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He Hath Some Meaning in His Mad Attire

Posted in The Taming of the Shrew with tags , , , , , on 2014/02/24 by mattermind

The Taming of the Shrew, Act III

I am doing my best to read Taming with objectivity – whatever that means.  But it seems to me that the interpretive gist of the play falls decisively in Act III. Specifically, in these fateful lines from Petruchio:

PETRUCHIO: I will be master of what is mine own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her, whoever dare.

Taken at face value, this speech condemns Petruchio – at least in modern terms, although not necessarily Shakespeare – as a misogynist.  But then when can we ever take Shakespeare at face value?

The BBC must have had a similar idea by casting John Cleese as Petruchio.  It’s utterly impossible for me not to hear these lines without a Monty Python spin to them, which is not to fault Mr. Cleese for his Shakespeare but rather to reinforce that casting is an interpretive act.

John Cleese as Petruchio

John Cleese as Petruchio

Indeed, the whole manner of Petruchio’s arrival at the wedding begs for explanation.  For he hasn’t merely shown up in the equivalent of a tux and tails (or whatever the bride and guests were expecting), but in the most outrageous garb imaginable.

Had Petruchio been satisfied merely to strike a financial coop with Baptista, Katherine’s rich father, all he really needed to do was go through the motions, say “I do,” claim his prize and ride off to treat Katherine from then on however he liked.  According to Medieval law and accepted convention, he would have had every right to do so.

We have seen in the negotiation phases of each courtship that in every practical sense they are financial transactions more than matters of the heart.  While Baptista will no doubt be relieved to get cantankerous Katherine off his hands by whatever taker, he first secures Petruchio’s standing and then insists, not because he has to, that Petruchio ought first win her heart.

Oddly enough, he does not insist upon the same conditions for his younger daughter, Bianca.  In the rivalry between Gremio and Tranio (disguised as Vicentio), Baptista declares flat out that he with the richest bid will win the prize.  Make an offer – get the girl.  It’s just that simple.

Or is it?  Shakespeare shreds the accepted practices of his day by exposing them to ridicule in the form of his absurd comic treatment.  Courtship has become such a ritualized dance by his day that it offers him ample opportunity to flout its ritualized norms.

That is, in fact, what I believe Petruchio is up to here.  His outlandish getup reminds me of a scene from Don Quixote.  Imagine the mindset it requires to enter a foreign city to confront your wife’s family and fellow citizens on your wedding day geared up like that.  It takes um, err, guts.  To say the least.

Petruchio makes a bold statement with his actions.  I believe they are meant specifically for Kate, though she does not yet know Petruchio well enough to decipher his behavior.  Here Shakespeare plays with the (sorry, guys) internality and externality of perception – subjectivity and objectivity – to show her that he doesn’t care about how outlandish their behavior appears.  Let people think what they want.  He won’t be trapped by the same suffocating cliches in which everybody else remains content to participate.

He’s reaching out to Kate and saying, “I’ll risk seeming a fool to others if you will.  Step out onto the ledge and we’ll leap out together.  But first, you must learn to read the same language.”  It is precisely these lessons in subjectivity upon which Petruchio now engages.

A long time ago, I learned that Albert Camus described love as “two against the void.”  While I haven’t been able to properly attribute this quote, it has nevertheless stayed with me as the most romantic of all definitions of love.

When Don Quixote tilts at windmills, he is mad.  But if only one other person sees the giants too, well…suddenly it becomes much different.  The more quirky our uniqueness, the harder the quest to find our perfect match, our soulmate, the one other person who looks upon the world and shares our zany visions of white rabbits, a baseball field carved into an Iowa cornfield, every leg of an upcoming U2 tour – or whatever.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you see but that you see it together.  And I think that’s what Petruchio is beginning to do here, in this act.  He wants Katherine to abandon her reliance upon the convention that has failed her and to adopt a new language that they will develop together.  Let the world believe what it wants to believe.  Behind closed doors, they will reinvent the game from scratch.

So, okay, I am back to my old romantic interpretation.  But two acts still remain.


Was Never Scythia Half So Barbarous

Posted in The Plays with tags , , , , on 2014/01/13 by mattermind

Titus Andronicus, Act I

Dramatic writing students are often told to start late and leave early, advice for crafting scenes that don’t waste time and get right to business.  A note to teachers: just tell your kids to read Titus Andronicus in which Shakespeare proceeds to make most action movies seem slow and dull.

In starting the play, about the only thing I expected was carnage.  Like Desdemona before her date with destiny, I kept hearing a line from a song make like an earworm in my skull, Bono singing “You wanted violence, and you got Nero,” in an as-yet unreleased track called “Mercy.”  I have a feeling there will be no mercy involved with this play.

In fact, no mercy serves as a calling card in Act I.  I suspect that Titus made his first grievous error by not pardoning a captured Gothic queen’s son marked to be sacrificed in a horrific ritual.  It screams SETUP, especially when Titus makes his second error, which is to kill his own son for daring to stand in his way. 

Recounting the plot of Titus Andronicus is like trying to sum up a Spanish soap opera or a Verdi opera in the span of a tweet. Complications ensue, to say the least. 

There are wheels within wheels within Titus Andronicus, but let me see if I can make at least a little headway…

As we begin, two brothers each plead their case to succeed their father as the emperor of Rome.  But just then, Titus Andronicus, the conquering war hero, returns from 10 years afield with glorious victory, war chattel (including the queen of the Goths) and 21 out of 25 sons dead. 

It’s pretty clear that the people prefer Titus to their other two choices, but Titus feels justifiably weary and declines the offer, thanks.  Instead, he approves the case of the elder brother (not without a veiled threat by said brother) and throws in his sword, chariot and good will to boot.  The brother happily accepts, promises nothing but good will in return, and offers to take Titus’s daughter to be his wife in return.

And they all live happily ever after.  Well, not quite.

Because, you see, there are these troubling ASIDES in which we discover that Saturninus, that older brother and now emperor, is really not what he seems (where have we heard that before).  He’s got the whole aspiring politician thing down, kissing babies and smiling for the audience while frothing like Snidely Whiplash beneath his moustache (That’s a joke, kids.  Snidely doesn’t froth.  But you don’t know who he is, anyway.)

Saturninus doesn’t really want Titus’s daughter.  He just thought the crowds might like that touch.  Really, he wants Tamora, the hot Goth (I don’t think that means she’s into leather and the kind of bondage you’re thinking about) queen mentioned earlier in this post before you started thinking wicked thoughts.

She enters Rome as a war prize and rightfully (or wrongfully – sorry, girls) belongs to Titus, who wastes no time pissing her off forever by turning down the chance to grant mercy upon her son, that bit that I said would come back and haunt him.

As Tamara puts it (and for the record, I have no idea why a Goth on the outskirts of the empire speaks such fluent, flawless…Latin?):

O if to fight for king and commonweal

Were piety in thine, it is in these.

Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood.

Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?

Draw near them in being merciful.

But of course he’s not.  Though it’s not exactly like he’s got much choice in the matter either.  The soldiers are tired after the wars and demand a sacrificial ceremony to put the spirits of their fallen brethren at ease.  Yes, the ritual smacks of paganism and superstition and tribal customs – and it really does come across as a barbarism you don’t expect from the heroes of Rome.  But then again, that’s where the irony of this post’s title comes in.  Leave it to the captured Goths to marvel at how bloody and violent their civilized conquerors turn out to be.  Surprise! What were they expecting, democracy?

There are far more subplots in Act I than I’ve even begun to describe but I don’t think it’s my place to recount what Cliff’s Notes has made a fine fortune doing far better than I ever could.  Let’s just say that a strange turn of events thrusts Tamara into Saturninus’s possession (again, sorry, ladies, but she does approve the match if that helps).

The pairing of Saturninus and Tamara doesn’t bode well for the next four acts.  Revenge is in the air.  Titus has killed two children and we haven’t even reached intermission.  Like Othello, he has an overdeveloped sense of right and mission that leads him into one pile of trouble after another.  And, like Othello, he may just find that it’s a lot safer out on the battlefields than it ever was back home.

I could just be imagining all this but I don’t think so.  In case you’re wondering, the play is riveting.  It reads like the Godfather or Frank Darabont’s Mob City.  So go grab your popcorn ’cause we’re just getting started.

Friendship’s Full of Dregs

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/01 by mattermind

Timon of Athens, Act I: Scenes 1-2

If you do a Google search on “Shakespeare” sometime in early February, 2010, you’re likely to pull up a sad and tragic tale about a man whose life turned upside down after he won the lottery. His name — it’s true — was Abraham Shakespeare. His body was recently identified in the backyard of the woman’s boyfriend who “befriended” him after (of course, after) the fate’s dealt him a mega wildcard.

Nobody knows yet how it happened. But before he disappeared, Abraham was quoted as saying he would have been better off having stayed poor.

It happens to so many people that it’s become a cliché. Rock stars gone bankrupt. Boxers risen from the ghetto, only to return to them after their fighting days are through. Actors in hock after buying up a few too many Irish castles.

Is it the gullibility of the fool with newfound riches? Or the influx of sudden wealth which distorts friends and turns them into flatterers?

In a great line from Mofo, one of U2’s most brilliant, unheralded songs, Bono sings/laments:

Mother, you left and made me someone

Now I’m still a child… no one tells me no

Timon of Athens opens with a poet, a musician, a painter, a jeweler and a merchant waiting to enter Timon’s household. Each has brought the best of his wares to bestow upon the master of the house.

When we first meet Timon, he seems one helluva guy. He bails out acquaintances, hosts a swell feast, seems willing to give strangers the shirt off his back should they ask because , well… that’s just the way his posse rolls.

Everyone around him thinks he’s a swell fella, too. And why wouldn’t they? All you gotta do is say you admire the man’s horse, and he’ll give it to you right out from under him.

TIMON: I weight my friends’ affection with mine own…

Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends

And ne’er be weary.

There’s just one little-bitty, eenie-weenie, itsy-bitsy problem here. And you knew this was coming, right?

Flavius, the man who watches the purse-strings, tells us the ugly truth in an aside:

FLAVIUS: What will this come to?

He commands us to provide and give great gifts,

And all out of an empty coffer…

His promises fly so beyond his state

That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes

For every word…

Though Flavius can’t tell the man what’s what, a man named Apemantus can. He’s a roving, caustic philosopher cast yet again in the role of fool.  Or the anti-fool, really, because he is no fool. He is the lone soul besides Flavius who sees the hard reality behind what’s going on:

APEMANTUS: Immortal gods, I crave no pelf;

I pray for no man but myself;

Grant I may never prove so fond

To trust man on his oath or bond,

Or a harlot for her weeping,

Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,

Or a keeper with my freedom,

Or my friends, if I should need ’em.

Amen. So; fall to’t;

Rich men sin, and I eat root.

He’s the lone abstainer from the kegger Timon lavishes on the fraternity boys and sorority girls in his upscale neighborhood.

Timon and the merrymakers consider him churlish and misanthropic. But I have a feeling that e’re too long, the tables will turn.

And it’s gonna hurt bad.

Space and Time

Posted in Asides with tags , , , on 2009/12/20 by mattermind

Location, location, location. We hear it all the time, usually regarding real estate.

Shakespeare set his plays in a variety of oddball locales (from a modern point of view). As I read his works, I’ll pay special attention to the effect setting has on the meaning. But for now, I want to present a personal metaphor.

The picture above is from Saint Sophia Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, California. It’s modeled on one of the most amazing spaces in the world: the cathedral/mosque/museum known as Hagia Sophia, a building that once dominated the skyline of Constantinople (now Istanbul).

We’d like to think that our interior lives can be independent of our surroundings. I know I do, especially when I get caught up in the rat race or find myself becoming blue based on the behavior of institutions like CitiCorp or individuals such as Tiger Woods (You knew there’d be a Tiger Woods reference before too long, didn’t you?).

Secular society, by definition, does not place particular importance on the sacred, the mysterious, or the holy. These terms are abandoned to religion (unless you live in a theocracy), thus furthering the bifurcation in our perspectives regarding the sanctity of daily life.

A play, quite naturally, is centered around the plot: all the “stuff” that happens. Paradoxically, we care about these events only because of the characters who persevere through them — and occasionally even triumph over them. As the eminent theologian Martin Buber once pointed out, it’s how we respond to circumstances that ultimately defines our ethics, a sentiment Bono echoes with tongue firmly planted in cheek on the song “Stand Up Comedy” from U2’s recent album, No Line on the Horizon.

Noble souls like Gandhi and Mother Theresa elevate themselves above the herd by their selfless choices made under fire. Their actions testify to a sense of higher ideals so strong that they overcome the bruteness of the material conditions in the societies surrounding them.

Most people by and large are reactive, following the more immediate dictates of the biological imperative. The bulk of their lives is spent scratching the itch at hand, unaware of how the impulse for sex and status or comfort dominates their behavior. Wisdom is unwittingly sacrificed in the mindless pursuit of personal pleasure, reproduction or the acquisition of material goods.

How do these different human traits play out in Shakespeare? Why do we identify so readily with some characters and not with others? Why are some plays considered masterpieces, while others — even for Shakespeare — remain obscure and relatively unperformed?

What factors do location, plot and individual character play? What makes Hamlet so memorable? How did Shakespeare manage to create so many distinct, recognizable personas in his writing?

As one minor being on a vast planet, I know that where I am exercises a tremendous influence on how I feel about my self, my soul, my life, my integrity. I am reminded, especially at this time of year, why it’s necessary to set aside time for reflection in sanctuaries away from the hustle and bustle, how a respite in an atmosphere of sanctity restores a sense of balance and peace.

Costco and Saint Sophia exist for different purposes. Both are superior at what they do. We just can’t expect one of them to provide what was meant for the other to accomplish.

Buddha had to still himself beneath the Boddhi Tree to find illumination. And Jesus retreated to the desert to fast and pray and focus his inner calling.

If they required solitude to restore their sense of wholeness, how much more must I?