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 guy...it 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!

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