Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Week 02, The Taming of the Shrew

Introduction to Comedy.

Samuel Johnson tells us that Shakespeare was most comfortable when writing comic plays because they suited his genius best. Tragedy, according to Johnson, did not come naturally to Shakespeare, and there was always something a bit forced about his work in that vein. I don’t agree with him since I like the comedies, tragedies, histories, and romance plays equally, with a slight nod in favor of the tragedies.

Since Shakespeare wrote from ancient models, we should discuss ancient comedy at least briefly. It’s customary to distinguish between Greek Old Comedy like that of Aristophanes (circa 456-386 BCE) and the Greek New Comedy of Menander (circa 342-291 BCE) and other playwrights, such as his later Roman followers Plautus and Terence.

Old Comedy: If you’ve ever read or seen a comedy by Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata, The Birds, etc.), you know that it’s pretty rough stuff—mainly topical satire about famous politicians and philosophers. The Clouds, for example, is about Socrates as proprietor of the Thinkery or Think-Shop, where all sorts of ridiculously improbable notions are propagated for the benefit of fools. Outrageous, bawdy, bubbly humor is the essence of such plays, and they can pack a genuine political wallop as well: Lysistrata sets forth a plot in which Greek women withhold sexual favors from men until they agree to put an end to the ruinous Peloponnesian War. On the whole, characters are ridiculous in Old Comedy—a main subject is the perennial nature of human folly, selfishness, and vice.

New Comedy: The Greek Menander, and his much later Roman followers Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) and Terence (circa 190-158 BCE), offer a different brand of comic play. The emphasis is on domestic matters rather than broad political issues. Love, or at least sexual desire treated sympathetically, is central to the action, and there’s also some concern for the relationship between the older generation and the younger, particularly between a father and his son, as well as some interest in relations between people of different status, such as masters and their clever slaves. Still, there’s plenty of fun at the expense of fools, dupes, lovers too old for the person they desire, etc. Stock characters are the order of the day in both kinds of ancient comedy, it seems. New Comedy is hardly rigorous in its morals: the characters who win out tend—surprise!—to be the ones the playwright reckons the audience will like. Sympathy trumps propriety. The popularity of comic mix-ups and disguises suggests that identities can be swapped at will, and because considerations such as wealth and social status are so important in structuring others’ perceptions of a given character, the new identity will be accepted long enough to get the job done.

The structure of Terentian drama is as follows: a) First comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established. This stage corresponds roughly to the first act of a modern five-act play. b) Then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated. This stage corresponds roughly to the second and third acts of a five-act play. c) Next comes the catastasis, in which the plot reaches a false climax—comedy is deceptive. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio marries Kate towards the end of Act 3, but that important event hardly concludes the story: Kate must still be “tamed.” d) Last comes the real climax, the catastrophe, which in comedy turns out to be a happy ending.

The modern situation comedy—Seinfeld would be a sophisticated example—is remarkably like New Comedy: a number of silly but mostly sympathetic characters get themselves into and out of preposterous scrapes from one episode to the next in a competitive world, and through it all they don’t change much. They get insulted, taken advantage of, take advantage of others (though not mean-spiritedly), fall in and out of love, misunderstand one another at every turn, get jobs and get fired from jobs, obtain pleasure and ease and then throw it all away on a whim or through error, and they’re ready for the next absurd thing life brings.

Comedy reminds us that we seldom learn as much as we should from our mistakes, but it also gives us credit for being optimists and opportunists in spite of the misfortunes life throws our way. There’s a bit of Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner in many a comic character: that fur-bearing evildoer Wiley Coyote isn’t going to keep the “poor little Roadrunner” from its appointed rounds (BeepBeep!), nor is Elmer Fudd going to stop Bugs from doing whatever the wascally wabbit wants to do. In comedy, desire is subject to deferral and detour, but not to permanent frustration. The comic orientation towards time is a favorable one: time and chance (accident) are on our side, at least if we are amongst the likeable or generous. In comedy, life is rich and full of opportunities—la vita è bella, as the Italians say. This attitude contrasts markedly with that of tragedy, where the world is stark and unforgiving, and our attention is riveted upon the thoughts and actions of a superior character in confrontation with that stark world

Shakespearian Comedy

Shakespeare borrows a fair amount from the ancients in terms of his plots, conventions, and character delineation. Especially in his more rollicking, semi-farcical comedies like The Taming of the Shrew, we encounter a generous heap of characters pursuing their desires in a competitive environment, which results in complicated plots. Such light fare can get confusing at times—as James Calderwood of UC Irvine used to say, you really have to work hard to keep all those Demetriuses (not to mention Hortensios, Lucentios, Gremios, Grumios and Tranios) straight in your head. And again in the lighter comedies, our seekers of pleasure, wealth, and ease tend to be stock characters rather than three-dimensional ones like those in the more substantive comedies. Shakespeare’s genius, it should be said, often pushes a character towards lifelikeness even when a cardboard cutout would have met the minimum standard for success. Petruchio may not be Hamlet, but he’s a clever, thoughtful fellow all the same—one of greater substance than you’ll find in most ancient comedy.

To a recollection of ancient conventions, we must add an understanding of the Christian context that informs Shakespeare’s plays. This is not to say that Shakespeare wears his religious beliefs (be they Protestant or crypto-Catholic, as some biographers claim) on his Elizabethan shirt-sleeve or that he aims to promote whatever religious views he may hold. It is only to say that Christian theology and customs inform his plays of all kinds and figure indirectly to an important extent.

As a main example, let’s consider the concept of charity. I mentioned likeability with respect to ancient comedy: sympathetic characters win. We might reinterpret this notion by applying the Christian opposition between generosity and selfishness or, to use more productive terminology, between charity (charitas) and cupidity (cupiditas). Charitas has to do with a generous outflowing of love for one’s fellow human beings—it is something that helps to unite not only individuals into couples but indeed entire communities into a functioning civil society. It enjoins forgiveness of wrongs and a bearing of optimism and faith in the teeth of adversity. Cupiditas, by contrast, has to do with individual selfishness—a cupiditous person seeks and accumulates riches and status more to lord it over others than really to enjoy what has been gained. Perhaps Jesus’ remark, “he that would save his life shall lose it” (Matthew 16:25) says it best: selfish, greedy, mean-spirited people are losers because they misunderstand the purpose of life, and lose all the more when they win on their own terms. Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is a fine example of this “lose-by-winning” outlook.

As in ancient comedy, in Shakespeare the comic orientation towards time is favorable: time and chance are friendly, at least if a character is amongst the likeable and generous. Consider the following passage from the Hebrew scriptures, specifically Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, which I’ll copy from the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 that Shakespeare would have known:
11. So I turned me unto other thinges under the sunne, & I sawe that in running it helpeth not to be swift, in battell it helpeth not to be strong, to feeding it helpeth not to be wyse, to riches it helpeth not to be a man of muche understanding, to be had in favour it helpeth not to be cunning: but that all lieth in tyme and fortune. 12. For a man knoweth not his tyme: but like as the fishes are taken with the angle, and as the byrdes are caught with the snare: even so are men taken in the perillous time, when it commeth sodaynly upon them. (Studylight.org’s online Bishop’s Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:11-12.)
In comedy, the characters may want change to happen in just the ways they specify (so that they can obtain their heart’s desire, whatever that may be). They may even want things to stay the same, but that kind of wish is seldom, if ever, granted. Situations—accidents and “tyme” seem to get the better of even the most fervent resolutions, the most serious invocations of dignity. As the Bible says, “all lieth in tyme and fortune.” A generous or charitable character, as described above, will most likely respond to the coming-on of time and accident in an open-minded, open-hearted way and will thereby befriend change, at least implicitly. The best example I can think of in this vein is what the shipwrecked maiden Viola says near the beginning of Twelfth Night: neither giving in to despair about the possible loss of her brother nor worrying about the particulars of her new plan to serve a widowed Illyrian noblewoman (she ends up serving the Duke instead), she declares, “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (1.2.60). Viola will face whatever comes with a bold, open spirit. She is both a woman of substance and a comic optimist. And in at least some of Shakespeare’s comedies, there’s a hint of Providence about the patterns of human desire that drive the plays towards successful resolution.

It is possible to deepen comedy and concentrate on human beings’ potential to change and grow and to accept the limitations imposed upon them by the world. Shakespeare’s best comedies do just that. While his earliest comedies tend towards farce, his more mature work strays from the standard models of ancient comedy and explores characters and subjects at will. The structure of this deeper Shakespearean romantic comedy, according to Northrop Frye and M. H. Abrams, is as follows: several characters leave the corrupt city and go to the forest or some other magical green world, and at last when all is well they return to the city or are about to do so when the play ends. In As You Like It, for example, Rosalind and Celia head for the Forest of Arden when the usurping Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind. In the romance play The Tempest, the setting is a strange island to which fortune or Providence has led Prospero after his banishment as Duke of Milan. In Twelfth Night, Viola and her brother wash ashore in Illyria after a shipwreck.

The aim of romantic comedy is broadly social: the kingdom or other city space is at first badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them? How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next? Political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order, are central. The main characters leave (willingly or otherwise) the city setting and wind up in the countryside, in a pastoral setting. This setting is an enchanted, magic space that allows for the necessary re-examination of values and social roles. Magical transformations occur; characters are put in situations that could not subsist in the city or the kingdom; the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities. After this reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration, and the path is clear for a return to the corrupt setting from which they came.

Notes on The Taming of the Shrew

Induction Scenes 1-2


The metadramatic character Christopher Sly, as the Riverside introduction points out, is connected to the general theme of transformation. I would add that he hasn’t earned his marital happiness—his pretend-wife’s obedience is to the Lord who is playing a trick on Christopher. Neither does this common fellow belong to the aristocratic world, as he is so easily gulled into believing thanks to his drunkenness. But that’s a matter of birth, not earning one’s way.

Act 1, Scene 1

Lucentio of Pisa has come to Padua to cast himself into a “deeper” world than he has known thus far, and his declared intent is to look more discerningly into moral philosophy, or “virtue.” As he enters town, we are treated to an instance of Baptista’s concern for protocol: he insists that he must find a suitable husband for his eldest unmarried daughter first, and only then can he allow the youngest, Bianca, to find a mate. This situation is standard comic fare: eager suitors faced with an obstinate father. In this case, the obstinate parent isn’t imperious or cruel; in fact, he’s quite affectionate and protective towards his youngest daughter in particular. But in many comic plays we see the specter of the “terrible father” invoked or hinted at only to be dispelled as the play reaches its happy conclusion.

Of course, the pickings for Katherine and Bianca don’t look so fine here in Padua—there’s Hortensio, who seems rather a silly fellow, and then there’s Gremio, a stock pantaloon borrowed from Italian commedia dell’arte theater (a C16 phenomenon). Gremio and Hortensio are men of substance, and their considerable property and assets make them contenders since Renaissance marriage undeniably has to do with securing dynastic wealth and status. Still, it seems as if the field is open for any adventurous newcomer.

When Lucentio espies Bianca, his initial declarations are forgotten without further ado: in ancient and early modern lore, “the eyes have it”: vision is represented as the most powerful and transformative of the five senses, especially when it comes to love. So it’s love at first sight for Lucentio, struck with Cupid’s invisible arrow. His resolve now is to serve as one of the schoolmasters that Baptista wants to commission for his daughters. Tranio will play the role of Lucentio and will directly sue for Bianca’s hand, the better to keep attention away from the real Lucentio’s efforts.

Act 1, Scene 2

Enter the right honorable Petruchio of Verona, who has just come into his inheritance and is therefore “his own man,” as the saying goes. He is free from parental and financial hindrances, so he’s just the one to serve as the “the tamer of the shrew.” Petruchio’s liberated status distinguishes him from Lucentio, as we will find later on. This man declares to his friend Hortensio that he has come to find a wife with plenty of money in rich Padua. What’s love got to do with it? Nothing—at least at the outset. That insouciance regarding such an important consideration further distinguishes Petruchio from Lucentio. In them, at least at the outset, we see two aspects of courtship and marriage: the sway of erotic passion and true love, and the imperative of money and status.

When Hortensio hears of Petruchio’s indifference to anything but wealth, he pipes up about Katherine, who is indeed the marriageable daughter of a well-to-do Paduan. Petruchio is glad to hear of this possibility, and in return offers to present Hortensio as the schoolmaster Litio so he can woo Bianca in that guise. At this point, Tranio enters in his disguise as Lucentio, of course with the same intent of wooing Bianca.

Act 2, Scene 1

Katherine is evidently jealous of her younger sister Bianca, and is even restraining her physically in order to extract information from her. Kate’s horizons are quite limited if she is worried about the attentions of the likes of Gremio and Hortensio.

Petruchio begins his quest by feigning ignorance about Katherine’s true temperament, and he generously offers everything he has in pledge of faith. Baptista, suitably impressed and no doubt relieved that he might soon be unburdened of this difficult daughter, nonetheless insists on one point: Petruchio must win Katherine’s love. Petruchio makes light of this demand, saying that he is a “rough” man and no child when it comes to romance. He is encouraged by Katherine’s deplorable abuse of “Litio” (Hortensio): she seems like a suitable challenge for him.

Petruchio’s opening gambit is to call Katherine what he wants her to become, even though she is at present exactly the opposite. He parries wits with her, physically detains her just as she had done to her sister (though the stage directions don’t indicate that he knows about this), and boldly sets forth a timetable, with the marriage to be made on Sunday. This outrageous “Kiss me, Kate” strategy only works, of course, if there’s mutual attraction between the pair. A lot depends on the actors here, as the excellent versions starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Sarah Bader and John Cleese, respectively, show. The play revolves around what makes a fitting couple. Petruchio is himself a bold and outspoken man, so Katherine’s fiery quality is a draw for him, at least at first—he wants an obedient wife, but likes the challenge of “earning” that obedience and “training” his choice to suit his will.

Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) pitch their wealth when talk with Baptista turns to dowries, and Tranio does such a good job of lying that now he must find himself a fake father to “make good” on his fake promises. The extent of patriarchal authority is a main concern in comedy, and Shakespeare here offers a fine (if temporary) overturning of that concern in that the “Child shall get a sire.” Shakespeare isn’t by any means what we would call a feminist, but he has a lot of fun at the expense of male authority—Vincentio, an eminently sensible and respectable father-figure, is pretty much at the whim of his deceiving son Lucentio and that son’s servant Tranio, as we shall find out.

Act 3, Scene 1

Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca in the pauses between Latin lines goes well enough, and Hortensio is insulted at the rapidity with which Bianca’s attentions turn towards such a young “stale” (Katherine had earlier used this word to mean “whore,” but here it means something like “good-for-nothing fellow”). Hortensio forswears any further interest in such an unwise girl.

Act 3, Scene 2

Now Katherine is ashamed that Petruchio hasn’t yet shown up for his own wedding. And when he appears in the guise of a carnivalesque fool riding a broken-down horse, she is still more ashamed. Katherine wants propriety and ceremony observed, she wants a conventional wedding that, presumably, would betoken respectability and security. We might also infer that Katherine thinks she’s done Petruchio a tremendous favor in more or less consenting to marry him. (One imagines that she would be an easy mark for today’s “wedding mania” that seems to demand ever-greater preparation and expense for the great event.) But Petruchio, clever man that he is, will have nothing to do with such regard for tradition and form, and he certainly isn’t going to allow “Kate” to get the upper hand. She’s marrying him, he says,—not his clothes. Petruchio’s behavior is outlandish, of course, but the point of his actions is probably that marriage isn’t only about status and respectability, or security: it’s about the coming together of two people who must learn to live well together. Shakespeare was enough of a “bourgeois gentleman” to appreciate Katherine’s need for respectability and security, but at the same time—as so often—he manages to see beyond these entry-level concerns and get to the deeper significance of an institutional act.

Meanwhile, Lucentio and Tranio continue their scheme—Tranio advises a secret marriage if that should prove possible.

Gremio reports on the doings at Petruchio and Kate’s mad wedding—the groom even tosses wine in the priest’s face, as if he would deny the Church’s power in the whole affair. Petruchio then proposes imperiously to make away with Kate, saying that she is “his anything” he chooses to make of her. In essence, he tactically (and only tactically, we may hope) employs the notion that a wife is a man’s “property,” more or less like a piece of furniture or a valuable parcel of land. Simply getting Kate to marry him is only the first stage of Petruchio’s plan, of course—he still has much “taming” to do before his bride will be genuinely “conformable,” as he had earlier called her.

Act 4, Scene 1

The trip back home is a madcap disaster. Kate’s horse falls, and her gallant husband can’t be bothered to help her up. He shows no regard for her, and then abuses the servants under the pretense of showing a nice regard for her tastes in food and clothing. Alone, Petruchio lets us in on his method: he will deny her basic appetites any satisfaction—no food, sleep, or sex. She will get no satisfaction until that satisfaction can safely be associated with him as its facilitator. Petruchio’s terms for this operation are borrowed from falconry—he will “curb” Kate just as a keeper would a bird of prey he wanted to train to hunt for him. The gender assumption is painfully obvious to us moderns, I suppose: a woman can’t be allowed to beat a man at his own game, at least if the man knows what he’s about, as Petruchio does. Katherine has been violent, arbitrary, and willful, and Petruchio shows her here more than ever how much more frightening it is when a strong man behaves that way towards a woman he “owns.” Hardly a feminist notion, but there it is. It should also be said that there’s quite a range in the concept of masculinity in this play and elsewhere in Shakespeare—he seems to know that “being a man” isn’t simply a biological matter; it is at least partly what we would call a symbolic construct, a position one occupies in the social and sexual order of things. Gremio, Hortensio, and Baptista are indeed “men,” but they are quite unable to deal with Katherine, while Petruchio knows exactly what to do and is willing to earn the obedience he professes to be his right as a husband. That stance may not endear him to us, but at least he does not expect obedience as a purely formal matter. At the broader level, England in Shakespeare’s time (and long afterwards, too) was a patriarchal culture in which men possessed most of the authority, learning, and wealth and mostly refused to share those things with women, but it’s also worth reminding ourselves that Shakespeare’s early work was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, one of the most brilliant and powerful monarchs in history. Given the right circumstances (however rare), a woman could exercise considerable authority. Some of Shakespeare’s female characters are vital and strong; although played by boy-actors, they are by no means mere stage props to back the stories he tells about men.

Act 4, Scene 2

Hortensio, disappointed at what he considers the loose attentions of Bianca, forswears his quest for beauty and looks instead to the kindness of a widow whom he knows will accept him. Tranio cagily agrees, leaving the real Lucentio sole suitor to Bianca, who of course is in on Lucentio’s scheme.

The servant Biondello brings in a pedant to serve as Vincentio. Poor Vincentio—any fool who just walked into town can serve his turn as the rich, accommodating father of a headstrong son.

Act 4, Scene 3

As for Kate, she sees Petruchio’s method, but not its purpose, so Petruchio’s labors continue: he finds a perfectly nice cap and gown not suitable for her, roundly abuses everyone around him, and laments that she will still be “crossing” his every word and deed.

Act 4, Scene 4

While the fake Vincentio talks money with Baptista, Biondello advises Lucentio to marry Bianca on the sly.

Act 4, Scene 5

Petruchio’s claims become still more extravagant and absurd: he insists that Kate call day night, and old Vincentio (the real one, that is) a young maiden, and then needles her when she gives in to his demands. Petruchio breaks the news to Vincentio that “Lucentio” has no doubt by now managed to win Bianca’s hand, so they’re all related! (He “knows” this, I presume, on the basis of Tranio’s efforts as “Lucentio” back in 2.1.) Vincentio doesn’t know what to think of it all.

Act 5, Scene 1

Things look very bad for Vincentio since, as Wordsworth would say, it seems that “the child is father to the man,” and the child (or rather his servant impersonating the child) has it in for him. But Lucentio soon clears up the case of mistaken identity and prevents his father from being hauled off to prison as an imposter. Vincentio obligingly promises to make a fair deal with Baptista, coming on board in spite of the bad treatment to which he has been subjected. And nothing seems to come of those protestations about being “thoroughly revenged” against Tranio.

Petruchio utters “Kiss me, Kate” for the second time, this time in the open street. Kate is shocked, but doesn’t put up much of a fight by now. (By the way, the phrase “Kiss Me, Kate” inspired a famous Broadway musical in 1949, one of the stars in which was—that’s right—my illustrious namesake of no relation, Alfred Drake.)

Act 5, Scene 2

The three happy couples get together for a feast at Lucentio’s. Hortensio’s Wife-Widow offers the provocative statement about Petruchio, “He that is giddy thinks the world turns round,” a phrase whose significance isn’t lost on the ever-sharp Katherine. And now, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most obedient of all? Petruchio wagers that it’s none other than his own conformable Kate. He makes her fetch in the “froward” wives of Lucentio and Hortensio, and then she lectures them dutifully about their duties, to the men’s great satisfaction. What Kate sets forth is, of course, an entirely traditionalist view of gender relations in the married state: a man must hazard all he has and provide security, and the woman must be helpful and obedient; she must “stand by her man.” Kate concludes her speech with a self-characterization of her sex that sounds almost like the words Milton will later give his narrator in Paradise Lost to describe Eve: “For contemplation he and valour formed; / For softness she and sweet attractive grace; / He for God only, she for God in him…” (Book 4).

Well, at least, as mentioned above, Petruchio acknowledges a certain need to “earn” his mastery of his Kate, and so we have in The Taming of the Shrew not so much a celebration of hollow patriarchal form but rather a rollicking “battle of the sexes” in which the man and woman together give some genuine meaning to a traditional view and to the institution based upon that view: marriage, the central concern of many a comic play. Petruchio labors for his mastery, and demonstrates his mettle. He wants a conformable Kate, to be sure, but he probably wouldn’t be happy with anything other than a conformable Kate. Lucentio sees Petruchio’s act of taming a “wonder,” which suggests that he doesn’t get it. As Petruchio says to both Lucentio and Hortensio, they are “sped.” They are the ones who will have to live with headstrong wives, while he will go off to live in domestic bliss with Katherine.

From the widest angle and aside from gender issues, the play provides a light exploration of love’s power to transform people, to alter suddenly and inexplicably their chosen path and declared intentions and to immerse them in an active, not always kind world. This power is a constant in Shakespeare’s plays, but it is not necessarily described the same way from play to play. There isn’t much “idealizing of eroticism” in The Taming of the Shrew, but there’s a great deal of that valuable and yet dangerous intellectual activity in, say, Romeo and Juliet. In the romances, the power of love seems to be surrounded with mystery, just as in those same romances, Prospero enfolds the whole of life memorably with the statement, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.155-58).

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