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.

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