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Friday, January 28, 2022

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary–Tale Of A Modern Shrew

Mary Canton was a cute little girl with pigtails, freckles, rosy cheeks and a sweet smile.  All her parents’ friends adored her, and thought she was the most adorable thing.  They loved their own daughters, of course, but to be honest there really was nothing like the Canton girl.  She was destined for the screen, they thought, recalling pictures of the young Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley Temple.  Mary not only looked like a child star, but acted like one – pert, charming, and just a  bit coquettish to suggest a wide audience appeal.

Image result for images child shirley temple

Unfortunately, beneath the calico dresses, ribbons, and dancing shoes, lay a nasty, rebellious, and selfish little girl.  Where she got this very disagreeable streak no one knew.  Her mother was a model of propriety – hospital auxiliary, charity, and church – and extremely good taste (Dior, Chanel, and Vreeland); and her father was as socially tailored as his wife (Rotary, Chamber of Commerce; and Cary Grant flannels).  

Yet before she had passed her fifth  birthday, she was a little shrew – demanding, selfish, unloving, and impertinent.  She threw her clothes on the floor and stomped on them; mashed her food into a pile on her plate and tipped it over the edge of the table, laughing while it slid, wobbled, and finally toppled onto the linoleum.

Image result for images classic dior outfit 50s

She deliberately colored outside the lines, threw her watercolors at the loathsome girl at the next easel; interrupted, banged, and yelled in class; and was a little vixen on the playground.  Her parents were called into the principal’s office many times over, and told that if this were a private school, their daughter would be out the door and on the curb in an instant.  

Yet as often as her parents were counselled and as often as her teachers disciplined her (these were the days before woke tolerance, and disruptive children were put in the broom closet), she was unchanged and unrepentant.

The thing of it was, Mary was a very smart girl, gifted and talented actually, able to figure out math problems many grades above her own, a reader at three, and bi-lingual (her grandmother was French) by five.  “What a waste”, said her parents’ friends, the school principal, and the nuns at St. Catherine’s.  With her looks, intelligence, and obvious strong will she could be anything.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s tale of a young woman very much like Mary Canton – disobedient, demanding, and selfish; but smart – who meets a man who ‘tames’ her.  Yet Petruchio does not become her master, her overlord; but her lover, confidant, and friend.  He, a strong, virile, but attentive and sensitive man is just as attracted to Kate’s volubility, energy, and will as she is to his confidence and stability.  She, thanks to his love, loses her shrewishness, and her bitter resentment of her family.

A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
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 labour 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.

Image result for Elizabeth Taylor Shrew

She is not committing herself to a life of servitude, but one of complementarity and equal love; and with her story, Shakespeare anticipates D.H. Lawrence who dismissed considerations of class, education, background, and upbringing as criteria for true union, and turned to sexual dynamics – a complementarity of wills, a satisfaction of dominance and submission without concern for traditional roles.   Kate’s soliloquy expresses this complementarity, this acknowledgement of sexual difference but a delight and pleasure in it.

Literature is filled with stories of men who are attracted to and tamed by willful, confident women.  Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are all stories of such women – Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola – who run rings around the inferior, weak men who are besotted by them.  They ignore their solicitations and promises of wealth, status, and respect; and insist on finding complementary lovers who will satisfy them as women.  

Turgenev in his short stories Asla and First Love tells about beautiful, alluring, and demanding women who want more than the simple affection and predictable desire of simple men.  “I want to be broken in two”, Asla says, anticipating Lady Chatterley.  Antony cannot resist Cleopatra but she, having bedded Julius Caesar and Pompey wants nothing to do with this lapdog.  She jests with her female attendants about Antony’s insipidness and naïve fidelity. 

Image result for images move stills lady chatterleys lover

Life imitates art and young women have always been attracted to bad boys.  They might want fidelity, honesty, duty, and family responsibility in a husband, but just the opposite in a lover.  The more shrewish the woman, the more demanding she is of a complementary mate.

And so it was with Mary Canton who spent much of her young life looking for the right man. 

Feminists of course laugh at this idea.  There is no such thing as ‘the right man’, but only a serviceable one.  Their literary champion is Laura of Strindberg’s The Father who emotionally castrates her husband, commits him to a mental institution, and gains full control over their daughter.  “Now that you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go”, she says to her husband before his exile. Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel of Ibsen’s plays are equally illustrative of a woman’s sexual role – independent from men.

Mary had no time for those politically obsessed women for whom a lesbian relationship was ideal – a joining of two independent, strong women for sex and reproduction.  Mary’s heterosexuality and Lawrentian will made male sexual conquest essential – conquest not in the sense of domination or manipulation, but of taming, fitting sharp edges into grooves while keeping the puzzle intact.

Mary was most like Portia of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who tolerates the many pompous, affected, ignorant suitors who come for her hand:

God made him and therefore let him pass for a man. In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!—why, he hath a horse better than the Neapolitan’s, a better bad habit of frowning than the Count Palatine. He is every man in no man. If a throstle sing, he falls straight a-capering. He will fence with his own shadow.

If I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands. If he would despise me I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness I shall never requite him.

Image result for images portia merchant of venice

Mary’s suitors came and went, dismissed like the princes of Venice obliged to guess the content of Portia’s ‘caskets’ in her manipulative game of chance.  Mary never gave an inch, and never resorted to second best.  It was a matter of essence, not pride.

Socio-biologists are not surprised at women’s testing of men’s mettle.  After all, the choice of a poor hunter or a dunce in battle meant insecurity and weak genes.  Men chase women, but women are the final arbiters of worth.

It is hard to describe Mary’s approved relationship just as it would be to account for that between Lady Chatterley and Mellors.  Sexual dynamics are by nature ineffable.  As much as researchers can deconstruct the social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors that contribute to sexual choice, they are as bad at predicting success as old weather models predicting rain. ‘You know it when you see it’, or something like that – a sense that women have that corresponds to what they know about themselves but rarely admit.

Kate never admitted her shrewishness and only acknowledged it once it had been erased by Petruchio; and so Mary could never have put in words why she fell for X, but she also never doubted her instincts.  The marriage was a good one, not necessarily a faithful and consistent one, but a respectful one.  Marriage did not and does not mean closure, closeting aberrant desires, limiting sexual choices; but the best marriages are the ones where partners keep each other on their toes and where taming has its wrinkles.

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