Taylor. Burton. Zeffirelli. Shakespeare. What could go wrong? Not a lot, as it turns out, in this fun adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. Hollywood’s greatest lovers team up to bring Shakespeare’s moneygrubbing Petruchio and feisty Katharine to life, and the result is, if not exactly electrifying, certainly entertaining.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, here it is. It’s actually reasonably uncomplicated, by Shakespearean standards. Baptista of Padua has two daughters: Katharina, who is a terror, and Bianca, who is all things sweet and lovely. Bianca has three suitors, among them the handsome scholar Lucentio (introducing Michael York!), lately come to Padua. Unfortunately for them, Baptista has sworn that he will not marry off Bianca until he has found a husband for Katharina, which is well-nigh impossible because she is so disagreeable. Enter Petruchio, an acquaintance of one of the suitors, who has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife. He declares that he will marry anyone if she comes with a large-enough dowry, and agrees to take on the wooing of Katharina. In short order they are married, and he then sets about “taming” her by making her as miserable in her new life as possible, and showing her the effect her type of behavior has on other people. Meanwhile, Lucentio is posing as Bianca’s tutor in order to woo her, and his servant, Tranio, is posing as Lucentio. Their deception comes unraveled when Lucentio’s father arrives, but all is sorted out and Lucentio wins Bianca’s hand. Petruchio and the (now-tamed) Katharina return for the wedding celebration, where Katharina delivers a speech on the appropriate duty of women to their husbands, and they all live, presumably, happily ever after.
This is a really fun adaptation to watch. It’s a very earthy, physically humorous production, and of course the lead actors are completely mesmerizing. This was my introduction to Richard Burton, and for the most part he did not disappoint. He started out as a classical actor on the stage, and it’s clear that Shakespearean verse comes as naturally to him as breathing. His Petruchio is very rough-and-tumble, and it added an interesting dimension to the plot in that while he is taming Katharina, she is also taming him. Elizabeth Taylor is not the first actress who would come to mind for the shrewish Katharina, but she holds her own quite admirably. She’s not as comfortable with the lines, but in her early scenes she lets go of her typically glamorous personae and is a shrieking terror; throwing everything she can get her hands on at anyone who crosses her path, glaring and fuming and cursing. I wouldn’t want to mess with her. The supporting cast are all quite funny and capable, but really, you’re only watching for the Burtons, and it’s totally worth it.
The film is not without flaws, but they’re mostly due to the screenplay, I think. It feels very rushed and choppy some of the time, since with Shakespeare one usually has to make a fair amount of cuts in order to have a movie of tolerable length. The end, where Katharina shows up “tamed” (which is only loosely interpreted here, I think) seems to come from out of nowhere. It’s typical Shakespeare in that he ties up all his loose ends for the finale, but I can’t recall if it’s quite so cut-and-dried in the play, or if it’s always this abrupt. Overall, though, everyone onscreen seems to be having such a good time that you’ll be taken along for the ride.
It’s easy to see how the star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could be accused of overshadowing the films in which they appeared, but it doesn’t (or shouldn’t, in my opinion) detract from their abilities as actors. The great aspects of this production are the little things, the little glances and expressions and small moments that these two world-class performers bring to their roles. It doesn’t always happen in Shakespeare that you see the characters as real people, but that’s what Taylor and Burton have managed here. Katharina and Petruchio are two flawed individuals who end up together, and slowly realize that they’re pretty happy about that, and that it’s changing them for the better. In this interpretation, we are not necessarily lead to believe that “happily ever after” will be a quiet affair, but then, whose ever really is?