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.
Every Night Is Now Trivia Night
5 days ago