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.


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