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Shakespeare and Modern Love - Kiss Me Kate

Shakespeare invented modern love and the sexy, sexy line: "Kiss me, Kate"

Shakespeare is, by acclamation, the greatest literary figure in the English language - probably in the world. His 38 plays are performed around the world continuously, in virtually every language, from small jungle villages to every modern major city. Yet he wrote 400 years ago. We cannot imagine what his world was like, how people in it thought and lived, what humans felt like in London in the 16th century.

How can Shakespeare speak to us today? Because, in some part, he invented modern English: Shakespeare created hundreds of words we use, including "premeditated," "swagger," "frugal," "lackluster," "mimic," and on. Moreover, he created in good part our modern consciousness, our way of experiencing life and seeing the world.

And he created modern love.

We first must realize that in 16th Century England, few people had the free time to roam society looking for love, sex, and romance - like Shakespeare did in London (wife Anne Hathaway and children ensconced back in Stratford). Okay - maybe James Boswell too.

So when Shakespeare wrote about love, he was tracking his own experience. But it remained until well into the twentieth century that there developed a large group of people - starting with American and European adolescents, then young adults, then middle-age men and women - who could match Shakespeare's free time for thinking about and pursuing love and sex.

Shakespeare made love romantic. We fall in love the way Shakespeare taught us to (see Romeo and Juliet). We become jealous the way Shakespeare taught us to (he invented the phrase "green-eyed monster" for Othello). Obviously, people had lustful and emotional yearnings before Shakespeare. But he gave them form, an identity, a way for people to access and describe these feelings.

But Shakespeare was Shakespeare - a student and portrayer of humanity - not some lovesick fool. So his depictions of love are double-edged and steeped in insights into and commentaries on the human condition. The thing I have written that elicits the most wrath - more than my pointing out for four decades that the disease theory of addiction is an emperor with no clothes - is that Romeo and Juliet is a story about pathological adolescent attachment, not an ideal love screwed up by stupid society.

Shakespeare's second most popular rumination on love, A Midsummer Night's Dream, presents a direct picture of how arbitrary, irrational, hurtful, and changeable is that thing called love. Dream's plot also involves true lovers running off - but then, remember, Puck applies a potion so that characters fall in love with whomever they first lay eyes on - including the donkey-headed Bottom.

Which leaves the third most-often performed Shakespearean rumination on love following Romeo and Dream - Taming of the Shrew. Shrew has been harder for modern audiences to deal with - because it's about a man bringing a woman (the "shrew" in the title) under his domination by abusing her.  In fact, it's sort of like Dick Cheney and Guantanamo, with Petruchio depriving Katherine (or Kate) of food and sleep and physically restraining her, while regularly getting drunk and abusing other characters.

But audiences still respond to the play and its characters - how confidently maniacal Petruchio is in seducing Kate (or is that breaking and brainwashing her?), how he succeeds in curbing her own extreme willfulness and violence, and how - finally - they fall in love and Petruchio's excesses are themselves curbed by and for Kate.  She then proceeds to instruct other women to be as subservient to their men as she is to hers. The play - despite its inherent difficulties for contemporary viewers - forms the basis for the Cole Porter classic backstage musical, Kiss Me, Kate, as well as the 1999 film, 10 Things I Hate About You - which made Heath Ledger a star.

Of course, no one can countenance abuse as a technique for bringing a woman to heel. But the technique does produce a sexy result. When Petruchio demands (requests?) of his wife at the end of the play, "kiss me Kate" (a line Cole Porter also obviously liked), we envision an extremely energetic sexual coupling - or is that just me?

Update on sex in film. The incomparable English actress Tilda Swinton stars in the Italian film, I Am Love. I have already written about Swinton in her drunk role in Julia. I have written about how sexless American films are - which makes me wonder about American sexuality altogether. In this film, Swinton becomes alive in a D.H. Lawrence-like sexual relationship with a working class man. Unlike American actresses, who simulate sex wearing brassieres, Swinton bares her body unselfconsciously and displays a level of passion that would frighten to death the American characters and actors in films like Up in the Air and Knocked Up.

Oh - she also becomes orgasmic about Italian food, wine, and scenery.  Perhaps they have something over there we are missing?