Sunday, November 19, 2006

Taming of the Shrew - Kate Goes to Guantanamo

Shrew Tamers,

John asks "to what extent should [Taming of the Shrew] be regarded as merely misogynist male fantasy?" Gils says none, absolving Petruchio (and Shakespeare?) of misogyny because he has held "a mirror up to her uncurst identity" and shown Kate to be good.

This interpretation was difficult for me. A resident of the 20th century cannot read the final scene with any sense of comfort. I'd almost grant Gil the "happily ever after" at the end of Act 4. Yet, the imagery of Kate's final sermon (she speaks when bidden, and does not speak again) reveals a creepy Stepford wife. Women are portrayed throughout this speech as not only inferior but flawed.

"I am ashamed that women are so simple," she says, over-generalizing.

"Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth, / Unapt to toil and trouble in the world," asks the woman who clearly has not yet birthed or raised a child.

"I see our lances are but straws, / Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare, / That seeming to be most which we indeed least are," comments the wife in whom Gil sees a "spirited partner."

A man becomes "thy lord, thy king, thy governor … thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign," Kate apposites, sounding a lot like an evangelical Sunday preacher or Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly once asked, "When will American men learn how to stand up to the nagging by the intolerant, uncivil feminists whose sport is to humiliate men?" Clearly she could ask the same thing of the men in Shrew not named Petruchio.

But Petruchio does stand up to the slings and arrows of outrageous puns and scorn. Gil points to one half of his technique for "curing" Kate's shrewishness -- his contradiction of her socially ingrained behaviors. Petruchio, though, has two soliloquies, of which this is the first. His second comes after he hauls Kate off, even though she wants to stay in Padua for her own wedding banquet, to his country house. There he tells us that by the same technique of contradiction,

"She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
… I intend
That all is done in reverent care of her,
And in conclusion she shall watch all night
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamor keep her still awake.

And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor." (4.1.191-192, 197-201, 203)

The techniques of sleep and food deprivation, often following the removal of a person from his or her family or community, no matter how benign the goal, we now recognize as a form of psychological torture. Deprogrammers, "rescuing" misguided adolescents from religious cults, have done it. The US military, charged with getting information from enemy combatants, has done it. And in light of these recent examples it is hard for me not to read what Petruchio is doing as cruel, and that combined with the indication that he applies these techniques in order to adjust the character of a woman because she does not fit society's male-oriented norms (the opposite of normal is "mad"), it also seems misogynist to me. I realize that I am looking at this play through a modern lens, but I found it impossible not to.

What is removed most by Kate's reprogramming? It is easy to say that her sharp tongue and combativeness, but I think it is something more significant: her ability to please herself. After the wedding, Petruchio tells her she must away to his place. She replies, "Do what thou canst, I will not go today, / No, nor tomorrow, not till I please myself" and "For me, I'll not be gone till I please myself" (3.2.208-209, 212). Petruchio quotes the Tenth Commandment at her, the one that reduces her to "goods" and "chattel," and off she goes. When she comes back, her last lines are "place your hands below your husband's foot, / In toke of which duty, if he please, / My hand is ready, may it do him ease" (5.2.177-179). Her pleasure has been replaced by his. That and all the stuff about "thy lord" and "thy sovereign" seem very much like male fantasy.

Gil mentions that Juliet finds herself in similar circumstances when it comes to the wishes of her father, but it is interesting that Juliet, even under Capulet's dire threats, continues to seek a path of her own choosing. And after such powerful characters as Tamora in Titus, the Princess in Love's Labor's Lost, and Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret in the Henry VI quartet, I find it difficult to account for Kate. Setting aside, for a moment, the extreme claims built on modern attitudes about misogyny and male fantasy, how is it that a playwright capable of providing decades of material for such highbrow expectations as Masterpiece Theatre suddenly produces a work commensurate with Married … With Children? Did the theater manager tell him he needed something low brow to really bring in the paying crowds? Did he have a huge argument with Anne, and Taming of the Shrew was his revenge? Did he just mail this one in? Somehow, I didn't see the presentation of Kate as one of Shakespeare's more shrewd choices.


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