Monday, March 11, 2024

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 13: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew, first broadcast October 23rd, 1980
  • Possibly written: between 1590 and 1592, possibly his 7th play (and the earliest we’ve looked at)
  • What’s it about? Everybody wants to marry fair Bianca, but her father won’t let her marry until her independent sister Kate is married, so the suitors recruit Petrucio to “tame the shrew.” He does so, brutally, utterly destroying her sense of self, until she gives a final speech about how women must be subservient to men.
  • Most famous dialogue: There is no famous dialogue from this play, thankfully. The closest thing: “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness.”
  • Sources: Nobody knows. There was a very similar play called “A Pleasant Conceited Historie, called the taming of a Shrew” right around the same time, but that may be based on this one or this one on that one, or both on a lost original.
  • Best insults:
    • An irksome brawling scold
    • Rascal fiddler and twangling Jack
    • A whoreson, beetle headed, flap-eared knave
    • You heedless joltheads and unmannered slaves
  • Best word: Shakespeare absolutely falls in love with the word “froward,” using it eight times in the play. I had to look it up. Runners up: Plash, Galliases, and bemoiled
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: Before seeing this I had never seen or read this play, other than what I got of it in Kiss Me, Kate and the “Moonlighting” episode. I’ve never even seen 10 Things I Hate About You.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: John Cleese! His first time ever doing Shakespeare.
How’s the cast? 
  • What do you do with a play like this? It’s a romantic comedy that isn’t remotely funny or romantic. Cleese and Sarah Bedel as Katherine play it as if it’s both, which doesn’t work at all, but it’s hard to blame them. What else is there to do?
How’s the direction by Jonathan Miller? 
  •  We begin the third season of BBC Shakespeare here. Cedric Messina, who ran the first two seasons, is out and Jonathan Miller takes over as producer of seasons 3 and 4, also directing this and several other episodes. Miller was less realistic and more concerned with creating a sense of Shakespeare’s time than the times the plays were attempting to portray. One fun thing he does in this and later plays is recreate scenes from Vermeer. The stylish staging is fine, but the abstract lighting is off-putting and distracts too much from the play. Miller also eliminates the framing sequence, making this one of the few productions with notable cuts, which is unfortunate.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Don’t Ask Us to Laugh at Things That Aren’t Funny

It is amazing how well most Shakespeare plays have aged. We can’t show my daughter movies from the 1980s, because she’s inevitably horrified by their sexism, but we can easily show her most Shakespeare plays, because she recognizes in them the universal humanity of all the characters. Shakespeare’s women, for the most part, have a richness and multidimensionality that even most modern male authors cannot hope to match in their own work. Amazingly, Shakespeare was even able to write a play about a black man that has stood the test of time very well and that black actors today are proud to play. This was the most timeless author of all time.

Then there’s this play, a horrible misogynistic mess.

This is the only production I’ve seen and it’s unwatchable. Are any of them watchable? People speak fondly of the Raul Julia / Meryl Streep version, and those are two wonderful actors, but I don’t see how they could save this text.

Shakespeare companies are content to now pretend this play doesn’t exist. I spent the whole time watching it wondering if anybody could make it work today.

And I think it could: To begin, admit that the Kate/Petruchio storyline is neither funny nor romantic. If you stage it as a deadly serious tale of brutal abuse, it could work. Shakespeare was a good enough writer that he wrote a believable, well-observed tale of a how a man can utterly crush a woman’s spirit, if only he were not asking us to cheer it on. I think that if you staged it today, you’d have to really lean into the abusive aspects. Let it fully horrify us and everyone else in the play who sees it. Then, at the end, when he shows off her obedience to win a bet at a dinner, have her subtly palm a carving knife while she gives her speech about subservience, and triumphantly end the speech by stabbing him dead in front of everyone. Over and over until she’s covered in blood and he’s lifeless on the floor. Then she looks up at the others. What will happen? There is a long pause… Then everybody begins a slow clap. Hortensio says to Petruchio’s corpse, “Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew,” and Lucentio adds, “‘Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.” They leave Kate standing over Petruchio. Curtain down.

Is there any point in such a production? Why not just put on one of the better plays? Ultimately, the only reason to do it is if you’ve pledged to stage every play, as the BBC did. If so, you would have to grapple with this one, and I think this would be the only way to make it work.


Brent Salish said...

First, neither Raul Julia nor Meryl Streep took themselves seriously. They treated the evening as a lark, a fantasy from some other place and time, and thus so did the audience. That's one way to approach the play.

Second, it's possible to stage it similarly to your take (sans stabbing), where Kate is enabling Petruchio's fantasies without giving in, that she's in on the wager and collects the winnings herself (which puts her in command of that final difficult-to-say-the-least speech) - and perhaps is even visibly in cahoots with the other wives. Petruchio and Kate are playing each other in a marriage of convenience, where they each get what they need from the deal (money, liberation from a stifling family).

Third, there is the framing story. Think of the famous original cast-album from My Fair Lady, the Hirschfeld drawing with Higgins treating Eliza as a marionette except that he himself is a marionette manipulated by GB Shaw. Sly says right out, "I would be loathe to fall into my dreams again." Sly is manipulating the events, perhaps even stepping into the role of Petruchio himself... or in some version of no-women-onstage casting, plays Kate. The prologue is weird, to say the least, but start by assuming Shakespeare had something in mind here.

Not a great play, but it's not unworkable.

Matt Bird said...

I like the idea of her collecting the winnings. Sort of the opposite of my idea where she's driven literally (homicidally) insane. You can sort of see in the frame I chose that Bedel plays the role in such a way that Kate is fairly devastated, and maybe that helped inspire my reading.