Feuding Beats Shrew-Taming

Taylor and Burton in Taming of the Shrew


Here’s a follow-up to some remarks I made yesterday on Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado about Nothing. Not being a Renaissance scholar, I’m not writing from a position of expertise, but it appears that Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew challenged but didn’t entirely break free of the misogynist shrew dramas that preceded it. The breakthrough came with Much Ado about Nothing, which launched what I call the feuding couples comedy.

The Bedford Shakespeare tells us about one of the predecessors, “A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin for her Good Behavior.” In it, “the shrew-tamer kills a horse, strips and salts the hide, beats his wife until she bleeds, and then wraps her ‘torn’ body in the salted skin.”

Merry jest indeed. When I told my class about Hobbes’s theory of laughter—we laugh to assert our superiority over others—a classic example would be husbands laughing at such stories to air hurt feelings and fantasize about revenge.

What Petruchio does to Kate is not this bad although depriving someone of food and sleep is bad enough. But Kate at least gets to speak for herself, and her initial interchange with Petruchio is not unlike that between Benedick and Beatrice. Compare them:

Petruchio: Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.
Katharina: Moved! in good time: let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.
Petruchio: Why, what’s a moveable?
Katharina: A join’d-stool.
Petruchio: Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.
Katharina: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
Petruchio: Women are made to bear, and so are you.
Katharina: No such jade as you, if me you mean.
Petruchio: Alas! good Kate, I will not burden thee;
For, knowing thee to be but young and light–
Katharina: Too light for such a swain as you to catch;
And yet as heavy as my weight should be.
Petruchio: Should be! should–buzz!
Katharina: Well ta’en, and like a buzzard.
Petruchio: O slow-wing’d turtle! shall a buzzard take thee?
Katharina: Ay, for a turtle, as he takes a buzzard.
Petruchio: Come, come, you wasp; i’ faith, you are too angry.
Katharina: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then, to pluck it out.
Katharina: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies,
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does
wear his sting? In his tail.
Katharina: In his tongue.
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Katharina: Yours, if you talk of tails: and so farewell.

And now Beatrice and Benedick:

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.

Modern directors would rather reading Taming of the Shrew as a feuding couples comedy, believing that Kate is not actually surrendering when she offers to put her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot. That’s because they cannot imagine Shakespeare surrendering to the shrew-taming tradition. After all, does he not manage to transcend tradition time and again? As Stephen Greenblatt points out, Shakespeare’s greatness lies partly in his ability to make every character three-dimensional. How can he possibly allow Kate to dwindle to a two-dimensional prop in a misogynist revenge fantasy?

However one reads Taming of the Shrew, Beatrice occupies a very different position at the end of Much Ado than Kate. Their final interchange is filled with affectionate sarcasm:

Benedick: Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.
Beatrice:I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.
Benedick: Peace! I will stop your mouth. (Kisses her)

I like to think that Much Ado paved the way for John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed, which he wrote as a sequel 20 years after Taming of the Shrew. In that one, Petruchio’s supposedly mild second wife (Kate has died) undertakes a Lysistrata-like sex strike, bringing Petruchio to his knees. At times she describes herself as a falcon that has slipped the harness and that it is she who now wears the pants in the family.

She has an answer for every one of his subsequent maneuvers until he finally feels compelled to fake his own death. Even this doesn’t elicit the response he wants as he is treated to further insults. She doesn’t lament his loss but the fact that, while alive, he lived a “poore unmanly wretched foolish life.”

In the end, they reconcile. He promises to give up his tyranny and she in turn agrees to dedicate her life “in service to your pleasure.”

Maria: I have done my worst, and have my end, for
From this hour make me what you please: I have tamed ye
And now am vowed your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
Petruchio: Once again?
Maria: With all my heart.
Petruchio: Once again Maria. O Gentlemen, I know not where I am.
Sophia: Get ye to bed then: there you’ll quickly know sir.
Petruchio:. Never no more your old tricks?
Maria: Never sir.
Petruchio: You shall not need, for as I have a faith
No cause shall give occasion.
Maria: As I am honest,
And as I am a maid yet, all my life
From this hour since, since ye make so free profession,
I dedicate in service to your pleasure.

One has a slightly different reconciliation between Hellena and Willmore in Aphra Behn’s Rover, perhaps because the author is a woman. Willmore worries that marriage will shackle him, and Hellena, while having her own fears on that score, nevertheless knows she’ll pay a social price for sex outside marriage. He proposes after she convinces him that she will be just as amorous and unpredictable as a wife as she is as a lover, guaranteeing that their marriage will never stagnate. Here’s their final interchange:

Willmore: Nay, if we part so, let me die like a Bird upon a Bough, at the Sheriff’s Charge. By Heaven, both the Indies shall not buy thee from me. I adore thy Humour and will marry thee, and we are so of one Humour, it must be a Bargain—give me thy Hand—[Kisses her hand.] And now let the blind ones (Love and Fortune) do their worst.
Hellena: Why, God-a-mercy, Captain!
Willmore: But harkye—The Bargain is now made; but is it not fit we should know each other’s Names? That when we have Reason to curse one another hereafter, and People ask me who ’tis I give to the Devil, I may at least be able to tell what Family you came of.
Hellena: Good reason, Captain; and where I have cause, (as I doubt not but I shall have plentiful) that I may know at whom to throw my—Blessings—I beseech ye your Name.
Willmore: I am call’d Robert the Constant.
Hellena: A very fine Name! pray was it your Faulkner or Butler that christen’d you? Do they not use to whistle when then call you?
Willmore: I hope you have a better, that a Man may name without crossing himself, you are so merry with mine.
Hellena: I am call’d Hellena the Inconstant.

That’s an ending worthy of The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, or The Philadelphia Story, which we’ll be studying next week. The shrew-taming story has come a long way.

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