Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

And now for my very favourite Shakespeare play--a play I've read and re-read, studied and enjoyed for many years now: The Taming of the Shrew. This may surprise you, of course. I know the various opinions of this play: that it's outdated and chauvinistic. That it's about a strong independent woman who is subjected to severe psychological torture until she's been battered into outward submission to a cruel and insensitive patriarchy. I've heard people say that there could be no way Kate's famous speech at the end could have been given by any woman without irony, sarcasm, or brainwashing. But I think such interpretations miss both the point and the fun of the play.

Here's the story. Signior Baptista of Padua is a wealthy man with two beautiful daughters--but alas! Katherina, the elder, could be said to have a serious temper problem. She is wild, angry, and verbally abusive of everyone she comes into contact with. Her barbed wit sends everyone scrambling for cover, her father is universally commiserated on his ill-fortune in having such a diabolical daughter, and the ugliness of her temper ensures that she remains unloved and lonely. On the other hand, Bianca, the younger daughter, can't move without tripping over sighing suitors of every rank; because she knows how to act meek and obedient, she gets to do what she likes, and Signior Baptista makes no secret of the fact that he favours her. But, driven to despair by Katherina's behaviour, Baptista tells Bianca's three suitors (Gremio, a wealthy old man; Hortensio, a gentleman of Padua, and Lucentio, the son of a rich man who has just arrived in Padua to study) that he cannot allow any of them to have Bianca until Katherine has been married.

Fortunately for Bianca's suitors, an old friend of Hortensio's soon arrives in Padua. Bursting onto the stage in full cry, seeming nearly as mad as Katherina herself, comes Petruchio, a man in need of a wealthy wife and determined to get one however old, ugly, or unpleasant she might be. Understandably, he needs no added incentive when he hears about Katherine, who is wealthy (as required) and beautiful (excellent!), if shrewd (that can be fixed). He gets to the point briskly, wooing her in a storm of words, getting her father's consent for her marriage, and setting the date within half an hour of their first meeting. But Katherine is determined not be made a fool of by anyone. While Lucentio and Hortensio, in disguise, try to woo the yielding Bianca, Petruchio and Katherine engage in a series of titanic confrontations which she soon finds, to her surprise, that she is incapable of winning. Mocked, starved, and deprived of sleep, Katherine begins to bend under the strain.

No wonder this is the one Shakespeare play that makes feminists break out in a cold sweat and raise the cry of Abuse! But let me explain what is really going on here--what makes this play my favourite.

First, to set the scene. There are two things you must understand for this play to make any sense. The first thing is that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. This is a comedy, for heaven's sake, of the broadest possible nature--
Petruchio: Where is the foolish knave I sent before?
Grumio: Here, sir; as foolish as I was before.
--in which one of the few stage directions is
[Throws the meat, &c., about the stage.]
The word, I fancy, should be "slapstick". Many commentators have remarked that the play is firmly in the style of the original slapstick theatre--the Italian commedia dell'arte. Too many readers, appalled by the exaggerated comic tactics that Petruchio uses on Kate, treat the play like a tragedy. Banish this thought from your mind; think of The Taming of the Shrew as a kind of live-action cartoon.

The second thing to understand is that both Petruchio and Kate, throughout the play, are attracted to each other. Peter Leithart says:
We will misunderstand Kate completely if we do not see that she is falling in love with Petruchio. We will misunderstand Petruchio completely if we do not see a progression in his feelings toward Katherina: from seeing her as a means to wealth, to seeing her as a challenge to his masculine powers, to seeing her through eyes of admiration and love.
Just hold that thought. There are a few more things to mention here at the beginning before I begin to analyse the play in more depth.


The play has many intersecting themes. Peter Leithart points out a few of them: for example, the themes of disguise, transformation, and deception. Petruchio and Kate's relationship is the only one that does not involve disguise and deception, but it is the one that actually results in lasting transformation, a transformation deeper than clothes or pretty manners. Then there is the theme of study and education. At the beginning, Lucentio's servant Tranio encourages him not to study too hard--to study just what he likes and when he likes. Similarly, Bianca (showing her true colours), insists on her own way:
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.
Such easy methods of education have no effect on Katherine, who breaks the lute on Hortensio's head when he tries it. It is a harder school, of which Bianca (unfortunately) knows nothing, which she is sent to--a school with harsher discipline than her own will:
Tranio: Faith, he is gone unto the taming-school.
Bianca: The taming-school! what, is there such a place?
Tranio: Ay, mistress, and Petruchio is the master,
That teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long,
To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue.
Something should also be said about the character of Petruchio in this play. As Leithart points out, he comes into the play in a storm of words--world-shaping words. The first phase of his taming of Kate comes at their first meeting, when he uses his gift with words to reshape her. He shows her a picture of what she could be:
'Twas told me you were rough, and coy, and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar;
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous;
But slow in speech, yet sweet as spring-time flowers;
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip, as angry wenches will;
Nor has thou pleasure to be cross in talk;
But thou with mildness entertain'st thy wooers,
With gentle conference, soft and affable.
Throughout this scene--a hilarious exchange of puns (some of them very vulgar) and wordplay--he continues to hold up to her a picture of what she should be, what he intends to transform her into--an amiable, mild, and virtuous wife and mother. His speech constantly dares her to contradict him, not just in this scene but also in the rest of the play as he continues to reshape her reality. His aim is to have her submit to his words, and this is the end to which he employs the disciplines he does later in the play: that is, he behaves like a shrew himself, not to Kate but to his servants (it is a very important step in Kate's education that she finds herself defending the servants from attack, rather than being an attacker herself) in an attempt to hold up before her a mirror of her own unpleasantness; and he refuses her the communion of bed and board, treating her more like a wild falcon than a wife.

The truth is that Kate deserves this treatment because she does not know how to behave in any other way; she certainly is wild, and certainly needs taming. In fact Kate--the angry, abusive Kate--is often described in language that underlines her savagery. "Why, she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam!" Petruchio is not so superstitious, or so easily scared, but he still speaks of her as a falcon needing to be tamed, and everyone calls her a shrew. Commentator J Dennis Huston emphasises the play's fairy-tale imagery. It's a beauty and the beast tale, but the beauty is the beast and must be transformed by the prince in order for the play's other characters, especially Bianca, to move out of stalemate. Leithart says, "Petruchio, like Christ, is preparing a savage child of hell to become Queen at his right hand."

Working with this framework, here's my reading of the play.

Petruchio arrives in Padua with the self-proclaimed intention to woo and marry any wealthy wife, be she old and ugly or 'curst as Socrates' Xanthippe'. This is not very romantic, but Petruchio's intention serves several purposes in the play. The first purpose is to give him the opportunity of hearing about the invincible Kate—it's unlikely Hortensio would mention her to anyone looking to marry for love! The second purpose is to clearly distinguish him from dilettantes like Lucentio, without a thought of marriage or responsibility until his eye lights on Bianca in the street and he falls in love with her at first sight—a classic blunder of the Foolish Lover.

In the scene where Kate meets Petruchio for the first time, they are both immediately attracted to each other. We've already been told that Kate is beautiful, and Petruchio talks about it at length during the scene. Meanwhile, her interest in him is immediately whetted: she has been starved for love and attention, she's been made to feel worthless, and for the first time possibly in her whole life she is being complimented. Leithart again: 
By reversing Kate's every expectation--by commenting on her gentleness not her violence, by praising her beauty, by demanding to marry her when no other man dare--Petruchio is trying to convince Kate of her worth.
In addition, Kate finds her match in Petruchio. Every other man she's met quails and flees before her words and she despises them for it. She is clearly an intelligent woman, but none of the other men in Padua are even close to being her equal. While everyone's love and attention has been lavished on the good-two-shoes little sister Bianca, Kate has found herself a hawk in a dovecot: undervalued, ignored, and unloved. Later on in the play, Bianca says of the match and Kate that “being mad herself, she's madly mated”. Quite correct. Petruchio is from his very first appearance Kate's obvious mate: full of windy wit. In Kate he meets the very first person in the play who can actually hold her ground with him in a war of words (compare this to his difficulties with his servant at Hortensio's gate!).

Kate does not, of course, give in easily. But it would again be a mistake to think that she is a hundred percent opposed to the idea of marrying Petruchio. There is evidence in the play that she marries him willingly. In the Italy of that time, betrothals were made by the woman's father joining her hand with the suitor's. This occurs in Shrew ("Give me your hands ... It is a match!"). The engagement would be illegal if the girl showed unwillingness. Later, as she waits for him to turn up (late) for the wedding, her complaint that she has been forced into the marriage is half-hearted: the real sting lies in the fact that once again (she thinks), she is being ridiculed by the world: "Lo, there is mad Petruchio's wife, If it would please him to come and marry her!" Furthermore, no resistance is recorded at the wedding itself.

The problem is that we see this whole situation from a point of view that sees marriage as demeaning. But to Kate, it would have been in some way a vindication: she does have worth; she is desirable. Her objection "I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first!" when Petruchio sets the date for the wedding is no objection to the marriage itself. It is an objection to such a hastily-arranged marriage. Kate wants the full dignity, the full pomp of marriage.

But Petruchio insists on denying this to her. He arranges the marriage for the very next Sunday. He shows up late, dressed like a fool. He turns the ceremony into a parody. He drags her away from the wedding feast (again, in this scene, she's not angry at being married but at being refused the ceremonial feast in her own honour). Back at Petruchio's house, he refuses her even food and the wedding night--even, later, new clothes to wear to her sister's wedding. Why? Petruchio is quite clear:
My falcon now is sharp, and passing empty;
And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged.
This is because only the humble are exalted, and so Kate must be humbled before she is accorded the dignities of marriage. Leithart again points out that this segment of the play shows a death-and-resurrection theme, a journey through Hell. Yet, despite this, Petruchio's methods are not entirely harsh. Although Kate is the one being tamed, the taming goes hand-in-hand the whole time with assertions of her worth and status. She is refused food--because it is not good enough. She is refused sleep--because the bed is not good enough. The clothes ordered for her are rejected--again, because they are not good enough; and to press home his point, Petruchio insists that she has worth, and that he will take up responsibility:
What, is the jay more precious than the lark
Because his feathers are more beautiful?
Or is the adder better than the eel,
Because his painted skin contents the eye?
O no, good Kate; neither art thou the worse
For this poor furniture and mean array.
If thou account'st it shame, lay it on me.
We now come to the point where, on their way back to Padua, Petruchio and Kate meet Vincentio, Lucentio's father. Kate, thoroughly humbled, is by now ready to capitulate, and therefore ready to be exalted. Upon meeting the old man, Petruchio commands her to greet him as if he were a fair young woman. Again, he's reshaping reality with his words and commanding her submission to this new world. And this time--this time (the scene is played to perfection in the BBC TV Shakespeare) Kate gets it. She gets the joke. Instead of fighting Petruchio, she steps into his paradigm and accepts his reality. And here at last she finds true freedom to use her wit, in creation rather than destruction. She takes Petruchio's theme and carries it much farther than he did: embroidering on the theme, praising the 'young maid's' beauty, and ending with a hilarious blessing on "the man who favourable stars Allot thee for his lovely bed-fellow!" Suddenly, Kate loses her bitterness and discovers that in submission to her husband, she has creative power whereas in opposition to authority, she only destroyed it. At this point Petruchio drops the shrewish behaviour he has been using for the last few days. It was intended to hold up to Kate a mirror of her own behaviour, and no longer has anything to reflect.

Back in Padua, the shenanigans surrounding Lucentio and Bianca's courtship draw to an end and their marriage feast is celebrated. But this is not really the celebration of their marriage; it is the celebration of Kate's. At the first wedding, she was denied every honour. At this one, she is given far more honour than would have been possible at the first.

In the first part of the final scene, Kate takes offence to Hortensio's new bride (a widow) laughing with contempt at Petruchio, being married to a shrew. Two things immediately become obvious as Petruchio laughingly eggs her on: "To her, Kate!" First, that Kate is still a strong, lively, and intelligent woman. And second, that this falcon has been trained ... to hunt!

After the women go out, Petruchio and the other men lay a wager to try who has the most obedient, least shrewish wife. Of course everyone expects Petruchio to be totally humiliated by his wife. But she is the only one who comes to his call; and so she, newly wise, is put into authority over the others. Petruchio tells her to "swinge me them soundly forth unto their husbands" and then, when she has done so, has her tell them "what duty they do owe unto their lords and husbands." She does so, in one of the most magnificent expositions of a wife's scriptural duties to her husband in the literature of Christendom.
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?—
I am asham'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toll and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.
Is this ironic? Is this delivered with a wink? I hope by now to have shown the opposite. Leithart argues that this is unthinkable: "It is simply not believable that Shakespeare would mock such widely accepted Christian views of marriage, or treat them sarcastically." I would further point out that, if this speech insists of the duties of women, it insists on far harsher duties of husbands: "And for thy maintenance commits his body To painful labour both by sea and land." J Dennis Huston says, "For in speaking of the duty that a wife owes her husband, Kate speaks also of the duty a husband owes his wife; she describes the mutual responsibility and trust necessary in any successful marriage." This is mutual submission: a respect of the husband's headship on the one hand; a self-sacrificing love of the wife's weakness on the other hand.

J Dennis Huston further points out what Kate gets out of it:
This scene brings Kate the emotional satisfaction of effecting desires long felt but little acknowledged--to become the center of approving communal attention, to win the unqualified praise of her father, to see her sister misbehave and suffer public reprimand, and to gain a husband's admiring love.
In her submission to Petruchio, Kate is exalted above the other women in the play. From a hated outcast, she becomes the instructor and teacher just as Petruchio was hers. She may have hoped for vindication at the beginning of the play, but by the end of it she has far more than that: she has pre-eminence. Nor does she wield authority over her sisters because she is beneath her husband's foot: he'll have none of that, and raises her up to kiss like equals.

All this in a rambunctious, wild, hilarious, slapstick farce of a play! And yet, just as in all the other plays I've reviewed this week, I still feel like I'm only scratching the surface; I've barely mentioned the Induction scenes with Christopher Sly, the tinker; I've barely touched on Lucentio and Bianca, and I haven't even mentioned the themes of paternal authority. But I hope I have demonstrated, in this post at least, how rich and rewarding even the most hilarious of Shakespeare's plays can be.


I have seen three filmed productions of The Taming of the Shrew. The Franco Zeffirelli version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor is all very well, but not very satisfying to a really rabid Shrew fan: although Burton made an excellent Petruchio, too much of the witty play was cut out and the scene where Petruchio laughed at Kate when she fell off her horse was just wrong--callous indifference was not the tactic. The BBC Shakespeare version starring John Cleese as Petruchio retains more of the play's actual lines, but even less of the spirit, I felt. Cleese plays Petruchio completely wrong: moody, dour, distracted, vague, and incomprehensible. The play is not very funny at all and why on earth does Cleese decide to portray Petruchio with a constant imitation of a low-spirited hen clucking absent-mindedly? That said there were two excellent touches: first, as mentioned, the scene where Petruchio and Kate meet Vincentio; second, the psalm the cast sings at the end. Finally, there is the 1973 Broadway production, which takes the commedia dell'arte approach, including actual slapsticks, all the bawdy humour they could find, and some unfortunate "costume" choices. On the other hand, it is also very faithful to the text and mood of the original: hilarious and energetic.

7 comments:

Lady Bibliophile said...

I must admit, I have never read a Shakespeare. But for some shool unit study we watched the Franco Zeffirelli Taming of the Shrew. :) I must admit, I could not figure out if she was tamed or not--but I'll take your word for it, as you understand him much better! :)

Suzannah said...

Oh! But the Zeffirelli version is hardly The Taming of the Shrew at all! It cuts and downright changes quite a bit, and if you were in doubt of whether the shrew was tamed at the end, then that is because of the changes they made! I do recommend reading the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Bravo!
Never before have I read a finer article so well explaining away the trifling condemnations of less-noble minds, as I have here! (Regarding The Taming of the Shrew). Your thoughts & points have been laid out admirably, (Indeed, every other line or so I would cheer, or nod in agreement, with a satisfied grin :) & I will be sure to refer any person with a contrarian opinion to this very article.

Some of your observations inspired me to think even deeper of the beautiful blend of humor, wit, solid character growth, and subtle principles that are found in the play, making it really enjoyable (& educational!) to read!

Thank you for taking the time writing all this out, and do keep me posted if you ever decide to scratch further below "the surface" with a sequel article; I'd be delighted, I'm sure! :-)

~Matthew Thomas
tmatthewpiper@yahoo.com

Suzannah said...

Well, I'm glad you liked it! There's a somewhat revised and updated version of this same review in my book, War Games.

Anonymous said...

I leave a sigh for not seeing "Much Ado About Nothing" under the review index. ;-)
~Matthew

M Tess said...

You should check out "Kiss Me, Petruchio" on YouTube - it's a filmed condensed version of a 1978 outdoor production, which is very good, very funny, and very faithful to the text.

Maggie

Suzannah said...

Ooh, thanks for the recommendation! I'll certainly have a look :)

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