Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Makeover Artist

Yesterday, I got together with some friends for Drinking and Shakespeare. The play we "performed" (complete with funny voices on the part of those of us that could manage them) was "The Taming of the Shrew." Now, until D+S came along, I hadn't done much with Shakespeare since I was in high school, were we routinely read plays in English class, and were treated to two professional performances a year by a theatrical troupe. And so, even though I remembered "The Taming of the Shrew," I found that I did not remember "The Taming of the Shrew." Sometime in the past 30 years, I had managed to completely mislay any memories of the abuse that poor Katharina suffers at Petruchio's hands, as he seeks to remake her from bitter "shrew" to Stepford Wife. I think, in part, it's because it seems difficult to understand the nature of what's going on, and how the beginning and end states line up.

The main point in the play that establishes Katharina as a "shrew" is Act II, set in the family home in Padua. The Act opens with Kate abusing her sister Bianca, and near the end of it, has her verbally (mostly) sparring with Petruchio, at which time he resolves that they will be wed on the following Sunday. At the end of the play, as the proof that she has been "tamed" she lectures, at the direct behest of Petruchio, Bianca and the Widow on: "What duty they do owe their lords and husbands." To the modern sensibility, these seem unrelated - in fact, the only aspect of Katharina's behavior that has been directly changed is that she appears to lose her shame at public displays of affection.

Perhaps it's because when I read the play now, it's hard to understand it as a comedy, but "The Taming of the Shrew" comes across mostly as a heartbreaking tale of domestic abuse. Petruchio's tactics are precisely the sort of thing that would trigger an intervention today, and the parallels to modern cult conditioning are stark. While much of Katharina's ire seems to be directed at her family, their exasperation with her has left her isolated, and thus she had no-one to defend her when Petruchio effectively turns their marriage into an abduction. And note that this is not addressed at the end of the play. Petruchio does not set out to repair Kate's relationships with her sister, father or any of the other people she knew. When she lectures the Widow, her monologue is really an acknowledgement of her own helplessness. To be allowed to eat, sleep, change clothing or leave Petruchio's home, Kate is forced to do and say whatever she is told, and to castigate herself when Petruchio insists that, in her subservience, she has misstated things. I suspect that one could do a lot with a rendition of the play in which Kate's closing is delivered in a flat, falsely cheerful monotone with a forced smile - the sort that inaudibly pleads, "Help me." In this, "The Taming of the Shrew" is a story of predation - Petruchio is a predator and in Kate, he has found the perfect victim - someone who has burned enough bridges that he may prey upon her with the open blessing of her family and acquaintances. Bianca, the sister who is the object of everyone's affections and desire, retains a modicum of freedom for herself by understanding the part expected of her. Katharina plays the game badly, and loses big.

One wonders if things would have been different if the play had circled back around to its opening, with the jest being played on Christopher Sly - the decision of the hunting Lord to "practise on this drunken man," and convince him that he's undergone a fugue for the past decade and a half. One wonders what would have happened had Sly attempted to play Petruchio to the poor Page who had been shanghaied into dressing in drag and pretending to be his wife. One can imagine it ending badly. Of course, the joke being perpetrated at Sly's expense seems cruel and mean itself - but in that it so happens that we are not shown the results of that cruelty. In "The Taming of the Shrew," cruelty being played out to the bitter end is a fate reserved only for Kate. I can't help but wonder if the frame was always left unclosed, as the play comes to us now, or if, at some point, there was a return to Christopher Sly and the Lord. If there was, it seems that there would have been some sort of meta-commentary on the "taming" as Sly had just witnessed it. Perhaps audiences didn't like it for some reason, or, if they play had been commissioned, the patron disapproved. In any event, its absence gives us the opportunity to invent it for ourselves. I'd like to think that poor Sly would have come away from things the wiser in the ways of the nobility, and perhaps sympathetic to Katharina.

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