Friday, November 20, 2009

Tamed and Untamed

I read The Taming of the Shrew pretty fast, and it coincided with a bit of a stressful week. This will be my only post about it. 

There was a girl once who let me tame her.

She gave up things that were special to her, all the things that made her independent and feisty and amazing. In a world where men bottle women like ships, she was a balsa wood vessel of creativity and spunk scaling the waves like One-Eyed Willie’s Inferno, set free, sailorless, at the end of Goonies. Filled with treasure. Then I came along.

Petruchio is an abusive ass. He wants to tame Katherine by denying her food and sleep like he’s trying to siphon information out of her about a terrorist plot.


She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat.

Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not. (4:1)


He trains her to agree with every word he says. So when he says the sun is the moon, she says:


Then God be blest it is the blessed sun.

But sun it is not, when you say it is not,

And the moon changes even as your mind. (4:5)


Katherine is brainwashed, not unlike Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped from her family and forced into a traumatic relationship. Katherine must undergo a traumatic experience in the company of her tormentor, who then is the one who props her up from her broken state. Maybe in 18 years, Signor Baptista will come to his senses and have her rescued and there will be hope for all of the poor girls married off to villains and rapists of noble birth. But in the meanwhile, Katherine is tamed. She gives her speech at the end instructing the other new wives in the arts of wifery:


Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

            Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,

            And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labor both by sea and land (5:2)


And her strength and shrewdness and herself are erased:


Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,

Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,

But that our soft conditions and our hearts

Should well agree with our external parts? (5:2)


I know it’s possible to interpret Katherine’s tamed speech as ironic. She’s merely reciting the rules a woman must follow to live in peace in the world of man, she’s defeated, a martyr. And Shakespeare's unknown politics might fall in favor of sexual equality and liberation of the Elizabethan female. 

I took a class on the director George Stevens taught by Drew Casper. Casper used to tell us to take off our post-modern goggles so that we could appreciate the social innovation and feminism in movies from the 30s, Alice Adams or Woman of the Year. Movies where the female liberation was so slight that it was impossible for those of us who live in the age of Hillary Clinton, Chancellor Merkel and Sonia Sotomayor to admire it without laughing at its feebleness. If Shakespeare really meant for this speech to be a criticism of patriarchal society, then the scene at the end of Woman of the Year where Katherine Hepburn fails to make breakfast for Spencer Tracy arrives in the zeitgeist 400 years tardy.

Thank God for the modern updates to this story. Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You is not a bully and a criminal. And in the end, Julia Stiles doesn’t have to sacrifice all the things about herself that are strong, and independent. She’s weakened by love, made vulnerable, the way all people are, but she retains her vitality. (Yes, I'm asserting that Julia Stiles has/had vitality... deal with it).

For my part, I did not bully or harass like Petruchio, but I can be a villain of passive aggression. I’m quite practiced in the art from decades of Midwestern manipulation. Mine were abuses of inertia. Slow and steady movement away, barely detectable. Like an oil tanker that cuts its engines miles from shore when the port is only a dot on the horizon. Hers were abuses of neglect: neglecting herself for me. I’m guilty of other trespasses as well, infidelities of the imagination and cowardice.

She had a spark and I put it out. And the spark is what I loved most. I’m sure being apart has given her the power to reignite it, but it’s better not to reflect on the implication of that statement.

Reading these Complete Works is meant to be in part an act of self-improvement. But self-improvement can’t come without self-awareness. And that’s walking through the fire.

I’m glad this one is over.

No comments:

Post a Comment