The first Shakespeare play which Zeffirelli adopted to the cinema, The Taming of the Shrew, deals with the theme of gender roles. In a grander scale the play explores the behavior expectations of males and females both in society at large and within a domestic relationship. For many years, most critics agreed that the heart of the play suggested male domination and female submission, especially to the authority of their husbands, as the accepted male-female dynamic. This view went unchanged for many years and audiences widely accepted Petruchio's “taming” of Katherina as politically correct.
By the time of Zeffirelli's depiction of The Taming of the Shrew in 1967, the second wave of the feminist movement was well under way in the United States and women's liberation groups began to spring up all over America. It was also in this year that President Lyndon B Johnson signed executive order 11375, expanding affirmative action and ensuring equal rights for education and employment to women and minorities (archives.gov).With the changing socio-political views of the role of women during the second feminist movement, critics began to rethink The Taming the Shrew and directors began to employ the element of irony in the plays conclusion (Kahn, 98) to undermine the traditional chauvinistic reading of the play and enhances the battle of the sexes.
Zeffirelli's film is the first notable production of the late nineteenth century to accomplish the revisionist approach to the play, and according to literary critic Mei Zhu, in her essay entitled “Shakespeares Taming of the Shrew and the Tradition of the Screwball Comedy,” Zeffirelli's approach to the film as a Hollywood screwball comedy provided for a natural exploration of the battle of the sexes, a theme rooted in screwball comedies since the 1930's (Zhu, 1). Combine this with the stellar performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, enhanced by the chemistry of their own off-screen, often turbulent relationship, Zeffirelli is afforded the ability to convey the passionate, yet tumultuous relationship between Kate and Petruchio and the competition of conformity. This is confirmed by film critic Terri Schwartz in her article “Remembering Elizabeth Taylor through the Taming of the Shrew,”in which she states, “Shakespeare's two main characters are supposed to butt heads as it is in this play, but Taylor and Burton take it to the next level (Schwartz).”
In contrast to Shakespeare's play, which is widely considered a play about manners and order, Petruchio comes out the unquestioned leader in this domestic competition. Zeffirelli's film however, is different, as Katherina plays a more dominant role. Taylor's performance, one of the highlights of her illustrious career, is a portrayal of Katherina as a woman of strength and intelligence. According to Schwartz, Taylor achieved this through her aggressive acting, “Taylor was well known for her big personality, and that was able to come out...