Friday, May 24, 2013

Week 2 - The Taming of the Shrew

In which your dutiful author manages to bring it all back to Bob Fosse.

Ah, the immortal question: Is The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic, or isn't it?

First, a brief summary:

Baptista, a wealthy gent in Padua, announces that his younger, desirable daughter Bianca will not be allowed to wed until his older daughter Katherine (the shrew of the title) does. Luckily for the many guys who want to marry Bianca, a down-on-his-luck man, Petruchio, needs a wife with a dowry and decides he can change Katherine's horrible character. He meets Katherine and announces he will marry her, which he does--over her objections. He takes her back to his run-down estate, where he proceeds to essentially psychologically torture her. He refuses her food and clothes and a good night's sleep, all on the pretext that nothing is good enough for her. As long as Katherine argues with him, she can't win. However, as soon as she agrees with his nonsensical comments--for instance, calling the sun the moon--she gets what she wants. Slash he gets what he wants.

In the meantime, Bianca is wooed by--among others--Lucentio, who has been wooing her in the disguise of a tutor so he can be closer to her, while his servant Tranio pretends that he is Lucentio. Once Katherine is married, Baptista says whoever can give the bigger dowry can marry Bianca, at which point Tranio (as Lucentio) and another of Bianca's suitors have a bidding war to see who will get to marry her. Yes. Charming. Tranio wins, and Baptista says that as soon as Lucentio's father, Vincentio, has confirmed the dowry, Lucentio and Bianca can marry. Unfortunately, Tranio has bid more than Lucentio has. Tranio and Lucentio decide to trick a merchant into pretending that he is Vincentio and having him confirm the dowry. Baptista approves the marriage between who he thinks is Lucentio and Bianca, and the real Lucentio and Bianca elope. The real Vincentio turns up and shenanigans ensue, but Lucentio and Biana show up, now married, and explain the charade. Luckily their fathers both forgive them. Possibly because that plot was so convoluted they had no idea what had just happened.

Finally, Lucentio, Petruchio, and Hortensio, who was one of Bianca's suitors, but who married someone else, place a bet on whose wife is most obedient. Petruchio wins, and Katherine gives a long, over-the-top speech on being a super dutiful, faithful, and pliable wife.

If you didn't feel like reading all that, this may refresh your memory on the plot:

I remember feeling like I should turn my nose up at this movie
back in the day, but it's actually pretty delightful.

So back to the big argument. On the one hand, we've got the camp that says the play is misogynistic, because, well, obviously. On the other hand, we've got the camp saying it's not misogynistic, because Katherina is only pretending to have let Petruchio "tame" her, or, it's not misogynistic because it's a farce, pointing out the problems with this type of narrative through exaggeration and ultimately making the audience realize that the subjugation of women is pretty depressing.

Now, it's pretty difficult to talk about this without considering the historical context. After all, Shakespeare was writing in a misogynist society. It wasn't like powerful women didn't exist; Elizabeth I was the queen, after all. Still, women weren't even allowed to act in The Taming of the Shrew, or at any point in Shakespeare's lifetime.

So what would Shakespeare's contemporaries have thought of the play? Well, no one really knows, and again, there are arguments on either side. Looking at Shakespeare's other works, which contain a veritable multitude of straight bitchin' chicks, I don't think it's possible to argue that the works as a whole demonstrate a misogynist attitude. Although I'm sure someone has argued that, because people are stupid. 

What does the play itself say?

By Washington Allston.
Click to see it full size and check out everyone's hilarious expressions--
Petruchio and his servant (far left) both look like they're about to
waggle their heads and say, "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!"

First of all, this play actually uses a twist on the play-within-a-play device. The first thing the audience sees is an introduction in which a lord decides to trick a drunk man he finds into thinking he himself is a lord who has been suffering from madness. I guess they didn't have a lot of entertainment options back then. The rest of play is supposedly one being performed for this drunkard. Right away, we know everything's a little upside down.

When it comes to the shrew herself, I think there's a tendency to romantize Katherine as the Poor Downtrodden Woman. In my minimal reading of outside sources, I keep coming across the word "headstrong" to describe her. That's a euphemism if ever I've heard one. Katherine is not a feisty gal who's misunderstood by her contemporaries. She's a raging bitch. She threatens violence often and early on in the play ties her sister to a chair and hits her. 

... Yeah.

One could argue that Katherine's character is in itself proof that the play is misogynistic, but I think her over-the-top awfulness is part of the play's essentially farcical nature. The scene in which Bianca's suitors bid for her, Petruchio's use of romantic language to woo Katherine, the multiple disguises--it's all too ridiculous and silly to read it as a serious commentary on either how women are or on how they should be treated. 

In a final piece of delicious irony, when Petruchio asks Katherine how women should behave, she says they should obey their husbands in everything--and in doing so, she gives the longest speech in the play. It's pointedly long--she isn't expressing a lot of different thoughts, she's expressing the same thought in different ways. Of course those thoughts are problematic: "do whatever your husbands says! He knows best!" but how seriously do we take them? A lot of it depends on how the lines are delivered. In my head, they're delivered by a character who has just learned how to manipulate people from a master of trickery (Petruchio) and who is now reveling in the fact that she finally has the spotlight that has for so long been Bianca's. But that's just the feeling I get from it. 

Finally, if you are tired of all the is-it-or-isn't-it-misogyny, here's an excerpt from Kiss Me, Kate, a musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. It's definitely misogynistic (how many times have I used that flippin' word now?! There's no real synonym) but this thankfully has nothing to do with that. This is a musical number featuring Bob Fosse, a genius of the theatre in his own right. He's the one in the orange tights who looks like his soul is on fire with joy. I will leave you with that!

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