Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Taming of the Shrew - beShrew Gentle Kate


You know the old Tao conundrum: There was a Chinese philosopher who dreamt he was a butterfly and for the rest of his life he wondered if he were a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher.

John gives us a dozen good leads and, not to distort our discussion, I'm going to bite on the initial relationship between Petruchio and Kate, especially given that "taming" and Kate's "thy husband…is thy sovereign" homily seems to draw the most contemporary attention.

In the Christopher Sly induction, Sly wakes up to the Lord's practical joke. All the visual evidence says he is a noble gentleman-the sweet clothes, the bed, the fairest chamber, music, servants, "his lady wife." Then household testimony provides a necessary and sufficient explanation-he has been restored to health after seven (later, fifteen) years of a delusion that he was a beggar. How can he not believe he is what all evidence says he is? There is no window to dis-illusion him. I recall going to Othello with the Shakespeare-innocent husband of a friend of mine. How can Othello be so gullible, he asked. Because he is innocent, I replied. Innocence has no defense against a clever (shrewd) manipulation, especially when confronted with hard "evidence" such as Desdemona's handkerchief. Sly's only defense is the vividness of his "delusion" and a touching thirst for a pot o' th' smallest ale. He must accept what the world insists about him. The induction sets up a contrast between identity and self .

Take Kate (would you please, says her father, Baptista). There is no doubt to anyone in Padua that Bianca is Baptista's favorite daughter. He has announced to the suitors in front of Kate that his youngest daughter cannot marry until his older daughter does, an action designed to humiliate her in public company. Her very first utterance is a rebuke to her father: "I pray you, sir, is it your will/ To make me a stale of me amongst there mates" I.i.57-58. Among the six or more puns here, "stalemate" is the most powerful-not defeat as in "checkmate" but trapped so there are no legal moves left to make (in society). The chorus of suitors has been freed to embellish Baptista's attitude toward his eldest daughter: "she's too tough for me," "that wench is stark mad or wonderful forward," "this fiend of hell," "[Bianca's] elder sister is so curst and shrewd," "intolerable curst and shrowd and froward," "renon'd in Padua for her scolding tongue." My hard drive isn't large enough to catalogue all of these horrific descriptors, many spoken baldly in front of Kate. After the hurt and outraged Kate confronts Bianca (she acts out the character society has imposed on her, cursing and striking her sister), she decries her father's favoritism:

Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
Talk not to me, I will go sit and weep,
Till I can find occasion of revenge. (II.i.31-36)

Enter Petruchio. Practically, he bargains with Baptista for dowry, should he wed the still-unmet Kate. Two provisosare put forward: should he die, Petruchio guarantees Kate all of his estate to assure her widowhood, and Baptista, perhaps a little guilty for how he has treated his eldest daughter, insists that Petruchio obtain Kate's love. Watch out, though. This is the same proviso that Capulet insists on from Paris as they negotiate for marriage to Juliet, yet we see, a day later, that Capulet will cast Juliet penniless into the street if she refuses the match with Paris.

Petruchio then, solus, tells the audience his plan to contradict (not practice deception which dominates the Bianca plot) all the behaviors that society expects of Kate. Indeed, his repartee with Kate is sharp, witty, and bawdy, and she strikes him, thus demonstrating to him that she has great spirit, but then he directly describes her: "for thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous" (II.i.245) and goes on to a series of absurd, but witty contradictions: "Why does the world report that Kate doth limp? [Of all the insults we have heard, "the world" has not spit up this one]/ O sland'rous world! Kate like the hazel-twig/ Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue/As hazel-nuts, and sweeter than the kernels" (II.i.252-55). So, either this is his devious plot to stun the spirited Kate into stupefaction or Petruchio, in effect, reveals the "real" Kate to herself, she who has been systematically belittled.

When the nattering crowd returns, Petruchio (aside?) tells Kate he will announce their engagement and asks her to "never make denial." So she does not deny, though she twits her father for having prearranged the engagement without consulting her. Petruchio accurately sums it up for the incredulous anti-Kate crowd. "If she be curst, it is for policy" (II.i.292).

My point? If Sly has become what it appears the world believes him to be, then we first hear of and meet Kate doing the same thing. It is only Petruchio who directly addresses her, holds a mirror up to her uncurst identity and so they can go forward, into Petruchio's admittedly dangerous games of contradiction, until Kate has softened into a compliant partner (I'll note again that, though Kate strikes Bianca and Petruchio, Petruchio never once lays a hand on Kate*), not equal by the Church's legal definition of spouse ("chattel"), but a spirited partner after all against the cant, hypocrisy and duplicity of the conventional social sheep. Thus, I do deny your "misogynist male fantasy" and raise you one "happily ever after."

Let's raise a pint of small ale to Kate, the Uncurst.

P.S. - Cindy's and my friend and mentor Dick Henze saw a production of Shrew in the North of England. In the last act Petruchio beat the prostrate Kate with a horse whip, viciously, and the curtain came down on Kate lying inert, comatose on the stage. The audience was so stunned they sat absolutely silently, then rose and filed out without applause or even murmur.


No comments: