Lockdown Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

May 3, 2020

Last year I saw a radically different The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford, in which all the genders had been swapped; it was a very uncomfortable experience for men in the audience, this one included, and raised all sorts of questions about this most dubious of Shakespeare’s plays.

So I decided to watch a more traditional version yesterday afternoon: the BBC Shakespeare one, from 1980, with John Cleese as Petruchio. Now the BBC Shakespeare has always seemed a very strange kettle of fish to me: a prestige project to film all of the plays as theatre performances, with some very well-known names, and in ‘traditional’ costumes and settings, almost as an archive for all time. It now seems more like a museum: the productions and performances are stilted and frozen in time, and not in a good way, it seems to me. And this one was another of those. I have to say that the only thing worth watching was what Cleese brought, sometimes in a Pythonesque way, to a traditional performance. The hysterics of the women and the fopperies of the men were just about tolerable. Then watching the famous Act 5 ‘submission’ speech, not believing my eyes and ears.

A number of Shakespeare’s plays are regarded as ‘problem’ plays, for different reasons; some just don’t work in our age, I have come to feel. The anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice can be challenged at various points in the performance and some occasional sympathy can be elicited for Shylock, but he is a pretty dreadful character, considered as a whole; I have seen a couple of performances that worked well. But the outright sexism, the male chauvinism, the vileness of father and suitors, the treating of women as chattels and objects to be sold to the highest bidder? I do not see how these aspects of The Taming of the Shrew can be made palatable or acceptable, and I’ve yet to be convinced that after two hours and more of this, that that submission speech may be delivered in a twentieth-century, would-be feminist manner, acceptable to a contemporary audience. The BBC version ended with the characters singing a hymn together, which lauded the traditional virtues of a wife!

I’ve sometimes wondered about the bardolatry, the hagiography of our national playwright: can he do no wrong? Even today? He was of his time, and pace Ben Jonson, not always and in everything for all time. I’ve regularly found Shakespearean comedy difficult, rarely enjoyed teaching it, with the exception of Twelfth Night. Seventeenth-century audiences found different things funny and entertaining; they enjoyed public executions, for goodness’ sake… for me, a play like The Taming of the Shrew may have been a good play, a successful play in its time, but I think it’s not one that can work today. Back with last year’s gender-swapped production: if it had me squirming and feeling uncomfortable, then how many women spectators will have been appalled at previous performances? Suspending my disbelief was not really an option: the play is now offensive.

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