Thursday, March 24, 2011

X is for Xanthippe

Although Xanthippe ("zan-thip-ee") is not a character in The Taming of the Shrew, her name would have been familiar to members of audiences in Shakespeare’s time.  Shakespeare often mentioned well-known classical or folk characters in his plays, usually to make a point.  Sometimes the references are humorous, much in the same way that contemporary writers make jokes about celebrities.  Here, Xanthippe, the wife of the Greek philosopher Socrates, was legendary for her shrill and unpleasant temperament.  Petruchio, who is broke, tells his friend Hortensio that he is so desperate for cash that he would marry an ugly woman, an old woman, or even Xanthippe, the legendary shrew.  This line would probably have prompted a laugh from the Elizabethan play-goers.  This comedy offers a lot of clever repartee between Petruchio and his "shrew" Katharine, very similar to the banter of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.  Speaking of which, Elizabeth Taylor gave a memorable performance as Katharine with Richard Burton in a 1967 film version of the play.  (Don't forget to follow up with "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" for more of Taylor and Burton.)

Signior Hortensio, ‘twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife,
As wealth is burden of my wooing dance,
Be she as foul as was Florentius’ love,
As old as Sibyl and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes, at least,
Affection’s edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas;
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.

The Taming of the Shrew, Act I, Scene ii

Thursday, March 3, 2011

T is for Titania

Couples are constantly falling in love, falling out of love, fighting, making up, teasing, and testing each other in Shakespeare's plays.  And there are usually multiple couples running around:  if you are presented with one couple making a scene about some trick, misunderstanding, or jealousyl, look for another couple working out that same issue on another level.  No one is spared from being made to look like a fool in love -- not kings, not queens, and not supernatural beings that inhabit the air and fields.  In A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of the more well-known tricks that lovers play on one another involves the fairy king and queen.

In the scene presented, Titania, the fairy queen, a beautiful and elegant creature, is played the fool by her husband, Oberon.  He has given her a potion that makes her fall in love with the first creature she sees, and blind to however ugly he might be.  The object of her affections turns out to be a foolish character called Bottom, a villager who the mischievous fairies have turned into a donkey.  On stage, Titania’s pretty rhymes contrast humorously with Bottom’s ugly appearance and oafish behavior.  When the spell is broken in a later scene, Titania is embarrassed at how foolishly she has behaved.

For another example of a romantic prank, look in Twelfth Night for a trick played on the character of Malvolio, involving yellow stockings.

Out of this wood do not desire to go.
Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate,
the summer still doth tend upon my state,
And I do love thee: therefore, go with me.
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep.
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so,
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, Scene i