The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is based on The Taming of the Shrew and part of a series of books that aim to bring Shakespeare plays into the modern age. It lead me to think about whether Shakespeare can ever be truly updated, or if our values are just too different.

The Taming of the Shrew is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, due to how women and gender roles are portrayed, and while this plot may have appealed to the Elizabethans, it doesn’t immediately seem like it’s one that would translate to a modern audience.

Before writing this review, I also read the original text of The Taming of the Shrew. Essentially, the story involves a father marrying off his outspoken elder daughter, Katerina, to the first man that comes along, Petruchio. Interested only interested in her dowry at first, Petruchio, often described as a ‘madman’, then resolves to ‘tame’ Katerina. He proceeds to give her a taste of her own medicine by bullying and berating her at every turn, until she agrees to submit to him in every way – even believing that the sun is the moon if he says that it’s so. She then gives a long final speech about wifely duty and obedience. I’m sure there are more complex ways to interpret this play, but I won’t go into them here.

How does Vinegar Girl compare?

The basic premise of Vinegar Girl is very similar to The Taming of the Shrew. Kate lives at home looking after her father and younger sister. She’s happy on her own without a man and can sometimes be a bit spiky and rude. Pyotr needs a green card so he can stay on as a lab assistant to Kate’s father, and the two men come up with the perfect solution – Pyotr should marry Kate. Kate is horrified, but her objections are eventually worn down and agrees to give it a go.

As opposed to the Shakespeare original, Kate’s developing relationship with Pyotr does feel genuine. He shows a real interest in getting to know her, and he’s also the only person who can see through her sister’s fluffy nonsense. Language and cultural barriers, as well as Pyotr’s single-minded devotion to his job, are used to excuse his offensive or neglectful behaviour, in contrast to him setting out to be deliberately hurtful, as Petruchio is in the play.

Kate never really comes across as a shrew, as she’s perceived to be in the play. While she may be somewhat socially awkward, she’s doesn’t seem to be particularly headstrong or independent – in fact to me she seemed more like a put-upon doormat right from the opening page. Of course this may also be true of Shakespeare, depending on how you read it.

Kate gives a similar final speech, although this time it’s about how Pyotr is just misunderstood, along with men in general. Although it mirrors Shakespeare, it felt contrived and unbelievable.

There’s no doubt that Kate and Pyotr are the main stars of the show here, while the rest of the cast felt a little one-dimensional. Other characters, such as Bunny, the sister, and her suitors, seem to have lost their purpose in this update, and could easily have been removed entirely.

Conclusions?

Some parts of Vinegar Girl did make me laugh and the dialogue between Kate and those around her is actually really witty and amusing. It’s a testament to Anne Tyler’s writing skills that I didn’t dislike this book more. But at the end of the day I just didn’t believe real people would behave or react the way they did in this book. Some actions, conversations and decisions felt forced in order to move the story in the right direction. The concept of needing to marry to please your parents or gain independence also feels outdated, given that this book is set in modern day Baltimore.

Even though I can acknowledge why the play might be problematic to update, I found it frustrating to read. I would have loved to have seen more character development. It’s a relatively short book at just 240 pages, and if it was longer and given a bit more love I might have enjoyed it more.

Compared to other attempts to bring The Taming of the Shrew into the modern world, such as 90’s teen rom com 10 Things I Hate About You, I think Vinegar Girl unfortunately falls short.

What are your thoughts about updating Shakespeare? Have you read/watched any modern interpretations that you think have worked particularly well?

 

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5 thoughts on “The problems with updating Shakespeare: Vinegar Girl

  1. I think it is probably difficult to find a happy medium between remaining faithful to the original’s structure and a writer putting their own voice into the play. An update should do more than attempt to make the story fit in another time and bring something to the table that contributes to the story rather than hindering it. Plus, if it doesn’t have Heath Ledger singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” then what’s the point? Great review!

    • Right! How can anything top Heath Ledger?! Yes I think that was my main problem with this, I feel like it didn’t add anything and was maybe not a good use of my reading time. I’d like to check out some of the others in this book series and see if I like them more.

  2. Hmmm. Tough question. I have a biased towards updating Shakespeare, since I think his works should be left untouched. If an author is able to set the story properly in a new time period and setting, while remaining true to the story, then I suppose it could work. It’s like when you watch singers on TV cover Celine Dion and other famous singers – unless you make it your own and really have an amazing set of vocals…just don’t. Maybe that’s really rude of me though? This is a really neat discussion – I hope more people comment because I would love to see what others think!

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