Kate Plays the Game

JAN 30, 1998

Shakespeare is not as anti-feminist as he can be made to sound.

In the early 1980s, the distinguished British actor Antony Quayle visited a Shakespeare class I was teaching at Dartmouth. In generous response to the students, he shared perceptive comments on various plays, reminiscences of his artistic directorship at Stratford-upon-Avon, and a wonderful stream of theatrical anecdotes. Then someone brought up The Taming of the Shrew. The genial fountain suddenly stopped flowing: he declared The Shrew to be “a hateful play” and refused to discuss it.

The Shrew has in fact nearly always been a popular play, in Shakespeare’s text or in any number of adaptations, from David Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio to Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. But Quayle has hardly been alone in his dissent. At the end of the twentieth century, the play poses two large problems: one of doctrine and one of action. It appears to preach male supremacy in marriage, and it appears to humiliate its spirited heroine by making her the victim of farce.

Male supremacy is a matter of fathers as well as of husbands. Here The Shrew is unusually realistic for Shakespeare. There is no casket lottery or disguised twin or rushing off to the forest. Baptista Minola, a wealthy merchant with two daughters, faces a situation quite familiar to the propertied classes in Shakespeare’s audience. Such fathers were expected to get their daughters married and to provide a dowry with each daughter that would entice a suitable wooer. The prospective husband, or his father, was expected to provide a corresponding sum, a dower or jointure, to support the wife should she be left a widow. Marriages in such classes were regularly matters of property, inheritance, family. This was the way in which the income for the new couple was provided. Such people did not earn salaries, as we now expect to do. Parents who failed to provide for their children, who left them unendowed or unbestowed, would be criticized by neighbors, and by the children themselves, for parental neglect, as we would now criticize middle-class parents who failed to provide a college education enabling their children to survive comfortably in the world.

Under these circumstances, Baptista does a modest job. He provides the money and he educates his daughters to make them more attractive. Of course he doesn’t understand them, he favors one of them unfairly, and his early insistence that suitors should win his daughters’ love evaporates when moneyed men actually compete for them. But in a world where arranged marriages were the norm, he earns perhaps a B.

In the 1590s in England, however, arranged marriage was not the only courtship practice. Some preachers and moralists discouraged arranged marriages, considering them largely a manifestation of parental greed, likely to create unsuitable unions that could lead to jealousy, infidelity, and even murder. Poets and other tellers of romantic tales elevated the personal affections of the young couple to an absolute: the course of true love, though perhaps not running smooth, should finally triumph. Modern social historians such as Lawrence Stone and Keith Wrightson have argued over the extent to which property and personal love played roles in the choice of spouses. Fortunately for those reading or seeing The Shrew, it is not necessary to know how great a percentage of weddings in the early 1590s emerged from passionate attachment. At the start, clearly Petruchio has in mind a marriage of the old kind–he wants “to wive it wealthily in Padua.” He deals with the father before meeting the daughter. He announces at one point, when he is behaving with special outrageousness, a doctrine of male supremacy within marriage so extreme it amounts to ownership: “She is my goods, my chattels . . . my horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing.” At the end of the play, Kate articulates at length the corresponding principle of female obedience. In the other plot, Bianca and Lucentio behave with romantic independence. She makes her own choice of mate, disregarding her father’s auction of her. She marries in secret, and the couple gains paternal approval only after the knot is tied. Although in later comedies Shakespeare favors romantic young lovers over crotchety fathers, here the marriage of Kate and Petruchio, although arranged for property reasons, is eventually the happier union of the two, and the lovers are more interesting and attractive people. It is difficult to argue that Shakespeare is taking a stand on the social issue. It is easy to see that he is making a full use of the possibilities provided by the courtship practices of his time.

Once the marriages are celebrated, however, the play does seem to take a stand–the wife owes obedience to her husband. The play closes with a 44-line speech in which Kate asserts that a wife should “serve, love, and obey” her husband; that a wife owes duty to her husband as a subject owes duty to a prince; and that this duty is properly symbolized by the wife’s placing her hand beneath her husband’s foot. That is uncompromising doctrine, and, to the late twentieth century, most unattractive doctrine. Men are embarrassed by it; women are angered.

Literary critics and theatrical artists, when confronting something they dislike, often reinterpret it. For the past half-century, critics and directors have regularly attempted to revise the plain doctrine of Kate’s final speech under the all-saving name of irony, claiming that Kate doesn’t mean what she says. For two reasons this doesn’t work very well. The first is a theatrical problem. The actress may undercut the sense of what she says–either crudely, by winking at the audience, often over Petruchio’s shoulder in the final embrace, or more elegantly, as Edith Evans once did, by playing the whole speech as if she were a heroine in Congreve or Wilde, going through a highly mannered performance, saying the things men want to hear, but making it clear to the audience by the stylized exaggeration that she doesn’t mean a word of it. A third, post-modern possibility has recently surfaced: complete cognitive dissonance. The Kate in a Wild West Shrew of the 1980s said the conciliatory words while holding the wedding party at gun point. Aside from turning Kate into the sly sort of person her sister has been, these methods are simply cheating. Such subversion can be practiced, according to talent, by any performer on any passage in Shakespeare. It’s a familiar form of theatrical humor, delightful at cast parties. In an actual production of a playwright whose liars and deceivers regularly alert the audience to their plots, some sort of textual basis must be sought for supposing Kate does not mean what she says here. The second problem, encountered when we look for such textual basis, lies in ignoring the difference between local verbal ironies and a vast irony of intent extending for 44 lines. There certainly are moments of irony in this speech. When Kate observes that a husband “commits his body to painful labor both by sea and land,” recent Petruchios have rightly looked startled. Petruchio is a country gentleman whose wealth comes from his estates, and perhaps he has invested in Mediterranean trade, but managing an estate and backing voyages do not amount to digging the ditches and caulking the ships. Kate’s contrasting reference to the wife who “lies warm at home” is full of private irony for herself and her husband, but not for the wedding guests who do not know that Petruchio has kept her cold and sleepless. This verbal playfulness (which she has learned from Petruchio–at the start of the play she could only sputter with anger) enriches what would otherwise be an intolerably long oration, but it does not contradict the doctrine that the speech expounds or the gesture with which it ends. Moreover, verbal irony is far less important in drama than irony of event. Long doctrinal speeches in Shakespeare are often subject to ironic examination by subsequent events–see what happens to the fable of the belly in Coriolanus, Ulysses’ speech on degree and obedience in Troilus and Cressida, and the divine-right speeches of Richard II. But Kate’s speech is the only such sermon in Shakespeare that occurs in the final lines of the play, when no further event can contradict or qualify it.

Shakespeare is not as anti-feminist as he can be made to sound. The taming is less violent and abusive than it is in pre-Shakespearean shrew stories. In one of the sources, the husband beats his wife senseless and then wraps her bleeding body in the salted hide of a newly flayed horse. Further, Kate’s speech justifies the submission of wives as a political arrangement, not as a theological tyranny. Husband and wife have distinctive roles in a cooperative and companionate union, whereas in the parallel place in The Taming of a Shrew (an anonymous play that is either a source or a rip-off of Shakespeare’s The Shrew), Kate produces the medieval argument that woman is the crooked rib, the source of evil to her husband, and thus to be ruled absolutely by him. At least Shakespeare broke away from that oppressive piece of mythology. But all the learning and industry of admirable feminist critics in rescuing Shakespeare from the bleaker reaches of male chauvinist piggery cannot convincingly turn him into a proto-feminist. The feminist movements of the past two centuries, varied and sometimes contradictory, ultimately derive from the doctrine of natural rights propagated by philosophers of the Enlightenment, first put into halting practice in the American and French Revolutions. No such doctrine was available to earlier western history. The ruling assumptions of Shakespeare’s time were not egalitarian but hierarchical. St. Paul explicitly endorsed the authority of husbands, and it would have been hard for people who believed in the literal inspiration of the Bible to argue against that. The natural order on heaven, on earth, everywhere, was vertical: the wife called her husband “my lord.” Occasionally the order might invert itself; the courtly Petrarchan lover professed himself the servant of his mistress and called her “my lady.” The great marriage debate in Chaucer concerns which sex should hold the mastery–the Wife of Bath has it, Patient Griselda yields it–but no one suggested that marital mastery should be altogether abolished. One accepts this, or re-writes the play, or leaves it on the shelf.

Some modern critics, feminist and otherwise, actually have deeper objections to the mode of the play’s action: farce. Tranio exemplifies the disguise and trickery that Renaissance comedy inherited from ancient Roman farce. Gremio and the Pedant are stock figures out of Italian commedia dell’arte. Petruchio and his servants display the physical knockabout that is characteristic of farce in all ages. The verbal wit of the play is often farcical. In contrast to the lyricism of Twelfth Night and As You Like It, the wit of The Shrew comes near wisecracking. The funny speeches are quick retorts and grotesque catalogues. Above all, Kate is tamed by farcical means, by being carried off from her own wedding and having her clothes and food and bed thrown about, her words flatly contradicted or outrageously reinterpreted. The psychoanalytic feminist Coppélia Kahn sees farce as the means of male autocracy in this play, the elaboration of a male fantasy of domination.

This has been a graver problem in literary interpretation, where farce is often condemned as mechanical, than in the theater, where the virtues celebrated by farce are more evident and more enjoyable. For farce does celebrate specific human virtues: energy, ingenuity, and resilience. Baptista’s difficulties in marrying off his daughters have put Padua into stalemate, a condition of entropy. Energy is obvious in the male characters who arrive in Padua and take on problems the Paduans regard as hopeless. Ingenuity–mental independence and resourcefulness–lies in the suitors’ adoption of unconventional methods to gain their ends, notably in Petruchio’s pretense of being a greater shrew than Kate, but also in the fertile inventiveness of Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello. By resilience I mean a combination of stubbornness and adaptability. This virtue is often overlooked in farcical characters, ready as we are to describe farce as rigid and condemn farcical behavior as subhuman. The ability to initiate and endure repeated confrontations, pratfalls, and beatings can be testimony to the determination of the characters, and the determination loses any mechanical quality when it is combined with the ready resourcefulness displayed by Petruchio in the taming and the variety of schemes adopted in the Bianca plot. In normal adult life, of course, we avoid the physical activities of farce, the shouting and the knockabout, but the energy, ingenuity, and resilience displayed in such activities are valuable qualities. We do not honor lassitude, mental barrenness, and defeatism.

Kate shares these virtues. In her first scenes, her verbal and physical energy make her the interesting character she is. When she meets Petruchio, it is she who initiates both the wit combat and the physical brawling. Here her behavior has a strain of compulsiveness not shared with the male farceurs. She has the energy, but her resilience is more stubborn than adaptable, and her ingenuity relies heavily on the use or threat of violence. Her liberation from raging shrewishness is marked precisely by her growth in farcical range. She learns from Petruchio to play, which she had been too angry to do before. She plays the ingenious games of farce especially well in the scene in which Petruchio insists that the sun is the moon. She follows the new rules as quickly as he can change them, and even mocks him for his revisions (“And the moon changes even as your mind”). When they meet the old man whom Petruchio insists is a young woman, she tops him in invention. He merely praises the supposed damsel in conventional Petrarchan terms, calling her eyes stars and referring to the red and white in her cheeks. Kate goes over the top:

Young, budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,

Whither away, or where is thy abode?

Happy the parents of so fair a child,

Happier the man whom favorable stars

Allot thee for his lovely bedfellow.

And when Petruchio corrects her by saying the damsel is actually a wrinkled old man, she brilliantly pulls the two kinds of pretense together by claiming that her eyes have been “bedazzled with the sun.”

The games release her from her compulsiveness, her anger at her father’s favoritism, her misunderstanding of Petruchio’s interest in her. Game or play has a cathartic effect. In play, human beings can master their circumstances, can gain release from bondage to themselves and the scorn of others. For the final scene does not simply expound doctrine; it also demonstrates marriage as a cooperative game. Petruchio may be the quarterback, calling the plays, but equally necessary to their success as a couple is Kate’s able catching of the pass and running with the ball. Together they prove themselves better than the other newlyweds, and turn the jeers of the crowd into applause.

Peter Saccio is the Leon Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College. This essay draws in part on his article, “Shrewd and Kindly Farce,” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984), 33-40. Full citation of other scholars can be found in that article.

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