Shrew 3: Brush Up Your Oxford

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· 13 September 2018 ·
[‘Kiss Me, Kate’ and Cole Porter’s problematic lyrics, which I revise and repurpose]

In Part 1 I addressed the now-unattractive mindset of my original The Taming of the Shrew. In Part 2 I looked at a variety of Shrews, and went into some detail about an 18th-century revision that made the play even less palatable. To conclude this trio of shrewd posts, I now consider the mid-20th-century musical, Kiss Me, Kate (stage play 1948, film 1953), and one of its songs in particular.

While Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for the songs in KMK, the rest of the play was written by Bella and Samuel Spewak (yes, married). They took my Shrew, tossed Sly’s Induction into the dustbin like everyone else, then substituted another framing device in its place. This one concerns the off-stage relationship between the two actors playing Petruchio and Katherine in an out-of-town preview of a musical version of my play. Fred and Lilli used to be married, now they aren’t. Mischief and musical numbers ensue. This time there is more time spent in the frame than inside the play inside it. Something different.

Something else is different too.

Kiss Me Kate 3D poster - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyricsNo, not the spanking. Let’s not go there.

3D lettering in 3D - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyrics

As television grew in popularity in the early 1950s, movie studios felt the pinch in their purses as ticket sales declined. Their hope was that new technologies like CinemaScope and 3D would entice viewers out of their sitting rooms and back into cinemas. MGM made a big production of this production of KMK, so it got the state-of-the-art 3D treatment. The depth-perception trick required viewers to wear spectacles with polarised lenses, not the red-eye/blue-eye sort.

Kiss Me Kate 3D disc box tilted - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyricsYou can tell that the picture was shot for 3D, even if you’re not watching it that way. The sets are deep and the camera is very swoopy. Ann Miller tosses her gloves, scarf, and other three-dimensional assets around. People jump and climb over things like children at a playground. Objects are aimed at the camera: confetti, water, flowers, a smoke bomb. Tumblers tumble, jugglers juggle. Petruchio cracks his bright red whip at you. Don’t flinch.

You knew I would mention the whip.I decided to play with one of KMK’s musical numbers. It’s why I started writing about The Taming of the Shrew in the first place, before it blew up into three posts.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare is sung by two gangsters, debt collectors for the local mob boss. (If you need a synopsis, here.) This song is described as a show-stopper, and you can see why. The louts are likeable, and the lyrics are some of the sauciest and wittiest Porter ever wrote. The problem is that their subject straddles the line between enthusiastic dating and sexual assault. There’s no other way to put it.

For the rest of this post I’m focusing on form, not content. The wordplay is too good, and there are two versions to compare. The first is the original that Porter wrote for the stage play, and the second is what MGM was able to get past the Hays-office censors and onto celluloid.

I burned a lot of electrons in Parts 1 and 2 discussing the change in social values relating to what I wrote in the play and what’s been done to it since. If you don’t like the dubious nature of Porter’s lyrics, skip his two versions and scroll down to my new third one. I’ve changed the subject.

As for my harping about people who edit my words while I do the same to Porter’s: the distinction is that I’m not messing with his work then selling the mess as his. (See my comments about Thomas Bowdler, below.) And turnabout is fair play, Porter and the Spewaks started it.

Brush Up Your Shakespeare
from Kiss Me, Kate
music and lyrics by Cole Porter

Version One:
Original lyrics (1948)
sung by Michael Jibson and James Doherty
with the John Wilson Orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms 2014

The entire show is here, if you have two hours and thirteen minutes to spare. Brush Up Your Shakespeare starts at the 2h mark. The following excerpt gets right to it.

  • The girls today in society
  • Go for classical poetry
  • So to win their hearts one must quote with ease
  • Aeschylus and Euripides
  • One must know Homer, and b’lieve me, beau
  • Sophocles, also Sapph-o-ho
  • Unless you know Shelley and Keats and Pope
  • Dainty Debbies will call you a dope
  • But the poet of them all
  • Who will start ’em simply ravin’
  • Is the poet people call
  • The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon
  • Chorus:
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • Start quoting him now
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And the women you will wow
  • Just declaim a few lines from Othella
  • And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella
  • If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ’er
  • Tell ’er what Tony told Cleopaterer
  • If she fights when her clothes you are mussin’
  • What are clothes? Much Ado About Nussin’
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow

Chorus

  • With the wife of the British ambessida
  • Try a crack out of Troilus and Cressida
  • If she says she won’t buy it or tike it
  • Make her tike it, what’s more As You Like It
  • If she says your behaviour is heinous
  • Kick her right in the Coriolanus
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow

Chorus

  • If you can’t be a ham and do Hamlet
  • They will not give a damn or a damlet
  • Just recite an occasional sonnet
  • And your lap’ll have honey upon it
  • When your baby is pleading for pleasure
  • Let her sample your Measure for Measure
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – Forsooth!
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – I’ faith!
  • And they’ll all kow-tow

Chorus

  • Better mention The Merchant Of Venice
  • When her sweet pound o’ flesh you would menace
  • If her virtue at first she defends well
  • Just remind her that All’s Well That Ends Well
  • And if still she won’t give you a bonus
  • You know what Venus got from Adonis
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – Thinkst thou?
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – Od’s bodkins!
  • They’ll all kow-tow!

Chorus

  • If your girl is a Washington Heights dream
  • Treat the kid to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • If she then wants an all-by-herself night
  • Let her rest ev’ry ’leventh or Twelfth Night
  • If because of your heat she gets huffy
  • Simply play on and lay on, Macduffy!
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – We trou’!
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – We vow!
  • And they’ll all kow-tow!

Version Two:
Bowdlerised MGM film lyrics (1953)
sung by Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore

  • The girls today in society
  • Go for classical poetry
  • So to win their hearts you must quote with ease
  • Aeschylus and Euripides
  • But the poet of them all
  • Who will start ’em simply ravin’
  • Is the poet people call
  • The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon
  • Chorus:
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • Start quoting him now
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And the women you will wow
  • Just declaim a few lines from Othella
  • And they’ll think you’re a heck of a fella
  • If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ’er
  • Tell ’er what Tony told Cleopaterer
  • And if still to be shocked she pretends well
  • Just remind her that All’s Well That Ends Well
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow

(soft-shoe hoofing)

Chorus

  • If your girl is a Washington Heights dream
  • Treat the kid to A Midsummer’s Night Dream (sic)
  • If she fights when her clothes you are mussing
  • What are clothes? Much Ado About Nussing
  • If she says your behaviour is heinous
  • Kick her right in the Coriolanus
  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow

(more hoofing)

  • And they’ll all kow-tow – Thinkst thou?
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – I trou’
  • And they’ll all kow-tow – Od’s bodkin!

(conversation, then one last time)

Chorus

(last bit of hoofing)

  • Brush up your Shakespeare
  • And they’ll all kow-tow!

Add Thomas Bowdler to my list of Miscreant Georgians, alongside Garrick and Kemble. Bowdler was a physician who deemed himself qualified and entitled to revise my work. His surname became a verb in 1807 when he published a set of my plays with the texts thoroughly neutered to remove all indelicacy of expression, rendering them safe for the sensibilities of women and children.

His sister did most of the work.

Bowdler was the hypocritcal progenitor of Will Hays (“Czar of all the Rushes”) and Joseph Breen, the enforcers of the Production Code.

Bowdler 1819 Family Shakspeare advert - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyricsThe Family Shakspeare advert from 1819.

US Production Code frame - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyricsHollywood’s MPPDA (later MPAA), 1934-1968.

UK BBFC frame - Dentist On The Job - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyricsThe BBFC had their own setup, but they weren’t
kept as busy as their American counterparts.

Version Three:Mine (2018) – shorter than the play’s, longer than the film’s

alas, no video

My lyrics Brush Up Your Oxford - Porter Shrew Oxfordian lyrics[back to Part 2] — Shrew 2: Whips and Changes
[back to Part 1] — Shrew 1: My Household Stuff

Additional Reading for Part 3

  • Background on the commedia dell’arte, which I saw a lot of while I was in north Italy (heh) in 1575-76. The commedia was an obvious and important influence in my work. But there are none so blind as those who will not see – the article wears Stratfordian blinkers, and misses a great deal because of it. For instance, “The main plot of Katherina’s ‘taming’ has no obvious literary source…”. Ms Gay needs to read my Part 1, although she’s correct on a semantic technicality because my source wasn’t literary, it was personal.
  • For information that’s less orthodox but more accurate pertaining to commedia dell’arte and me, read Hank Whittemore’s blog post instead. [hankwhittemore.com]

VERO NIHIL VERIUS