Shrew Who?: John Cleese as Petruchio

October 10, 2011 3 comments

Shakespeare is and was in his time no stranger to controversy. He approached topics such as royal succession, what makes a good ruler and the war between honour and life, all of which were extremely controversial in his time. As we move closer to our time, Shakespeare courts different kinds of controversies, especially where the sensibilities of his time clash with our own. Usually this has a detrimental effect on the frequency of stagings of certain plays, and this week’s play is one of the victims of this.

The Taming of the Shrew was for most of its existence an extremely popular play. Fairly unique among Shakespeare’s plays – depending on how one wishes to classify other, similar storytelling tools – it has a framing story, which has not always been deemed worthy of inclusion in its staging. This framing story – a drunk commoner being played a practical joke on by his liege lord, in that he is being duped into thinking his life has been a dream and now he is a lord, for whom the actual play is being staged – has occasionally been adapted into full-fledged plays, for example by the Danish playwright Ludvig Holberg in his Jeppe of the Hill, or The Transformed Peasant.

But in our time of at least ideological – if rarely practical – equality between the sexes, the story of how a spirited and individual-minded woman is cowed by a brutish man in an arranged marriage, as the main story of the play goes, presents us with some problems. Consequently as is depressingly more often the case, we cheerfully ignore its existence, preferring to stage it much more rarely than plays such as Hamlet, where the controversy is not unpalatable to us.

Thus The Taming of the Shrew is relegated to two kinds of staging. The experimental – of which Hall’s 2007 all-male staging, that I did not have the opportunity to attend myself is an example – and as part of completionist staging such as the one in the BBC’s project to film all of Shakespeare’s plays that ran in the years leading up to and following 1980.

The Text

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a short look at the text first, foregoing the framing story.

A nobleman in Padua has two daughters: sweet Bianca and wilful Kate. Suitors abound for Bianca – two men of Padua, Gremio and Hortensio, and a young man of Pisa, Lucentio – but no one pines for Kate. The father – Vincentio – therefore decides that none shall be allowed to court Bianca unless Kate is also courted, promptly causing the three rivals to concoct elaborate ways to sneak into the household to, as it were, pre-court Kate in preparation for the actual courtship to begin.

Enter Petruchio, an old friend of Hortensio, who bursts onto the scene looking for a wife of means, who can make his relatively impoverished life tolerable. He agrees to court the well-endowered Kate and proceeds to do so in a fashion that takes her quite aback – he simply tells her they will be married, which they eventually do in a ceremony that is designed to humiliate Kate publicly.

Taking Kate with him back to his crummy household in Verona, Petruchio proceeds to grind the wilfulness out of her to an extent that, when they at the end of the play return to Padua for a feast, Kate is the most pliant of all the wives of the men dining there – including fair Bianca, who turns out to have become quite shrewish almost overnight after marrying the poor Lucentio.

The Production

As I intimated above, the BBC produced all of Shakespeare’s plays in the years around 1980 in the vein of the old ‘filmed theatre’ school. That is to say that the cinematography is not lush, the costumes are not impressive, the sets do not evoke a sense of realism, but the acting and the direction of the actors are at centre stage.

Directed by Jonathan Miller, their Taming of the Shrew is populated by well-meaning actors who ranged from quite good – such as Anthony Pedley as the servant of young Luciano – to the merely average – such as Susan Penhaligon’s Bianca.

But overshadowing them all is a surprising performer in this context, the performance of whom is the key to Jonathan Miller’s solution to the problem of how to film a play, that basically condones domestic violence and makes light of it: John Cleese as Petruchio.

The Cleese

Cleese brings a quality to the boisterous role of the gentleman from Verona that it is frankly astonishing for whoever discovered it in the text to have found, and which demonstrates the range of Shakespeare’s play. Where Petruchio is traditionally seen as a staunch defender of the status quo as regards to gender roles, Cleese shows him to be a quiet rebel and a person with a knack for noticing absurdity and hostility in the world and trying to make the best of it.

While most productions have Petruchio dominating Kate at the end, it is obvious from the performances that such is not the case here. Rather the two have developed an understanding and an actual respect for each other.

Indeed while the most poignant scenes for Petruchio are often made out to be his battles of wit and violence with Kate, it is obvious that Cleese and the production considers the pivotal scene to be his short, poetic soliloquy at the end of act 4, scene 1.

Delivered by candlelight after an exhausting day, Cleese wearily speaks the words that lesser Petruchios would be bolstering all over the place. Quietly and calmly, he outlines his plan with a tonality in his voice like that of a man who meticulously chooses exactly the most absurd response to any stimuli simply to prove a point. It is not that he must decide everything for Kate, however, but simply and reasonably that they cannot function as a married couple if they fight about everything. Thus he meets her irrational demands not with demands of his own, but instead with well-designed, absurd responses.

We see it again later on, in act 4, scene 5 where Petruchio is mostly seen and played as simply wanting compliance from Kate to his every whim, when he insist that the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun. Cleese adds a touch of awareness of his own absurdity to Petruchio, which makes it clear that this sort of behaviour is not his nature, but is being undertaken by him to prove a point to Kate.

But which point? Well, rather than admonish her for being wilful or engaging in a misogynist battle of the sexes, Cleese’s Petruchio is on a mission to show Kate that her wilfulness simply will not do, because it is not possible for people to live like that. He demands not compliance from Kate because he wants it, but because he wants to show what she is demanding from the world.

In another scene usually only played for laughs, the wedding in act 3, scene 2, Cleese’s absurd bluster in waving about his ridiculous hat and his clearly inappropriate posturing in the ludicrous costume he expects to be wedded in, has the wonderful subtext of showing Kate that this is how she seems with her insistence on doing things her way or not at all.

The Shrew

Quite apart from the dismal message that productions of The Taming of the Shrew usually have to contend with, the message of this production is instead that we are not set in our ways and that we can change our nature if we work at it.

All of this hinges of course not just on the performance of Cleese, but also on the wonderfully faceted performance of Sarah Badel in the role of Kate. She starts out in the proud tradition from Elizabeth Taylor’s version in Zefirellis production from the 60s, portraying Kate as essentially a spoilt child who rebels without any sense of direction. It is clear that she finds the demands of society idiotic and inconvenient, but she does not try to change them, she just acts out her rage very much like a child would.

As she struggles to comprehend Petruchio’s outlandish behaviour, we see that Badel – unlike Taylor – actually uses this character choice moving forward. This is not so much a taming as a maturing of the shrew, as Kate grows up. Petruchio is holding up a mirror in front of her and like a child she at first does not recognise that it is herself she’s seeing.

It seems to her that Petruchio is just one more instance of a world being unreasonable, harsh and repressive, but gradually Badel shows us Kate coming to grips with the fact that the person in the mirror is her. Like a child finally recognising herself in the mirror and not attempting to play with this new friend anymore, Kate grows up and becomes a reasonable person. She learns, and we learn with her, that the proper response to an unfair world is not blind rage, disgust and self pity, but instead reason and thought.

If I make no outrageous demands of Petruchio, he will be reasonable towards me. It is a madman who fights fire with fire, and Cleese’s Petruchio makes this abundantly clear to Badle’s Kate.

The Kate we see in the final scene where she answers the summons of her husband, though the other wives will not, is not a cowed and repressed woman in a dysfunctional relationship. No, this is a woman who – solely among the women of the play – has grown up from daughter to wife. And as is plain from Cleese’s acting and he and Badel’s interacting in this scene, Petruchio is the only man in a roomful of boys, however ancient some of the others may be.

The Message

This message – that what Petruchio does is that he rescues a child into adulthood rather than dominating a poor woman – seams through the production. The outlandish plans that Bianca’s suitors conduct are highlighted as idiotic by the advanced age of Gremio and Hortensio. Hortensio’s buffonish winking and pointing during his lesson with Bianca in Act 3, scene 1 is the perfect example of this. He is clearly not of the persuasion that he is addressing an individual capable of actual thought, but a child. Petruchio does not want to be married to a child. He needs a woman for a wife.

Reportedly Jonathan Miller had problems with persuading Cleese to act in this, the first Shakespeare production the comedian did. It is fortunate that he was successful, though. Although we cannot in good conscience acquit Shakespeare himself or his contemporaries of misogyny, we can however – with this production in hand – show that the text must not necessarily be interpreted thus.

And this is really the most we can hope for in a performance: to show us things about the text that we had not considered.

This has been a review of the 1980 BBC production of The Taming of the Shrew directed by Jonathan Miller. The picture was found via Google.

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Real People, Not Things: My First Encounter With Shakespeare

October 2, 2011 Leave a comment

London seemed to be old hat at the time. I mean, I was still excited to be there, of course, but I had the distinct feeling that I had seen everything and now mostly were there to wonder at the things. The material things that money, my father’s money in particular, could buy.

We strolled through the streets of the Capital of the World once a year back then, dad and me; a bonding experience that never meant more to me than today and will only grow in importance the longer I have to consider what a treasure it was for a young boy to go travelling to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest cities on the face of the earth, especially if you happen to be a member of the western culture that came into its own there first.

To be – from an early age – familiar with the rich heritage of Great Britain to the degree that one feels at home in a city where no one speaks your language is a true gift, and I did not appreciate it enough when I was being given it first. As I said, my main interest at this point in time was things.

You have to understand that even though things were by no means scarce and hard to come by in my homeland, the things were different and the times were different. The changing of the times is easy enough to understand. There was no internet. This obviously meant that I could not simply order anything I wanted from anywhere in the world, but it also meant that there were literally millions of things I would never even know existed, if I didn’t see them in a shop, and there were shops in London, believe me.

I gravitated towards music, book and film shops, where I perpetuated and instigated love affairs to last a lifetime. The objects of my desire were myriad and to a certain degree all of them childish, but they all had one thing in common: I found them. I was exploring the ocean of ideas back then, now I surf it. It is, I guess, a part of childhood as opposed to at least young adult life that you have not locked yourself into the terrible, terrible constraints of interests. A child loves without limits and without shame, what the elder man hides away from the view of the world.

Nevertheless, I was wholly unprepared for what was about to enter my life as my father and I – in accordance with the agreement he had hammered out that we had to attend at least one instance of proper culture during each of our yearly trips – swung by the Barbican Center in the curious concrete world of the Barbican Estate to see if there were any more tickets left to that evening’s performance of Othello by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

There was.

I can go back over the records and locate the production for you, and I will at the end of this blog post. I can – now in this time of instant access to stores of information all over the globe – tell you the names of all the people involved in the production, although I believe you would not be interested in most of them, being as they are anonymous essentials in the machinery of running a theatre.

However, the main thing to understand is not the particulars, but the complete intellectual, sensory and existential overflow that hit me during this production. I fancied myself good at English, yet I knew barely half of the words the people on the sparingly decorated scene uttered. My father has confessed being puzzled at many of the phrases as well; neither of us are native English speakers. But we understood it all nonetheless.

The burning desire. Iago’s thirst for destruction, Othello’s thirst for possession and power, and all the people of smaller ambition who had to drown to let these giants of men have their wishes – and eventually to drown in their thirst.

I learned things I never knew about being alive during that performance.

To think that a man can be driven so singularly by his need to simply destroy that it does not really matter to him why he destroys. Iago was frightening in a way I had never thought of before. I had always been afraid of the unnatural and the ghosts and goblins of horror movies and folk tails. But this was something else. This was a man that stood before me, and he was capable of such dedication and skill that it was hard to accept that he would use it in such a decidedly arbitrary way. Iago was not always evil, the performance seemed to whisper under all the words, but he was always skilled. He was good at what he was doing, but he was driven by his need for destruction, and finding no suitable outlet for this need when not at war, he turned upon his own commander.

And Othello. He begun to teach me what Seneca and the stoics would later finish, once I had grown up enough to learn of them. That man can strive for possession and power but in the end he himself is his only true possession; his only power is over his own life.

These were not mere characters, it seemed to me. They were nothing like the fictional people who populated the songs and TV Shows and movies that I did – and still to this day do – love. These people knew things and they made choices that did not seem to fit according to a script, but to flow from their peculiarities and their arbitrary will. They were – in short – real.

I must have grown an inch during that play.

I was not dumbstruck afterwards, but my words made little sense. I was in awe and I knew not how to process this. Thus I made it an interest. I began to wish for annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays for birthdays. I put them on my shelf and sometimes got them down and read a bit.

I tested the waters around me: had my friends found this magical world as well? No. And why should they? They were exploring the world just as much as I was, and this was just one more thing they could stumble upon and a rather difficult one at that. Having the words in front of you on the page made you acutely aware and embarrassed of the fact that you did not know what half of them meant. Soon, the books stayed on the shelf, although they were joined by more colleagues regularly.

So without peers to discuss him with, Shakespeare became a thing and an interest for me but not a passion. This changed much later and in a much more gradual fashion, the nature of which I will chronicle here from time to time, but it would never have become the passion that it is for me now had the initial spark not been lit half my lifetime ago when I happened to walk into the Barbican Center with my dad.

You see, the child dives in while we surf, because we are embarrassed by the possibility of getting our clothes wet. We will not risk looking stupid by professing a love for something that we are not sure we are allowed to love. But sometimes the love that we feel for things as a child will hide out in the material world, biding its time until it can again enter our minds ad make a bid for a part of our soul. For me it was like that with Shakespeare.


This was a review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1999 production of Othello directed by The Honourable Michael Attenborough. The first Shakespeare play I ever saw. The above image was taken from: