Posts Tagged ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

The Taming of The Shrew at Stratford

May 23, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew is not a play I know particularly well – I’ve never taught it – and I’ve only ever seen one (school) production previously, so perhaps this was not an ideal version as my first professional performance. The Christopher Sly induction was cut completely, although I can’t say this affected the play for me; some think there was a counterbalancing section, now lost, that originally closed the play, in which case I might have seen the point.

It’s a very problematic play, in terms of attitudes to women, creating real issues for contemporary productions of the play, much as The Merchant of Venice does in terms of anti-Jewishness in the text. So there was a very real challenge to the audience at Stratford in the director’s decision to reverse the gender of all the characters… For me, this didn’t get the play off to a very good start as the (admittedly stunning) costumes of the now female main characters dropped everything into what felt like a Restoration Comedy setting, and Shrew isn’t a Restoration Comedy. Shaking this incongruousness off eventually, I concentrated on enjoying the play; it made me think a lot, but overall didn’t leave a very positive impression.

Here’s why: above all there was a real imbalance in the performances of Petruchia and Kate (yes, his name wasn’t changed to a masculine version, for there isn’t one). Hers was a virtuoso one, his just faded into the background, he was a man basically being tormented and abused, and he was unable to show any sense of love – or any real feeling – developing for his partner. The crucial speech in the final scene felt like concession only, without any of the edge a skilful performance is capable of giving it. And this is where I decided, after ruminating overnight, was the major flaw in the director’s conception: although we may not like it, there is a well-known model for a shrewish female which we will ‘accept’ for the purpose of performance; there is no available male counterpart for this, which leaves the gender-swapped role merely hollowed-out and empty; possibilities for comedy are removed, and there is only suffering. The main character became a non-character.

The other side of this, for which the conception deserves credit, is just how awkward the entire gender-role reversal made this male member of the audience feel, and that is important in itself: the outrageousness of some attitudes and behaviours towards women was powerfully brought home.

However, the performance lacked coherence for me, and I cannot in the end get away from the feeling that what was obviously intended as a challenge to the audience was more of a gimmick than anything else.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

January 27, 2016

51NjXWbSjBL._AA160_When I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew last month, I mentioned that I’d come late to the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s comedies, and considered some of the reasons. I’m back here again, having revisited Much Ado About Nothing, which I realise has some similarities with the former, particularly in the central male/ female relationship.

The idea of a comedy being a story – a drama – that ends happily, rather than something that you spend a lot of time laughing at, is a difficult one for us to take on board, although if tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending, then the contrast is logical. And in a Shakespearean comedy there is usually a good deal to laugh at, even if it isn’t the primary focus. And then there is the tragi-comedy – a drama of tragedy averted – as it was so succinctly put by my English teacher at school. There are certainly tragi-comic elements in Much Ado.

I don’t find the sharpness and the displays of wit between Beatrice and Benedick anywhere near as funny or as enjoyable as those between Petruchio and Katherine, though I do like the idea of their being so ‘up themselves’ that they can be manipulated into admitting that they fancy each other, love each other, and will marry. I do find the plot which leads to the public shaming of the chaste Hero quite a shocking element in a play which will eventually turn out to have a happy ending, and Claudio’s behaviour seems quite unforgivable: thank heaven for suspension of disbelief, I suppose. And there is a reminder that the first Elizabethans prized different things from us, found different things humorous, and different behaviours acceptable.

And then there’s Dogberry and the watch: I’ve always warmed to this bumbling crew with their hearts in the right place, and the whole happy ending depends on them, of course. Somehow their blundering and their malapropisms mean the mounties get their men, as it were, and we realise how much of the success of this play depends on overheard conversations, and who overhears them and what they do with that eavesdropped knowledge…

Because it’s a comedy, the punishment of the evil Don John is deferred beyond the end of the play: there is no real assurance that he will get what he deserves, unlike what is promised Iago, for example; again an instance of the difference between tragedy and comedy.

I have yet to see a performance of this play; I suspect I will enjoy it much more when it’s brought to life. I have a DVD of the recent RSC production which I must get around to watching.

Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

December 20, 2015

51drgdDFhEL._AA160_A friend took me to task the other day for omitting Twelfth Night from the list of Shakespearean comedies I liked in my post on The Taming of the Shrew. I was so astonished at my own oversight that I went back to the play…

I recall a wonderful amateur production many years ago at my last school, when we were lucky to have a sufficiently talented group of actors to put on a production (I stage-managed) which went down very well. I think I’ve seen the play once or twice in the theatre, too, but not recently, so there’s something to look forward to one day.

Re-reading the play set me off thinking further about comedy. So much more seems to be riding on the language than in tragedy. Yes, in the tragedies there are the great set-piece speeches and soliloquies too, and I’m not disparaging these at all, but they accompany clear onstage action, and the emotions and responses expected from an audience are clear; in spite of any issues with the sevententh century language, a twenty-first century audience is in no doubt about what’s going on – the deaths and murders that are the stuff of tragedy are obvious.

There seem to me to be rather more obstacles to the appreciation of Shakespearean comedy, which I’ve been aware of in the theatre when I’ve often found myself much readier to laugh than most of the audience (which is fine, as I love laughing). The language is sharper, the exchanges between characters are more rapid, quick-fire wit is the key: a modern audience will surely understand if they have the time to take everything in, if they are as quick-witted as Shakespeare’s characters, but comprehension is often lost: puns, innuendos and obscenities that make up the core of the humour flash by too quickly. And then, there are the changes in the use of the language itself, and the different context of some of the exchanges, before we even get on to the action onstage.

What the actors themselves are up to may also be less easy to interpret: yes, there is cross-dressing and hiding and general silliness which one can usually understand, and there’s certainly lots of this in Twelfth Night, but one also needs to be clear about the very diferent attitudes to courtship and marriage, which are woven into the complexities of the plot.

 

With this re-reading, I was struck quite forcefully by the perfection of the plot of the play, the wonderful symmetry of the story of brother and sister lost in shipwrecks and ending up with weddings at the end, as well as the chaos of the many subplots and distractions so artfully woven together, the Malvolio story and the antics of the two drunken knights, and the Duke and Olivia story that is not to be, with the added complexity in the role of Cesario as the go-between…

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

December 17, 2015

4116zMytiZL._AA160_I have realised it’s taken me a very long time to begin enjoying Shakespeare’s comedies as much as his tragedies, and I have been thinking about why this may be. Perhaps the tragedies are easier to access: a (pretty) clear plot, and message, and an expected audience response. Certainly, I understood Othello and King Lear when I studied them for A Level. At university, I preferred the tragedies, saw some sense in the histories, and managed, largely, to overlook the comedies.

The Taming of the Shrew is wonderful, for its plot, its framing, its message and its language – full of wit, pun and obscenity. I think the quick-fire, rapier wit exchanges are also probably somewhat more difficult for twenty-first century audiences to grasp quickly, meaning the moment has often passed before we know what to laugh at. Although I’m getting better at this. The interaction/ interplay between Kate and Petruchio is masterly, often hilarious. And again, what audiences find humorous or witty does change over time, whereas the subject-matter of tragedy remains pretty constant.

So, the range of Shakespeare I enjoy has broadened: I’ve grown to like Love’s Labours Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and The Merry Wives of Windsor; I may even go back to some of the more obscure ones like The Comedy of Errors, or All’s Well, but I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although I did once, many years ago, see a wonderful production of it.

The challenge in Shrew comes with the ending: what has Kate said, and done? Is it a feminist declaration, as some would like to think, or is it shades of St Paul, putting all women in their place, silent and subordinate? I always read the last couple of scenes particularly carefully for this reason, and I look forward to seeing a production again one day, to see how it comes across. The best account I’ve come across is in the Arden two edition introduction, by Brian Morris, who sets the ending very carefully in its context, which cannot be feminist, yet also elucidates the freedom and happiness open to a Kate who understands her position in her world and what it offers her…

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