Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Merry Wives of Windsor:

9.5--I like this play a lot and always have done. It is generally considered one of Shakespeare's lesser comedies and it certainly lacks the verbal and moral complexity of "Measure for Measure" and "Twelfth Night". However, if what one craves is a deliciously humorous farce then TMWOW is just the thing. Poor Falstaff decides to woo two respectable wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. They are incensed that the old man should think them women of little virtue, and decide to punish him in a series of sight gags that are still funny more than 400 years later. First, Falstaff has to hide in a stinking linen basket in order to escape an irate husband before, later, being unceremoniously tossed into the Thames (still inside the basket). After that, at a second tryst, he is made to dress as an old woman hated for witchcraft in order to escape his pursuers. This time he receives a good pummeling and is beaten black and blue. Finally, the play ends in a masque-like ceremony in the nearby wood where Falstaff, dressed as Herne the Hunter, with horns on his head (an ironic put-down for the would-be cuckolder) is pinched a thousand times by the children of the townspeople dressed as fairies. At last, all is revealed and, as would be expected of the old man, Falstaff doesn't turn a hair at his general humiliation, but is even able to jest about it.

It is said that the writing of this play was commanded directly by Elizabeth I herself because she wished to "see Falstaff in love". This seems likely enough as Shakespeare did present many of his plays for the Queen at court during his lifetime, and the first performance of this play was indeed at Whitehall. TMWOW does show some signs of being written in haste, and there is little poetry of any real quality in it. However, if the Queen wanted to see the old fat man making a series of blunders in love, then she would not have been disappointed. It is often said that this is Shakespeare's only contemporary play set, as it is, in Elizabethan times. I'm not sure if this is true. Firstly, we know Falstaff had appeared in the Henry IV plays--which were set hundreds of years before. There is also a reference in the play to Master Fenton, the young wooer, having been a friend of the Prince and Poins in his youth. Perhaps the truth is that in order to satisfy the Queen's request, Shakespeare set the action in a kind of historical limbo which, like the majority of limbos, most resembled the present.

The Taming of the Shrew:

8.25--A good solid presentation of a difficult play by the BBC. The difficulty lies in the fact that the Shrew, Katherine, is tamed by Petruchio through the use of what we would probably call today "psychological torture". It goes without saying that this play is not a favourite with feminist critics and the problem for today's audiences is akin to the difficulties associated with Shakespeare's presentation of Jews in "The Merchant of Venice". In the end one just has to accept that Shakespeare mostly gives a representation of reality that is consonant with his time. John Cleese as Petruchio does a pretty good job, though it's clear that the director has got him to play up the absurdity at times (what on earth is the reason for those persistent clucking noises he makes?)


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