Either Michael Phillips has finally exposed his Anglophilism by seeking to be counted among the "present-day London critics [who] have officially had it with this 'horrid' . . . 'miserable' . . . 'impossible to stage' . . . Shakespearean comedy" or else he hasn't seen the accomplished productions of "The Taming of the Shrew" that I have seen ("The Beast of a Play That Can't Be Tamed," Aug. 6).
These are versions in which Petruchio clearly acts out the male form of the folklore caricature of the shrew, a mask that Katharina has put on as self-defense against a society that prefers style to substance. He demonstrates to her that this irrational, antisocial caricature will ever isolate her from self-fulfillment. In so doing, he nurtures her actually rational, sociable character, which she has hidden under that mask.
If the director would let Shakespeare be Shakespeare, Petruchio would sincerely respect Katharina as his intellectual and emotional equal. In the process, Shakespeare subverts all the old swaggering patriarchal stereotypes.
I read with great interest Phillips' despair at ever finding a production of "Shrew" "that didn't stick in the craw by the time Act 4 rolls around." I would like to call his attention one that may go down well with him: a mid-to-late '70s PBS broadcast of a production by San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
They did it in commedia dell'arte style, an inspired choice. It made the violence in the play stylized and comic, rather than realistic and disturbing. In addition to terrific style, this production handled the subtext very well (for example, we see Petruchio apprehensive before his first meeting with Kate, and then actually shy upon meeting her--before resorting to bluster). The audience watches a relationship develop between these two people, and you actually have a lump in your throat at the end of the play (or I did, anyway).
This production is available on video from http://www.broadwayarchive.com.
Someone did make sense of "The Taming of the Shrew." In 1980, Jonathan Miller filmed a BBC version starring John Cleese as Petruchio. Miller's take was that Petruchio was a Puritan. He didn't care what people thought of him because a Puritan man could communicate directly with God and not go through an intermediary priest or saint; a Puritan's wife answered only to him. In this version, he says, "Obey me," not "Obey me." Petruchio had to convince Kate that she didn't need to worry about anyone else's opinion. (These days we might call it "deprogramming.")
An alertness to even a current dictionary's distinction between a "woman" and a "shrew" (someone perhaps in need of the Elizabethan equivalent of shock therapy to free her from the prison of her "humour") would suggest that the "bitchy" Kate is not intended as a portrait of average Woman, any more than her money-grubbing suitor is representative Man.
Phillips may have escaped political correctness in his bafflement and consequent objections, but he seems just as fatally mired as regards the sexes in a merely contemporary sentimentality.
I hereby second the motion to end these vain summertime attempts to unearth some magical justification that will transform this tasteless text into a misunderstood masterpiece of good-humored farce.
Perhaps the deftest turn on this oft-told tale was the recent movie "10 Things I Hate About You." Here, Kate was indeed shrewish, but not because of any shortcomings of her sex. It was more the lacking of an equal on the opposite side of the gender fence that placed this Kate at the center of the tamer's ring with the whip in her hand, demanding that her male-animal counterparts raise the level of their behavior instead of subjugating hers.
We were laughing at Phillips' witty satire on censorship, until we realized that he wasn't being satirical but serious. Then we were just appalled.
Why stop with "Taming of the Shrew"? "Othello" is about spousal murder, certainly a more dangerous topic. "Henry V" promotes war and violence against the lower classes. "Merchant of Venice," obviously anti-Semitic, as mentioned in the article. And why stop with Shakespeare? "Lolita" is about the sexual abuse of children, "Moby-Dick" about violence against whales, "Leatherstocking" about genocide of indigenous peoples.
Personally, we're pretty offended by a lot of what The Times promotes in Calendar every day. Violence, sexuality, brutality in every form abound in the films, music and plays that you favorably review.
And personally, we'll just stop paying attention to someone who purports to advocate art and who instead advocates taking all the sharp knives out of the cultural kitchen and proposes to feed us all a steady diet of oatmeal in the name of political correctness.
GRACE MIDORI LEE and MARC DANZIGER