‘Twas Shakespeare Done As He’d Like It

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

I attended a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the South High Little Theater in Salina. I left feeling that Shakespeare was finally discovered and portrayed sensibly. It was a noisy, animated, energetic cast. The players were able to overcome the prolonged speeches by translating them into action. The colorful costumes against the stark black setting enhanced the stage. At times their enthusiasm became fearful. Petruchio played by a strapping youth (Cory Temple) insults Kate (Heather Nye).  She whams on the cheek, knocking him from the bench. For the next four minutes he seemed to speak through loosened teeth.

Whatever outside action happens occurs off-stage. It was a wise arrangement because in 1613, during the opening of Henry VIII, the global theater was demolished by fire when cannons were fired to herald the King’s entrance. Happily, the school remained intact.

Like most of Shakespeare’s plays, the story is simplistic. Lovely Bianca, the genteel daughter of a reputable family, wants to be married. Tradition forbids her to marry until her older sister, Kate, is married. No male would dare trifle with Kate. She is a shrew. Acid-tongued, fiercely righteous, and bullying, she frightens any swain who would pursue her. Until Petruchio, a vigorous stud from Verona, decides to take on this formidable woman–for a considerable dowry of money and property. The bulk of the play deals with his cunning, unprincipled manner of “taming the shrew” into submissiveness, and silence. The sub-plot considers Bianca and how she is wooed by two ardent suitors.

Originality was never an obsession with Shakespeare. Taming of the Shrew was a play adopted or rewritten from The Supposes,  Gascoigne, who adapted The Supposes from Aristotle’s play, I Supposity.

Were Shakespeare alive today he would be incorporated into a “world industry,” with a multitude of tax write-offs. He was a production-line of writing that only his demise could stop. Before the ink was dried on the parchment, the play was on the boards. Most of his output was offered during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who was a miserly woman. She would not confer knighthood upon him because it was too costly. Yet his prolific yield of writings probably established the first theatrical employment agency.

In the South High production, the director, Linda Webb, revealed an exceptional understanding of how to present a Shakespearean play. Find a version of The Taming of the Shrew that eliminates the wordy musings and asides–the elongated, elliptical, endlessly evolving speeches–and get to the action. Don’t handicap the students with tongue crippling tirades whose meanings are so profound they are lost while trying to be understood. Let the kids have a good time and allow their pleasure to stimulate the audience. Keep the people awake.

Shakespeare did not desire the type of immortality he has been given:” the greatest playwright of all time.” His intention was to be used as a reference source throughout the ages. He knew that mundane thinkers like Sigmund Freud would quickly deplete himself of insights into human motivation. Gross and humorless Nietzsche would need humane perceptions. Marcel Proust, who rarely left his boudoir, and had a well-thumbed him and monks habit copy of Shakespeare’s works at his bedside. Balzac, who wrote in monk’s habit, rewrote Shakespeare’s sonnets into short stories. George B. Shaw not only imitated Shakespeare’s structure, he actually pilfered from his plays. Shakespeare aspired to aid ” speech classes” by composing orations for actors trying to overcome enunciation impediments. His peeve against young people is expressed in his knowing that generations of high school students would be forced to read his plays.

Before Shakespeare became a playwright, he was an actor. Therefore he wrote his plays to showcase the actor. Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo, Julius Caesar, Macbeth. He paced his speeches is carefully. He knew that while the actors were reciting, some of the audience would be busy socializing. Foppish royalty or young gallants would listen for a bit, then disagree with the text–and shout their disagreement. Often the performers would lean over the stage and conduct an unruly debate. Barmaids hustled about the audience, serving food and drinks. It was not uncommon for an actor to be pelted with a leg of mutton or be forced to interrupt a recitation to toast an aristocrat.

People attended the theater as an occasion for meeting friends, having a good-natured brawl or dual, spreading court rumor, catching up on the latest fashions and intrigue. Seeing a play was a secondary interest. Actors were without consequence or stature. They were token celebrities, allowed attendance at royal affairs to demonstrate the liberality of the host. Mere costumed and rouged monkeys on a string. But Shakespeare was ambitious and a climber. Many of his sonnets were written to the handsome and influential Lord of Southampton.

It was a wild and whimsical Elizabethan times and A Lover’s Complaint was The Rape of Lucretia and on The Twelfth Night it was As You Like It. No such madcap shenanigans occurred at the South High little theater. The audience was attentive and engrossed in the excellence of the performances. If I am at all critical, it would be because the players were not advised to remain onstage while the ovation of praise continued.

© Leonard Bishop

(First published Sunday, March 3, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury )

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