Shakespeare Saturday: On the Importance of Seeing it Live

OK! Welcome to Shakespeare Saturday! I realize it’s technically Sunday now on the East Coast, but I went out and saw Ant Man, so…it’s a little late. On a side note, the movie is pretty funny and quite entertaining, and you should all see it. There’s a great little in-joke at the beginning for fans of House of Cards, too, which is fun.

Now! On to Shakespeare!

Where I live, it isn’t easy to find live performances of Shakespeare. They just typically aren’t done. The shows that make it down here are the ones that are big on Broadway, with smaller venues sometimes doing less famous shows, but it’s hard to find Shakespeare around here. Unless I want to go trolling the local high schools, or something, but…no. No, thank you. I did high school once already; I don’t need to set foot on one again. So…just in case you didn’t get the point of this paragraph, I don’t get to see a lot of Shakespeare on stage.

That means I have to get my Shakespeare, for the most part, on the screen…and there’s a limit to how many of those I can get my hands on. So, as much as I love the Bard, I’ve only seen Shakespeare a few times, or in forms like She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You. Now, I’m OK with these; Clueless is one of my favorite Austen adaptations, after all, and 10 Things introduced me to both Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon Levitt (as well as being a damn good adaptation). But it’s just not the same. And, worse, it loses the magic of seeing the show live.

I came to realize all this the other day when I was watching PBS’ Shakespeare Uncovered, which examines Shakespeare’s plays from the perspective of the actors who perform in them (aka Shakespeare’s people). And, as no one can understand a character like the person embodying him/her, I’d say that actors are possibly the best people to listen to on the subject. Shakespeare wrote his plays for actors to perform; they’re plays that need to be performed to come alive. And listening to actors discuss how much they love these plays and these parts makes it hard not to love them, too. Even the most hardened Shakespeare hater has to soften in the face of so much excitement and love.

There is a point to all of this. Even I, who adore the Bard, have two plays I’ve never really liked: The Merchant of Venice (for Shylock-related reasons) and, ironically enough given my love of 10 Things I Hate About You, Taming of the Shrew. The scenes in Verona where Petruchio engages in unequivocally abusive behavior…well, I hate them. Everyone hates them. Even people who love the play hate those scenes. But what I was never able to understand without the context of a performance was that Shakespeare intended us to hate them. Petruchio’s behavior is not something Shakespeare condones; he wanted his audiences to be uncomfortable with that behavior. And more…whether or not Katherina is “tamed” is up for grabs! I’ve read the play a few times, but…for some reason, I could never picture any situation but Katherina being “broken”. That Shakespeare was saying that this was the proper role for men and women. And, well…I was not cool with that.

Enter Shakespeare Uncovered and the goddess known as Meryl Streep. She played Katherina (opposite Gomez Addams of all people) at Shakespeare in the Park, and clips of her performance were used throughout the episode (hosted by God!). One of those clips was the part of the play where Petruchio is forcing her to say the sun is the moon and vice versa, which I had never before liked. It had always screamed to me that Katherina had been broken and was giving in. But lo! Empress Meryl was not broken! She was placating. She was practically patting him on the head and saying, “Whatever you say, honey.” Treating him like a child having a temper tantrum! It was an absolute revelation! Could it be that this was sarcasm on her part? Could the Katherina I loved still be there; not tamed, but merely softened? No longer angry, but cunning? Yes! She could! And Meryl had shown me the way.

All of a sudden, I was seeing the play in a new light. I was able to apply tone and irony to a play I had always read as straight. And while I still hate those scenes where Petruchio abuses her…well, Morgan Freeman hates them, too, and he played Petruchio. As for that speech at the end of the play? Well, it’s Katherina advocating silence and meekness and staying hidden behind her husband…all while upstaging everyone with the longest speech in the entire play. Even if the actress chose to deliver it straight, the speech is ironic. Which just goes to show how AWESOME Willy Shakes really is.

And all it took was a live performance! OK, so…a filmed version of a live performance complete with commentary from actors and actresses, but you know what I mean!

I wonder if Shakespeare Uncovered can make me love The Merchant of Venice? After all, it does have Portia as an awesomely awesome female character. But that awesomeness comes at the expense of such woeful antisemitism…and that’s hard to like. But maybe I’ve been misinterpreting that one, too. Maybe one of those local high schools is putting on a performance, or something…

Anyway! Watch Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS! Also…see some live Shakespeare! Who knows what a good performance can do for you? This has been Shakespeare Saturday (a bit late). Tomorrow, we get silly!


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