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.

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