Tuesday, May 23, 2006

cleaning up Shakespeare

What do we do with Kate and Petrouchio? She is strong willed and independent. He marries her, kills her spirit, and makes her subservient. This wrankles the modern, feminist mind. So most productions end with Kate winking at the audience, negating (or softening), her final speech:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee...
...Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

But the play is called "Taming of the Shrew." If ever a theme was writ large, it is here with it's pants down, in the very title of the play. How can we end it with the shrew untamed? Isn't it better to say, "This is an offensive story" and not perform it at all than to mangle it with a clumsy, tacked-on ending?

And what of Shylock? Sure, he's sympathetic, as are most of Shakespeare's villains. But he IS a villain. And the play suggests he's a villain because he's a Jew.

Jews aren't always villains to Shakespeare. Benedick says, " If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew." Which in this case just means someone cruel (not kind, like a Christian).

I am in two minds about such speeches:

1) We must include them as they stand and not try to mitigate them or override them with cuts or additions. Why? Because to do otherwise is to lie about the past. We produce plays in order to tell truths. Truths aren't always pleasant. In the case of the past (and often, alas, of the present), men could be racist and sexist. To cleanse this fact would be like pasting a happy ending onto King Lear, as they did in the 17th Century. Or like denying the Holocaust.


2) There are truths and there are Truths. If a small truth, like Benedick's line, gets in the way of a big Truth, like the romantic nature of "Much Ado About Nothing," perhaps the former should be cut or changed. In the best of all possible worlds, one strives to respect truths small and large, but it would be a shame to lose half the audience due to one throwaway line.

Shylock's identity as a Jew and a villain are integral to "Merchant of Venice." Changing this dramatic truth ruins the play (remember: not producing it is always an option). "Much Ado" is not a play about Jews, so producers might consider cutting this line. On the other hand, we're not always racist in big ways. Most of the time, racism insinuates itself in subtle, small ways. To excise all these taints is to tell a huge lie about man's nature.

So the thoughtful director walks a thin line. He must evaluate each offense case-by-case, always keeping two things in mind:

1) His job is to tell the story. That means that he must (a) determine what the story is, and (b) ruthlessly protect anything that is vital to the story, no matter how offensive; he should also cut anything that betrays the story. Is Benedick's line necessary or gratuitous? What about Kate's final speech? Is it necessary to the story of a Shrew being tamed?

2) He shouldn't clutter his mind with politics or hackneyed Social Science. What harm does it cause to keep Benedick's "Jew" line? Do such lines somehow CAUSE more racism to exist in the world? There's no evidence for this. Rather, the line should be cut only if it interferes with the audience's ability to attend to the greater truths of the story. As a director, you MUST forget politics and -- except in extreme cases -- morality. Why? Because others will mind those stores; you must devote yourself to the story. No one else will. You are its only protector.

[The tougher job is subduing one's ego. We all want to be thought of as nice, good, moral people. And the director who keeps the "Jew" line (or the actor who utters it) risks being called a racist. But the director's job is not to protect himself; it's to protect the story.]

I've been thinking about Benedick, because I'm preparing to direct "Much Ado About Nothing." But I'm more concerned with Claudio. My much ado is his treatment of Hero. He's about to marry her, when he hears a rumor that she's unchaste. So he cruelly ditches her at the alter and takes pleasure his cruelty (perhaps to mask his shame at nearly being cuckolded). In the end, he apologizes, the two marry and presumably live Happily Ever After.

It's so easy to emerge from the play hating him, yet the larger Truth of "Much Ado" is that it's a love story. Should one really hate the hero of a love story? Doesn't that thwart the very nature of the genre? Or am I wrong about the story's true nature? Is it okay for us to hate Claudio, because "Much Ado"'s soul is more complex than boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl?

Surely, an Elizabethan audience would have had more sympathy for Claudio than a modern audience. Chastity was SO crucial to them. Rightly so, in a culture where blood ties are all important: my son had better actually BE my son. That doesn't justify Claudio disbelieving his intended, but it's a little like hearing (seemingly reliable) news that your lover has AIDS and has been holding that fact from you. Still, I can't excuse him because (a) I'm not an Elizabethan and (b) he's goes way overboard in the cruelty.

On the other hand, I LIKE the fact that he's so cruel, because it allows for greater repentance afterwards. My favorite scene in the whole play in near the end. It's a really simple scene. Claudio -- who now knows he was wrong -- goes to Hero's grave (he thinks it's her grave, anyway) and sings...

Done to death by slanderous tongues
Was the Hero that here lies:
Death, in guerdon of her wrongs,
Gives her fame which never dies.

...Pardon, goddess of the night,
Those that slew thy virgin knight;
For the which, with songs of woe,
Round about her tomb they go.

...Now, unto thy bones good night!
Yearly will I do this rite.

This is a VITAL scene, and it must be well acted. I'm actually okay with the audience not loving Claudio, but I want them to see him as a real person -- one who screws up and feels remorse.

More problematic is Hero. She's treated horribly. And yet she's happy at the end. Shakespeare doesn't include a scene in which she yells at Hero, slaps him, and calls him a bastard (and maybe THEN forgives him). I'm not sure how to deal with that yet -- or whether it's even fixable.

Having worked on a few Shakespeare plays -- and having studied many -- I feel comfortable saying something that most scholars don't want to say: Shakespeare's plays are rough and full of problems. As skilled as he was at "holding a mirror up to nature," he often blundered. We can excuse his failure to explain Leontes's jealousy and Lear's sudden madness by nodding wisely and saying, "Shakespeare wanted to focus on the results, not the causes." But that doesn't stop us from watching these plays and feeling like we're owed an explanation.

We produce his plays anyway, because their strengths make them worthwhile -- more than worthwhile: works of genius and beauty. Some of their weaknesses are fixable in production; some are true problems that we just have to live with. Much like the transgressions of our own past.