The Shrew’s Commentators and 10 Things I Hate About You

by Glenn on September 21, 2016

As I read through the four commentators I consulted on The Taming of the Shrew, it occurred to me that this a strikingly modern play in that there is a main plot and subplot. (I compare this to, say, television, where the device of a subplot wasn’t always commonplace.)

The two stories intertwine enough and in an unpredictable enough way to show some real genius in the architecture. Predictable would have Petruchio’s friend, Hortensio, win Bianca after Petruchio won Katherina—the two friends get the girls they are pursuing. Instead, another guy gets Bianca and Hortensio decides to go after a rich widow.

There is a real twist in that we think of Katherina as the shrew, but the big reveal at the end is that the two other women—Bianca and the widow—are actually more difficult individuals. Katherina and Petruchio have arrived at marital bliss while the two other men are realizing they aren’t as delightfully matched. It’s still a comedy because there are weddings at the end, but it’s not necessarily a happy ending for everyone.

There are some who want this to be a problem play.

Jean E. Howard in the Norton introduction tells us,

 “One of Shakespeare’s first comedies—probably written in 1592 or earlier—The Taming of the Shrew is also one of his most controversial, focusing as it does on the battle between the sexes and on the process by which a strong-willed woman is made to submit to the control of her husband.”

She goes on to say,

“Shakespeare created for them a story of taming at once enjoyable and deeply troubling.”

Since the actual taming involves deprivation of sleep and food and isolation from family and friends, Howard makes clear that these are “techniques akin to modern methods of torture and brainwashing.”

Of the four commentaries I read, this was easily and by far the most alarmist. And the writing, itself, the most lacking in personality. So far, the Norton introductions are on the academic/dry side of things. The other three commentators I am enjoying because of their unique approaches to the text.

Isaac Asimov: The Allusionist

I may change slightly my policy of saving the commentaries for after I read the play at least in the case of Isaac Asimov, who I am going to nickname “The Allusionist,” because of his delightful, tree-hugging approach to the text and making the outline of the story clear. He seems more concerned with illuminating the details of the plays than discussing the broad themes raised by them. He has a bent toward the nitty gritty and making connections. It might be more helpful to be have these details and connections in my awareness before I read the play.

For example, in the induction we meet the drunk named Christopher Sly who is a tinker. Asimov explains this is

“a profession lost to the modern world. A tinker was a solderer and repairer of kettles, pots, and other such household metalware, the name of the profession coming from the tink-tink of a small hammer against the utensil.”

He goes on to say this was a job for less skilled people, which is the reason “we now have the verb ‘to tink,’ meaning ‘to fiddle with, rather unskillfully.’”

But Asimov is not just concerned with etymology. He continually points out connections to Greek and Roman mythology. In the induction, Christopher Sly is addressed by the lord in disguise as a servant. The “servant” says:

“. . . wilt thou sleep? We’ll have thee to a couch
Softer and sweeter than the lustful bed
On purpose trimmed up for Semiramis.”

And then Asimov explains, “Semiramis is the legendary Queen of Assyria who had become a byword, among the Greeks, for luxury.” He includes a reference to Titus Andronicus where there is another reference to Semiramis (Act II, scene I, lines 21–24). Asimov’s knowledge of mythology seems encyclopedic.

Asimov is less helpful when discussing geography. At one point in the play Petruccio introduces his disguised friend, Hortensio, to Bianca’s father, Baptista. He says, “His name is Litio [a change of names to go with a change of identity], born in Mantua.” Asimov tells us, “Thus, another north Italian city is mentioned. Mantua is sixty miles southwest of Padua.” Okay, but part of me is clamoring for the “so what?”.

And when a traveling Pedant is asked where he is from, the Pedant answers, “Of Mantua,” which prompts Asimov to note,

“Mantua is sixty miles west [sic—a modest inconsistency as previously he said southwest] of Padua, so that if he has come to Padua from Mantua on his way to Rome, he has gone at right angles to his proper course. But then, he may not have come directly from Mantua.”

I think he’s overthinking Shakespeare’s geography, trying to make sense of things that might not make sense. The point is: “He’s not from around here” more than “Did he take Highway 101 or the 5 or 99 as he traveled North through California?”

I wonder if Asimov or I missed something in the dialogue. There is a scene where Petruchio asks his servant, Grumio, to knock at the door of his friend Hortensio:

PETRUCHIO   Verona, for a while I take my leave,
    To see my friends in Padua, but of all
    My best belovèd and approvèd friend,
    Hortensio. And I trow this is his house.
.     Here, sirrah Grumio. Knock, I say.

GRUMIO   Knock, sir? Whom should I knock?
    Is there any man has rebused your Worship?

PETRUCHIO   Villain, I say, knock me here soundly.

GRUMIO Knock you here, sir?
    Why, sir, what am I, sir, that I should knock you here, sir?

PETRUCHIO   Villain, I say, knock me at this gate
    And rap me well, or I’ll knock your knave’s pate.

When I read this, I think Grumio is just being difficult in a playful, sarcastic way. He is intentionally “not understanding” Petruchio’s command to beat on the door and replies with, “Who do I need to beat up? Beat you up, sir? No. Never.” And Petruchio follows up with, “I will beat you if you don’t knock on the door.” Isn’t this just a little comedic bit?

Could Asimov perhaps be a little too literal to miss the sarcasm? He writes,

“[Petruchio] orders Grumio to knock at the gate, but Grumio take him to mean to strike Petruchio himself, and refuses.”

Asmimov delves into some psychology and offers an explanation of Kate’s shrewishness:

“Katherina is a girl who desperately wants love and who doesn’t know how to go about getting it. She lacks the natural charm that is so often visible in a quiet, simpering girl, and the fascination that goes with a spirited temper is somewhat less obvious.”

His explanation of Petruchio’s “cruelty”:

“Thus, by bending Katherina to his will, Petruchio has used a temporary brutality to force the girl to accept what most in the world she has longed to accept—the love of a man. Now, and now only, she can be content.”

Not sure his is my favorite explanation of what’s going on between Petruchio and Katherina, but I do like that he doesn’t feel the need to correct Shakespeare.

Marjorie Garber: The Contextualizer

Marjorie Garber is about both the forest and the trees. She is just fine getting into the details, but is select in what she chooses to highlight in the interest of making a broader point—connecting those details to other plays or placing them in a larger context.

One impressive passage in her essay on the Shrew outlines “the inevitable logic of comic discovery” that is part of the Shrew, but is also present in The Comedy of Errors, another early comedy. Basically, Here are some things that Shakespeare does in more than one play… She describes three episodes in the Shrew that have parallels in The Comedy of Errors:

1. “The traveling Pedant is told, quite erroneously, ‘ ‘Tis death for any one in Mantua / To come to Padua,’” which is why he is persuaded to pretend to be Lucentio’s father. “This device, trivial and incidental in Taming, is the opening gambit of The Comedy of Errors, where it is no joke: Egeon, a Syracusan merchant apprehended in Ephesus without ransom money, faces the apparent certainty of death by beheading at sundown.”

2. “[T]he comic confrontation of the two ‘Vincentios,’ one on either side of a door (5.1), mirrors a similar encounter between the twin Dromios of Errors, each unaware of the other’s identity.

3. A third connection between the two plays “is the link between the Bianca plot and the Kate plot, for in The Comedy of Errors, Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, is similarly characterized as assertive, ‘rough,’ and outspoken, and is paired, and contrasted, with a milder, more compliant and conventional sister, Luciana.”

I also appreciate Garber’s understanding of the big picture, particularly in her willingness to lay out some ground rules for understanding Shakespeare. In a discussion of “whether the play is ‘meant’ to be experienced from Kate’s perspective or from Petruchio’s,” she writes,

“There is, of course, no way to know Shakespeare’s ‘intention,’ a will-o’-the-wisp that has led many commentators astray. What is more important here is to remember that stage plays, unlike novels, memoirs, or lyric poems, have no single point of view, and no narrative voice. The play can be entered from many different perspectives . . . Indeed, it is one of Shakespeare’s brilliant gifts as a dramatist to provide in almost every case, a credible contrary argument, onstage, to what might seem to be a prevailing viewpoint.”

This is important. The tendency is to say either, “Shakespeare said …” Or, with the Shrew, “In Petruchio, Shakespeare tells us he is into the subjugation of women.”

Garber places things in context. She has one passage, too long to quote, that sort of makes the case that we need to let Shakespeare be who he was without trying to correct him with our modern understanding and sensibilities. She notes that considerable discussion of Jews and anti-Jewishness will be part of her discussion in The Merchant of Venice. For this play she says,

“Questions of women’s rights, women’s independence, and cultural and political feminism arising long after the initial writing and staging of Taming will, inevitably, have changed the expectations and responses of audiences—and of actors.”

That seems like a fair approach rather than wishing Shakespeare was different than he is. Still, regarding Kate being given to Petruchio in marriage, Garber believes “that these two characters not only are well matched but are actually enjoying themselves.”

So far she is my favorite guide through these plays.

Harold Bloom is the most entertaining, though.

Harold Bloom: Zeus

As a critic, Harold Bloom is Zeus. Demi-critics will say what they want to say, but Bloom, high atop Olympus, isn’t afraid to declare how it really is.

As with both Asimov and Garber, rather than an example of some form of injustice, Bloom sees a “mutual triumph” for Kate and Petruchio, “who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare (short of the Macbeths, who end separately but each badly).” That will grate on some.

To begin with the end, Bloom sees an opportunity for each character: “Petruchio gets to swagger, and Kate will rule him and the household, perpetually acting her role as the reformed shrew.” Bloom claims the “authentic shrew” is actually the “insipid” Bianca and that Kate is “[b]adgered into violence and vehemence by her dreadful father.”

For Bloom this play is a love story. “The amiable ruffian Petruchio” rescues Kate who acts “outwardly furious” but is “inwardly smitten.”

Bloom suggests in spite of whatever sufferings she experiences at the hand of Petruchio, Kate “has only one true moment of agony, when Petruchio’s deliberately tardy arrival for the wedding makes her fear she has been jilted.”

It’s good to note that while Kate slaps Petruchio early on in their dialogue, he never strikes her.

Bloom declares, “There is no more charming a scene of married love in all Shakespeare than this little vignette on a street in Padua:

KATHERINE   Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.

PETRUCHIO   First, kiss me Kate, and we will.

KATHERINE   What, in the midst of the street?

PETRUCHIO   What, art thou ashamed of me?

KATHERINE   No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.

PETRUCHIO   Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.

KATHERINE   Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.

PETRUCHIO   Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate.
.     Better once than never, for never too late.

Bloom then adds,

“One would have to be tone deaf (or ideologically crazed) not to hear in this a subtly exquisite music of marriage at its happiest. I myself always begin teaching the Shrew with this passage, because it is a powerful antidote to all received nonsense, old and new, concerning this play.”

Katherine has a long monologue at the end of the play where “she is advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience.” Petruchio’s response to the speech is this:

Petruchio     Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.

Bloom concludes his essay by saying,

“If you want to hear this line as the culmination of a ‘problem play,’ then perhaps you yourself are the problem. Kate does not need to be schooled in ‘consciousness raising.’”

Well, there it is.

10 Things I Hate About You

It’s been quite a while since we watched 10 Things I Hate About You.

The explanation that accompanies the PG-13 rating is worth noting: “For Crude Sex-Related Humor And Dialogue, Alcohol And Drug-Related Scenes, All Involving Teens.”

The thing is, this movie is totally inappropriate and yet completely in the spirit of Shakespeare. I found myself really enjoying it and then feeling a little guilty that I was enjoying it.

This really is a fine production—a modern interpretation of the story. Set at Padua High School, the two sisters, Kate and Bianca “Stratford,” are, in broad strokes,  just like the sisters in the play. However, the writers give us more back story to the characters than Shakespeare does. The Stratford sisters lost their mom years ago and part of the reason Kat is the way she is comes from that time in her life. Over the course of the film, the relationship of the sisters develops from mutual disdain to mutual concern and cooperation.

By watching this film, you won’t know The Taming of the Shrew in its particulars, but you will understand it in its spirit.