Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Taming Of The Shrew (Shakespeare Re-Read #8)

In case you actually think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to Shakespeare, keep in mind I'm the same guy who didn't realize "10 Things I Hate About You" was a revised "Taming Of The Shrew" until literally the end of the movie.  Like, they revealed that the school was called Verona High or something and that's what finally clued me in.  Good lord.  Forget the familiar plot or how the characters were literally called Kat and Bianca, it took the friggin' name of the school to lift the fog from my brain.  I'm just lucky I didn't see the high school name and then smugly announce to my friends that we'd just seen a remake of "Two Gentlemen Of Verona."

Anyway, that Julia Stiles/Heath Ledger joint was surely how most of my generation* is familiar
with "Taming Of The Shrew," though it's such a well-worn plot that you might've seen versions of it on sitcoms, in musicals**, or even just on the stage, as TOTS is one of the most enduring of Shakespeare's comedies.  I dare say it's one of the Bard's most well-known stories, adapted a hundred times over on stage and screen throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  

* = and, not for nothing, that movie is actually really cute.  I daresay that for me, Ledger's first breakout star moment was his song and dance number on the bleachers to impress Kat.  That was one of those 'wow, this guy has some legit charisma' scenes that puts an actor on the map.  Again, what a shame about Ledger. 

** = my high school teacher father took us to his school's production of "Kiss Me Kate" when I was a kid, so that was my first exposure to the material.  In the original text, Petruchio literally says "Kiss me, Kate" at least three times, so that's where that comes from.

So why does a play that, on paper, come off as dinosaurish in its treatment of women still so popular today?  Well, I guess you could argue that this is the era of the Kardashians and the Bechdel Test, so it's not like we're exactly shining beacons of enlightenment in how women are portrayed in entertainment.  The more specific answer in how it relates to TOTS, however, is that it's one of the plays most often heavily re-edited and adjusted from what might have been Shakespeare's original meaning.  My friend Sarah recently saw a production of TOTS at Stratford and noted that Katherine's famous speech in Act V, Scene ii was delivered with the utmost sarcasm by the actress on stage.  Basically the entire meaning of the play was therefore flipped --- Katherine hasn't been tamed, she is merely in the first stages of taming Petruchio herself. 

This is how TOTS is most often interpreted these days; the play becomes a battle of the sexes rather than Petruchio just breaking a woman down with straight-up psychological and physical torment. And let's call a spade a spade here, Petruchio tortures Katherine.  He is literally trying to tame her as he would a falcon, even to the point of starving her and not allowing her to sleep.  It's the sort of wanton cruelty that, even in a modern production, is hard to cast in a farcical light.  One of my pet theories of Shakespeare is that some of his tragedies are so absurd that they're only a few tweaks away from becoming comedies, and TOTS shows that the reverse is true of the comedies.  One theatrical production of TOTS from the 70's played the text as a completely straight drama, making the whole thing terrifying.  The negotiations over Bianca's dowry take on a sinister air of human trafficking and prostitution, while Katherine's treatment the actress portraying her to deliver the final monologue in a flat monotone, as if she'd had the life beaten out of her.  Yikes.  This takes removing the laugh track to the Nth degree.

I noted in my review of "Comedy Of Errors" that while Shakespeare was far and away more mature about writing female characters than many playwrights of his era, he was still susceptible to the stereotypes of his day.  That said, the women in COE were basically Eleanor Roosevelt compared to poor Katherine (and, to a lesser extent, poor Bianca) in TOTS.  This play isn't traditionally thought of as one of Shakespeare's so-called problem plays, since the only 'problem' with its narrative is that it comes off as collar-tuggingly sexist to modern audiences. 

Having said all that, there is definitely evidence that Shakespeare's sexism in regards to TOTS is overstated, and that the Bard specifically intended his play to be satire rather than an actual position on sexual mores.  Hold on, before I begin, let me put on my Shakespeare-defending shoes….ahh, that's the ticket.  You always need proper footwear before embarking on a, "No, really, here's what he ACTUALLY meant" argument to defend a literary icon's shortcomings.

The evidence in favour of Shakespeare taking the same dim view of TOTS as modern readers is threefold.  Firstly, the men are idiots.  Petruchio is completely obsessed with money, only taking an interest in Katherine due to securing a large dowry and to fulfill his boast that he can "tame" any woman.  Baptista Minola cares so little about his daughters that he's willing to literally just sell them off to the highest bidders, even if they're men he's known for about 10 minutes.  Lucentio decides to go through an elaborate charade to win Bianca's heart when, really, he could just present himself as a learned man in the first place and win her that way.  Gremio and Hortensio are your standard buffoons of the Andrew Aguecheek variety.  The servants are all non-descript entities, a far cry from the more developed personalities of most other 'lesser' men in the Shakespearean canon, your Fools or even your Dromios. 

Katherine, Bianca and the Widow are far form being well-developed themselves, but I have a better idea of what makes Katherine tick than I do virtually any of the male characters.  Unless you take the harsh "Petruchio is a torturer" stance in your production, it's very easy to dismiss the men's views on marriage as nonsense.

Secondly, Bianca and the Widow aren't subservient.  The key part of Act V, Scene ii is perhaps not that Katherine wins the bet for Petruchio by showing up (and delivering her infamous monologue) but rather that Bianca and the Widow aren't at their husbands' beck and call.  Bianca, in particular, seems to have gained her own sense of self and independence after being portrayed as nothing more than a trophy for in the rest of the text.  The Widow, meanwhile, has been hardened by marriage already and is definitely Over It when it comes to Hortensio's nonsense.*  This is another hint that Katherine's speech is meant to be dripping with condescension; when Petruchio says afterwards that she could teach the other two a lesson about being "good wives," the implication is that Katherine already has, except in the opposite manner that Petruchio intends.  In the same way that he was overtly kind in his torture of her, it's easy to see Kate beginning to employ the same tactics back in his direction. 

* = I love, by the way, that the Widow is literally just called "The Widow" throughout the play, even by other characters.  Casually referring to a widow solely by that title is such a goofy idea that it supports the concept that Shakespeare is writing this whole thing with his tongue firmly in cheek.

Thirdly, we're watching a play-within-a-play.  One of the oft-omitted portions of TOTS is the very weird introduction, in which we get a completely separate framing sequence of a drunk named Christopher Sly being tricked into thinking he's an amnesiac lord and the play we see is being performed for him by a group of players.  After this introduction, Sly appears briefly once more in the narrative and then we never hear from him again or get any finality to his story. 

The introduction is weird on many levels, namely the fact that it exists at all.  Shakespeare didn't do many (if any) introductions and rarely broke from the strict five-act dramatic structure.  So why this intro here, and why a subplot that is never revisited?  It's possible the answer could simply be that TOTS as we know it is an incomplete text* and that an epilogue revealing Sly's fate has been lost to time.  Another answer is that the intro was simply there to enforce the play's frivolous nature; sort of a more real-world version of the fairies manipulating events in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  As we know, Shakespeare was very fond of going all meta on his audiences and by making such a pointed reference to the false nature of the story, that further adds to the idea that we're not supposed be taking it so seriously.

* = critics have pointed out several inconsistencies in Hortensio's character and dialogue.  Some of his lines may have been lost or, as some have theorized, the version of TOTS that appeared in the First Folio was actually a rough draft and not a finished product.

So, unsurprisingly, I ended up not taking the play all that seriously, to the extent that I didn't much care for it.  If you put the sexism aside (not that easy, granted), then what you have is an overly-laboured disguise plot that is both too complicated and too straight-forward at the same time.  There aren't any real hitches to Lucentio's plan and nobody is upset when he reveals it, so there isn't exactly a lot of drama in the machinations.  It all adds up to a play that is pretty thin, even for a farce.  You wonder if it'd still be as popular today if it weren't for the sexism, in an odd way.  It stands out as such an overt flaw in many ways that modern directors may feel compelled to "fix" the problem, as it were, by re-drafting Shakespeare's alleged sexism into more palatable ways (we'll revisit this same concept on a more grander scale once I get around to analyzing "Merchant Of Venice").  Hell, this ended up being one of my longer Shakespeare re-read entries despite the fact that I thought the play was weak sauce.  Controversy sells! 

To conclude this post with a lesson for high school students, feel free to use "The Sexism in Taming Of The Shrew" as an entry in your "10 Things I Hate About Shakespeare" essay.


8. Pericles
7. The Taming Of The Shrew
6. Much Ado About Nothing
5. Coriolanus
4. The Comedy Of Errors
3. The Winter's Tale
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
1. Othello

My New Year's resolution for 2012 was to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  2012 has long since ended, but still, onward and upward.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here are a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!"

1 comment:

William Ray said...

Good review, one of the best I have read on the play and the author--whom we still can't nail down.

Factoid: An early version of TOS, Mind and Measure, was performed for a wedding at court, Queen Elizabeth attending, in 1577. It was put on by Edward de Vere, 17th Erl of Oxford, lately trumpeted as "Shakespeare" in disguise. His sister was getting married. Her name was Mary. His other sister was Kate. Both had sharp tongues and huge tempers. Mary's Mate, Peregrine Bertie, Earl of Wiloughby, was also a hot wire. As it states in the play, one fire puts out another. They were a devoted couple all their lives.

Back to 1577, January, during the twelve nights when plays were performed and celebrated as cutting loose from the yearly constraints--Shakspere of Stratford was about to be thirteen. Damn he was good. Or else we have got something a little wrong about the writer, the plays, the Elizabethan era, and the First Folio, which was the first advertisement that somebody from Stratford had anything to do with any of that.

Enjoyable commentary, just what the author would appreciate.