Monday, September 29, 2014

Taming of the Shrew

Recently I watched Franco Zeffirelli's movie of The Taming of the Shrew. It's always been one of the most problematic of Shakespeare's "comedies" for me and many others and this version did nothing to resolve my conflicted feelings. It's sumptuously filmed, the costuming is beautiful and with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads and other very talented actors as well it is probably about as good a cast as you could get but the subject matter disturbs me greatly and always has.

The main plot revolves around the marriage of Kate, the shrew of the title. She is fiery, says exactly what she thinks without a thought and can be insulting to those she has no respect for.  She has no wish to marry - and even if she did no-one is prepared to take on a sharp-tongued, bitter woman who doesn't know her place. She is made to seem even worse in the movie as she physically assaults her sweet tempered, younger sister, Bianca, after tying her hands. But her father has said Bianca cannot marry until Kate does so the pressure is on to find the older sister a husband no matter what she thinks - and there's a hefty dowry to encourage suitors.

Enter Petruchio, a thuggish, money seeking adventurer - the first time we meet him he is assaulting his servant for not acting on his confusing demands - in search of a wealthy wife. Kate's dowry attracts him immediately. He starts his courtship by completely ignoring whatever she says and claiming any abuse is affection and when he makes an offer her father accepts with alacrity and Kate is forcibly married off. In the movie she's cut off as she tries to say no which makes what follows even more disturbing. From then on things go even more badly for Kate. Petruchio makes it clear that she is now no more than a possession and she's bullied, deprived of food and sleep, left to wear rags, humiliated and abused to force her into submission. Finally she submits to whatever outrageous demands - and there are many of them - that Petruchio makes of her.

The sub plot is a little less distasteful as Bianca - the sweet natured, obedient daughter whose father is basically arranging to marry her to the highest bidder - runs off and marries her own choice but her marriage to the son of a wealthy man (after a number of mix ups) is accepted, when they seek her father's forgiveness. At Bianca's wedding reception Kate's obedience is tested by Petruchio and she obeys him immediately and then berates the other women for not doing as their husbands demand. In some productions - Zeffirelli's is one - her final speech is subverted as she winks at the end implying she is complying but not 'tamed' but, for me, this doesn't fit with the rest of her behaviour. This is a woman who has no other option than to submit.

So what does the play tell us with an abusive and misogynistic husband is being lauded as admirable and a submissive wife as an ideal? I think it leaves an unpleasant taste behind and apparently this isn't just a modern, feminist idea. Even at the time there were those who found the subject distasteful including the playwright, John Fletcher, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, who wrote The Woman's Prize or The Tamer Tamed in which Petruchio, now older and widowed, remarries Maria, a shrewish woman, and gets his comeuppance.

One school of thought is that Shakespeare was writing a satire and the play is awash with irony and another that this is a simple farce. If either was his intention I don't think he succeeded. Petruchio is not in any way an admirable or amusing character - he's brutal, and Kate is not the only one on the receiving end of his brutality - and, while Kate is certainly a difficult person, there is, for me, no humour in the way she is treated.

For all that The Taming of the Shrew remains popular, being performed frequently and even forming the basis for the popular Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Monday, September 22, 2014

AWWC 2014: Dreamer's Pool by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool, Juliet Marillier's latest historical fantasy, takes us back into a distant Ireland where a nameless woman is the lone female prisoner in the dungeon of vicious chieftain, Mathuin. Brutally treated, she survives only because of her need to expose Mathuin at the Midsummer court and due to the support of her fellow prisoner, Grim, another who refuses to give in and who, despite the brutality of the guards, has maintained his humanity. Desperate and facing death, she is offered a lifeline by Conmael, one of the fey. There are, of course, conditions and dealing with the fey is always dangerous but she has no other option.

After a dramatic escape, Blackthorn, as she now chooses to be known, and Grim make their way to  Winterfalls where Prince Oran is anxiously waiting for his bride to arrive. All seems peaceful as they settle in and Blackthorn takes up the position of the local wise woman and healer but this is no idyll. Both Blackthorn and Grim struggle to deal with issues from their pasts and nearby Dreamer's Wood and Dreamer's Pool are unsettling. Magic, dangerous and unpredictable, is at work here and it is not only that of the fey. But there are other dangers for Blackthorn and Grim as they reluctantly find themselves becoming part of the community and enmeshed in the prince's affairs.

The author deals with themes of healing, family and friendship in a complex tale where much is not as it seems. The world building is cleverly crafted, whether it is in the horrors of Mathuin's prison, the mystery of the woodland or the workings of the prince's court. The details immerse the reader in the society so even minor characters, like those in the vignette of the two farmers squabbling over a dog attack during a hearing before the prince, come alive. There are no placeholders here. Every character adds to the story in one way or another.

That the story is told through the eyes of three very distinct protagonists - Blackthorn, touchy, damaged and uncomfortable with people, Grim, a fundamentally decent man, devoted to Blackthorn, and whose lack of education belies his intelligence, and Prince Oran - young, scholarly and well intentioned - adds depth to what is an already engrossing tale. The voice of each of the three is different and totally believable, something that is critical for me as a reader, and that they all view the world very differently with their pasts and personalities colouring what they see and hear, gives an additional authenticity to an already well imagined world.

I really enjoyed Dreamer's Pool. It's a well-paced story, with a steady build up of tension and a complex plot set in a realistic world. There's nothing formulaic and its characters drive the story, something that always appeals to me. It was refreshing, too, to have a mature woman like Blackthorn as a protagonist and other older folk - women like Prince Oran's aunt, Lady Sochla and the unnamed dying traveller and the old man of the druid's tale - who add much to our understanding of this society. I am very much looking forward to more stories about Blackthorn and Grim. They are the sort of characters who get under your skin and make you want to get to know them better.

Dreamer's Pool is due for release from Pan Macmillan on 1 October in Australia and in November from Penguin in the U.S. If you happen to live in Perth, Western Australia, there's a book launch for Dreamer's Pool at South Perth Library on 2 October. Details and bookings (essential) are available here.

Juliet Marillier's website is here and she is also on Facebook.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Animal Friendships

I've shared my life with many animals over the years and a long time ago I decided without anthropomorphising in any way that, while we may not speak the same language or think the same way, animals can have real emotional attachments to us, their own kind and other creatures.

There was the crippled magpie who lived in our yard. She would challenge all the surrounding birds to a fight and when they flew in to take her on she would give a quite different call and out would come the dog to drive them off and protect her at considerable risk to itself. Magpies are armed with serious beaks.

Then there were the inseparable dog and cat who lived with us. He would find a mouse nest but didn't deign to sully his paws. Somehow he would persuade the dog to dig out the nest while he waited to catch the fleeing mice.

Another dog and cat would cuddle up together every night and when the cat passed away the dog was inconsolable for weeks, looking for him everywhere.

So, yes, I do think animals form across species friendships which is why I was delighted to find this link to unlikely animal friends on Jim C. Hines' blog.

And just because it evoked memories of a particular dog who dealt with vet visits by shoving her head into the neck opening of my dress - I soon learned that high-cut neck lines were mandatory - I give you this link to animals who suddenly realised they were at the vet's also via Jim C. Hines' blog.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Loreena McKennitt Sings

And, boy, can Loreena McKennitt sing. Here she is singing The Lady of Shalott. The words are those of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's beautiful poem of the same name about the unfortunate lady who spends her life weaving a magic web. Then she catches sight of a passing knight in her mirror (Sir Lancelot who for once can't be blamed for what befalls her). Overcome by what she sees (and knowing she shouldn't because she's under a curse forbidding her to look down to Camelot) she can't resist watching him ride to the town. The curse immediately takes effect.

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
the Lady of Shalott.

And, of course, it doesn't end well for her though why she would think a chance glimpse of anyone would be worth activating a curse - however nebulous this one seems - I can't imagine. Still it's a lovely poem and the paintings on the video accompanying the song are also lovely rather pre-Raphaelite looking. You can find out more about the pre Raphaelites here.

I can't believe that I had not heard of Loreena McKennitt before but now I've listened to her I'm definitely a fan. She has a stunning voice. No wonder she has such a huge following.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Whovian Fun

So far I'm loving Peter Capaldi as the latest incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who and, just because I can, I give you these links to various cover versions of the Doctor Who theme. I think - but I'm not sure - that I might like the cello one best but I liked them all, even, to my surprise, the metal one (not a musical genre I usually enjoy). What do you think?

Here's a metal version by Eric Calderone

This is Lara de Wit's violin version

The Doubleclicks - cello

A jazz/funk version by Murray Gold surprised me a little.

Some clever people have put up every Doctor Who theme  from the the beginning in 1963 if you want to hear the originals and compare them.