Saturday, February 6, 2016

Taming of the Shrew - Shakespeare

The story in 'Taming of the Shrew' is pretty straightforward (once you get to it).  A wealthy man has two daughters.  The younger one, Bianca, is a much desired beauty.  The older one, Katherine, is wild and violent.  Many men want to marry the younger daughter but she will not be allowed to be wooed until the older one is married.
Two of the men who want to marry Bianca decide they must find someone to marry Katherine.  Enter Petruchio, drunk as a proverbial lord.  He is looking for a wife.  Well, more for a dowry than an actual wife.  When he hears of Katherine and her father's riches, he decides that she sounds like just the answer.
He tries to woo her and finds her just as wild as her reputation.  But eventually he wears her down.  (In the version I watched, she is physically exhausted from being chased hither and yon.  Plus, he had her arm twisted behind her back.)  Everyone is amazed at how quickly they have settled on a date.
They are wed, though Katherine is humiliated.  In fact, this is Petruchio's ploy.  He will keep throwing obstacles at her until she mellows.  He keeps her from eating.  He tempts her with fancy clothes and then destroys them.  Finally, he absurdly tells her that it is morning when it is the middle of the night.  When she disagrees, he starts to punish her again and lays out the directions plainly.  As long as she disagrees with him, things will go poorly for her.  But if she agrees, life will become easy.
The return to her family for Bianca's wedding.  The crowning moment is when Petruchio wagers with some of the other husbands that Katherine is not a shrew, but will come to them as soon as he calls.  The other wives, including Bianca, tell their husbands to wait, but Katherine drags them in and admonishes them for not treating their husbands like a king.

This must not be an easy play to put on today (to put it lightly!).  Stripped down to it's bare foundations, it's incredibly misogynistic.  Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is horrible and her speech at the end sounds like a staged hostage video.  As I was reading about the play, several sources went out of their way to say that it reads much more harshly than it stages.  The verbal jousting can certainly be harsh, but it can also be playful, if done in the right way.  Even Kate's final speech can be done in some kind of ironic manner, which will show that she has not been broken.
It can be tricky not to read too much into this play.  Shakespeare treated other women much better than he does Katherine.  Instead of treating her as a stand in for all women, and reading Petruchio's actions as a how-to manual, we have to remember that she is a specific character.  If she really is extremely out of control, then extreme measures will be called for to calm her.  (Though obviously, I won't endorse these methods.)

While watching this, I happened to think of the play 'Lysistrata'.  There, the women of Greece decide to handle their husbands by denying them sex until they stop fighting.  This has become something of a feminist classic.  Is it ok then, for wives to scheme against husbands but awful husbands to scheme against their wives?  Or is it always wrong for both of them?
I can't imagine trying to do anything like this against my wife and if one of my buddies told me of such a plan, I would be dead set against it.  Is the difference now that we see the marriage relationship so much more differently than they did in ancient Greece or Elizabethan England?

I watched the 1967 version which stars in Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Somehow in my classic movie watching, I have not seen either of them before.  Taylor is fantastic.  She is wild and passionate and vital (and kinda hot, to be honest).  Burton is also very good.  His Petruchio is larger than life and you can see hints of tenderness behind his ploys.
I would like to see some more performances.  The teen movie '10 Things I Hate About You' is based on 'Taming of the Shrew' and it does a very good job both with the basic story and in keeping the audience from hating the main characters.  There is also a 'Moonlighting' episode that recreates the story and I like that too.  In fact, the basic dynamic between Maddie and Dave is very similar to Kate and Petruchio.  Maddie is so full of sharp edges that she has trouble in relationships, while Dave is so larger-than-life gregarious that he is hard to trust.  (I miss that show.)

This is the last of the Shakespeare comedies in the Great Books plan.  I'll try to see some of the rest and write about them too.

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