Sunday, July 4, 2010

Discussion: The Taming of the Shrew

The play: The Taming of the Shrew

The plot tweet: While lovers vie for Bianca, Petruchio woos and weds her sister Kate. Tames shrew with her own medicine, probably lives happily ever after.

My favorite line:

And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.
So I to her, and so she yields to me,
For I am rough and woo not like a babe. (Petruchio)


As Marjorie Garber points out in Shakespeare After All, critical analysis of The Taming of the Shrew has tended to focus on two things: the introductory practical joke played on Christopher Sly, and Kate's final speech about women's duties to their husbands.

Some critics are derisive of the Sly introduction, claiming that it has no relation to the Shrew plot. (Indeed, in every production I've seen, this portion has been cut.) Other critics say that the Sly portion introduces themes, such as impersonation, transformation and disguise, that are critical to our understanding of the play. If this is true, it seems that the play should be crafted to teach Sly a lesson, perhaps about his drunkenness or the hazards of impersonating a nobleman. Yet drunkenness isn't an issue, and those in the play who do impersonate noblemen are sympathetic characters whose stories end well. Instead, the whole thrust of the action is the love story (and I think it is one) of Petruchio and Kate. What is Sly to learn from this?

I'll get to the other issue, Kate's final speech, in a minute. First, a question: Why, exactly, is Kate such a shrew in the first place? Does it come naturally to her, or does she have some cause? A few years ago, a production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival took literally Petruchio's line "Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?" The suggestion was that her physical disability -- and society's reaction to it -- had created her foul temperament.

A more likely cause is the treatment Kate has received from her father, Baptista, who clearly favors Bianca. "Will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see / She is your treasure," Kate accuses him. During the course of the play, he calls her "thou hilding of a devilish spirit," "a shrew of thy impatient humor" and "the veriest shrew of all." With a father like that, who wouldn't turn out a bit nasty?

In that context, Petruchio's proposal offers Kate a welcome escape from an unhappy home (especially since she is probably the only one who realizes that her sister isn't the perfect angel she appears to be). Crazy as Petruchio seems, at least he claims to care for her. And they're clearly interested in each other from the start; their witty banter is laced with sexual puns, and Kate is genuinely upset when she thinks he's left her at the altar. Their partnership isn't instantly perfect; Kate must learn to manipulate quietly rather than rage and shout. But learn she does, and her final speech seems to reflect their unspoken agreement to live in harmony -- presenting a proper face to the world, but with Kate always quietly in control.

The Taming of the Shrew has sometimes been labeled a problem play, but Bloom doesn't think so, and neither do I. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he writes that Kate and Petruchio are "rather clearly going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare." Lucentio, it seems, is the one we ought to pity.

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