Thursday, August 20, 2009

I'll see thee hanged...

I like this image of Kate and Petruccio, taken from a regional Shakespeare festival--I can totally see P. as a southern good ol' boy, and Kate as a kind of Gretchen Wilson Redneck Woman. But I can't imagine them speaking Will's lines. Nope, doesn't work. "Thee's" and "thou's" just sound weird coming out of mouths that chew tobacco and guzzle Budweiser. Although I applaud efforts to make Elizabethan drama relevant (that's what I am trying to do here, after all), it's the rare modern-dress production that really works. Why is that? It's more than the language, although that's a big part of it. I think it's the expansiveness of the plays themselves--they're just bigger, more culturally encompassing than media is today. This isn't to say that modern-dress productions are doomed to failure--just that the acting has to be brilliant to carry it off. Ian Mckellen's Richard III worked because Mckellen is one of the great Shakespearean actors of this generation. Leo DiCaprio and Clare Danes as Romeo and Juliet failed miserably because the performances couldn't begin to carry the weight of the language or its history. They looked--rather ironically, given the play's theme--like two teenagers playing dress-up. Although I thought the gangster theme was way cool--I just wish they'd chosen actors instead of "movie people."

Act 2--which is really one long scene--begins with Kate tormenting her younger sister. She drags Bianca in with her hands tied, and kind of shoves her around, supposedly to force her to confess which of her suitors she favors. But really, she just can't stand Bianca's submissive "good daughter" routine. Bianca is annoying, no doubt about it. One can't help thinking that she enjoys provoking her older sister:

Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself
To make a bondmaid and slave of me.
That I disdain, but for these other goods,
Unbind my hands, I'll pull them off myself,
Yea, all my raiment to my petticoat,
Or what you will command me I will do,
So well I know my duty to my elders.

Please don't treat me this way, it reflects badly on you--and of course I'm more concerned with you than myself, because I'm that good. I won't be your slave--but short of that, I'll give you everything I have, except my underwear, because I'm modest. I'll do anything you ask--wash your hair, do your homework--because after all, I always obey my elders. Subtext: you're kind of like my mom, because you're old. (I will put off till later my little rant about how many dead mothers there are in Will's plays. It's as bad as Disney.)

That last dig was low, because Bianca knows how much Kate resents being the older, still-unmarried one. Kate, who isn't as good at passive aggression as her sister, opts instead for the active variety. And wouldn't you know, Daddy walks in just as she's giving her fair sister an enthusiastic smack on the ear (that's how I imagine it, although the stage directions just say "strikes her").

Sibling violence is something I'm familiar with, as the oldest of five, so I can't say I find this scene all that disturbing. Why, I remember locking my brothers in the closet, shoving them outside in their underwear, and chasing them around the house with various implements intended for athletic competition (hockey sticks, baseball bats, etc.) Once, in a fit of calculating rage, I even took my brother's hand-glued models of superheroes and put them under the rug in his room, so that he crushed them all when he walked in. When my mom confronted me about this, I calmly explained that I didn't break them, I only moved them. Sometimes I still can't believe I was that diabolical. I made him wreck his own stuff. And I wonder why he doesn't keep in touch....

After Kate and Bianca leave, the men enter, all but Gremio (why did Will have to have a Gremio and a Grumio in this play? It's confusing...) and Petruccio in disguise. Lucentio is pretending to be a poor schoolmaster, Hortensio is impersonating a musician, and Tranio claims to be Lucentio. So often in Will's comedies there are people running around in disguises, and you have to wonder why no one sees through them. I mean, it's like Clark Kent and Superman--all he does is smooth his hair back and put on glasses, and he's unrecognizable. Hortensio has been to Baptista's house probably dozens of times, and all of a sudden they don't know him. Whenever my students asked questions like that, I always gave them the typical professorial answer: "it's a convention of the genre."

In other words, I don't know.

After all the introductions are over, P. announces his intention to woo Kate, rhapsodizing about her "bashful modesty" and "mild behavior." Baptista understandably wonders if they're talking about the same woman, but says that when (if) P. can win her love, he can have her. Hortensio, meanwhile, is demonstrating his skills by giving Kate a lesson on the lute. He returns to the stage a few moments later with a dazed expression on his face and a broken lute around his neck. Petruccio proclaims her to be "a lusty wench" whom he can't wait to meet.

Right off the bat she objects to his greeting, insisting that she's not called Kate, but rather Katherine. He corrects her:

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst,
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate--
For dainties are all cates, and therefore 'Kate'--
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation:
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded--
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs--
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.

She mocks him, but he's undeterred. "Come," he says, "sit on me."
"Asses are made to bear," she snipes, "and so are you."
"Women are made to bear," he retorts, "and so are you."

Note that while he addresses her with the familiar "thou," she insists on the more formal "you." Things quickly degenerate into crude sexual innuendo involving tongues and tails, at which point she hauls off and slugs him and he threatens to hit her back. Petruccio finally gets to the point and tells her that he's going to marry her on Sunday, whether she likes it or not; she swears that she'll see him "hanged on Sunday first."

Baptista ignores his daughter's obvious dislike of her suitor, taking both their hands and proclaiming that "tis a match!" So much for winning her love.

The remainder of the scene has to do with commerce, as Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) and the aged Gremio barter for Bianca. Baptista states baldly that whichever of them "can assure my daughter greatest dower/Shall have Bianca's love." Which is to say her body, since emotions have very little to do with making matches in this play. It's all about money, disguise, and bluff--change and exchange. In his guise as a tutor, Lucentio takes the name "Cambio"-- if you've ever traveled to Europe without a credit card, you'll remember the word from the kiosks that exchange currency (taking a pound of flesh in interest). It also means "change" in the sense of transformation. Lucentio has changed into Cambio, so that Bianca can be "exchanged" between her father and himself. By having Tranio barter for Bianca, Lucentio can keep his wooing innocent of commerce, romantic and pure. In yet another (potential) exchange of capital, Petruccio wants to add Kate's wealth to his own, but he has to "change" her first.

By reducing Bianca to a commodity, this scene actually makes Petruccio's wooing look more honorable. Although he wants Kate's wealth, he makes a point of saying that, should he predecease her, she'll get everything. Bianca is barely mentioned in the bidding war between Gremio and Tranio--they might as well be buying (very expensive) horseflesh.


  1. I think this is my favorite yet. Seriously--you made him ruin his own stuff? That's brilliant. Wish I had thought of that one. Oh--and having just witnessed a really, REALLY bad rendition of my fave "Much Ado", complete with jitterbug dance scene--I agree on the modern stagings.
    Lynn. Or Lynnie. Lynnage to some. Still--Lynn.

  2. Oh super-dainty Lynn, Lynnie of Lynn Hall (I like Lynnage, actually)--yes, I was the worst of all big sisters. Makes you appreciate your own, doesn't it? Of course, my brothers drove me insane...they laughed like hyenas, decapitated my Barbie dolls, and black-bagged my room when I wasn't there so they could get me in trouble with the rents...ah, the rosy days of childhood.

    Jitterbugging. Man, there ought to be a law...