The Taming of the Shrew: More than words could say…

If you read Katherine’s and Petruchio’s ping-pong banter about the sun and the moon, you’ll likely read her as puzzlingly submissive, given her spunky characterization at home.  But then when you see The Folger Theater’s production and witness how the director and actress interpret that scene, you begin to wonder.  It’s that age-old question: how do people with limited power subvert their oppressors?  More specifically, how do women self-actualize amidst patriarchal constraints?

For Kate, the answer is an uncomfortable one—through submission—or at least the illusion of submitting as the sun, moon, and eclipse repartee builds into the outlandishly “submissive” final speech about doing your duty to your husband. (See below.)

At the Folger, Kate Eastwood Norris delivers these lines with more than a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially since she’s just snatched the contest money from her husband’s hand.  Claiming that her hand should yield under his foot (like all good wives), she extends her hand—but not submissively for his boot to trample, but as if sealing a bargain that she’s making with her husband.  This is the game she’s taught him to play, first beginning with the sun, moon, and eclipse episode and ending with her last speech.  Belying her words, her actions proclaim her rules, which she trains her husband by:  I’ll act submissively in public, kissing you, obeying your commands, etc.; but in private, you and I know that I’m in charge just as much—or more so—than you are.  He learns fast, well, and appreciatively; for, ironically, he gains more money than he expected with his marital barter and gains bragging rights with the other husbands.  She also gains—more respect than she ever had with her mother and sister. But most importantly, together, they gain mutual fondness, even, love while still maintaining their shrewd, controlling natures.

When situations afford women little power and they protest, they’re often called shrews—or bitches.  When situations afford women little power and they acquiesce, they’re thought of as victims but not admired.  But when women with little power manipulate their situations using what seem like non-heroic strategies—like Harriet Jacobs—they are often denigrated.   We see that Lynda Brendt’s (the fictionalized version of Harriet Jacobs) sexual union with an African American free man enrages her slave holder and her grandmother, so much so that Lynda goes to great lengths to convince her readers that she has played the game better and not given in of given up.  She claims, like Kate portrays, that she’s seized the only power she has to gain the only control she can.  With this strategy, she ultimately creates a better life for herself and better relationships with her family.  Kate and Harriet can, basically, do nothing about patriarchy and slavery.  They can, however, as bed-and-boarded wife and as female slave, contrive strategies that prove if not triumphant, at least not defeated.

Let’s recall the second criterion of self-actualization: revolt against forced, unhealthy enculturation.  I contend that Kate does just that because she chooses to appear to be submissive, in fact, to such an extent that acting submissively becomes her controlling actions.  Hearing her proclaim that a woman’s hand should be poised under her man’s foot, Petruchio seems perturbed rather than pleased.  The speech sounds like a Promise Keeper’s anthem spoken by a duped and downtrodden woman.  Because everyone, including her new husband, has known Kate to be the opposite, they are baffled rather than delighted.  As audience to her spectacle, they admit that they don’t know this Kate.  Petruccho’s sun has become eclipsed by Kate’s moon as her shadow falls over him.  Even though in public, he wins the bet from the other husbands, in private, he loses the money to his wife.  Or rather, he gives it to her.  It’s not unlikely that they will share the money, perhaps, later conniving how to wager for more.  What I see at the play’s conclusion—despite the words spoken—is Kate’s shared control with Petruchio.  As both have established their power, both have learned to accept each other and their relationship.  By overindulging her participation in the olde game of man = protecting lord while wife = grateful liege, Kate has deluded her husband into a false satisfaction of his patriarchal control in order to establish her own share of power.  Rather than play the true submissive (or romance’s coquette), Kate prefers to self-actualize within a reciprocal partnership despite a patriarchal culture. In her own way, she revolts against unhealthy acculturation and contributes to a healthy relationship.  No shrew, but no victim, Kate self-actualizes as wife-partner, much to the pleasure of her dismayed husband.

Kate’s final speech…

Kate: Fie, fie, vnknit that threatning vnkinde brow,
And dart not scornefull glances from those eies,
To wound thy Lord, thy King, thy Gouernour.
It blots thy beautie, as frosts doe bite the Meads,
Confounds thy fame, as whirlewinds shake faire budds,
And in no sence is meete or amiable.
A woman mou’d, is like a fountaine troubled,
Muddie, ill seeming, thicke, bereft of beautie,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirstie
Will daigne to sip, or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy Lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy soueraigne: One that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance. Commits his body
To painfull labour, both by sea and land:
To watch the night in stormes, the day in cold,
Whil’st thou ly’st warme at home, secure and safe,
And craues no other tribute at thy hands,
But loue, faire lookes, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such dutie as the subiect owes the Prince,
Euen such a woman oweth to her husband:
And when she is froward, peeuish, sullen, sowre,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foule contending Rebell,
And gracelesse Traitor to her louing Lord?
I am asham’d that women are so simple,
To offer warre, where they should kneele for peace:
Or seeke for rule, supremacie, and sway,
When they are bound to serue, loue, and obay.
Why are our bodies soft, and weake, and smooth,
Vnapt to toyle and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions, and our harts,
Should well agree with our externall parts?
Come, come, you froward and vnable wormes,
My minde hath bin as bigge as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haplie more,
To bandie word for word, and frowne for frowne;
But now I see our Launces are but strawes:
Our strength as weake, our weakenesse past compare,
That seeming to be most, which we indeed least are.
Then vale your stomackes, for it is no boote,
And place your hands below your husbands foote:
In token of which dutie, if he please,
My hand is readie, may it do him ease.


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