In our contemporary cultural climate, which thankfully recognizes
the battered and abused woman as a victim and the perpetrator
of that violence as a criminal, Shakespeare's The Taming
of the Shrew is undoubtedly a difficult play to stage
in any type of venue or medium. Like other of his plays of
questionable ideology, particularly The Merchant of Venice
and Othello, Shrew has been attacked by critics,
playgoers, and readers alike, accused of sending a morally
untenable message to masses of people who may be swayed or
placated by its portrayal of sado-masochistic gender relations.
Critics like Barbara Hodgdon argue that The Taming of
the Shrew normalizes and reifies domestic abuse and master-servant
dynamics in male-female relationships. Diana E. Henderson
writes that this play "highlights the culture's traffic
in women," and a Los Angeles Times theater critic
penned an editorial about Shrew entitled, "The
Beast of a Play that Can't Be Tamed," insisting that
"until someone can make better sense of the Bard's battle-of-the-sexes
comedy, it's time to declare a moratorium on the oft-staged
Despite the pervasive misgivings about this play, it has seen
prolific production in the twentieth century, spawning numerous
film and television versions since its silent picture debut
in Biograph's brief 1908 Shrew, directed by famed filmmaker
D.W. Griffith. At least eighteen screen versions of The
Taming of the Shrew have been made in North America and
Europe. In her fine article "Katherine Bound," scholar
Hodgdon examines several twentieth century productions of
Shrew on stage and on celluloid and concludes that "Shrew
continues to enfold women within representation to make
and remake cultural myths with which to negotiate her use"
and that these representations "perfectly exhibit how
the containing illusions of popular patriarchies are engendered
and sustained." In other words, all Shrews are
inevitably (and always already) works of ideological containment.
In her study of the illustrious and notorious film and television
production history of this play, Diane E. Henderson notes
that Shrew seems to experience popularity particularly
during those decades in which women are being encouraged to
return to or take pleasure in domestic space and duties and
eras in which American culture is backlashing against feminism.
Henderson also claims that "Shrew occurs at moments
of new viewing technologies and is promptly reproduced in
the new media before most if not all other Shakespeare plays,"
remarking that the "agents of culture seem anxious to
make sure The Taming of the Shrew is preserved."
It would seem that Shrew has indeed been used as an
instrument of ideological containment for women throughout
the last century. However, there is one notable and recent
exception to this rule. As the century drew to a close, one
film genre resurfaced on the mass market in a new and powerful
way: the teen movie. This genre exploded after the 1995 and
1996 box office hits Clueless, Scream, and Romeo
+ Juliet proved to filmmakers and studios that teen films
could be extremely lucrative because of their low production
costs and large audience with plenty of free time and discretionary
cash. Like the new technologies that have sought to produce
new Shrews at their inceptions, this new genre quickly
generated its Shrew for the times in 1999s 10
Things I Hate About You.
The teen film genre has been much maligned by critics all
over the country for the past several years; indeed, Shakespeare
scholars often disdain such free adaptations of his work and
claim that this sort of American pop culture version of a
Shakespeare classic is nothing but a reflection of the "dumbing-down"
of high culture to pander to and profit from the degenerate
taste of the voracious and vapid teen audience.
But much of the critical work done on Zeffirelli's Romeo
and Juliet (1968) and Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's
Romeo + Juliet (1996) has argued to the contrary: that
mass market films made of Shakespeare's work can be crafted
for the teen audience and still be effective, intelligent,
and illuminating adaptations. First time film director Gil
Junger, a twenty-two year veteran of television direction,
made 10 Things I Hate About You from a script written
by two young novice scriptwriters, Karen McCullah Lutz and
Kirsten Smith. Together, they offered a revision of The
Taming of the Shrew which finally put women on top, leaving
Kat and Bianca united in the end, not divided, and stronger
While nearly all of the film and video Shrews have
focused on how the male characters in the play position themselves
and relate to one another through the purchasing and possession
of the female characters, 10 Things is truly a film
about the Stratford sisters, Katarina and Bianca, students
at Padua High School. Unlike the Shrew text, most of
this film's dialogue belongs to the sisters, and theirs is
the only home we are allowed to explore via the camera. It
is the sisters' struggle to grow up, to deal with family and
personal demons, and to understand one another that dominate
Of course, refocusing the attention on the activity and agency
of the female characters does require a thorough rewriting
of the play. Actress Fiona Shaw, who played Kate on stage
for over a year, notes the irony embedded in a play which
claims to be about a "shrew" yet does not allow
this egregiously open-mouthed woman to speak: "I think
Shakespeare is making a point of it. This man comes to tame
Kate and speaks through the whole play
for almost five
acts we never hear her speak
So we have to interpret
In fact, when Kate finally does find her voice, she speaks
the infamous, lengthy subservient monologue in which she lectures
her sister Bianca and the newlywed widow that their husband
is their "lord," their "king," and their
"governor" and instructs them to "serve, love,
and obey" their husbands in all situations. This searing
diatribe Kate delivers at the close of the play is certainly
one of the most difficult Shakespearean passages to negotiate
on a stage or screen today. It would be extremely politically
incorrect to play it straight, and no North American audience
could tolerate it well. Hodgdon insists that the only way
audience members can endure Kate's final speech is "by
gliding over the signs of the father
as 'natural') or choosing to assume Kate is merely performing
and does not believe what she says (or both)." She further
suggests that by doing so readers or viewers "can produce
a scene similar to a happy rape, the fully authorized scene
of female sexuality-authorized precisely because it is mastered
Screenwriters Lutz and Smith have created a text that ends
Kate's silence in The Taming of the Shrew and gives
her a voice, loud and strong. Their screenplay also praises
the intelligence and insight of the mind behind that voice.
Highlighting this point, toward the beginning of the film,
Kat defiantly declares to Ms. Perky, her guidance counselor,
"Expressing my opinion is not a terrorist action."
Perhaps this is the pivotal difference between early modern
gender politics and those of the 1990s. Moreover, the screenwriters
have also transformed Kate's final patriarchal paean to wifely
domesticity into a public reading of a Shakespearean sonnet
she has written to her would-be boyfriend, Patrick, who has
betrayed her trust. In the sonnet, she explains the many things
she "hates" about him in order to communicate her
affection for and disappointment in his treatment of her.
Like her counterpart in Shrew, Kat is expressing her care
for her partner; however, this Kat does not lose her edge.
The servile flattery is lost; she is not accepting a "happy
rape." Instead, Kat is asking for a renewal of a "marriage
of true minds."
As I have mentioned, the film is about two sisters, Katarina
and Bianca Stratford, a high school senior and sophomore respectively,
who are complete opposites. Kat is a willful, intellectual,
sharp-tongued young woman who is universally feared as a "mewling
rampallian wretch" or, in the vernacular, a "heinous
bitch." She reads Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir,
listens to "angry girl" indie rock, and wants to
attend prestigious Sarah Lawrence College. Bianca is a popular,
pretty girl who constantly seeks the approval of others and
debates the relative value of her fashion accessories, at
one point declaring that she has discovered the difference
between like and love because she "likes" her Skechers
(sneakers) but she "loves" her Prada backpack.
One of the most entertaining and innovative features of this
film is its portrayal of the sisters' father, played by comedian
Larry Miller. He is an obstetrician who spends every day "up
to his elbows in placenta," and is paranoid that if he
allows his daughters to date, they will become a teen pregnancy
statistic. He continually lectures them about the horrors
of teenagers giving birth and insists that they stay close
to home. At one point in the film, he forces Bianca to wear
a weighted vest which is shaped like the torso of a pregnant
woman, called "the belly," to keep her from getting
into trouble with the opposite sex at a party. For all his
paranoia, he is a loving father who cares about what his daughters
want. The screenplay goes further to explain the situation
by revealing that the Stratford mother abandoned the family
three years before the opening of the film, and the father
feels overwhelmed with the roles of both mother and father.
Kat has clearly taken on some of the motherly functions in
the house, including the role of protector in Bianca's life.
Kat insists she does not desire to date the "unwashed
miscreants" that deck the halls of her high school, but
she is also hiding a secret. She has had a negative sexual
encounter with Joey Donner, the school narcissist, and she
is trying to save Bianca from a similar fate by encouraging
her father to retain the no-dating rules for both sisters.
When Bianca begs "Daddy" for permission to go out
like "normal" girls, he placates her by giving her
a condition: if Kat dates, she can date. He clearly relies
on Kat not to do what she has sworn disgusts her and believes
he is safe in this ruling.
The contemporary high school setting of this adaptation of
The Taming of the Shrew greatly lessens the consequences
of the male-female relationships in the play. Like the Shrew
plot, this film begins with a newcomer to Padua High, Cameron,
spotting Bianca across a crowded quad and declaring Lucentio's
words, "I burn, I pine, I perish," to which his
guide Michael replies dryly, "Of course you do."
This anti-Petrarchan sentiment echoes that in Shrew
as well as plays like Romeo and Juliet and sonnets
such as "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun."
Cameron then claims to be a French tutor in order to get to
know Bianca, as Lucentio disguises himself as a tutor for
Petruchio's transformation is more complicated. Patrick Verona
is a wild high school senior whose reputation as an insane
renegade, like Kat's, allows him to escape the economy of
high school hierarchies. It is common knowledge that he sold
his liver on the black market to buy a new pair of speakers,
spent a year in San Quentin, and ate a live duck. But the
truly shrewish traits of Petruchio are found in the character
of Joey, the self-obsessed underwear model who three years
before had deflowered Kat and who now has made a bet with
his friends that he can do the same to Bianca.
As in Shrew, money changes hands concerning the possession
of a female. In this case, Cameron and Michael, in an Iago-like
move, inveigle Joey into paying Patrick to date Kat so that
Bianca can date, as per the new rule set by their father.
Of course, Patrick succeeds in winning the heart of the wily
Kat after several amusing mishaps, including her vomiting
on his shoes after drinking too much at a party and him performing
"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" for her in the high
school stadium, sacrificing himself on the altar of dignity.
Their public humiliation is mutual.
In fact, the most important cross-gender relationship in
10 Things I Hate About You is the one between Kat and
her father. Like Kate in Shrew, Kat believes that her
father wants her to be more like Bianca and feels that he
loves Bianca more; however, unlike Kate, Kat has a father
who not only listens to her, but also learns from her.
In Shrew, when Kate's father Baptista informs Petruchio
that he may wed her only if he obtain the "special thing
love; for that is all in all," he quickly forgets his
pledge to honor her will and expressly acts against her wishes
in marrying her to Petruchio.
In 10 Things, Kat's overprotective father has been
thinking about Kat's accusation that he does not trust his
daughters to make their own decisions because he lost his
wife and feels out of control himself. By the conclusion of
the film, father Stratford has put forth money on behalf of
Katarina: he has paid her deposit for Sarah Lawrence College.
He has relinquished his desire to keep her close to home and
decides to trust her judgment and support her education on
the east coast.
Bianca's fate is more interesting. Bianca seems to be the
same simpering, manipulative fool at the start of 10 Things
as she does throughout Shrew; however, this Bianca is a cat
of a different color. This Bianca may be sophomoric, but she
is not stupid.
She realizes, all on her own, that Joey is a pompous windbag
and finds him ultimately repugnant, despite his popularity.
Instead, she chooses the kind, smitten Cameron, who confronts
her with the frustrated question, "Have you always been
this selfish?" After a shamed pause, she answers quietly,
"Yes." This Bianca allows herself to be chastened
by her suitor and then attempts to mend her ways, having obviously
learned some valuable lessons.
When Kat finally tells Bianca about her damaging sexual experience
with Joey, Bianca confronts Kat with her own duplicity, asking
Kat why she had never told of this before and insisting that
this was not a valid reason for Kat to help their father keep
Bianca understands that this has been a house of damaging
secrets and denial. Of the three remaining members of her
broken family, she is the only one who accepts that her mother
is gone for good and attempts to recapture some normalcy in
a house of extremes. The symbolism in the film is subtle,
but potent. Bianca wears her mother's pearls, emblem of maternal
domesticity, which enrages Kat, who declares that they should
not be worn at all and look terrible on Bianca. Clearly, Kat
holds on to the expectation that her mother is coming home.
Their father tries to hold on to his daughters so as not to
lose them as he did his wife. Only Bianca knows that life
must move on.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Bianca, like her
counterpart in Shrew, proves more shrewish than her
sister: she punches Joey Donner twice in the nose (once for
making Cameron bleed, once for what he did to her sister)
and kicks him in the groin, saying "and that's for me!"
The next day, when Kat admits to her father that Bianca "beat
the hell" out of Joey, she expects her father's censure:
"What's the matter? Upset that I rubbed off on her?"
Their father responds honestly, "No impressed."
It turns out that Kat has succeeded in protecting her sister
after all, by teaching her to be strong and to be herself.
At the conclusion of the film, the audience sees that the
end of domestic containment, which had been maintained by
both the father and by Kat, creates a closer, more unified
Thus, in the end, rather than the "dumbing-down of high
culture to pander to and profit from the degenerate taste
of the voracious and vapid teen audience," screenwriters
Lutz and Smith and director Junger have created a skillful
revision of the problematic Shrew, endowing Kat and
Bianca with strength, intelligence, agency, and, perhaps most
importantly, a voice. The two sisters have indeed been transformed
into role models for women in the twenty-first century.