Saturday, January 05, 2019

William Shakespeare: The Taming Of The Shrew

[Image source: . Engraving by H. C. Selous, that certainly does nothing to conceal the discomfort of the moment.]

It's an early play. There are strong reasons for thinking it was performed before the closure of the playhouses in mid-1592, and some less strong reasons for thinking it no earlier than 1591. Brian Morris' claim that it was Shakespeare's first play, c. 1589, is attractive and not impossible, but I feel reluctant to place it before 2GV; it's so closely related yet has so much more impact.

In fact even during Shakespeare's lifetime you have the sense that it had a bracing effect, it was both too good to ignore and a bit too hard to swallow. And that feeling has grown ever sharper.

Sometimes we can sense that Shakespeare is writing something he doesn't really believe in, he's dragging his heels. The last act of Titus Andronicus, and some of Timon of Athens, could be examples of this. The Taming of the Shrew couldn't be more different, it's composed with great vigour, with a consciousness of excelling. Maybe there are signs of authorial discomfort in the final scene, but we'll come back to that.

The most agressively offensive aspect of the play is its title.  Indeed, I remember feeling a bit affronted by it the first time I heard it, when I was about six. I was not so innocent, even then, as not to know that referring to someone by an insulting label was a way of refusing to recognize their individuality (of course, I wouldn't have had the words to articulate why, it just seemed rude).

I took it for granted that "shrew" was a gendered animal insult, like "cow" or "bitch". It probably has been that, but the OED casts significant doubt on whether the opprobrious term originally derives from the small highly-strung rodent, or just meant a devil. In the Middle Ages it was used about individuals of both sexes. Its meaning , generally, was the kind of person you want to avoid having any business with: typically, the kind of mean-minded person who always turns down a request for help, the kind of bloody-minded person who stands uncompromisingly on their rights; but a shrew can also describe a yob or low-life. Shrews make other peoples lives miserable. Shrews don't care what other people think.

This bunch of meanings was all still current in 1591, so when in the play Petruchio is described as a worse shrew than his wife, this is not a figurative use of the term.

Nevertheless, the insult was on the way to becoming gendered and being used particularly of nagging women. One cause was the  popular folktale, in dozens of versions, of a husband taming a shrewish wife by starvation, sleep-deprivation, etc : the basis of Shakespeare's play. Contemporaries, hearing the title, would have a pretty good idea of what Katherina was in for.

The other context in which they would hear the word, also gendered, was in the proverb, "Everyone can tame a shrew but he who has her". The folktale and the proverb had a sort of dialogic relationship, they fed off each other.

Shakespeare's comedy dramatizes the folk-tale, but this necessarily questions it. Populating that crude old anecdote with people who breathe and feel, introduces a critical distance.


The "romantic" reading of TOTS is that Petruchio and Katherine, while they play out the Shrew tale, are really falling in love, growing in respect for each other, etc. I have a lot of sympathy for this view, though romantic isn't quite the right word.

The strongest analogy for their relationship is Beatrice and Benedick, who likewise maintain a war of words while clearly signalling their fondness for each other. Can we retrofit that happy strong relationship back into TOTS? To some extent. What both couples demonstrate is that communication is about much more than the words that are actually spoken. Interpretations of this kind infer a great deal from silence and from what is Not said. The director Lucy Bailey noticed, for example, that Petruchio never lectures Kate. It's a good point.



When Petruchio wanders on stage, with Grumio in tow, that coincides with the end of the Sly framework (in the Folio). Originally there may have been more Sly scenes (as in A Shrew). But Shakespeare realized that in the fully developed Petruchio he had all the momentum the play required.

I say "fully developed" because Petruchio, like Pistol and Nym, took form as the author wrote. The opening of 1.2 is pretty forgettable, featuring generic knockabout with Grumio. This is pure 2GV master-servant in manner, just like the opening of 1.1 had been (Lucentio, Tranio).

But by the end of the scene Petruchio is transformed. He's become the figure we love to watch, dominant, unpredictable, swift in action and collected in dealing with what follows. He makes drama happen. He's unmistakably Richard III in his glory days; I mean in terms of how he wields the plot, not in moral or other terms. Like Richard he deals in soliloquies but his actions in company always come as a surprise, he's always one or two steps ahead. He also has the great advantage of not giving a damn what anyone thinks of him.

How does my father? Gentles, methinks you frown.
And wherefore gaze this goodly company
As if they saw some wondrous monument,
Some comet, or unusual prodigy?

I know you think to dine with me today,
And have prepared great store of wedding cheer,
But so it is, my haste doth call me hence,
And therefore here I mean to take my leave.

Who knows not that the noble duke is dead?

Petruchio's work on Katharina consists of always performing, never directly addressing their relationship, or Katharina's behaviour. That is compatible with the belief that there is an unspoken love discourse taking place. Indeed, could Petruchio succeed so well if there were no such discourse?

Petruchio's view of marriage is challengingly unromantic. He regards wealth (to add to his own) as an essential attribute. He claims not to care whether his wife is attractive. But he is determined to mould his wife into the right shape for a happily married life. If Katherina's attractiveness does modify his approach,we aren't told, we can only guess.


Katherina ends up in a better place than she began. When we meet her she is a thoroughly unhappy girl, she makes herself miserable and she makes those around her miserable too.

It's evident she wants to marry... In her fury (after the nasty scene with Bianca) she accuses Baptista of holding her back, though she knows the opposite is true.  Katherina is apparently jealous of Bianca.

[Bianca's character is routinely blackened these days, by people who want to think that Katherina's outrageous behaviour towards her must be justified. For example, the Shmoop-author tells us: "we see her taunt Kate for being an old maid without marriage prospects". That's based on the sentences

Or what you will command me will I do,
So well I know my duty to my elders.

If you affect him, sister, here I swear
I'll plead for you myself but you shall have him.

But there's no evidence that Bianca takes pride in her unwanted suitors (certainly not Gremio). Bianca is just desperate to placate her sister. Of course Katherina might upset herself by her reaction to Bianca's innocent words. But her only explanation to her father is not something like "Bianca keeps aiming these subtle digs at me" but "Her silence flouts me, and I'll be revenged". That's the sort of thing unjustified haters say in Shakespearian drama: a little early hint of Iago.]

Katherina is proud to get married, and she thinks quite well of her lover, we suspect. She's genuinely distressed when she thinks he might not turn up at the church. Because of the social disgrace primarily, but not only because of that.

Tormented as she is by Petruchio's subsequent course of treatment, she retains a healthy taste for material things, not just tripes but caps and gowns. She isn't, in short, behaving like someone who's being tortured or brainwashed.

Social status is important to her; while at Petruchio's she remembers with fondness the giving of alms at Baptista's. At the end of the play, too, we see Katherina returning to Padua as a proud wife. Husband and wife now operate as a practised team. But it isn't exactly romantic. They have the mutual fondness and mutual respect of a wealthy, handsome couple who are going places. Katherina is no feminist; she's more driven by putting down other women than by any wish to lord it over her husband. In fact being regarded as a shrewish wife would lower both her and her husband's social status, and she knows it.

It's her strong social interest that motivates a now much happier Katherina at the end of 5.1. The couple enjoy looking on at the Lucentio denouement. (Much like Beatrice and Benedick, here.) Kate shows no particular concern about her sister's and father's involvement in the scene she's watching. It's just an "ado". But if the play ended here we could accept the romantic view of Katherina and Petruchio, kind of.

Katherina. Husband, let's follow, to see the end of this ado.
Petruchio. First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Katherina. What, in the midst of the street?
Petruchio. What, art thou ashamed of me?
Katherina. No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.
Petruchio. Why then, let's home again. (To Grumio) Come, sirrah, let's away.
Katherina. Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
Petruchio. Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate.
Better once than never, for never too late.


Of course it's very well, from a man's point of view. "Sweet Kate" has learned how to wheedle and trade, and do it lovingly. Petruchio is willing enough to be the sugardaddy. It's hard for the actors to avoid showing the romantic love that must, we think, go along with this. Is romantic love, indeed, really anything other than a performance?

But for all that, the play's final scene makes an ugly impression,well captured by the engraving at the head of the post, in which Katharina is put through her paces like a dog or horse or falcon, in front of a boozy male crowd.

It's the setting, rather than the content, that feels debasing. In principle, I could accept the argument that sometimes it makes sense to have a boss. That's no different from a team in the workplace, and there's no intrinsic degradation in accepting that your manager gets to make decisions.

But after all, Katherina's portrait of the husband is very idealized. Will Petruchio really stay up on cold nights watching over his household? Surely that's what his servants do.*

[* Interesting the parallel with this male brag in the vastly different context of 3H6 5.7:

(King Edward.)...Come hither, Bess, and let me kiss my boy.
Young Ned, for thee, thine uncles and myself
Have in our armours watched the winter's night,
Went all afoot in Summer's scalding heat....

And Gloucester's complaint about lack of respect for Henry V's labours, in 2H6 1.1:

Did he so often lodge in open field,
In winter's cold, and summer's parching heat,
To conquer France, his true inheritance? ]

Anyway, how does the breadwinner argument apply, when the couple live off inherited wealth, part of it from Katherina's dowry? Of course Petruchio will run the farms, but that's just a circular argument: the master should be obeyed because he expects to be obeyed.

Surprising that Shakespeare doesn't mention child-bearing. Apparently he doesn't want to talk about separate spheres of responsibility. He prefers, in this speech, to emphasize the spoiled leisure of women's lives.

The speech halts. Despite some fine lines (e.g. the muddy fountain), it falls a bit flat. As if Shakespeare, committed to dramatizing his folktale, is self-conscious about how it doesn't tell a credible truth, it papers over the cracks. He tried to shape the tamed Katherine as a male fantasy, feisty but solid gold, utterly compliant to hubby, the envy of hubby's peers. But even so, this speech is not what his wishful heroine would really say, and he's too well aware of it. Now he's just trying to get shot of the task as best he can.



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