Archive for February, 2010

The Bardathon: 2- The Taming of the Shrew

Obviously, there are elements in this play that make it very problematic for modern audiences: but purely as a comic farce, Shakespeare did a marvellous job. It is certainly a far more assured work then The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And for the first time, Shakespeare broaches a theme that he was to explore in greater depth in his later plays – the power of persuasion, the power to change a person’s perception of reality. This is one of the central themes in Othello, of course, but it’s here as well.

Looked at closely, the play is not perhaps quite so misogynistic as a summary of its plot may lead one to believe. Katharina’s behaviour at the start of the play is not that of a woman chafing against the constraints placed upon her by patriarchal society, but of one who really is wild and uncontrolled: she exhibits a behaviour that no society can put up with. It is reasonable to see this, I think, as a psychological problem, and it is reasonable also to see Petruchio’s behaviour as a sort of therapy. For what is noticeable is that once her behaviour returns to normality, Petruchio does not treat her as an inferior: indeed, there seems to be a genuine affection between the two. Even when, in the submission speech, Katharina offers to place her hand under Petruchio’s foot (presumably a symbolic declaration of submission), he doesn’t take her up on this: he merely says “Kiss me Kate!”

However, for all that, the submission speech in the final scene does rankle, mainly because it does not follow from what we had seen earlier. What we had seen earlier was not about the necessity of the female will submitting to the male, but of the importance of moderating extremes of behaviour in order to live peacefully within an ordered society. So it is hard to see why the final scene focuses in so misogynistic a manner on the issue of the wife’s submission to the husband’s will.

It is hard to say just how seriously the young Shakespeare, at this stage in his career, took any of this. Certainly, in later plays, Shakespeare showed great sympathy with his female characters, appeared to have a thorough understanding of them, and, through Emilia in Othello (in the scene where she prepares Desdemona for bed for the last time), expresses very eloquently the sense of wrong women were entitled to feel in their unequal struggle. And if the woman learns from the man in this play, that in itself is no more objectionable than the men learning from the women in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But that final scene here remains puzzling.

This is obviously the work of a more mature dramatist than the author of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I’m not sure this is a play I’ll be returning to too often.

***

The BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew featured John Cleese as Petruchio, and I was expecting a riotous and frantic farce, but the whole production (directed by Jonathan Miller) was surprisingly restrained, and even austere at times. John Cleese was very good as Petruchio: this is a man who genuinely craves a decent, loving relationship, and his treatment of Katherine, cruel though it is, is a sort of therapy. Sarah Badel was an excellent Katherine – quite demented at first, but who comes to learn the importance of civil behaviour. This play can certainly be seen in these terms, but no matter how you sweeten the pill, that final scene remains deeply uncomfortable. (And this is not merely for modern audiences: according to the notes in my Arden edition, audiences in the 18th & 19th centuries also found it uncomfortable.) This production made no attempt to sweeten the pill in the final scene: it said, in effect: “This is what Shakespeare wrote – you can take it or leave it.”

Advertisements

The Bardathon: 1 – The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Perhaps The Two Gentlemen of Verona works better in performance. The reading, however, left me decidedly underwhelmed. Of course, this is possibly Shakespeare’s very first play, and I did not expect a masterpiece; but I did expect some glimmers, some indications of what was to come. But there didn’t seem to be much of that either.

And yet, in terms of plot details, there are many aspects that return in Shakespeare’s later works: motifs from this play find their way into Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, etc. etc. And if, as seems likely, Shakespeare had collaborated very late in his career in The Two Noble Kinsmen (a dramatisation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale), then the title chosen for that work seems to be an affectionate glance back at this earlier play.

The plot is preposterous, but that needn’t be a drawback: the plots of Twelfth Night or As You Like It are also quite preposterous, but that does not prevent these later plays being great masterpieces. But here, the poetry and the imagery seem, at best, merely pretty, and, frequently, quite laboured. Here is a typical example:

This weak impress of love is as a figure  
Trenched in ice, which with an hour’s heat
Dissolves to water and doth lose his form.
A little time will melt her frozen thoughts,  
And worthless Valentine shall be forgot.

A simple conceit, but expressed in rather verbose terms over five rather unremarkable lines. In later plays, such an image would merely have been touched upon in passing, and would have been swept up in a host of other images. The laboured quality I find here gives the whole thing a sort of static, lumpen quality.

The humour too, seems rather obvious and laboured. With the exception of Launce’s anecdote about his dog, it all seems eminently forgettable. And time after time, one comes across scenes, and wonders how a more mature Shakespeare would have handled them. Take, for example, that brief scene between Sylvia and the disguised Julia, and compare that to the gloriously lyrical scene in Twelfth Night between Olivia and the disguised Viola, and the difference in quality is all too apparent.

Of course, this sort of lyric, romantic comedy is a very artificial medium, and one shouldn’t cavil at the artficialities inherent in the form; but nonetheless, within the parameters of the work, one should look for at least some psychological credibility. And what happens in the last scene defies any credibility at all. It’s like something out of Monty Python. Valentine saves his love Sylvia from being raped by his false friend Proteus; Proteus then expresses remorse; and Valentine accepts Proteus’ repentance, and actually offers to give Sylvia to Proteus as a mark of his friendship. It may be that Shakespeare was bound by the original source material, but this really would be distasteful were it not too silly for words.

Not an auspicious start to the Bardathon, I’m afraid, and if I didn’t have some idea of the riches to come, I’d be tempted to give up here and now. But it’s good to know that Shakespeare didn’t start off a genius: he had to work hard to cultivate his extraordinary talents. 

***

The BBC version of The Two Gentlemen of Verona proves that it does work better in performance than on the page – or, at the very least, it can be made to work. Tessa  Peake-Jones (who later turned up as Raquel in Only Fools and Horses) made an excellent Julia, and projected more pathos in the role than I thought was possible: the serenade scene was particularly effective. But I’m afraid that this still remains a very minor play, and possibly a contender for the worst single play Shakespeare has written.

The Bardathon: Introduction

I have long considered myself a Shakespeare nut, but, in reality, whenever I read Shakespeare, I end up reading one or other of a favourite dozen or so. So, about a year ago, I determined to read all the Shakespeare plays, roughly in the order in which they were written. I say “roughly”, as we cannot be sure of the exact order. I decided to follow the order in which the plays are presented in the Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. That edition, I realise, has its detractors, but the order in which it presents the plays is possibly as good a chronological order as any. The plays themselves I read in the individual Arden editions.

I have now finished the project (it took me nearly a year), and I made notes as I was reading them. These notes, while far from being erudite exegeses – I am certainly no Shakespearean scholar – do, at least, capture what I, an enthusiastic amateur, made of them. And I have decided to polish up those notes a bit, and put them up on my blog, play by play.

Unfortunately, the first in the series is the somewhat unexciting play The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I think I can promise things will get better as the series progresses.

Hello world!

Hello, and welcome to my blog.

This is my first post here, but I trust I’ll get to know my way round this blogging business soon enough, and that in no time at all, I’ll be churning out posts like billy-o.

My aim is to blog on whatever takes my fancy. I’ll try to keep off politics – not because I don’t have strong political opinions, but because I generally find that political discussion, especially on the net, tends to generate more heat than light. On other topics that interest me, I am more than happy to live up to my screen name – Argumentative Old Git.

I expect most of my blogs will be related to cultural matters – especially literature. I do, however, expect to post occasionally on other topics – music (lack of knowledge or understanding doesn’t appear to be a bar to anyone else on the blogosphere – so why should it stop me?); the visual arts (ditto); cinema, theatre, etc. My likes and dislikes, my various enthusiasms and blind spots and eccentricities, will all become clear, I think, in due time.

And I welcome argument. Not rudeness or name-calling or personal vituperation, of course – although I do appreciate that that sort of thing often passes for argument. I mean actually examining each other’s points, clarifying assumptions, agreeing on definitions – you know, that sort of thing.

A few biographical details: my name is Himadri Chatterjee; I am by profession an operational research analyst; I have recently turned 50, but still have my own hair and my own teeth; I live in the south of England with my wife and two teenage children; I was born in India of Indian parents, and have lived in Britain since I was 5; I grew up mainly in Scotland, and, for my sins, still cheer on their national football team; and, last but not least, I have a big, bushy beard.

That’s enough for an introduction, I think. Now comes the difficult bit…