Greetings, readers, and welcome to our final edition of Nerd Cactus Presents: Shakespeare-a-palooza, most particularly our special Shakespeare’s Plays version of Boozy Books. Not that this means Shakespeare Month is OVER, mind; it’s just that next week is our trip to Stratford, and we believe that our trip should be YOUR TRIP! So, instead of our usual programming (minus Monday, which will be business as usual), we’re bringing you Nerd Cactus: In Canada! We’ll review the plays we’re seeing, fangirl over all the Shakespeare fun, enjoy being in a place where Summery and Pleasant are actually synonymous, and share with you all the awesome stuff we’re doing. Oh my God, guys, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be going. Even though it means being on an airplane.
(I am not good with planes…)
OK…after you’ve pulled yourself away from that GIF (OMG, RED PANDAS ARE SO CUTE AND IF I WEREN’T MORALLY OPPOSED TO OWNING EXOTIC ANIMALS, I’D GET ONE.)…
The last play we’re seeing while we’re up in Stratford (go ahead and look at the GIF again…I know you want to) is Taming of the Shrew. You might remember it from Monday’s muse in which I link to my journey with God (Morgan Freeman) to the land of milk and honey (aka a complete lightbulb moment in which I realize Shakespeare don’t like ugly). It’s that play with a lot of really uncomfortable behavior, in which a woman is abused horribly in an attempt to break her. It’s also that play most people probably know as 10 Things I Hate About You. Heath Ledger is the best Petruchio to ever be named Patrick Verona (because Petruchio is from Verona, guys).
OK. So…let’s get a little background on this play. It’s not like Hamlet, where everybody knows what happens. Taming of the Shrew is, somehow, a comedy. This is because no one dies, which is really one of the easiest ways of telling Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies apart (except for his dark comedies, also called ‘the problem plays’). After all, is it really funny that Petruchio basically starves Katherina in order to “break” her? No. No it is not. It’s not funny at all. Which is what makes this play so interesting. But enough on that later.
The plot is as follows: Katherina is a bit of a bitch. No, really, she is pretty mean to a lot of people. We excuse it as a modern audience because she’s also witty, intelligent, and strong-willed; these are all things we value in modern society, for both men and women. But she is still kinda mean. She has a younger sister named Bianca, who is pretty much her opposite and, thus, the ‘perfect woman’ in Elizabethan times. Bianca is submissive, innocent, and wholesome (a full on ingénue) and all the boys want to marry her, particularly Hortensio and Lucentio. Alas, Bianca cannot marry until Katherina does…and ain’t no one wanna marry her. Enter Petruchio (a word meaning ‘asshole’ in Esperanto*), a soldier looking to settle down and get married. He’s not romantic; he just wants to find a rich woman and marry her. And, guess what, Katherina just happens to be rich! So…guess what? They get married and head back to Verona as husband and wife.
So far, so good, right? Wrong. Here comes the part of the play no one can stomach. It’s about as misogynistic as anything can get. Even Richard III would tell Petruchio to ‘settle down’ and he’s so villainous, his story infected history! Petruchio abuses Katherina. There is no other way to put it. He won’t feed her, dangles dresses and jewelry in front of her and then takes them away, forces her to agree with everything he says (even if it isn’t true), and is basically the worst. THE WORST. There is no redeeming these scenes. No humor. No poking fun. They’re awful in every way.
Meanwhile, the funny part of the play is in the suit of Hortensio and Lucentio for Bianca’s hand. There’s disguises and mistaken identities, elopements, etc. It’s basically a farce. Is it also not the heart of the play. I imagine Shakespeare just put it in there so audiences don’t storm out of the theater, because even in Elizabethan times, Petruchio goes too far.
Eventually, P and K return to Padua (stopping by to see Romeo on the way–no, no, I kid) to a big party where Petruchio demonstrates how submissive and docile Katherina has become. The play ends with a big ol’ speech (and it’s important how big and how ol’ it is, believe me) from Katherina explaining how important it is for a woman to be silent and demure and to listen to her husband in all things because he is her lord and master and yadda yadda yadda…
Listen. This isn’t a particularly feminist play. But…this is Shakespeare! The man who brought us Juliet and Beatrice and Cleopatra. Strong women who, though played by men, dominate their plays and their stories. Women who absolutely do not take shit and who are celebrated for their power. How, then, could this be by the same man? Was it written earlier, before Shakespeare really got a handle on women? Well, depending on the dates, Romeo and Juliet is pretty contemporary, with at most a year between them. But, yes, perhaps it is just because he wrote it so early. I don’t think so, though. In fact, I think Katherina is just as powerful as the other ladies of Shakespeare. Why? Because of that speech I mentioned earlier.
The speech I refer to (yadda, yadda, yadda, remember?) is the longest speech in the play, the last speech in the play, and Katherina is front and center. Everyone is looking at her, and she is everything in that moment. Petruchio fades, Bianca fades…everyone fades behind her. And she’s telling everyone that a woman should be silent and invisible. It is the single most visible moment in the entire play and it belongs to Katherina. No matter what she says in that moment, she is the star. And that’s how I know Shakespeare loved her. That’s how I know she isn’t broken. Tempered, maybe, in that she has found an equal with whom to share her life and so she no longer feels the need to fight back and to lash out, but definitely not broken. And it must be noted that, in giving this speech, she has won Petruchio and herself quite a bit of money. As for Petruchio? I think, in the words “Kiss me, Kate,” we realize that he knows she isn’t broken, and that this is a woman he loves, and the two of them are well-suited. Their strong wills can temper one another (because oh do I think Katherina just placates Petruchio to shut him up) and create a happy marriage.
But WHAT ABOUT THE ABUSE? Well, yeah…that’s bad. There’s no excusing it. And there’s really no excusing Petruchio from it, even if Katherina decides to (which…I’m sure she gets back at him after the play is over). But I don’t think Shakespeare condones what he wrote. He was exploring the concept of marriage and the relationship between men and women in this play. And perhaps he was turning a mirror upon Elizabethan society. Yes, love marriages had begun to dot up and here and there, and the concept of marriage was changing, but…men still tended to behave as if women were meant to be silent (the Queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had basically been killed for not being silent). Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t want none of that nonsense. And so long as I can believe that about Shakespeare, I can enjoy this play (even as I squirm at parts of it).
Now! What to drink? Yes. This is a play that requires some drinks. Well, you might think I’m weird, but I am recommending a Dark and Stormy. This is a drink made famous by Gosling’s Rum of Bermuda (shout out to Bermuda, where my dad was raised!). It is a mix of their dark rum and ginger beer, served over ice and garnished with a lime. Why, you may ask? That sounds so islandy! And not the Isle of Great Britain, either, that sceptred isle. Trust me, it works. Petruchio’s abuse is the dark, Katherina is the stormy (as is their relationship). It seems like, because of the abuse scenes, this might be a tragic play–or at least a very heavy one–but it ends up being quite humorous despite itself. And, given that there’s more ginger beer (which can be made nonalcoholic and usually is) than rum, this is a surprisingly light drink! See? It works! Gosling’s even makes a pre-made one, if you want to go that route!
Buy the book (play):
Buy the booze:
The ready-to-drink version (canned):
So, that’s it for me, today! I think I’ve kept you here long enough! Until tomorrow, when we’ll share with you all the best versions of Taming of the Shrew available on the big (or small) screen. (‘Cause sometimes you just wanna watch the movie.)
*Petruchio does NOT mean asshole in Esperanto