The Great TAMING OF THE SHREW (1908) Debate

Florence LawrenceThe feisty Fritzi over at Movies, Silently has had the unmitigated gall to challenge me, the self-proclaimed, magnificent, most humble Queen of Shakespeare to a duel to the blogging death over the quality/significance/thingness of D.W. Griffith‘s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1908). How dare she embark on a mission so obviously doomed to failure? Because we’re participating in The Great Movie Debate blogathon hosted by Citizen Screenings and The Cinematic Packrat (and because it’s fun)!

The ten-minute (yes, I repeat: 10-minute) adaptation of Shakespeare’s play stars Florence Lawrence (I call her Flo Law) and Arthur V. Johnson. Mack Sennett, the silent era’s King of Comedy and one of Griffith’s discoveries, makes an appearance as Petruchio’s servant.

I won’t go into the plot of the play here for two reasons: 1.) If you don’t know your Shakespeare, shame on you and 2.) You can read a synopsis on Wikipedia, or No Fear Shakespeare SparkNotes. I’m also not going to use this space to discuss why I think “The Taming of the Shrew” is more a problem play than a comedy because 1.) I already wrote about that in another post and 2.) You should go read that other post. In case you missed it, here’s a link to that post.

In her glowing review of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Fritzi will doubtless do her best to convince you that it is a great classic of cinematic genius, but you must pay her no heed, because her arguments are completely irrelevant where Shakespeare is concerned. Although she does point out to readers that “this is not great Shakespeare,” what she really means to say is THIS IS NOT SHAKESPEARE! At all. Not one bit of it.

I don’t mind when great literature is translated and retranslated to film – I think it’s a great way to get more people interested in humanity’s story and cultural past. But I don’t like when filmmakers take the title of a book/play and the names of some of the characters and created an entirely different story. Like CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (2003) *que shudder of frustration*.

Shrew wedding

Not that Griffith did that to the fullest extent. But his production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW is a frightfully condensed version of a very complex play, a play that deals with very complex social issues. Fritzi makes a very good point when she suggests that readers “don’t use is to cheat on your English exams.” That would be a fail of epic proportions.

Aside from shamelessly lopping out all of the play’s content, there is one huge aspect which makes this short silent film unforgivably un-Shakespeare: the lack of the spoken word. I love silent movies. I find they are a truly brilliant performing art that I wish so many more people could learn to appreciate. One of the first articles I ever wrote was a guide for beginning to experience silent film called The Joys of Silent Film. But I would argue you can never have a valid silent movie production of a Shakespeare play because practically the whole entire point of the existence of Shakespeare is language.

Shrew Kate

Back in Shakespeare’s day, few people could read and write. Therefore, information was conveyed verbally. Elizabethan was what they call and “aural” society, meaning communication was received through the ear. Shakespeare’s words were like ear-candy for his audiences. His plays on words, insults, puns, and word tricks were the equivalent of special effects in todays movies. Audiences reacted strongly to his wit and wordplay in the comedies, tragedies, and histories. The plays actually have very few stage directions, and only in recent years have the wonderful scholars at Shakespeare’s Globe in London been able to reimagine how his sets and costumes would have looked.

Because Shakespeare lived in an aural society, verbal communication was understood at a much faster rate – people could hear and process what was being said very rapidly. The result of this is that the plays went a lot faster than they do today, because now modern audiences take that much longer to understand what is being said by the actors. Because of the incredible pace of the plays at the time, a silent movie is probably better able to capture the energy and speed of an original production. But without the language, you have essentially taken a Shakespeare play and removed the Shakespeare. If you take out the words, you take out the man who wrote them. All you are left with is a bunch of screwballs running around beating each other over the head.

Shrew kitchen

Even if Griffith’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW had been longer and included some of the thematic elements of the play, it could never “count” as a legitimate translation of the Bard’s works. It may have value as a story and might include those character elements which Shakespeare was able to weave into his plots so well. But to separate Shakespeare’s words from his plays would be like separating the choir and the orchestra for a production of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Ode to Joy): they both sound great, but without them together, it’s not an adequate performance of that great work.

Please check out what Fritzi has to say about THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1908) and then comment on our pages about what you think about it. We’d love it if you could watch the film and start getting interested in the two forms of entertainment that we simply cannot stop raving about: the silent movie and the Shakespearean play. Also check out what other people are debating this weekend for The Great Movie Debate Blogathon!

Great Debate 250

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