Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Taming of the Shrew

The heroic ploughing-through (with my hardcore book group) of the entirety of Shakespeare continues this weekend, with The Taming of the Shrew. Goodness me, this play is freaking insane. At times, it seems to exist solely as an exercise in identity-switching, elaborate costumery, and nuptial parody; at others it showcases the brilliance of the early Shakespeare, with all the attendant clever wordplay and witty banter. Mostly, though, it just seems like a mess. The bulk of it, as many of you will already know, is actually a play-within-a-play; the inner play is about two sisters, one shrewish and embittered, the other beautiful and mild; their father won't let the nice one get married until the nasty one does, and so a pack of suitors hatches a plot to make all this happen.

Plotwise, it's ridiculous on its face; the problem of the shrew's marriage is solved almost immediately, and the suitors' disguises and inventions are almost completely unnecessary (and ultimately seem to amount to nothing). Furthermore the outer play--the main action is all a performance being viewed by a common drunk whom some noblemen have dressed up in fly threads and convinced that he is a lord who's been having a bad dream for fifteen years--never resolves (except in a few non-Folio bits that might or might not have been written by Shakespeare).

And finally, those traditionalists who wish to cast Katherine's final speech as anything other than outright misogyny are fighting one hell of an uphill battle. It's pretty grim stuff, that, and I realized reading it that I had been secretly hoping for some kind of comic female empowerment or something. No such luck--the shrew is tamed, and tamed by brutal psychological abuse. Ha ha!!!

Nevertheless, the young Shakespeare was really on a tear. Anybody else would have made this mess unwatchable, methinks; Shakespeare manages to infuse every pointless scene with manic energy and terrific little flashes of character. It seems, two plays in, a worthwhile experiment to read all these in order (we're going by the Oxford order, which differs from some scholars'); it gives one a chance to watch Shakespeare develop as a regular writer, rather than be forced to pay homage to him, in the usual manner, as the father of English literature. So far, he's just a brash young man knocking out some clever plays. It is very exciting to imagine Hamlet and Lear preparing to be born.


the individual voice said...

Any insights recent Roth readings can offer on Shakespeare or vice versa?

jrlennon said...

Well....poke my comp lit button and I can yammer on all day...but so far the most striking thing is the difference between the work of a man in his twenties and that of a man in his seventies. It seems like some writers are all over the place in the first third of their careers, fueled by youthful exuberance, then figure out how to do their thing in the middle third, and with any luck spend the last third figuring out how to forget what they learned in the middle third. Roth's new book is scattered and wide-ranging but never less than absolutely cohesive; "The Taming of the Shew," on the other hand, is a bit of a train wreck but stunning in spite of itself.

Either way, I feel powerfully as though both of these guys are living in a whole other universe of brilliance from me, and it's hard to get my brain around how they're doing what they're doing.