I don’t think I’m going to take my advice from Petruccio, exactly, but I do think The Taming of the Shrew definitely has something to teach me about marriage.
I’m just gonna lay it out here: My wife and I are going to be starting some couples counseling. Our relationship – especially our communication – needs some work.
THE PERSON OF THE PLAY*
HUGO, their dog
Location: Their apartment. The lady and lord are reading in bed before going to sleep.
[Loud thumps from apartment below]
LADY. What the hell? What are they doing down there?
LORD. Oh, lighten up.
LADY. Excuse me?
LORD. If we’re gonna live in a big city, we gotta get used to some noise.
LADY. But you complain about that noise all the time.
LORD. Yeah, but I’m trying to be less negative, like we talked about. I’m trying to adapt. The neighbors do whatever they’re doing every night at this time. I think they’re just doing bedtime routine stuff, closing cabinets in their bathroom and such.
LADY. I appreciate that, but you don’t have to be so mean about how you say it.
LORD. Always with this “mean.” Anything I say. Even when I’m trying to say it nicely.
LADY. “Lighten up” is your idea of nice?
LORD. You know, I can’t always filter what I’m trying to say. [Gets up from bed.] We are living in the world, language is going to happen.
LADY. I’m your wife. You can be nice to me.
LORD. I only said “lighten up.”
LADY. You’re not listening to me
LORD. No, I hear you, I just resent always being totalized as “mean.” [Exit HUGO]
LADY. You’re not listening to me.
LORD. I don’t think you’re listening to me.
LADY. I’m your wife. You can be on my side about things. Let’s just–
LORD. – it’s just some noise downstairs. [Paces] You’re so sensitive.
LADY. That’s so sexist.
LORD. “Sexist” is characterizing my whole person as “mean.” [Exit JOHN]
*Later editions of this play list the dramatis personae as:
HUGO, their dog
We resolved this argument, just as we’ve resolved so many others like it. Perhaps this disagreement seems pretty mundane, but we’re tired of having them. Here and there, fine. Conflicts are inevitable. But we really think we can do better as a couple. We want to do better.
So, as we start counseling, I thought I would open my yearlong project by reading The Taming of the Shrew. The play is centered on Katherine, told (by an older male, I should note) to go to “the devil’s dam” (1.1.105) – the devil’s mother, worse than the devil himself.
I think we both identify with her.
A quick summary is in order. Be advised: Some swearing is ahead.
The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy written by Shakespeare by 1592, at least. The main action actually unfolds as a play within a play. (Shakespeare, ever meta, would have owned postmodernism, I think. Some might argue he made it possible.)
“I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit”
The play opens with some nobles tricking this drunk guy, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is a lord. As part of their joke, they put on a play for him. (Classic prank. I used to get my buddies with this all the time.) In this play, various dudes, including a kind of creepy older one, want to marry the beautiful, well-mannered Bianca. But Bianca’s dad, Baptista, locks her up until his oldest daughter, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued Katherine feared and shunned by the men of the play, gets hitched. (That’s pretty fucked up, Mr. Minola.) Some of the suitors disguise themselves, acting as teachers, for example, or pretending to be a servant, in their efforts to win Bianca. Recruited by some other suitors, this Petruccio comes along and takes on the challenge of wooing Katherine. Basically, he “tames” her by out-shrewing her through reverse psychology, giving her a taste of her own medicine. They get married. (It all happens pretty fast.) So does Bianca, meanwhile, involving a subplot with some epic dowry negotiations and more identity changes. Having given up on Bianca, another suitor marries a widow. And Katherine, whom we see Petruccio whip into compliance, turns out to be the most obedient of all the wives.
I had read this play before (more on that in an upcoming post), but I don’t recall laughing as much the first time. There were a few one-liners that struck me as very modern.
First, when Sly awakes from his inebriated blackout, he is confused and then amazed. But all he really wants is another beer (this is how I feel when I go back home to Cincinnati for the holidays):
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker, nor Christopher Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o’th’ smallest ale. (Induction 2.70-73)
Second, later in the play, the character Lucentio, who wins Bianca’s hand in marriage after promising her dad a ridiculous dowry he can’t immediately guarantee, races off to church to seal the deal. One of his servants, Biondello, remarks on their hurried nuptials: “I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parsley to stuff a rabbit…” (4.5.23-24) This “wench” business aside, that’s a hilarious line. I could hear it from Dwight Schrute.
Finally, the war of wits between Katherine and Petruccio is extraordinary, particularly at 2.1.180. It truly demonstrates Shakespeare’s genius for wordplay. I swear, it’s like Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) in 30 Rock. As my wife characterizes their (Fey and Baldwin’s) relationship, “it’s insulting but also shows mutual respect.” The only difference here is some serious sexual tension between K and P, if the penis and vagina puns are any measure. They number high. The culmination of a run of puns, Petruccio punches: “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (2.1.214). Dayyum.
Theme-wise, The Taming of the Shrew is complex. By its end, historical identities and power dynamics, inverted throughout the characters’ various disguises, are restored. In her famous, closing monologue, Katherine waxes dutiful:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands,
But love, fair looks, and true obedience,
Too little payment for so great a debt. (5.2.150-158)
Once playing masters, servants resume servility. After falling asleep during the play-within-theplay, Sly, in some additional passages, wakes up and returns home, just a lowly drunk once again.
But I can’t help but think that all the role reversals and identity changes and social fluidity, along with moments of what seems to be matched wits and mutual respect between Katherine and Petruccio, calls into question the order of things in Elizabethan England. Is Shakespeare ultimately being ironic?
Still, those identities, while fluid, are restored…
We took a personality test, my wife and I, when I was just a few scenes into the play. It could not have been more apt. Amanda (that’s my wife) read an article in Real Simple which pointed her to a Big Five personality test online. This one’s pretty nifty, because you can rate another person, such as a spouse or sibling, as you rate yourself.
Here are our results:
You’ll note some disagreements. For instance, I rated myself as very Open to New Experiences; she rates me as much more Close-Minded. It looks like we agree to disagree, however: We both see ourselves and each other as Disagreeable (or froward, as the Bard might say).
Kate takes a personality test, too, so to speak. Or rather, the men of the play take it for her. In Elizabeth England, the Big Five was actually the Big Four: the four humors. Rooted in ancient philosophy, humoral theory believed that the four humors that made up the body – blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile – influenced human behavior. Each was associated with what we might call personality traits today: blood (sanguine), black bile (melancholic), phlegm (phlegmatic), and yellow bile (choleric).
Kate is choleric, the play makes clear.
There’s a point in Taming of the Shrew when Petruccio is making Kate’s life a living hell. He denies her food, for instance, by pretending it’s horribly cooked and not good enough for her. He berates the servants in front of her, too, as (we are led to believe) she herself would once have done, to make an example of her nasty temper.
Here, Petruccio tosses aside his mutton, castigates his servants as “heedless jolt-heads” (4.1.147), and tells her the meat was:
….burnt and dried away,
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger,
And better ‘twere that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such overroasted flesh. (4.1.151-156)
In other words, “we’re already pretty stubborn and strong-willed people. We’ve got too much yellow bile, and eating this overcooked meat will only add to it.”
Imbalances in the humors causes illness and explains temperaments. So, balancing out excesses was a key to health. (I think I should fast from meat for a bit.)
Which got me thinking. How do we think about personality today, especially when it comes to relationships?
In 2016, it’s not the shrew that’s the problem. It’s the taming.
Identity is so fluid in 2016. We can self-invent, much as we see the characters in Taming of the Shrew do. Popularly speaking, we saw this last year with Caitlyn Jenner. More controversially, we saw this with Rebecca Dolezal.
But I wonder sometimes if personality has become unassailable. If I’m a neat freak and don’t like leaving my comfort zone, for example, it’s up to me to find someone who will mesh wish that. OK. That seems kind of obvious. But does this close off serious reflection – and possible self-improvement – about how those attitudes affect my relationships?
We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.
So, in relationships, it can feel like changing your personality means selling out your authentic self – to compromise who you are, to let someone else control you. In a heated argument, something as mild as “You can be nicer” becomes an assault on one’s integrity: “Who the fuck are you to tell me how I should be?”
There’s no point in trying to re-juice an iPhone 4 with an iPhone 6 charger. Incompatible. Got to upgrade, get a new phone.
But as Amanda cautioned when I was reflecting on this with her, “We all risk ending up being our authentic selves – alone.”
And all this can make it feel like, when there are problems in relationships – or even if you aren’t always experiencing fulfillment and happiness all the time – you just haven’t found your soulmate.
Do our one-person cults of personality choke off meaningful efforts to improve ourselves?
You know, Amanda and I both had grandparents who were married to each other for over 50 years. Fifty fucking years. That’s crazy. We, meanwhile, argue about tone. But it’s easy to romanticize the past. The past didn’t hold the same possibilities for self as we have now. My wife’s the breadwinner in our family. I do, and enjoy doing, the chores. None of this challenges my masculinity. I embrace it.
Personality is not an entitlement.
But as identity is so fluid, as the social order shifts, it can be hard to know what to be, what to do with one’s life. (This, of course, is a crisis of privilege.) Nevertheless, this is why I think we cling to personality. The modern world can be so fragmented, so fast-changing. We switch majors, careers, lovers, spouses, friends, cars, phones, apartments, houses, cities. We don’t orbit the sun like a planet in some clean ellipse; instead, our lives are like an asteroid belt.
We need to know which Star Wars character we are most like to confirm who we are – or at least who we think we are. We need gravity, an orbit, a trajectory, else we burn up like a meteor in the atmosphere.
We thus face a veritably Shakespearean contradiction. We treat our interior personalities as stable (science actually largely backs this up) but our exterior identities as fluid (indeed, social roles are constructed).
This makes life confusing, stressful……or maybe I’m just being a controlling prick sometimes. These situations are not mutually exclusive.
The whole “taming” and “shrew” business is bad news by today’s standards, but Shakespeare’s comedy definitely shakes up my thinking about those arguments I have with my wife. My personality may predispose me to think and act in particular ways, but it is not an entitlement. What’s the harm in unknitting a “threat’ning, unkind brow” (5.2.140)?
Next, Henry V.