Thursday, February 12, 2015

Taming "The Taming of the Shrew"

Did you see the "Shakespeare Uncovered" programs shown on PBS last Friday? Each show explores the issues posed by a different Shakespeare play as viewed through the eyes of famous actors. Last week featured OTHELLO and THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. (This coming Friday's episodes will analyze ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA and ROMEO AND JULIET.) Much of the discussion centered on the difficulty of redeeming THE TAMING OF THE SHREW for modern audiences. It's true enough, as mentioned in the commentary, that this play foreshadows every romantic comedy starring two strong-willed people who start out unable to stand each other and fight their way to a passionate relationship. And Katherine really is presented as insufferable at the beginning of the story. She treats Bianca, her meek, conventionally lovely and demure sister, with violence that goes beyond sibling rivalry.

But—the modern audience is apt to think Kate has some excuse, considering the attitude her father and all the other men in the vicinity take toward her. If she and Petruchio appear equally fierce and feisty, still, in that culture his authority as her husband creates an inescapable power imbalance. And the only possible justification (in our eyes) for his treatment of her, that she's getting a taste of her own abuse of Bianca, is undercut by the sheer brutality of his "taming" program. He deprives her of food, clothes, and sleep. He "gaslights" her, insisting that she call the sun the moon and an old man a fair maiden. To Shakespeare's credit, at least Petruchio never inflicts physical violence on Kate. Yet in real life, nowadays, we'd label his controlling behavior domestic abuse. To the people of his time, a "scolding" wife (i.e., one who talked too much or too loudly by the standards of the men in her life) was funny and the "punishment" of a scolding wife even funnier. Cultural changes have made it impossible for us to regard the marriage of Petruchio and Kate that way.

So much of our readiness to accept their falling in love depends on the way the stars perform their roles. When we see two different actors deliver a speech by Petruchio claiming absolute ownership of his wife, one man sounds implacable, almost menacing. The other actor makes the same lines sound bawdy and seductive.

C. S. Lewis, situating the play in the context of its era's beliefs about the proper order of the universe, the superiority of male to female, and the authority of husband over wife, maintains that Shakespeare intends Kate's climactic speech of submission to be taken completely straight, not "tactical or ironic." Most modern readers or viewers can accept that speech from her only if we hear it as "tactical," or, as one of the commentators on the PBS show suggested, Petruchio and Katherine are in "collusion" at that point. We would like to see the couple as negotiating their own separate peace within their society's view of marital relationships. (And note that she doesn't say a husband deserves his wife's obedience because their roles demand it; she says it's because he works hard to take care of her.) Or has the "taming" developed into a game between them, in which she's decided to humor him? If played a certain way, however, the comedy could turn into nightmare fuel; we could see Kate as submitting because she's terrified of her crazy husband.

So can this comedy be rehabilitated as a love story from our viewpoint?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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