Taming of the Shrew: Sun, Moon, or Actor’s Performance?

I read Taming of the Shrew when I was in college, well, sort of.  Our professor asked us to read the play throughout the semester, and once a week we met in the school’s black box theater to act out portions of The Taming of the Shrew.  As a result, we were meant to read this play along with the other comedies we were reading along the semester.

As I said, we were meant to read it, but as any college student knows, no one actually reads anything at the end of the summer.   Everyone knows this.  I was no exception.  I went to class that day, the day of the sunlight and moonlight scene, without having read the following exchange.

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.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

KATHARINA

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

PETRUCHIO

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.

KATHARINA

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.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon.

KATHARINA

I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO

Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

KATHARINA

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.

(Courtesy of MIT’s Complete Works of Shakespeare online.)

I remember watching this scene performed by two college students.  Neither one of them were actors, and to be honest, this showed, especially for the woman who played Katherine.  She lacked Katherine’s fire and instead had a calm passivity.  This came through especially in the next beat of the scene, when Vincentio (Lucentio’s father) enters the stage.  Petruchio points to Vincentio and asks Katherine if she has ever seen a prettier young woman than Vincentio, who is in fact that an elderly man, and implores her to praise Vincentio’s beauty.

Petruchio: Good morrow, gentle mistress: where away?
Tell me, sweet Kate, and tell me truly too,
Hast thou beheld a fresher gentlewoman?
Such war of white and red within her cheeks!
What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty,
As those two eyes become that heavenly face?
Fair lovely maid, once more good day to thee.
Sweet Kate, embrace her for her beauty’s sake

Katherine: Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child;
Happier the man, whom favourable stars
Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!

The student read the passage in a wooden, robotic way.  Frankly, she sounded like a Stepford Wife.  Listening to the actress, I believed that Katherine’s fire had been completely extinguished.  Worse, she seemed brainwashed, with Petruchio giving her orders which she obeys absolutely.  She seemed to truly believe that Vincentio was an old man!

This reading colored my opinion of The Taming of the Shrew until fairly recently.

I purchased the Globe production of The Taming of the Shrew, which is excellent. (I was fortunate to wait until after Brexit to purchase it, so I saved money. :))

In this version, there is a greater sense of playfulness in Petruchio and Katherine’s interaction.  There is no doubt that Katherine knows what is going on in her jest of Vincentio.  Moreover, there is a sense of the two of them working together to tease the old man.  Petruchio and Katherine are more like teammates, working together toward a common goal.

This scene brought to my mind the pros and cons of encountering a play for the first time in a performance, rather than reading it.  I had this discussion briefly on Twitter a few years ago, when I went to see Coriolanus without reading the play.  At the time, I said I would have preferred to read the play first, and another poster preferred to see the play first.  “It bring the play to life.”  She is right.  However, we must also keep in mind the power of a performance to shape our views of the play.

My example is not an exact example of the drawbacks of performances.  The actors had no clear viewpoint in their performance.  They were unrehearsed, picked from the class, reading the text for the first time as best they could.

The potential drawbacks become clearer in fully staged and rehearsed performances because of the viewpoints of the actors and the directors.  Harold Bloom rails against the current view points in modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew.  At the end of his introduction to critical readings of the play, he declared that he will never see a modern production of either The Taming of the Shrew or The Tempest.  (The Tempest has been reinterpreted in these times as a commentary on colonialism.)  An audience member will most likely not see multiple productions of a play, and may feel that the production they saw represents an authoritative interpretation of a play.  More simply, they may see a terrible production of the play, and decide they do not like it.

Note, I am not saying that people should not see a play without reading it first.  The performance of a play can bring to light many aspects of a play, especially the use of language, that can be hard to grasp in simply reading.  A performance can bring to light a new interpretation of a famous work, encouraging us to encounter it anew.

Instead, I think that we should teach students and people to be aware of how a performance can shape our view of a text.

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