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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Taming Of Shrews

Most theatergoers who after the first ten minutes of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf have no doubt that George and Martha hate each other; that Martha is a harridan, a succubus, and a man-eater; and that George is a weak, put-upon, hen-pecked, and failed academic.  They are totally ill-matched.  Martha is a strong, willful, outrageously forward and blunt woman who cares little who is savaged by her words or actions.  George is at her mercy, hanging on to her and her father.

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As the play goes on, more is revealed.  Martha becomes even more shrill and shrewish, devouring her husband and the two innocent guests who join them after a dinner party. She humiliates him, castrates him, and appears to be on the point of destroying him until George asserts himself.  Through his cruel, manipulative games, he is the one who is the destroyer, first of Nick and Honey, the two young guests who have much duplicity and dishonesty to atone for; and then of Martha by stripping her of her most important and all-sustaining fantasy – the existence of an imaginary son.

In the end it is George who tames his shrew, Martha; and if we can believe Albee, this dismantling of the soul of Martha, this cutting away of all pretense and illusion from her, is the only way that either one will survive.  In the end, they are completely in psychological harmony.  They need each other, thrive on each other’s cruelty, and revel in each other’s egotism and theatricality.  It is a good marriage.

The same is true in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Kate is the model for Martha.  She is a vixen, a virago, an emasculating, domineering, and impossible woman.  Despite her outrageous behavior in the first two acts, she comes to be ‘tamed’ by Petruchio, a virile, dominant noble.  Just as Martha gives up her shrewish character for George, so does Kate submit herself to Petruchio.  She loves him from the very first, and although she rails against him, puts up bulwarks against his male insistence, she loves his supreme confidence and arrogance. She, like many women, love bad boys because of their flamboyance, easy masculinity, and indifference. 

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Petruchio is like Stanley in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire.  Stella, despite her patrician upbringing, cannot resist her swaggering, leering, but infinitely potent Polack.

Petruchio gives Kate a way out of a family with a domineering and unappreciative father and a bland, uninteresting, but calculating sister.  Baptista cannot understand or appreciate why his daughter is the way she is.  He is a distant and indifferent father who cannot sense her frustration and who plays favorites.  Bianca, Kate’s sister, is, on the surface, a sweet, beautiful girl whom every suitor wants to marry; but Kate knows that there is little underneath, and that once married her sister will make life hell for her husband.

At first glance, the play is about men’s subjugation of women; and how women willingly give in to their desires and wishes.  More than simply reflecting the social norms of the day, Shakespeare is saying that women of any era want to be dominated by strong males, taken by them, if not ruled.  He has perceived common traits in women and men who act out female and male aspects of human nature, and has incorporated them in Kate and Petruchio.

Some critics, such as Bloom, say absolutely not.  Kate, although she gives an eloquent paean to male dominance in the final passage of the play, doesn’t really mean it.  She is acceding to the social norms of the time, but because she knows that Petruchio has come to love her – and love her desperately – she is in control.

Other critics, like Nuttall, has said that drawing such conclusions do no justice to Kate.  She is not, he says, like the heroines of Shakespeare’s later Comedies who run circles around their men just to wind their webs around them, catch them, and secure position, wealth, and status.  She means what she says, Nuttall avers, for she is intelligently aware of the world in which she lives and because she loves Petruchio and is happily willing to give up her frustrated independent ranting for a satisfying marriage. He is not the domineering, misogynist bounty hunter he seems, but wants Kate’s energy and sexual power. 
“Kate has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping” (Germaine Greer quoted in Nuttall, Shakespeare the Thinker)
Greer has also said that Kate’s ‘monogamy’ speech rests “upon the role of the husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong” (Nuttall).

Nuttall says that Kate and Petruchio are a happy couple and selects this short passage to illustrate:
KATE: Husband, let’s follow; to see the end of this ado
PETRUCHIO: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
KATE: What, in the middle of the street?
PET: What, art thou asham’d of me?
KATE: No, sir.  God forbid, but asham’d to kiss.
PET: Why, then let’s home again.
KATE: Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay
PET: Is not this well? Come my sweet Kate.
        Better once than never, for never too late
This is no exchange ‘between a bully and a broken spirit’, says Nuttall. “These are like-minded happy people”.

Shakespeare turns his later Comedies right around – the women always dominate weaker men and must settle for them in the end.  The likes of Rosalind, Beatriz, Portia, and Viola are more complex, interesting, and able than the men they marry; and they are victims of the times, for they have to marry well, regardless of their personal preferences. In this play, it is Petruchio who is the more dynamic, strong, confident, and alluring character.

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In the later plays, we are convinced that although the couples are happy on their wedding day, they will soon be at each other like George and Martha.  The wooing games have been duels of wits – again like George and Martha but less destructive – and end in superficial harmony.  The women win their men, the men marry the women who have beguiled them, but there has been none of the deeper and more fulfilling transformation that has occurred in both Kate and Petruchio who will, we feel, have a long and lasting life together.

Kate and Petruchio have played out the games that George and Martha have played – deadly serious charades designed to expose the real core of character and personality hidden beneath superficial posturing.  Petruchio’s ‘game’ is not to destroy Kate or to beat her into a meek, subservient, and docilely uninteresting woman; but to ‘tame’ (exorcise) the frustration and wild excesses of compensatory railing, and to allow the ‘real’ Kate to emerge.
When Petruchio bursts into Kate’s world, she is psychologically in a bad way. Her unremitting fury is a kind of illness. We hear much today of pathological depression and much less of pathological anger, yet such anger exists (Nuttall)
Petruchio is the one man who can relieve this frustration through sexual healing and, ore practically, by removing Kate by marriage out of her suppressive and repressive family.  Remember than in the opening scenes of the play her sweet sister, Bianca, has tied and trussed her up to humiliate her.

Both Bloom and Nuttall agree that the reason why playgoers have always liked this play is not because of its George and Martha fireworks; nor necessarily because of its humor (the theatrical excesses of Kate and the comments of family and friends are funny); nor even for some a seeming celebration of the dominance of men over women.  It is because of the sexual dynamics between Kate and Petruchio.  Think of The Story of O, The Night Porter, Les Liaisons Dangereuses or a thousand lesser books and films which address issues of sexual dominance and submission let alone sadomasochism.
Petruchio is, first, an effortlessly dominant male like Richard III and, second, very funny.  It is a winning combination.  e is the hilarious opposite of the humble lover on his knees, deviously seeking a gratification conferred by the lady out of pure pity. It is not hard to find a women in the present century who say that they respond more readily to the sweep-you-off-your-feet kind of man than to the wheedling lover of courtly tradition – that is, they find him sexier (Nuttall)
In Act II, Scene 1 Petruchio, meeting Kate for the first time, strides into the room and confidently starts in with his effusive compliments, all ironic because he has heard of her reputation, and all calculated to begin his courtship which he hopes will be a richly rewarded one:
You lie, in faith; 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 Kates…
The sexual fireworks then begin, and from this first encounter, one knows that this is good, equally-paired match:
KATE: I knew you at the first.  You were a movable.
PET: Why, what’s a movable?
KATE: A joint stool.
PET: Thou hast hit it: come sit on me
And later in the same scene:
KATE: If I be waspish, beware my sting.
PET: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
KATE: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
PET: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
KATE: In his tongue.
PET: Whose tongue?
KATE: Yours, if you talk of tales; and so fare well.
PET: What! with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again.
The passion of the relationship is not derived from this typically Shakespearean comedic interchange, complete with puns and innuendos.  It comes from the sexual tensions set up between the defiant Kate wanting to be tamed, and the strong and knowing Petruchio who wants to be the tamer.
In Act II, Scene ii…Petruchio announces that he must leave at once because of business pressures.  Immediately we sense the special tension of the “delayed consummation” motif that permeates Othello…(Nutall)
The play is also engaging because it is a love story. Kate and Petruchio grow to love each other.  There is a fondness and caring in many exchanges later in the play; and this unusual couple is one of the rare examples of marital harmony in Shakespeare.  Only the Macbeths before their fall, the Caesars, and the Brutuses come to mind.

Kate’s long last soliloquy in which she sings the praises of female submission has been debated for centuries.  On the surface it is a song in praise of men and marriage – “the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written” said Germaine Greer.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, they sovereign…/Place your hands below your husband’s foot:/In token of which duty, if he please/My hand is ready; may it do him ease
Kate goes on to say that women are different from men – their bodies are soft and pliable, and their hearts and souls are no different:
But that our soft conditions and our hearts/Should well agree with our external parts…
Many feminist critics have railed against this passage and the play as a whole because of what they consider to be these outlandish sentiments of a male-dominated world and of a bitter misogynist, Shakespeare.  Petruchio is his instrument for female torture, submission, and confinement, and in his celebration of it shows, despite his finer instincts, is a troglodyte.

Others, like Bloom, have said nothing of the sort.  This last passage is a cunning one, and Kate knows very well what she is doing:
One would have to be very literal-minded indeed not to hear the delicious irony that is Kate’s undersong, centered on the great line “I am asham’d that women are so simple”. It requires a very good actress to deliver this set piece properly, and a better director than we tend to have now, if the actress is to be given her full chance, for she is advising women how to rule absolutely while feigning obedience [italics mine]  (Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human).
Nuttall disagrees, saying that the passage should be played straight, for it is the prevailing philosophy of the times. As he has stated above, Kate’s subservience, although derived in part from prevailing social mores, is really a willing offering to Petruchio, her psychological and sexual savior.

Both Kate and Petruchio and George and Martha drive off into the sunset to live life happily ever after; but we only believe that the former will succeed.  At the end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we are not so sure that George and Martha, having stripped each other to the marrow, will reconstruct their life in a more understanding and loving way.  There is the nagging thought that since they fought, scrapped, and wounded each other for decades, they will continue to do so in the end. 

Although we may wonder for a moment whether Petruchio, given his easy command over women (Kate herself makes reference to his ‘thousands of lovers’), will be a one-woman man, we at least have reason to believe that he will.  As far as Kate is concerned, there is no doubt that she has found her social, sexual, intellectual equal and psychological mate.

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