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.

2 comments:

  1. I really hope you keep this up through all the plays (except, of course, the ones you don't like).

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  2. Keep up the "things I hate?" or just ranting in general? The latter, most definitely--that's the glorious difference between a blog and a "scholarly article." Ranting allowed and even expected!
    Thanks for reading, oh goddess.

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