Sunday, July 27, 2008

I hate this play

I don't say that often, but I did recently. I went to the Great River Shakespeare Festival at Winona State University and saw their production of The Taming of the Shrew. Seeing it (I think for the first time live) made me realize again just how much I hate the play. But that's different from hating the production, if that makes sense.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival is fairly new (this is their fifth season), but I've been to a couple of their productions and they do a good job in a great venue. Their work is a great addition to the area. Winona State is a beautiful campus, at least near the theater (that's where I've been), with lots of nice prairie style plantings and a lovely fountain. The theater at the Performing Arts Center is smallish (maybe 300 seats), but nicely designed with good sight lines and decent accoustics. It's a nice place to see a play.

This play was no exception to the good job thing. The costumes stood out, the acting was fine, and the overall design/conception worked well. But the play!

I have a much stronger visceral reaction to The Taming of the Shrew than to Titus, Othello, or Merchant (though my reaction to Merchant is probably next in line, along with All's Well). Why is that?

After the play ended, one of the students asked how I'd liked it, and I said "I hate this play." She looked shocked. (The Shakespeare lit person hates a play? Is that even allowed? Won't I be disbarred or something?) And asked why. And I told her that I just couldn't get beyond the domestic violence.

As I was driving home, I thought about that. Other plays are deeply violent. Titus, for example. But there's something that hits home more deeply with Taming, and I think it's that the violence is somehow mundane and common, and oh so easy for society to laugh at, enjoy and accept. In the play's logic, and indeed in early modern English culture (and our own), women must be subject to male domination. I get that, and yet... We're "supposed" to be horrified by the rape in Titus, horrified that Titus kills Lavinia, but Taming asks us to applaud Petrucchio's abuses, or at least accept them as a necessary evil. If only, it suggests, Katherine weren't naughty, then Petrucchio wouldn't be forced to abuse her. (I'm putting aside the violence against servants here, but it's part and parcel of the way patriarchal violence works in the play. So as I go on, keep it in mind.)

When I think of my personal experience, I've known straight couples where the male was, if not actively violent, at least actively threatening, actively keeping a female spouse apart from her friends/family, or making it hard for her to have their support, pretending that his domination was in her "best interests." And our society pretty much supports male privilege to do that to his spouse, excepting only certain levels of physical abuse. And even then, the male cops who inevitably show up seem to take the man's side to whatever extent they can. It's vile.

But Shakespeare makes it sort of appealing, and I think that's all the more reason why I hate the play. The double plot is well-integrated; I especially like the part where Petrucchio and Kate meet up with Vincentio to bring the two plots together just so, in a sort of unexpected way. The dialog is quick, with lots of word play. As a play, it's a good one in all sorts of ways.

In recent years, some productions of Taming have tried to rehabilitate the play somewhat, by making Katherine's final speech firmly tongue in cheek, with her sort of playing a game rather than really submissive. The Great River production didn't do that, but played it sort of straight, with Katherine not looking subdued, but not playing a tongue in cheek game, either. Yes, she'd learned her lesson, and golly, if we women just know our place and are obedient, then men will treat us right. But that brings us back to Petrucchio's violence against his servants, because despite the servant's obvious efforts to do their jobs, he abuses them violently. That abuse should remind us that the system is based on and supported by the violence of those with power against those with lots less power.

I know that about the system. Really, I do. And yet I don't like to be reminded so amusingly that we're supposed to laughingly accept our place in it.


  1. Hear, hear.

    Have you seen the 1950s TV version with Charlton Heston? No tongue-in-cheek there, as you can imagine... Nobody says "abusive patriarchy" like Charlton Heston!

  2. Yeah, I have a hard time with it, too--and when I decided last fall to teach it (for pretty much the first time), I didn't think it worked particularly productively. So this semester, I'm getting rid of it in favor of Troilus and Cressida. Sure to be a crowd-pleaser!

    I did see a fantastic production of Shrew several years ago, though I think the reason the marital dynamics didn't overshadow everything else was because it was done with an all-male cast. The setting was supposed to be Spanish Harlem in perhaps the 1950s or 60s, and the production was joyeous, suffused with music and coreographed within an inch of its life.

    The man who played Kate was rather tall and, though slim, seemed physically powerful. If I remember correctly, Petruchio was scarcely any bigger. I really think that Kate's physical presence--and her extremely outsized, almost drag-queeny personality--is what eliminated a lot of the squick factor for me. The ending was surprisingly tender, and even moving (this production had some silent business between just K & P, after her speech was over).

    As you're suggesting, though, productions today may have to get creative--whether through making Kate's speech tongue-in-cheek, or using a male cast, or playing Petruchio more comically, to make the play palatable today.

  3. Anonymous12:57 PM

    Yup, it's definitely a tough play to stomach.'s a play within a play. The whole Christopher Sly framing piece sort of saves it for me.

    Taming is the play a drunken Christopher Sly watches when he's been made to believe that he's a nobleman. I wonder what else in that play within a play shows us people believing themselves to be something that they're not?


  4. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I've seen Shrew twice and thought it was rather fun both times, the same way I think the Stones' "Under My Thumb" is rather fun if you completely turn off your critical thinking instincts for the duration. I'm not sure what it says about me that I don't really have any difficulty turning them off.

    I really, really want to see it performed with the Christopher Sly frame, though.

  5. I've always had problems with the ending of this play. However, one must remember that it was written in a very different time and place from where we are today. And for it's time, it was very progressive to have such a strong female character, who in the end, stays who she is. She learned to play the game to get what she wanted, which is what we all do, in many small ways.

    Great post.

  6. I know what you mean about the ending. Milwaukee Shakespeare did this play a few years back with an all male cast. Kate's closing lines were done seriously as the actor shed his skirts, and ended with Petruchio and Kate staring at each other, equal but neither pleased.

  7. I'm not sure saying "it was a different time" makes it cool. That's what it says the notes my Riverside Chaucer say about the Prioress's tale -- it's okay that we've got some Jew-hating here, you know, because everyone hated Jews in those days. It's cool that Chaucer's writing about a pogrom with such glee, because everyone liked to hear about the torture and slaughter of Jews back then.

    I've got trouble with the Merchant of Venice for the same reason. I know it's supposed to be played ironic, but I can't read it that way, and usually I don't believe Shakespeare meant it that way.

  8. Thanks for commenting, folks :)

    Pilgrim/Heretic, LOL @ the Charlton Heston remark. I can just imagine that production!

    Flavia, Oooo, you're teaching T&C! I've never taught it yet! Now I'm all jealous! Good choice! I'd like to see an all-male production of Shrew, or one with the Christopher Sly framing.

    RoaringGrrl, You're absolutely right that the framing could change things, especially if you added in the end stuff from "A Shrew." But this didn't have the framing, and alas, I forgot about it while I was watching.

    Fretful Porpentine, I think it's the fun of the play that makes me hate it so much. And yep, I'd like to see the framing part, too!

    TBTAM, I think I know what you mean about the time and all, but there are so many GREAT female roles that negotiate the patriarchal stuff in much more interesting and challenging ways written during the period. I don't think anyone during that period lacked for knowing strong women who worked the system as best they could.

    Liz, Oh, that sounds like a really great production and way to end!

    Delagar, I think you're right about Merchant, too. It's also vile in so many ways.

  9. Anonymous1:35 PM

    I saw a production at the new Globe several years ago done by a cast of women. It was fantastic - the woman who played Petruchio did a wonderful parody of masculinity. As for _Titus_ - well, I've never read it. I'm a Shakespearean, and I've never read a Shakespeare play precisely because I can't stand the thought of Lavinia's rape. Though I did see a fabulous snippet of that scene done by some local - and fearless - high school students this year.

  10. Re the Prioress's Tale -- surely, it says more about the Prioress's views than Chaucer's? She's one of his more devastatingly satirical portraits -- someone who considers herself very genteel, cultured, and devout, but is in fact blatantly ignorant about a lot of stuff (breaking rules of her convent right and left, showing off the French she can't speak properly, fixated on good manners rather than piety). I'm pretty sure Chaucer wanted his audience to notice the incongruity in the fact that she weeps over a mouse caught in a trap but gleefully tells stories about the slaughter of Jews.

    I've got a lot to say in defense of Merchant as well, but probably too much to fit in a comment thread. Expect a longer post soon...

  11. Heeee why I always like Macbeth better than that smashing babies' heads speech for some good feminist rage.

  12. Yes, that's how I teach Prioress's tale, as Chaucer being aware of the anti-Semitism of his time, and using the Prioress to comment on it. But the notes in the Riverside are wholly otherwise.

  13. Anonymous5:04 PM

    I, too, saw the GRSF production of "Taming" this season. I liked how they presented it as a French influenced farce, complete with sound effects.

    What pleased me about their version of the troubling Kate-subdued closing scene was something Peter Saccio pointed out, too, in his Front Porch Conversation about GRSF--in many productions of this play, the actor playing Kate kneels at the appropriate point in her speech and places her hand under Petruccio's or near Petruccio's boot. GRSF's Kate did not. She maintained an equal standing stance with him and extended her hand toward him; his response included turning it over and kissing it. This, to me, suggested an equality in their final exchange.

    Having said that, I don't actually disagree with Bardiac's perception of the play as reflecting patriarchal culture's approval of practically any means for controlling the womenfolk, especially the unruly ones. When I've had students read the play, they frequently have a hard time seeing it as a comedy at all.

    It's true that there is undeniable violence in this play, but most of it (the actual violence) comes from Kate striking others, including her sister's suitors, her sister, her tutors, and Petruccio. No one hits Kate. Petruccio instead uses verbal threats (usually toward others, rather than Kate) and noise as tools of manipulation of Kate and his servants.

    I also want to add that the American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI performed "Taming" within the last 6 years (and they took it on tour, too) and their version included the Christopher Sly framework. They did a fantastic job with the production. I had never seen the Sly portions included before (or since).

    Anybody familiar with the "sequel", "The Tamer Tam'd" that someone else wrote in the 17th century as a follow-up on Petruccio? Sorry I can't recall the author.