not called “shake-speare” for nothing

The only thing better than being a comic-book-slash-Shakespeare-geek who owns the Cartoon Shakespeare series is being a comic-book-slash-Shakespeare-geek-mother whose 6yo daughter reads said series and then asks to be taken to Shakespeare in the park.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven – until I found that the production was of your least favourite play and mine, the (cough) shall we say, problematic, Taming of the Shrew. In the plus column, it was staged by Woman’s Will, billing itself as the San Francisco Bay Area’s all-female Shakespeare company. What might Californian women do with Shakespeare’s most dickish play? Way to pique my interest! Off we went.

In her director’s note, Erin Merritt tackles the misogyny issue head-on:

Along comes another wild soul who is not afraid of her, who is delighted by her even at her worst, who in fact out-shrews her on many an occasion, but who time and again asks, “Can Kate come out and play?””

“Play”, it turns out, is the operative word. What Merritt and El Beh, the actor playing Petruchio, tease out of the text is Shakespeare’s subversive description of gender roles as performative. It’s a brilliant reading, building on what’s already there. (Let’s not forget that the original productions had young men playing the women’s roles. Shakespeare was no feminist and very much of his time, but at least his positions on gender have the virtue of being complicated.) El Beh’s Petruchio is a braggart and a clown, channeling at times Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. That’s funny all on its own, as a woman’s exaggerated portrait of that particular species of dumb, smug masculinity. But Beh doesn’t stop there. She gives Petruchio self-knowledge and kindness, so that he looks at Kate with genuine admiration and affection.

This characterization transforms their scenes together. Instead of playing Petruchio as an abusive jerk, Beh shows him mirroring Kate’s bad temper back at her. He also offers her the alternative of joining in his playful engagement with the world. In this reading, when Petruchio says the sun is the moon, it’s not because he wants to squash her capacity for independent thought. It’s because the words are abitrary. It’s the societal-expectation argument(1) in favour of (all kinds of) weddings. You don’t necessarily sacrifice your integrity when you’re reading from a script(2), and you might just be able to get the rest of the world off your back. If he can play at being a man, she can play at being a women, and they can play at being married. When that performance satisfies the surveillance of the rest of Padua, it becomes a protective shield inside which they can figure out what kind of a relationship they themselves would like.

A sardonic ex of mine used to dismiss male fictional characters written by women – Mr Darcy being the most obvious – as lesbians in transparent disguise. This production reminded me that women can be very good at capturing what other women would like in a mate. Literary transvestism for fun and profit!

I make it sound heavy-handed but it wasn’t. It was deliciously sexy and hilarious as well. (And well-staged! At a couple of points, Kate literally sweeps Petruchio off his feet.) My point is that as a card-carrying feminist I never expected to belly-laugh at this of all plays. Liz argues that one funny production doesn’t redeem the text, which is true; still, this right here is the sort of cultural appropriation I can get behind! Kudos! My kid liked it too.

(1) It’s not a strong argument.
(2) Note that non-sacrifice of integrity cannot be guaranteed by the Geek Feminism organization or its subsidiaries. Offer void where prohibited. Open with care.

4 thoughts on “not called “shake-speare” for nothing

  1. Mackenzie

    Perhaps I need to reread it (it’s been a decade), but I sort of got the impression that Petruchio, over the course of the play, goes from being a jerk to someone who actually respects Katerina and understands where she’s coming from. If he didn’t, she wouldn’t have given in to him, would she?

    1. yatima

      That’s a very supportable reading. This production shifted the emphasis a little. Petruchio’s position in Act 1 was that he needed to marry someone, (here we see the action of the weak societal-expectation force,) and that these accounts of bitchy, smart-mouthed Kate intrigued him.

      Then he met her, sparks flew (the actors had fantastic chemistry) and from there on in, all his antics aimed at disarming her, getting under her defenses and persuading her that they could make a space for themselves to live happily and playfully together, without doing violence to their essential natures.

      One interesting implication of this is how it changed the portrayal of Kate. Her high spirits and quick wit remained core to her character, but the anger and bitterness she expressed were clearly quite sane reactions to the constraints placed on her by her father and the good, dull people of Padua. By giving a funny, clever Petruchio the insight to want to liberate a funny, clever Kate – from boredom as much as anything else – this production offered us a redemptive version of her as well.

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