Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shakesblogging: The Taming of the Shrew

I feel rather guilty about liking this play, as if it makes me a Bad Feminist. (I’m also unreasonably fond of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” as long as we’re getting Bad Feminist Confessions out of the way, and had fantasies of doing an ironic, gender-switched cover version back when I was fourteen and wanted to be a rock star.) Nevertheless, I think there are a lot of elements that redeem the gender politics, or at least complicate them. (I have a hard time taking Petruchio seriously as a domestic abuser when his Grand Plan to tame Katharina by depriving her of food and sleep involves doing exactly the same thing to himself.) And hell, it’s just too much of a romp not to enjoy, what with all of those fake schoolmasters, and that completely daft wedding, and Lucentio’s two fathers.

What I love about this play: The Christopher Sly framework, for a start. (I have yet to see a stage or film version with the full Induction, which saddens me because I have a soft spot for metatheater. I do own a DVD of a Stratford Festival production from the 1980s that includes a bit of it, but the main action is framed as Sly’s drunken dream rather than an actual play.) I imagine it becomes quite a different play when the entire plot is presented as a purposefully constructed fiction – and there are so many other characters engaging in various sorts of role-playing and fiction-crafting that it must work like a set of nesting dolls.

The other bit that I really like – and which redeems a LOT of the potentially uncomfortable moments for me – that scene on the road to Padua when Katharina and Petruchio stop being adversaries and become co-conspirators. (And yes, I think she is a free and voluntary participant in the game – she’s clearly having far too much fun hailing the old man as “young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,” and “Happy the man, whom favorable stars / Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!” is her own elaboration – Petruchio doesn’t tell her to go that far!) In Petruchio-land, words don’t have to correspond to anything real, and Katharina is finally getting this and starting to grasp the possibilities. Since both of these characters have shown so much delight in speaking absurdities with a straight face, I feel perfectly free to read the “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” speech as one of those absurdities rather than a serious homily.

Favorite memory: I was going to say that I didn’t have one, but then I remembered that Shrew plays a big part in the abortive novel I wrote when I was nineteen, the one that was going to be a lesbian Catcher in the Rye. (Why I decided to pursue such a project when I wasn’t actually a lesbian is something of a mystery, as is the fact that I decided to set it at a snooty girl’s boarding school, a world that I knew nothing about.) My protagonist, a rebellious teenager obsessed with Shakespeare and secretly in love with her roommate, has an evil stepfather who tries to molest her, stroking her hair. In a fit of revulsion, she runs off to the nearest hairdresser and gets it all shaved off, and then pretends – for some reason – to have cancer. This garners her a lot of sympathy from her schoolmates, but when they discover she’s faking it, they all turn against her. She runs away to the nearest large city and hides in a theater, where she watches a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. The actor playing Petruchio eventually discovers her, realizes she’s in trouble, and brings her back to his apartment. Petruchio’s boyfriend arrives, who happens, by an extraordinary coincidence, to be the protagonist’s favorite teacher from prep school. He briefly freaks out, because he doesn’t want anyone at the school to know he’s gay; Petruchio calms him down, and then – for no apparent reason whatsoever – launches into a two-page monologue about the gender politics in the play. Then the protagonist’s mother arrives, and announces that a) she’s pregnant; and b) the evil stepfather has been arrested for having sex with a thirteen-year-old prostitute in Vietnam. (What the heck was he doing in Vietnam? I haven’t the foggiest.)

At this point, wisely, I realized I wasn’t cut out for novel-writing, abandoned the project, and decided to pursue a career in which it actually makes sense to pontificate about Shakespeare at random moments.


Sisyphus said...

wow, I think your partially-written novels are much weirder and more interesting than mine were. My stuff was always quite prosaically plotted. Why, indeed, be logical and realistic, when in a novel you can do whatever the hell you want?

Anonymous said...

Gender-switched rock songs: I recommend a band called the Brain Surgeons who made a sort of thing of this, despite the (female) singer being firmly married to the (male) drummer. Worked particularly well with `Love Potion no. 9' as I recall.

The novel, likewise for me, far better than any of my plans ever were from the sound of it...

Bardiac said...

I'm so with you on the metadrama and Christopher Sly part being vital!

Stratfordfest said...

We did Taming of the Shrew in 2008 and included the whole induction scene. And carried it throughout the production. The only change that was made was the Lord was Queen Elizabeth and she took the role of the widow at the end of the show. You may have really enjoyed it.
I also recall a production done here, while I was in high school, that ended with Petruchio and Kate in an over sized bed splitting the cash from the final scene.
I thought you had some insightful comments and wanted to let you know how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has dealt with this difficult play.

Susan said...

And of course the whole induction scene makes it possible to read Kate's last speech straight.

You didn't mention the so bad it's funny Richard Burton Elizabeth Taylor film version, which has Burton chasing Taylor all over some pseudo Tudor house.