The Taming of the Shrew (1591)
Romantic comedies have not changed much in 425 years. Typical 21st-century rom-com films have silly plots, outrageous circumstances, shallow characters, questionable actions done by the main characters, and fun music to knit it all together.
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is no different. Obviously, its plot is silly – grown men dressing up as schoolteachers to flirt with a pretty girl, all the while the girl’s sister is “tamed” by a drunken lout of a husband. Outrageous circumstances – see previous sentence. This arrangement was by no means typical of the Elizabethan era, but rather was just as weird as, say, a woman writing a column about how to lose a guy in ten days falling in love with a man writing a column about how to win a girl in ten days. All the audience would be anxious to see would be which suitor managed to marry Bianca, and whether or not Petruchio would succeed in getting his way with his new wife. How they did so was just window-dressing.
Furthermore, the characters are shallow enough – either interested in money or lust or power. The questionable actions are primarily those done by Petruchio, at least to modern audiences – his abuse of Katherine would probably not be very funny to an audience member affected by domestic abuse. However, to contemporary audiences, it was funny (and is funny) not because abusing one’s wife was tolerable, but because Katherine used her willfulness to wield power (by terror) over her family. Petruchio was breaking her hold over him, showing her how others saw her and that he was not going to be terrorized by her. The one difference between Shakespeare’s era and ours is that at that time, the “natural order” assumed that a man had power over his wife. He was not supposed to wield power by terror, but by love. By the end of the play, Petruchio and Katherine both have their honour restored and have tamed each other. By willing to submit to her husband’s love, Katherine earned her husband’s real love and respect.
All knitting the whole play together is fun music. Shakespeare often included music, song, and dance in his plays. They were open to interpretation – sometimes he included lyrics, but often the stage direction was something on the order of “play music here”, “now X sings a song”, “X does something funny” [and the perennial favourite from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”], etc. In other words, Shakespeare left it open for future versions of the play to decide what worked best for the mood of the story. What type of music? Which song? What, exactly, is something funny? What is going to get the audience in the right mood for the next scene? What is going to make them laugh?
Updating Shakespeare is a controversial topic, but updating the style of music is usually well-received. If you want the audience to laugh and sing along, dancing in their seats and leaving the theatre in an upbeat mood (even if they dislike how domestic abuse is portrayed in the play), you had better choose music that is relatable. Shakespeare would have approved.
Romeo and Juliet (1593)
In order to have not heard of Romeo and Juliet while living in North America, one often has to be under the age of ten. It is a very clichéd story and endlessly referenced in other works, as well as being a staple in high school curriculums. It is referenced so often, in fact, that one can be forgiven for not wanting to see the play staged professionally. However, when done right, Romeo and Juliet can be as intense, moving, tragic, and even comic as any play that one is seeing for the first time. It is a great story and very well-written by Shakespeare. Furthermore, slight tweaks to it by individual troupes can make new angles on the story more apparent.
First of all, this play has a whole different interpretation when one views it as an adult. It is much harder to sympathize with the rash, idealistic Romeo and Juliet. Rather, it is easier to understand the motivations behind the adult characters (the Capulets wanting what was best for their daughter, for example) and easier to see how avoidable the outcome of the play truly is. If only Romeo had ran off with his friends from the party, he would not have had time to talk with Juliet. Even if most of the “what-ifs” depend on Romeo and Juliet revealing their secret marriage, the biggest plot hole is why Friar Lawrence decided to concoct a plan to pass Juliet off for dead when he could have simply spirited her away to Mantua to be with the exiled Romeo.
Yet, the inevitability of the plot is also apparent: if the lovers did not die, and if several other characters did not die, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets would not have ended. In other words, what was necessary to end the fighting was a lot of people being killed. Sadly, there was no other way. It is easy to look back at events and find what went wrong, or where a crucial decision was made that led directly to an outcome. But mistakes are just that – mistakes. Tragedies are just that – tragedies. We may be able to learn from them, but just as often, all we learn is that we ought to treasure our time alive and with our loved ones.
What happened to the remaining characters in Romeo and Juliet after the play ended? Did they truly mend fences? Did they become friends, or did they remain content to simply no longer be enemies? Did Romeo’s father, now a childless widower, find a new wife? Did Juliet’s mother also kill herself, and did the Nurse find new employment? Or did Juliet’s parents miraculously have another child, seeing as her mother was likely barely thirty years old? There are countless theories and countless storylines that could be drawn out of this tragedy because people have to go on living.
What Romeo and Juliet unfortunately does give us is the false sense that death has to be meaningful. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves in each other’s arms (although they don’t realise the repercussions that it will have) and it results in their families’ reconciling. We would best remember instead Mercutio and Tybalt, who died for absolutely nothing other than being very hot-headed. Later, their deaths added to the magnitude of the tragedy and factored into the decision to end the feud, but at the time, they were simply senseless.
Death is only as meaningful as one makes it. Perhaps the dead of a loved one prompts someone to reach out to others in the community. Perhaps the loss of a friend makes one more aware of one’s surroundings. Perhaps one experiences spiritual growth. Perhaps all three outcomes. But the death itself is meaningless, senseless, and tragic – no matter how much good it does. Also, it may have been avoidable, but it was not, and no amount of blame will erase any pain associated with a tragic loss.