Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Taming of the Shrew or The Modern Marriage

The last main speech of The Taming of the Shrew (written around 1590-94) has always confused me. 

It's the speech in which Katherina seems to prove to the assembled guests that she is entirely tamed, and obedient to her husband's wishes, even if this is at the expense of her own mind, heart and reason. 

It is a huge forty-three lines long, beating out again and again the many ways in which women are inferior to men, because a man is 'thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign'. 

Women who are 'mov'd' into being scornful, says Kate, are like 'a fountain troubled,/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty'. While men commit themselves to 'painful labour both by sea and land', women simply lie 'warm at home, secure and safe'. 

When a woman is 'froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will', she is a 'foul contending rebel,/And graceless traitor'. Because women's bodies are, supposedly, 'soft, and weak, and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world', this necessarily means, she argues, that women's 'soft conditions' should agree with their 'external parts': they should be soft, because they look soft. 

There is only one easily identifiable point at which Katherina seems to be about to renege on her newfound identity as the loving, obedient proponent of the marriage vows ('they are bound to serve, love, and obey'). She suddenly seems to switch tack, lashing out in grief at what she has lost:

My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
She seems, at first, angrily confident that her mind was once 'big', her heart 'great' and her reason greater. It is unclear, though, whom she is addressing. The first two-thirds of the speech seem to be directed solely at the other women on stage, her sulky sister Bianca, and the shrewish Widow. Yet 'yours' in line 171 is ambiguous – does she mean her mind has been as big as another woman's, or as a big as a man's? To whom is she now speaking? Perhaps to everyone in the room. Something has changed, re-directed or just crushed her self-belief, but it is not clear what. She simply says, 'But now I see'. How has she changed the way she sees, from a big mind and heart, to 'seeming to be most which we indeed least are'? Katherine's taming is completely contained in 'But now I see'. 

Shakespeare leaves the speech wide open to be interpreted either with or against its apparent grain. We are, on the face of it, supposed to celebrate Katherina's return to the fold, her understanding of what is good for her, the epiphany of good sense which has helped her recognise the 'debt' and 'duty' she owes her husband. 

Yet… yet… we are left uneasy, not least by the penultimate couplet of the speech:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot.
There is no boot, no advantage in rebelling, she says, and urges her fellow women to place their hands, in a symbolic gesture, beneath their husband's feet, in a show of submission and vulnerability. 'Boot' and 'foot', with their hard plosive 't' sounds, seem to cut off all disagreement – yet the rhyme is a poor one: the inbuilt discrepancy between the long 'o' of boot' and the short 'o' of foot carries all the uneasiness. Bringing 'boot' and 'foot' together in this rhyme also carries a play on words. The boot, the advantage, is all the husband's. Yet, the language seems to breathe, if husbands are given all the marital power in this way, woe betide a woman if she disobeys. For the boot of marriage, if it does not fit the man's foot well, is likely to irritate him, and he may take it out on her. 

The 'shoe of marriage' reminds us of the ebullient and rebellious Wife of Bath. Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, a full two hundred years before Shakespeare. The Wyf makes a typically irreverent joke at the expense of one of her (five) husbands:

For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.
She laughs at her husband moaning whenever the shoo – their marriage – was too tight for him. Obedience to the husband does not seem to be a factor here. So why is it at the end of the Elizabethan era – an era in which England was ruled by a husbandless queen?


It is not safe to argue about Kate's final speech, as the editor of the Arden Shakespeare does in his introduction to the 1981 edition, that 'Shakespeare cannot possibly have intended it to be spoken ironically' (p. 146). 

Brian Morris himself goes on to say, despite this confident declaration, that Petruchio's response is 'almost as if he is lost for words', and 'one of the most moving and perfect lines in the play' – 

Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. 
Quite how this unsophisticated mumble can be called 'moving and perfect' is beyond me. I can see alliteration, and a caesura after two iambs. However it's hardly the tragic lament of:
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
or the complex layering and intensity of: 
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty.
Morris's insistence that Shakespeare meant the speech to be spoken straight can, I think, be disregarded as so much bluster, undermined by the simplest textual analysis. 

That said, it remains troubling, even astonishing, to find out that Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch also sees V, ii of The Shrew as a positive statement about marriage. 

Greer suggests that what is going on in the speech is ironic, but not at the expense of men, or women. She reads it as a private message between Kate and Petruchio, a demonstration of her love for him. She is prepared to give the public what they want – obedience from women in marriage – because what is happening in private is an equal relationship, full of mutual respect, sexual satisfaction and joy. 

For Greer, Kate's speech is Shakespeare's earnest defence of marriage as a difficult mode of living, demanding mutual respect and tolerance:

Kate […] has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. […] The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality. […] Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough. There is no romanticism in Shakespeare’s view of marriage. He recognized it as a difficult state of life, requiring discipline, sexual energy, mutual respect and great forbearance; he knew there were no easy answers to marital problems, and that infatuation was no basis for continued cohabitation.
Greer believes that what the audience sees is a coded public concession to conformity and convention, within which runs a joyous private communication: 'I will tame my wild spirit if you will be my protector and friend'.  

She argues that there is no romanticism in this view of marriage, and yet it seems to me the most overtly Mills and Boon definition of the love match. 


I feel completely torn. On the one hand, I sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' because my own husband, who was man enough to know what he wanted and how to get it, tamed me, and is currently committing his body to painful labour in central London. On the other, the way this happened was via the demolition of my career (not at his hands, I hasten to add), and a decade of frustrating and often frustrated attempts to find another way forward towards an income and fulfilment, while we raise a family. 

My own experience of marriage is emphatically not that I have been required to be obedient by a man. It is that our marriage has been threatened by the stresses affecting both of us as both of us committed our bodies to painful labour. So often, one or other of our working lives has been assaulted by workplace schemers, global recessions and family-unfriendly hours. That, and unequal pay.

It is no longer true that women sit 'warm at home, secure and safe' in marriage. These days, we're all supposed to be out working, whether we want to or not. The modern Katherina and the modern Petruchio do not have to conform to a hierarchical model of marriage, thank goodness. In the West, we marry for love, not a dowry or land ownership, and we expect to (or have to) go on working. 

But working out how that works when you both work – and when there are children involved – I'd like to see Shakespeare have a go at that last speech. 

It's not obedience that's needed now, but respect. 

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