Finding the comedy in tragedy

On Thursday the 24th November students of the eleventh grade had the delight of receiving very special guests from the UK. A group of four jolly actors, sent by Europe’s leading English touring theatre humbled our small PZ stage to perform the Shakespearean play „The taming of the shrew“, which is concerned with the issue of romantic love in contrast to arranged marriage. When I heard that we were going to watch a play about the literal „taming“ a.k.a breaking of a woman, I was not amused… to say the least. Especially in times where women are rising to the streets to claim their independance, the title just seemed very outdated to me. But the traveling group of 4 performers surprised in the most refreshing way, by putting their own, original spin on the more than 400 year old play.

The play is set in the north of Italy, in the beautiful city of Padua. There, nobleman and father Babtista Minola is having some serious issues with his two daughters, who are as different as can be. In utter fury at their sisterly quarrels, he declares that no men shall marry his lovely and sought-after daughter Bianca until her older sister and wildcat Katherina has become an obedient wife. Kate doesn’t have any intention of getting hitched soon though and openly states her dismay about the thought of settling down. And considering the lack of suitors her career as a single lady seems secured, until the witty Petruchio arrives in Padua, searching for a wife.

During their first encounter, Petruchio manages to match Kate’s temper by pretending that her harsh words are actually the most charming things he has ever heard. Petruchio even menages to convince her father that she loves him, using his sweet tongue. Babtista, though somehow surprised by this development, agrees to Petruchio’s suggested wedding date – the following Sunday.

After the wedding, Petruchio begins the „taming“ of his wife by taking her to his hometown Verona. Kate is first frightened by the way that Petruchio yells at his servant, Grumio, during their long journey. Then when they finally arrive at the inn, she is kept from sleeping and eating, with Petruchio saying that each dish brought is not good and every bed presented not soft enough. She is told several times that he doesn’t regard these conditions befitting of a woman so dear to him, convincing her of his loving motives.

I know what you’re thinking, „What kind of play is this, and what about this abuse is supposed to be a comedy?“. Trust me, I’ve been there. But the performance and especially the way the actress of Kate embodied the role convinced me of the comedic value „The taming of the Shrew“ presents. The key scene of the drama is settled in act 4. At this point, Petruchio has forced Kate to her limit. She is so sleep-deprived and hungry that she agrees to all the nonsense her spouse spouts. When he spots the moon in the nightly sky he declares that „the moon is the sun“ and moves Kate to agree to his claims. Finally she completly surrenders to his will and agrees, that „sun it is not, when [her husband] say[s] it is not“ just to finally make their way back to Padua, where her sister is also getting married.

This scene can be seen as the tragic breaking of the spirit of a once strong and rebellious woman, but in the interpretation we saw, the words were said with so much sass and irony, it became unimaginable that Kate would ever surrender to anyone, let alone Petruchio. No, the performers deliberatly chose another approach to the story, one which showed off an intelligent and adaptive Kate, who figures out how to navigate the misogynistic world she lives in. Katherina was portrayed as a woman who takes back control, through choosing to act as if she had been „tamed“ and would therefore fit into the gender narrative of the time. At the end of the play, Petruchio and she work together to win a bet against Bianca’s new husband, Lucentio. By demonstrating her „obedience“ towards her spouse, they win the money and manage to shock and surprise the other pair. While the story of Bianca, who was once so fought for ends in a sour fight between her and Lucentio, Kate and Pertuchio seem happy and content, having fooled the world.

Of course this interpretation raises many questions. Did Shakespeare attempt to cleverly fool his audience into watching a play criticizing the concept of gender roles? Did Petruchio and Katherina work together in the end, profiting as much as possible from the situation that presented itself to them? Did they outsmart society by uniting their wit and intelligence as equals? Although these questions can’t be answered for sure, the performance of the White Horse theatre group truely illuminated the comedy in tragedy.

The theatre

The logo of the company is, you guessed it, a white horse

The theatre company „White Horse Theatre“ was already founded 44 years ago by the English actor, author, director and musician Peter Griffith. Since he had already worked as a teacher for 5 years and showed great passion for his profession, the company focused on educational theatre. In 1980 White Horse branched out to Germany, because the British army invited the theatre to British schools located here. Since the plays were met with great enthusiasm by German audiences, the company decided to move its base to Germany. Since then White Horse has only expanded, now also regularly performing in France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands and even in various parts of Asia like China and Japan.

Want to know more?

Find out all about the White Horse Theatre here:

written by: Maria Nil Hauser

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