Why, there’s a wench!

It can be easy to overlook the fact that texts hundreds of years old can be controversial.  Non-religious texts, that is!  But having seen a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew this week, in the beautiful grounds of St. Augustine’s Abbey, it would be foolish to pretend this isn’t the case.  You could actually feel the tension in the audience rise as we approached the rather sticky conclusion of the play, particularly the husbands nervously wondering how their wives would react to Katharina’s final speech.  Even if you don’t know the play, you probably know of the speech, particularly this bit:

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war when they should kneel for peace
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway
When they are bound to serve, love and obey
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?

Place your hands beneath your husband’s foot,
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease

It’s not really an easy pill to swallow, is it?  ‘Let your husband walk all over you.’  Not a message I’d like to give to anyone.  But of course, it’s not quite so simple.  In theatre, the text is only part of the equation, and whether the dramatist likes it or not, the director, the actors and even (to a lesser, though also more complicated, extent) the audience can have as great an influence on the play’s meaning and tone as the words do.  In this particular case, there are various ways of playing the scene or interpreting the action which make the ending far easier for modern audiences to accept.  Whether you should do so is a different question entirely, which I shall dodge around and leave for others.

The wager.  During the play’s final scene, Petruchio makes a wager with two other newlyweds, to see which of their wives will return from another room at their husband’s command.  The two supposedly sweet and gentle wives do not comply – one says she’s busy, and the other very wisely feels that the men are probably playing a joke on her.  However, Katharina, Petruchio’s supposedly shrewish and intractable wife, returns immediately upon being asked, and Petruchio wins the wager.  There’s a large part of me that thinks the other two wives were right in their actions, despite costing their husbands a hundred crowns each, but there’s a part of me that things Katharina’s reaction is the right one, and one that both husbands and wives could strive for.  If Mrs Smith asks Mr Smith to take the rubbish out or do the washing up, wouldn’t it be nice if he just did it?  As long as the request is reasonable, of course!

Something struck me in this particular production which had never struck me before – is it possible that Petruchio and Katharina cooked up this wager in order to get one over on the other couples?  The bet is a most odd one and not the sort of thing you’d expect someone to come up with on the spur of the moment, so that’s entirely possible.  It would certainly place the whole sequence of events in a different light, with the couple having fun at everyone else’s expense.

The speech.  This week was the first time I think I’ve seen that speech performed as though the character really, really means it.  I’ve seen it delivered sarcastically, and I’ve seen it delivered straight, but with a knowing wink to the audience, and I’ve also seen it delivered as a private joke between Katharina and Petruchio.  How the words are said is as important as the words themselves.  But in this production, she really seems to mean it.  But has she really become Petruchio’s unthinking slave?  I don’t think so.  She has certainly been tamed, but she is no docile lapdog.  She now has a different (and much more effective) way to get what she wants. If war and diplomacy could have the same result, why would anyone ever opt for war?  I believe that Katharina knows that Petruchio will not walk over her hand and that this is a symbolic gesture of her trust in him.  If he is wrong about something that matters, she will no doubt tell him so, but what does it matter if he chooses to say that the sun is the moon?

I may well be misguided on all of my thoughts about this scene (I suspect that my male gender could skew my interpretation, if nothing else), but I think it is more interesting and less appalling than people give it credit for.  I also happen to think that Petruchio, although a fantastic character, is a truly horrible man.  How his friends, servants and family stand him, I simply do not know.  I’d rather take Katharina’s scolding than his pomposity.

    • Teuchter
    • August 20th, 2006

    Interesting thoughts, SL.

    Going off at a tangent……….

    I’d hope Mr Smith would recognise that the bin needed emptying and the washing-up needed doing – without being asked.
    It’s very tiresome for Mrs Smith to be constantly playing the roles of director or plaintiff.


    I’m reminded that in fishing villages women used to wait for their husbands coming home from sea and carry them on their backs from the boat to dry land.
    There was actually a lot of sense in this. If the man’s clothes got wet they’d take forever to dry and he wouldn’t be able to put to sea again.

  1. You are very right, Teuchter, but my experience of observing married couples shows that this is a very rare thing indeed. The ideal Mr Smith would indeed see that something needed doing. A pretty good Mr Smith would respond when asked once. I tend to feel that men who get nagged generally have themselves to blame!

  2. I have never read or seen the play, so perhaps I shouldn’t comment. However, the problem with the speech, and perhaps the play as a whole (although as I said, I haven’t seen it so I don’t know), is that it is a rare man (or woman) who would actually think about the various interpretations of the speech, as you have done. It’s more likely that it would be taken at face value, and either make men feel that it’s ok to rule over women and/or make women very angry.

    I may have missed the point. I must have my feminist hat on today, sorry.

    I do agree with you that people shouldn’t need to be nagged, but then again, a husband or wife shouldn’t turn into a slave who answers their spouse’s every beck and call. Conversely, a spouse shouldn’t become someone who is so used to getting the other person to do what they want that they become a domineering slave driver. I suppose the key is to get the balance right. Thinking of the other person before yourself is probably a good start, although not always so easy in practice.

    I like the idea that Katharina has evolved a more effective way of getting what she wants, and that she’s recognised that there are better ways of doing things than those she previously employed. I think this says a lot about how people have to learn to live with different personalities, particularly within a marriage – preferably without losing their own identities.

    The point you made about K trusting that her husband wouldn’t walk over her hand is a good one, and one that could be related to the Christian idea of the submission of wives to their husbands – i.e. in an ideal marriage a wife should submit to her husband knowing that he won’t take advantage of his position. Unfortunately, I feel that this ideal is not particularly easy for human beings to achieve! But that’s a whole can of worms I probably shouldn’t open…

    I apologise if I have written anything stupid, which would be obviously wrong if I had read or seen the play, or that you think is just plain wrong anyway!

    Regarding your response to Teuchter – if only there were more men who felt the same! ( =

  3. Soeaking as someone who has always been single, I think it’s amazing that people manage to make marriage work at all. Lots of compromise, trust, undersanding and forgiveness are necessary, at least from my perspective as an outsider.

    I detect no stupidity in your comment!

    It is much easier to take the speech at face value when it is read than when it is performed, due to the interpretation of the actress playing Katharina. If she does the sarcasm or the wink, then the audience is forced to take it in some other way, though any director or actor who believes they can predict exactly how an audience will react is, quite honestly, a fool.

  4. Having been married for the whole of six months, I can confirm that lots of compromise, trust, understanding and forgiveness are necessary! (In my case it’s usually Mr C having to be understanding and forgiving of me). I have always been amazed that any sort of (hopefully) permanent relationship between two people works at all, human nature being what it is! Happily, though, it does work on occassion. We just visited Mr C’s grandparents and they’re a very good example of this.

  5. I always found “Taming of the Shrew” a deeply uncomfortable play. I did see a wonderful version at the Globe, with Katherine Hunter as Katerina. She played the ‘I am ashamed that women are so simple’ differently again. She is clearly winding Petrucchio up – she keeps pausing, making him panic, she sits on his knee and ruffles his hair, snatches the glass he’s about to drink out of and takes a swig, and when she kneels down to put her hand under his foot, he goes to rest his foot on it and she snatches it away at the last second and laughs at him before putting it back and letting him rest his foot. It’s clear they planned before-hand for her to act all meek for the sake of the bet and now she has found a very good way to ‘pay him back’ for all the tormenting he did earlier. Hilarious, but doesn’t bode well for the peace of their marriage…

    S and I have been together for thirteen years or more. One thing we learnt quite early on, and rather the hard way, is that you do not, MUST not, take your partner for granted. Ever. On any subject. It’s so easy to do – assume they’ll agree to cook, do the shopping, pay for something, have sex, not have sex, want to watch Star-Trek, vote the same way they did last time, always bring you tea in bed… the list is endless. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big thing or a little thing. Always ask nicely, say thank you, always be polite and appreciative, always woo your partner. People can drift into treating each other with less consideration, affection and romance than they treat everyone else. It should always be MORE. It’s hard work, but it is so worth it.

    (S is cooking me dinner as I type, even though it’s my turn, because my back is sore. I didn’t even have to ask. He just started cooking. I am now going to tell him he’s a treasure and I love him).

  6. I find the Merchant of Venice more uncomfortable than Shrew, but as a male, I suppose that’s fairly inevitable. It takes an astonishing actor to get Shylock to be anything other than a monstrous stereotype – an eloquent monster, but a monster nonetheless. And the behaviour of the Christians! Truly awful.

    And I think it’s fascinating that a post which was prompted by my thoughts on different ways to interpret drama has spawned such an interesting string of replies about marriage. The married couples that I know are quite astonishing and I think that hlding an intimate relationship together is one of the most amazing things a person (well, two people!) can accomplish,. It is so interesting to hear people articulate what it means.

  7. Merchant of Venice is indeed a whole ‘nother level of discomfort. Heck, I’m Jewish myself. I always see Shylock as being forced to be a monster – everyone has treated him as a monster for so long he has no idea any more how not to be one.

    (And to link it back to the marriage theme – my husband isn’t Jewish, and my father had to be taken away and talked to quite sharply the night before my wedding. He’d been threatening to refer to himself as Shylock in his speech, which would make me Jessica, nicking all his money and running away with a Christian. My mother decided that as jokes go, it was going out).

    A lot of people, married or not, seem to take marriage for granted (and who see it as boring/staid/a cop-out in some way). It’s good to talk about it with people who don’t.

  8. Reed, what you say about not taking your other half for granted is so right. Even after a short time as a married person it is already getting easy for me to assume Mr C is going to do something for me, because he always does it, and I need to make sure I don’t take him for granted in this way. Thank you for your wise advice!

  9. How did I manage to do half an English degree and not read either The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice? Possibly because I was a bad student and didn’t read all the plays for the Shakespeare module (and did deservedly badly as a consequence). However, I know enough about TMOV (sorry for the acronym!) to know that I’d find it quite difficult to sit through a performance without cringing horribly at the awful behaviour of the Christians and the terrible stereotype of Shylock. Maybe I have subconciously avoided it for this reason – although it’s probably more likely that I was too lazy to read it!

    (Sorry I’ve gone off topic a bit, and not said anything worthwhile to boot!)

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