Saturday, June 10, 2017

How do you Solve a Problem like a Bully, Shakespeare-Style?

Whenever I tell people that I am currently directing The Taming of the Shrew, I inevitably get asked “What’s your vision?”  Then I tell them that I’m using the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique and spend several minutes explaining what that is.  However, that’s not what a lot of people want to know.  With today’s political climate, the various hate crimes, and stories of violence that we are bombarded with every day, there is the concern that this play’s title alone will cause an uproar.  I blame that on previous productions where the ‘vision’ turns it into a story about an abusive marriage or where the director puts their own spin on the words that Shakespeare wrote and completely changes the meaning of the text.  But, honestly, if you look at ALL of the text from beginning to end – it’s really a play about a bully who uses her fists instead of her words and how the one man who’s not afraid to stand up to her helps her to realize how to use her brilliant mind, and shows her what it means to be a true partner in a romantic relationship.  And it all starts with that often deleted introduction scene involving Christopher Sly.

Now, this ‘Induction’ scene often gets cut out completely from modern productions to save time and because the characters in it aren’t really seen or heard from again, except for a few lines thrown in after a couple of more scenes.  However, I think this scene is vital to the set-up of Taming.  In this scene, we learn that the entire rest of this play is really a play-within-a-play just like in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes the edge off of it a bit.  Also, the audience learns, along with Mr. Sly, that this play is “a kind of history”, which it is in more ways than one.  Four hundred years ago, women did not have equal rights and many were treated like property, so for Shakespeare to write back then that this is a ‘history’ reminds us how it’s even much more of a ‘history’ now.

Let’s cut in to the meat of Taming and why I think this is a play about dealing with a bully named Kate.  Kate is extremely unhappy and instead of dealing with her frustrations constructively, she lashes out with insults and hits.  She can’t be reasoned with, and she’s constantly finding fault or mocking others.  She threatens people, ties up her sister, and destroys a perfectly good lute over a guy’s head.  Nobody can get her to listen or make her see how unreasonable she’s being, which just makes everyone miserable.  Enter Petruchio, who thinks that he can help.

First, Petruchio and Kate only have one scene where they are truly alone, and that is the famous wooing scene in Act II Scene I.  They bandy about with words, Petruchio flatters Kate over and over again, and she insults him over again.  Then she hits him.  He does not hit her back.  In fact, he never hits her throughout the play.  But he abuses her in other ways, right?  Well, yes, but at his own expense and health.  Every time food is brought to them in the homecoming scene, he sends it away.  She doesn’t eat, and neither does he.  In Petruchio’s monologue from Act IV Scene I, he talks about how every time she tries to sleep that he makes a huge commotion so that she can’t:

Last night she slept not, nor to night she shall not:
As with the meate, some undeserved fault
Ile finde about the making of the bed,
And here Ile fling the pillow, there the boulster,
This way the Coverlet, another way the sheets:
I, and amid this hurlie I intend,
That all is done in reverend care of her,
And in conclusion, she shal watch all night,
And if she chance to nod, I’ll raile and brawle,
And with the clamor keepe her stil awake:

So, she’s not sleeping, but what’s more is that not only is Petruchio not sleeping – but he is running around the room throwing things and making a huge noise, so he must be utterly exhausted.  Even more exhausted than Kate.  Some actors play this monologue as if it’s a big brag, but where is that in the text?  At the beginning of the monologue he says:

And ‘tis my hope to end successefully:

He hope[s] that he is successful with all of this.  Not that he WILL be or that he is SURE of it, but he HOPES.  Then, at the end of this monologue he says:

He that knowes better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak, ‘tis charity to shew.

He is asking for help!  If anyone in the audience has any better ideas, then please share them for charity’s sake.  Again, not the words of someone bragging about their technique.  This is an honest account of a tired, hungry man who is doing his best with what he’s got.

Next, I want to mention the Sun/Moon scene in Act IV Scene V.  I was brought up in the South where we were taught to never fight with your spouse in public.  In a marriage, you two are one person, and you should always be on their side in front of other people.  However, when you get home and are in private – that’s another story!  Basically, that is kind-of what is going on with his scene.  Being in a relationship sometimes means compromise.  It’s not healthy to constantly contradict your partner in public per Petruchio’s line:

Evermore crost and crost, nothing but crost.

Petruchio is using an extreme way of demonstrating this to Kate with this Sun vs. Moon bit.  Kate has stopped using her fists finally (like she did in several of her previous scenes on everyone from Hortensio to Grumio) and is trying to make an argument on how he is wrong.  Even though we all know she is right in this scene, sometimes a spouse has to be the bigger person and let the other have their way.  It’s just not worth the argument in this case.   She eventually figures out the best way to deal with him verbally, and they are on their way.  No insults, no hits…just letting the other person have their way and showing them that you are on their side.  Even if it’s ridiculous.

Finally, we come to Act V Scene II with that endless monologue of Kate’s about how women should respect their husbands.  I believe that both spouses should respect each other, and this monologue should be taken from both sides.  Yes, it just says how wives should be more loving and obedient (16th Century, people!), but I am having the wonderful actresses who are taking turns playing Kate deliver this monologue honestly to everyone. 

Come, come, you forward and unable wormes,
My minde hath bin as bigge as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haplie more,
To bandie word for word, and frowne for frowne;

Both sides in a relationship should be more loving and kind.  If one half of you has had a hard day, then the other should not come at them with complaint upon complaint as soon as they walk through the door.  Love each other.  Respect each other.  Listen to each other.  Be on each other’s side.  Without these basic concepts in a relationship, you will be stuck with a shrew. An unhappy shrew.  And nobody wants that.

-Elizabeth Ruelas, Artistic Director, The New Renaissance Theatre Company