The Taming of the Shrew
2.1 (cont.):- from 242 (“Why does the world report…”):
The theme of role reversal which characterises the whole play continues as Pet.’s speech concludes – pretending that Kate’s (fictitious) reported physical failings were “sland’rous” (243) – yet Pet.’s compliments to Kate are also tinged with implied insults: her skin is “brown in hue” – unfashionable for a lady – while his demand to “see thee walk” is reminiscent of one seeking to buy a horse;
The notion of metamorphosis persists in the supposed interchange of Kate with the goddesses Diana (48-51);
Kate responds by dismissing Pet.’s “goodly speech” as coming from someone “witless”.
The lively, quick-fire ‘patter’ of insult and counter-insult that has characterised most of this duologue has lost its bite. The exchange has had the quality of a rehearsed ‘performance’ – since both are consciously acting out ‘roles’ that each has previously adopted as his/her individual character or persona.
However, Pet. clearly signals an end to their respective ‘performances’ with “And therefore, setting all this chat aside…” (257) – their “chat” has been merely a sort of verbal sparring – not unlike that of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado - which both have consciously understood and played out.
Pet. now baldly states the real ‘business’ of their meeting – to declare that the formalities of their marriage are agreed between himself and Baptista, together with Pet.’s determination to “tame” Kate, converting a “wild Kate” into a “comfortable … household” Kate – another metamorphosis which will accustom Kate to the role society has determined appropriate to her sex – that of ordering and governing the household – domesticity.
The arrival of Kate’s father, Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) draws confident assertions from Pet. and complaints from Kate that her father should want her married to a “mad-cap ruffian” (277);
Prematurely addressing Baptista as “Father” Pet. persists in attributing a completely different character to Kate than her actual one – modest and patient – and when Kate asserts that she will see Pet. “hanged” before she will marry him, Pet. counters by claiming that the two of them have agreed between them that she will be “curst in company” but loving and passionate when they are alone together so that “in a twink she won me to her love” (299) – implying that it was Kate who took the initiative.
All of this, of course, is quite consistent with the sort of role reversal widely practised at ‘festive’ times of the year when ‘misrule’ was sanctioned and even encouraged. It acted as a sort of safety valve, a time when wildness and unruly behaviour was officially permitted and was therefore, to that extent, ‘regulable’.
Pet. appears anxious that the marriage shall be conducted with some splendour and expense and so departs – apparently – to Venice where the finest and most fashionable “things” can be bought, seemingly determined that his wife shall wear only the best of her wedding day – preparations that contrast ludicrously with the reality on the wedding day itself.
Baptista is clearly anxious to formalise the betrothal with some speed – presumably before one or other has the chance to change his/her mind. The words “give me your hands … ‘tis a match” (307-308) are particularly important since according to English law at the time the taking of hands with the blessing of the bride’s father and before witnesses constituted a ‘pre-contract’ after which neither party could marry anyone else. Gremio and Tranio’s “We will be witnesses” confirms that – in civil law – Petr. and Katherine are now formally betrothed. The addition of the unnecessary “Amen say we” even bestows an additional quasi-religious authority to the ‘ceremony’.
I argue that this was the point at which Kate should have spoken vehemently against the match if she objected to it; the fact that she says nothing at all for 25 lines – 288 until her exit at 313 – suggests that she accepts it with more or less good grace. The point was made by some members that the Arden editor (Barbara Hodgdon) notes that such a contract required “the verbal consent of both parties” and as Kate says nothing the contract is not binding. This may have been the case ‘in law’ but in dramatic terms – and given Kate’s combative personality – I still maintain that silence implies consent.
Of course, in performance Kate could actually be physically restrained and prevented from objecting – after all, the pre-contract is proposed and concluded in just three lines of verse – but there are still four lines prior to Kate’s exit when she might have vociferously objected – and again during these lines she says nothing.
With the departure of Pet. and Kate – [separately] – Baptista’s anxiety about this hasty marriage arrangement is expressed in baldly commercial terms with Bap. adopting “a merchant’s part” and Kate herself represented in terms of merchandise, a “commodity” that loses value while it remains on his hands.
However, now that the eldest daughter’s marriage is (potentially) assured Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) can hope to woo Bianca. There is some mutual sparring around the widely different ages of the two rivals before Bap. swiftly tires of such talk and moves to resolve the issue.
Since “’Tis deeds must win the prize” (331) it becomes clear that Bianca is also regarded in strictly commercial terms – as a property that can be auctioned to the highest bidder.
The contest that ensues between Gremio and Tranio (335-87) is interesting because:
(a) The blatant bidding war is perhaps merely a deliberately exaggerated instance of the commercial interests that underpinned the marriages between many wealthy middle class families of the period – i.e. Shakespeare is satirising the practice, perhaps, through exaggeration…?
(b) Humour arises from the fact that while Gremio is desperately offering everything he has in all sincerity Tranio – having no property at all of his own – can always out-bid his rival. Does he just get carried away, forgetting that his master, Lucentio, will perhaps be called upon to honour the pledges made on his behalf…? It must be quite exhilarating for someone in Tranio’s lowly social position suddenly to have unlimited wealth at his disposal.
(c) As onlookers, it gives the modern audience/reader an intriguing glimpse into the household of a wealthy Renaissance merchant for whom conspicuous consumption – rather than aristocratic credentials – were a visible mark of his success.
Bap. has promised that the winner “Shall have my Bianca’s love” (333) – but ‘Bianca’s love’ is never a consideration – in fact, Bianca’s position is even worse than Kate’s – at least Kate knows who she is expected to marry; Bianca has yet to find that out.
When the two rivals are left alone (388ff) it is obvious that Gremio senses that there is a basic flaw in Tranio’s successful bid – he realises that no “old Italian fox” such as he presumes Tranio’s father to be would give such a young man all of his inheritance so that he was entirely dependent on the son’s charity for his own future wellbeing. [We noted the similarity between Gremio’s “…To give you all” (290) and Lear’s “I gave you all” when he is at the whim of his merciless daughters.
After Gremio has exited Tranio realises that although for the time being he has won the bidding war “with a card of ten” – i.e. he has bluffed his way to success as when a card game can be won with a low value card if the player is sufficiently clever – it will now be necessary to find a ‘father’ for his master, Lucentio, whom he impersonates, a father who can vouch for his master having control of such extensive wealth: i.e. someone must impersonate Lucentio’s father, Vincentio.
Each of the two youthful rivals for Bianca’s hand – Lucentio and Hortensio, disguised as lowly tutors – seek to win the affection of their pupil as they conduct a lesson.
Humour arises (a) from the fact that each suspects the other’s motives and is anxious not to allow the other enough freedom to conduct his wooing; (b) each thinks the other is a lowly scholar or musician of a class well below that acceptable for a woman of Bianca’s class whereas in reality each of them is actually a gentleman whose class would be acceptable to her father.
Hort. reminds his rival that music – as the earthly equivalent of the heavenly ‘Music of the Spheres’ – takes precedence over all other arts;
Lucen. is dismissive of the claim, regarding music as merely providing ‘light relief ’ after his own subject, “philosophy”, which he represents as being like the main course of a meal.
However, Bianca reveals herself to be very different from the timid, submissive creature we saw previously being bullied by Kate; it is now she who takes control, asserting her own individuality with “in my choice”, “as I please myself” and by declaring that she will “not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times” (16-20). Hort. is summarily sent to one side to tune his instrument.
Under the pretence of translating a short piece of latin (from Ovid’s Heroides) Luc. reveals something of his real purpose – though not his actual identity – and woos Bianca “as one disguised thus to get your love”;
Bianca – far from being the entirely modest girl previously assumed – willingly joins in the game, flirting with Luc. and, while maintaining a respectable distance (“presume not”), actually encourages him to pursue his wooing (“despair not”); she may choose to believe his protestations of love “in time” even though at the moment she mistrusts his motives.
Now she turns to Litio (i.e. Hortensio) who, irritated by the close proximity of his rival, urges him to stand further off.
Hort. immediately tries to get close to Bianca by claiming that he needs to start with the basics of music, teaching her the notes of the gamut (i.e. the notes of the hexachord – see attached document) in a unique method of his own.
She initially rebuffs this approach claiming that she is far more advanced in music than needing to learn the gamut.
Whereas Luc. had made no attempt to construe the latin but had merely inserted his own love phrases, Hort. cleverly uses the notes of the hexachord scale to convey his affection and love-sick state, expressing these in a written note which Bianca reads aloud – though not so loudly that Luc. can hear.
Bianca rebuffs this ingenious approach, claiming that she prefers “Old fashions” to “odd inventions” (77-78) but when called to help dress Kate’s chamber against the wedding the following day again gives her tutors some teasing encouragement, addressing them as “sweet masters both”.
Luc. leaves immediately but Hort. expresses his mistrust of his rival, suspecting that he is “in love” and proposing to “pry into this pedant”. At the same time he is disappointed in Bianca; if she is “so humble” as to give encouragement to the advances of such a lowly character then “Seize thee that list” (88) – i.e. ‘Let him who wants catch you’; Hort. will abandon his pursuit of her and look elsewhere. Note that “wand’ring eyes” and “ranging” suggest that Hort. regards Bianca as a woman of loose morals.
[This was as far as we reached on Wednesday. At the end of the discussion I distributed two documents: (1) extracts relating to this scene taken from an academic essay on the music lesson device in drama and elsewhere as a seduction stratagem together with a basic explanation of the hexachord scale (mainly for those with a musical interest); (2) an article from the Guardian detailing a variety of different and varied approaches to the play taken by a number of its directors. I suggested that members may care to have a look at this during the course of our half term break.]