Monday, August 17, 2009
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love," as it was called, had run its literary course a couple of hundred years ago, and was by this time already an outdated cliche.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 "schoolmasters...fit 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?