A Shrew by Any Other Name

Writing a novel about a writer can be challenging. We writers live in our heads and have few of the experiences and adventures that make for exciting reading. So, obviously, if I was to make my novel, Not Wisely but Too Well, at all interesting, young Will Shakespeare would have to say more than ‘and then I wrote this play and then I wrote that play’. I needed to construct a drama around the writing of each play. I had to know how and why the plays were written and what they meant to Shakespeare.

There are lots of books about Shakespeare and his plays, and, of course you can read the texts themselves, but, speaking personally, I’ve always found it hard to read Shakespeare’s plays, and not only because of the miniscule print in my trusty ‘Complete Works’. But then, Shakespeare’s plays aren’t meant to be read, they were never written to be read, they were written to be seen and heard, and that’s how I’ve always appreciated them the most.

The best way to experience a Shakespearean play is live on stage, but a performance isn’t always available when we need it or where we can afford it. So, our next best option is a recording of the play. As it happens, between DVDs, digital downloads, online streaming and cinema broadcasts, there is more Shakespeare available on screen now than ever before. The problem is where to find these recordings and how to access them. This was something I needed to explore to do my research and I’m sharing my findings with you in Shakespeare on Screen.

As I was writing a biographical novel about Shakespeare, I thought it would be best, in order to track his personal growth and development as a writer, to study his plays as nearly as I could in the order in which they were written. From my research I deduced that Shakespeare’s first full-length play was The Taming of the Shrew.

This romantic romp has always been a favourite with audiences, however, despite its popularity, The Taming of the Shrew is also seen as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays for its apparent misogyny. To a modern audience, Petruchio’s method of taming Kate, by depriving her of food and sleep, might not involve physical beating, but it is clearly psychological abuse. Kate’s final speech, in which she exhorts women to respect and obey their husbands because they are totally dependent on them, seems to portray women as mere slaves to men’s needs and desires. For this reason, a director has to approach the play in a way that appeals to a modern audience’s values while remaining true to the text.

In Updating Shakespeare Part 1: Modern Perspectives on staging ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, I look at how directors have approached staging Shakespeare’s play for a modern audience, and the issues they have to take into consideration. Meanwhile, re-imagining and adapting the play for a modern audience, because of the play’s archaic gender politics, presents its own pitfalls, which I examine in Updating Shakespeare Part 2: Modern Film Adaptations of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Several of the film versions I cover in this last essay are freely available on YouTube and are among the videos I’ve collected on my own YouTube channel, Shakespeare on YouTube. This has given me an opportunity to study some of them in more depth, while you can easily check to see if you agree with my assessment of them.

Perhaps the funniest version of The Taming of the Shrew you will ever see is the 1976 production by the American Conservatory Theatre. Their decision to present the play in the style of Commedia dell’Arte prompts the question of what the relationship between ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and Commedia dell’Arte might actually be.

Kiss Me, Petruchio documents a performance of the play in the summer of 1978 starring a young and radiant Meryl Streep and a vibrant and sexy Raul Julia. The fact that this was at the height of the Equal Rights Amendment campaign in the United States is reflected in the thoughts of the cast and reactions of the audience.

In Il Bisbetico Domato: An Italian take on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ I review this 1980 Italian comedy which approaches the play with a twist of its own:  the Shrew is male. However, if you’re expecting a feminist take on the story, you may be a bit disappointed.

Having made an in-depth study of The Taming of the Shrew for Not Wisely but Too Well, I put that knowledge to further good use by writing a novelization of the play. My version of Shakespeare’s play can be purchased from Smashwords.

If you have friends who love Shakespeare or just enjoy a good romantic romp, please share this post with them.

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