Ponytail Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV
KATHERINA: ‘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.
PETRUCCIO: I say it is the moon.
KATHERINA: I know it is the moon.
PETRUCCIO: Nay then, you lie; it is the blessed sun.
KATHERINA: Then God be blest, it is the blessed sun.’
I so often say to students (usually when we’re looking at poetry) that you should ‘bring your baggage’ to a work. It’s one of the things that makes re-reading an unexpected joy, as you arrive at a familiar work with fresh eyes. The ‘baggage’ can, of course, be life experiences, or other works that you’ve read: regular readers will already know that I have a habit of conflating Caliban, Richard III and Frankenstein’s monster, to talk through a sympathetic lens about those three characters and the nature vs. nurture argument.
In this, I vividly remember being influenced by my dissertation tutor, Dr. William Stephenson, who encouraged us to be intertextual in our thinking wherever possible.
So. Nineteen Eighty-Four is ‘baggage’ I’ve been dragging round with me for about 35 years now. It usually lies dormant, subliminally influencing my worldview (it is THE book, as far as I’m concerned), but occasionally it breaks cover, and much like the telescreen in Winston Smith’s flat, barks at me in an iron voice which cannot be appeased or ignored, only followed.
The end of Act IV was therefore the place where John Cleese’s manic Petruccio (in the Jonathan Miller BBC adaptation) abruptly morphed into a frightening O’Brien-like figure – intent not just on holding a mirror to Katherina’s previous behaviour, but in grinding any prospect of self-identity and will into the dust. The steel that I saw at the end of Act III was being used for the merciless annihalation of his enemy.
It had all started rather more hopefully. Teaching at A Level seems to involve finding death and sex everywhere – I try to tell my students that this is all part of the fun, and indeed that back in the day, my own A Level teacher, Mrs. Rees (a woman much wronged by yours truly), had heroically attempted to convince me that EM Forster‘s A Passage To India was exactly the sort of thing a priapic seventeen-year-old ought to be interested in. She failed. Anyway, I dutifully enjoyed the ‘three-inch fool’ gag at IV.i.23, before deciding that we were already seeing a different side to Katherina.
She may not suffer fools gladly when it comes to men of her own station, and I can understand why, but a different attitude becomes increasingly evident when it’s the servant class who are being put upon. I saw it as early as Grumio’s tale of the happy couple’s journey:
‘…how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me’ (IV.i.68-70)
which justly confuses Curtis into remarking:
By this reckoning he is more shrew than she. (IV.i.76)
Petruccio more than lives up to the epithet when he arrives, delivering a litany of perjoratives to his hapless staff, amongst his faux-indignant rhetorical questions. It has to be testing even Grumio’s patience, after a drubbing from his master, to be then addressed as:
‘You peasant swain, you whoreson malthorse drudge’ (IV.i.115)
It’s a bit of a 1 Henry IV moment (there I go intertextualising again), but whilst Hal and Falstaff tend to trade insults, this feels distasteful for it’s one-sidedness. I’m siding with the little man, again.
When I photographed The Shrew at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival back in 2012 they played the implied water-spill at IV.i.141 for full physical comedy value:
… but reading the text, what really focussed my attention was Katherina’s defence of the unlucky servant involved:
PETRUCCIO: – You whoreson villain, will you let it fall?
KATHERINA: Patience, I pray you, ’twas a fault unwilling. (IV.i.141-142)
This modulated tone – certainly where the apparent ‘faults’ of servants are concerned, accelerates through the act, as Katherina finds herself in her own personal Room 101: deprived of sleep, food, and even, it seems, conjugal rites. I think we can all agree that she’s hardly likely to be in the mood for love, but it seems like a further deliberate insult that Petruccio, impliedly, doesn’t take her to bed on their wedding night. By the time the act ends, she is willing to swear that 2+2=5 …
I’m going to skip over the cutaways to Bianca’s wooers. I know! Maybe I was simply too ‘triggered’ by Katherina’s treatment, or perhaps I haven’t been engaged enough by that part of the story.
So, can I round up this amble through Act IV with anything hopeful? I think so …
This week, we looked at Mrs. Quasimodo by Carol Ann Duffy (‘we’ being me and my Year 12 class). Most of the class hadn’t read the poem before, and I always begin by reading our poem out loud. Another powerful nature vs. nurture poem, perhaps – another where, as we discussed, someone’s looks became their definition. In the poem, Mrs. Quasimodo is:
the village runt, name-called, stunted, lame, hare-lipped:
but bearing up, despite it all, sweet-tempered, good at needlework;
an ugly cliché in a field
… her assets feeling so much like consolation prizes. Why?
Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.
Better to be slim, be slight,
Your slender neck quoted between two thumbs;
And beautiful, with creamy skin,
And tumbling auburn hair,
Those devastating eyes;
And have each lovely foot
Held in a bigger hand
Then be watched till morning as you sleep,
So perfect, vulnerable and young
You hurt his blood.
Lots of solemn, thoughtful faces in a room full of young people being perpetually scrutinised on their appearance by a society increasingly like the one Orwell warned against. Like Frankenstein‘s monster. Like Caliban. Like Richard III?
I found something, in this scene, maybe ironically from Petruccio, to counter these ideas:
What is the jay more precious than the lark
Because his feathers are more beautiful?
Or is the adder better than the eel
Because his painted skin contents the eye? (IV.iii.174-177)
And this, of course, links to earlier thoughts on the nature of appearances in the play. I’m looking forward to the big reveal in Act V …
Line references refer to the Arden Third Edition, as ever. Where line references are not included, Shakespeare quotations are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org.