THE other day I went to see a performance of The Taming of
the Shrew. It is not a text with which I have had any
encounter since long before Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
But it showed the danger of looking at history as though it were
just a time-shifted version of the present. The highly polarised
reaction to the death of Lady Thatcher taught the same lesson in a
The climax of Shakespeare's play is the shocking ritual
humiliation of a spirited woman, who is broken like a horse to tame
her to the social conventions of her time. It is a problem piece
because its central message is so at odds with post-feminist
contemporary mores. Over the years, lovers of the Bard have tried
various strategies to make the play acceptable. Academics have
suggested that Shakespeare's intent was satiric. Actors have used
irony, farce, or - in the case of the Zeffirelli film version
starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - the suggestion that
passionate love outweighs all other deficiencies.
The production currently touring the UK will have none of that.
It is by an all-male company, Propeller, which offers some of the
best contemporary versions of Shakespeare. Muscular, intelligent,
and bawdy, the company can shift seamlessly from belly-laughs to
poignancy. In its Shrew, there was no redeeming love. It
was, rather, a stunning account of domestic abuse. It ended in a
scene of chauvinist triumphalism so disturbing that all the other
characters distanced themselves from the male protagonist. The
audience saw a reflection of its own transition from embarrassed
unease to chilled horror.
Of course, there are still men who behave like this, but it is
not the social norm. This was the present sitting in judgement on
the past. In the outpourings over the death and funeral of Lady
Thatcher, we saw, in friend and foe alike, a similar error: looking
at the past as if it were the present - with an ahistoric
selectivity in both eulogy and excoriation.
Reality is more complicated. Many of those whom Conservatives
condemn as shirkers in the current debate on welfare, for example,
are individuals whose jobs and communities were wilfully destroyed
in the Thatcher era. They were the collateral damage in the
crushing of the unions and the unleashing of entrepreneurial
creativity. The Thatcher Government encouraged the growth of
sickness payment as a method of disguising its soaring unemployment
Jobs have been both created and destroyed by the global economic
growth, and then recession, which grew from the Thatcherite
deregulation of the City. Yet, in the debate, both sides want it
only their own way. The Labour Party embraces the creativity of the
market, while lamenting its callousness. Conservatives insist that
ours is a Broken Britain, while also maintaining that Lady Thatcher
made it great again.
The vehemence of division is not so much about Lady Thatcher,
but about how we have reacted to this reminder of her. The news of
her death was received in comparative silence, a hairdresser said
of the customers in his Manchester salon. It was in reaction to the
uncaveated hagiography that followed that his clients, aged from 17
to 70, began to shout abuse at the radio.
It is all too easy to stand in judgement on a previous era, as
both the theatre and the political soapbox have shown this week.
Standing in judgement on ourselves is the far trickier
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