Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer Night With Will

The summer months in Vancouver are slow when it comes to Classical music. We out in the wilds of Vancouver do not have major summer music festivals like Tanglewood or Ravinia. What we do have, for the last 23 years, is a wonderful Shakespeare festival, presenting four of the bard’s masterpieces every season. Other than the plays we have come to know and love, we also get to see the more unfamiliar plays by Shakespeare, like Timon of Athens and this year’s King John.

Last evening, we saw The Taming of the Shrew, a play I often thought of as potentially controversial.  Kate, the older daughter of a wealthy citizen of Padua, is famous for her fiery temper. Petruchio, a gentleman of Verona, attracted by Kate’s large dowry, resolves to take her as his wife. After much verbal jostling between the two and “psychological warfare” on the part of Petruchio, he succeeded in “taming” Kate, who became in the end the most obedient wife among all the female characters in the story.

Other than superb acting by all the players of the company, the director, Meg Roe, managed to make the play not only entertaining but a moving experience at the end. In her notes, the director wrote that the play is about belonging. In her eloquent words:

We see people disguise and plot and scheme to belong to one another. We also see two people who categorically do not belong. Who fit with no one. Who rail against the norm. And then who, suddenly, unexpectedly, find a match in one another. A perfect fit. And miraculously, after pushing and fighting and resisting: they belong. They enter into a bargain and a partnership based on trust. True obedience. And fun.

Indeed, the way the play was presented made it a commentary not only on human nature, but on marriage. In the process, Kate finds not only true love, but rediscovers a sense of her womanhood, and the marriage between the two becomes one of mutual self-giving. To me, Kate’s beautiful final monologue, her views on the relationship between husbands and wives, almost parallels the passage from Chapter 5 of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where the evangelist asks wives to be “submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church.” In almost the same breath, and before the men become too giddy, Saint Paul admonishes husbands to “love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” It takes a Shakespeare and Saint Paul to remind us, in the 21st century, that the concept of love is far deeper and much more than a mere sharing of physical space, finances and, perhaps, chores.

Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew reminds me of Mozart’s opera Così fan Tutte, another work of art accused of being politically incorrect, even immoral. Two young men decide to put their lovers to a test. They tell their lovers that they are going off to war. In actuality, they came back in disguise as two Albanians (only in opera!) to woe their respective lovers, who soon surrendered to their amorous advances. In the end, everything is of course forgiven, and everyone lives happily ever after. Or do they? In Così, Mozart is revealing to us the changeable, or impermanent, nature of life, and that nothing in life, least of all human nature, ever remains the same.

We should remember that in Shakespeare as well as in Mozart, the female characters are very often far cleverer than their male counterparts. What the playwright and composer give us, in works like Taming of the Shrew and Così fan Tutte, are glimpses of human nature, something in ourselves that perhaps we are not even aware of, once we see pass the superficiality of the plot line, and gender differences.

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