Sunday, December 31, 2006

Romeo and Juliet - Up the Language Ladder

We'll raise a cup of kindness yet,

In order to break our silence, let me start with Randall's second subject, language, though, alas, without panache of my own. Specifically, let's look at the language pattern with which Romeo and Juliet begins. Randall notes "that three distinct language patterns distinguish commoners, aristocrats, and lovers." (Cindy: this will be old stuff for you.)

When I taught "baby Shakespeare" (my colleagues' sneering description of my sophomore-level course for non-English majors) I always polled my students on prior experience of Shakespeare, what they had read, studied, seen on screen, seen on stage, or acted in. I never had fewer than 43 of the 45 with some experience of Romeo and Juliet (usually two actors, if only in readers' theatre). Therefore, I would start with it, taking advantage of familiarity, then intensifying the experience with close reading. Richard III begins gloriously: "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York."

Not so, Romeo and Juliet. It opens with a couple of mere servants of the house of Capulet, Sampson and Gregory, armed with swords (not aristocratic rapiers), in a public place. Even if you miss the prologue's exposition of an ancient grudge, you can see something is rotten in the state of Verona if armed servants swank around (I love it; this is the only occasion I get to say "swank" in this context), and away we go. Swords or no, they are comic commoners.

Right from the get-go, we start with a string of feeble puns (carry coals; colliers; choler; collar – if one pun is clever, four must be rilly rilly witty; Four? Let's follow with six plays on "moved"), then frat-guy bawdy: "I will take the wall" (instead of the gutter) followed by "I will thrust [Montague's] maids to the wall" (a little rape joke just between the guys). If definitions of comedy often include the phrase "warts and all," Sampson and Gregory are male chauvinist warthogs. But when the Montague servants enter, all this bravado collapses. There is a pointed pun: "Quarrel! I will back thee"/ "How? Turn thy back and run?," followed by really funny discussion of where the law stands on the act of thumb biting (would WWI have started if a would-be assassin had bitten his thumb at the archduke Ferdinand?), but those swords are finally drawn willy-nilly over a school-boy dispute, my master can lick your master. OK. All this is in prose, the language of the ordinary folk, the bottom level of the social hierarchy.

Enter Benvolio (the name is Latin for good will as in "benevolent") who draws his rapier to separate the brawling clodhoppers: "Part fools!", then "Put up your swords. You know not what you do." Scan that. Iambic pentameter. Then Tybalt: "What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word/ As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee" (I.i.72-3). Iambic pentameter, with a perfectly balanced parallel structure. Short though the passage is, the language pattern is perfect contrast to the heavy-tongued servants. We've moved up the social hierarchy to the Young Turks. Death! Hate! Hell! Coward! We're suddenly (irrietrivably?) beyond "No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir."

But if Tybalt kills Benvolio now, we would have a very short play. Enter the aging Capulet: "What noise is this? Give me my long sword, ho!" Yes, an iambic pentameter line, but made less heroic than line 73, by the addition of the little syllable-filler ho. And Lady Capulet enforces the change with her parody, "A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?" My ear still hears "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Old Montague echoes this business, "Thou villain Capulet!--Hold me not; let me go," this last to his wife, code for "honey, please don't let me be hurt in a fight." The verse pattern still ascends the social hierarchy, but the comic content deflates the bloody-mindedness of the young Turks. These are the heads of households, the power in Verona, but they are ineffective, because of age. Still, because they enter the battle, Montague and Capulet also sanction it, as heads of the two houses. Thus, says Northrop Frye, they are directly responsible for everything that follows.

"Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,
Profaners of this neighbor-stained steel--
Will they not hear? What, ho! You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins!" (I.i.84-8)

Enter Prince Escalus, with his train. Iambic pentameter. Mid-line caesura in the first line underscoring five-syllable expletive synonyms. The first three lines are end-stopped. The images (neighbor-stained steel, fire of pernicious rage, purple fountains) are more elevated than any language preceding. This is the top of the hierarchy, stentorian, rare words, words with transferred meanings, lengthened words, and everything which is opposite to the ordinary – oh, my, I've just been reading Aristotle's Poetics!! As far from Sampson and Gregory as earth allows. But look at line 86. What is that "what ho!" doing there? Why, nobody is listening. Here is absolute political authority, and it doesn't work. Escalus will forbid, on pain of death (yet another of those unenforceable laws Shakespeare begins his plays with), for the warring tribes to continue the feud. The result? When Mercutio and Tybalt, foaming at the mouth, encounter each other, they go up an alley to fight. Despite the feud, the swords, the fight, the sentence "on pain of death," this is still a comedy.

And then Romeo finally appears, in love with love, his language a ludicrous parody of Petrarchan imagery, oxymorons "Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate," "Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,/ Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,/ Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!," and sighs/eyes, fair/despair, vow/now. Not just blank verse but rhyming couplets. Hugely ornate language, more excessive in its way as the carry-coals puns at the beginning. By the end of the passage one longs for Mercutio's deflating cynical realism about Rosaline's quivering thighs. But even in the middle of this fantastic romantic flight--this glop, if you will--"Alas that love, whose view is muffled still,/Should without eyes see pathways to his will!/ [sd: pause, Samuel Beckett would add] Where shall we dine?" (I.i.174-76), Romeo interrupts himself to say "I dunno, Marty, where should we eat?"

One scene. Five language patterns. The hierarchical social structure of Verona illustrated. The contrast between the myth of civil order and the myth of romantic delusion. A comedy (more on this later). In our ninth play, this seems to me to be the most wonderful texture of language we have yet encountered. Panache, indeed!


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Romeo and Juliet - Opening Questions

Shakespeare lovers,

As a team, we've been more unfamiliar than well-versed going into the first eight plays. Romeo and Juliet, though, bring us I'm sure to our first "universal" text. I can use the following phrases in class and know that many of my students will get the reference, even if they have neither read nor seen the play/movie. "Star-crossed lovers." "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" "O, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" "That which we call a Rose by any other word would smell as sweet." "Parting is such sweet sorrow." "A plague on both your houses." "Never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo." (The last one is a dead giveaway.)

So the first question I have is how do we "discover" this play (as we did Titus Andronicus or Love's Labor's Lost or 1 Henry VI,) when most of us have landed on these shores before? I ask this both collegially and professionally, first because the joy of our group is that we have no pre-determined critical axes to grind, no established beachheads that must be defended. What has resulted, for me reading your posts at least, is a sense of reading Shakespeare fresh. So how do we keep that vibe in a text we know well? Second, as a teacher of young Shakespeare readers, the distance between my reading of Romeo and theirs grows greater every year. So I wonder if there is a technique to reading Shakespeare fresh, one that can allow us (and me, specifically) to bridge the gap between initial discovery and experience.

That's not really a topic for conversation so much as a question about what it means to experience Shakespeare while taking stock of one's growing Shakespeare experience. Will our conversation change in any way, and if so, will it change significantly?

After that, and after finishing the play, I have rounded up many of the usual suspects as initial discussion questions.

First, genre. W. H. Auden says "Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's first tragedy in the strict sense of the term." And Harold Bloom calls it "Shakespeare's first authentic tragedy." What gives? Why doesn't Titus Andronicus rate? Or, one might point out, Shakespeare's play about that hunchback guy that was entitled The Tragedy of Richard III. So, by the pen, this is Shakespeare's third tragedy. Yet there are striking differences in tone and subject from the previous works. Add to that Shakespeare's neat trick in following comic conventions up to the moment that Mercutio and Tybalt get kilt. So what does Romeo and Juliet tell us about tragedy, and what does it tell us about Shakespeare the writer? (If I might also request from one of you college guys, a definition of 'classical unities.' So often critics refer to following the unities, for the life of me, I don't know what they're talking about.)

Second, language. Rostand (via Cyrano) has a word for this. It is panache. We have plays on words, conceits, reversals, allusions, persistent pairings of opposites ("O brawling love, O loving hate"), and I'm sure half of Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms to be found roaming freely about this play. Yet there is none of the schoolbook exercise quality of language manipulation that seemed to emanate from Love's Labor's Lost. Add to that three distinct language patterns for the commoners, the aristocrats, and the lovers. Wow. So, what is your favorite language moment in the play? And wherefore?

Third, character. Here's a problem I have had. Romeo and Juliet has become shorthand for great (albeit tragic) romance. They are the great lovers. Yet whenever I read the play, I have trouble taking Romeo seriously. He's …feckless about his love. First there's the whole Rosaline thing; he seems to love and not love her regardless of her actual personality. Then there's "O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied," which has always sounded a lot like a request for sex. (And when Juliet gets angry about his impropriety – "what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" – and he's all, like, "Th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine," it's, like, nice recovery dude!) So, is there a point at which Romeo goes from boy in love with love, if you see it that way, to mature lover? Does he ever really love Juliet?

And Juliet. In Lloyd Kaufman's Tromeo and Juliet, a modern, twisted, and occasionally pornographic version of Romeo and Juliet, one fascinating sequence stands out. The sick-minded, incestuous Capulet imprisons Juliet, naked, in a glass box after she has defied him. This image seems an appropriate visualization of Juliet's psychological and political position in the play. She is subject completely to the agendae of the men around her: Capulet, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo. Yet, within that frame she makes autonomous, self-determining decisions that defy the patriarchal structure. Is Juliet a proto-feminist? I get the feeling she is the stronger of the two main characters, in the way that tempered steel is stronger than raw ore. Also, we have so many daughters to come: Hermia, Jessica, Cordelia, Miranda; let's start the conversation about daughters. And, then, if you were staging the play, how is it best to play Juliet?

Fourth, productions. We have lamented on occasion the transient nature of our memories when it comes to theatrical productions. What Romeos have you seen and what has stuck in your memory? And how have those productions changed your reading of the play? We might save film versions for our second week discussion, both to give you time to rush off to a friends house and watch a few again but also so we stay focused on Shakespeare for a few days before lighting into Cukor, Castellani, Zeffirelli, Luhrmann, Kaufman, et al.

Finally, from all, and perhaps specifically from Ernst who has done this for us before, I would love a list of questions one would ask students, "the answering of which would open up their …understanding and appreciation of the play."

And so we're off. Pick a topic, any topic.

Thank me no thankings,

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Shakespeare Search Tool


I've done a little concordance work in my commentary this year – "honor" and "dishonor" in Titus Andronicus, "vegeance" variants in 3 Henry VI – and to do so I used MIT's complete works web site, searching each word by using the "Find" feature in my web browser. Sort of a pain, but lately I've found a tool I wish I'd had earlier and which makes the process faster and more effective: Shakespeare Searched

Briefly, this web site allows you to search any word in any play, and it displays the results in the context of entire speeches. For example, put "coward" into the search field, select "All Characters" and the play Macbeth, and the search engine reveals two occurrences, Lady Macbeth and Macduff, both of whom use the term referring to Macbeth.

Put the same word in and search in the play Hamlet and you'll find three occurrences, all Hamlet essentially referring to himself.

Northrop Frye comments in On Shakespeare that A. C. Bradley saw Shakespeare's tragedies as "tragedies of character." "The tragedy," he writes, "comes about because a particular character is in the one situation he can't handle" (4). With this one word, "coward," we find an example of this character difference. In Hamlet, part of his problem is that he worries he does not have the resolve to follow through on his fatal task. In the milieu of honor and vengeance (chivalry), to not act is cowardice. Thus his self criticism. With Macbeth, his problem is that he makes rash and self-destructive decisions. He is a man of tremendous power, but he is vulnerable pyschologically to the goad of being called a coward. If he weren't, Lady Macbeth's challenge could easily have been laughed off in favor of a wiser choice than killing Duncan.

Word searching, I have found, does not always lead to enlightenment, but it does often point to interesting correlations. And for fun, or when I have papers to grade, I occasionally put random words into the Shakespeare Searched search engine and see what turns up. Searching for "coward" in two texts took all of 20 seconds. The pleasure of your discoveries may last a lifetime.

Bookmark it if you like it,

Monday, December 11, 2006

Taming of the Shrew Redux - How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Tamed ones,

As in action films the villain, believed killed, will return,
Bloodied but still more lethal, not just once,
But sometimes twice – Die Hard, Terminator,
Alien, Men in Black, and Halloween,
And many more use this convention –
Forcing the weary hero once again
To fight in post-scriptorial battle,
So our Taming conversation staggers
Forth for one last epistolary gasp.

In response to John's question about "what people think of the Kate character in comparison with other such characters in and outside of Shakespeare," Gil offered from outside of Shakespeare (inside of Shakespeare it's too dark to read) the women of Etheridge and Congreve. I offer those of Fletcher.

John Fletcher, who collaborated on a play or two with Shakespeare and was house playwright of Shakespeare's company The King's Men after Shakespeare's death, wrote a play called The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. First staged in 1611, The Tamer Tamed is about Petruchio's marriage to his second wife Maria, Kate having died. Petruchio it turns out never did actually tame Kate, and their constant battles have left him something of a shrew himself. Maria's friends see trouble ahead. Biancha counsels Maria to this course of action:

"Nay, never look for merry hour, Maria,
If now you make it not; let not your blushes,
Your modesty, and tenderness of spirit,
Make you continual Anvile to his anger:
Believe me, since his first wife set him going,
Nothing can bind his rage." (Act 1, scene 2)

So after the wedding, Maria refuses to sleep with or spend time with Petruchio. She invokes a muse:

"Lucina, hear me
Never unlock the treasure of my womb
For humane fruit, to make it capable;
Nor never with thy secret hand make brief
A mothers [sic] labor to me; if I do
Give way unto my married Husband's Will,
Or be a wife in any thing but hopes,
Till I have made him easie as a child,
And tame as fear, he shall not win a smile,
Or a pleas'd look, from this austerity ..." (Act 1, scene 2)

With that, Maria and Biancha barricade themselves in Petruchio's house, and refuse to let him in for conjugal celebration or anything else (shades of Antipholus locked out of his house during dinner). Petruchio is taken aback. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Over the course of the play, Petruchio threatens her with physical torment, and when that doesn't work he pretends he's sick, and when that doesn't work he pretends he's going away forever, and when that doesn't work he pretends he's dead. But nothing works, so he gives up. He is tamed, and Maria relents:

"I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this hour make me what you please: I have tam'd ye,
And now am vow'd your servant: ...
Thus I begin my new love." (Act 5, scene 4)

The deference sounds a little like Kate at the end of Shrew, but here the emphasis is on the equality the two have achieved. The three women in The Tamer Tamed are all strong. Biancha is an early Mary Wollstonecraft, organizing Maria's campaign against Petruchio, and also Maria's sister Livia's campaign to marry her chosen suitor rather than the old fogey her dad picked (and Biancha oughta know about that). Maria is resolute in her principles and smart enough to sniff out each of Petruchio's stratagems. We never get the impression that she is fooled by anything he does. And Livia, going Juliet one better, gets her man by feigning near fatal illness and tricking the mourning men into signing papers granting her the right to marry dashing Rowland rather than the ancient Moroso.

I frankly was surprised by what I considered the modernity of the women's actions, although I did recognize a Lysistrata-like quality to the plot. Still, what impressed me is not that the men are foolish while the women aren't, or that the men act like children while the women pull the strings, but that the tone of the play suggests that women deserve relationships in which they are considered equals. And while Petruchio rails at Maria for being a whore (she's clearly not) and Petronius (Maria and Livia's father) is just as vituperative, it's clear that the women are the play's heroes.

Fletcher opens The Tamer Tamed with a Prologue,

"Ladies to you, in whose defence and right,
Fletcher's brave Muse preapar'd her self to fight
A battel without blood, 'twas well fought too,
(The victory's yours though got with much ado.)"

and concludes with this Epilogue:

"The Tamer's tam'd, but so, as nor the men
Can find one just cause to complain of, when
They fitly do consider in their lives,
They should not reign as Tyrants o'er their wives.
Nor can the Women from this president
Insult, or triumph; it being aptly meant,
To teach both sexes due equality;
And as they stand bound, to love mutually."

I hear in this a slightly didactic tone (something Shakespeare neatly avoids) and certainly a political one. I wonder how this went over in front of the Jacobean audience? But to answer John's question more directly, I find it intriguing that such strong women (in a positive way, as opposed, say, to the Duchess of Malfi) inhabit the stage so soon, and what's more, that Shakespeare's play would have inspired a direct riposte, in which the women have the upper hand. This suggests to me that the battle of the sexes was not just a comic turn for entertaining stage fare, but also something going on more explicitly in the lives of early 17th-century families. Is this the result of Elizabeth's reign, even into James's term? Or is that too much spin to set on one little play?


Thursday, December 7, 2006

RE: Taming of the Shrew - The Taming of Petruchio

I am informed that I must bring bring this conversation to some sort of conclusion. I tremble at the task. Please excuse any oversight – I am certain to give short shrift to someone's favorite argument or ancillary point.

This has been primarily a Findlay-fest. Gil opened and closed the discussion with a challenge to modern interpretations that would see the play as embarrassingly non-PC. As he has summed his points up nicely below, I will not attempt to boil them down further. Randall questioned the possibility of such an interpretation for modern audiences, while granting that it may have been how at least some contemporaries would have received the play. Randall also contributed a wonderful array of parallels from modern pop culture, while Gil graciously and laboriously responded to my question about how a certain (to me) odd moment of silence on Kate's part has been directed, concluding that none of the many film versions he reviewed were very satisfactory to him on this point.

Randall made interesting comparisons to a very similar anonymous play, and proposed that what we have here is a mock epic (though not the first – that would be the Greek Batrachomyomachia "Battle of the Frogs and Mice," in the West, at least; the opening of the Sanskrit Mahabharata contains what I take to be a mini-mock epic, structurally parallel with the opening of The Iliad.) I'm going to quit there, though this doesn't begin to do justice to the richness of insight and detail contained in these missives.

On to Romeo and Juliet!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Taming of the Shrew - The Taming of Petruchio

John – We have no guideline disallowing looking forward or outside Shakespeare's oeuvre. In fact Ernst has been back to Gorboduc, I have been over to Dryden and Congreve, and Randall has been forward to the end of all Shrews, Ten Things I Hate About You. We might, however, consider that we could break new ground in Shakespeare studies if we explore how all 37 plays are derived only from 2 Henry VI.

I convinced myself in the "Do not make denial" posting that Kate is among the many strong Shakespearean women. I hope I made a case while exploring her first encounter with Petruchio (II.i) for her wit (intelligence), her equality to Petruchio, and her social position as outcast, dismissed by all of Padua according to her father's prejudice. She is more physical, more violent, than other Shakespearian women (though doesn't Cleopatra pound on Mardian and Charmian?). However, we never see this side of Kate again. Though she has vowed (for policy or public consumption?) to see Petruchio hanged on Sunday first, she is nonetheless dressed and ready for the ceremony and the feast, her due after all she has been denied by Baptista's favors to Bianca. Gremio reports Petruchio's outrageous behavior at the [off-stage] wedding, but this may be no more than Gremio fictionalizing what all of Padua anticipated with the match of such a pair.

Certainly it is to the suitors' advantage to claim that they did well to avoid Kate, even though she is the better match (half of Baptista's estate plus 20,000 crowns). Petruchio arrives late, dressed in rags ("to me she's married, not unto my clothes"). Kate is angry, and loses the high ground I think she achieved in her earlier contest with Pertruchio. "Gentlemen, forward to the bridal dinner./ I see a woman may be made a fool,/ If she had not a spirit to resist" (III.ii.219-21). Great lines, but unfortunate in this context because they are so insistent on her antagonistic posture, so Petruchio rebuts her with "an accurate statement of the law as it stood in regard to married women in Shakespeare's period" (says Stevie Davies, who hates the play, in her little Penguin Critical Studies book on Shrew, 10). So, before all Padua, Petruchio takes Kate and skips the lavish wedding feast. Petruchio overstates his behavior at the wedding--his clothes, the feast--to suggest he understands what the purpose of these conventions are; they socialize the couple into the material values of the materialist patriarchy (I sound like a Marxist, but really I'm not). As cruel as it appears to Kate to be denied, at last, her moment to celebrate, Petruchio is really liberating her. The Paduans gloat: her unloving sister says "That being mad herself, she's madly mated" (Bianca will pay for this) and Gremio caps that, "I warrant him, Petruchio is Kated."

Chez Petruchio, we have the taming, Kate denied sleep and food (reminds me of Army Basic Training at Fort Ord): No mustard for her beef, the wrong fashion for her dress. "This is the way to kill a wife with kindness." I'd be hard pressed to direct this without huge sympathy for Kate. My witty Kate really is stripped down in order to be reemerge free of the social expectations. The crux is whether being guided (benevolently?) by Petruchio is superior to being negatively defined by Baptista/Bianca-ism. Back at Padua, the "good" people continue to lie, deceive, cheat and otherwise behave unethically for the sake of romance and profit. Hortensio's deathless ardor lasts only for a moment, and he has a wealthy widow already lined up. Lucentio, having cheated to assure dowry, elopes with Bianca. Elopement is supposedly true love, but the couple cheat Baptista's nonetheless. Which wedding is really more "honest"? Kate and Petruchio are on the road greeting Vincentio as a "lovely maid" Petruchio has said the sun or moon or star shall be "what I list," and Kate responds "Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me," (IV.v.15) – Kate's first "me" in the entire play. They argue over the orb in the sky and Kate says:

"Then God be blest, it is the blessed sun,
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine." (IV.v.18-22)

There is no broken spirit here. Notice she even manages to call Petruchio a lunatic. They kiss in the street and affectionately go in to join the others at Bianca's wedding banquet and the (in)famous homily.

So, the witty repartee of their first meeting is never repeated, though I think the "equality" of understanding that I saw back at "do not make denial" is here present at "and so it shall be so for Katherine". The contrast is Bianca, pretty, sweet, selfish, spiteful little Bianca, who manipulates everyone except her sister, then shows her true shrewish self by humiliating (taming?) her husband once the contact is fixed. There is a song in Guys and Dolls, titled "Marry the Man Today" that goes something like this: "Marry the man today, happy though he may be. Marry the man to day, though happy and wild and free. Marry the man today, give him your girlish laughter. Give him your hand today – and save the fist for after." [my italics]

Other Kates? The Princess of France and the dark Rosaline in Love's Labor's Lost are just as witty, naughtier, and they truly humble the self-deluded Ferdinand and Berowne. They are just as sharp, but their wit is more important than character in this flimsier plot, driven to overwhelm the unreasonable "law," three years of celibate study without the distraction of women. It's the same vow with which Lucentio opens Shrew that lasts only an augenblick [my favorite German word]. In Midsummer NIght's Dream, Oberon has magic on his side in the war against Titania. I'd like to see Hippolyta take on her captor/fiancé Theseus, but because of the other plots, there are only a dozen lines. Merchant's Portia, when not in court, seems willing to cast herself in the role of submissive wife to the egocentric fortune-hunting Bassanio. Yeah, the ring trick is worthy of my Kate or of Beatrice, and after the last scene, Portia forever can call in her power, but she is the tamer and too gracious to show Bassanio he is "Kated."

I don't much remember Merry Wives, but its Falstaff is no match for the Ford and Page women, who are middle-class rather than witty. Twelfth Night? Viola's position is terribly vulnerable. She is at her strongest, wittiest, when she contests Olivia, and transcends repartee when she soars into Shakespeare's finest lines: "Make me a willow cabin at your gate,/ And call upon my soul within the house." [More on that later, of course.] Juliet is stronger than Romeo but they are not cast in a "battle of the sexes." Cleopatra is the most incandescent. Lady Macbeth is the toughest of all. And I agree with John that Beatrice is the one we will come back to, with poor "Benedick, the married man," aware of what Petruchio may not recognize, that equality of the sexes is a wonder that transcends social convention.

Outside of Shakespeare go for Etherege's Harriet (Man of Mode) and Congreve's Millamant (The Way of the World) to see truly witty women displayed with transcendent intelligence, until poor Kate Hardcastle, a century later, must stoop to conquest.


Saturday, December 2, 2006

Taming of the Shrew - Kate's Last Words, Take 1


Just for fun, a final d-i-y comparison to the earlier edition (published in 1594, I think I was off a bit before), A Pleasant Conceited Historie called The Taming of a Shrew (and aren't you glad I didn't get ahold of the other two earlier editions?). Gil used the word "homily" to describe Kate's last speech in The Taming of the Shrew. You thought THAT was homily, wait 'til you hear this:

Now, lovely Kate, before their husbands here,
I prithee tell unto these headstrong women
What duty wives do owe unto their husbands.

Then you that live thus by your pampered wills,
Now list to me and mark what I shall say:

Th'eternal power that with his only breath,
Shall cause this end and this beginning frame,
Not in time, nor before time, but with time, confused; --
For all the course of years, of ages, months,
Of seasons temperate, of days and hours,
Are tuned and stopped by measure of his hand; --

The first world was a form without a form,
A heap confused, a mixture all deformed,
A gulf of gulfs, a body bodiless,
Where all the elements were orderless,
Before the great Commander of the world,
The King of kings, the glorious God of heaven,
Who in six days did frame His heavenly work
And made all things to stand in perfect course:

Then to His image did He make a man,
Old Adam, and from his side asleep
A rib was taken, of which the Lord did make
The woe of man, so termed by Adam then
'Wo-man,' for that by her came sin to us;
And for her sin was Adam doomed to die.

As Sarah to her husband, so should we
Obey them, love them, keep, and nourish them,
If they by any means do want our helps;
Laying our hands under their feet to tread,
If that by that we might procure their ease;
And for a precedent I'll first begin
And lay my hand under my husband's feet. (5.1.111-142)

Now, I've talked a whole lot, so at this point I just have a few questions. What is your reaction to this in comparison to the version you read? How is the argument that women should serve their men treated differently? Does the heavily biblical imagery used here suggest something about Shakespeare by its absence in the later version (later Kate says, for example, "Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband.")? What is the origin of that wacky etymology Kate uses for "woman"? Did that originate here? Or was it floating around earlier? And holy mother of God, Cindy, if your students were reading either version of the play, what would you do with Kate's last speech?


Taming of the Shrew - Auden Addendum

Blast-ended Shrew(t)s,

In his short (two pages) discussion of Taming of the Shrew, Auden argues that the play is a failure because no farce can succeed if it must contend with a serious issue. "In our time the war of the sexes has become much too serious an issue to be treated in a farcical manner. This has been true in England ever since the passage of the Married Woman's Property Act of 1882. Up to that point there was no question, basically, that man was boss" (64). So Auden puts Findlay fils in his place by pointing out that what was once farce is now failure, and not worth discussing. (And he moves abruptly on to King John just a couple of paragraphs later.)

Because Auden is giving a lecture (in 1946), fortunately transcribed by a student, he is prone to digression. And the rest of the paragraph, somewhat startlingly, finds him waxing wistful about American women:

"In England things are run for the benefit of men, and it is too bad if you are a girl. In America things are run for the benefit of women, and the men have an unfortunate time. … In England women are colorless. In America they are more interesting than the men. They are better educated, confident, and amusing to talk to. Perhaps, however, they suffer more in this country than they are willing to admit by holding such a dominating position, and one that is increasing. In fifty years most American men will be honorably employed as gigolos" (64).

Ha ha ha ha ha ha … ha … uh … ha.

Hey, fifty years! That's …uh …2006.

Ye gods, maybe we finally have an answer to the decline in American employment due to corporate outsourcing! Sign me up.


Taming of the Shrew - The Shrilliad, or Paradise Bossed

A Shrew! Geshundheit!

I. Shakespeare's Shrew and genre

Looking back over our correspondence, I find one of the most intriguing emerging themes is Shakespeare's relationship to genre. Gil started us off early with his comment from our first play, Comedy of Errors: "Back when they talked about genres ... someone claimed Shakespeare wrote histories until he perfected the form with the Henriad, then stopped; wrote comedies until he wrote a perfect Twelfth Night, then stopped; wrote tragedy until King Lear, then stopped; wrote romance until The Tempest, then stopped all together. He began it all with The Comedy of Errors, got 'farce' right the first time out, so he never wrote another, in that he had nowhere else to go."

Eight plays into our Shakespearean expedition, I have a somewhat revised view of this assessment, wherever it comes from. It implies that each play Shakespeare writes fits into a linear continuity of refinement: Love's Labor's Lost – rough, Twelfth Night – perfect; Titus Andronicus – rough, King Lear – perfect. Because we've only read one tragedy as a group and no romances, let's set aside those genres for the time being. I would argue that this assessment fits the history plays and add that it does so because Shakespeare seems to have invented the genre, so that with each subsequent play he makes adjustments to bring that particular type of play to its full capacity. Compare, for instance, the dramatic balance of Richard III to the more episodic, cast-of-thousands attempts of the first two Henry VI plays, and observe the growing focus on character through the first tetraology which we know will be further intensified as we work through the second.

When it comes to the comedies, though, I think we run into trouble characterizing Shakespeare's progress the same way. We have read three comedies now, and they couldn't be more different. We talked a lot about farce with Comedy of Errors. But Love's Labor's Lost found us focusing more on Shakespeare's toying with contemporary attitudes about language, euphuism and Lyly. In generic terms the two plays didn't have a lot in common; that makes sense because Comedy of Errors is farce and Love's Labor's Lost is not …much. So far so good. In terms of character and theme there are more similarities: we can see in Petruchio and Kate echoes of Antipholus and Adriana, and Berowne and Rosaline, and foreshadows of Beatrice and Benedick, all examples of the couple-at-odds. Having observed this, though, it does not necessarily follow that each couple's repartee and complex relationship improves on the one that precedes it until we arrive at some divine distillation of the battle royale of the sexes.

So, do we see the structural variations as Shakespeare trying different comic patterns on his way to Twelfth Night? Or simply tossing his language into different popular forms, even, in some cases, just borrowing lesser predecessor plays like Rosalynde or The Taming of a Shrew as vehicles? Or I wonder if, when it comes to the established genres like comedy, Shakespeare's early plays demonstrate that he is an innovator, an experimentalist, more likely to build new forms out of old ones than merely pour his alchemical language into preset patterns. Or, put a little differently, that Shakespeare is as much a master manipulator of form as he is of language, and that in fact the two are not so separable.

Critics I've read (for each of our previous plays) tend to focus on the language and overlook or disregard any discussion of genre or form. F. S. Boas, writing in the introduction to A Pleasant Conceited Historie called The Taming of a Shrew, which I mentioned previously, notes "that in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare gives one of the most remarkable examples of his unique faculty of transforming his materials, of vitalising and refining them, while largely preserving their substance. The general structure of the old play is retained, but it is enriched with new treasures of imagination, dramatic insight, and verbal music" (Boas, xxxviii). See? Shakespeare is given no credit for any innovation of form or bending of generic expectations. And that's because on the surface the two plays – Taming of A Shrew and Taming of THE Shrew – don't show much structural difference. Both open with the Christopher Sly piece, and both are mirror images in exposition, event and resolution of the Shrew sequences. Nor do they seem much adjusted in their generic nature, although the first edition is much more farce than Shakespeare's.

II. Shrew and farce

Which brings me to one final thought about our initial statement about Shakespeare and genre. It suggests that Shakespeare sets aside farce early on, after Comedy of Errors. Yet The Taming of the Shrew is seriously farcical. W. H. Auden, in Lectures on Shakespeare, tells us the "plot of Taming of the Shrew belongs to farce," and it is Shakespeare's use of this genre that makes the play "a complete failure" because he is too good a writer to contain his play within the strictures of farce -- his characters have individuality, his conflicts suffer the necessity of resolution, and his plot is too serious. Maurice Charney, in All of Shakespeare, calls Taming of the Shrew an experiment in farce. He doesn't see the play as a failure at all, explaining that "in farce, not a great deal of attention is paid to psychological subtleties of character as the action presses forward to fulfill its mechanistic assumptions" (25). When forced to consider Auden's idea that Shakespeare's characters do indeed have psychological subtleties, or individuality, Charney neatly gets around it by arguing that yes, they do, but "they fall in love with each other without actually knowing it" (26). I think this echoes Gil's argument that by the end of Act 2, scene 1 the couple share an unspoken attraction, but Gil, being smarter than Charney, gives Shakespeare more credit.

I suspect if I continued to thumb through critical assessments of Shrew that I'd find a lot of discussion of farce, but Auden and Charney neatly frame the responses and outline the problem I think modern readers have with the play. It wears the trappings of farce but these hide an alter ego, a Shakespearean comedy more in keeping with his later works. We saw something very similar, although to a lesser degree, with Egeon at the beginning of Comedy of Errors threatened by imminent death; hardly the way to get a good farce off the ground. Shakespeare is not, it seems, well suited to farce. His language endows characters with complexity that frequently carries them beyond the stock dimensions needed for functional farce. (In this I agree with Auden, although I don't see Shrew as a failure.) And he is far too interested in why things are and in people's motivations to sacrifice rationale for the fickle demands and necessary non sequitors farce needs to stay comic. So, I think he attempts both – farce and comedy. If this is true, what we find once again is Shakespeare the innovator, a writer capable of transforming a genre from the inside out.

But how? In the Henry VI plays, we have seen Shakespeare invent a genre out of the unlikely ingredients of historical chronicles and political primers. In Taming of the Shrew he invents, I believe, another – the mock epic.

III. Shakespeare's Mock Epic

OK. This is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. The standard for mock epics is Alexander Pope's 18th-century poem, "The Rape of the Lock," which parodies the long narrative poem (by being relatively short), the serious subject and elevated language (by being trivial), and the larger-than-life hero typical of the traditional epic. Throughout Taming of the Shrew I find not only striking similarities to what Pope will accomplish a little over 100 years later, but many of the conventions of epic portrayed with the same sly subtlety that we saw when Shakespeare was "out-Lylying John Lyly" (as Ernst put it) in Love's Labor's Lost. For example:

1.) Invocation: While Shakespeare includes no traditional invocation, Lucentio does set the scene by letting the audience know that the play takes place in Padua, "nursery of the arts" (1.1.2). One might argue that in addition to Padua's specific inspiration to those seeking enlightenment, Italy -- its arts and intrigues -- in general inspires much of what Shakespeare writes. Every 'renaissance' must have its nursery.

2.) In medias res: Lucentio and Tranio may have just arrived in town, but we pick up Baptista practically in mid-sentence: "Gentlemen, importune me no further" (1.1.48). Yep, folks, Gremio and Hortensio have been hounding him for Bianca prior to the beginning of the play, Kate's shrewishness is already legendary, and we have reached that critical point in story where Baptista's decision about marriage order will set in motion the events that bring the story to its conclusion, not unlike Hermes telling Calypso to release Odysseus from her island.

3.) Concern with the fate of a nation or people: Here, Shakespeare employs a mocking reversal that anticipates Pope, shifting the national scope to a domestic one; it is not the fate of the Italians or the founding of Rome at issue, but the fate of a few Italian lovers and the founding of a marriage. Or perhaps we really are concerned with more. After all, Kate's final speech and the comeuppance of Hortensio and Lucentio's wives make it clear that Petruchio's heroic accomplishment is to make the institution of marriage safe for all men.

4.) Epic hero: According to Philip V. Allingham on The Victorian Web, "Although [the hero's] fellows may be great warriors (like Achilles and Beowulf, he may have a comitatus, or group of noble followers, with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt." So doth Petruchio. Hortensio explains why no man will marry Kate:

"Her only fault – and that is faults enough –
Is that she is intolerably curst
And shrewd and froward, so beyond all measure
That were my state far worser than it is,
I would not wed her for a mine of gold." (1.2.87-91)

Despite this warning, Petruchio takes on the labor, using language more in keeping with a man facing an angry god. "I will board her though she chide as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack" (1.2.94-95), and indeed he later compares Kate to the goddess Diana. Humorously, Petruchio's comitatus is two bumbling servants, one who openly mocks him and the other who is something of a village idiot. Allingham continues, "The hero's epic adversary is often a 'god-despiser,' one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods." In Kate's conversion speech, she refers to her husband as "lord," "sovereign" and "governor." At the beginning of the play, however, her view of her potential husband is different.

"No shame but mine. I must, forsooth, be forced
To give my hand opposed against my heart
Unto a mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen." (3.2.8-10)

She does not despise marriage. She is angry at her father when she thinks that her wedding will not be as important as Bianca's, and she doesn't respond when Petruchio proclaims them engaged. It's men she doesn't like – her father, her music teacher, the elderly Gremio, Petruchio – those who, in the Christian view, should be like a god to her.

5.) Description of hero's armor and weapon: Here, again, we find Shakespeare mocking the convention. When Petruchio is late for his own wedding, his servant Biondello describes him to Tranio thus:

"Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckeled, another laced; an old rusty sword ta'en out of the town armory, with a broken hilt and chapeless; with two broken points; his horse hipped (with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred) ..." etc, etc (3.2.43ff).

When I was at Carleton, my Milton teacher, Heather Dubrow, explained the concept of a capite ad calcem (the rhetorical device of describing a character from head to foot). I've had a bit of trouble tracking down specific information about the technique but it seems to be something that was common in the classical period, then again from Petrarch on (Gonoji, 1996). Biondello does this: hat, jerkin, breeches, boots. Perhaps it is intuitive, but given Shakespeare's awareness of rhetorical device (so vividly on display in Love's Labor's Lost), I'd lay good money that he knows what he's doing here, invoking a heroic description. One might argue that the same technique is used to describe the poet's beloved in other poetic forms, but because this is Biondello describing Petruchio, I don't think that fits.

I particularly love the bit about the weapon. In traditional epics, "the hero often has a special weapon (e. g., Achilles' Pelian ash spear) or quality (e.g., Odysseus's ability to adopt disguises)" (Victorian Web). Often it is a gift from the gods. Here Petruchio's weapon is rusty, broken, and stolen from the town armory. I expect the Elizabethan audience, familiar with their classic epics, would have gotten a particularly good laugh.

6.) Battles: Epic poetry gives us two kinds of battles – the big ones in which everyone fights and single combat between the hero and his nemesis. Pope, in "Rape of the Lock," turns these into a card game. In the single battle the heroes are often near equals, and in Taming of the Shrew it is obvious what Petruchio and Kate use for weapons – language. We certainly see their equality in their early exchanges, and Gil has provided a neat argument for how Petruchio uses language not to defeat Kate but to win her, by using contradiction. That word, "contradiction," means "language against," an appropriate image for what the two warriors do and for what Petruchio achieves.

7.) Elevated language: Shakespeare also mocks the formality expected of epic. Petruchio, for example, is blasphemous at the very moments he should be most formal. Gremio reports an example from the wedding ceremony:

"I'll tell you, Sir Lucentio, when the priest
Should ask, if Katherine should be his wife,
'Ay, by goggs woones!' quoth he and swore so loud
That, all amazed, the priest let fall the book." (3.2.158-161)

And not only does Petruchio swear, he can't even pronounce his oath right (maybe he's drunk). You could jump in here and say, 'look, it's not mocking the elevated language of epic, it's just funny.' I think it is interesting, though, that we've seen language used as a weapon in the play, but something very different is happening with language here. What is it? Why is Petruchio tearing down the ritual formalism of the wedding ceremony? How does this de-shrew Kate? Everyone seems to think he is mad at this point, so perhaps that gives him more license to act irrationally with Kate and wear her down. To me, the point is his blasphemy, in church, is an example of anti-formal, or descended, language.

8.) Epic similes: And what's an epic without an extended simile? Describing himself to Baptista, Petruchio says:

"I am as peremptory as she proud-minded.
And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.
So I to her ..." (2.1.131-136)

Ah yes, Petruchio, the poet is telling us, is a blowhard.

9.) The epic feast: Shakespeare takes two rips at this convention. First Kate is not allowed to attend her wedding feast, and second, when she goes to Petruchio's country house she is offered sumptuous food that she is not allowed to eat.

10.) The boon: Joseph Campbells' monomyth cycle suggests that the result of the heroic journey is a "boon," some valuable item or knowledge with which the hero can return to his home or people triumphant. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars masters the Force, defeats the evil empire and destroys its doomsday machine, the deathstar. Neo in The Matrix frees his mind from the simulacrum created by computers to delude humans, conquers death, defeats the evil "agents," and saves mankind; Moses receives the laws of God and takes his people into the promised land. Petruchio gets 20,000 crowns and half Baptista's land, a bit more than 40 acres and a mule, but still a mocking boon in comparison to the great epics. Yet he also gets the perfect wife, and takes this valuable experience public, beginning the process of saving others from their shrewish wives.

As often as we can point to events within the play to identify mock epic conventions, we can also see the use of these conventions specifically in the language -- the epic simile, the descended language, the battles (of wit), the head-to-foot description. What Shakespeare adds to the earlier edition of Shrew, then, is language that captures and pokes fun at the conventions of epic, shifting more than just the words, but the type of play we are watching. Boas comments that Shakespeare enriches the original "with new treasures of imagination, dramatic insight, and verbal music"; I would add that in doing so he affects the generic nature of the play.

Does Shrew work better as a mock epic than a farce or comedy? Playing up this aspect might solve Auden's concern about seriousness while retaining the complexity of the characters that keeps the play from being merely farce. Whatever. The whole mock epic thing might be a conceit. But from the man who created the history genre, the man who joyfully parodies the hyper-rhetorical trends of his time, the man who will shortly, seamlessly, bind the genres of comedy and tragedy into a single play called Romeo and Juliet, that man I would not put it past to trot Petruchio out on stage as a mock hero, and take a dramatic stick to many of the conventions associated with the heroic, just for fun.

So there,

Friday, December 1, 2006

RE2: Taming of the Shrew - Shrew, Do Not Make Denial

I completely agree. Language often possesses a greater "reality" than the reality it purports to convey. This, and what you say below, puts me in mind of Marshall McLuhan's line, "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." Language is, arguably, our greatest tool, yet the extent to which it has become divorced from what we might call truth in today's discourse (and at moments in this play) generates a violence that is potentially far more disturbing than physical blows.


RE: Taming of the Shrew - Shrew, Do Not Make Denial

I'd like to thank the Findlays for their thorough responses. I feel like the undeserving recipient of great riches. Clearly Kate's silence in the face of Petruchio's lies was something that directors struggled with and resolved in a variety of mostly unsatisfying ways.

Before we are done with the play, I would like to know what people think of the Kate character in comparison with other such characters in and outside of Shakespeare. Beatrice of Much Ado About Nothing seems to me the closest parallel, but that is a tale of mutual "taming" (and more interesting for it, to my mind). Is it too teleological to see Kate as practice for Beatrice? Are we disallowed from looking forward to plays we haven't officially read together?

On an unrelated note, my first assumption would be that the name Ferando (the Petruchio character in the alternative Shrew play that Randall found) is just a mangling of the much more common Fernando. But such mangling often has a purpose, and it is notable that, if Ferando is "Man of Iron" Petruchio might be "Man of Rock" (or "Heart of Stone"? Or just "Rocky"? A new roll for Mr. Stallone?). Coincidence?

And if I may be allowed one more disconnected thought – the power of language to persuade us that things are other than what they are seems to me a central theme of the play from the induction through to the end. Though most of these persuasions seem far fetched, psychological experiments have shown repeatedly that most people can be persuaded to ignore the evidence of their own eyes in the face of group pressure. A similar kind of willing disbelief is of course necessary for a play to function. But the ease with which entire societies can come to believe things that are simply not true (that oil resources will last forever, or that we can dump a trillion odd tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without consequence) makes our comedy look tragic indeed. But maybe that's just the mood I'm in today.