We went up to Midlands University a couple of weeks ago to see a collection of scenes from various of his plays (including a couple of songs from Something Rotten). It was fun. I was fairly impressed by a few of the scenes and enjoyed even the ones I thought could have been improved.
One of the scenes I enjoyed the most was from The Taming of the Shrew, a play I am very fond of. It made me think about a paper I wrote for a class for Gerry Kahan while doing my doctoral work at UGA. In it, I tried to argue that the play wasn’t as misogynistic as many people have tried to say it was in recent days, that it was more a meeting of two people who were meant to be together, but have trouble realizing that. Dr. Kahan felt that I was wrong, although he assigned me a decent grade because I made a fair argument. Then, about the same time as I saw the scene at Midlands, I read Garry Wills’ Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theatre in Shakespeare’s Time, which I found most interesting; in part because of his take on Shrew. (See, in spite of the fact that I have reservations about turning Shakespeare over to literary scholars [see entry #52], as the grandson of an English professor, I do respect scholarly work and think it can help us to better understand the plays. I just don’t think that’s the be all and end all of the works, especially the plays. Perhaps someday I’ll comment about some of the commentary I’ve read about the Sonnets.
Anyway, on pp. 44-49, Wills gets into a discussion of Shrew, which he gets into through some discussion of Sonnet #130. I like this a lot as I have always had doubts that writing a play suggesting that the proper treatment of a woman was to beat her into submission would have been unwise (to say the least) during the reign of Elizabeth I. Anyway, rather than try to summarize Wills’ points, I just scanned them and include them here. The following are pages 44 – 49 from Wills’ book, including his brief discussion of Sonnet 130.
(This is all a direct quote, format changes are difficult on Weebly)
While Shakespeare observed the codes of courtly love in most of his sonnets, he could, when he wanted, pungently mock it:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
The closing couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet has never delivered a more striking jolt. The insult poem is finally revealed as a love poem, The “love as rare” makes us look back on all the “false compare” and see it was already preparing to reveal the truth behind such lines as “ I love to hear her speak.” The airy nonsense of hyperbole yields to the earthy reality of those climactic monosyllables: “when she walks treads upon the ground.” Some have a dream in the sky. He has a reality on earth. So the sonnet ends up being an antilove love poem. Henry V says the same thing in smaller compass when he tells Lady Katherine, “If thou canst love me for this, take me; if not, to say to thee that I shall die is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too” (H5 5.2.149—52).
The Taming of the Shrew
This profession of true love underneath the mockery gives us a clue to a play that most disturbs people in our feminist era. Discussion of The Taming of the Shrew now circles angrily or warily around the issue of misogyny, alternating indignant condemnation with uneasy exoneration. I think the best approach to that touchy problem is by way of Sonnet 130. Petruchio’s tool for taming is not what many truly misogynist works of the time drew from folklore – imprisoning, torturing, whipping, crippling, putting in the stocks, imposing a horse’s bridle or saddle. Petruchio’s weapon of choice is -- courtly love! Where she rails, he extravagantly praises, using all the genuflecting tropes of courtliness. She slaps him, he embraces her. He compares her to Dian (2.1.258-59). Her curses are for him sweet singing, her frowns are morning roses sweet with dew (2.1.171-73).
Grumio is wrong to say that his master will be as curst as she, trading rant for rant (1.104-10). All those who have Petruchio carry a whip or use it on her are just as egregious.3 There is nothing more boring than the brute-on-brute wrestling match of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor -- as if they were still playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- in Zeffirelli's production. Ann Thompson rightly prefers John Cleese’s insouciant approach, all the while blowing Kate verbal kisses in Peter Hall's version.4
The anger Cleese puts on is all directed at others, whom he takes to be insulting his goddess, offering her inferior food or clothes. By doing so, of course, he satirizes her own beating of her sister and her servants -- a sign of her changing character comes when she pleads that he stop beating the servant (4.1.156). Petruchio with his buckler is Quixote rushing to the defense of his Dulcinea. This is how he spirits her off after the wedding:
Draw forth thy weapon--We are beset with thieves!
Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man!
Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate;
I'll buckler thee against a million! (3.2.234—38)
(Cervantes, too, was mocking the lunatic hyperbole of courtly love.)
The greatest trial of Katherine is her disorientation when everything Petruchio does, he "does it under name of perfect love" (4.3.12). Barbara Hodgdon points out that Petruchio is not the lion tamer of modern whip wielders but what he calls himself, in a long simile (4.1.190-92), a falcon--gentler. Hodgdon quotes early books of falconry, including one by Simon Latham:
As Latham explains it, taming a hawk is not a one-way street, for it required that the falconer suffer the same hardships as the bird-going without sleep, watching for at least three nights, or until the bird stops her "bating"-beating her wings in order to free herself from the jesses restraining her legs . . . Not only does the falconer speak a language of love, but Latham advises him to stroke the bird gently with a feather and to "lure her using your voice, with a bit or two of meat bestowed on her . . . for that will make her eager, and to love your voice."5
Ann Thompson notes that Petruchio shares Kate's deprivations of sleep and food. He denies Kate meat because it is not good enough for her but denies himself because it makes him choleric: "And I expressly am forbid to touch it, / For it engenders choler, planteth anger" (4.1.171-72).
(Cleese does the sleeplessness well but slips when he later chews on a morsel of meat.) Petruchio is undergoing trial along with Kate. Appropriately, Kate in her final speech of allegiance will praise the man for going off on labors, like knights sent out by their ladies:
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 li'st warm at home, secure and safe. (5.2.148-51)
But of course she, not the knight, is the vassal at the end swearing allegiance to her lord. In other words, she now uses the language of courtly love.
It puzzled Kate that Petruchio acted "in the name of perfect love.” Can he mean it? This is the first time Kate has ever heard the language of love. Dare she believe it? (Sarah Badel plays the early scenes, before Cleese shows up, as a hysterical expression of a woman starved for love.) Shakespeare was good at showing men and women who engage in competitive insults while they are steadily, under it all, falling in love with each other – Beatrice and Benedick, Rosaline and Berowne, Kate—Petruchio is the capping example of this love-in-enmity. Cleese and Badel begin the process in their earliest fencings. Cleese, like many others, does a meditative" double take" on the second line of "Thy virtues spoke of and thy beauty sounded- / Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs" (2.I.192-93). And Kate pauses, puzzled, at hearing some of his praise (she has never heard this before). The normally voluble woman is left speechless when her father, at the end of this first en-counter, joins her hand to Petruchio's in the betrothal ceremony, with Gremio and Tranio as witnesses. She says nothing at all as her hand is taken (2.1.307-9).
The speech that bothers moderns is Kate's preachment to her fellow women on devotion to their lords. This is certainly far from modern language. But Thompson and Hodgdon argue that it was far from the normal profession of women's subjection in Shakespeare's day, too. That was normally theological, based on the prescribed homilies for the marriage service, stressing Bible themes of women's essential inferiority, the very stuff of John Knox's trumpet blastings. One of the two homilies collected by Elizabeth's great theologian, John Jewel, counseled women not to protest if their husbands beat them but to take it as God's chastisement (as "patient Grizel" did in Chaucer and Boccaccio). The preacher tells the bride: "If thou canst suffer an extreme husband, thou shalt have a great reward therefore. But if thou lovest him only because he is gentle and courteous, what reward will God give thee therefore? . . . I exhort the women that they would patiently bear the sharpness of their husbands."6
The homilies also advised subjects to submit to rulers even when they made unjust demands. Kate, by contrast, talks of mutual duties in the language of what Thompson calls "a civil contract."7 Hodgdon notes that the report of the off-stage wedding of the two does not mention the marriage homily, which means that in effect Kate is delivering the real homily in her infamous speech -- and effectually defying church law, which prohibited women from preaching.8
What neither Thompson nor Hodgdon emphasizes is the fact that the speech is an expression of courtly love. Kate swears allegiance to liege lord and “sovereign” (5.2.138-47), as a knight would to his midon, his master-mistress, his prince. And a knight's obeisance is not degrading but ennobling. Kate is using the same courtly language Petruchio had used of her, when he used it feigningly. She, by using it sincerely, retroactively makes his protestations come true. She makes his make-believe real. He really was praising her beauty, if not her temper; but now she makes her temper praiseworthy, matching it to his first praise: “Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly as a nightingale” (2.1.170-71).
The way the two work together against the other pairs of lovers shows that they have become a team. Lucentio had used the flowers of courtly rhetoric to woo Bianca, but they had not fused them together as closely as Petruchio and Kate have bonded. The first couple has the “false compare” of Sonnet 130, and the later the “love as rare.” These two, when they walk, tread on the ground. Fully as much as (or even more than) Beatrice and Benedick or Rosaline and Berowne, these two are clearly made for each other. To quote Thompson once more: "By most standards, including feminist ones, Petruchio is a more interesting and challenging, possibility as a husband than the Orlandos and Orsinos of this world, just as Kate is a more interesting wife than Bianca."9
To confirm Thompson's words, a maverick feminist has written:
(this is a quote from another source)
Kate is a woman striving for her own existence in a world where she is a stale, a decoy to be bid for against her sister's higher market value, so she opts out by becoming unmanageable, a scold. Bianca has found the women's way of guile and feigned gentleness to pay better dividends; she woos for herself under false colors, manipulating her father and her suitors in a perilous game which could end in her ruin. Kate courts ruin in a different way, but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her as he might a hawk or a high mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman, who has no objection to humiliating him in public. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality: Bianca is the soul of duplicity, married without earnestness or good will. Kate's speech is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.10
The history of this play’s performance after Shakespeare’s time is mainly a chart of its coarsening. Physical mayhem replaced verbal fencing. It was forgotten that the contrast between Petruchio and Kate is – like that of Rosaline with Berowne and Beatrice with Benedick a verbal contest. Kate can beat her sister or a servant, but she must find words to deal with Petruchio. The emphasis on mayhem was accelerated when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, in their I929 movie, used the knockabout antics of silent film. Pickford at one point knocks Fairbanks unconscious, so he must show up at the final banquet with his head in a bandage, and Pickford mocks him by delivering her last aria with a demonstrative wink to the ladies in the audience -- a device that became as standard in later performances as were the whips she and Fairbanks wielded.
For many years the physical struggle was one in which Petruchio humiliated Kate, whipping her, throwing her over his shoulder and toting her around like a sack. In the modern feminist era, Kate humiliates Petruchio, spitting on him, kicking him in the testicles, throwing him with judo moves.11 Productions that omit such mayhem are now criticized for “expunging all the fun," or "foisting gravity" on the play.12 Productions using a modern setting give us a gun-toting Katherine -- Tracey Ullman's 1990 Kate shot the gun in target practice. (Ullman also put her hand under Petruchio's foot only to tip him over.)13 The play is now staged as a form of martial combat. There is even an escalation of weapons: Mary Pickford knocked out her Petruchio with a wooden stool, Elizabeth Taylor did it with a warming pan.
All this is justified, according to Elizabeth Schafer, since the play has a “sado-masochistic subtext” (that wonderfully all-permitting “subtext”).14 She even likes the 1995 production with Kate as "a dominatrix, agreeing to be dominated for the sexual fun of it." So precipitous can be the descent from courtly verbal fencing to various kinds of mudwrestling. This physical violence comes from people who will not let language take the lead, and especially the language of courtly love -- a convention explored, exploited, inverted, and finally vindicated in a play as sly as Sonnet 130, a play in which make-believe love finally turns to made-believed-in love.
(End of quoted material)
I think that rather closely follows my thinking about the play and suggests that a good deal of the “scholarship” about the play is probably based on just the reading of the words, but without close enough attention “to reading the play.” I have use that sort of phrase before, in my teaching, because I have always felt that a play is a good deal more that just the words on the page and that it’s not enough to just read the pages, but one has to trust the words as a guide for what the playwright meant for the play. I think that far too many productions (of many playwrights, not just Shakespeare) don’t sufficiently trust the words to mean what they say. I have never felt the were intended to just provide raw material for “auteur” directors to create the work which THEY want, rather than the play the playwright wrote. If one doesn’t wish to do the playwright’s work, they should write their own.
Anyway, that’s what I think. I look forward to reaction…