Monday Muse: Shrew Again??

Happy Monday, loyal readers!
Today won’t be much of a muse because C and I watched The BBC’s Shakespeare Collection offering of The Taming of the Shrew this afternoon and it deserves its own bloody post. Despite many people’s gut reaction to hate Shrew in response to the abusive aspects of Kate and Petruchio’s relationship, we have been discussing (at length) how there is actually a great deal of humor to be found, a strong coupling of characters, and plenty of social commentary present within the piece. Since we’ve mentioned these observations before let me move on to the things we haven’t yet written about; things that became increasingly obvious as we watched.

But first! …A few key points

1) John Cleese’s interpretation of Petruchio is stellar.  (I’ll go into why in a moment.)

2) This play is not about what is happening on the surface. Subtext clues are everywhere and if the actors know it and play it with that underscoring, the action becomes very different. That is most definitely the case in this version.

3) Bianca is just as much of a bitch as Kate is.

4) Shakespeare’s words should not be spoken so quickly as to become a rap. (Nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about, Lucentio.)

5) Petruchio and Kate are actually a perfect couple.

Now let me talk to you about John Cleese for a bit. First off, he’s brilliant and, surprisingly, kinda hot. He acts the role with alternating subtlety and lunacy to great effect. He plays his subtext like a pro, effectually showing us his underlying motives. And finally, he has successfully changed our minds vis a vis “Petruchio is a complete and utter asshole”. (SAY WHAT?)

John Cleese’s interpretation of Petruchio is undeniably complex. He shows a genuine interest in Katherina from the get go (as he should) and pairs it with the swaggering manly man surface that Petruchio is famed for. However, in moments of absolute seriousness (which are fleeting, but quite unmistakable), he has only Katherina’s best interests at heart, offering her wisdom in the form of explanations that while the exterior of a person may be one way the heart and mind are not necessarily changed. Here lay a major revelation about the play and the character.

We realized as we watched that, despite his questionable methods, Petruchio is trying to bestow an important lesson on Kate. That is, playing the role that others assign you is easily done, but, given that concession, you are who you are and you can do what you want. He demonstrates how this applies by essentially mirroring her temper and shrillness during the wedding scene. In doing so, he not only shows her how others must view her tirades but manages to garner some sympathy for her, making her own character seem (momentarily) less erratic. He mimics her again when they are at his home and, though he does not let her eat or sleep, it would appear that he is putting himself through the same misery and doesn’t want to draw it out any longer than he thinks he has to.

It is on their way back to Padua when the lesson really seems to settle with Kate. Petruchio insists that the moon is the sun and Vincenzo is a woman and this is that, etc. In this scene he basically teaches Kate an elaborate game designed to help her fit in, earning respect from her father and sister and community while maintaining who she has always been. To her credit, Sarah Badel (who plays Kate) brings lightness to the scene, turning from annoyance and impatience to understanding and laughter as she begins to play Petruchio’s game. Though their attraction has been clear since their first meeting, here we see them having fun together, enjoying one another for having matching wit.

There are many lovely nuances to Cleese’s and Badel’s performances but it is hard to capture them all in writing as so much is seen and told in the subtlety of their looks or the expressions on their faces. One thing is abundantly clear though, there is much more to the story than meets the eye. A reading of the play would be hard pressed to expect any reader to find these interpretations, but these actors and their director seem to have found the love and concern that lies in Petruchio’s actions. And that is an incredible feat.

So please do yourself a favor and watch this Shrew. You won’t believe how good it is. It might actually make you like the play. I know it certainly solidified it for me.




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