02 May 2013

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew is, naturally, a comedy, but like some of Shakespeare's other comedies, it provides material for thoughtful discussion. It deals with the question of whether marriage should be a marriage of equals or not? Should we have the marriage of true minds? The story of Petruchio and Katharina sheds some light on the question.

The story is framed as a play within a play: the initial scenes bring in a tinker who falls asleep at an inn. A fellow guest, a lord, plays a trick on him. The man wakes to find himself being treated as a lord, and the players helping with the joke offer to perform a show, which then leads us into the main tale. We never go back to the audience or find out when he discovers the joke. Instead, the rest of the play is something else entirely. The basic plotline is fairly simple. A gentleman, Baptista, has two daughters. The elder one, Katharina, is known as a shrew, and the younger one, Bianca, is wildly popular and has many suitors. Baptista is determined to marry off his elder daughter first, which is driving her little sister crazy. One of her suitors suggests to his marriage-hungry friend, Petruchio, that Katharina might suit him. Petruchio's interested in a wife with a sizeable dowry, and is not intimidated by the tales of Katharina's scolding tongue. He and Katharina meet, have an impressive argument, and Petruchio agrees to marry her. Baptista doesn't give his daughter much of a choice, so they are married. Katharina is mortified when her bridegroom arrives in a crazy outfit, and her day just gets worse from there. Petruchio is determined to convince her that she should deal more kindly with him, so he decides to give her a taste of her own medicine, and acts like just as much of a shrew as she has.

In the meantime, Bianca is deciding which of her many suitors should win her hand. The most persistent, Lucentio, disguises himself as a music teacher and woos her under that guise. Near the end of the play, they marry, and Katharina and Petruchio return to Padua for a visit. By this time, Petruchio and Katharina have come to something of an understanding. She finally gives up fighting with him, and consents to agree. Once they've come to agreement, Petruchio makes use of Katharina's new-found meekness to win a bet. He wagers that, of himself and Katharina, Lucentio and Bianca, and their friend Hortensio and his wife, his wife is the most obedient. They, of course, take the bet, and when each woman is summoned, only Katharina appears. Baptista, dumbfounded by the event, adds to their winnings equivalent to Katharina's earlier dowry, since she is so transformed as to be like another daughter. Petruchio and Katharina then retire together, triumphant.

The relationship between Petruchio and Katharina could be read in more than one way. Petruchio can be seen as breaking her independent spirit and forcing her into the role of submissive wife. That reading is easily supported by the text, and is certainly easy to convey in a stage production. However, another reading of the story could indicate that Katharina's submission to Petruchio eventually puts them on equal or close-to-equal ground with each other. Her agreement to obey her husband allows them to work together to confound their family and friends. A more nuanced reading of the text would bring out this quality, and this is the one that, I think, comes out in many modern productions of the play. It's certainly the reading found in the musical version, Kiss Me, Kate, where the actors' characters' off-stage relationship mirrors the on-stage relationship between Kate and Petruchio. If you're interested in a fun version of the play, with another plot going on in the background that mirrors the Shakespearean comedy, I'd highly recommend it. The music's fantastic.

So, The Taming of the Shrew: possible misogynistic play demonstrating how to browbeat your wife or a potential vision of companionate marriage. As a bonus, the play includes lots of really naughty lines. I went to see a production once with a friend who was unfamilar with Shakespeare and had a hard time following much of the language, but there were moments...and the look on his face was priceless.

Our next play is All's Well That Ends Well. It's one of the minor comedies, but the first scene is promising (and eyebrow-raising!).

Favourite Quotes
"For you are call'd plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But, Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom;
Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all cates: and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation" Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew, II.1.186-191. I'm never sure if it's the 'super-dainty Kate' or the 'Kate of my consolation' that's my favourite bit in this speech.

"Better once than never, for never too late." Petruchio, The Taming of the Shrew, V.1.157

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