Part 2 — To love or not to love Shakespeare? Or, what do we do with a broken Bard, not to mention the cognitive dissonance?
If you haven’t read Part 1, catch it here: Part 1 — To love or not to love Shakespeare?
Side Note — This is a longish post, but if you hang in there ’til the end of Part 3, there’s a special treat there for you. Yes, I’m bribing you because I think there are some good points you’ll want to consider.
I instinctively turned to fairy tales in an attempt to resolve my love/don’t love relationship with Shakespeare. Why?
Well . . .
It’s the enchantment factor. Shakespeare enchants, charms, and mesmerizes me. So do fairy tales. Both of them trample all over my heart and then put it back again with renewed anger at the injustice. And perhaps it instills more compassion and renews the desire for change. (Although I must admit I say f**k in frustration and amazement at injustice much more often than I ever did.)
Beyond that, I decided to take a look at Will’s The Taming of the Shrew (his most misogynist, sexist, and chauvinistic play — and I’ve got lots of company in thinking that) to see if I could find any fairy tale qualities in it.
And I did.
(If you need a review of the play, I posted links to a written and a video summary in Part 1, which I noted at the start of this note.)
First, though, my eyes were drawn to my bookshelves. Specifically to a book nearly two and a half inches thick. Silver spine with blue lettering and embellishments of white. Spells of Enchantment: the Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture, edited by Jack Zipes.
Jack Zipes is a specialist in folklore, fairy tales, and children’s literature. He’s been at this a long time and has studied and written extensively on these topics.
Spells of Enchantment was published in 1991, and I think I acquired it about that time. Maybe a couple of years after that.
I pulled the book off of the shelf and dug right in to refresh my memory. It’d been a very long time since I’ve read any part of it. I began with the Introduction and was reminded that oral fairy tales, which were generally told by adults to adults, have been around for thousands of years. However, they weren’t written down (did not become literary fairy tales) until the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Shakespeare wrote Taming in 1592–1593, so that certainly puts it in the timeframe of literary fairy tales.
Further in the Introduction, I was surprised (but not really) to read:
“There are fairy tale elements in . . . many of Shakespeare’s plays, such as King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest.”
Aha! There it is. Taming contains fairy tale elements. That came straight from the pen (or keyboard) of the expert.
But what are these eight elements and how many of them run through Taming?
Being the weirdo nerd that I can be, I took a closer look at Taming and the eight basic “fundamental and constant components,” as Zipes calls them, of fairy tales, looking for evidence of each within the play.
I found that while Taming is not a full-blown fairy tale, it does contain six of the eight components. This gives a strong fairy tale tone to the play.
So let’s go through each of the elements Zipes cites and see whether there’s evidence of them in Taming. Buckle up. We’re going on a scenic journey through this comedy.
1. The protagonist is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition, which he or she violates in some way.
In Taming, Petruchio faces the prohibition (which he sees as a challenge) of winning Kate’s love. What makes the task prohibitive is the well-known fact by the townsfolk that Kate is a shrew, a nagging and ill-tempered woman. Kate’s father, Baptista, knows of his older daughter’s reputation and as a result will not allow his younger daughter to be married before the elder Kate:
Gentlemen, importune me no farther,
For how I firmly am resolved you know,
That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder (1.1, 48–51).
In addition, Hortensio confides this common knowledge of Kate’s shrewness to an unsuspecting Petruchio:
Her only fault — and that is faults enough —
Is that she is intolerable curst
And shrewd and froward, so beyond all measure
That were my state far worser than it is,
I would not wed her for a mine of gold (1.2, 87–91).
Petruchio’s motive (marrying for money) does not decrease or increase the prohibition. It is a prohibition regardless of motive.
So here we have the first requirement of a fairy tale, as Petruchio faces the prohibition of wedding and taming a woman no one wants.
2. Departing or banished, the protagonist has either been given or assumes a task related to the interdiction or prohibition. The task is assigned, and it is a sign. That is, the protagonist’s character will be marked by the task that is his or her sign.
Petruchio declares his intention to tame Kate as he says of her:
I know she is an irksome, brawling scold;
If that be all, masters, I hear no harm (1.2, 187–188).
In a monologue, Petruchio also details his strategy for the taming:
Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plan
She sings sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly washed with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word,
Then I’ll commend her volubility
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks
As though she bid me stay by her a week (2.1, 170–178).
Not only does Petruchio take on the task of taming with deliberate thoughtfulness, but he displays wholehearted interest, spirited enjoyment, and kindness. If his plan backfires, if he fails in taming Kate, he can at least be certain his good reputation remains, at least with us. Knowing that Petruchio will be kind in the face of Kate’s shrewdness, we will continue to think well of Petruchio. His character will be marked by the kind manner he vows to use.
The second component of a fairy tale is met as the newlyweds depart Padua for Petruchio’s home in Verona immediately after the wedding, although to Kate’s displeasure.
The psychological torments (the gaslighting) Petruchio uses to “tame” Kate have begun and the most time-consuming phase of her ordeal is about to begin.
3. There is an encounter with a) a villain; b) a mysterious individual or creature, who gives the protagonist gifts; c) three different animals or creatures, who are helped by the protagonist and promise to repay him or her; or d) three animals or creatures who offer gifts to help the protagonist, who is in trouble. The gifts are often magic agents, which bring about miraculous change.
In this third component of a fairy tale, points b, c, and d do not apply in Taming. There are no mysterious individuals or creatures in threes who repay or assist Petruchio.
There is, however, a villain. Well, sort of. Kate’s actions may or may not be considered villainous, but she is certainly headstrong and impetuous. Her behavior presents a problem when it comes to interpersonal relations with others, and certainly with her husband. There are numerous difficult encounters between Petruchio and the challenging Kate. The most notable appear in Act 1, Scene 2 (the introduction of Petruchio to Kate); Act 2, Scene 1 (Petruchio’s initial wooing of her); Act 3, Scene 2 (the wedding day); and Act 4, Scenes 1 and 3 (violence to servants and withholding food and sleep from her).
4. The endowed protagonist is tested and moves on to battle and conquer the villain or inimical forces.
Petruchio, though not endowed with magical gifts, is simultaneously tested by and does battle with the shrew (by loose definition, the villain): his own wife. On the wedding night in his home, Petruchio applies the strategies he previously explained and outlines his hopes for conquering the villain:
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ’tis my hope to end successfully….
She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I’ll find about the making of the bed,
And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets.
Aye, aid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverent care of her,
And in conclusion she shall watch all night.
And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl
And with the clamor keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor (4.2, 182–183, 191–203).
Kate’s conduct — her words, actions, and manners — are the inimical forces (“her mad and headstrong humor”). They are the embodiment of jealousy of her sister Bianca. Kate is jealous of her sister, who is soft-spoken, sweet, obedient, unassuming, and has attracted several suitors and will probably be married soon. She resents that their father Baptista shows favoritism toward Bianca. Perhaps a classic case of sibling rivalry.
But still an inimical force.
To quote Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, “You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself.”
Kate rails against Petruchio and everyone, really, because of jealousy. She wants what Bianca has but can’t seem to get out of the hole she’s dug for herself.
So time and time again, Petruchio is consistent in the way he treats his villainous, mislead, jealous wife. He never wavers, but makes certain his words are consistent and kind (although his actions of withholding food and sleep are hardly acceptable) each time he asserts his will over hers.
The fourth component of a fairy tale is met.
5. There is a peripety or sudden fall in the protagonist’s fortunes, which is generally only a temporary setback. A wonder or miracle is needed to reverse the wheel of fortune.
Although Kate’s taming is a process in which she shows gradual improvement, at no time is there a sudden fall in Petruchio’s luck with the task. This fifth component of a fairy tale does not appear in the play.
6. The protagonist makes use of endowed gifts (and this includes the magical agents and cunning) to achieve his or her goal. The result is: a) three battles with the villain; b) three impossible tasks that are nevertheless made possible; or c) the breaking of a magic spell.
It’s not clear if component six can exist without component five. In other words, how does a protagonist make use of an endowed gift to win a situation that does not exist? It can also be argued that Petruchio’s cleverness and commitment to taming his wife are not endowed qualities (i.e., no individual or creature presented him with new techniques or tools).
Despite the question of the existence of a situation on which to use his endowed gifts, Petruchio is not assigned three impossible tasks. While there is no magic spell per se to break, there is a “spell” of another kind — Kate’s jealousy of her sister.
Nevertheless, Petruchio engages in a number of battles with the bitter Kate both before and after they are married. However, because this sixth component of a fairy tale specifically mentions “three battles with the villain” (and Petruchio and Kate fight more than three battles), The Taming of the Shrew does not contain this sixth fundamental component.
7. The villain is punished or the inimical forces are vanquished.
It can be argued that the “villain” (Kate) has been punished by Petruchio and has changed her behavior accordingly. The same for the inimical force (jealousy).
On the road to Padua to attend her sister’s wedding (Act 4, Scene 5), Kate demonstrates for the first time the results of her basic taming (or is it basic training?), which marks a victory for Petruchio. When Petruchio addresses Vincentio, Father of Lucentio, as “gentle mistress,” Kate speaks of him as a “young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet.” Petruchio counters by saying he hopes she has not gone mad, since Vincentio is “a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered…” Immediately and without prompting from Petruchio, Kate apologizes to Vincentio for the mistake she’s made. In other words, she willingly follows her husband’s lead, despite his obvious error. She doesn’t correct him but goes along with the untruth he’s fabricated then backtracks when Petruchio calls her out on it. The proof of Kate’s transformation is in the fact she made these statements of her own free will, without instruction or prompting from Petruchio. The harmful shrew has indeed been vanquished. (Barf!)
8. The success of the protagonist usually leads to: a) marriage; b) the acquisition of money; c) survival and wisdom; or d) any combination of the first three.
Having vanquished the inimical forces, which of the options above serve to meet this last aspect of a fairy tale? Petruchio’s success with taming Kate doesn’t lead to marriage (the two are already married). However, although Petruchio has already acquired her dowry, Baptista rewards him with additional money:
Now fair befall thee, good Petruchio.
The wager thou hast won, and I will add
Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns,
Another dowry to another daughter,
For she is changed as she had never been (5.2, 111–115).
It could also be argued that the third choice, survival and wisdom, is a byproduct of the taming. To survive, Kate has learned the ways of her new world. Hortensio and Lucentio give witness:
Hortensio. Now, go thy ways; thou has tamed a curst shrow.
Lucentio. ’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so (5.2, 188–189).
Petruchio’s accomplishment, which reflects on his character, has been sealed in a favorable light. His wisdom is acknowledged. And I would add that his life has also become easier without the shrewish behavior of his wife.
So there you have it. The eight constant components of a fairy tale and the evidence (or lack of) for each. While Taming is not a full-blown fairy tale, it does contain all but two of the ingredients of this archetypal story form.
And there’s one more aspect that for me is a flag at the beginning of a special story, and that is the use of a framing device.
Fairy tales and folk tales often begin with a “once upon a time” and end with a “happily ever after.” Whenever I read or hear “once upon a time” or a similar phrase such as “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” — you recognize that one, right? — it tells me I’m in for a suspenseful, important story worth paying attention to. “Once upon a time” signals the beginning of this cognitive structure, and “happily ever after” wraps it up.
I’ve always been a sucker for a frame story. We humans can sometimes be hooked easily.
Kate and Petruchio’s story is framed by a scene where a mischievous nobleman tricks a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly into believing he’s actually a nobleman himself. The real nobleman then has the play (Kate and Petruchio’s story) performed for Sly’s diversion. At the end of Taming, there’s an implied “happily ever after” when Kate demonstrates her compliance and obedience (Barf!) The play ends when Baptista, Hortensio, and Lucentio marvel at how successfully Petruchio was in taming his wife, the shrew (Barf again!). This is how the “happily ever after” is inferred.
Taming is, however, a complex story containing farce and a subplot. It’s definitely a commercial story of its time, steeped in the ways and the fashion of the time: the literary medium of transferring old oral tales to paper.
While many critics doubt the authenticity of Kate’s taming, interpreting the story as mostly fairy tale promotes believability of Kate’s metamorphosis and induces wonder, which is the realm and tone of fairy tales.
But that doesn’t really work for me.
Without a doubt, Petruchio’s conduct is unacceptable behavior. Withholding food and sleep from his wife in order to “tame” her? Nope.
Petruchio’s gaslighting of Kate, her succumbing to it, and the community approving of it is also a big Nope.
All of this triggers me, as I’m sure it triggers other people, or a least makes them uncomfortable or wonder “what the heck?”
Besides banning Shakespeare or teaching it with a healthy dose of chauvinistic analysis, what else can we do?
I’ll turn to Jack Zipes once again for an answer, or at least a clue.
For today I’ll end here and will pick up next with Part 3 (which won’t be nearly as long as Parts 1 or 2), where your reward for reading this whole thing awaits.
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