King Lear with Christopher Plummer airs on PBS, Friday, February 6, 2015 at 9 p.m.
Freeman first discovered Shakespeare in school in Mississippi. He went on to play the hero of this play – Petruchio – in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production in New York, set in the Wild West. Freeman notes this play has set the template for all of the battle-of-the-sexes comedies that have followed; many a romantic comedy has The Taming of the Shrew running through its veins.
It’s a love story between two unlikely characters. The Shrew is Katherine, a woman who is bitter, viperish, wild – or simply not prepared to accept the conventions of her time – and thus “unmarriageable.” Petruchio is after a wife, and the wealthier the better. We see some Petruchios who took on the “taming” – including Richard Burton, John Cleese and Raul Julia – and such famous Kates as Elizabeth Taylor, Fiona Shaw, Sinead Cusack and Meryl Streep. Freeman reunites with his own Kate, Tracey Ullman. Julia Stiles, star of the 1999 teen comedy adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You, reflects on this contemporary version. And the Royal Shakespeare Company takes a version of the play to a school near where Shakespeare grew up, where viewers observe what children make of this very adult piece.
For many, this play is uncomfortable to watch. It was one of Shakespeare’s very first plays and may seem too brutal for modern audiences. It ends with a speech about how women should obey their men. But is this the sexist propaganda that it first appears – or is there something more complicated (and interesting) going on? Freeman concludes that beneath the apparent cruelty is a message about equality in relationships. And we hear observations from many women who also admire the play, including pioneering feminist Germaine Greer (who appears as an expert commentator in several episodes).