Tomorrow night, I get to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by one of my favourite Shakespeare acting companies, Propeller. It got me thinking of the last time I saw one of their plays, and how I reacted then.
It was around this time last year that I had the honour of seeing Propeller’s production of William Shakespeare’s controversial play, The Taming of the Shrew. What makes it controversial? Simply put, it is the grotesque celebration of the cruelty of the patriarchy, coupled with heaping helpings of misogyny.
I’m skipping ahead a little. Allow me to tell you first what made it a brilliant adaptation, and what the play is actually about. It starts with a frame: Sly the tinker, showing up drunk to his own wedding. His friends decide to play an elaborate prank, and convince him that he is actually the Lord of this house, and to entertain him, they perform a play for him. And this is where our story starts. To allow Bianca to marry, Hotensio, one of her many suitors, arranges for Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, to court her older sister, Katherina. Katherina is obstinate, shrew-like, and she refuses to marry. But Petruchio uses reverse psychology on her, until she has no choice but to marry him. He tames her through psychological torture, denying her food and sleep until she is compliant, and humiliating her repeatedly. There’s more to the plot, and there’s a reason this is one of Shakespeare’s more farcical comedies, but this is where people have the problem, especially the modern audience. In the end, Sly applauds the end of the play, but he is reminded that this was just fiction, and this is no way to treat your bride.
A wonderful plot! Except Shakespeare never penned that last scene—it was written and added later to make it more palatable for the modern audience.
I know I am glad for this three-line addition. I went to watch the play at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal with my fifteen year old sister, and she was horrified by any scene with Kate and Petruchio. Without it, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is nothing more than a celebration of domestic abuse, littered with sight gags and raunchy sub-plots. It’s a harsh watch, especially for someone so young, but that additional scene adds a welcome salve to the open wound of Kate’s taming.
We are taught in literature that we must adopt the mindset of the era in which a piece originates. There will be people reading this post now, screaming that I’m regarding the problem with too contemporary a mind, and this was the way things were done in Shakespeare’s era.
And to them, I say: the experts disagree. Why else include the opening framework of a wedding outside of Kate and Petruchio’s world if not to provide a way to separate the audience from the immediate happenings? By doing this, Shakespeare provides a microcosm in which to experiment with violence which need never touch the world of the audience. Shakespeare uses metatheatrics to this effect constantly throughout his comedies, and The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy. Just as the Athenian play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides safety from the magic of Midsummer, the play in The Taming of the Shrew transports the narrative in a land that is decidedly not England, and therefore safe. Critics like Dana Aspinall conclude in their studies that an Elizabethan audience would have been just as appalled by this gross display of sexism. In Aspinall’s The Taming of the Shrew: Critical Essays (2001), he explains at the time the play was performed, it “elicited a panoply of heartily supportive, ethically uneasy, or altogether disgusted responses to its rough-and-tumble treatment of the ‘taming’ of the ‘curst shrew’ Katherina, and obviously, of all potentially unruly wives” (page 3). This play was one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and it could have easily destroyed his just budding career through its risky subject matter.
I am not here to defend him, or accuse him of sexism, but merely to point at this: Shakespeare repeatedly revised his own work. That is how travelling troupes of actors worked. Scenes would be added, removed, or repeated, depending on audience reactions. There was a script-writer of course, but words cannot make up for a lack of talent. We have Shakespeare’s surviving work, but that is not to say that this is what his audience would have seen. It was perfectly common for Renaissance actors to improvise scenes when jokes fell flat, and this was how their money was made. The words of Shakespeare weren’t even collected by Shakespeare– they were collected in to the First Folio by John Hemminge and Henry Condell, actors and friends of Shakespeare who acted as editors. We can not say with any definitive voice that these are the versions of the plays that Shakespeare wanted to be remembered for; we can only surmise that these were the preferred versions of the actors. There is no authorial voice to be found here, rendering the argument moot.
This is why I fundamentally disagree with the puritans of literature, and every following has one. Whether your heart was captured by the whimsy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or if it the Harry Potter series that has you enthralled, these books are more than pieces of work. They are pieces of culture, and that is why people get themselves in to wars over adaptations. Many would claim that popular culture is poison, but at some point these classic pieces were popular culture, enjoyed by all. I believe literature should be available to all, and adaptations are the way to do it. That literature can inspire such passions in us is a testament to their importance, but there are times where such a tyrannical hold over authenticity does more harm than good.
The best known adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew is probably the 90’s modernised teen comedy ’10 Things I Hate About You’, starring Julia Stiles as Kat Stratford and Heath Ledger as Patrick Verona. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s worth it for the nostalgic value alone, not to mention the subtle weaving of Shakespearean culture in to a thoroughly quotable script. Instead of arranging marriages, Bianca, played by Larisa Oleynik, can’t date until Kat does. Instead of marriage suitors, Bianca has boys wanting to date her, and Kat is the rebellious feminist (she shaped me more than I give her credit for). But could you imagine a young Heath Ledger pulling Julia Stiles in to the middle of a prom by her hair? No. Someone would stop him, and quite rightly. If he announced that he owned her like she was cattle, he would be lynched. And if she submitted totally to this abuse, the audience would label her stupid and a coward.
Revision and adapting is a good thing, and sometimes it is totally necessary. It makes the story more accessible. Some may still think that the addition of the final scene ruins the play, but without it, could many stand to watch the play? I am an avid fan of Shakespeare, and yet I found myself wanting to leave in the intermission, knowing it would get worse for my sister. She had never read it before and was ill-prepared to deal with seeing the torture on-stage.
We come to the problem that is plaguing classic literature; to keep it pure is to condemn to be forgotten, and I find certain books suffer more for their fan base. No one complained when Hamlet was performed by lions. But make Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland an action film, and God save you; the fans after blood.
Times change, but the fundamental love of literature does not. Just because the movies, and the plays show things in a way that goes against what you assume was the author’s intent, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Propeller did a fantastic job, and I am delighted to see their work again. Is it authentic Shakespeare? No. But unless the Bard rises from the grave, and directs the next showing of Much Ado About Nothing, this is the closest I’m getting. And honestly, I can live with that. Times change, and that’s a good thing. The books are still here. No one is censoring Shakespeare. They are making it more accessible. Don’t be an elitist, and let other people enjoy his mastery too.
And so, dear readers, we reach the end of another post.
I ask you, what adaptation of Shakespeare do you like most? Do you think his works should remain untouched? What is it about changing works that you agree/disagree with?
Let me know your thoughts