He Hath Some Meaning in His Mad Attire

The Taming of the Shrew, Act III

I am doing my best to read Taming with objectivity – whatever that means.  But it seems to me that the interpretive gist of the play falls decisively in Act III. Specifically, in these fateful lines from Petruchio:

PETRUCHIO: I will be master of what is mine own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her, whoever dare.

Taken at face value, this speech condemns Petruchio – at least in modern terms, although not necessarily Shakespeare – as a misogynist.  But then when can we ever take Shakespeare at face value?

The BBC must have had a similar idea by casting John Cleese as Petruchio.  It’s utterly impossible for me not to hear these lines without a Monty Python spin to them, which is not to fault Mr. Cleese for his Shakespeare but rather to reinforce that casting is an interpretive act.

John Cleese as Petruchio

John Cleese as Petruchio

Indeed, the whole manner of Petruchio’s arrival at the wedding begs for explanation.  For he hasn’t merely shown up in the equivalent of a tux and tails (or whatever the bride and guests were expecting), but in the most outrageous garb imaginable.

Had Petruchio been satisfied merely to strike a financial coop with Baptista, Katherine’s rich father, all he really needed to do was go through the motions, say “I do,” claim his prize and ride off to treat Katherine from then on however he liked.  According to Medieval law and accepted convention, he would have had every right to do so.

We have seen in the negotiation phases of each courtship that in every practical sense they are financial transactions more than matters of the heart.  While Baptista will no doubt be relieved to get cantankerous Katherine off his hands by whatever taker, he first secures Petruchio’s standing and then insists, not because he has to, that Petruchio ought first win her heart.

Oddly enough, he does not insist upon the same conditions for his younger daughter, Bianca.  In the rivalry between Gremio and Tranio (disguised as Vicentio), Baptista declares flat out that he with the richest bid will win the prize.  Make an offer – get the girl.  It’s just that simple.

Or is it?  Shakespeare shreds the accepted practices of his day by exposing them to ridicule in the form of his absurd comic treatment.  Courtship has become such a ritualized dance by his day that it offers him ample opportunity to flout its ritualized norms.

That is, in fact, what I believe Petruchio is up to here.  His outlandish getup reminds me of a scene from Don Quixote.  Imagine the mindset it requires to enter a foreign city to confront your wife’s family and fellow citizens on your wedding day geared up like that.  It takes um, err, guts.  To say the least.

Petruchio makes a bold statement with his actions.  I believe they are meant specifically for Kate, though she does not yet know Petruchio well enough to decipher his behavior.  Here Shakespeare plays with the (sorry, guys) internality and externality of perception – subjectivity and objectivity – to show her that he doesn’t care about how outlandish their behavior appears.  Let people think what they want.  He won’t be trapped by the same suffocating cliches in which everybody else remains content to participate.

He’s reaching out to Kate and saying, “I’ll risk seeming a fool to others if you will.  Step out onto the ledge and we’ll leap out together.  But first, you must learn to read the same language.”  It is precisely these lessons in subjectivity upon which Petruchio now engages.

A long time ago, I learned that Albert Camus described love as “two against the void.”  While I haven’t been able to properly attribute this quote, it has nevertheless stayed with me as the most romantic of all definitions of love.

When Don Quixote tilts at windmills, he is mad.  But if only one other person sees the giants too, well…suddenly it becomes much different.  The more quirky our uniqueness, the harder the quest to find our perfect match, our soulmate, the one other person who looks upon the world and shares our zany visions of white rabbits, a baseball field carved into an Iowa cornfield, every leg of an upcoming U2 tour – or whatever.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what you see but that you see it together.  And I think that’s what Petruchio is beginning to do here, in this act.  He wants Katherine to abandon her reliance upon the convention that has failed her and to adopt a new language that they will develop together.  Let the world believe what it wants to believe.  Behind closed doors, they will reinvent the game from scratch.

So, okay, I am back to my old romantic interpretation.  But two acts still remain.

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