There's this thing I really hate in romantic movies. The couple has their meet-cute ... fortune and attraction draw them together ... complications and their fears try to draw them apart ... and then the bit happens where they really fall for each other. Usually there’s this montage with some peppy little love song as they go to the park, hold hands, eat popcorn, make each other laugh, sit under a tree and talk, blah blah blah. And I’m there thinking, “Shut up you stupid love song, this is the interesting part! They're talking about something important to them. This is why they like each other. I want to hear what they're talking about!”
But no, you don't get to find out why they like each other. You’re just supposed to take that one on faith. I’m sure the theory is that this void allows the viewer to project themselves into the story. But I don't want that, I want to see their actual relationship.
I was thinking about this because of my recent post quoting Wil Wheaton about a great little scene in Almost Famous where we see William and Penny starting to fall for each other. One of the many triumphs of Almost Famous is that we see why William loves Penny, and we see why Penny loves William in her complicated way. A big part of why is that have in common that they're both living out the real love story of the film: love for rock ’n’ roll.
I think a lot of people don't get The Taming of the Shrew. I once went to a performance which started with the actors apologizing for the play. With that inauspicious beginning, they screwed up the whole thing. In particular, the last act was leaden and unfunny, since evidently they thought that suddenly Shakespeare had lost interest in irony.
He's William F#*%ing Shakespeare, people. If you don't see the irony, you're the one with the problem.
To get to how I think Shrew should be played, I think of Crash. Not Paul Haggis’ film about racism in America, but David Cronenberg's flawed, audacious film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel. Ballard wanted to write about people's peculiar sexual obsessions without getting lost in the reader’s reaction to the particularity of any practice or fetish, so he invented an obsession that no real person could have: being hot for automobile accidents.
In my favourite scene of the film, the car crash fetishists are driving down the freeway and come upon the aftermath of an accident. We see the characters peering out the window, then Cronenberg’s camera shows us the scene through their eyes: perfect glowing compositions of a bent bumper, broken safety glass on the tarmac, steel revealed by a scrape in the paint. They’re seeing something no one else sees, silently sharing this secret way of looking at the world. That’s love, the kind you share with a lover, or a close friend, or your family.
Now let me tell you about the day I first came to understand BDSM. It's not a dirty story, sorry—it happened when I was watching the Phil Donahue show as a teenager. (Yeah, really.) There was a panel of a few odd couples, talking about their relationships, but I only remember one couple: a dominatrix and her fella. She had a whole outfit with boots and corset et cetera, and the fella as wearing a t-shirt with the words “Property of Mistress Angela.” The shocked-yet-fascinated studio audience couldn't stop asking them questions.
Late in the show someone asked the fella, “You say you're her ‘slave,’ but what does that mean you actually do every day?” He responded, “I do whatever my Mistress commands me to do.” I noticed that before he answered, he glanced quickly at Mistress Angela and she gave a little nod. And seeing that, I realized that he had done it every time he spoke.
I expect I have a reader or two thinking, “Whoa. Hot.” Don't think I don’t know who you are.
The questioner on the show wasn’t happy with that answer, but I was. That little nod made it all clear. This whole thing was a game, for them! You could see they were having fun, and I imagined that one of the best parts for them was doing this little subtle communication right under the noses of the audience. This interview meant something very different for them than it did for anyone else.
His oblique answer was crystal clear to me, now. I could picture them at home: she stamps her booted foot and says imperiously, “Wash the dishes!” They have to be washed anyway, after all, so why not make it a game, animated by love? I could picture them at the grocery store together, dressed just like anybody else, but playing their secret game: she chooses all the items but he always handles the cart and takes things off the shelf. Nobody suspects a thing; they're playing their game in plain sight.
Most of that audience thought that what they were doing was creepy. But it wasn’t, it was sweet.
In that light: Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. In the first act, he's like one of those Elmore Leonard characters who succeeds in his adventures by being the only smart person in a world of morons. Petruchio is wisecracking right and left and nobody can keep up with him. He hatches his plan to win Katherina's dowry and then in Act II he meets her, she's not happy to meet him, and their dialogue suddenly gets very fast and witty. In the one production I've seen which I felt did understand the play, the actor playing Petruchio revealed it all with the look on his face during this bit:
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katharina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
P: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
K: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
P: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
K: In his tongue.
P: Whose tongue?
K: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.
P: What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, Good Kate; I am a gentleman.
Spicy. But more importantly, that actor played it with a look of dawning wonder and joy. Here at last was a woman who could keep up with him, who could banter! He understands that everyone thinks her horrible, but it's because she's infuriated by their dullness.
Well, they are dullards. He understands. He’s in love.
Never mind the dowry, he wants something more important now. He wants for them to banter together, rather than against one another. Through the middle of the play he is cruel to Katharina as he insists on her agreeing to one absurdity after another: first that she wants to marry him, then that good food is tasteless, that a beautiful cap and gown are ugly, that the sun is the moon, that an old man is a young maiden.
Petruchio: Come on, i’ God's name; once more toward our father’s. Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Katharina: The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
P: I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
K: I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
P: Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself, it shall be moon, or star, or what I list, or ere I journey to your father’s house. Go on, and fetch our horses back again. Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Hortensio: Say as he says, or we shall never go.
K: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far, and be it moon, or sun, or what you please: an if you please to call it a rush-candle, henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
P: I say it is the moon.
K: I know it is the moon.
P: Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
K: Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun: but sun it is not, when you say it is not; and the moon changes even as your mind. What you will have it named, even that it is; and so it shall be so for Katharina.
Their arguments are fun, and funny, and Katharina gets to exercise her wit in them. And in that good production, the actress playing Katharina shows herself slowly realizing two other things about these fights. He always takes her side against anyone else in the play. And as soon as she starts to play along with his absurdities, he relents and gives her exactly what she wanted in the first place.
By Act V, they are allies:
Petruchio: Now, for my life, Hortensio fears his widow.
Widow: Then never trust me, if I be afear’d.
P: You are very sensible, and yet you miss my sense: I mean, Hortensio is afeard of you.
W: He that is giddy thinks the world turns round.
P: Roundly replied.
Katharina: Mistress, how mean you that?
W: Thus I conceive by him.
P: Conceives by me! How likes Hortensio that?
Hortensio: My widow says, thus she conceives her tale.
P: Very well mended. Kiss him for that, good widow.
K: ‘He that is giddy thinks the world turns round:’ I pray you, tell me what you meant by that.
W: Your husband, being troubled with a shrew, Measures my husband’s sorrow by his woe: And now you know my meaning.
K: A very mean meaning.
W: Right, I mean you.
K: And I am mean indeed, respecting you.
P: To her, Kate!
H: To her, widow!
P: A hundred marks, my Kate does put her down.
“You and me against the world, babe.” So when we reach the very end of the play, Petruchio and Katharina are playing a game together no one else can see.
Katharina, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women what duty they do owe their lords and husbands.
In that production I've been talking about, Petruchio and Katharina exchanged a little look between the two of them as he said that. “Kate, let’s play. Spin another absurdity with me for these blockheads.”
And what does she say?
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey.
Read it right and it’s the funniest part of the play.