Taming Americans through Gaslighting

Charles Robert Leslie, Taming of the Shrew

Carl Rosin, an occasional contributor to this blog, uses its philosophy in his English classrooms at Radnor High School in Radnor, PA. We recently enjoyed serving on a panel together at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) national convention in Baltimore, along with Jennifer Fletcher, Glenda Funk, and Carol Jago. Carl left a software engineering job to become a teacher and has won various local and regional awards along with PLATO’s (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) national high school Philosophy Teacher of the Year award for 2014-15; he also served on the National Humanities Center’s Teacher Advisory Council for 2018-2019.

By Carl Rosin, English Teacher, Radnor High School

I, like many of you, am stubborn. I have always thought of this as a badge of honor, at least as long as my stubbornness stands in defense of truth and justice and fairness, and as long as I retain my willingness to defer if I happen to be proven wrong.

John Adams, the American patriot, served admirably and successfully as defense attorney for the British soldiers who perpetrated the Boston Massacre. He famously praised a particularly welcome form of stubbornness in his argument:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence….

Adams, often quoted for this line (N.B.: he elaborates on a phrase that predates him by more than a half-century), would probably be befuddled if not horrified by today’s political America, a place that is well on its way to earning the tragic label “post-truth.” New York Times reviewer emerita Michiko Kakutani writes an end-of-decade op-ed that decries President Trump and his surrogates’ various efforts at “nihilistically trying to undermine public faith” in institutions, science, norms, and, by extension, the idea of truth itself.

Authoritarians incessantly pursue their desire to “make themselves the sole arbiters of truth and reality,” she writes. She quotes the president himself from January 2017, when he told reporters that his assaults on the press were designed “to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Facts too stubborn for you? Have you tried devaluing the idea that truth exists?

This epitomizes “gaslighting,” the term derived from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, which George Cukor made into the 1944 film noir classic Gaslight. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for her portrayal of a character whose husband’s sophisticated, nefarious campaign of psychological manipulations makes her question her sanity. “To gaslight” entered the language as a useful way to describe such manipulations, especially insofar as they are part of a strategy to undermine an observer’s perceptions. A person or organization that can convince us not to trust our senses or our memory is one that has access to tremendous power over us.

Orwell’s 1984 brought forth the menacing sentence, “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” which Prof. Bates investigated only days after President Trump’s inauguration. (Professor Bates has written on gaslighting on several other occasions, including here, here, and here.)

The word is having an extended moment. It was Oxford English Dictionary’s runner-up Word of the Year for 2018. I see it constantly in the media, including in the title of anti-Trump conservative Amanda Carpenter’s book Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, which traces the history of political uses of the word and outlines its threat to a reality-based world. Journalists Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa run a prominent weekly podcast called Gaslit Nation. There is plenty of material worth addressing under these titles. Too much.

Just in the past few days, Vox responded to House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) claim that the FBI spied on the president illegally – a claim that had already been debunked by Trump’s own Justice Department – by calling him out for gaslighting; the same day, lawyer and conservative Never-Trumper George Conway called out Sen. Ron Johnson (R-OR) for “mendacious gaslighting” when Sen. Johnson invoked another debunked theory about 2016 Democratic party collusion with Ukraine.

On Dec. 23, the president spoke in Florida, claiming, among other things, “There’s no impeachment.” White House advisor Kellyanne Conway – George Conway’s wife – crowed about the coming of “alternative facts” back in 2017; examples have proliferated almost too fast to be counted.

But “gaslighting” is not unique to the Trump era. Its lineage traces back through Pres. Clinton and Pres. Nixon, back past Cukor’s film and Hamilton’s play. Indeed, it finds one of its most evocative implementations in William Shakespeare’s 1590s comedy – I think of it as quite a dark comedy, although it does contain plenty of good humor – Taming of the Shrew. Deception plays a role in almost every Shakespeare play, tragedies and histories as well as comedies, but nowhere does it evoke the term “gaslighting” as plainly as in the controversial Taming.

The motif germinates in the Induction, an introductory act that frames the action we know as Taming of the Shrew – Shakespeare uses this framing device only for Taming – in which a wealthy Lord decides to play a prank on a passed-out drunkard named Christopher Sly by pretending that Sly is a rich lord himself. He tells his attendants,

Sirs, I will practice on this drunken man.
What think you, if he were conveyed to bed,
Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,
A most delicious banquet by his bed,
And brave attendants near him when he wakes,
Would not the beggar then forget himself? (Induction.1.37-43)

While robbing someone of poverty and discomfort is better than robbing someone of wealth and comfort, a la the Hamilton play and Cukor film, a patina of disrespect discolors the scene. The Lord laughingly disparages Sly as “monstrous,” “foul,” “loathsome,” and a “swine.” Deceiving him will be “pastime passing excellent.” My students did find this funny, especially when Sly starts to go along with the prank after “discovering” that he has a beautiful wife, really the Lord’s page in disguise.

The well-known plot of Taming is introduced when the Lord hires players to entertain Sly and the rest with a silly play about romantic machinations in Padua. An elder sister, the independent-minded and “shrewish” Katherine (Katherina), has an obedient and “modest” younger sister, Bianca. Their father, Baptista, insists on marrying off the elder – who has no suitors – before the younger – who has two and soon three vying for her hand.

The play continues with the usual comedic disguises and lies, but it eventually fires up toward gaslighting. The wealthy young man Lucentio has switched identities with his servant Tranio so as to be able to court Bianca surreptitiously; Tranio, in the guise of “Lucentio,” has promised great wealth to Baptista, and now needs someone to provide his bona fides to back up these promises. Tranio tricks a traveling merchant into going along with the deception: the merchant will be protected from an imaginary threat as long as he pretends to be Lucentio’s father Vincentio. Meanwhile, the real Vincentio comes to town on a surprise visit. Tranio and his fellow servant to Lucentio, a boy named Biondello, have to make a choice: admit their deception to Vincentio (their real master’s real father) or double down on the lies they have been building.

It wouldn’t be comedy if they didn’t double down.

When Vincentio addresses Biondello, the scamp replies, “No, sir. I could not forget you, / for I never saw you before in all my life” (5.1.51-52). The horror of Vincentio, who is appropriately baffled by this bald-faced lie, only multiplies when he encounters Tranio, disguised as Lucentio. Tranio tells Vincentio, with the feigned civility common to gaslighters, “Sir, you seem a sober ancient gentleman by your habit, but your words show you a madman” (5.1.74-76). The scene further spirals out of control when Baptista piles on against Vincentio, who is the only one telling the truth. Vincentio, justifiably upset and on the verge of being arrested for his defiance of the story that the gulls have accepted, is saved only by the appearance of his son, who finally sets the record straight.

But the real king of gaslighting is the antihero of the play, Petruchio. He had arrived on the scene to face the challenge of “taming” Katherine the “shrew,” and threw himself wholeheartedly into the task. At first, his gambit is relatively unoffensive. He presents himself to Baptista with uncommon praise for Katherine:

PETRUCHIO 
Pray, have you not a daughter
Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?
BAPTISTA
I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina. (2.1.45-47)

The reply from Baptista, whose unwillingness to defend his daughter’s dignity seems central to the action, always strikes me as potentially one of the play’s funniest lines, although it is wrought unpleasantly at her expense. Petruchio continues with more unwarranted praise for her:

PETRUCHIO
I am a gentleman of Verona, sir,
That hearing of her beauty and her wit,
Her affability and bashful modesty,
Her wondrous qualities and mild behavior,
Am bold to show myself a forward guest
Within your house, to make mine eye the witness
Of that report which I so oft have heard…. (2.1.50-56)

Well, no, he has not “so oft” heard that. But he is committed. He soliloquizes about his plan to “woo her with some spirit”:

Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly washed with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word,
Then I’ll commend her volubility
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks
As though she bid me stay by her a week.
If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns, and when be marrièd. (2.1.178-188)

There are worse things than praising someone even when they haven’t earned it. This wouldn’t fully deserve the name gaslighting if that’s all he did, though.

He keeps it up when he meets Katherine, who is not receptive. He tells her “I am he born to tame you, Kate, / And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate / Conformable as other household Kates” (2.1.291-293). Her will is clearly against this, but in patriarchal Padua, with pathetic Baptista’s complicity, the die is cast. Perhaps Petruchio will tame her with more kindness and praise?

Nope. After humiliating her at their wedding, Petruchio drags Katherine away from the bridal dinner while ratcheting up the gaslighting. Nobody comes to Katherine’s defense, despite her explicit objections, when Petruchio claims that he is not forcing her to leave against her will but actually “rescuing” her when they are “beset with thieves.” As her husband, he insists on being

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 anything.
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare. (2.1.235-239)

This speech sounds ominous for her independent streak. He carries her off to end Act 3, on the long trip to his home that is described in comic style as being messy and painful for Katherine.

His plan to win her obedience has two main prongs: starving her and depriving her of sleep, with an added element of ruining anything else that might provide her some comfort. Later, when they are on their way back to Padua for Bianca’s and Lucentio’s wedding, Petruchio shows that he has not quit his campaign to exasperate and humiliate his wife:

PETRUCHIO 
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
KATHERINE
The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.
PETRUCHIO
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
KATHERINE
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
PETRUCHIO
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or e’er I journey to your father’s house.
To Servants. Go on, and fetch our horses back again.—
Evermore crossed and crossed, nothing but crossed! (4.5.2-11)

It’s the emperor’s new clothes: she who dares to tell the truth will be accused of crossing the infallible ruler and harassed into compliance…unless she cares as little as he does for decorum and, even more alarmingly, for the respect of others.

A student of 21st century political gaslighting would recognize this shamelessness as a component of the potential for a race to the bottom. If Katherina does not comply with her commanding, brazen master, he will force her to miss her sister’s wedding. Their fellow traveler, Petruchio’s friend Hortensio, begs her – notice that he does not beg Petruchio – to comply, and she does, at the price of her dignity. Capitulation is apparently her only option.

HORTENSIO [to Katherine]
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
KATHERINE
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please.
And if you please to call it a rush candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
PETRUCHIO
 I say it is the moon.
KATHERINE
I know it is the moon.
PETRUCHIO
Nay, then you lie. It is the blessèd sun.
KATHERINE
Then God be blest, it is the blessèd sun.
But sun it is not, when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine. (4.5.12-25)

He’s not done. Soon, they come across an older man, and Petruchio continues to humiliate Katherine by making her assent to more of his foolishness. This older man is the aforementioned Vincentio, who is about to be gaslit himself by Tranio and Biondello in the scene described above. But it’s all in good fun, I guess, as Vincentio appears to forgive his gaslighters before joining the party after his son’s wedding in Act 5.

A theme of Shakespeare’s play: gaslighting works. At Bianca’s bridal dinner, in the denouement, Petruchio makes and wins a bet that his Katherine has been tamed into the most obedient of the three new wives in attendance. What’s more, she berates the other two wives for their shrewishness. The gaslighter triumphs, and the gaslit woman not only sacrifices her dignity but also spreads the gaslighter’s philosophy to embarrass other women. It’s hard to accept that Katherine’s ignominious defeat is truly all in good fun.

While I’m here: if you are among the many who have heard that Taming is a feminist play, you may have gotten gaslit yourselves. But we’ll save that argument for another day.

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