Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Taming of the Shrew

Most people have never read Shakespeare. I am one of those... until now. I'm taking a college course combing through several of his finest. First on my list of reading was Taming of the Shrew. Here are my thoughts after reading it myself and hearing Professor Shaw's lectures.

Taming of the Shrew: the introduction

Taming of the Shrew is known as a triple action play because of its three main plots. The first plot is the introduction which set up the next two stories of love and courtship. Christopher Sly is a poor drunk man asleep in a bar. A wealthy Lord walks in and decides he wants to play a practical joke on him. Like frat boys as a party drawing obscene things on their brother's forehead, the Lord decides to dress him up as a fellow Lord and try to convene Sly he was previously mad.

This will be a difficult task because it isn't just clothes that make the man. Lords at that time spoke in blank verse, a ten syllable pattern with out any use of slang. In contrast, Sly spoke in a very crass tongue without any such elegance. Their taste in food and wine would become immediately apparent when he is given what he wants.

Part of the joke is that one of the pages has to dress up as a lady and pretend to be Sly's wife. It becomes even more uncomfortable as Sly asks that she come to bed with him. She refuses with the excuse that it is best for his health and the move on to watching a private play which Lords often did.

The story ends there and you never hear the outcome of the joke. Some may say this could have been a printing error but as I'll mention later, I think it might have ended by design there and was indeed wrapped up nicely.

From a directing stand point, this is the introduction to the main play so what do you do with Sly while the play he's watching progresses? Often Sly passes out in the middle and is escorted out of the stage so that he doesn't upstage the other main actors.

Taming of the Shrew: Main Acts

In the main acts of the play, you have two main relationships to focus on. You have Lucentio and Bianca as two young lovers starting out in life with preconceived notions about what the other should be like. Then you have Petruchio and Kate, an older more mature couple although set in their ways.

An important theme throughout this play is the idea of disguises and deception. Two lovers in their attempt to get to know Bianca dress up as a music and language tutor. Petruchio dresses up as a hobo for his wedding day for reasons we can only speculate (and I will later). A father is impersonated while the real one is almost thrown in jail, a tailor is treated as a woman, and the deception continues throughout the play.

Despite the deception, this play is without a doubt a comedy. Obviously we laugh at the witty remarks and crazy slapstick antics but to be considered a comedy, the play with all it's confusion must end in a happy resolve. A comedy by Shakespeare often ended in a wedding and this is no different. This comedy could be further placed in other categories such as a romantic comedy including a battle of the sexes or a farce where nothing should be taken at face value and we should just laugh at the crazy antics.

If this play was a farce, the viewer wouldn't be concerned with the feelings of Kate as she was obviously not a real person. You also wouldn't feel sorry for the servants who were beat because their master was seemly mad. I don't however believe this is the case. I believe there is something deeper to this play and if anything, it will make you think about what true marital bliss looks like.

If we agree this is not a mindless comedy, knowing the thoughts of the times greatly helps us understand what we perceive Shakespeare is trying to get across. Namely, they lived in a patriarchal system largely influenced by the church. I don't know Shakespeare's thoughts on God but in any case, the population as a whole was very conservative. In review, the church believed God created man and then woman for man. When they sinned and were cast out of the garden of Eden, man was cursed to toil the earth (Gen 3:14-15) while woman were cursed to have painful childbirth and always desire to rule over man despite the patriarchal system God laid down (Gen 3:16). This patriarchal system was further cemented with Paul's words that “man is head of his wife as Christ is head of the Church” (Eph 5:23). A woman was expected to submit and to not do so was seen as a curse on the man (Prov 25:24). An interesting note not said in the lecture is in the Asian language, the symbol for happiness is a combination of the symbol of woman drawn under the symbol of roof but I digress. Because of this hierarchy, woman were seen as property or as goods.

Knowing what was seen as good and what was shrewish, what was Kate's motivation for not showing submission? Since egalitarian wasn't an option at that time, I don't think Kate was rebelling at the institution in place. I rather think Kate was a highly intelligent but under appreciated woman. She had been broken by her father's favoritism to his youngest daughter and had since given up on trying to please him. When a suitor would come to marry her, she probably saw him as same problem with a different owner.

Petruchio comes along and things look like they might change though. Their first meeting, I believe they found a kindled spirit. I felt there was a certain amount of “sexual tension” in their witty Stichomythia, a form of back and forth argument with strong play on words. The saw the intelligence of the other and enjoyed trying to best each other. I picture Kate as an attractive twenty five year old woman and Petruchio sees her wit and her beauty and must have her then and there. He wants the father's dowry but he realizes that Kate will be an addition not a drag to his life standard. I say Kate was probably attractive because despite her tongue, she had previous suitors. Also she was older then Bianca who I picture to be college age but I can't imagine by much.

Kate I think is shocked at first. Shaw paints Petruchio as an older man who has seen the world. He's been through combat and the death of a father and would like to gain a little more wealth so he can settle down. If I were Kate, she probably though submitting to this man who is older and probably dumber then her was preposterous. The begin their banter and she is actually frustrated and defeated by his ability to turn anything she says around. She finally admits she isn't going to win the round and asks where he gets it all from. She probably thinks to make fun of him saying he isn't smart but rather just quotes what others have said. That doesn't work out either and despite what she says I think concedes defeat. I believe it is at this point she sees marriage as not a terrible thing but something that might be fun.

Old habits die hard and she tries again and again to assert her dominance but she finds Petruchio is an even bigger shrew then herself. A marriage where two people constantly fight for dominance is not a happy one and she is all too aware of that given her situation with her father. Perhaps at first she becomes resigned to the fact she can't win so she might as well play along but all along I know she is enjoying the game. When she plays by his rules however, she still has fun but also receives the thing women need most, affection. My wife needs me me to show my love towards her daily and Kate is no different. Kate is still witty Kate but now she is lovely witty Kate and no longer shrewd witty Kate and Petruchio takes every opportunity to tell everyone that she has always been this woman.

In the final scene, you see a bet to see who is the most submissive. Kate at this point is in tune with her husband and they win. Her husband allows her the opportunity to rub it in to the sister who always made her feel inferior and backed up her claim by repeating it to the new husbands. Bianca has been found. She wasn't just submissive to her father, she was manipulating him to get what she wanted.

Was there a change in the women? I would have to say yes and no. Kate is still witty Kate and Bianca is still manipulative Bianca. The idea of a patriarchal system still stands although some follow it better then others. The change is actually more of a reveal and the main characters all get what they most want.

I don't think Sly believes he is a lord in the end. I think he sees this as an opportunity to get free clothing and food. The tables are turned and he profits in the end. Likewise with Petruchio and Kate. They are persecuted throughout the play but in the end, Kate earns her father's respect and love while Petruchio's search for wealth ends with him collecting a handsome dowry and a large bet. In an unexpected addition, he has the honor of having the most desirable wife at the party.

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