The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 20 January 2014

John Cleese: Is He Funny?

Continuing my BBC Shakespeare odyssey from 2005. Why not buy the box set too and join me in my quest?

The Taming of the Shrew

It would be lovely to say that everybody has got this play wrong, and that it isn't misogynistic, and is instead a lampoon of misogyny. It would be lovely to say that but it wouldn't be true. Much as I had hoped my preconceptions were wrong, and as eager as I was to find evidence to the contrary, it is, at the end of the day, awfully sexist. It was of its time, and its attitudes have dated. Now, I make no judgements about those attitudes but I think it would be unfair to make any inferences about Shakespeare's attitudes to the female sex from this play.

This is because it is a comedy, and much of its humour comes from exaggeration. Shakespeare is not advocating that disobedient women should be starved, humiliated and deprived sleep in order to turn them into doting housewives. Petruchio's methods are ridiculous, brutal and nasty, and the humour is deliberately un-PC - un-PC in the sense that it’s saying the unsayable, with characters acting in a shocking and offensive manner, whilst maybe hinting at an unacceptable truth. Petruchio is an anti-hero - we are supposed to find him funny, but we find him funny because he is outrageous and wicked and charming, not because he is an example of good conduct. He's kind of like the Black Adder (of II, Third and Goes Forth) - never more so when, in his first scene, he has to deal with the Baldrick-esque stupidity of his servant Grumio, involving some hilarious circumlocution about the phrase 'knock up'. Well, it was probably hilarious at the time. 1594 or whenever it was. He said knock up but he meant KNOCK UP! D'oh!

I don't think it quite works, but my impression is that play is attempting to parody two things at once. It was written at a time when marriage was, contradictorily, a mixture of romance and financial necessity, and it's that contradiction that is at the heart of this play. Because on the one hand you have Petruchio's wooing of Katherine which is borne out of financial necessity, and where the pretence of love between them turns into true love (of a sort, at least) – but on the other hand you have Bianca, the subject of a competition between her drooling admirers, where Lucentio has to go to great and absurd lengths to persuade Bianca's father that he would make her a good husband for economic reasons. So you have two ironic reversals going on - the mercenary playing at being romantic, and the romantic playing at being mercenary. But the reason why this is such a tenuous reach on my part is that it’s not quite there in the play - the Lucentio story collapses quite badly in the final act, as Shakespeare - having piled on some amusing complications with multiple Vincentios - has the characters say 'Hang on, we'd better sort this all out', walk offstage, and walk onstage two minutes later going, 'Well, we're all friends again now.'

This difficulty arises from the fact that Shakespeare is reluctant to give Lucentio and Bianca a non-romantic happy ending. Instead, the only criticism it gets is in the final act where it is contrasted and found inferior to Petruchio and Katherine's relationship - but not that inferior. If I was doing this properly I'd do a compare and contrast with Much Ado About Nothing, which is also about two dual romances working along similar lines, but which has a more satisfactory and worked-out conclusion. Okay, so they aren't quite the same, but they both do the isn't-it-funny-when-two-people-who-are-perfect-for-each-other-don't-get-on and the isn't-it-funny-how-stupid-people-who-are-in-love-behave jokes, the difference being that Much Ado follows through and shows serious negative consequences. And one more thing before I flog this point to death - The Taming of the Shrew invites the audience to ask - who would you rather be wooed by? Someone who is funny and charming but only in it for the money, or someone who is a complete, boring wimp but only in it for love? Who is really the superficial one - the man who only wants to get his hand on your money, or the one who only wants to get his hands on your tits? Or is it the businessman, with his suit and tie?

My one other difficulty with this play - which is otherwise lots of fun, and is unusually sprightly, fast-moving, clear and economical in the telling - is Katherine. Is she really a shrew? Discuss for 500 words. Because I kept getting mixed signals here. Sometimes she seems to be suffering from depression. Sometimes she seems pre-menstrual. Sometimes she is plain bonkers. And sometimes - most of the time - she is actually quite sexy, smart, quick-witted and funny, and her anger is an entirely reasonable reaction to how she is treated. Her father, after all, considers her a burden to be unloaded, and blokes everywhere consider her second best to her better-looking younger sister, for whom they fall at her feet, all the blood having rushed from head to dingle - no wonder she has little respect for them. She has our sympathies - she isn't a wet bimbo like Bianca, but she's feisty, strong-willed and let's make no bones about it probably a fantastic f*ck.

However, the problem is that whilst this is the impression of Katherine I got from her appearances in the first three acts, she then deteriorates as a character. And whilst I know her character is supposed to develop through the play, what actually seems to happen is that she becomes less well-written and turns into a two-dimensional cipher. It's not just that the character loses vitality, but that there is a loss in the vitality in the writing of her character. So the feeling I was left with was not of a character developing, but of inconsistency, or rather, of Shakespeare trying to make a character jump through a run of convenient plot hoops that her character simply wouldn't jump through.

And this - as with the fact that the story is clearly presenting a parody of shrew-taming, (with Lucentio even running a 'school' on the subject) - makes me think that it would be unfair to draw any inferences about Shakespeare's attitudes from the play. Because, even when the plot calls for him to write a female character as a mad, man-hating bitch, he can't help but make her three-dimensional, sympathetic and a darn sight more realistic than her sappy cut-out of a sister. Even when it basically buggers up the emphasis of a play, and compromises its point, he can't write a weak female character - and it's this which, whilst being the plays weakness, is also something to admire it for. For this play's silly, illogical and superficial plot to work, the female characters would need to be silly, illogical and superficial, but it seems Shakespeare just can't bring himself to write that.

It would be lovely to be able to retroactively interpret Katherine and Petruchio's relationship, because, to begin with, I got a sense that it wasn't so much a case of Petruchio 'taming' her, as a case of her falling for him because he was the first man to come along who could match her for wit and boldness and independence of spirit. Compared to Lucentio, Hortensio and Gremio, at least Petruchio has some hair on his chest. However, this rather gets lost in the later acts, when Petruchio becomes cruel rather than dashing, which is rather a shame. It's this inconsistency, I think, that marks this out as an very early, if not the first, Shakespeare play - it also has a completely redundant character in Gremio, here played by television's Captain Peacock, who always looks like he is going to contribute to the plot but never quite gets round to it.

Note to Shakespeare: This play contains a character called Grumio and another called Gremio. This is even more confusing than your history plays. Sort it out.

Anyway, detailed analysis aside, this is a lot of fun. The play uses the trick of having a character relate comic events rather than us actually seeing them, which is usually funnier than us actually seeing them (cf Blackadder’s Christmas Carol and Baldrick describing the nativity). The cast is pretty fantastic, with a rigid, wild-eyed John Cleese making a brilliant Petruchio. No one knows how to do 'I am wearing an incredibly funny hat but I don't think it is funny' acting better than John Cleese.

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