Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is Shakespeare Evil?

One of the wonderful things about London is that I can decide on a whim that I want to see a theatre show and I'll be able to that night. What is wonderful about being a student is that frequently (though by no means always) I can get cheap tickets. Case in point- Monday, when I went to see The Taming of the Shrew by the Royal Shakespeare Company with Meredith.

I'd been wanting to see the show for a while because Michelle Gomez, an actress from one of my favorite TV shows ever Green Wing is playing Katherine. Also, I think it ends this week so this was pretty much my only chance to see it. Also, RSC! So there you go. Meredith and I were prepared to spend twenty quid on the tickets but when we got to the box office the saleswoman eyed us and asked us how hold we were. Turns out Monday was a special promotion night for 16-25 year olds so we got five pound tickets! Yay.

So. The production. It was very good. I was particularly impressed with the use of costumes as a device for setting the place and time. The way they set it up the production vacillates between modern time, 1600's Italy, and the 1940's-ish? Most of which was done through the costumes- everyone had their own color scheme, but the actual pieces they were wearing would shift. For instance, if they were wearing a leather biker jacket in the modern time, then in 1600's Italy it would still be leather and have too many zippers, but it would be cut like a doublet. Isn't that neat?

So here is where the problems come in: Taming of the Shrew is a horrifically misogynistic play. Particularly if you play it straight. This is a problem. You can tell that the RSC knows that this is a problem from their programme. Here are the titles of short articles within the programme:

"The World's Oldest Prejudice"
"The Battle of the Sexes"
"The Taming of the Shrew and the Commedia Dell'Arte" (okay, not that one)

Katherine gets raped between 3 and 5 times in this version. This version highlights the fact that she is being stripped of her humanity, it is basically an instruction manual on how to dehumanize someone and was incredibly difficult to watch. At one point Meredith and I leaned over to each other and started talking about how we didn't think that abuse was funny. The ending speech where Katherine talks about how wives should obey their husband was completely lacking in life and was scary.

The last Shakespeare play I saw was Twelfth Night at the Donmar with Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. In that one the costumes drove me up the wall because they all fit so poorly. The real problem with that one is how devastating Malvolio was. I know he is insufferable and pompous, but don't torture him! Derek Jacobi is a brilliant actor and played slightly differently the scene where Malvolio is locked in the cellar and begs to be let free because he is not insane could be funny- if he kept his pompousness, if he was still playing higher status than the clown. But he didn't: he was ruined and tragic and heartbreaking. So that one was difficult to watch as well.

What is with all of this abuse in Shakespeare? Did I miss that somehow when I was in High School? I guess in Midsummer Night's Dream you've got what could be played as horribly mean mocking of Bottom. Romeo and Juliet? They're just young and stupid, not really cruelly used. Eh. I don't know my plays well enough to keep going from here. Any Shakespeare scholars that can help me out here? What is with the bullying that verges on torture in his plays?


Jenna said...

wow, I never really thought about it, but you're totally right. Shakespeare was kind of a bastard to his characters. Maybe it is just him being a product of his time, that kind of thing was funny for him and he didn't mean it in such a mean way? hummmm, now I must ponder this for a while. :)

Anonymous said...

Guess I listen to the flow of words more than the content! Also, being 2 generations before you does make a difference ( I'm not saying that that is any excuse for being less sensitive to the thrust of what Shakespeare is saying, just that growing up before sensitivity to sexual equality does make a difference in perspective).