Review of

"Tumbling Tricks:

Presentational Structure and 'The Taming of the Shrew'"

Soule, Lesley Wade. "Tumbling Tricks: Presentational Structure and 'The Taming of the Shrew'"
New Theatre Quarterly 20:2 (May 2004): 164-179.

Thesis: Soule begins by making a case that at the time of the first performances of The Taming of the Shrew (1594), the public playhouse of Elizabethan England was "a theatre in which the presentational and representational were freely mingled and by no means always fully distinguishable" (164). The idea of acting as "representational" is the one that is most familiar to us now; we think of the best actors as those who represent real life in the most natural way and disappear into their characters. In contrast, "presentational" acting, which Soule compares to stand-up comedy routines and circus performances, shows us actors who are always recognizable as actors and who stand apart from their characters.

Soule identifies five "elements" that were presentational:
(1) direct address to the audience;
(2) using mimesis [i.e., representational acting] as a pretext for presentational performance;
(3) a non-dramatic project or ritual structure functioning alongside the mimetic plot;
(4) the presence of stage personae, distinct from and combined with mimetic characters;
(5) the inclusion of a celebrative conclusion alongside or following the resolution of the dramatic plot. (165)
She then proceeds to cite examples of each of the five elements in earlier drama and in The Taming of the Shrew. In the course of doing this, Soule radically reinterprets the play. Here's an example:
The very title of The Taming of the Shrew suggests to the audience that the taming action is to be presented not as a developed story, but as a simple project: a set of 'tumbling tricks'. The project-performer's objective is not dramatic - i.e., engaging in the ups and downs of a fictive courtship - but presentational: i.e., simply 'taming' her, a very specific, practical task with clear, simple means and parameters, and (as in most ritual projects) a predictable outcome. Entirely lacking the narrative suspense of the conventional mimetic plot, it is simply a vehicle for the display of theatrical skills.

This is amply clear whenever Petruchio and Katherina play together. Their 'scenes' have little or no dramatic interest or development: they are simply sketches providing opportunities for one or another variation on the basic comic routine of intersexual combat, rebellion, and subjugation. The taming scenario has a form comparable to that of a circus performer's project, where the 'artiste' grandly announces to the audience his intention to bring his 'savage' victim under control; displays his bravado in a first confrontation; demonstrates his contemptuous freedom from conventional restraints as he engages in direct combat; then carries off his victim to his own personal circus ring, where he inflicts further comic humiliations on his stooge, before finally bringing her back to the centre ring for a last triumphant display by his fully tamed victim of the tamer's success. (170)
Thus Soule denies the relevance of any discussion of the psychology of either Katherine or Petruchio, and at a stroke dismisses more a century of commentary on the play.

Evaluation: Soule's approach may be liberating. If we accept her vision of the play, we no longer have to worry about whether Katherine becomes Petruchio's partner or his slave, because the whole thing becomes a comic sketch. The actors of "Katherine" and "Petruchio" ironically personate the stereotypes of the shrew and shrew-tamer, as Saturday Night Live performers ironically personate this or that politician or other public figure.

However, I don't find Soule's argument persuasive. First, her "elements," especially "using mimesis as a pretext for presentational performance," are so broad that she can designate any passage she chooses as "presentational." Second, where she sees no "developed story," I see quite a lot of development. For instance, in the first encounter between Katherine and Petruchio, it seems to me that Katherine's attitude develops naturally and significantly: at first she is dismissive, then gets frustrated and slaps Petruchio, then wonders about his motivations, then silently allows him to announce their engagement.

Bottom Line: A provocative view of Shakespeare's play.