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William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (The Great Courses) - Peter Saccio For the past seven years I've belonged to a group that meets monthly to discuss classic works of literature. We make it a point to read and discuss at least one play by Shakespeare per year. Thus for a number of years I have prepared for these meetings by listening to lectures by Peter Saccio on his lectures (and others) published by the Great Courses, The Teaching Company. I figure over the years I have listened to about half of the thirty-six lectures in this publication. This year I listened to Lectures One through Six with special emphasis on Lectures Five and Six which are about "The Taming of the Shrew" which is this year's work of Shakespeare.

The rest of this review is focused on "The Taming of the Shrew."

I was interested in knowing if Peter Saccio would try defend Shakespeare's lack of political correctness with regard to modern feministic values. The final soliloquy by Kate in which she extolls the responsibilities of wives to obey their husbands offends modern sensibilities. It's a dilemma for modern play actors to know how to treat those lines.

Saccio admits that Shakespeare is a product of 16th Century sensibilities so we shouldn't try to impose our political correctness on his writing. However, he argues that the play can be understood as a positive and healthy change in Kate's relationship with her social environment. Saccio argues that the lines by Kate should be treated as sincere declarations on her part and not as ironic satire (e.g. winking at the audience to show the insincerity of the words). He suggests that these lines are most effective when delivered slowly and sincerely.

Saccio provides a thoroughly explained case supporting the positive nature of Kate's conversion from shrew to obedient wife. At the beginning of the play Kate is an angry person unable to participate in the give-and-take with those around her.

"Bianca pretends to be meek and humble. Kate sees through that as a sister will. But everybody else is taken in which infuriates Kate that Bianca is getting away with this. ... Kate, hasn’t met any man yet who can command her respect, who is intelligent enough to cope, strong enough to stand up to her. So she lives in uncivilized anger. "

Saccio describes Petruccio's interaction with Kate as playing games with words and in so doing acts a parody of Kate's ill temper.

"He holds the mirror up to her faults until she realizes what she's been like."

At first Kate was too full of anger to play games. Everything was deadly earnest for her. Saccio says in a sense she is cursed. But as time passes she learns to play along with the game and proves to be a skilled player of the game.

The game releases herself from her compulsiveness, her anger, her insistence on literal fact. The game transforms her. Game or play has a cathartic affect. In play human beings can master their circumstances and gain release from bondage to themselves. She can work out her antagonism and thus arrive at love. That is what really makes it possible emotionally for Kate to deliver the final speech on wifely submission to her husband. She has found a man worth submitting to. She takes pleasure in following his directions. Play has brought release and health. And clearly the whole of the Taming of the Shrew is meant to do just that.

So Saccio makes the case that Kate is indeed a truly changed person at the end of the play. Saccio then goes on to defend Shakespeare's opening frame of placing the play within a play. He says it helps prepare the audience for Kate's transformation.

"The anonymous lord that stages the Taming of the Shrew with his company of actors for Christopher the Tinker, aims to bring, and this is a quotation from the opening scene, “mirth and merriment.” This frame isn’t at all necessary for Shakespeare’s play. Many productions leave it out all together since it’s not complete in Shakespeare’s text. But it does amplify the story of the shrew by providing a series of games of transformations. Christopher Sly is transformed into a Lord. The Lord’s page boy is turned into Christopher Sly’s wife. A play is put on. And so we are prepared for the transformation of the shrew into Kate the loving wife in the major play."
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The following is a transcription I made of the end of Lecture 6 to provide the quoted material in the above review. Instead of erasing it I've decided to provide it below in case any readers want to read it.
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Petruccio plays games with words. “I am content that you entreat me stay, and yet not stay.” That is I’m content that you’re begging me. I’ll not going to listen to your begging but I’m glad about your doing it.

The first courtship is a very elaborate verbal game with some astonishingly filthy metaphors going on. I’m not going to go into them at the moment.

The master game is of course Petruccio’s sustained pretense to being a worse shrew than Kate is. Through this game he acts a parody of Kate’s ill temper. He holds the mirror up to her faults until she realizes what she’s been like. What her effect has been on other people has been.

Now Kate originally would not play games. Everything was deadly earnest. For that she was not wholly responsible. Bianca pretends to be meek and humble. Kate sees through that as a sister will. But everybody else is taken in which infuriates Kate that Bianca is getting away with this.

Baptista is too biased toward Bianca and not intelligent enough to think how to cope with Kate. Kate is interested in men. We can tell that from the scene between her and Bianca where she jealously asks Bianca about her suitors and which of the suitors she, Bianca, favors. But she herself, Kate, hasn’t met any man yet who can command her respect, who is intelligent enough to cope, strong enough to stand up to her. So she lives in uncivilized anger.

Shrewishness, she is cursed. That is an adjective that is used several times in the play as a synonym for shrewish. It means bad tempered, cantankerous. But it can also mean under a curse, suffering from a curse, victim of a curse. And a cursed angry person cannot play. And if you cannot play you’re not fully human. The ability to play is one of the marks of being human.

Now she is slowly released from this by the development of her interest in Petruccio, and it’s difficult in an Acts 2 and 3 to trace that interest. There is very little given to her to say that would mark it. And most actresses do it by looking at Petruccio at odd moments when he’s not looking at her. But there are a few things in the lines. When Petricio in the courting scene swiftly arranges a marriage with Baptista Kate protests but not very long. Then when Petruccio is late for the wedding itself she is not relieved as she would be if she really disliked him or had no interest in him. Nor is she immediately angry as the hero of the other Elizabethan shrew play is. She’s embarrassed. Almost as if she was disappointed. In Act 4 and 5 however the development of her mind is quite carefully traced. The first step is compassion, compassion for the victims of Petruccio’s temper tantrums. When Petricio beats Grumio for being responsible for the horse falling into the mire. She tries to plop Petricio off Grumio’s back. We don’t see that because you can put horses and mud on the stage, but we hear about it. But we do see the episode when a servant spills some water and Petruccio beats that servant and Kate tries to intervene. “Patience it was a fault unwilling.” The second step on her part is perplexity, puzzlement. A sense that something is going on that she hasn’t quite grasped. “I am starved for meat giddy for lack of sleep with ......... He does it in the name of perfect love” What is he doing, what does it mean? So she resorts once more to anger, a kind of super common sense and insistence on plain fact. Look, it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, not 9 o’clock in the evening. What are you talking about? And finally she sees what is going on. That Petruccio is playing a game, that she has married a gamester who in his game playing can revise the whole world. And that is what happens in the key scene of the play, the scene when they are on their way back to Padua for Bianca’s wedding.

They’re on the road, and Petricio says ........... (moon vs sun conversation).
(Beautiful maid vs. old man)

She learns to play along with the game.

The game releases herself from her compulsiveness, her anger, her insistence on literal fact. The game transforms her. Game or play has a cathartic affect. In play human beings can master their circumstances and gain release from bondage to themselves. She can work out her antagonism and thus arrive at love. That is what really makes it possible emotionally for Kate to deliver the final speech on wifely submission to her husband.

She has found a man worth submitting to. She takes pleasure in following his directions. Play has brought release and health. And clearly the whole of the Taming of the Shrew is meant to do just that.

The anonymous lord that stages the Taming of the Shrew with his company of actors for Christopher the Tinker, aims to bring, and this is a quotation from the opening scene, “mirth and merriment.” This frame isn’t at all necessary for Shakespeare’s play. Many productions leave it out all together since it’s not complete in Shakespeare’s text. But it does amplify the story of the shrew by providing a series of games of transformations. Christopher Sly is transformed into a Lord. The Lord’s page boy is turned into Christopher Sly’s wife. A play is put on. And so we are prepared for the transformation of the shrew into Kate the loving wife in the major play.

All these things allow Shakespeare to reflect on his own great game which is the theater. The Theater is a place where actors go, where they say that the sun is the moon. Particularly if they are playing in an ampitheather in the 1590s where performances take place in the afternoon. But what they are doing is, say, a play called Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet appears on the balcony and she says “Oh swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon that monthly changes her circled orb." The theater is the place where a thirteen year old boy puts on a dress and pretends to be a young budding virgin called Juliet or Kate or Bianca. And if we accept these gifts, if we accept that the sun is the moon, and that the boy is Katherine Minola or Juliet Capula, then we are transformed at least for the duration of the play, and perhaps longer than that.

But the game must be played well with precision with carefully elaborated detail. You can't do that if you're angry. Once she stops being angry Kate becomes a very accomplished farcest indeed. And she and Petricio are playing a game in the final scene to dish the nasty relatives and to uphold their honor as a couple at her sister's wedding. They don't ask for the quarrel that starts the bet. It's imposed upon them. But they win it. Even as Kate and Petricio elaborate the fantasy of the sun and the moon and the virgin old man the anonymous Lord elaborates the details of Christopher Sly supposed madness and give precise directions to the troupe of players. And if all goes well the play is therapeutic. The play brings health. As Christopher Sly is told "Your doctors thought it good you hear a play and frame your mind to mirth and merriment which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life." Mirth and merriment bars harms. It makes you healthier. It extends your life. Comedy brings life. Shakespearean comedy does.