Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Taming of the Shrew



The Taming of the Shrew appears to support the orthodox viewpoint in Elizabethan England that wives were to be completely subservient to their husbands. As Orgel points out, the men of the time had an investment in believing that women were naturally inferior, subservient, domestic creatures who were simply to be regarded as mediums of exchange. I would argue, however, that the play, rather than wholeheartedly supporting this point of view, pokes fun at it,

To begin with, the play is set up either as a dream of Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, or a stratagem practised against him by a noble lord. If the play is to be a farce to fool a tinker, it is difficult for it is supposed to be taken seriously. The page, who is commanded to dress up as a woman and pretend to be Sly's aristocratic wife swearing love and obedience to him, mirrors the young boy on stage, playing the part of Kate, exhorting all wives to give their husbands "...only love, fair looks and true obedience." Obedience is stressed throughout the Christopher Sly framework, but it is a show of obedience, rather than true obedience. The lord instructs his page to say to the drunk

What is't your honour will command
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?


Sly, for his part, finds his "wife's" good manners excessive and unnatural and wonders why she does not refer to him in more familiar terms, being his wife, rather than his servant.

Are you my wife, and will not call me "husband"?
My men should call me 'lord'; but I am your goodman.


He is clearly uncomfortable with the artificiality of his new state, which is all about appearances rather than reality. He considers his wife a companion and lover rather than a servant and is uneasy with the elaborate formality he has to assume in relation to her. He does not even know how to address her, settling at last for the comical "madam wife", a mixture of familiarity and formality. His "wife" talks about obedience but when he actually asks something of her - "Madam, undress you and come now to bed." - she manages to skilfully evade him. Consequently, it appears that talking about obedience to one's husband is more important than actual obedience. In fact, Kate's entire obedience speech can be summed up in these words of the page to Sly:

My husband and my lord, my lord and my husband,
I am your wife in all obedience.


As the page is neither a woman nor a wife, his words are a hollow mockery. In consequence, I would argue that Kate's speech at the end might also be taken as an elaborate mockery, put on to fool a drunken tinker, rather than to be taken seriously by the audience who are sharing in the joke with the Lord. Kate, like the page, is simply a young boy playing a wife and the words of obedience trip easily off his tongue. The fact that both are young boys playing women is evident by the fact that the "Taming" is a play within a play. It is fair to assume that the players who come to visit the Lord are all male, and the audience can see this for themselves when they appear in the first induction scene, out of costume, and are welcomed by the Lord who invites them to put on a play for the benefit of another "Lord". With this in mind, it matters little whether Kate declaims her obedience speech passionately or ironically. The "wink to the audience" has already been achieved.

Next, I would argue that the "taming" itself is too inhumane to be taken seriously. Regardless of how you "play" it, The Taming of the Shrew is essentially about one human being starving and brainwashing another, with the full approval of the community. In fact, Petruchio employes a mixture of starvation, sleep-deprivation, browbeating and the ever present threat of violence to reduce Kate to no better than a household pet who comes when she is whistled for. His methods would not be out of place in a play about an oppressive regime torturing its citizens into terrified submission, except that there, at least, nobody would find it funny. He takes away her right to self expression by wilfully misunderstanding everything she says, as sketched out in his initial battle plan:

Say that she rail, why I'll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale
If she deny to wed, I'll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns, and when be married.


He shouts down her protests to the wedding and her father, Baptista chooses to believe Petruchio rather than Kate, probably anxious to get this troublesome daughter off his hands. I would contest the notion that Kate married him willingly. When he fails to show up for the wedding at first, she tells her father:

I must forsooth be forced
To give my hand, opposed against my heart
Unto a mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen.


During the marriage ceremony itself it is significant that Petruchio strikes the priest when he is asking Kate if she agrees to be Petruchio's wife. In effect, she never gets to make her response during the marriage ceremony, which may have ended differently had she been able to. His behaviour towards her is bad enough under her father's roof where she has the right to expect at least some measure of protection and respect. Out of her father's house, Petruchio is nothing short of barbarous to her. It is difficult not to sympathise with Kate when she laments:

What did he marry me to famish me
Beggars that come unto my father's door
Upon entreaty have a present alms;
But I, who never knew how to entreat
Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep.


To either laugh or approve the lengths Petruchio goes to, to tame Kate, one would have to see her as nothing better than an animal. It would be difficult to maintain this frame of reference when her genuine distress comes through. She weeps when she thinks that Petruchio has jilted her, trembles in fear when he assaults the priest during the marriage ceremony and wades through mud to stop him from raining blows on Grumio. In fact, I would argue that she displays more humanity than Bianca, who, when asked what she thinks of her sister's mad marriage ceremony, and the way she has been carried off, implies that Kate got not more than her just desserts when she says, "That being mad herself, she's madly mated." Surely, even an audience being on the viewpoint that a wife should be cowed into submission, would find it difficult to approve the means by which this submission is effected. As no decent man would want to go to such lengths, I submit to you, that the play actually laughs at this idea, rather than advocates it.

There is also the character of Bianca to take into considerate. While Kate quietens down throughout the play, finally losing her voice, Bianca finds her voice and it gains in stridence. When we first meet her, butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. She appears to be the model of propriety, a perfect foil for Kate's boisterousness. She bows her head and affects submission when Kate, who is probably the only one who sees through ghee, bullies her, trying to get her to respond in kind. Bianca is, however, too clever for Kate. She is unfailingly gentle and weeps for the benefit of her father who shows up to rescue her. One wonders whether she employs an onion in her handkerchief or whether she can turn on the tap on demand.

Yet Bianca, in her pretty, simpering, feminine way, is the more self-willed of the two. The difference is that she knows how to get what she wants without sacrificing the good opinion of the men around her. She remains Baptista's favourite daughter even when she wilfully disobeys him. When her father dismisses her suitors, her dutiful response is: "Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe," yet she elopes with Lucentio, leaving her father both hurt and shocked. Kate, at least, for all her supposed shrewishness, had indeed submitted to his will in the choice of a marriage partner. Yet Bianca's meek disguise is so good that even after the elopement, her father wants to throw in his lot with Lucentio during the obedience wager. So, despite strong evidence to the contrary, he still considers Bianca the more obedient and dutiful daughter.

Bianca's modest deportment also fools her suitors, so that when she behaves rudely or in a headstrong way, they explain it away. For instance, when her supposed tutors are arguing over who gets the privilege of instructing her first, she asserts her right to decide for herself:

Why gentlemen you do me double wrong
To strive for that which resteth in my choice.


This would have been taken as another example of headstrong behaviour in Kate. With Bianca, it is accepted and obeyed. When she makes an unprovoked attack on Gremio, a man old enough to be her father, at her wedding banquet, the men react with amusement and indulgence. When Kate has been provoked into being rude to Gremio, it is taken as a further sign of her peevishness and ill humour. Bianca demonstrates that she is not even intimidated by the feared woman-tamer, Petruchio. When he tells her that having insulted Gremio she should be prepared for similar remarks aimed her way she simply responds: "Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush and then pursue me as you draw your bow," and leaves the table.

It is here, I think, that Petruchio realises how headstrong she actually is and decides to go ahead with the wager, confident that he will win. Bianca's refusal to come when summoned takes everybody, except Petruchio, by surprise. When Lucentio chides her for it, informing her that her disobedience has lost him a great deal of money, she is unrepentant, calling him a fool for having laid a wager on her obedience. (I must admit, I'm beginning to like Bianca here...she does represent the feminine feminist and yes, Lucentio was a fool) It is only with Kate's great show of obedience as the counterpoint that the men realise how much they have been fooled in their simpering favourite.

But even as she is shown up in this way (and let's face it, she doesn't care) she has won. After all, Bianca is married to the richest man at the table, with a handsome dowry. And although he finds his bride not as meek as he would like her to be, he is probably not going to resort to Petruchio's methods to tame her. What would do for Kate (being considered animal and bestial) would not do for the pretty poppet that he has taken on. And it is unlikely that anyone would sit by and watch her being tortured and starved without interfering.

So, if the play is supposed to advocate "taming of the shrews", why does it leave Bianca at the end of the play, untamed and unrepentant? If anything it highlights the stupidity of men. As long as a woman is doll-like and pretty, as long as she simpers and lisps, he will deny her nothing. And he will refuse to see what is in front of his face, like her father, who forgave the elopement and took her back as his favourite child once more.

And at the end it is poor Kate again, who is referred to as a shrew when Hortensio congratulates Petruchio in having tamed her.

And then there's the widow who marries Hortensio. Having little confidence of winning over Bianca, he tamely settles for the widow and from then on, cannot call his soul his own. During the wager (what kind of fool must he have been to participate) where Lucentio bids and Petruchio commands their respective wives to come, Hortensio timidly entreats it. He marries her because he is poor and desperate and she never lets him forget it. When one of Bianca's suitors, Tranio, suggests that Hortesio will tame the widow, Bianca, knowing better expresses her doubts: "He says so, Tranio." The widow remains angry and untamed at the end. And while Lucentio, at least, expresses displeasure at his wife's disobedience, Hortensio is meekly silent on the subject.

In conclusion I would say that the play seems to argue as much against the subjection of women as for it. The Christoper Sly framework throws the object of the play into question. Was it put on to convey a message to the audience of the duties of wife to husband or to have a laugh at a drunken tinker? We cannot say. The two boys - the page who plays the tinker's noble wife and the boy who plays Kate, echo each other in terms of swearing obedience to their respective 'husbands' but their words can be taken as equally empty. Even if the Christopher Sly framework can be ignored and The Taming of the Shrew taken as is, the methods employed by Petruchio to tame his wife, are too cruel and sadistic to be glossed over lightly. While a despotic ruler may learn something about how to grind his citizens into subjection, no decent man could take away any similar lesson. Finally, it is significant that Bianca, the more headstrong of the two sisters remains untamed and unrepentant to the last, as does the widow, and neither is likely to suffer by it. One "shrew" may have been tamed, but the other two remain exactly as they were.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

It is the cause, my soul...



I finally read Othello. And like I expected, I hated the Moor. Yes, Iago was vile and he was an instigator, but it was the basic premise of what Othello thought he had the right to do that had me so mad.

Firstly, Desdemona. I think her doom was set from the beginning because, "virtuous" and "chaste" as she was, she ran away from her father's house to marry the Moor. Ironic, than in thus, departing from custom, she sealed her doom, not only with her father (who died of a broken heart from this treachery) but with her husband, who was cleverly persuaded to remember that Desdemona had been independent enough to deceive her father, when it came to him (Othello).

I think the first seed of doubt that entered the Moor's mind was planted by Brabantio himself, when he found that this daughter, Desdemona, had left of her own accord, not through force or the use of witchcraft. Which meant that she was very different from the girl her father had thought her to be.

I was surprised. Knowing as I did, only the death scene, from repeated viewings of Stage Beauty, I had thought that Desdemona and Othello had been married respectably.

And although throughout the text different people call him "noble", I admit, I didn't see it. If he had been so noble and brave, why did he not ask Brabantio for his daughter's hand in marriage rather than run away with her like that? It was all so small and mean and cowardly, to be honest.

So, yes, I was not disposed to think kindly of him when I started the play and reading it only prejudiced me further. Goodness? I saw no hint of it. Iago may have been vile, but Othello was little less so.

I guess my main grievance was that he thought he owned Desdemona. So much so that he could kill her if she was being unfaithful because her body belonged not to herself but to him.

In previous years, knowing only the bare bones of the story, my obsession was with the fact of accusation and how being accused of a crime, (when the accused is a wife and the crime is transgressing the marriage vows) is as good as being guilty of it. The facts of the matter are irrelevant. As soon as the picture is planted in a husband's head, he must needs torture and kill his wife because even if she is innocent of the crime, he has imagined it and that is all that is necessary.

But lately, I have been thinking and I realise that my indignation is not so much at the false accusation as to what the bloody Moor thought he was entitled to do because of it. So Desdemona, with all her virtue, was punished over and over again for marrying that savage, ignoble and violent and jealous and crass.

And I think she was meant to be a warning to all independent women who decide to take their own way and marry so far beneath them.

The myth of the noble savage is just that. A myth.

There is no such thing.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Comedy of Errors



When I read it I thought it was hilarious - what could be more hilarious than mistaken identity? But it did think having two sets of twins who somehow mysterious end up with each other was stretching it a little bit. We did this play for our "Theory and Practice of Comedy" unit. And this was the essay I wrote on it, about the representation of women. (Btw, I think Mae West was one of the most empowered female protagonists in movie history - she claimed her sexuality wholeheartedly, was all sorts of indecent and always came up on top. Especially when dealing with younger, handsomer leading men - is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)

In Elizabethan times, Puritan ideas were transforming society, calling into question conventions that had existed for centuries in relation to the treatment of women and their status in a marriage. They recognised the spiritual equality of women and called for new ideals in the middle class context. The double standard in adultery became less acceptable. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare addresses the questions about the nature and status of a woman in a marriage. Although he appears to be pushing conventional wisdom about the subjection of a wife to her husband, I think that, in this play at least, he has represented the characters in such a way as to call that wisdom into question.

Adriana, the main female character in The Comedy of Errors represents the Puritan position on marriage. She questions her relative position and rails at the inequalities she has to put up with. Although she is characterised as a shrew and a scold by her husband Antipholus, her rather colourless sister, Luciana, and finally the Abbess, I think she has a value point of view and not just in a revisionist 21st century context.

Her main fault seems to be that she loves her husband too much and is unable to turn a blind eye, or bear with equanimity, his philandering ways. Knowing that she is no longer young and beautiful, she is, naturally, insecure about his affections. "Hath homely age, th'alluring beauty took from my poor cheek?" However, even as she exclaims against him for his poor treatment of her, she is never unaffectionate or undutiful. I wonder if they noted this, they who seek to condemn her?

When she learns to her horror that he has attempted to seduce her own sister, she calls him names but is moved to say at the end of her tirade that she thinks him better than she says. So it seems that even after the ultimate betrayal, she still loves the bastard. When she later learns that he is arrested, though justifiably angry at this point, she sends the money to redeem him, immediately. When towards the end of the play, she is accused by the Abbess of driving her husband mad by her constant jealousy (an unfair accusation, btw, because she had not driven her husband mad; she was just dealing with his long-lost twin who appeared to be mad in comparison, she does not defend herself but meekly accepts that woman's abuse and feels a pang of undeserved guilt.

At this point it is Luciana who comes to her rescue, telling the Abbess that Adriana's reproofs had been mild and gentle to Antipholus' rough, rude and wild behaviour. "Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?" she demands of her sister.
To which Adriana replies: "She did betray me to my own reproof." Where in any of this can she called a shrew or a scold?

It is telling too, that one of Antipholus' own friends Balthazar speaks of Adriana's wisdom, sober virtue, years and modesty, when he advises Antipholus against breaking down the door and calling his wife's honour into question. This would seem to suggest that the general perception of Adriana in Ephesus is positive rather than negative and that she has never crossed her husband in public.

Adriana is unable to accept Luciana's glib explanations as to the state of marriage that man is master of his liberty while his wife must always be subject to his commands, however unreasonable. Something to the effect of "I wield my cock (over which I have no control) and therefore I rule?" Only in a mad, mad society.

Luciana parrots the party line, based on St Paul's letter to the Ephesians that man is master of his wife, as Christ is head of the church but Adriana questions, this, the most holy of holies, the letter that has been used to oppress women for generations, and the letter that has caused them to bow their heads and accept such oppression even when reason, character and common sense would rebel against it.

When Luciana says that the subjection of women is divinely appointed, Adriana remarks rather wryly that this servitude must be what keeps Luciana unwed. Adriana also points out that if Luciana were to wed she would discover that she would not be entirely powerless in the relation, nor would she bear her husband's perfidy with the equanimity she now adopts while speaking about it hypothetically.

When she meets Antipholus of Syracuse (her husband's twin) and mistakes him for her husband, she begs him to consider his honour, pointing out that if he sleeps around, it contaminates her as well. "For if we be of one and thou play false, I do digest the poison of your flesh, being strumpeted by thy contagion." Which makes sense. If Antipholus contracts a disease through his debauchery, he is liable to pass it to her when they lie upon the marriage bed. She also adds that if she were the one caught in such licentious behaviour, Antipholus would not hesitate to beat or divorce her. She begs him to be true to his marriage vows so she can live "unstained" and he, "undishonoured".

All this seems to demonstrate that Adriana, far from being a shrew or an unreasonable woman, is a good wife. She refuses to accept the status quo because she loves her husband but does not see herself as being inferior to him. If she questions the conventions of the time which others (like Luciana) have accepted blindly, it does not make her a shrew; rather it shows that despite the oppression and brainwashing of society, she is able to think for herself.

Luciana represents the status quo. Pretty, conventional and yes, colourless, she is the perfect virtuous, obedient woman who speaks the way a man would have her speak. In other words, a bloodless, robotic Stepford wife who is not yet wed but soon to be. She advises Adriana to rein in her impatience, forebear with her husband's cruel treatment and be obedient. Her advice is worth little, if anything, as she has shunned marriage, begin afraid of there "troubles of the marriage bed". In other words, she is a frigid little virgin, who remains chaste not out of a sense of virtue, but because she is afraid of sex. Aristotle once advised men to marry frigid women and to deal out sex to men sparingly, maybe three times a month. And to make sure that they hated it. That way, not only would they not object to their husband's philandering, but they would not be driven to seek such solace themselves.

Although Luciana couches her words of advise in a cloak of sweetness and reasonability, her mask seems to break down when she advises the man she takes to be her brother-in-law, to be a better dissembler, rather than to give up other women altogether. "Or, if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth, muffle your false love with some show of blindness." So she is not appealing to his honour, but rather that he maintain the appearance of it. And there we have it; the perfect woman who is more concerned with appearances than reality. The perfect wife, who would leave your marriage bed cold (but then, how in the world are you going to get that son or heir), but would not stop you from sowing your wild oats, well into the marriage. The man she makes this appeal to, is not her brother-in-law, of course, but his twin, who finds himself irresistibly attracted to Luciana on the strength of her discourse. Evoking the status quo, she appears attractive to him. Adriana, who questions it, leaves him cold. Which tells us a lot more about him than it does about either woman.

While Adriana is warm and passionate, Luciana is cold and detached. But cold and detached seems to be equated with virtue. Love your husband just enough but not too much. That way, nobody gets hurt.

The Abbess represents the traditional point of view, but as we later find, she is a hypocrite, who in her youth, did not heed her own advice. She upbraids Adriana for her jealous fits, accusing her of driving Antipholus mad. Yet we learn later that she is really Aemilia, Aegeon's wife and Antipholus' mother. It was she who was responsible, by her headstrong behaviour, for the separation of the twins early in the story, which brought about these complications. When Aegeon had gone away for business, Aemilia, unable to bear the separation, decides to follow him, despite the fact that she is heavily pregnant and about the give birth. He had not sent for her. She was not being a dutiful wife and staying at home to be safely delivered of their children. Then, when she delivers the twins, she urges him to go home with her, which he accedes to, albeit unwillingly. And on this journey, they are shipwrecked and then separated for over 20 years. If she had been more like the woman she urged her daughter-in-law to be, the family would never have been separated and years of suffering would have been alleviated. Taking all this into account, her castigation of Adriana seems doubly infamous; either she has learned her lesson (but even then, shouldn't she be more compassionate to one who although she perceives her as having transgressed, did not do so, anywhere close to the level she did) or she is simply just another hypocrite, her sons' mother in fact, anxious to urge behaviour that she does not follow herself.

And then, there is the courtesan, a stock figure in comedy, the woman who entertains men for pleasure and profit, the whore with a heart of gold. She seems to represent the silent threat to marriage that runs throughout the text. The moment a husband is discontented with his wife, whose arms does he run to, but hers; even if he has to pay her money (and not a little) for her embraces. Although her actual appearances are few, her presence is tangible. Adriana is anxious when Antipholus is late for dinner because she fears that he may have gone to see the courtesan. When Antipholus (the husband) is chagrined at being locked out of his own house, he does in fact go to see the courtesan, promising to give her the chain that he made for his wife. (the fact that he had a chain made for his wife shows that for all his blustering, he is not completely indifferent to her). She is silently present too, when Adriana speaks of the poison she would digest in her own flesh were Antipholus to betray his marriage bed.

Here, she is a whore with a strong head for business. She gives her diamond rung to Antipholus in exchange for the chain. As the chain is worth 500 ducats and the ring merely 40 ducats, this is a very profitable exchange. Then, when she meets the wrong Antipholus who will neither give her the chain nor return her diamond ring, she decides to appeal to Adriana, the woman she has, in effect, wronged. She amends her story by saying that Antipholus stormed into her house and took her ring by force, and refrains from any mention of the gold chain. Her appeal works and she manages to get Adriana on her side. What is interesting here is that when charged with the story, the wrong Antipholus does not deny the story but merely says, "Tis true, my liege, this ring I had of her."

He later thanks her for the "good cheer" she provided him at dinner. Although she does not profit from the bargain, she does not lose anything by it, either. While the other women seem to think and feel their way through the play, the courtesan has no time for the heart; she is a woman of business. And despite her profession, she is not represented as either evil or reprobate, but is treated with courtesy by everyone. Which I find very interesting. It would seem that a courtesan's lot may be better than a wife's after all. Or so the movie "A Dangerous Beauty" about the courtesans in Venice, who were the only educated women in society, the only ones who could read and write, would have us think.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion

I watched the Kenneth Branagh production of Much Ado About Nothing and found it so perfect that I had difficulty in reading the actual play - because he cut some of the dialogue, some of the scene complications and actually rearranged others that now, whatever he cut seems superfluous to the telling of the story.

I watched it several times. I think it sets up two couples in opposition. The first couple, Beatrice and Benedick claim to hate each other and the opposite sex: one a confirmed bachelor and the other a confirmed spinster who is too shrewd for marriage. But ah, dig deeper. There is something not quite true about the way Benedick rails at marriage. And we soon learn that Beatrice had once felt a certain tenderness for Benedick. In this production, at least, it is obvious that despite her thrusts and parries, she still feels it.

My favourite scenes are the "merry war of words" between the two. I wish there had been more of them. That makes me partly regret the trick played where they had to come out in the open about how they really feel about each other. And despite the self congratulation of the others for bringing about this match, I think that the depth of feeling between the two when finally revealed suggests something older and deeper than what could have come about through means of a trick, be it never so clever.

The other couple on the other hand, the model couple - young and handsome and rich - disgust me. Hero, for being the dutiful daughter with not a speck of spirit to her, trotting along obediently and marrying whomsoever her father should choose, and Claudio, for being a stupid, young, self-seeking bastard. I cannot help but remember that one of the first questions he asked the Prince, when talking about Hero, was what her prospects were. And he firmly established that she was Leonato's only heir before he pursued his suit.

As for Don John, the acknowledged villain of the piece. He found an easy mark in Claudio. That he could fool him not once but twice, is remarkable. It also showed how self serving Claudio was.

And oh, the prize of one-sided virginity insisted upon - upon my honour, I am a maid. The scene Claudio caused at the wedding, denouncing hero for damaged goods and the stupid Prince, who had until then been so regal and above it all, supporting him. Of course I lost all respect for the prince. Denzel Washington though he may be.

And I liked Benedick even more for taking Hero's part and issuing that challenge on Claudio.

Kill Claudio?

Yes, I think he would have done everybody a favour had he done so.

But enough of that! The drama bit was overdone and I hated the fact that until the last, Hero was traded as a commodity. She was little else in the game, her own father turning upon her with the accusation, not caring to find out the rights and wrongs before he attacked her.

Poor poppet. She was sorely done by.

I can't understand why Margaret allowed her mistress to be denounced in the way she did and why she didn't set them straight at once. Perhaps she would not have been believed.

And Don John was found and brought back and would have to pay for his misdeeds, although, in light of all the merriment, that part was to be conducted offstage. Well and good.

For man is a giddy thing. And this is my conclusion.

Except when he is not giddy enough and insists on his portion.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...

OK I am going to cheat on this blog. I did quite a bit of Shakespeare in university, and sometimes, even had to write essays on the various plays. I am presenting the essays here...I though it would be a good place for them.



The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare shows how power circulates in both Venice and Belmont during Elizabethan times in various contexts. In this blog post, I will be doing a cultural materialist reading of the play and comparing it to the movie version of Fight Club, which will serve as my contemporary text. I will be looking specifically at how power operates in male networks which look to be complete in themselves, resisting the inclusion of women except as a commodity to reinforce rather than defuse the patriarchy.

Cultural materialism (for those who are unclear on the concept) is a way of interpreting literary texts as historical or cultural artefacts, emphasising the importance of history in shaping them. It sees literary and cultural criticism as participating in politics, active in reinforcing, dissenting from or opposing cultural orthodoxies.

The Merchant of Venice foregrounds make networks of power within the city of Venice. The men in the group - Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salarino, Solanio and Salerio - are gentlemen of Venice and companions to each other and while three of the members of this group eventually get married, they do mention in the text that their first loyalties are to each other. Antonio, the merchant is the only member of the group with money but his money seems to be at the disposal of the rest of the group, particularly Bassanio, who is introduced as his kinsman, although the bond between the two seems to run much deeper. Karen Newman, in her essay, Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice points out that the women in this play are regarded as goods for exchange. When Bassanio speaks of Portia, he mentions her wealth before he talks about her beauty or her virtue:

In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and fairer than that word -
Of wondrous virtues. (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 160-162)

While Bassanio does soften his language to speak of her other qualities, he makes no qualms about stressing the mercenary nature of his suit:

And many Jasons come in quest of her.
Oh my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should question less be fortunate. (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 171-175)

Newman argues that Belmont is not a place of love but that it shares the same commercial values as Venice. She points out that the two are characterised by the same "structure of exchange", positing that marriage is the most fundamental form of exchange with men trading women to establish or tighten the bonds of male friendship. The bond that Antonio enters on Bassanio's behalf serves to promote and secure the friendship between them. As Bassanio has assured Antonio before he launches on a panegyric about Portia, his first loyalties lie with his friend, rather than his prospective bride: "To you, Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love..." (Act 1, Scene 1, lines 129-130).

While it may seem like just a lot of high-flown, flowery, ornamental nonsense, the text bears it out. When there is a conflict between what Portia has asked him to do (in terms of keeping her ring) and what Antonio asks him to do (in giving the ring to the lawyer who saved his life), he goes with what Antonio wants. During the trial, Bassanio is moved to exclaim that he would give up everything, including his wife, who is dear to him as life itself, to save Antonio. Portia in disguise who is standing by, remarks rather caustically: "Your wife would give you little thanks for that if she were by to hear you make the offer."

In each case, both with the ring and the offer of his wife's life in exchange for Antonio's, the rather obstreperous Gratiano echoes Bassanio. The message seems to be that the fraternal love between the men is worth more than their feelings for their respective wives. It is at this point that Shylock, who is cast as the villain of the scene, is moved to disgust at the relatively low value Christian husbands place on their wives.

Portia, on marrying Bassanio, finds that she is not only saddled with him, but his friends as well. Almost his first act on marriage is to rush to the side of his friend Antonio. Gratiano marries Portia's companion Nerissa. Lorenzo, fleeing Venice. after having eloped with Shylock's daughter Jessica, also comes to take refuge with Bassanio and Portia. Bassanio then, does not sacrifice any of his male friends on marriage. Rather now, with Portia's money at his disposal, he is able to play the bountiful host and disperse largesse to his friends. Portia acknowledges his right to do so. When he picks the right casket to win her hand, she submits herself to be:

As from her lord, her governor, her king
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants
Queen o'er myself: and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, an this same myself
Are yours, my lord's. (Act 3, Scene 2).

And thus saying she becomes wholly his to do with as he sees fit.

While, through cross-dressing, Portia has saved Antonio's life and frightened her husband into a true appreciation of her qualities and what might happen if he crosses her, the affair with the ring puts paid to any romantic notion she might have had that Bassanio values her over all else. Quite simply, he doesn't. And what's more, he appears proud of the fact. When all is said and done, male bonds are the most important. Wives are important inasmuch as they produce heirs. Portia's deception that she went to bed with the lawyer who possessed the ring was effective because it forefronted exactly where her value lay. In the bedroom. Producing legitimate heirs for the pauper who had married her.

In David Fincher's cinematic adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club, the protagonists attempt to resurrect what they perceive to be a waning masculinity in the face of the "feminisation" of America through the formation of all-male clubs where the members pound on each other, bare-chested and bare-fisted, emerging from combat bloodied and bruised, but feeling like men again.

Susan Faludi, in her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man has pointed out that consumer culture has emasculated men, pushing them increasingly into ornamental and passive roles traditionally associated with women. She described post-war masculinity with no common enemy and no common missions potentially dangerous. As the male role diminished, Faludi said many men have found themselves driven to more domineering and even monstrous displays in their frantic quest for a meaningful showdown - with a shape-shifting enemy - women, gays, young black men or illegal aliens. This is arguably what happens in Fight Club which foregrounds the lengths men are willing to take to reclaim their dying masculinity.

The first part of the movie sets up the feminised culture of America which the narrator has become enmeshed in. A chronic insomniac, he has found salvation in support groups for various illnesses, which he attends, so he can weep uncontrollably in the arms of another person. In his spare time, he shops voraciously using an Ikea catalogue, looking for the perfect sofa, the perfect coffee table, the perfect salt shaker, that will define him as a person. He is quite happy to go on being a feminised man, but his idyll is invaded by a woman, Marla Singer, who has also discovered the joy of support groups, and like him, is a tourist rather than a real sufferer. Her presence is a mirror to the narrator's own tourist status and he is no longer able to cry freely at these meetings, and as a result, no longer able to sleep. He confronts her and they agree to divide up the meetings. He goes there to cry, she to eat.

When not attending meetings or looking for the perfect salt shaker, the narrator is a "recall coordinator" for a large automobile concern. His job basically consists of mathematically determining whether it would be more profitable for his company to recall automobiles with defective parts or pay out compensation from the lawsuits that would result later.

On his next flight to investigate yet another vehicle crash he meets the enigmatic Tyler Durden, who makes US$20 from each bar of soap he makes using discarded body fluids from a liposuction clinic, "selling rich women their fat asses back to them." This meeting marks the turning point of his life. He moves in with Durden when his apartment is mysteriously blown up with homemade explosives and from then on, imbibes Durden's philosophies which are an antithesis of everything he has ever stood for until then.

Goddamit, an entire generation pumping gas, working tables, the slaves of the white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We are the middle children of history, man, no purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression, Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won't. And we're slowly learning from the fact. And we've very pissed off. (Tyler Durden)

The narrator and Tyler Durden set out to save the world of the emasculated white collar workers through the late-night, masochistic, bare-knuckled brawling. They start an underground boxing network and under Tyler's leadership the fight clubs become so popular they are transformed into a politicised, revolutionary movement: Project Mayhem, a series of escalating disruptions aimed at businesses, consumer consumption, and the financial system itself. Eventually the narrator, along with first-time readers/viewers, discovers that Tyler Durden is merely his alter ego.

What starts out as a reassertion of masculinity gradually degenerates int a terrorist group undertaking to blow up a dozen corporate credit card buildings to wipe out all record of credit card debt. The men bond through extreme violence and become obedient, unthinking, nameless conformists dedicated to a single cause and under the absolute authority of Durden.

Henry Giroux pointed out that while Fight Club appears to offer a critique of late capitalistic society and the misfortunes it generates out of its obsessive concerns with consumption, profits and commercial values, it is really rebelling against a consumerist culture that dissolves the bonds of male sociality and puts into place an enervating notion of male identity and agency. Krister Friday (in his essay A Generation of Men Without History: Fight Club Masculinity and the Historical Symptom)pointed out that Fight Club stages a narrative of "white male decline", but it is a narrative in which an atavistic notion of masculinity (one based on fist-fighting and terrorism) is first recovered and then offered the chance to regain its efficacy and reconstitute itself through revolutionary action.

Fight Club functions as a rejection of the feminine, which has been set up at the beginning of the movie as "the enemy". The protagonist leaves his upper middle class apartment for a hovel in a toxic dump, he trades his support groups for organised brawling, he arrives at work looking worse and worse everyday until he successfully loses his job.

The only female character in the movie, Marla Singer, is relegated for the most part to the periphery. She is only there to offer her body freely to Durden/the narrator and to be used and rejected at their whim. She is not allowed any volition. In the closing scene, she is kidnapped by Durden's highly trained militia, who bring her to him, kicking and screaming. She forgets her anger, however, in seeing his bloodied face and as they hold hands and watch them buildings around them collapse, he offers: "You met me at a very weird time in my life."

Her only importance in the movie seems to have been to get him out of the feminine support groups to form the more manly fight clubs, but otherwise, she is superfluous.

Here, as in with The Merchant of Venice, it is the relationships and loyalties between the men that matter. These relationships construct the members of the club, taking them from being disempowered men in unimportant, dead-end jobs, to members of a unified, deadly organisation wielding a destructive power which literally brings down an entire financial district. Both texts are about all-male groups which either are, or become sufficient in themselves through mutual support, loyalty and discipline. In either case, no female, however important, is allowed to come between the brothers.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Lay on, Macduff



I can't quite make up my mind about Macduff. Admittedly, he is the hero here and he slew the tyrant, Macbeth, whose inhumanity grew the moment he crossed the line and murdered his king under his own house (despite a soliloquy where he weighed what he was doing, saw exactly what the act would entail and who it would make him and decided against it). And that was good and it was a long time coming and everyone rejoiced to see his bloody head severed from his body, brandished around like a trophy.

But Macduff. He fled his castle without his wife and his children. He left them to their fate. Was it thoughtlessness? Cowardice? When Lady Macduff rants against him and is hushed by Ross (I think it was Ross, if not Lennox - those men are colourless and seem, for the most part, interchangeable) I think she did have a point. And when the murderers came to slay them, oh how cruelly they did it. And for Macduff to cry to the heavens..."All my pretty ones? All of them?" seemed to be the height of hypocrisy. You knew Macbeth was mad. You saw how many he had killed. You returned to him a rude/saucy answer when he summoned you to court. Did you think you were above it? That you would escape?

I'm not justifying Macbeth, but here, you could already see he had gone mad and that his bloodlust just grew and grew. You couldn't argue or reason with him. About the only thing in the world he loved was his wife.

I read the play about five times and watched the movie. Well, the one directed by Paul Farrer, anyway, which I found wonderful. Here it seemed to suggest that Lady Macbeth controlled her husband through sex. He couldn't wait to jump on her when he returned from battle and she, well, she worked it and she worked it. No wonder when he recants and says he won't do it...the image she gives him is a child plucked from her nipple - I always thought it was slightly suggestive, but oh, does Helen Baxendale work it and work it. Here you could see a man smitten by his wife, willing to do anything to keep her love and admiration. And here, you could see a woman slightly contemptuous of a man she could sway so easily to get whatever she wanted.

I loved the weird sisters...the full extent of the evil doesn't really come through in the drips and drabs that leak out about them...you have to read the full play to see the extent of it all. And in the Paul Farrer production, one of them, the third, was actually young and beautiful...and you could see that she throbbed with desire for Macbeth - a virile young warrior...who could have lived peacefully on his estates on the largesse presented to him by the king. Oh, that he had not spurs to prick the sides of his intent.

So many phrases from the play were familiar - I had heard them quoted over and over all through my life and hadn't realised that they were from Macbeth.

I know this was Shakespeare's most fearsome and bloody play, and yet I enjoyed it thoroughly and didn't mind reading it over and over, running the words over in my mouth, tasting them on my tongue. Beauty.

I tried to make a list of the plays I had actually read and the plays I hadn't and damme if I couldn't remember more than 10 of them. History plays I'd wager, also some of the historical ones. But no matter. The year is yet young and I will keep at it, reading play after play until I'm sated, until I'm done.

I really think I should be reading them with a snifter of brandy or a glass of wine. Then I would appreciate the full extent (I recently discovered the meaning of a song I had listened to about 50 times before, because I listened to it drunk and it finally made sense, and the words came alive).


Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Tempest

We are such things as dreams are made on; and our little life, is rounded with a sleep.

I decided to start with The Tempest, because according to Anne (Hathaway), that was the last play that she wrote. And although the book was purely fiction, it does give one pause. Some plays demonstrate a woman's sensitivity, no doubt, that is what she is trying to say.

Anyway, I read the play first. I had a battered old copy I bought at some secondhand book sale. I think it was Payless Books. Remember their book sales in Brickfields? Boy was that something.

Anyway, I had The Tempest on my bookshelf for years, always figuring I would get around to reading it when I did my year with Shakespeare. After all, The Tempest was not one of his heaviest plays right? There was a storm and magic and an airy sprite and a brutal savage who was mercifully enslaved (I'm sorry, I know by all the critics that I'm supposed to feel sorry for Caliban and view him through post-colonial lenses, but I don't. He tried to rape Miranda. No punishment, however brutal, is bad enough. I'm surprised Prospero didn't castrate him, which to my mind would have been fitting).

Ultimately it was a tale of revenge. But since Prospero is wise and third person omniscient-like, it is not revenge but justice and retribution. He forgives his usurping brother at the end, although his brother has expressed no remorse and has even plotted against the king (of Naples) meaning that he hasn't learned his lesson. But he does take back the dukedom. And cement his alliance with Alonzo (the King of Naples) by ensuring that his daughter Miranda meets and falls in love with Alonzo's son Ferdinand. Try to top that you childless Antonio!

In the introduction to my beat up old The Tempest, the guy who wrote the foreword said Shakespeare's plays shouldn't be read, they should be heard. The words that seem to make no sense upon the page, requiring constant reference to the footnotes, come alive when you see it performed. Ah, you think. So that's what he meant.

Anyway, I googled The Tempest and came across the 2010 production with Helen Mirren as Prospera. Yes, the main character was a woman who had been cheated out of her dukedom by her conniving brother. You know, some of the speeches seemed to make more sense with a woman saying it. And naturally, Mirren was brilliant.

But she was supported by a stellar cast. They were all good. The play came alive. And there were plenty of special effects which Shakespeare would probably have not approved of (well, I am not sure he would have approved of them changing his principle character to a woman) but it was well done. They substituted the pageant by the three goddesses - Ceres, Iris and Juno with a light show full of stars and magical symbols.

I loved some of the speeches. Especially the one quoted above about how ephemeral life is. But I guess I should have listened to Charles and read the play at least five times to absorb it before I attempted to write anything of it. There was a touch of Romeo and Juliet with Ferdinand and Miranda. Like Juliet she didn't want to seem so easily won. But it was charming that she proposed to him rather than vice versa. And that she offered to carry his sticks for him. And that despite being too easily won, he loved her anyway. It was a Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. Well, why not? Weren't their fathers sworn enemies? Didn't Alonzo help Antonio usurp Prospero's throne?

But I get the feeling that part of the blame lay with Prospero. As Duke he should have been governing his citizens, rather than getting lost in books and leaving it all to his brother. What do you expect? Naturally his brother would usurp. So maybe the message was to do what you are supposed to do, what you are tasked to do, what you have a duty to do or you risk losing everything, your life included?

Maybe that's why at the end, Prospero destroys his staff and books. He is more than match for Antonio who has come out of this unscathed. Now, he would be vigilant. Now, he would rule as a Duke was meant to rule. I suppose all those years alone on that island with Miranda commanding the spirits of the air and controlling the savage that was Caliban taught him about policy and governance. To rule with a none-too-gentle hand and to be aware of motives, of what is going on in the minds of those around you.

He released Ariel and was sad to see him go. This was played up in the movie - it was more convincing for a woman to display such attachment to the airy sprite. After all, Ariel did her bidding to a T.

Am not sure if I will watch it again. Perhaps. But I do want to move on to other plays. I have just learned that there are 37 plays in total. And I intend to read all of them.