Kiss Me, Kate

The Taming of the Shrew, Act II

After jettisoning past readings – or misreadings – of the play, I now have no idea where I stand on anything – which is a pretty good place to be.

I have serious doubts now about Petruchio, especially in light of his designs upon Katherine’s family fortune.  He has come to Padua, he says, to “woo wealthily.  And if wealthily, happily.”  He has set his sites on Katherine even before having met her.  He believes that the prospects of gold offset any prospective difficulties with her catty disposition.

The sense I get so far, in fact, is more about the commodification of marriage than anything else, the negotiations that take place over dowries and standing – what it takes to win the right to a daughter’s hand from a calculating father.  Though I am touched by Baptista’s (Kate’s father’s) concern that Petruchio must first win her heart.

Indeed, the dialogue between the two aspiring lovers when they first encounter each other still gives me hope that appearances are deceiving. Along those lines, I must also resolve why Kate consents to marriage with Petruchio if she has any misgivings.  Her father so much as states that without her acceptance, there will be no betrothal.

Which leads me to the more difficult question of why Kate is a “shrew” to begin with.  What occurred during the backstory to make her so?  What did it take to initially piss her, the eldest daughter, off?

We get some clue in an odd scene between Kate and Bianca at the start of Act II when Bianca attempts to figure out which of her suitors has made Kate envious.  We understand it must be hard for the elder sister to watch Bianca heaped with praise and sought after by so many eligible men; she is considered the crown jewel, while Kate is relegated to being an impediment to Bianca’s social advancement.  But one also wonders – it’s nowhere in the text, yet still – if the circumstances might have been different had the girls’ mother been around?

In fact, Kate vents deep-seated anger at her father when she says:

KATHERINE: What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see

She is your treasure, she must have a husband,

I must dance barefoot on her wedding day

And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell.

With so much character below the surface, hidden in the subtext, it makes Taming a truly difficult play to analyze and explains why opinions vary all over the map.  One must posit conjectures and see if they are borne out by the text.  But wouldn’t a close relationship with the unseen mom partially explain why Baptista is so patient with Kate?  Why he will give anything to the man who can make her happy?  Or does he just want to get rid of her?

Frankly, I give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt here and elsewhere until proven otherwise.  He has earned that degree of trust from me – I’m not just granting it because he’s “Shakespeare.”  We have already seen in The Comedy of Errors – an earlier play than Shrew – that he makes a point of putting strong, passionate, opinionated women front and center.  Therefore, before I succumb to the misogynistic label that some bandy about, I am determined to remain open-minded until I am persuaded one way or the other.

That first exchange between Petruchio and Kate intrigues me.  Her anger spews, yet much sauciness gets expressed between the lines, sexual tension and frustration that can better be conveyed by actors than by merely reading it on the page.

Are both Kate and Petruchio changed by this encounter with one another?  Each has come in with entrenched expectations: Kate, that her reputation precedes her, that this will be yet another queasy suitor who’d rather be pursuing Bianca.  Petruchio has steeled himself for a wild bullride, but I think he’s pleasantly surprised by Kate’s wit and energy.  He craves the challenge.  But more than this, I believe that he begins to actually want Kate.

Now this puts me back on the romantic path. I must check myself here before declaring myself of any one particular opinion.  But I am reminded of a scene from a recent movie I love so very much.  It conveys a similar sense of determination by a man not dissuaded by the causes that have kept other wooers away.

Does this same spirit pervade Shrew?  Or maybe, alas, it’s just me.


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