Condemning of ‘The Shrew’

The Taming of the Shrew is a wonderful play that we theatre artists all love for the great characters, the comedy, the language…

But what about the “problem” of the audience? This play is one (of many) of Shakespeare’s works that has elements that just seems to rub we moderns the wrong way. Will spectators ever be able let that go and enjoy the play or will there constantly be a battle between an auditor’s conscience and the attempted justifications made in the director’s notes?

In a recent review of Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s production, the critic states

There’s no getting around the misogyny at the core of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. You can try to talk yourself out of it, as dramaturg Jen Plants does in her program notes … You can try to restore the usually discarded framing device in an attempt to pass the whole thing off as a drunken dream. You can even cast a real ball of fire … as Katharina, the shrew who must be tamed.
Nothing works.

Theatres will usually try to present productions that are relevant today, that speak to modern generations. Most audience members watching Shrew will know in the back of their mind that this play was written 400 years ago for a very different audience with different thoughts about, well, a lot of things. But how can you convincingly justify putting on the play as something relevant?

It’s impossible just shrug relevance away and say “It’s a good play,” or “because it’s Shakespeare!” I’m sure no matter what you say there will be people flocking to come see it if it’s well acted. But the parts of the play that are relevant today are for the director to find or create.

You may have noticed that I don’t really have an answer for you. I’m a little conflicted over it. I enjoy the play for a variety of reasons that I have mentioned: the characters, the comedy, the language. But if I were an artistic director of a theatre company getting my chosen season approved by the board of directors and was asked to justify my choice of Shrew I might have a hard time convincing anyone. How would you justify it? Or would you at all?

Choose Your Own Shakespearean Adventure

I came across a review of a show that was very intriguing to me. It’s called Choose Your Own Shakespeare.

Did you ever read those action series novels Choose Your Own Adventure when you were younger? Or maybe you still do. It’s sort of like that. The actors have many scenes and monologues in memory and ask the audience which way they want the story to go. It sounds really really cool.

The reviewer here, however, thought that the performance was lacking. Not energy or talent from the cast but in the structure of the show. He complains that much of the show seemed to be pre-planned already and that certain scenes and soliloquies came out of nowhere. Either way I’d really like to see something like this.

I think it’s a really good idea. Shakespeare wrote so much, scenes to cover the entire scope of multiple stories of people’s lives. Shakespeare’s writing can inform against all occasions. There are dozens of parallels between his plays and it wouldn’t necessarily be too difficult to pick multiple ways to transition to a scene in another play, if you have a very clever team putting together the show.

Productions such as this one can really point out the universality of Shakespeare’s works. How enormous the breadth of his canon is and how wide is his influence and even the versatility of his words. It’s awesome. Not awesome like a well played baseball game — full of awe. AWEsome.

Go Make You Ready

Hamlet’s advice to the players is at an end, but your work is just beginning. I’d just like to wrap up the wealth of information covered in this speech.

There’s no end to the advice that can be given on acting Shakespeare, but everything you really need to know is in this text. The rest is just mastering it… which of course takes years and years.

Visit the speech every now and then. You may connect to certain parts better over time. Actually, I can almost guarantee that you will. You’ll see a performance either good or bad, come back to the speech and you’ll discover, “Oh, I see what that means!” or, “That’s why he sucked,” etc. You might even recognize things you’re doing in a performance. Maybe get in the habit of speaking this speech every time before you start a new production.

And now to sum up your actor’s checklist that Hamlet so eloquently spoke in this speech:

  • Speak you lines fluently
  • Don’t do odd, extraneous movements
  • Find the emotional balance between too tame and too wild
  • Be honest
  • Don’t be “real,” Be believable.
  • Don’t add your own lines
  • Tell the story

That list is in my words, not Hamlets. I feel those are some of the most important points in the speech. If I were to pick one most important one, it would be the last one on that list. Because you must do all the rest in order to tell the story well.

You’re work is cut out for you. I’m still working on it and I’m plan to always do so. Play. Have fun, make discoveries. Use the wonderful words you are given and your performance will shine. So what are you waiting for?

Go make you ready.

< -- O Reform it Altogether

O Reform it Altogether

And now the advice to the players is coming to an end…

Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

Overdoing moments might make a few people laugh, but everyone else may be rather disgusted. Think of everyone else before you ham up a moment for a cheap laugh. Remember again holding up the mirror to nature – an honesty is required. Once you lose that you lose your audience.

O, there be players that I have seen play—and heard others praise, and that highly—not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellow’d that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. O, reform it altogether.

This should sound familiar to you. How many times have you seen a movie with a famous actor who just, well, sucks? There are plenty of actors out there who are “big” whose abilities to believably play another person are rather small.

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Suit the Action to the Word

Hamlet’s Advice to the Players continues! There’s a lot he has to say about acting. After all, he wants the lines he wrote in The Mousetrap acted well.

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor.

You must find a delicate balance between the energy you give to the speech and the naturalism. Too much energy and you’re bombastic, too little and the audience falls asleep. Experiment until you find what feels right.

This is harder than it sounds. Acting Shakespeare’s text is entirely about finding a balance between making yourself understood and letting the words come out, having lots of energy and being relaxed, using the poetry and sounding natural.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,

This is another part of that balance you must find. Rather than explain this part (it sort of explains itself) I think it’s best that go in a different direction.

What you need to do here is match your intention/objective/motivation to the text. You have a NEED to speak these words in order to get what you want. If you let yourself be taken by the text — don’t force it — to the emotional level that it requires and you are all the while aware of your objective while speaking it, any actions you take will be suited to the words and the words to the action.

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Miss Piggy Can’t Speak Shakespeare

Who knew? It’s so much fun to see a kids show and be entertained by humor also geared towards educated adults. One of the great perks of being a Bard-a-holic is all the jokes and puns you will actually understand in daily life.

Do not saw the air too much

Hamlet’s advice to the players continued…

Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently;

I think you know what this is about. Have you ever seen an actor (or someone in your life) who repeatedly uses the same gesture? It gets old pretty fast. We all have this problem to some degree, but it may be harder to notice in some. Video tape yourself acting a piece and watch it in fast forward. If you see the same gesture over and over: stop doing that! Actors sometimes feel the need for one super strong gesture but it can get pretty annoying. Find actions that match what you’re saying. A downward chopping motion into your other hand means nothing.

for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

I’ve seen an actor onstage who was trying to be mad who just walked back and forth and did the same hand gesture over and over and over. Don’t be him.

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Trippingly On The Tongue

And now the first in the series of posts expounding Hamlet’s Advice to the Players. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue.

With a couple couples of alliteration Hamlet speaks volumes. “Speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue.” Chapters of acting books and entire books have been written on being able to speak a speech trippingly on the tongue. Well what exactly does that mean?

Trippingly means light and quick, with a sense of ease, fluently. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Basically this means that when you speak, it generally shouldn’t sound like you’re proclaiming your lines “Full of Sound and Fury” (Macbeth), but rather let them come out.

Easier said than done. You need a detailed understanding of everything you’re saying, the important words needed to tell the story, awareness of the literary devices that make the verse and prose come alive, memorization of the piece so good that you could recite it in your sleep, and a very well exercised set of articulators (mouth, tongue , lips) for excellent diction. It’s a lot, but who ever said acting was easy?

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