on the critical acclaim they had recently gained, but the movie , which the couple also produced, was not a financial or critical success.
In his famous work "Poetics", Aristotle stated, “Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry.” If Aristotle could see Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 film production of The Taming of the Shrew, he would surely grimace; Shakespeare would roll over in his grave. The Italian director’s adaptation of the Bard’s classic comedy in which the fortune hunting Petruccio (Richard Burton) attempts to tame the insufferable temper and tongue of his wealthy wife Katharine (Elizabeth Taylor), offers up a serving of spectacle so overwhelming that it stifles the poetic language and witty repartee for which the play is acclaimed. While the elaborate sets, costumes, and props are worthy of praise, the movie as a whole seems to resemble a prolonged Three Stooges short than it does Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes. Pratfalls abound, characters are frequently bopped on their bottoms with unwieldy objects, and the female lead ends up in a puddle of mud. It’s a miracle that no one’s head gets caught in a vice by the end of the movie. Additionally, the incessant laughter of the dimwitted servants at these antics proves as irritating and contrived as the laugh track on Friends.
The film’s spectacle parallels and perhaps contributes to an utter lack of character development or chemistry between the real-life divas of Burton and Taylor. After reading Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” one can easily interpret Petruccio as a money-grubbing but charismatic fellow and Katharine as a shrewish but admirably clever heroine. However, from the start, Zeffirelli portrays only the worst possible aspects of these two characters: Petruchio is a stumbling and brutish drunkard while Katharine is a maniacal woman who senselessly destroys every object she can lay her hands on. In the play, when the two protagonists first meet, they engage in a battle of wills and wits that showcases Shakespeare’s revered gift for puns, banter, and wordplay. However, in the film, Zeffirelli abandons the humor of language in favor of physical comedy. Although the dialogue of the scene is in keeping with that of the play, its lines are shouted as Petruchio pursues Katharine in an outlandish chase throughout her father’s castle. As a result, jibes are lost to the squawking of geese, innuendos are drowned out by the crashing of chandeliers, and witticisms are overpowered by the creaking of a roof that gives way under the weight of the battling characters (and perhaps also that of Taylor’s liberally displayed bosom)
Rare teaser ad announcing production had begun on the film. Director Zeffirelli would compensate for the weak response to the movie the following year with his triumphant adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
Additionally, the lack of character development detracts from the film by depriving members of the audience of a hero to whom they can relate. While most people have probably found themselves faced with sexual tension, involved in a troubled relationship, or engaged in a battle of wits, I sincerely hope that a majority of audiences cannot emotionally connect with a drunken and abusive gold-digger or a hysterical and violent madwoman (however, considering the recent obsession with K-fed and Britney, this may be the case). Although certain negative characteristics humorously prevail in Shakespeare’s original work, it is possible to find some endearing qualities in Petruccio and Katherine. However, in Zeffirelli’s film the characters are so unwaveringly despicable that it is impossible to feel pangs of sympathy for either or even root for the triumph of one over the other. Furthermore, by creating such flat characters, Zeffirelli also wastes the talent of his stars. While Elizabeth Taylor proved her abilities to play a nuanced and realistic shrew both in the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in her real life escapades with Burton, in the movie, she only smiles or shrieks depending on the bipolar whims of her character.
However, in all fairness, the problems of the production are not entirely the fault of Zeffirelli but also, gasp, those of the Bard himself. For one, Zeffirelli’s decision to tone down the dialogue and play up the pratfalls may result from the fact that many of the puns and double entendres used by Shakespeare no longer translate to the modern world. Indeed, a movie cannot include footnotes that politely indicate that a seemingly inane term actually implied “to have sexual intercourse.” Additionally, Zeffirelli may have relied on physical comedy as a means of exaggerating the cruelty of Petruccio toward Katherine in order to portray it as absurd rather than realistic. Indeed, while taming a wife may have been a subject ripe for comedy in the early seventeenth century, the ideas of verbal and domestic abuse, no matter how they are presented, thankfully provoke more skeptical reactions in today’s society. While Ben Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time,” may hold true, it seems that “The Taming of the Shrew” was in fact for an age long ended.