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?


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