Saturday, March 24, 2007

Shakespeare is fucked in the head

My friend Rowan and I have a bit of an Emma Thompson thing going. We're planning a grand rewatch of all her movies (except Maybe Baby and Henry V) that will end with Sense and Sensibility. Tonight we were watching Much Ado About Nothing. I don't think I'd seen it since it came out when I was 15. It was the first movie I ever went to see twice at the cinema - I loved it.

Seeing it tonight was a little different; I no longer consider Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh the perfect celebrity couple (which is good because neither do they). But we found one plot-line distressing.

Like most Shakespeare plots it's quite ridiculous. Claudio and Hero are betrothed and the villian* sets it up so Claudio will think that Hero is having sex with another man. Claudio confronts Hero at the wedding, throws her across the room. Her father is also abusive. Hero then pretends to be dead, but than makes no sense at all.

We couldn't listen to it; we changed the language to Polish so we wouldn't have to deal with how awful Hero's situation was. There were some nice moments - Emma Thompson was taking it all seriously, and Kenneth Branagh was backing her up, and choosing the abused women over his abusive friend.

But then Claudio and Hero marry - and we're supposed to be joyful about it.

There is a version of this play that I could watch - where the horror of Hero's situation was given weight, where their marriage is not a joyful event, but one the audience dreads. I feel the same way about Taming of the Shrew, from what I've read a feminist version of the play is usually one where Katherine implies she has some sort of power. I disagree, a feminist version would be one that played those events absolutely straight. Taming of the Shrew is a tragedy; a tragedy that occurs far more often than young lovers commit suicide because their parents don't like each other.

* Played by Keanu Reeves! He's only the second worst actor in the movie too - Robert Sean Leonard plays Claudio and we cracked up when he tried to act sad when it was revealed how wrong he was.


  1. Anonymous2:18 pm

    Hee hee, funny post. One of the essays I wrote on Shakespeare at uni was about how women's sexuality in his plays is portrayed as the 'root of all evil', so to speak. While I was writing that essay I also realised that Shakespeare always tied up and ended his plays so very conservatively, usually by marrying couples off and thus putting women back in their place. Nice.

  2. poor mister shakespeare. What a funny head.

  3. Have you read Germaine Greer's work on the Taming of the Shrew? Her take is that it's actually feminist, because Petruchio sees Katharine as the best sort of partner, as opposed to her sappy sister Bianca. Although it's still framed as a man-subduing-woman diatribe, which doesn't strike me as anything madly liberating.

  4. I might also direct your attention to the "dark room" plot device used in 'Measure for Measure' and another one whose name escapes me.

    Guy woos girl 1. Guy drop/leaves and forgets girl 1. Guy presses his advances in a blackmail-ey sort of way on girl 2 (the lead character). Girl 2 'agrees' to meet guy in a dark room and substitutes girl 1. At the end, this is revealed and guy has to marry girl 1 while girl2 is to marry someone else. Happy ending. Hooray.

    Personally I tend to think Shakespeare has enough depth that these thing can be made to work - dramtically at least - for a modern audience that's sensitive to these kind of issues, if you just keep them in mind. Perhaps even in a play as full of bigots as The Merchant of Venice.

    'Measure for Measure', for example, is a deeply uneasy play and it's not ruined if the ending isn't strictly played as happy. The Duke say he's going to marry girl 2, she doesn't actually get a chance to respond...

    In the cases you mention it helps - again, at least dramtically - if, as you note, people take the problem seriously, and if the characters in question really are changed.

    If, improbable though it is, we can see that Claudio has genuinely reassesed his attitude and we can follow the journey. For example if he's able to yield social dominance when he sees her. And yeah, maybe not joyful with the marriage.

    The Shrew can no doubt be played for tragedy - this would prabably be more coherent that trying to ignore the issues. I went to one production where the predominantly middle class female audience were basically enjoying themselves right up to the speech at the end about the duties of a wife. You could hear them getting mad.

    I've seen bits of script for an adaptation (by a guy) that removes any figurativeness about the rape of Katherine.

    I've seen it done this way, but I'm convinced that The Shrew can be a beautiful comedy in modern terms. If it helps (and if I can actually explain), here are some observations on the text and options for playing it:

    There's always huge amounts of irony in Shakespeare, and the plays typcially aren't harmed by adding more. Just because a character says something doesn't make it true.

    Petruchio is, in his way, a lot more screwed up that Katherine. He makes a habit of 'taming' people using primitive brainwashing. He needs to be taught a lesson and be changed and he cannot get an outright 'win'. Dramtically, he needs to fail and be vulnerable.

    You can treat Katherine as an actual match for him. When he's keeping her awake he has to stay awake to do it. The whole thing probably exhausts him more than her and by the end of it he could easily be ridiculous. If he can recognise that, he might get somewhere...

    Katherine learns a lesson, perhaps not the one he's trying to give.

    Petruchio uses basic methods to control Katherine's 'acting out'. What if his actual motivation (or perhaps what he thinks is) is to help rather than control, but he doesn't always succeed. That scene where he insists the sun is the moon can have a lot of levels - trying to have some fun, subverting the dominant paradigm, self-parody...

    Critically, I like to imagine the 'duties of the wife' thing as an enormous improvised fraud perpetrated by Katherine and Petruchio on the rest of the company. Petruchio takes the bet because he's a gambler and a con man who's being challenged. Katherine, probably the smartest person in the room, catches on, gives them what they want to hear and makes an awful lot of money in the process. Among other things, this puts Katherine in charge of the incident.

    And everyone who marvels at his successful 'taming' misses the point - thus generating a few extra jokes.

    So we get an unhappy Katherine becoming a happier Katherine and hopefully Petrucio knocked off his perch with the two of them actually in a position to negotaite a relationship.

    Anyhow, I'm fairly sure it would work as a funny comedy in performance and be morally interesting rather than repulsive. The latter might be open for dispute.

  5. Apologies for length.