Thursday, September 3, 2009

An Aweful Rule and Right Supremacy

This image is from the original Stepford Wives movie poster--the superior 1975 version. In case you never saw this paranoid cult classic, it's about a woman whose husband gets a new job that necessitates moving to a suburban enclave somewhere in the East. Maybe New England, I can't remember--even before Stephen King trademarked the idea, New England just seemed scarier than the rest of the country. Anyway, the heroine is a photographer, but she's agreed to sacrifice some of her own ambitions so hubby can pursue a new career opportunity. At first the women in the new suburb seem friendly, but she notices that their houses are disturbingly immaculate, and most of them talk about their husbands as if they're gods, not men. The guys all belong to a "men's group" that meets once a week. The heroine's husband starts going, and his attitude towards her begins to change. He's more critical, and expresses open admiration for the most submissive of the neighborhood wives. Meanwhile the few women who initially seemed "normal" lose their wry sense of humor, and begin dressing like they belong in one of those old "feminine freshness" ads, wearing white lawn dresses and big "country club tea party" hats. At the end we learn that the men have discovered a way to make perfect robot replicas of their wives--except the replicas never gain weight, or argue, or forget to make dinner. In the bedroom, they outdo the most expensive hookers in their enthusiasm. The real wives, of course, are murdered.

The movie was made at the height of the so-called "women's lib" movement, and reflected a certain paranoid view of "traditional marriage." The Taming of the Shrew is the film's obvious precursor--in training Kate to acknowledge his "right supremacy," Petruccio silences her criticisms and turns her into a perfect Stepford Wife who chastises other women for refusing to acknowledge their God-given subservient status. Her final speech is scarily Stepford-like:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience,
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband,
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

By linking wifely obedience to social order, Kate raises the stakes on the whole question of marital authority. If a man can't keep the peace at home, how can we expect princes and kings to maintain order in the political sphere? Again, this is a concern that Will has addressed throughout Taming (and elsewhere), so it's not a surprise that he would make it explicit here, as the play draws to a close. The notion that wifely obedience was the foundation of social harmony isn't new. It's reflected in countless medieval texts, many of them comical. One of my favorites is the medieval drama of Noah's ark. In most versions of this play, Noah's wife is a classic shrew. She argues about the time he spends making the ark, argues about getting on board when the flood begins, and even fights with him physically as he drags her up the ramp onto the boat. The disobedience of God's people, the biblical justification for the flood, is allied with a woman's refusal to obey her husband. After the flood is over and order has been restored, she's submissive and obedient. And, of course, not funny anymore. Once again, God rules man as man rules woman. All's right with the world, and the comedy of "marital misrule" is over.

But is Kate a Stepford Wife? Or is she just acting? We'll get to that in a moment.

First, however, a few thematic loose ends:

As the Kate/Petruccio plot reaches its climax, so does the Bianca/Lucentio story. The two plots intersect when Lucentio's real father, Vincentio, encounters Petruccio and his new wife on their way back to Padua for the wedding reception. This subplot has become pretty confusing by this time, mostly because of this silly Pedant/Vincentio twist. Remember that the Pedant has been hired to masquerade as Lucentio's dad, so that Tranio (pretending to be Lucentio) can convince Baptista that he really is incredibly rich and therefore worthy of Bianca's hand.

Here, I think we see Will's inexperience as a playwright. I know, it seems like the worst kind of hubris to criticize the greatest dramatist in English literary history, but he had a learning curve just like everyone else. You can definitely see this late in Act 4, when the whole disguise thing gets out of hand and becomes completely unanchored from the plot. Early in Act 4, the Pedant claims he's heard of Vincentio, who's known to be "a man of incomparable wealth." So if this guy, a traveling merchant (or teacher?) knows how rich Vincentio is, we must assume he's really loaded. And if this is the case, why hire some stranger to impersonate him? Tranio says that Vincentio is "here looked for every day"--due to arrive any day now. So why not wait for Vincentio to arrive, explain the whole thing, and get his blessing for the Bianca/Lucentio nuptials? Lucentio could reveal the Cambio gambit, Tranio could doff his Lucentio disguise, and everyone could have a good laugh about it. Since Baptista only cares about finding Bianca a wealthy husband ("And pass my daughter a sufficient dower/The match is made..."), and purports to want his daughters to marry at least nominally "for love," what's the problem?

I think Will wanted to play around with the disguise/performance idea a bit longer--for comic effect and thematic reasons--and couldn't think of a way to make it work any better. And the scene in Act 5 when Vincentio confronts his impersonator makes for some good physical comedy. Biondello, Tranio and the Pedant insist on playing their roles, calling Vincentio a "madman" and an "ass." The confusion intensifies when Gremio recognizes Vincentio, but admits (as Vincentio naturally won't) that Tranio is the real Lucentio, as far as he knows. Now of course it's inconceivable that the servants would torment their master--the guy who pays their wages, and can fire them at will--this way. At the end of the scene the real Lucentio arrives, newly married to Bianca (they eloped in the midst of the mayhem), claiming that "love wrought these miracles," as if that really explains everything, which it doesn't. But Vincentio promises to "content" Baptista (i.e., fork over a substantial amount of cash), Lucentio promises that Baptista will forgive his daughter, and they all go in to the wedding feast.

At the end of this scene Petruccio demands a public kiss from his wife ("kiss me, Kate"--immortalized as a the title of a 1950's musical version of the play); she demurs, but finally grants him the kiss as a sign that all's well between the two of them. After being starved, psychologically tormented, and kept awake for several nights, she's finally "tamed," it would seem.

Or is she?

I think the key to this mystery lies back in Act 4, scene 6, when the couple meets Vincentio on the way to Padua. As the scene opens, Petruccio lifts his gaze to the clear, sunlit sky and remarks,

"Good lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!"

Kate, tired and hungry, doesn't bother to look up. "The moon?--the sun. It is not moonlight now."

They argue back and forth, with Petruccio insisting it's night, and all the light is coming from the moon, while Kate argues, quite reasonably (and empirically) that it is "the sun that shines so bright." Petruccio then asserts that it's not the time of day that's at issue--it's authority. Specifically, his over her:

Now, by my mother's son--and that's myself--
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list
Or ere I journey to your father's house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore crossed, and crossed, nothing but crossed.

"Dammit, as far as I'm concerned it's the moon, or a star, or whatever the hell I say it is. And until you agree with me, we're not moving an inch. Come on, let's go back. All I get is grief from you, time after time." Hortensio, by this time as fed up as Kate is with this whole thing, advises her to "say as he says or we shall never go."

A light (from neither moon nor sun) seems to go on in her head, and she completely changes her tactics:

And be it moon or sun or what you please,
And if you please to call it a rush-candle
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

Whatever. Call it a burning bundle of weeds for all I care. You're right, I'm wrong. Can we go now?

Petruccio isn't sure she's gotten the message, so he persists for a few lines more, insisting it's the moon. After she agrees, he calls her a liar, now contending it's "the blessed sun." Kate gets it now, but slips in a little snide remark, nonetheless:

Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun.
But sun it is not when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind...

Okay, it's the sun. Unless it's not. Your mind is as changeable as the moon (which waxes and wanes); in other words, you're a luna-tic.

When they run into Vincentio a few lines later, she has no trouble addressing him as a "young budding virgin, fair, fresh and sweet." She's gotten with the program.

When we next see her, in Act 5, she's ready to smack down Hortensio's wife for suggesting that Petruccio's married to a shrew. Their two husbands seem to enjoy this potential catfight, urging their respective mates to go to it, and taking bets on who will win.

The women leave the stage, presumably without engaging in any mudwrestling--although I'm sure there are productions that make a lot more of the girlfight--and the betting gets serious. The three young men, urged on by Baptista, decide to wager on "whose wife is more obedient," and who has married "the veriest shrew of all." Whichever wife responds most quickly to her husband's call will win him a hundred crowns. I think they have this sort of thing in dog obedience competitions now.

The results are, of course, predictable. Bianca "is busy and cannot" come, and the widow, true to the stereotype, sends back a message commanding that Hortensio "come to her" instead. Only Kate comes like an obedient retriever. (Or rather, border collie. I have a golden retriever, and he only comes when he feels like it.)

Kate's troubling "Stepford speech" is the longest monologue in the play. Tamed or not, she gets the last word. So what are we to make of this? Personally, I think Kate figured a few things out. Like Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and other vocal (if often incoherent) conservative women, she realized that the best way to get the upper hand is to become a Spokeswoman for the Patriarchy. Once a reluctant student, she's now the teacher. Once the outcast no one wanted, she's now a role model for other, less politically astute women. If she were a real woman in our own time, she'd be the author of multiple books on the evils of feminism, or the host of a talk radio show catering to angry right-wingers. She might even have a political career. I can just see her handsome husband, a real man's man, smiling paternalistically in the background as she addresses her enthusiastic, if somewhat "moon-addled" supporters. So was she really tamed?

You betcha.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Sad though your conclusion is, I think what really happened to Katherine was even worse, at least for her. I think her spirit was broken. I've written about it on my blog Shakespeare Calling. I'd be interested in comments!