Taming of the Shrew

My focus for this week’s entry is: What the hell is the point of that Induction?

Seriously, what is the point of the first few scenes in this play?  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s probably because most productions simply cut out the first two scenes of this play, and the story that we know and love is actually a show within a show.

Film adaptations also do not give a shit about that aspect of the play.

But really, when you realize that the ENTIRE story – especially the weird chauvenistic bits – are actually a show put on to entertain some creepy unnamed Lord, it takes on a whole new meaning.  It’s just a question of whether or not you care about that meaning when you put on this play.  Not only is it a show within a show, actually, it’s a show within a trick within a show.  The play opens with someone named Christopher Sly, who is so drunk he immediately passes out on the ground in front of an alehouse.  The Lord returns from a hunting party, and immediately decides to play an elaborate prank on him.

"Yes, we COULD do that. OR, we could drive him insane... yes, let's drive him insane"

In a scene that parallels such works as De la Barca’s Life is a Dream or the Matrix, Christopher Sly wakes up to a host of servants, including the Lord himself, who all insist that he is “a noble lord” and everything that he remembers about his life was an elaborate fantasy and madness.  The Lord implores him to “Call forth thy ancient thoughts from banishment And banish hence these abject lowly dreams.”  Presented with the evidence of all these doting servants, including a Page dressed up as his wife.  And really, the joke is horribly cruel by this point.  Sly is presented with someone who claims to be his loving wife, who seems so delighted that he might come out of his madness, and he opens up to the idea that he is crazy because of this supposed love.  What. The. Hell.

And this is the prank, it could end there, and Sly could reel from that existential crisis, and any number of things could result from that.  But instead, while this prank is still going, Players enter and put on a play.  This play, “A kind of history,” is Taming of the Shrew.  And it makes Sly fall asleep.  One of the servants wakes him up, and they comment like Statler and Waldorf from up in the balcony at the end of Scene I.i, and then they aren’t mentioned in the play ever again.

"Never mentioned again? You say that like it's a bad thing! Wo-hohohoho!"

And then we see the play within a play is about some crass horrible woman named Katharina, who gets married to a crass and horrible man named Petruchio.  Once they get married, Kate’s sister Bianca is allowed to entertain suitors, and a good chunk of the play is about the elaborate method that Lucentio uses to woo her.  But I’ll get to them later.  For now, I’m going to take a moment and address the sado-masochistic relationship between Kate and Petruchio.

They are perfect for each other, in a sick and twisted way.

If you stage it wrong, the relationship is really creepy and abusive, and that makes the play really disturbing and not fun to watch.  But when you allow these characters to actually be in love with each other, the play opens up and becomes fun.  Kate is not a feminist role model – she ties up and tortures her sister for information in Scene II.i, which shows that the titular “shrew” means more than just social indipendance, but actual wretchedness in everyone’s company.  She is an “irksome brawling scold” towards everyone, not just men.  The other thing to notice is that, even after their initial flirtation, Kate is sad when Petruchio is late to his own wedding.  So she actually wants to marry him, even though he is a “one half lunatic, a mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jack.”   If she isn’t equally crazy and fully complicit in that whole Dominant/submissive sexual foreplay, the play becomes disturbing in a way that undermines the humor of everything else in the show, and defeats the point of producing the play in the first place.

 

You might as well write your own framing narrative that tries to undermine the main narrative. Or direct a remake of Wicker Man.

And yes, the connection between Katharina and Petruchio has to be sexual, no matter what. They are sexually attracted to each other, and it’s a mutual attraction. In some ways, Petruchio is that bad boy that Kate should know better than to love, and before they ever meet it does seem like Petruchio only wants to marry her for her money. But by the end of the play, Petruchio declares “Come, Kate, we’ll to bed. – ” in front of her entire family. Which means that their relationship has developed into something more than just a financial agreement. It makes them more of an obnoxious hypersexual duo than a soul-crushed slave and her master.

 

They are that sort of couple. The couple in the room that you simply just can't stand.

But that’s my interpretation, I admit. I think the players are showing a sexually deviant couple, participating in the sort of lifestyle that is now known as BDSM. If I directed this play, the bondage aspects would get pushed pretty heavily during the brainwashing scenes, which I see as Petruchio the Dom training his sub. (I’m not into that sort of relationship personally, I just live a block away from the Leather Archives and Museum and find that shit absolutely fascinating).  But my production would also retain the Induction, so let me get back to that point.

The main body of the play would be actors on a bare stage, performing the entire romance in a room of the alehouse, with Chris Sly and the Lord watching with the audience. As the romance between Kate and Petruchio develops, the clownish nature of the situation around them will be very dreamlike, and if that dream develops into a nightmare at times then I’m okay with it. After all, the nature of their romance is not the only disturbing fantasy here. When Lucentio’s father shows up in the final act, he is legitimately horrified by the idea that his son was murdered. Some Pedant also gets looped into Lucentio’s ploy to marry Bianca, and his role in the conspiracy never gets resolved, either. I will come back to him later.

The other thing about the romance in this play is that love is never fucking normal, and their love is not actually an ideal. Kate’s final plea to the women, the problematic “place your hands beneath your husband’s foot” is actually a tactic to seduce Petruchio. This monologue is merely a manipulation of his fantasy, and it gets him so hot and bothered that he immediately runs off with her to bed. A fantasy within a play within a fantasy within a play.

Within a dream!!!

But what of Sly? The play ends, and we haven’t had his conflict resolved. Unless we leave him onstage, frightened and alone, questioning everything. And questioning is what the play needs to be about. Doubting reality, and all your presuppositions about right and wrong and love and violence. Simply: questioning. And if you cut out Sly, you amputate a signifigant part of the play that reminds you that the bizarre love story is merely a fantasy, and Kate’s monologue is moralizing instead of being an aspect of fantasy.

So, here’s where my concept gets specific, but I’m basing it in the text as much as possible so try not to hate me for running in this direction with a classic: The Induction is staged as normal. The Lord tricks Christopher Sly and then the Players set up. I want Sly and his new friends to go sit in the back of the theatre, so the brief dialogue with them at the end of Scene I.i happens behind everyone’s back. They can turn around if they want to, but the focus remains on stage normally through the rest of the play. Lucentio initiates his ploy to seduce Bianca. He switches places with his servant, Tranio, and is able to be one of Bianca’s teachers instead of wooing her through traditional methods.

Note the archetypal male sexual fantasy.

However, to pull off this trick, they have to find someone to pose as Tranio’s father, and they are searching for the right candidate throughout much of the play. Here, in an episode of faux interactive theatre, Sly gets pulled onstage to play the Pedant. Throughout the play, I should mention, various servants from the induction will also double as lesser characters in the main play. When Vincentio, Lucentio’s dad, shows up at the end, that role will also be played by the Lord from the Induction. Though Sly will have to read his lines in the play, awkwardly, from a sheet of paper provided to him, the Lord is a natural performer who holds his script but does not need to reference it nearly as much. Kate gives her controversial speech, Petruchio takes her offstage for sex, the play ends. Everyone bows, applause, the players exit with the Lord and servants, but Christopher Sly – whose character is not in the last scene, inexplicably, wanders onstage in his borrowed costume, confused and alone. No bows for him at curtain call. He wanders off, searching for reality.

His mind: utterly blown

And that’s what I would do. At the very least, you have to acknowledge that some degree of character doubling would have occured between the Induction characters and the characters that only show up for a bit at the end. I’m only pushing that convention a bit further, to heighten the performative aspects of this play to a modern audience. Also, all the sexy BDSM things that I mentioned.

Within reason, though, I swear

And in case you couldn’t tell, I really liked this play. It’s complicated, and hard to do funny for a modern audience, but as long as you acknowledge the darkness where it exists, and embrace the sexiness where it exists, the funny will happen by itself. While Merry Wives of Windsor is hilarious entertainment (and also a much better show to do if you want to talk about feminism), Taming of the Shrew uses humor to explore real darkness, and I am fascinated by that. I mean, it’s a play about sex, and sex can be terrifying. But in my opinion, this play balances the darkness and humor very well – you just have to trust the text.

Unlike Zack Snyder, who just masks a script about sexual abuse with really fun explosions.

So, yeah.  That’s the point of the Induction.

Next week, I’ll be reading Pericles, and I have no idea what to expect with that thing. So that’s exciting. In the meantime, here’s my favorite Shakespearean penis joke so far:

“Am I but three inches?  why, thy horn is a foot; and so long am I at the least.”

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  1. […] William Shakespeare’s infamous Taming of the Shrew, and utilizing the concept explored in our Copyright-Free Play Archive.  Yes, that’s right, kids: It’s 50 Shades of Shakespeare.  Over the past few centuries, as […]

  2. […] I say this was a difficult show to direct, I mean that“The Taming of the Shrew” is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.  For those of you unfamiliar with the play: it […]

  3. […] which can benefit from creative remounting.  Blunt Objects Theatre did a really good rendition of Taming of the Shrew in 2013 which you can read about here, but I don’t think we would ever attempt to retrieve […]



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