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Witching Hour Shakespeare

I’d never been to the Globe before, and it seemed that a midnight matinee was the perfect introduction.  I went to see The Taming of the Shrew, a play that has always troubled me.  At first glance and even on further examination, it looks very much like a play about the virtues of female submission (not naturally the sort of thing that would appeal to me, as you well know).

Before we get into the text of the play, though, let me say that the performances were all stellar and I laughed heartily throughout.  Scenes between imperious Petruchio and his perhaps willfully obtuse servant Grumio had a particularly Blackadderish element.  Tranio, faithful servant to Bianca’s young suitor Lucentio, also had an appealing turn emulating his master’s hoity-toity behavior whilst disguised as Lucentio.  The false-bearded and untuneful Hortensio, in disguise as a music tutor in order to win the fair Bianca’s hand, exhibited a Wodehousian approach to masquerade that, equally surprisingly as in all those Jeeves and Wooster stories, actually managed to fool those around him.  Hijinks ensued.  The scathing Katharina as a fiery amazon laid waste to all with barbed jests, and when needed, a judicious punch.

And now, to the text.

At their marriage, Katherina, the heroine, is referred to unequivocally by Petruchio, the man who becomes her husband, as belonging to him much like any other object in his household inventory:  “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 any thing…”  And then there’s that famous speech right at the end where Katherina, after breathing fire at those who irk her throughout the play, changes tune and exhorts other married women to be meek, mild, and obedient, offering to place her hand under her husband’s foot as an expression of duty.  She has become a Stepford wife.

It is very hard to see a feminist reading of this play.

This frustrates me because there are other strong female characters in Shakespeare and in other classical plays that focus instead on feminine choice, independence, and equality, especially in the matter of choosing a mate.  (And before I hear you cry “Is that all the ambition these women could think of for themselves?” let me remind you that in both of the examples I’m using, the sole objective of the male leads is also to find a marriage partner.  Well sort of: in the one I’m about to mention, the male lead vociferously insists he will never marry, only to make a sudden and complete reversal when he believes he actually has a chance with a woman, and it is another character who initially sets out on the marriage mission.)  In Much Ado About Nothing, it is the elegantly matched wits of Beatrice and Benedick who have the most successful romantic liaison, one based on a long-standing personal acquaintance.   Though written about 150 years later, She Stoops to Conquer (also featuring a Kate main character) by Oliver Goldsmith shares many of the same themes as Much Ado and Taming of women’s social role as subject the whims of households manged by fathers and husbands.  Yet like Much Ado it also celebrates the cleverness of its heroine, who engineers her marriage by employing a ruse that defies social convention and allows her to speak freely and exchange witticisms with her potential suitor.

The Taming of the Shrew has a similarly sizzling battle of wits to both of the above (particularly Much Ado) between the two main characters, but in contrast with both, there are no asides to the audience in which the main characters express true regard for the other.  In fact, in this play, only the male lead gets to break the fourth wall, and only ever to express confidence in his ability to dominate his counterpart–Katherina gets many excellent speeches but never addresses us directly, never brings us into her confidence.  Perhaps it is for this reason that her eventual submission appears inscrutable.  In fact, given that after wedding her against her will, Petruchio’s method for securing her obedience is to keep her in filthy rags, starve her, and subject her to sleep-deprivation, one would be forgiven for thinking that Katherina’s change of heart near the end of the play is due to the effects of Stockholm syndrome.

But the programme valiantly invites us to find another interpretation: in essence, it is Katherina who is sane, and the world of stuffy, petty, and pointless social convention in which she lives that is mad.  Wouldn’t it make you angry to be constantly surrounded by the small tyrannies of others?  Wouldn’t you rage against a system entirely designed to constrain your speech and behavior to achieve a form of social honor based on a logic we now find ridiculous?

With Petruchio then cast as the maverick rogue who like Katherina can see through all the frivolous conventions of the times and really strip away to nothing (no, REALLY strip away to nothing) all that politesse in order to get to the nitty-gritty visceral truth behind it all, he can then be a sort of ally instead of a foe.  But I think this suggested reading is on shaky ground, because instead of honoring Katherina’s intelligence for seeing through it all as well, he breaks her as one would a pony, finding fault with all she does until through sheer exhaustion and exasperation she finally agrees to parrot without question whatever he says, no matter what, no matter the cost to her personal credibility or honor or self-respect.

What has she gained?  The programme suggests that, after all these years of the world perceiving her as a shrew, Katherina has become one out of force of habit, bearing the bonds of social convention just as heavily as all those around her despite her attempts to shake them off.  Petruchio gives her an unexpected way out.  There is also the suggestion that Katherina’s final speech is meant in irony, a public jest that belies a private understanding between the two lead characters.  It is possible that actually the whole play is designed to call attention to the absurdity of the expectations of gender roles of the time, particularly those to do with courtship and marriage.  But I remain skeptical.

I found the programme’s suggestions regarding Bianca much more plausible: here is a character who all the world apart from her sister believe faultless, yet in the end it is she who defies social convention and marries without her father’s consent.  She’s conniving and devious instead of innocent and vapid.  For me this elevated her character by giving it new depth.

The performances all around were superb–I had high expectations of the Globe and I wasn’t disappointed.   I am still left with the question of how to interpret it it’s themes.  But then, I am but a household Cait, not Kate the curst, nor Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, nor Kate of Kate Hall.

I mused upon all this at three in the morning as the audience all poured out onto the South Bank and I walked home alone through London at night, the Thames shimmering beside me.  I know I shouldn’t do this, but the temptation was irresistible since I won’t be able to do it much longer.  London at night is captivating (I know I’m not the first one to think so; some of the best writing in the world has come of wandering around London at night.)  I’m always fascinated by the masses of humanity I pass very late at night in London, much more so than during the day.  People in half-costumes, men in dapper suits, homeless wraiths sleeping on park benches.  People taking late-night photos of the Olympic rings on a barge in the river.  Teenagers hunched in hoodies against the rain, drunkards talking softly in a doorway where they meant to sleep.  Women and men on the way home from clubs engaging in a multitude of biological functions (sometimes all at once).  Couples kissing in the street.  People in ambulances; people driving them.   Sellers of flesh, pedicab peddlers.  A man polishing a doorway in the dark.  People like me, walking on their own.  It is all there, the world going about its night-business.  All of this also happens in the day of course, but in the day there is a rush and it is frantic and I am just one of the madding crowd.  Somehow at night, it is all mine.