Shakespeare Saturday: What to Watch

Heeeeeey! Welcome back to Shakespeare Saturday’s What to Watch, courtesy of Nerd Cactus Presents: Shakespeare-a-palooza! It’s been a fun couple of weeks here at Cactus HQ and we’re happy to report that Shakespeare Month has been quite a success (more of the same may be on the way in the future, so keep your eyes on the blog)! Next week, our persistent love of the Bard is going to culminate with our very first “business trip” to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in beautiful Canada and we could NOT be more excited. The excitement is palpable. FEEL IT.

Yesterday C dove once again into The Taming of the Shrew (weird how that one keeps cropping up with her…) and discussed its basic plot as well as why she believes Katherina is not, in fact, “tamed”. I wholeheartedly agree with that interpretation and I think we can all agree that while Shakespeare’s early female leads were essentially cardboard cutouts, Kate’s final monologue was a massive step forward in his portrayal of women. While the domestic abuse in the play is cringe-worthy there are no adaptations (at least to my knowledge) that do not portray Katherina as “playing along” in order to gain Petruchio’s trust/love before making a play for the upper hand. She is a strong-willed woman, after all, (we’ve seen it in every scene pre-marriage and even post-marriage) and she’s fully capable of making some concessions for Petruchio’s ego and her own well-being as she performs the image of a good wife for her husband’s benefit. She’s actually quite successful at taking charge of her position. Let’s be serious, you know once the curtain falls she straight up runs Petruchio’s household.

While the “battle of the sexes” has been a remarkably reliable source of comedy for the last 400 plus years, (and when I say “plus” I mean like literally all of history… Lysistrata, for example, was written around 411 B.C. for heaven’s sake) Shrew is often mistaken as a portrayal of some scary misogynistic reality in which women are indeed “lesser”, unable to fend for themselves against the strength of men. Kate shuts that shit down though. Truly. Here’s why.

Her final speech and her general shrewdness demonstrate that while men may have the brawn, women still possess brains and she uses hers to place herself on equal footing with her husband (even if she is offering to hold his boot, which you’ll notice he doesn’t take her up on. Why? Well, he probably will want sex at some point… Remember Lysistrata? Yeah. Women have a sort of power in that area of a relationship). Kate basically uses the speech to stroke Petruchio’s massive ego, egging him to be as successful as he can so that he can provide her all the luxuries a wife deserves. She also refers to her mind and heart being “as great” as the men she fought with (she knows she’s an equal) and alludes that her reason is greater (“haply more”). Right here is all the proof I need to see that she is playing each and every one of them. Her reason has led her to see that rather than pitching her equal heart and brain at these men she can outsmart them by outwardly offering the Kate they wish her to be. She’s learned to pick her fights and that’s why she wins. Thanks, Shakespeare.

I don’t usually go on these kind of tangents (that’s C’s territory), but I felt it was important to throw in my two cents (or, y’know, 200 odd words…), because I believe that Shrew is really one of Shakespeare’s most difficult pieces to interpret. While I have repeatedly stated that I don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies all that funny, this one, in my mind, is a brilliant social satire that clearly shows how a “lowly woman” can manipulate her husband to bring a sort of secret equality to their relationship. This manipulation – no matter how subtle people believe the text to be – is crucial to understanding that relationships are made up of a constant give and take. And that is a concept that still holds true today. Not that manipulation is the way to go when building strong, loving relationships, but hey this was written in the 1590s and people still play “mind games” with one another (both men and women do this crap and though I’m not a fan, I have witnessed it many a time. And not just when I was in high school…).

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest let’s move on to the film recommendations. After all, that’s why we’re here, amiright? Right.

The Taming of the Shrew has rarely been adapted to film as a result of its difficult to handle/interpret nature. Happily, there are still more options to choose from than last week’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Huzzah! We’ll begin with a nod to the two older versions and move right along to the updated adaptations that will probably be of more interest.

The two older versions of Shrew to which I just alluded were made in 1929 and 1967. The 1929 version starred Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and is worth noting for its treatment of Katharina’s final speech, which included such blatant irony that it is clear she hasn’t been “tamed” at all. The 1967 version starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s noteworthy more for its stars than for its treatment of the play, which is heavily edited and overbearing in its focus on rampant misogyny. So yeah, those are the classics. Watch them if you must, but I’m gonna move right along.

I may have mentioned my love of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate in a previous post. In fact, I’m sure I did. It’s a musical adaptation of Shrew set in the classic play within a play framework that explores the relationships of not only Kate and Petruchio, but also their offstage counterparts (who bear striking resemblances to the characters). It’s one of my all time favorite classic musicals and I was lucky enough to be in a production of it last year. Though there is a movie version from 1953 I suggest you skip it and instead seek out the 2003 PBS production starring Rachel York and Brent Barrett. It’s available on YouTube in chunks, so that’s definitely an option. It’s a perfect combination of comedy, romance, song, dance, and Shakespeare. I highly, highly, highly recommend this version (probably above anything else I’ll be writing about today) and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I always have.

Of course, no post about The Taming of the Shrew would be complete without mentioning the brilliant 1999 modern adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You. I mean seriously what’s not to love? You’ve got Heath Ledger at the height of his Australian bad boy dreaminess, Julia Stiles before she got all skinny and took on a bunch of whiny worry-wart roles, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as an adorable baby version of the sophisticated hottie we all know and love today. And it’s funny! A truly well-written, entertaining update on one of Shakespeare’s most avoided plays. Again, no “taming”, just some tempering in the name of love. Watch it, love it, repeat.

My final two recommendations are both courtesy of the BBC and sadly I have not had the good fortune of finding them online nor the opportunity to watch them anywhere else. But I would be remiss to leave them out, because from the clips I have found on YouTube and the information online they may very well be worth the finding. The first is from The Shakespeare Collection. This incredible collection put every single one of Shakespeare’s works on film over the course of seven seasons. The Taming of the Shrew appears in the third season and stars John Cleese as Petruchio. 

Yes, that John Cleese. Let it settle. Now join me in the search to find it.

The second BBC offering is another modern reimagining which was part of a series entitled ShakespeaRetold. This Shakespeare project sought to update the works of the Bard and from the episode synopses I’d say they were spot on. I’m supremely tempted to outright buy the DVD which includes The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth (starring James McAvoy as an ambitious sous chef no less), but I think I’ll have to wait and see how much I end up spending in Canada.

Here’s the link for those of you who aren’t concerned about your spending habits:

Back to Shrew though… The new version BBC has put together stars Rufus Sewell, Twiggy, and Shirley Henderson (better known as Moaning Myrtle to my fellow HP nerds). It follows a young, shrewish politician who is coerced into marriage to further her position in her party. Below is a clip I found and thoroughly enjoyed… You’ve got Henderson (a diminutive force to be reckoned with) and Rufus Sewell (being adorably… What exactly? Calculating? Mocking? Genuinely interested? I don’t know, but seeing as he’s usually a villain it’s hard to get away from that stigma. He sure is yummy though…) stuck in an elevator and it’s just banter and anger and heat. I can’t wait to see the rest.

Good golly that was a long post! Hopefully you found something interesting, entertaining, or useful within my ramblings. If not, thanks for sticking around. Tune in tomorrow for the last pre-Stratford post of Shakespeare Month!



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