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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm thinking that Bob Kane was desperately bitter about this whole women's rights nonsense.

    And Taming of the Shrew has always made me somewhat I'd make a good Catwoman.