One of the pleasant oddities located in the central Virginia town of Staunton is a replica of the Blackfiars Playhouse which is where the thespians studying at the American Shakespeare Center practice their craft. It's an authentic experience with open bench seating, "lights on" staging and minimal set design just like they did it in merry old England back in 1608. Even with the rainbow stew anachronism, woke LBGT++ transposition of she for him and he for her casting, and modern day antiseptic slovenliness of the audience these plays still deliver astounding insights due to the physical location of their performance. Last week I took in The Taming of the Shrew and was overjoyed to see this play performed straight and, to my mind, incorporate the authentic "sly" twist in the Bards massage that so many contemporary drama critics miss.
This years troop at the ASC is great and, as is their custom, the actors perform a few popular music covers that resonate with the major themes in that evening's play. These songs range from contemporary pop songs to classic R&B or American standards and they can set the stage, so to speak, for all that follows in a surprisingly profound way. My night at the theater was no exception and I must call out Brandon Carter for his powerful rendition of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" as a testament to the fact that Shakespeare was hitting on some eternal truths in his "problematic" play. BTW - Carter was a fantastic Hortensio in the performance and I hope he has a long and distinguished career in theater.
The play turns on Katherina (the shrew) who was admirably brought to life by a fetching young actor(ess) named Jess Kadish who transformed from an irascible Karen to a based Überfrau in two hours time. It is this "taming" which so many critics, actors and "good people" find intolerable under the contemporary Marxist liberation theology of our day but their complaints only serve to amplify a (the) key point of this play. All is not as it seems and people will change or adapt to new surroundings and circumstances which includes customs and "rules" manufactured by the society they inhabit. At the start Katherina is rebelling against this Prison of Life and, let's be honest, is making daily existence miserable for everyone in the house, including herself, because she doesn't understand, and therefore can not conquer, the cause of her general dissatisfaction with the wicked world. Cucked theater critics and 3rd Gen Feminazi scolds can rationalize justifications for Kate's isolation, violence and bitterness but, regardless of cause, the Shrew in Act 1 is NOT a happy woman.
Enter Petruchio who flips over the game board of Kate's fake & gay world and then "gaslights" her into a discombobulated self-awareness by employing a calculated tough love strategy. Having met her match Katherina forms a bond with her other half and like the sun and moon they orbit a newly created world in union. The gentleman from Verona has opened her mind and now they see things concordantly - like they're executing a stratagem known only to themselves. Brothers and sisters, childhood best friends, army buddies, mafioso, cowboys, pirates circus acts and happily married people will know what I'm talking about here and all the rest of you folks will just have to trust me. Which brings me to Katherina's final speech to her assembled family on the virtues and duties required for proper wifeliness. It is a lesson that causes acute angina in a 21st century womyn due to its perceived admonishment that a wife should submit to their husband and obey but here is a moment where the director and actors of this production captured the essence of the taming by having the two lovers embrace, kiss and fall into uncontrolled laughter at the conclusion of Kate's lecture.
As a method of illuminating that last point I'm going to digress into a quick story about my EHS 9th grade English teacher, David Dougherty, and his admonition to contemplate the wise words of Polonius to his son Laertes who is leaving his Denmark home for licentious France. Here it is:
Polonius - Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame!The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,And you are stay'd for. There- my blessing with thee!And these few precepts in thy memoryLook thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;But do not dull thy palm with entertainmentOf each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. BewareOf entrance to a quarrel; but being in,Bear't that th' opposed may beware of thee.Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;For the apparel oft proclaims the man,And they in France of the best rank and stationAre most select and generous, chief in that.Neither a borrower nor a lender be;For loan oft loses both itself and friend,And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.This above all- to thine own self be true,And it must follow, as the night the day,Thou canst not then be false to any man.Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!
What did I know? I was just a teenage boy grappling with Hamlet and Mr. Dougherty was gushing with pride over the soundness of this blank verse and the prudence contained therein. I can see him right now in my mind's eye, an American Mr. Chips, standing with perfect posture, bow tie and penny loafers framed by a blackboard, chalk in hand and the enthusiasm! - "have you ever heard more profound and loving advise from father to son than this? Neither a borrower nor lender be... to thine own self be true... thou canst not then be false to any man." He loved it and, truth be told, he instilled that love for Shakespeare in me but as I grew older and wiser and more educated on Tudor England, politics, treachery, betrayal and tedious old fools my understanding of this listing of axiomatic truisms changed. I learned that the Polonius type is found in every government or court and, just like the character in the play, they say one thing in public while doing the exact opposite in private. The Elizabethan theater patron would have laughed at the hackneyed platitudes the officious royal advisor vouchsafes to his son, not because the the sentiments are false, but because the circumstances of the exhortation are so cringe. To stick a pin in this hypocrisy, a few scenes later, the hero errantly stabs the mendacious agent Polonius who is spying on the queens communications from behind a tapestry in her bed chamber!
I take the same worldly-wise approach to my reading of The Taming of the Shrew (or every other Shakespeare play) by setting the words of each character in context because that elucidates the playwright's profound teaching which lies below the surface of a contemporary textual analysis. In the case of Katherina's final speech in TTOTS the "problematic" reality is that critics are perpetually stuck in Act 1, Scene 1 of the drama and, secure as they are in their warm bath of 21st century luxury, read it wrong. They don't have a Petruchio to confound and humiliate them, starve them, give them sleepless nights or arduous journeys interrupted on a whim by an unreasonable man who says no. Kate is giving her sister and the widow an earful of quotidian clichés as punishment for past trespasses and her loving husband is facilitating her revenge.
The conceit of the play is set forth in a prologue where an inebriated Christopher Sly (Marlowe) refuses to settle a bar tab (Deptford) with the Hostess (Eleanor Bull) and falls into a deathlike sleep. Sly awakens to discover that he is a Lord in Padua and the previous 15 years of his life have been a dream, or so he is told by practical jokers having some fun at his expense. Christopher never learns the truth about his his condition or how he found himself in northern Italy but it is remarkable that Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet were all written in 1593/94 and set in that location. All that transpires in the play within the play is "a kind of history" for the amusement of a fake Tinker/Lord and the audience that is tamed by the illusion.