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Saturday, March 7, 2015

Strong Women And How Men Deal With Them–Lessons From ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’

Kate the Shrew is wrongly remembered as a vile-tempered, misanthropic woman whom no man would ever want.  Her father was so desperate to marry her off that he concocted a manipulative scheme – only if Kate were married would he agree to give the hand of his far more beautiful and alluring daughter Bianca.

KATE Taming Shrew

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Kate is indeed a harridan, vexatious to her sister, father, and family friends.  She is ill-tempered, domineering, selfish, and outspoken; and it is no wonder that everyone wants her out of their lives and no suitor wants her in.

Petruchio, a young nobleman of Padua and very much a Casanova, takes on the challenge of ‘taming’ the shrewish Kate. He is self-confident enough to believe that he can not only make Baptista’s daughter love and obey him; but will willingly and happily accept his total dominion. After a testy and demanding relationship, the unexpected happens.  Not only does Kate indeed fall in love with Petruchio, but he with her. She becomes a relaxed, satisfied woman at peace with herself; and he has found the one woman who can satisfy his emotional and intellectual demands.  It was a match made in heaven. 


Kate was a sexually frustrated, independent-minded, strong-willed woman who, once she was out from under the domineering influence of her father, blossomed. She was not really a shrew, but a woman so unable to contain or channel her voluble energy that she became vixenish and misanthropic.  Petruchio was never happy with the easy conquests of his youth nor with the uninteresting, complaisant women he bedded.  He was looking for a woman with intelligence, character, and will who would be his co-equal.

In the final act, Kate speaks eloquently about a woman’s duty to her husband – to honor, obey, and love completely:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance commits his body To painful labor both by sea and land, To watch the night in storms, the day in cold, Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe, And craves no other tribute at thy hands But love, fair looks, and true obedience— Too little payment for so great a debt. Such duty as the subject owes the prince, Even such a woman oweth to her husband; And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour, And not obedient to his honest will, What is she but a foul contending rebel And graceless traitor to her loving lord? I am ashamed that women are so simple To offer war where they should kneel for peace Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

This passage has not surprisingly been interpreted by feminists as Shakespeare’s patriarchy.  Brilliant as though he might be, the poet was deeply misogynistic. While there are many examples in his plays – Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, Othello, Troilus and Cressida especially – which might be considered misogynistic, this is not one. 

In Cymbeline and the other plays, men express their profound distrust of all women, and claim that their own venomous jealousy is because of women’s irremediably deceitful nature.  In Taming of the Shrew, however, the final ‘capitulation’ of Kate to Petruchio is complemented by his own.  She is long and elegiac in her avowal of love and duty; but from Petruchio’s last lines of the play, it is clear that their love and respect will be mutual.

The Taming of the Shrew is in fact a love story far more moving and believable than Romeo and Juliet where the lovers are simply two smitten teenagers with no idea of life or love.  Although Shakespeare’s Comedies all end happily and in marriage, one always has the impression that if they could, the women would divorce their husbands within a year. Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola run rings around their suitors who are ill-matched for their wit and intelligence.

In the Tragedies, there are many strong women but their relationships are bad. Dionyza, the wicked queen in Pericles is dismissive of her weak and indecisive husband and takes it upon herself to murder Pericles’ daughter because she represents a treat to her own unattractive offspring.  Lady Macbeth thinks very little of her husband, considers himself weak and unmanly while she is strong, determined, and amoral:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!

Lady Macbeth

Tamora the Queen of the Goths is a brutal, violent woman who will do anything for revenge and ends up eating a meat pie filled with the innards of her two sons.  The wife of Henry VI takes to the battlefield against the French because her ineffective ‘pious’ husband spends more time praying than ruling. The list goes on.

The point is that the marriage between Kate and Petruchio was ideal, the union of two complementary spirits.

Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and Adam Grant have written an article in the New York Times (3.7.15) about how men can learn to live and work with strong women and not only survive, but prosper.  It offers no surprises – sharing chores is an expression of good faith and respect which leads to a less contentious relationship and more sex.  Men should not stop with kitchen chores, the authors argue, but in the office should volunteer to do tasks that have been only women’s duties– take notes, planning meetings, and helping others. Such minor male transformations can make the workplace more hospitable to women, thus encouraging even more of them to join the corporation and contribute their unique skills.

Jim Walker, a close friend of mine, had a female boss.  She was reasonably smart and able; but as testy and irritable as Kate.  She had not yet become comfortable in her executive skin, nor shed the last traces of patriarchy.  She was in her mid-fifties and was old enough to have grown up in a traditional, male-dominated family and society.  While she was encouraged to succeed, she never forgot the favoritism of her father who clearly hoped that her brother would become the member of the family that most would remember.  Perhaps because of this sibling rivalry or a desire, like Kate’s, to show her father who was boss, Barbara Billings worked extra hard. 

Meryl Streep Prada

Gifted with only moderate intelligence, she graduated from a middling Midwestern college, did sporadic graduate work, but found that the world of International Development held the most promise.  Government sponsors not only wanted to help the women of the Third World but American women as well. Eager, enthusiastic, and capable women were recruited in the many private, non-profit agencies in Washington and shepherded to the boardroom.

Barbara Billings managed by intimidation.  She was clever enough to hide the most exaggerated examples of her reign of terror from Senior Management who praised her for her bottom line.  Running an office like a slave ship can pay early and significant rewards, for the twenty-somethings rowing the trireme are too young and experienced to challenge authority, let alone that from one so imposing as Barbara Billings.

Image result for images corporate boardrooms

Everyone in the office was afraid of Barbara Billings except Jim who understood her as well as Petruchio ever did Kate.  He had met women like her before – born a bit too early to enjoy the easy transition from home to office of younger women.  Women of her generation were still out to prove something to Daddy, were guilty and ashamed that they neglected their children as their mothers had never done; and were still afraid that their husbands would leave them.

Jim was never intimidated by Barbara, and although he felt sorry for the minions who worked ten-hour days and on weekends to make endless revisions to their proposals which Barbara had dismissed as ‘dreck’, he knew that his longevity in the organization was conditional on his taming of her. He knew that this would be a challenge worthy of Petruchio and then some, because he worked for Barbara; but he was as self-confident and determined as his Paduan brother.

He took advantage of his age (a bit older than she), his looks (chiseled, patrician), and his charm (admiring, deferential, and sweet) to win her over. Slowly but surely her ice began to melt.  She was more welcoming when he tapped on her door, spent more time with him in professional tête-à-têtes, and even began to listen to his ideas.  He treated her as a superior, as a woman, and as a colleague.  He knew when and how to compliment her, when to demur, and when to lead.  “I was a devious sycophant”, he told me; and it worked.  He became her pet.  As she became more familiar and less peremptory, he upped the ante on his compliments and praise.  He went out of his way to recognize her achievements in staff meetings, and always to offer to do extra work.

In time, she melted completely.  Not only was he getting a free pass for his work (he was responsible and diligent, but appreciated his new ‘flexible’ hours), but enjoyed long lunches with her at Le Diplomate and Jaleo.  Gradually she began to share her personal life with him.  She had been divorced for five years, led a rather restricted social life which revolved around work and her children, and “had little time for anything else”.

Image result for images le diplomate dc

Jim, savvy as ever, knew exactly what she meant, and had been waiting for this opening for months.  He had finally cracked her armor and it would not be long before he had removed it completely.

Curiously, Barbara became more tolerant of her minions and more understanding of their young lives.  She guillotine was still poised to whistle down and chop off the head of an apostate; but it was rarely used. “She was in love”, Jim said, “with me.”

They became lovers one afternoon after many martinis at The Rib Cage.  She was as passionate as he had expected.  After so many years of slavish work and ambition, enclosed in an executive suite that she had always hoped for but never really wished for, what else would she be other than passionate?  They both knew the delicacy of their situation; and although because of their ages and senior positions there would never be any question of impropriety, they still wanted to keep their personal life as private as possible.

The story might have a nice Taming of the Shrew ending if Jim had loved Barbara in return as Petruchio did Kate; but for him it was never about anything than the conquest. He, like Petruchio, had had many women; but no conquest had ever satisfied him.  No woman had been his equal in canniness and agility.  Barbara Billings was his dream woman; but once he had had her, he began to plot his extrication from the affair, the job, and Washington.

Given the nature of their business taking a Chief of Party position in Africa was to be expected – a call of duty, a responsibility; and just like combat service for a military officer, a two-year tour in Angola was worth many pay grades and ribbons.  He of course negotiated the separation without her having any clue about his real reasons.  One thing about being besotted, even if you are a Senior Vice President, is that you suspend logic.  She emailed him every day, and he replied with eagerness and affection.  After a while reality set in, and while she never suspected that he had ditched her, she knew that their paths had separated.  It was an amicable separation, with good memories on both sides.

Image result for images luanda

Jim lost track of her after his tour.  He had become friends with the Deputy Ambassador of our embassy and thanks to their relationship he received a Presidential appointment to an important European mission where he was responsible for inter-governmental policy exchanges in the area of international development.  He settled down in London, bought a townhouse in South Kensington, and led a very good life.

As far as Barbara Billings was concerned, he had heard nothing.  He presumed that she got her shrewish self back once she had been left on the curb; but he had no doubt that she would pick herself up and get back to business. “Quite a woman”, Jim said. “Very determined.”

1 comment:

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