Books, Fiction, Reviews

‘Vinegar Girl’: Anne Tyler Tames the ‘Shrew’

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However you season it, The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1594) is an Elizabethan dish gone stale, if not downright sour. William Shakespeare’s tale of Petruchio, a brash Italian fortune hunter who travels from Verona to Padua to woo the quarrelsome Katherine Minola, may still provoke lusty laughs among certain readers and theatregoers. But it induces only squirms and shudders among others.

Stage directors have long looked for tricks and evasions to cope with the sad truth that Shrew is at its core a misogynistic play, a document from a culture out of synch with currently accepted social norms. In a New York Times article earlier this year, Laura Collins-Hughes described some of these manoeuvres.

Directors, she noted, have staged the play with all-male or all-female casts. Or they have suggested at play’s end that the tamer Petruchio and the tamed “Kate” are in reality contented lovers in cahoots, teaming up to win a wager to determine which Italian husband has the most obedient wife. Collins-Hughes, though, remained unconvinced that there was any graceful way around the play’s anti-feminist sentiments. “[I]t always makes me feel sick,” she wrote of Kate’s famous closing speech defending female submissiveness. “It always makes me cry.”

American novelist Anne Tyler is someone else who never cottoned to Shakespeare’s sexist shenanigans. The Pulitzer winner (for 1988’s Breathing Lessons) nevertheless agreed to create a modern prose adaptation of the story for Crown Publishing Group’s Hogarth Shakespeare series. Other writers who have contributed or will contribute titles for the collection include Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson (The Merchant of Venice) and Margaret Atwood (The Tempest). In June, Tyler’s Shrew adaptation, titled Vinegar Girl, went to market.

Back in 2015, when the novel was still being created, Tyler told The Guardian’s Tim Teeman of her disdain for the play: “I hate it. It’s totally misogynistic. I know it thinks it’s funny, but it’s not. People behave meanly to each other, every single person”.

After the book was published, the novelist told Ron Charles of the Washington Post that she found the nastiness of Shakespeare’s characters to be over-the-top ridiculous. “So you know I had to tone them down. I’m sure that somebody is out there, saying, ‘This isn’t a shrew at all.’”

And that somebody just might be right. Tyler has leached away much of the bawdiness and broad, angry comedy from Shakespeare’s story. That’s not surprising, as the Quaker-raised Tyler is celebrated for nuanced stories of contemporary Americans: people who are flawed but tend to behave civilly. She is not known for creating characters that howl at one another or hurl epithets as though they were poisoned darts.

Rather than focusing on exhausted (and exhausting) Battle of the Sexes tropes, Tyler is largely interested in exploring the ways in which differing language styles can hinder communication. Emblematic of the story’s dynamic is a moment in which protagonist Kate Battista, the daughter of a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University, hears two birds answering one another’s call with distinctly disparate melodies. “Kate couldn’t tell whether the second bird was greeting the first one or setting him straight,” writes Tyler.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kate lives with her widowed father and her much-younger sister, Bunny, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Bianca. Kate works as a teacher’s assistant at a local preschool. She doesn’t communicate much, or well, with her introspective, science-focused father, and she mocks Bunny’s use of teenage “uptalk” by treating the rising intonation at the end of the girl’s statements as though they were actual questions, requiring answers. Nor does Kate have use for small talk in the world at large, in part because she’s so inept at it. “[P]eople tended to be very spendthrift with their language,” she notes. Her plain-spokenness, meanwhile, is often misconstrued by others as rudeness.

Tyler found the nastiness of Shakespeare’s characters to be over-the-top ridiculous. “So you know I had to tone them down. I’m sure that somebody is out there, saying, ‘This isn’t a shrew at all’.”

Yet Kate values language when it is fresh and cliche-free. At one point, one of the children at the preschool tells her of a group of kid goats she has seen over the weekend, remarking: “A few of them were just barely beginning to fly.” The child’s metaphor gives Kate “a jolt of pleasure.” She finds it a pleasingly “matter-of-fact description, so concrete and unsurprised.”

Tyler’s version of the Petruchio character is a member of Dr Battista’s research team: a brilliant foreign-born scientist named Pyotr Shcherbakov, to whom, before the action of the story begins, Kate has paid little attention. With Pyotr’s visa on the verge of expiration, Battista hatches a plan to have him marry Kate and remain stateside. Unsurprisingly, the illegal scheme appalls Kate. But she nevertheless finds herself spending time with the young scientist. In some ways she already seems better attuned to her potential mate than anyone else in his orbit. For starters, she is the only one who manages to pronounce “Pyotr” correctly. Everyone else calls him “Pyoder.”

And as she gets to know her suitor better, Kate is perplexed by his diction, but finds her own voice oddly freed by him: “There was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English. She could tell him anything and half of it would fly right past him, especially if the words came tumbling out fast enough.”

Pyotr shares some of the same frustrations with American speaking patterns that bedevil the normally laconic Kate. He complains to her about Americans’ tendency to “begin inch by inch with what they say”, prefacing sentences with verbal cushions such as “Well …” or “Anyhow …”. Kate makes a joke of this by drawling out a prolonged “Oh, well, um …”

For a second [Pyotr] didn’t get it, but then he gave a short bark of laughter. She had never heard him laugh before. It made her smile in spite of herself.

Moments later, Kate makes the presumptuous observation that “foreigners” retain their accents not because they’re unable to drop them, but because they’re “proud” of them and “don’t really want to talk like us at all.”

Looking down at his sandwich, Pyotr replies, “I am not proud. I would like not to have an accent.”

This moment provides a small epiphany for Kate. She realises that while Pyotr’s “exterior self was flubbing his th sounds and not taking long enough between consonants,” his interior self was processing thoughts as deep and complex as her own. “She felt a kind of rearrangement taking place in her mind — a little adjustment of vision.”

Kate and Pyotr still have a distance to go before reaching the point at which Pyotr can make the inevitable request “Kiss me, Katya” without being rebuffed. But it’s not that long a journey. One of the flaws of the 237-page novel is that romance blossoms for the two misfits a little too quickly and easily. Near the end of her story, Tyler throws in an obstacle for the couple involving the theft of Battista’s laboratory mice. This plot turn, however, seems contrived and a bit trivial — it’s merely matter to keep the story running for several more pages. Nevertheless, there’s something appealing about the ways in which the similarly marginalised Kate and Pyotr forge a way of communicating that gives them both peace of mind and power.

I couldn’t help but wonder to what degree autobiographical elements informed the writing of this book. Anne Tyler was married to Iranian-born psychiatrist and novelist Taghi Mohammad Modarressi for 34 years, until his death in 1997. Certainly the insights she gained in those years about the kinds of linguistic give-and-take that figure in relationships between native-born citizens and immigrants may have helped her create the dynamic between Kate and Pyotr. Consider, for instance, the emotional resonance in the scene in which Pyotr confesses his discomfort as an alien in America, largely because of the language barriers he faces. It’s capped with his heartbreaking speech to Kate:

In English there is only one ‘you,’ and I have to say the same ‘you’ to you that I would say to a stranger; I cannot express my closeness.

Whether this novel could aid theatre directors looking to put a new spin on The Taming of the Shrew is anyone’s guess. Might there be a way to depict language difficulties faced by the Veronese Petruchio while making his way in Padua? Maybe not, as all parties, of course, speak not Italian but, rather, Elizabethan English, often in blank verse. Incorporating the ideas Tyler has explored in Vinegar Girl certainly won’t erase the play’s ingrained sexism. Still, some of her insights might be a starting place for a different sort of theatrical approach to this problematic title in the Shakespearean canon.

You can buy the book here

This article was first published on the American arts website The Clyde Fitch Report which is a partner of Daily Review

One response to “‘Vinegar Girl’: Anne Tyler Tames the ‘Shrew’

  1. Dear Mark. To describe The Taming of The Shrew as ‘anti-feminist’ is an anachronism. Of course it’s ‘out of synch with our social norms’ (whoever ‘we’ are). It was written in Elizabethan England four hundred years ago. That’s one of the reasons it’s worth imaginatively engaging with. Another is that Shakespeare was a genius who still has something to teach us (again, whoever ‘we’ are). And no ‘tricks and evasions’ are required to stage it in order to reveal its truth-content – which is not the ‘sad truth’ that it’s a ‘deeply misogynistic play’, but the more challenging truth that it’s a complex, ironic and multi-layered play-within-a-play performed by men playing women (no, not a contemporary ‘trick and evasion’ but traditional Elizabethan theatre practice) which rightly provokes both ‘lusty laughs’ and ‘squirms and shudders’ in anyone who has eyes to see and ears to listen. I haven’t read Anne Tyler’s work, but I’m not encouraged by someone who writes that the original play ‘thinks it’s funny’ (plays don’t think) and complains that in it ‘people behave meanly to each other, every single person’ as if this was some kind of flaw in the play itself (has she read Jane Austen recently?). The fact that she felt she had to ‘tone down’ the characters speaks well of her sensitivities (or the perceived sensitivities of her readers) but not of her range as a novelist or her grasp of the difference between life and art. This sounds like a Shrew that has indeed been Tamed.

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