William Shakespeare’s name is interchangeable with timelessness; our curiosity about the man himself is eclipsed by our fascination with the daring words he left behind.
In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay, ever concerned with the endurance of his legacy, muses that the rock he kicks with his foot will outlive Shakespeare. This, of course, is not a testament to Shakespeare’s flimsy themes; on the contrary, Mr. Ramsay worries that even Shakespeare, the most timeless writer to have lived, will eventually be forgotten.
And while the Bard’s eloquence and wit illuminate tender, universal truths about what it is to be human, writers often use his material as fodder for modern updates, some more successful than others, and all to the chagrin of Shakespearean purists. Following the news that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has called for playwrights to update the plays into Modern English, New York Times columnist James Shapiro aired his grievances. “Shakespeare borrowed almost all his plots and wrote for a theater that required only a handful of props, no scenery and no artificial lighting,” he wrote. “The only thing Shakespearean about his plays is the language.”
How, then, are we to confront Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, tricky because they’re steeped in prejudices and gender roles that were less questioned at the time?
One solution, employed by New York City’s The Queen’s Company, is to put on productions with either all-female casts, or otherwise gender-blind casting, reversing the historical choice to perform plays with only men as the stars. Rebecca Patterson, who’s directed over 20 plays with the company, including “As You Like It,” “Twelfth Night,” and “Much Ado About Nothing,” told The Huffington Post, “I was really bored with seeing a stage full of white guys whenever I went to a classical play, so I decided to change that.”
Many of the plays she’s directed with the company directly confront gender issues -- “Twelfth Night,” of course, involves a woman disguising herself as a man -- while others do not. Her aim, then, is not necessarily to make a political statement about gender, but to imbue the plays with a new, different air than that of other modern takes.
“Contemporary women are closer to the Renaissance Male experience. They are both strong and intimate with an accessible expressive inner life,” Patterson said. “I don’t think [casting women] changes the meaning. What it does is liberate the play from simplistic gender politics into its deeper universal humanity.”
Read literally, it’s a commentary on woman’s inferior place. A more forgiving interpretation: it’s a complex look at how control squanders romantic love – a cautionary tale against would-be misogynists.
Still, the political implications of her latest production -- “The Taming of the Shrew” -- are difficult to ignore. Considered one of the Bard’s most problematic plays, the play follows the suitors of Katharina, a “froward, peevish, sullen, sour” woman, and her sister, who’s considered meek and fair. If you’ve not read the play (or worse yet, not seen the '90s riff “10 Things I Hate About You”), here’s the run-down: The girls’ father, Baptista, mandates that his sought-after younger daughter Bianca can’t get married until Katharina does. So, Bianca’s suitors seek a suitor for her sister, promising a hefty dowry. Enter Petruchio, who’s in it for the money at first. Eventually he warms to Katharina, thinking her sharp tongue a thrilling, beastly conquest -- but not after starving and manipulating her first. Especially tough to parse out are the scenes in which Petruchio forces Katharina to call the sun the moon, and the final monologue, in which Katharina kneels before her husband, offering to place her hand beneath his foot.
Read literally, it’s a commentary on woman’s inferior place. A more forgiving interpretation: it’s a complex look at how control squanders romantic love -- a cautionary tale against would-be misogynists. Regardless, it’s impossible to know the Bard’s intentions, and so the play is hotly debated by feminists.
Patterson’s interpretation is a worthy contribution to the myriad ways we analyze “The Taming of the Shrew.” Her Katharina speaks flirtatiously at times, but is mostly calm, confident and composed, throwing her critic’s nasty remarks into ridiculous relief.
When Hortensio claims, “she is intolerable curst / And shrewd and froward, so beyond all measure / That, were my state far worser than it is / I would not wed her for a mine of gold,” it’s already a laughably aggressive posit. But when the description is applied to a woman who does little besides defend herself wittily, it becomes pure slander.
It helps that Bianca is played by a mute blowup doll. This and other creative licenses taken by Patterson make her “Shrew” a smart, fun update -- complete with contemporary music that complements the Bard’s original language, which she keeps mostly in tact.
“I like to use contemporary music in my classical productions because it creates a bridge between our time and Shakespeare’s,” Patterson said. “I choose the songs because they illuminate something about the story being told. Shakespeare is wrestling with very human timeless themes, the same themes we will be singing about until the end of time itself.”
With many of the tense stereotypes upheld by the play stripped away, or made complicated by songs and new deliveries, viewers can get a clearer view of the deeper themes at work. “Given the time he lived in, [Shakespeare] could shine a light on the hard truths of our bad behaviors ... but the way to change that was murky,” Patterson wrote in her director’s note. “Shakespeare taught me a lot about love. It is my hope that this production takes his lessons a step further than he could, illuminating a way forward toward something better.”