Monday, August 31, 2009

A Man, and Not a Maiden

Although cross-dressing isn't as prevalent in this play as it is in many others, it does come up in the Induction, as I pointed out earlier, and it's alluded to in Act 4, when Petruccio demands that Kate address the elderly Vincentio as a "gentlewoman." This whole business of gender misrecognition and cross-dressing in Will's plays has, as you might imagine, been discussed to death by academic "queer theorists"--scholars who study the homoerotics (explicit, implicit or merely imagined) of literary texts. I'm sympathetic to that perspective, but I think that focusing too much on any one aspect of the plays can be tedious for all involved. (Of course, focusing too much on one aspect of a literary text is what academics are paid to do, so I can't really blame them). That said, I thought I ought to write a little about the understanding of gender in the Elizabethan theater, since it was so radically different from our own.

It's a well-known fact that Elizabethan drama was performed exclusively by men, or rather men and boys. Women were forbidden to act in the theater--females were thought to be theatrical and deceptive by nature, so I guess letting them earn a living that way wasn't fair to men, who have to try harder to be something they're not. Okay, I'm being a little facetious. Actresses were thought to be on a par with prostitutes--perhaps because successful prostitutes had to be such good actresses--so no respectable theater would think of employing them. While there may have been female actors in "private performances," there were absolutely none in the public theater. It just wasn't considered proper, and the subject never seems to have come up for (public) discussion at all. As a result, all the women's parts were played by pre-pubescent boys, whose voices were sufficiently high-pitched to sound believably feminine. So let's think about this: we're talking ten-to-twelve-year-olds playing Juliet, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra. They weren't just pretending to be young women--they also played middle-aged widows, angry queens, witches, world-class seductresses--characters with difficult lines, who were onstage for hours, running through a gamut of emotions few of us could muster in real life. It's astonishing to even contemplate. The twelve-year-olds I know can't even stay focused long enough to do their homework in one sitting.

Of course, childhood as we know it didn't exist back then. People lived nastier, more brutish, and shorter lives. No time to spoil and coddle them for twenty (or thirty?) years, the way we do now. They learned their trades early, if they were lucky enough to find an apprenticeship, and they worked like pack animals from dawn till dusk, when the lights went out. "Boy players" were no exception; they spent their days rehearsing for multiple parts, memorizing thousands of lines. They acted in adult companies, like Will's, and sometimes they belonged to children's companies, which competed with adult troupes. Often they traveled from town to town, enduring hardships and, if they were lucky, collecting some well-heeled, generous fans. The best adult actors enjoyed a modicum of financial security, so it was a good profession to apprentice in. Yes, there was probably some pedophilia going on. Sadly, it wasn't as scandalous then as it is now, but then children weren't thought to be "innocent" the way they are now--many girls married at twelve, after all. I suppose that's how mere boys were able to play these complex adult roles; they lived like adults from the moment they were old enough to work--which would have been at about age five or six. All in all, it's far more amazing to me that these multi-faceted female roles were played by children than that those children happened to be male.

There are a few all-male theater groups these days, which purport to bring audiences closer to the "original" Shakespeare. But of course they can't. First off, they have men playing women's roles, not boys. Men with deep voices, broad chests, and hairy arms. It has to be men, because it would be impossible to find boys who could do what the boy players could do. And even if one could find kids with sufficient focus, talent, and reading ability to do it, it would still be impossible, because audiences wouldn't stand for it. People may be titillated by watching two men kiss, but watching a grown man kiss a boy could get everyone involved arrested. Our attitude toward pedophilia on the stage is not unlike the Elizabethan attitude toward women on the stage. In their respective historical contexts, both are shocking, and intolerable.

But it's interesting to think about how Will's audiences would have seen it. Did they cry when the boy Juliet stabbed him/herself for love? Did they believe Antony's world-rending passion for a twelve-year old male Cleopatra? Because today, a man in drag is funny, not tragic (except in those kinds of films, of course). A boy in drag is a bit less funny--maybe more disturbing, at least to a mainstream audience. Did the people watching these plays sense the homoeroticism some modern critics and readers insist was there? Did it bother them that Desdemona's voice cracked a little, or that when Lady Macbeth talked about her breasts, there weren't any?

I doubt it. In fact, I think the whole cross-dressing thing seemed totally unremarkable to most of them, except when it was emphasized for comic reasons, by having men play women, as in the Induction, or having boys play women who then play boys, as in Twelfth Night and several other plays. But even these moments seem more directed to the issue of theatricality than the issue of gender per se. So when Petruccio forces Kate to address an old man as a young maiden, he's only reminding the audience of the way the theater alters their reality. If I say this young boy is Lady Macbeth, he is. If I say the moon is the sun, it is. Because this is theater, and not real life, and when you come here, things are the way we say they are. If you don't believe that, then don't come.

Well, the Puritans didn't believe it, and they didn't come. In fact, in 1642, they closed the theaters altogether. Puritans distrusted fiction in general, and the theater in particular, because it wasn't true. Poetry, plays, stories all told lies, and thus were morally dangerous. One of their chief complaints, interestingly, was that the use of boy players excited homosexual lust in audience members. People who saw these young boys kissing men would inevitably turn to their neighbor and drag him home to "play the sodomite" with him. One assumes, naturally, that the Puritans themselves were the ones being thus excited, and that "the putting of women's attire on men...kindled unclean affections" in those who protested most vociferously. The people who are most fanatical about other people's sexual "deviance" are inevitably the ones most desirous to practice it themselves. Unable to clean up their own thoughts and urges, they decide to work on everyone else's.

So, getting back to our original question, I suppose one could argue that the Puritans were simply saying what everyone else in the audience was thinking. But historically, Puritans (and I'm including far-right politicians in this group) haven't reflected mainstream views about much of anything. Just as most people don't think Bert and Ernie are lovers, or Peppermint Patty is a lesbian, or Yogi Bear and Boo Boo had something going on in that cave, I don't think Will's audiences were fantasizing about sodomy when they watched Romeo and Juliet. I'm going to assume they suspended their disbelief at the theater, and for a few hours, were complicit in the fiction that twelve-year old boys were really women with adult passions, capable of adult evils and adult sacrifices. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Next time, we finish the play.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Art of Love

This is a sixteenth-century print of the Coliseum in Rome. I chose it because of today's topic (to which it has no real relation whatsoever) and because I liked all the grass and weeds that seem to be growing in and around it. It reminds me of Life After People, one of my favorite History Channel shows. I can almost hear the narrator's voice..."three hundred years after people, this famous ancient landmark is fighting its last battle...where gladiators clashed and begged for their lives, nature is now claiming her final victory over civilization..."

And so on.

Act 4 moves back and forth between the Bianca plot and the Kate/Petruccio struggle. In the second scene we find Lucentio/Cambio wooing Bianca by reading Ovid's Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love. Ovid's text was very popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, although Ovid himself dates from the time of Augustus Caesar. The Ars--okay, that's going to make undergraduates snicker, so let's call it the AOL. (Also silly, but not in an eighth-grade way.) The AOL was one of the earliest self-help books, basically a manual on how to get laid. Ovid recommends the Circus Maximus as a good place to pick up girls, but I also like to imagine him

lurking around the Coliseum, feral cats slinking around his ankles, eyeing pulchritudinous maidens in revealing togas, with long, tightly-curled tresses and kohl-ringed eyes. The clash of iron and steel echoes from the arena; a bloody gladiatorial battle is getting everyone excited, some of them in rather disturbing ways, but some, like Ovid's belle du jour, in a feminine, oh-isn't-that-awful way. She looks faint, and he sidles up behind her, tosses off a few lines of poetry about shepherdesses and lonely centurions, and within minutes she's snuggling up with him in a litter borne by oiled, muscular Nubians, speeding towards his hilltop villa....

wait, that's from the movie Spartacus, isn't it? Never mind. My scenario is completely anachronistic, anyway, since the Coliseum wasn't built until about fifty years after Ovid's death. But that's one of the many ways a blog is way better than a college lecture--no need to be historically accurate, just let your imagination weave in and around the facts...

Fanciful digressions aside, my point here is that both Lucentio and Petruccio employ "artful" ways of getting their women to do what they want. Lucentio masquerades as a love-struck schoolteacher, and Petruccio pretends to be an equally adoring lunatic. Now Bianca knows that "Cambio" is really a young nobleman; he revealed the truth to her in Act 3. It was important that she not be deceived, because no nice aristocratic girl would have anything (romantic) to do with a social inferior. Hortensio doesn't know that she knows, however. When he sees her mooning over Cambio as he reads Ovid's erotic poetry to her, he immediately reveals his true identity and gives up the chase, declaring himself unwilling to court

...such a one as leaves a gentleman
And makes a god of such a cullion.

In other words, anyone who would trade a well-educated rich guy like Hortensio for a lowlife like Cambio isn't worthy of his love. Or his playacting. Tranio (pretending to be Lucentio, remember) agrees to "forswear Bianca and her love forever." Now that he's seen her "lightness" for himself, he's dumping her as well. I've always liked this word "lightness" as a euphemism for female promiscuity, especially in its later substantive version: an "easy" woman was called a "lightskirt." The image of layers of seventeenth-century petticoats floating up to reveal...lots more layers of clothing is kind of evocative and poetic. I definitely think it's a word that should make a comeback. "I'm dumping her, dude. She's a total lightskirt." Yep, I like that. Now we just need one for men. "Lightskirt chaser?" "Lightbelt?" Worth thinking about. Our language doesn't have nearly enough words for sexually indiscriminate men.

After swearing off Bianca, Hortensio declares that he's had enough of pretty, high-maintenance women: "kindness in women, not their beauteous looks,/Shall win my love..." Blinded by disappointment, he decides to marry on the rebound. His new bride will be "a wealthy widow

...which hath as long loved me
As I have loved this proud disdainful haggard.

Will's audience would have known right away that this was a big mistake. In comedies going back to the ancients, widows have been associated with nagging, sexual insatiability, and an implacable desire for power in marriage. There were numerous comic narratives and dramas involving hungry widows (again, think "cougar," albeit more literally), some of them, like Gautier le Leu's The Widow (in the mid-thirteenth century) bordered on pornographic. By forsaking Bianca for a wealthy widow, Hortensio is going from the frying pan into the fire.

After Hortensio leaves to pursue his lusty widow, Tranio remarks that he will certainly "tame her" because he's going to "the taming school" to learn from Petruccio, who is its master. He

teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long
To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue.

Petruccio knows myriad tricks for taming shrews, and will gladly "instruct" others in their use.

Following this little speech about pedagogy, the servant Biondello runs in, announcing that he has finally found someone to play Lucentio's father, Vincentio. The man turns out to be a "pedant"--schoolmaster, or perhaps a "marcantant"--merchant. This confusion as to the stranger's profession is significant, since Lucentio has been playing a schoolmaster and leaving the commercial aspects of wooing to his servant, Tranio. In fact, both Lucentio and Petruccio are "instructing" women for mercenary ends--were it not for the fact that Bianca and her sister are rich, none of this would be happening. Despite all the "artful" talk of love, both men are teaching for money.

As the third scene opens, we find Kate arguing with Grumio about food. She takes a moment to lament her situation before begging him to get her something to eat:

What, did he marry me to famish me?
Beggars that come unto my father's door
Upon entreaty have a present alms
If not, elsewhere they meet with charity.
But I, who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat,
Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,
With oaths kept waking and with brawling fed,
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under name of perfect love,
As who should say if I should sleep or eat
'Twere a deadly sickness, or else present death.
I prithee, go and get me some repast,
I care not what, so it be wholesome food.

He's treating me worse than a beggar, she claims. I've never had to ask anyone for anything, and now I'm starving for lack of food, dizzy with exhaustion, forced to listen to him curse and throw things around like a madman. And the worst thing of all is he says he's doing it all out of love, to save me from sickness or death.

Yes, I know this is funny on the stage. But how many abusers say just that sort of thing? It's for your own good that I won't let you out of the house. It's because I love you so much that I hit you...okay, he doesn't hit her. But emotional abuse can be just as bad.

Grumio, sensing a rare opportunity to mess with one of the nobility, taunts her with the "idea" of food. How would you like a calf's foot, or some tripe? he asks. Tripe is the lining of a cow's stomach, by the way. Italians love the stuff--my grandmother made it regularly, and it was disgusting. Orange-colored, rubbery, and weird-smelling. Kate's practically drooling at the idea of eating these yucky cow parts, however. "I prithee, let me have it," she begs. "Fetch it me." As instructed by his master, Grumio starts "worrying" about whether the food is diseased. He then offers "beef and mustard," but decides that the mustard is "too hot a little." She orders him to bring her the beef without the mustard, but he says he won't. Frustrated, she tells him to bring her "both, or one, or anything thou wilt." He offers her mustard by itself; this absurdity sends her over the edge. She chases him out of the room, beating him and calling him a "false, deluding knave." Petruccio arrives with Hortensio, and some cooked meat. He says that he made the food just for her, but she's still sulking, so he takes it away, to her consternation, secretly ordering Hortensio to eat it all. At this point the tailor comes in with a new cap and gown for Kate, which her husband immediately finds fault with. He makes fun of the fashion, comparing sleeves to "demi-cannons" and the cap to a pie.

It's easy to agree with him here, if you've ever read Vogue or any other high-fashion publication. From the time people stopped wearing draperies, women's fashions have been ridiculous. Corsets, bustles, panniers (those things eighteenth-century women wore that made their hips look about six feet across), wimples and those princessy cone hats in the Middle Ages--I think they're called "henins" but I'm not sure. (Fashion terminology wasn't required for the doctorate in Medieval Studies). Of course all this finery and frippery reflected the fact that women were property--a man with an elaborately (and expensively)-dressed wife screamed money and status to the world. In the last hundred years, cars have taken over this role; a rich guy announces his success by driving a Jag, or a Beemer. But throughout most of history, this wasn't an option. If you wanted to show your peers what you were made of, you had to get your wife and daughters decked out like parade floats.

There's this really funny episode of the old I Love Lucy show, where Lucy and Ricky and their neighbors, Fred and Ethel, are in Paris. Lucy and Ethel want to buy some Paris originals, but Ricky and Fred are too cheap, and say no. Annoyed with the men (who control the money, naturally), Lucy decides to play a joke on them. She and Ethel get some old burlap bags and have them made into dresses. Then they get some horse feedbags, the kind the horse wears around its head while it eats, and have them made into hats. Ricky and Fred are so embarrassed by these outfits that they give in and let the women buy some Paris fashions. In the last scene, the four of them are sitting in a cafe. Several high-fashion models walk by...wearing the burlap dresses and feedbag hats. That's fashion.

In medieval romances, when a nobleman married someone not quite as high on the social ladder, the first thing he did was give her nice clothes--he literally strips away her old life, and "dresses" her in the new one. This was a way of showing ownership, but also a metaphor for socialization, for instructing her in her new social role. By denying Kate the right to wear the latest fashions, Petruccio is severing her connection to her class. He means to make her over from scratch, from the inside out. At the end of the third scene, he makes this explicit:

...'tis the mind that makes the body rich,
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.
What, is the jay more precious than the lark
Because his feathers are more beautiful?
Or is the adder better than the eel
Because his painted skin contents the eye?
O no, good Kate, neither art thou the worse
For this poor furniture and mean array.

This moral lesson--that it's the inside that counts, not the outside--can only be seen as ironic in a play where virtually everyone is in disguise and/or playing a role. In fact, it's Kate's inability to "act" the part of a demure young maiden that has gotten her into this situation. Earlier in the scene she insists that pretending isn't in her nature:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart
Or else my heart concealing it will break...

Far from teaching Kate that "the mind makes the body rich," Petruccio is instructing her in the fine art of repression: she's learning to hide her thoughts, her desires, and her observations. He's training her to play a part, and play it well.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sleep-deprived Shrews and Scurrilous Knaves

There was an article in the paper today about the CIA's use of sleep deprivation at Guantanamo Bay. Apparently they kept one prisoner awake for six straight days by chaining his arms over his head and jerking the chain whenever he nodded off. According to medical experts, sleep deprivation for more than 48 hours has been known to produce hallucinations, reduce resistance to pain, and make people suggestible. After several sleepless nights, one might easily be convinced that the moon is the sun, or vice versa. This is torture, and it's a part of the play that I find really disturbing.

Maybe it's because I've had a sleep-deprived life myself, owing to chronic insomnia that has, on a few occasions, resulted in world-altering exhaustion. When you've been sleepless for several days, you enter another dimension. You're awake, you see and experience things, but there's a thin veil of delirium over everything. And let's not even talk about mood swings. Not eating for a day or two isn't a big deal, and not getting a new dress certainly isn't--but not being allowed to sleep? I would never, ever forgive someone who kept me awake just to satisfy some primitive need for sexual dominance. That's one for the "hate" list.

What I can't help liking, however, is this insult that Petruccio hurls at the tailor who made Kate's dress. The poor guy insists that he made the dress to Petruccio's specifications, but P. is determined that Kate not have it. In keeping with his strategy (of forcing Kate to empathize with the victims of his tirades), he turns his wrath on the innocent tailor:

....Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble,
Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail,
Thou flea, thou nit, thou winter-cricket, thou.
Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant...

I love the way he uses the language of sewing, "tailoring" his insult to suit its object. And notice how the epithets get smaller--yard, three-quarter, half, quarter, nail (a sixteenth of a yard), then flea, nit. There's an aggressive sexual undercurrent, as usual when "length" comes up in a comic context.

There's a cool site where you can see a lot of Will's wonderful insults, or make up your own by selecting from three columns of words. So if you want, you can call someone a "droning, dead-bolted dewberry," or an "odiferous whoreson devil-monk"--the possibilities are endless. The address is: Check it out.

Next, I promise to get serious with Act 4.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

10 Things I Hate About This Play

No contemporary remake of Will's play can really be true to the original, because today's audiences would be frankly repulsed by Petruccio's "behavior modification" techniques. 10 Things I Hate About You, a teen romance from 1999, purports to be a loose adaptation of Taming, and in fact preserves many of the play's thematic elements--with the notable exception of the "taming" itself. Instead, it's about a brainy, cynical girl with some sexual history who learns to overcome her distrust of men (I mean, boys) and shame (at throwing away her Innocence so precipitously) and accept the chaste affections of a hunky high school guy with a sporadic Aussie accent. No taming whatsoever.

There's very little romance in Will's original, however, unless you count the Lucentio/Bianca subplot--but their schoolroom flirtation looks pretty sissified next to Petruccio's manly abuse of his new wife. Kate is denied food and sleep, taunted with gifts she can't have, forced to roll about in the mud and concede that everything she knows is wrong. Some readers have likened this treatment to modern methods of coercion, interrogation and (even) torture. Other (more traditional) readers have pointed out that gender roles were "different" in Will's time, and it's not fair to judge the play by modern standards. Still others have suggested that the whole thing is meant to be ironic, and even Kate's final submissive speech--which is admittedly pretty over the top, even for its day--has to be taken as a subtle critique of contemporary misogyny. No matter which side of this argument one takes, one thing is clear: for a female reader, parts of this play are hard to read, and harder still to find funny.

Nevertheless, Act 4 begins with two clownish servants, Grumio and Curtis, complaining about the cold, which leads to a squabble about Grumio's short stature and some bawdy banter about specific body parts that aren't the least bit stunted. Until Kate submits to Petruccio, this is about as sexy as things get. Petruccio doesn't take his wife to bed until the end of the play, presumably because bedding her when he's also tormenting her would be akin to conjugal rape. Whoa. Did I say "akin to?" I mean, it would be rape, insofar as we can assume Kate wouldn't willingly submit to her husband's desires after being starved, humiliated, and dragged through the mud. Of course, no Elizabethan court would recognize this as a crime. It was permitted to beat one's wife, to imprison her, and to force her to "fulfill her marital duties." Nothing Petruccio does in the play would have been the least bit illegal or even immoral by late sixteenth-century standards. Why, then, leave the sex out of it? There were certainly contemporary--and medieval--versions of the shrew story that made sexual submission part of the taming process. In many of these (and in some 1980's bodice-rippers), sexual domination turns out to be what the shrew "really needed"; she wasn't really a bitch, she was just sexually frustrated!

Yeah, I know. But these stories are as old as language itself, and they can be found across the cultural spectrum, from Great Works to pornography.

That wasn't the kind of story Will wanted to tell. His Taming is about hierarchies in general, not just the relationship between husbands and wives. Petruccio's mastery of Kate is allied with a larger universal order--masters and servants, men and animals, teachers and students--in that sense, it's a more philosophical play than a political one. That's why there are so many instances of inversion, some of them seemingly gratuitous to the plot. Grumio tells Curtis that Petruccio had to ride behind Katherine, since her horse fell on her. Both of these images, the man riding behind his wife and the woman under the horse, were inversions of the proper order of things--just like a disobedient wife. When Petruccio and Kate arrive at his house, he immediately bellows for the servants, who are shirking their duties:

What, no man at door
To hold my stirrup nor take my horse?

Doesn't anyone know his proper place? Are the servants now the masters? He goes on to berate his staff for imagined failings, including burning a dinner that Kate finds quite adequate. His anger at his servants alternates with a pretense of solicitude for his new wife. "This is a way," he boasts to the audience, "to kill a wife with kindness," i.e., to defeat her with care and concern. He spends the night lecturing Kate on "continency," or self-control, a rather ironic topic for a wedding night, particularly since he "rails, and swears, and rates" the whole time. ("Goddamn it, Kate, there's nothing more important than keeping control of your f---ing emotions, for Christ's sake...").

No wonder she "knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,/And sits as one new risen from a dream." This description--again via Grumio--takes us back to Sly, in the Inductions, who asks whether or not he's dreaming his "new" life. She, like Sly, doesn't know what's real anymore; by the end of the play, that will be our question, too. Is Will serious? Or is this a joke? Does he really think women belong under their husbands' heels, or is he making fun of people who think that? Hmm. Let's put that question on the back burner for now.

By the end of the first scene of Act 4, we do know one thing: Petruccio has a very well-thought-out plan for shrew eradication. The critics are right in pointing that his methods are the same ones used by repressive police forces. By controlling Kate physically, denying her basic human essentials like food and sleep, he means to break her to his will. Significantly, he compares their relationship to that of a falcon and a falconer--a well-known metaphor for the right relationship between lords and their inferiors. Falconry was exclusively an aristocratic pastime, so it made sense to compare a nobleman's control of his birds to his control of wives, servants, and others who were beneath him socially. In the early 20th century, the Irish (and fascist) poet W.B. Yeats would describe the Russian peasant revolt in these terms:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
And mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

For Yeats, the image of the falcon circling further and further away from the falconer's call represents a world in which authority has disintegrated and human civilization is reduced to chaos and anarchy. This is an idea the Elizabethans would have understood; when Petruccio compares Kate to a recalcitrant falcon, he's invoking an idea that has much broader political implications. But from a feminist and feminine perspective, it's still unpleasant to contemplate:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper's call--
That is, to watch her as we watch these kites
That bate and beat, and will not be obedient.
She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I'll find about making the bed,
And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets,
Ay, amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverent care of her,
And in conclusion she shall watch all night,
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamor keep her awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor.

Realistically, this kind of treatment would probably get the reaction he wants--absolute obedience--but only on the surface. If people will say anything under torture (and it's been proven throughout history that this is the case), they will doubtless agree to anything when deprived of sleep and food, all the while nursing resentment and rage.

But okay, this is literature, not the real world.

So, am I really going to list ten things I hate about this play? Maybe. But I'm going to balance each one with something I love.

Number one:

I love the witty banter between Petruccio and Kate in Act 2. It's the same kind of thing we'll see between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, or Hotspur and Lady Percy in 1 Henry IV. This kind of wrangling courtship is sexy and inarguably "modern," in that it is a battle between equals. I hate the violence that lurks beneath the surface of these "taming" scenes, and the way they remind me of things that still exist in misogynist cultures around the world--honor killings, mutilations, forced marriages, the abortion and/or neglect of female children.

If that seems too harsh, it's worth mentioning that in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stagings of the play, Petruccio often carried a whip as a symbol of his physical dominance of his wife, and the rights accorded him by the law. Whether or not he actually beats her (he doesn't, and I'm not forgetting that), she is his property, to do with as he likes.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wildcat Wedding

Thinking about Kate and Petruccio's crude, unromantic wedding in Act 3, I was reminded of this comic book cover, and of other wildcattish women we know. Specifically, the legendary and eternally cool Catwoman. Like Kate, Catwoman is one of those disruptive, anti-authoritarian women whose allure is tinged with danger. She is both Batman's lover and his nemesis, a criminal and a crusader. A female Batman, in the sense that she isn't completely bad, just as he isn't completely good. In looking up her origin story, I was interested to find this explanation offered by Batman's creator, Bob Kane:

I felt that women were feline creatures and men were more like dogs. While dogs are faithful and friendly, cats are cool, detached, and unreliable. I feel much warmer with dogs around me--cats are hard to understand as women are. Men feel more sure of themselves with a male friend than a woman. You always need to keep women at arm's length. We don't want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that. So there is a love-resentment thing with women. I guess women will feel I'm being chauvinistic to speak this way, but I do feel that I've had better relationships with male friends than women. With women, once the romance is over, they somehow never remain my friends.

Okay, Bob, I'm going to explain something to you. The reason women can't be your friends once "the romance is over" is because you (men) usually want us to step right into the only other culturally available costume--mom. Get a clue--we don't want to take over your soul. We just want a relationship that's dialogic rather than monologic. (Oops, fell into academic jargon there--I'm still in recovery). I mean, we want a conversation, not a lecture on how bad the world is treating you, how mean your current girlfriend is, and how much smarter you are than your boss. Women aren't soul-eaters, but we are brought up to nurture. Which we don't mind doing, provided it goes both ways. But outside of a healthy long-term relationship (which some of us are very fortunate to have), it seldom seems to.

Catwoman, like Kate, is a "villainess" because she clearly isn't the nurturing type. She has a long and interesting history in the comic book world, although her origin has changed a lot over the years. (And wouldn't it be nice if we could "retcon" our own histories, i.e., decide that they belong in another, parallel universe version of the past?). She's been a prostitute with a sister who's a nun (subtlety on gender issues had yet to be discovered in the 1940's), a memory-impaired flight attendant (stewardess, in those days), a thief, a Mafia princess, and, inevitably, a mother. Yep, in later versions of the story, she and Batman have a love child who grows up to be a superheroine called The Huntress. I guess they ran out of bad-girlfriend cliches and fell back on the only remaining role possible--which proves my point.

TV and movie Catwomen reflect the same kind of stereotypes. There's the Julie Newmar Catwoman, in the old Batman TV series--she's sexy in an Emma Peel/Avengers way. She was replaced by Eartha Kitt (a better name than "Selina Kyle" for a Catwoman, if you ask me), who lent a more wild feline aura to the role, thanks to her dark skin and, most of all, her amazing voice, which sounds exactly like a real cat would talk--a deep, articulated purr rolling up out of her throat. I would have loved to hear her read Will's lines, but to my knowledge she never performed in any of his plays. Kitt wasn't sexy in a potentially "available" way, as other Catwomen were, because of her race--in the 1960's segregation was still the rule in a significant part of the country. Her allure was more mythic and primal...academic "postcolonialists" could talk your ear off about why racial minorities so often come to represent primitive, unconscious fears and yearnings--but I'm not going to.

Michelle Pfeiffer was the Freudian Catwoman--a sexually repressed spinster driven to criminality by a traumatic event, and Halle Berry more or less ended the "Catwoman" franchise, at least for now, by taking part in a misbegotten debacle that tried to wrest the Catwoman story away from Gotham and Batman altogether. Every Catwoman, however, represents a social/cultural anxiety about female dominance and, well, cats. What is it about cats? Well, they're small, sleek, have high-pitched voices, and don't come when they're called. They are, according to medieval and Renaissance witch-hunters, the favored pets of sorceresses, and were occasionally burned alongside their owners.

Although Kate is called a "wildcat" in Act 1, by Act 3 it's Petruccio who won't come when he's called: both she and her father fear that he's going to leave her at the altar:
What will be said, what mockery will it be,
To want the bridegroom when the priest attends
To speak the ceremonial rites of marriage?

Kate replies with an "I told you so":

I told you, I, he was a frantic fool,
Hiding his bitter jests in blunt behavior,
And to be noted for a merry man
He'll woo a thousand, 'point the day of marriage,
Make friends, invite them, and proclaim the banns,
Yet never means to wed where he hath woo'd.

This is the kind of thing you read about in tabloids--"Jokester Bridegroom Leaves Dozens Crying at the Altar." But of course Petruccio does show up, dressed like a homeless beggar, and riding a horse that Biondello describes in a lengthy, almost incomprehensible passage. Even old hands like myself need textual notes to translate terms like "chapeless," "chine," "glanders," "lampass," "mose," "windgalls," "spavins," and "the fives." Suffice it to say he rides in on a sick, swaybacked old nag, rather like showing up in a 1978 Volkswagen Rabbit with the bumper hanging off, the passenger door smashed in, plastic trash bags in the windows. (Wait, I've been on dates in that exact car!)

"Where's Kate? Where's my lovely bride?" he bellows, wondering why everyone is looking at him so strangely. When Tranio and Baptista suggest he change his clothes, he protests that "to me she's married, not unto my clothes." As he runs off to find, and kiss, his bride, Tranio muses that "he hath some meaning in his mad attire." Although both he and Baptista hope to change Petruccio's mind, it's clear that the bridegroom is running the show, and even Kate isn't strong enough to stand up to him.

There's a brief return to the Bianca subplot, as Lucentio and Tranio scheme to get someone--it doesn't matter who--to pretend to be Lucentio's father, Vincentio. They need someone to confirm that Lucentio is as ridiculously wealthy as Tranio claimed, or risk losing Bianca to one of her other suitors. This plot--which is really a scam, when you think about it--again has the effect of making Petruccio's playacting seem more honest, at least financially. He hasn't pretended to be richer than he is--he's only pretending to be crazy. In other words, lying to your wife about your sanity isn't nearly as bad as lying to her father about your bank account.

The actual wedding takes place offstage. As reported by Gremio, Petruccio proves a mad groom indeed. He curses at the minister, smacks him in the head, and throws wine-drenched cakes ("sops," a popular wedding tradition) in the poor man's face, claiming that his beard seemed hungry for them. "Such a mad marriage," Gremio exclaims, "never was before." All this has the effect of making us wonder whether Petruccio isn't worse, even, than Kate the Shrew.
When Gremio accuses P. of being "a devil, a devil, a very fiend," Tranio (who hasn't witnessed the wedding), counters by labeling Kate "a devil, a devil, the devil's dam" (the devil's mother). The sense that they are equal, or at least well-matched, disappears by the end of Act 3, however. Petruccio insists that Kate come away with him, before the wedding feast, and she understandably resists. He won't take no for an answer:

Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret.
I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels. She is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything....

The "taming" is no longer a metaphor at this point. Once married, Kate is her husband's property. And it's clear that he has nothing less in mind than a complete obedience program, the kind used to domesticate horses, farm animals, or dogs. Before the curtain falls, Kate the wildcat will become Kate the lapdog, fulfilling Petruccio's promise back in Act 2:

For I am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates....

From Catwoman to housecat, in two acts--but not without some spitting, scratching, and howling.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Discuss the imagery in Shakespeare's....zzzzzzzzz...

It's essay questions like that that make people hate literature in general, and Shakespeare in particular. I used his last name, because I'm talking about the "institution," not the writer. Will's plays are full of wonderful imagery--but forcing kids to write about the language without getting them excited about it first is pedagogical malpractice. For better or worse, the best Shakespeare teachers are failed or frustrated actors. You have to read this stuff out loud, with enthusiasm and a sensual appreciation for the yummy feel of these exotic words in your mouth...

Some examples of especially delectable imagery:

Othello--imagery of eating and digesting:

"...she'd come again, and with a greedy ear, devour up my discourse..."

"...her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor."

"They are all but stomachs, and we all but food. They eat us hungrily, and when they are full, they belch us."

Macbeth--imagery of time and excessive speed (Macbeth can't wait to be king):

"Thou art so far before, that the swiftest wing of recompense is slow to overtake thee."

"Thy letters have transported me beyond the ignorant present, and I feel now the future in the instant."

"Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived in a blessed time..."

King Lear--imagery of corrupted femininity:

"Proper deformity shows not in the fiend/So horrid as in woman."

"Hear, Nature, hear!...Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility! Dry up her organs of increase...."

"If thou shouldst not be glad, I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb, sepulchring an adultress."

"...his dog-hearted daughters..."

"Down from the waist they are all Centaurs/Though women all above. But to the girdle do the gods inherit."

Hamlet--imagery of rot and decay:

"Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, blasting his wholesome brother."

"For if the sun breed maggots in the dead dog, being a good kissing carrion--have you a daughter?"

"It will but skin and film the ulcerous place
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen."

"'Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed;
Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely."

Hamlet "How long will a man lie i'th' earth ere he rot?"
Clown "I'faith, if a be not rotten before a die--as we have many pocky corpses nowadays, that will scarce hold the laying in--a will last you some eight or nine year."

The Merchant of Venice--imagery of commerce (debt, investment, interest, expense):

"Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia;
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth..."

"Men that hazard all/Do it in hope of fair advantages."

"...for you/I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account."

The imagery in Taming is primarily of inversion--things turned upside-down, inside out, or cart-before-the horse. Will used this kind of imagery a lot--it figures prominently in King Lear, where children infantilize and brutalize their parents--but he was especially fond of its comic potential. There's even a word for it: preposterous. To us, this word has lost its original meaning--we think of it as a synonym for "outrageous," but really it means "ass-backwards"--putting the last thing ("post") first ("pre"). So when, in Act 3, Lucentio calls his rival a "preposterous ass," he's being a little redundant--a preposterous person always arrives ass first! Luce berates Hortensio for thinking music should come before philosophy--Renaissance scholars saw philosophy as the "first"--i.e., most important--of all studies. It was the foundation from which all the others derived. So by insisting that he teach Bianca music before Luce teaches her philosophy, Hortensio puts the cart before the horse, or leads with his ass.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I'll see thee hanged...

I like this image of Kate and Petruccio, taken from a regional Shakespeare festival--I can totally see P. as a southern good ol' boy, and Kate as a kind of Gretchen Wilson Redneck Woman. But I can't imagine them speaking Will's lines. Nope, doesn't work. "Thee's" and "thou's" just sound weird coming out of mouths that chew tobacco and guzzle Budweiser. Although I applaud efforts to make Elizabethan drama relevant (that's what I am trying to do here, after all), it's the rare modern-dress production that really works. Why is that? It's more than the language, although that's a big part of it. I think it's the expansiveness of the plays themselves--they're just bigger, more culturally encompassing than media is today. This isn't to say that modern-dress productions are doomed to failure--just that the acting has to be brilliant to carry it off. Ian Mckellen's Richard III worked because Mckellen is one of the great Shakespearean actors of this generation. Leo DiCaprio and Clare Danes as Romeo and Juliet failed miserably because the performances couldn't begin to carry the weight of the language or its history. They looked--rather ironically, given the play's theme--like two teenagers playing dress-up. Although I thought the gangster theme was way cool--I just wish they'd chosen actors instead of "movie people."

Act 2--which is really one long scene--begins with Kate tormenting her younger sister. She drags Bianca in with her hands tied, and kind of shoves her around, supposedly to force her to confess which of her suitors she favors. But really, she just can't stand Bianca's submissive "good daughter" routine. Bianca is annoying, no doubt about it. One can't help thinking that she enjoys provoking her older sister:

Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself
To make a bondmaid and slave of me.
That I disdain, but for these other goods,
Unbind my hands, I'll pull them off myself,
Yea, all my raiment to my petticoat,
Or what you will command me I will do,
So well I know my duty to my elders.

Please don't treat me this way, it reflects badly on you--and of course I'm more concerned with you than myself, because I'm that good. I won't be your slave--but short of that, I'll give you everything I have, except my underwear, because I'm modest. I'll do anything you ask--wash your hair, do your homework--because after all, I always obey my elders. Subtext: you're kind of like my mom, because you're old. (I will put off till later my little rant about how many dead mothers there are in Will's plays. It's as bad as Disney.)

That last dig was low, because Bianca knows how much Kate resents being the older, still-unmarried one. Kate, who isn't as good at passive aggression as her sister, opts instead for the active variety. And wouldn't you know, Daddy walks in just as she's giving her fair sister an enthusiastic smack on the ear (that's how I imagine it, although the stage directions just say "strikes her").

Sibling violence is something I'm familiar with, as the oldest of five, so I can't say I find this scene all that disturbing. Why, I remember locking my brothers in the closet, shoving them outside in their underwear, and chasing them around the house with various implements intended for athletic competition (hockey sticks, baseball bats, etc.) Once, in a fit of calculating rage, I even took my brother's hand-glued models of superheroes and put them under the rug in his room, so that he crushed them all when he walked in. When my mom confronted me about this, I calmly explained that I didn't break them, I only moved them. Sometimes I still can't believe I was that diabolical. I made him wreck his own stuff. And I wonder why he doesn't keep in touch....

After Kate and Bianca leave, the men enter, all but Gremio (why did Will have to have a Gremio and a Grumio in this play? It's confusing...) and Petruccio in disguise. Lucentio is pretending to be a poor schoolmaster, Hortensio is impersonating a musician, and Tranio claims to be Lucentio. So often in Will's comedies there are people running around in disguises, and you have to wonder why no one sees through them. I mean, it's like Clark Kent and Superman--all he does is smooth his hair back and put on glasses, and he's unrecognizable. Hortensio has been to Baptista's house probably dozens of times, and all of a sudden they don't know him. Whenever my students asked questions like that, I always gave them the typical professorial answer: "it's a convention of the genre."

In other words, I don't know.

After all the introductions are over, P. announces his intention to woo Kate, rhapsodizing about her "bashful modesty" and "mild behavior." Baptista understandably wonders if they're talking about the same woman, but says that when (if) P. can win her love, he can have her. Hortensio, meanwhile, is demonstrating his skills by giving Kate a lesson on the lute. He returns to the stage a few moments later with a dazed expression on his face and a broken lute around his neck. Petruccio proclaims her to be "a lusty wench" whom he can't wait to meet.

Right off the bat she objects to his greeting, insisting that she's not called Kate, but rather Katherine. He corrects her:

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst,
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate--
For dainties are all cates, and therefore 'Kate'--
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation:
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded--
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs--
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.

She mocks him, but he's undeterred. "Come," he says, "sit on me."
"Asses are made to bear," she snipes, "and so are you."
"Women are made to bear," he retorts, "and so are you."

Note that while he addresses her with the familiar "thou," she insists on the more formal "you." Things quickly degenerate into crude sexual innuendo involving tongues and tails, at which point she hauls off and slugs him and he threatens to hit her back. Petruccio finally gets to the point and tells her that he's going to marry her on Sunday, whether she likes it or not; she swears that she'll see him "hanged on Sunday first."

Baptista ignores his daughter's obvious dislike of her suitor, taking both their hands and proclaiming that "tis a match!" So much for winning her love.

The remainder of the scene has to do with commerce, as Tranio (disguised as Lucentio) and the aged Gremio barter for Bianca. Baptista states baldly that whichever of them "can assure my daughter greatest dower/Shall have Bianca's love." Which is to say her body, since emotions have very little to do with making matches in this play. It's all about money, disguise, and bluff--change and exchange. In his guise as a tutor, Lucentio takes the name "Cambio"-- if you've ever traveled to Europe without a credit card, you'll remember the word from the kiosks that exchange currency (taking a pound of flesh in interest). It also means "change" in the sense of transformation. Lucentio has changed into Cambio, so that Bianca can be "exchanged" between her father and himself. By having Tranio barter for Bianca, Lucentio can keep his wooing innocent of commerce, romantic and pure. In yet another (potential) exchange of capital, Petruccio wants to add Kate's wealth to his own, but he has to "change" her first.

By reducing Bianca to a commodity, this scene actually makes Petruccio's wooing look more honorable. Although he wants Kate's wealth, he makes a point of saying that, should he predecease her, she'll get everything. Bianca is barely mentioned in the bidding war between Gremio and Tranio--they might as well be buying (very expensive) horseflesh.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wiving Wealthily, Part 2

Okay, on a lighter note--I just read that Archie, of Archie comics (if you don't know who this guy is, you're way younger than I am) is finally going to choose between his two long-time inamoratas: good (middle-class) girl Betty, and spoiled rich brat Veronica.
I don't know who reads Archie anymore--actually, I'm not sure who ever read it. My childhood comic book tastes tended toward Superman, Wonder Woman, and the (now-defunct) Legion of Superheroes, a bunch of teenage kids with superpowers and silly names (e.g., "Matter-Eater Lad," "Princess Projectra"). But Archie comics were always there at the drugstore, and I would read them off the rack while I was waiting for the fountain guy to make up my ten-cent cherry lime coke. And posing for my Norman Rockwell portrait.

And now, decades later, the Arch is finally going to propose to...Veronica.

Surely not. All these years, I was sure Betty had it in the bag. She's sweet, helpful, devoid of ego, and cheerleader-pretty. Veronica, on the other hand, is a slutty, conniving, selfish bitch. Whose Daddy is as rich as Croesus, if I remember correctly. A brunette Paris Hilton. I confess I did like the idea that the dark-haired girl would get the was never that way in fairy tales, after all...but marrying a shrew for her money (or even a sexy shrew who has money) goes against all our middle-class romantic ideals. My prediction: after they jump-start the moribund Archie franchise with this gimmick, they'll finally get Archie and Betty together. It has to work that way--or everything we know (about stories, if not about life) is wrong.

The other happy ending option has Archie pulling a Petruccio and "taming" the shrewish Veronica (who, come to think of it, has a little bit of a Liz Taylor look to her--wonder if that was intentional?). But Archie was conceived as a downtrodden, teenage Everyman, not an autocratic sadist, so I doubt that option is on the table. On the other hand, it would sell more comic books...who doesn't love to see a rich girl humbled and humiliated?

In an earlier era, Veronica would have been the only rational choice, since marriage, at least among the landed classes, was all about money. Very few fortunes were stable enough to allow a prince to marry a pauperess. Beginning in the Middle Ages, however, romantic fables popularized the idea of marriages based on love. Some of these stories became hugely popular, although they often had a sadistic subtext, like the story of "patient Griselda," a poor, excessively virtuous girl who catches the eye of a nobleman. He marries her, only to subject her to years of cruel "tests" of her submissiveness. In the end, he finally realizes that she has no will of her own, and professes his undying love. This after taking her children away, one by one, and (creepily enough) bringing his daughter back years later as a would-be (albeit pretend) new wife. In other stories, such as the chivalric romances, love was promoted as a moral antidote to arranged marriages--partly as a response to the rampant adultery among the upper classes. Bastard children were a destabilizing influence among the nobility, as Will himself explored in Lear. Not that these issues have gone away--just ask John Edwards and Mark Sanford.

Well, back to our story....if the first part of Act 1 is about romantic love, the second scene is primarily about business transactions. The three men who want to win Bianca agree to pay the fortune-hunting Petruccio-- to "bear his charge of wooing"--if he will agree to court the "irksome brawling scold" who stands between them and their goal. Like good venture capitalists, they take a chance on a new idea--and a new kind of man--in the hope of reaping far greater rewards later. The two scenes of Act 1 present two kinds of marriage: one based on romantic love, the other on commerce. Two kinds of men, too. Both scenes begin with conversations between a nobleman and his servant. Lucentio and Tranio seem almost like equals, while Petruccio is clearly Grumio's master--even to the point of "wringing him by the ears" when he gets pissed off. Luce is a romantic, educated Italian--these days we'd call him "metrosexual," while Petruccio, despite his name, is a rough man of action, and decidely "English" in his mannerisms and practical approach to life and marriage. When Hortensio, an old friend, tells him about Kate's wealth, beauty and bad temper, P. replies that "wealth is the burden of my wooing dance," i.e., "I'm only after money." To add some historical and literary force to his assertion, he proclaims that

Be she as foul as was Florentius love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd
As Socrates Xanthippe or a worse,
She moves me not--or not removes at least
Affection's edge in me, were she as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas.
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.

Even if she's as ugly as a 300-pound buck-toothed trailer queen, as old as your grandmother, and as foul-mouthed as Mel Gibson on a bender, I'll still take her. As long as she's rich, nothing else matters.

When Hortensio tries to dissuade him, P. boasts that he's seen battle, and sailed on storm-tossed ships (a pretty scary experience, in those days--lots of them sank), and no mere woman's tongue is going to intimidate him. Grumio confirms that if Kate knew Petruccio as well as he "she would think that scolding would do little good upon him"; in fact, he goes so far as to proclaim that his master is crazy.

The scene ends with Lucentio and Hortensio prepared to pose as schoolmasters to gain access to Bianca, and Petruccio, with the aid of his financial backers, ready to woo the "wildcat."

Next up: Veronica beats up on Betty!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shrews, Cougars, Foxes, and Bitches

Before going any further, I'd like to take a moment to think about this whole business of shrewish women (see an actual shrew, left). There is a long rhetorical tradition, going back to the ancient world, complaining about women who talk too much. In fact, feminine garrulity is a subject that men have been bitching about for several thousand years. According to early medical writers (who also believed that draining several pints of blood would cure a fever, by the way) "wandering wombs" made women prone to hysteria (from the Greek hystera, uterus), which often resulted in shrewish nagging. Think we've gotten beyond such ludicrous ideas? Raging hormones, anyone? Anyway, because of this genital/congenital affliction, women allegedly tended to over-indulge both their oral and genital orifices (I'm trying to keep this a PG blog, so bear with the euphemisms, please). Not surprisingly, early writers often had trouble distinguishing rhetorical and sexual excess--a chatty woman was probably a horny one, too.

Saint Paul promoted both virginity and silence for women, forbidding them to preach (1 Corinthians) and ordering them to "learn in silence with all submissiveness," lest they become "idlers and gossips and busybodies" (1 Timothy). Saint Jerome was perhaps the most insistently misogynistic of the Church Fathers: he viewed female sexuality as nothing less than a devouring moral abyss, a sucking vortex of lust. Holes, pits, mouths and female genitalia were more or less interchangeable in the most incendiary rants--and sometimes these treatises were so detailed as to be almost pornographic. Widows got the worst of it: by virtue of their sexual experience and economic independence, they were often portrayed as monstrous creatures given to incessant nagging and insatiable appetites. Chaucer's Wife of Bath was the first shrewish, aging seductress to make it into the literary canon; Will's Cleopatra is another. I hate the word "cougar," but it's easy to see how it works, historically. Cougars are physically agile, amoral, and have very scary mouths.

In Renaissance English villages, "scolds" or nags could be punished with carting, a cucking stool, which submerged them underwater (early waterboarding), or a "scold's bridle," pictured above. A nagging wife was a sign of a "disordered" marriage, so husbands were also occasionally subjected to "shaming rituals," such as being forced to ride backwards on a horse through the town while all the villagers shouted insults and played cacophonous music, symbolizing a world that has become inverted and chaotic as a result of wifely disobedience. This is the intellectual/religious/cultural tradition that Kate represents in the play; her "taming" is, from this perspective, a moral, spiritual, and metaphysical necessity. Because really, one woman who won't shut up can wreck the whole world.

I tried to find out exactly how "shrews" came to be associated with nagging women, but I came up empty on that one. I did find out that female shrews can have as many as ten litters a year. I'd be bitchy, too.

Wiving Wealthily, Part 1

In Act 1, we see two approaches to wooing and two ideas about marriage. The first, more literary approach is taken by the young nobleman Lucentio, who has come to Padua, "nursery of arts," in order to "haply institute/A course of learning and ingenious studies." He's off to college to become more erudite and witty--not to learn job skills, of course. He's a member of the rich and powerful Bentivolii family, and will never need to work. He starts out with high ideals, but his servant/friend Tranio reminds him that all study and no play makes Lucentio a dull boy-"no profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en." Lucentio isn't all that bright, it seems, because he latches on to this idea with enthusiasm. In another era he'd be joining a frat house and anticipating his first night of binge drinking and meaningless hook-ups. But fortunately, he's saved from a life of dissipation by love at first sight, thus reminding us that this is literature, and not the real world. Her name is Bianca, and her most laudable qualities, at least in this first scene, seem to be her pretty face and complete lack of backbone. Oh, and her money--but more on that anon.

Lucentio and Tranio watch as Baptista, his two daughters Katherine and Bianca, and Bianca's two suitors, Hortensio and Gremio, have a little discussion in the middle of the street. It seems that Baptista is worried that no one will want to marry his older daughter, Katherine, who is described as "stark mad or wonderful froward"--batshit crazy or, at the very least, a major-league bitch--so he decides that it's hands off Bianca until he can get Katherine off his hands. There's some witty chatter about "courting" a woman who could use "carting"--carts were occasionally used to publicly humiliate disorderly women--while Hortensio and Gremio (who's a really creepy old guy) wring their hands about the situation and decide to lay aside their rivalry to try and find the cursed Kate a husband.

Lucentio, meanwhile, has jettisoned a few dozen IQ points and turned into a bad poet, gazing with stupefied longing at the lovely, demure Bianca. "I burn, I pine, I perish," he moans, "if I achieve not this young, modest, girl." Will's audience would doubtless have found this romantic twaddle as silly as we do--"courtly love," as it was called, had run its literary course a couple of hundred years ago, and was by this time already an outdated cliche. Tranio, ever practical (and cynical), cautions his besotted young master (in Latin, to lend authority to his advice) to "ransom himself (from love's shackles) at the lowest possible price." In other words, find the easiest and cheapest way to win her. Lucentio doesn't get it at first, and continues to wax idiotic, comparing Bianca to Europa, beloved of (and, in the original story, raped by) the god Jupiter. In Luce's version, however, the god is himself humbled and brought to his knees by Europa's beauty, just as he himself is reduced to dazed confusion by Bianca's. "I saw her coral lips move," he gushes, "And with her breath she did perfume the air. Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her." If you read enough early literature, you'll notice that having "sweet breath" is often at the top of the list of desirable qualities in a sex/marriage partner. This was no doubt because, in those days, most people (and cities) stank to high heaven. Teeth brushing wasn't practiced by the vast majority of people of any class, and many of them had mouths that smelled like something dead.

I know, eww. But I promised I'd pepper my readings with fascinating historical insights.

Lucentio is so clueless that it's easy to see why the English nobility eventually lost all political power. Tranio, practical and "modern" in his attitudes, has to shake Luce out of his erotic "trance" and help him come up with a plan to win the beauteous Bianca. They both decide that disguise is the only option (as if they know they're in one of Will's plays, where cross-dressing is the solution to just about every problem. Well, that and homicide). Luce will pretend to be a lowly tutor, since Baptista has proclaimed that the only men with access to Bianca will be " to instruct her youth." Clearly he hasn't seen any of the many plays in which tutors seduce and ruin innocent aristocratic maidens...

Just as Sly is duped into thinking he's a nobleman, so Luce and Tranio engage in their own social inversion as they change clothes and roles. It's clear from the beginning that the play's primary concern is with social and sexual hierarchy: servants dress as masters, beggars are noblemen, and, at least initially, some women clearly don't know their place.

The scene ends with a return to the frame story--Sly and his "wife" are watching the play, although it's clear he would rather attend to bedroom matters with his "madam lady," Bartholomew. When asked how he likes the entertainment, Sly replies that it's "a very excellent piece of work." He then qualifies his praise by adding, "would 'twere done," which pretty well summarizes the relationship many people have to great literature in general, and Will's plays in particular. Yeah, it's edifying as hell. But when will it be over?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Call home thy ancient thoughts from banishment...

I had to start with that line, because I love it. Will's plays have so many little treasures like that--lines and passages that don't make it into the lists of "great quotations," but nonetheless say something powerful and so well that they make the rest of us amateurs pause with our fingers hovering over the keyboard, humbled. When Sly wakes up in the nobleman's house, the lord (who remains nameless, a generic representative of his class) tries to convince him that he's been in the throes of a "strange lunacy" for the last fifteen years, and has only now come to his senses. Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer with mental illness or alcoholism could relate to that line, I think. "Call home thy ancient thoughts..." remember who you used to be, and be that person again, please. I don't know who you are anymore...

Induction 2

The second induction sets up the frame for the rest of the play. Frame stories have been used throughout literary history, and are still used today. The frame story is one in which you have someone outside the main narrative either telling the story, or, as is the case here, viewing it as a drama. One of the oldest frame narratives is the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade saves her own life by telling her husband, the king, a thousand stories, night after night. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is another. The device was popular in the nineteenth century, too...Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, and later, Lewis's Narnia stories all use a version of the frame story. It appears in films--Forrest Gump and Slumdog Millionaire, for example, use a modified "framing" structure where much of the action is in the form of "flashbacks." What's the appeal of this structure? Sometimes it forces us to question the reliability of the narrator (as in the film Amadeus, for example), and thus causes us to wonder about the relationship between stories/fictions and truth.

People in Will's time worried about that a lot. Puritans (those same spoilsports who first settled in New England in 1620) hated the theater. In fact, they hated fiction altogether, because it wasn't true. As if life isn't made up of various competing fictions about the world--and about ourselves! How many people do you know who subscribe to a fiction about themselves that everyone else knows to be completely untrue? "I'm a victim," "I'm a hard worker, and everyone else is lazy," "I'm beautiful," or, conversely, "I suck." In politics it's rare to see anything that resembles the "truth" of our experience. Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Obama was born in Kenya, Bill Clinton didn't really have sex with Monica, John Edwards is a family man, and Larry Craig just has a "wide stance." And so on. Frame stories implicitly ask "what's true? and "what/whom can you believe?" The urgency of those questions hasn't faded with time.

When Sly wakes up to his new life, he asks "do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?" It's a good question, isn't it? Science fiction asks that all the time. Neil Gaiman's wonderful Sandman series of graphic novels explores that idea, as does one of my favorite Star Trek TNG episodes, "Ship in a Bottle." It's a holodeck story--bear with me if you don't know the series. Data, the android, loves to play Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck (which is a computer-generated world in three dimensions). Holmes's nemesis, Moriarty, is a holodeck construct who, for some mysterious reason, becomes "self-aware." He realizes that he's a "fictional man," and wants to be "real." Because he's a genius, he is able to seize control of the ship (yeah, this happens way too often in ST) and force the crew to find a way to bring him into the Real World. They can't do that, obviously, but what they can do is make the frame bigger--they create the illusion of an "outside" for his holodeck reality, so it seems as if he's in the real world, although he's still inside the fictional one. At the end of the episode, one of the crew members looks up and says, "computer, end program." Just to see if we, here in the real world, are part of someone else's fiction! Do we dream, or have we dreamed till now? If there is a God, is He just watching some divine version of reality TV? Hmm.


SLY For God's sake, a pot of small ale!
SERVINGMAN Will't please your lordship drink a cup of sack?

From the beginning of the second Induction, the focus on class hierarchy is clear. Upon waking, Sly yells for a beer, but the servingman says, more or less, "how about some fine champagne?" Thus begins the rather brief attempt to convince Sly that he's really an aristocrat--he argues a little, but let's face it, most of us would just go with it if we woke up in some mansion in the Hamptons with servants ready to wait on us. The Lord of the manor urges him to "banish hence these abject lowly dreams" and check out all the fun stuff he can do now that he's come to his senses:

Wilt thou have music?
Hark, Apollo plays,
And twenty caged nightingales do sing.
Or wilt thou sleep? We'll have thee to a couch
Softer and sweeter than the lustful bed
On purpose trimmed up for Semiramis.
Say thou wilt walk, we will bestrew the ground.
Or wilt thou ride, thy horses shall be trapped,
Their harness studded all with gold and pearl
Dost thou love hawking? Thou hast hawks will soar
Above the morning lark. Or wilt thou hunt,
Thy hounds shall make the welkin answer them
And fetch shrill echoes from the hollow earth.

Who needs a holodeck? Certainly the things the Lord promises him are more the stuff of daydreams than reality for most of Will's audience. It would be like having your favorite rock band on call, gorgeous sex partners (that's what all that Semiramis stuff was about), and...let's say, a yacht to sail around in, since hunting is no longer an upper-class activity (more the opposite, where I live). I don't think many of us would insist we don't belong in that dream.

The final piece of the illusory puzzle is Sly's "wife," who is really a young servant named Bartholomew. Here things get kind of interesting. Although we know he's a guy, in Will's day all the female parts were played by boys. So Sly is only being asked to believe what Will's audience is asked to swallow all the time, namely, that a boy dressed as a woman is a real woman. It's easy to imagine this sort of thing in the comedies, which have lots of cross-dressing characters anyway (sometimes this gets really complicated, as in Cymbeline or The Merchant of Venice, when a male (actor) plays a woman who dresses as a man...). But imagining Juliet, or Cleopatra, or Desdemona as a boy-dressed-as-a-woman is harder. Wouldn't it just seem like a drag show? Of course it didn't...but it would be interesting to see a production that really tries to be authentic this way, if only to gauge our own responses. It seems to me that it would be hard to ignore the homoerotic subtext. Will himself had rather ambivalent sexual preferences, as evident in the sonnets, some of which are addressed to a "fair young man."

I suppose I should mention that there's a whole field of academic research devoted to uncovering/affirming the "queer" (homosexual) aspects of just about every work of literature. Sometimes those critics can be very persuasive, but sometimes "queer theory" seems to want to bend and shape everything to fit its preconceived notions--of course, that's what academics of all ideological stripes do. But since I'm not an academic anymore, I don't have to! Suffice it to say, there's something interesting and culturally complex about gender roles in Will's plays...but because we're pretty far removed from them, historically, it's doubtful we can ever fully understand what that something is, or how it seemed to his original audience.

What is interesting in terms of the play is that it's only after Sly gets his "wife" that he fully believes he's a nobleman. Maybe he just needed someone to feel superior to--and who better than a wife? Of course, wives aren't always that easy to dominate, as we'll see in the play-within-a-play.

Next time, we'll meet one of my very favorite literary characters, "Kate the Curst."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One drunkard loves another of the name...

Last night I was watching some old VHS tapes of 60's TV shows, and thinking about funny drunks. Drunks are ubiquitous in comedy, particularly older comedy that had to abide by censorship rules--when comedy has to be "clean," the authors have to come up with other kinds of subversive behavior. Drunks slur their words, trip over their feet, and have license to say stuff that polite sober people can't. Who could forget the Arthur movies, with Dudley Moore as the lovable, hapless, perpetually inebriated title character? Funny drunks are usually men, though--drunk women are either pathetic/tragic (When a Man Loves a Woman), or slutty/tragic (think Susan Hayward). Drinking and drunkenness can be both comic and tragic in Will's plays. Lower-class drunks, like Sly, make us laugh, while drunks like Falstaff (in the Henry plays and Merry Wives of Windsor) are at once funny and pathetic. Drink is, in the words of Macbeth's drunken Porter "a great equivocator"--both funny and not.

The thing is, drunks are rarely funny in real life. They're pathetic, scary, repulsive, or just plain sad. Unless you're drunk too, of course--which much of Will's audience probably was. Going to a play in Elizabethan England was like going to a sporting event these days--lots of rowdy, ale-soaked bodies looking to get away from their daily drudgery. And it's fun to see someone more wasted/clueless/humiliated than oneself--that's the premise behind a lot of reality TV programming, too.

Then as now, drink enabled people to violate boundaries and break rules. Made a pass at your secretary? Oops, the Christmas punch is to blame. Called your kid a loser? Sorry, Daddy imbibed a little too much last night. Broke your leg climbing the watertower? (Yeah, I knew someone who did that in college. But he was drunk, you know, so it was a great story a year later.) The kind of rules that are broken in Taming are different--they're the more impermeable boundaries of class and gender. Sly passes out drunk and wakes up in a dream--or rather a play, staged by his betters--in which he's a rich nobleman. He's then entertained with another play, in which a bitchy, domineering woman is put in her place. At the end, beggars are once again beggars, and Kate learns that a woman's place is under her husband's thumb. Or heel.

Or does she? Let's find out.

She is intolerable curst....

Maybe it's my age, but I've always thought that Liz Taylor is the quintessential Kate. Beautiful, imperious (a fancy word for bitchy), much married...because of course Kate and Petruccio would have divorced eventually, at least in the modern world. A few years later and she'd be nagging the hell out of him, he'd be running off to get drunk with his buddies, and then Kate and the pool boy would have a meeting of the minds. Or maybe she'd take over managing the money, make a few prescient investments, and dump him for someone richer. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Although Kate and Petruccio are the characters we remember, the play starts out quite differently. It is, in fact, a play within a play...the most famous part of the play is actually a play put on for a beggar, Christopher Sly, who's been convinced by some bored noblemen that he's actually a lord himself. It's a mean trick, really, because eventually he'll have to go back to his indigent alcoholic reality...but it makes for good comedy in the meantime. Let's take a look at what happens in the two "Inductions" that precede the actual "Taming."

Induction 1

This is the very beginning of the play, the first thing the audience sees. And what they see is a drunken beggar having a raucous argument with the hostess of an English country tavern. It's the sort of place where the classes mix--rather like the theater, in those days. The hostess is angry because Sly broke some glasses, and won't pay for them--she threatens him with the stocks. Sly curses the hostess, calling her a "baggage" (a term I've always kind of liked, I confess. It refers to lower-class women who are, as they used to say, "no better than they ought to be," i.e., of dubious morals), and asserts his noble pedigree--his family came over with "Richard the Conqueror," he claims, although the Conqueror was called William, as any school child would know. Sly eventually passes out, and a nobleman rides in with his fellow huntsman. They see the sleeping bum, and decide to have some fun with him:

"Sirs, I will practise on this drunken man.
What think you: if he were conveyed to bed,
Wrapped up in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,
A most delicious banquet by his bed,
And brave attendants near him when he wakes--
Would not the beggar then forget himself?"

They decide to carry him to the nobleman's house, put him in a fancy bedchamber, and get a boy to play his wife. Boys always played women's roles in those days, as you probably remember. So when he wakes up, Sly is convinced that he's a rich aristocrat with fawning servants, lush accommodations, and a lovely (!) wife. It's really cruel, but terribly funny, because of course he doesn't really know how to behave and makes an utter fool of himself. Gee, does this sound familiar? People taken out of their usual environment/culture/class so that we can have fun laughing at their missteps? That's right--this is Early Modern Reality TV! Or Reality Theater. As nauseating as many of us find those horrible dating/dysfunctional family/freaky D-list celeb shows, I bet Will would have loved them.

Wherefore This Blog?

Is there any good reason to read Shakespeare anymore? I mean, he's hard to understand and reading his work requires a pretty significant time investment. In my years as an English professor, I struggled to justify Great Literature to my students. I told them that it's full of big, meaningful questions that are Still Relevant Today. I tried to point out some of those, and a few of my students were appropriately grateful. Many, however, dutifully wrote down what I said, parroted it back in essays and on exams, and doubtless haven't thought about any of it since.

I left academics ten years ago, and the question still bugs me. Why read anything more demanding than a newspaper? Why wrestle with convoluted metaphors and lost historical referents, when you can just watch the BBC video version? And why even do that? Why not just read Jodi Picoult and Dan Brown and leave it there? Or read nothing at all--I know plenty of smart, insightful people who aren't readers. We're busy, and there just isn't time to engage in some elitist commemorative hobby, like reading all of Shakespeare's plays and blogging about them...

Well, maybe not. But I want to answer those questions for myself, so I'm going to do it. I want to know if The Big Guy has anything to tell us about our times, and if I, personally, can still sustain something as consuming as this project will probably become. I don't know if anyone will read this (hence my epigraph, from mad King Lear), and I suppose one can't worry about such things, at least at the beginning.

My plan, at least now, is to go through every play, scene by scene, and comment on both the contemporary context and the textual meaning of what I take to be the significant moments. I will periodically pause for "musings," and think about the texts, ask questions, post links, and generally try to figure out what the play might have to tell us about our times.

So who am I to do this? A Shakespeare scholar? Nope. I was a professor of medieval literature for about 12 years, until a toxic tenure case more or less ended my career. But Shakespeare wasn't my field--I was a Chaucer scholar who taught Shakespeare to undergrads as part of the Early Lit. faculty. I've never written a word about Shakespeare until now. Which, I think, is as it should be. I'm not an expert, just a good reader with a fairly lucid writing style.

I decided to blog the plays more or less chronologically rather than by genre, so that I can get a sense of Will's development as a playwright. I'm going to call him Will, because I simply can't write "Shakespeare" a thousand times. I'm not going to read the sonnets or narrative poems right now, and, I'm going to violate my own rules right off the bat by skipping (for now) Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I've never read and has had a history of contested authorship. I reserve the right to return to it later, when I get better at this. I'll always be honest about my own experience (or lack thereof) with a play--I've read most, but not all of them before--and my own struggles to understand what's going on. I have read criticism, but not a lot of it, and I won't refer to critics in any oppressively academic way. At the same time, if someone has something interesting to offer, I'll note that and give credit where it's due.

My first victim will be The Taming of the Shrew, which has been re-worked as a musical (Kiss Me, Kate) and a high school comedy (10 Things I Hate About You)--probably elsewhere, too. It's kind of a creepy play from a feminist perspective (yes, I have leanings in that direction, but I don't think I'm an ideologue), but it's great fun, too. A terrific actor's play, with a lot of physical comedy.

We'll start there next time, and see where this takes us. I mean me. You too, if you want to come along for the ride.