The Taming of the Shrew: Act II
Confession time …
I only ever wanted boys, and I have been lucky enought to have two fine sons. When my oldest son was born, I remember (despite it being half a lifetime ago) literally going weak at the knees for a moment, with joy at the big reveal. For the younger, the scan was, ahem, rather more obvious (sorry, Lewis!), resulting in a fist pump as soon as we left the room.
Why the preference?
Because I fully envisaged ending up like Baptista – absolutely run ragged, and on the verge of hysteria (as played by John Franklyn-Robbins in the Jonathan Miller 1980 production). I AM Captain “You’re not going out looking like THAT!” Having said that, when Baptista plaintively asks:
‘Was ever gentleman thus grieved as I?’ (II.i.37)
… I wonder if, like Lear, he’s an author of his own misfortune. It feels wrong to have favourites amongst your children, as a teacher, let alone as a parent. It’s also dangerous – if you do – to advertise the fact.
Not for the first time I find my sympathy lying with Katherina. With some justification, it seems, she accuses her father of favouritism:
‘She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
I must dance barefoot on her wedding day
And, for your love, lead apes in hell.’ (II.i.32-34)
It’s a complex sibling relationship that Katherina has with Bianca – there appears to be some potentially ugly jealousy going on, sure, but ‘Baptista’s treasure’ does come across as spoilt, unsympathetic and coquettish. Of course, Katherina’s not doing herself any favours by her manner – and perhaps this is the point of the play, as many commentators suggest: not that Petruccio tames her as such, but helps her to happiness by holding up a mirror to her contrary nature.
Speaking of contrary …
John Cleese, it has to be said, is made for Petruccio’s wonderfully absurd contrariness in the Miller version. There is a manic glint in his eye and a brusque, peremptory nature to his manner which bamboozles the men and women alike. How else – apart perhaps from realising Baptista’s desperation – can he extort such an extravagant dowry at about II.i.121? Arden glosses it at about £5,000, in an age when the best blacksmith might earn £6 annually, and when Ben Crystal suggests that £1 – at least at the time the first folio was published – (see Shakespeare on Toast) was the equivalent of 44 loaves of bread. I had some doubts about Petruccio’s avarice, but hey, we all have a price. In those days, a cool 800 years’ salary would have made me overlook almost ANYTHING! The shrew tamed by the shrewD, methinks.
It must, above all, be confusing for Katherina, for when has she ever been spoken to like this before? Petruccio helpfully gives us a taste of what’s to come:
‘I am rough and woo not like a babe.’ (II.i.136)
‘Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale’ (II.i.169-170)
The wordplay between the lovers sparkles – with perhaps less fire than between Richard III and both Anne and Elizabeth, but then, it feels in the latter cases as if there’s much, much more at stake. But it’s fun to see Petruccio repeatedly assault Katherina with the familiar, flirtatious, ‘thou’, where she keeps a haughty distance with ‘you’:
PETRUCCIO: ‘Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.
KATHERINA: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.’ (II.i.199-200)
Petruccio, like Richard, pushes his audacity into the blatant. He might as well be wearing a tee-shirt with ‘slap me‘ on it when he cheekily suggests where he belongs:
PETRUCCIO: Am I not wise?
KATHERINA: Yes, keep you warm.
PETRUCCIO: Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed. (I.i.267-269)
Petruccio seems equally contrary when Baptista returns. When he states that Katherina is curst it is but ‘for policy’ (II.i.295) it makes me wonder, again, if her action is simply a REaction to the way she has been treated: a consequence of nurture, not necessarily nature – cue intertextual links to Caliban, Richard, perhaps Edgar in Lear, and certainly to Frankenstein’s ‘monster’. Cue sympathy, too, here at The Boar’s Head. It seems to me that Petruccio has hit the nail on the head – her contrariness, like his, is simply a policy. In a play wher almost everyone has a mask or disguise on, the two eventual lovers are wearing the same one at the moment?
Is there anything left to talk about in this lengthy and slightly unwieldy one-scene act? I think it would be hard not to mention the slightly distasteful (at least through modern eyes) auction for Bianca, even if I don’t feel especially sympathetic towards her. I’m not much of an entrepreneur or a haggler, so I tried to put myself in Baptista’s shoes. Having lost an absolute fortune, getting rid of one daughter, perhaps it’s only natural to want to make a profit on the other?
It struck me that there is an apparent inconsistency in Baptista’s dealings. Is he on the very edge of hysteria, or is there something more subtle at play? One appears to be what my students are conditioned to call a companionate marriage, the other perhaps more akin to the kinship marriage for money, connections and power. When Petruccio declares his intentions, Baptista clearly makes Katherina’s consent part of the deal:
‘Ay, when the special thing is well obtained-
That is, her love, for that is all in all.’ (II.i.127-128)
Compare this with his later declaration to the other, more hapless, suitors of his younger daughter:
‘he of both
That can assure my daughter’s greatest dower
Shall have my Bianca’s love.’ (II.i.346-348)
It’s the reverse of what we might expect. Perhaps Baptista does have some feelings for Katherina after all, despite what she thinks …
All line references are to the Arden Third Editions of the text.