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Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Taming Of The Shrew–Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, And The Fallacy Of Romantic Love

Researchers have studied marriage and divorce for decades and have tried to determine those factors which most contributed to success. Emily Esfahani-Smith writing in The Atlantic reported on studies which concluded that kindness and generosity are the two principal factors leading to lasting relationships. Such Christian attributes are apparently in short supply since the majority of marriages end in divorce; and in those that remain intact, only one-third are ‘happy’.

If we can trust the researchers, marriages are happy if partners bring kindness and generosity with them. According to the researchers, in order for the chemistry to work both partners have to share the same values.

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

However, sweetness and light only describes those marriages in which sexual passions have been muted, sexual dynamics blunted, and the deep psychological compulsions behind the best couplings ignored. Shakespeare knew this well, for in all his 37 plays there are only two in which the couples are ‘happy’ – Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.  

Romeo and Juliet’s love is romantic, innocent, sweet, and naïve.  They are children, after all, and haven’t had the time to realize the demands of adult marriage. The play is lyrical and engaging, but only the stuff of Medieval courtly love – a fantasy, a lovely interlude in Shakespeare’s more resolute conviction about the hopelessness of sexual matches.

The heroines of the Comedies – Beatrice, Viola, Portia, and Rosalind – all settle for men far beneath them in character and intellect. The women in the Histories and Tragedies are already married and exerting their power and will.  The wives of Henry VI, King John, Richard II all take over for their weak, venal, pious, or inactive husbands.  Tamora is a Nietzschean juggernaut of destruction. Dionyza kills for superficially motherly reasons.  Volumnia sells out her own son, Coriolanus, as we assume she did her husband.

Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew are an odd couple and one which rankles modern-day feminists more than any other serious work of literature. In the early scenes of the play Kate is indeed a shrew – so much so that even her father has given up on her as a vixen and unmarriageable harridan.  Petruchio, a sexually confident nobleman says that he wants to ‘tame’ her, and it appears, to subject her to his will and have a complaisant, obedient wife.

Yet as the play evolves it is clear that Petruchio has no such intentions.  He sees Kate as a strong and exciting woman whose shrewishness is only the result of a willful woman’s frustration at her father’s autocratic rule and her sister’s humiliating, catty rivalry.  Kate is not shrewish - meanspirited, hateful, selfish, and immature a woman beyond reprieve, a character consigned to spite, mistrust, and anger.  She is a woman half-formed, increasingly desperate whose vitality and sexual energy have been twisted and turned inward and ugly.  Petruchio sees beyond this and is undaunted by her or her reputation. He sees only a woman of frustrated passion, uninhibited desire, and strength.

Kate is at first put off by Petruchio’s advances.  What are his intentions?  Why has he not, like all other men, been repelled by her? What deceptive, selfish motives are behind his interest? At the same time, she realizes that Petruchio is the man she has hoped to find – one who can see beyond her defenses; a man who is unintimidated, as strong as she as sexually confident as she is passionate.

The marriage is one of perfect symmetry.  She, now having left her shrewishness behind, loves Petruchio without hesitation or restraint.  He is her rescuer, her savior from a life of hard-bitten, resentful spinsterhood.  He is what men should be – strong, confident, male, and yet understanding of women.  

For his part he has finally found a woman equal to him, as strong and determined, as responsive to sexual desire, and as unafraid to take the chances of a consensual, but diametric relationship.  They both know that the marriage will not be generous and kind, a mutual affection muting desire, but so much the better for it.

The Taming of the Shrew anticipates Lady Chatterley’s Lover by 300 years.  Lawrence, like Shakespeare, was dismissive of romantic love, and understood that men and women would always be in a struggle of wills.  Shakespeare’s Portia, Rosalind, and Viola, born into a century of irrefutable male dominance may have outwitted their slavish suitors, but were forced to capitulate to social demands.  Kate is under the same rules, but not only refuses to abide by them, flaunts them.  Whatever the consequences of dismissing her father, sister, and family may be, they are acceptable.  The radical, willful complementarity, and sexual compatibility of her marriage to Petruchio, is not only liberating, but exhilarating.

D.H. Lawrence had a very particular if not unique way at looking at sex.  Far from prescribed procreative union of man and wife, nor the expression of love and belonging, nor passionate adulterous, hopeful affairs, nor the refuge from an unconcerned, dispassionate world; sexual union had epiphanic possibilities.  If a man and a woman could come to sexual consummation in a state of perfect sexual balance – male and female impulses and desires for submission or domination, love or hate in perfect equilibrium after a struggle of wills – it would not only be personally satisfying fulfilling, but would represent existential hope.  The centrality of sexual expression was not only the core of male-female relationships but a model for post-antagonistic, equal and balanced human relations.

Image result for images d.h. lawrence

This passage from Taming of the Shrew is Kate’s elegy for a perfect union.  Misunderstood by feminist critics for decades because of its seemingly female capitulation to male dominance, it is on the contrary Kate’s Lawrentian hymn.  Lawrence was neither feminist nor misogynist.  He only knew that the only successful sexual relationships would be those which were decided by a battle of wills.  It matters not who ends up on top, it is the final acceptability of position that counts.  Here Kate is not expressing a desire to live as chattel, but as a partner.  It is a song of praise for her rescuer, but her equal. She accepts the bargain – her husband braving storms and cold nights while she lies warm and comfortable by the fire – because she has chosen to do do so.  The marriage of Kate and Petruchio may look like the conventional, patriarchal marriages of the time, but it is only a coincidental similarity. 

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.

Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence have put to rest the Petrarchan notion of romantic love.  Petrarch, an Italian medieval poet wrote hundreds of poems to his love, Laura, and a major influence in the rise of the cult of romantic love, knights and fair maidens, chastity and longing, and the melancholic, sweet distance between a lover and his desired.

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
scattering that sweet gold about, then
gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,

you linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
and I wander searching for my treasure,
like a creature that often shies and kicks:

now I seem to find her, now I realize
she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
now longing for her, now truly seeing her.

Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours? 
Image result for images petrarch

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