The last thing we saw at the Shakespeare Theater was a production of Hamlet, in modernized form. Characters used cell phones. The prince did not, alas, deliver his soliloquies into one. If you are going to mess these things up, you might as well go overboard.
Yesterday we went there for a matinee of The Taming of the Shrew, which Rita will be describing for the Washington Ear at some point and will need to preview a second time. Once was enough for me. It's a clever staging -- the afternoon was enjoyable enough at that level -- but if the play itself is in any way preferable to a sitcom, I fail to detect why that might be.
To be fair about it, I'll have a look at Northrop Frye and Marjorie Garber at some point soon, to see if what went on that I missed. But for now, the most striking thing about the performance was the reminder that the Shakespeare Theater folks seem to feel obliged to make certain things palatable when, for contemporaray sensibilities, they really aren't.
The performance ends with a gesture suggesting that the long speech by which Katherine reveals that she has been "tamed" by Petruchio is actually a trick that the couple have cooked up in order to win big bucks in a wager. There is no way to square this with the rest of the play, which shows Petruchio starving Kate, depriving her of sleep, and so forth. Closing things with a suggestion that 'twas all in good fun -- well, that's just a cop out.
If there is some way to construe Katherine's monologue as ironic, I'd like to know about it:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey....
Rita turned to me afterwards and said, "Well you can just forget about that." So much for my plans to include it in a card for our anniversary.
The same general problem bothered me about the production of Titus Andronicus, another play considered, like Taming, to be among Shakespeare's earlier efforts. The director decided to treat it, not as a revenge play, but as a critique of the cycle of violence. The ending was framed so that the slaughter of the Moor's child was a horrific act.
In a piece that ran a few months ago, I quoted an English professor who spoke of Titus as a morally ambiguous character. But as with the ending of Shrew, this seems like wishful thinking. I suggested in a column that, in its orginal context, the world of Titus is probably about as morally complex as that of professional wrestling:
The audience that greeted the play with such enthusiasm would have had little trouble knowing who to cheer. Titus is a simple man. He makes some bad choices, but he is brave and a man of honor. And the people who hurt him are, after all, rather sinister foreigners - one an arriviste woman, the other an atheistic black man who delights in his own villainy.
Nor does it follow that Aaron's expression of love for his infant son would have necessarily made him a sympathetic character. On the contrary, it could well have made the destruction of the baby called for at the end of the play that much more pleasurable to imagine. Since the villainous Moor both fathered the child and tried to protect him, the boy's death would, in effect, be a final reckoning with evil.
But evidently you cannot stage plays that way at a major theater in the nation's capitol. The possibility that Shakespeare was not a man of our day violates our sense of what it means to speak of him as universal. Instead, an effort must be made to take the edge off of things by sophisticating the objectionable.
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