“Vinegar Girl”: Anne Tyler Tames the “Shrew”

Book cover image of Vinegar Girl, courtesy of Crown Publishing Group.

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 theatergoers. But it induces only squirms and shudders among others.

An Elizabethan dish gone stale.

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 maneuvers. 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” with each other — teaming up to win the pot in 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.”

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Not Quite By the Bard

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 of this year, Tyler’s Shrew adaptation, called 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.

Chattel Kathy: Elizabeth Taylor as Katherine in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 film of Shrew.

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.

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Word-Crossed Lovers

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.

Yet Kate values language when it is fresh and cliché-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 reluctant homage to Shakespeare is her 21st novel.

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 if any 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 some 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 she 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 realizes 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.”

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Photo of a young Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler, early in her career.

Were Thine That Special Voice

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 marginalized 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.

“…a jolt of pleasure…”

Whether this novel could aid theater 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 at all, 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.