Saturday, June 07, 2008

Tying the knot

On how Kate Conquers:

The key point, I think, in Kate's transformation through submission into Katherina, is that she ties a knot - binding herself to Petruccio AND Petruccio to herself.

I am reminded of the knot garden - an Elizabethan fashion reflecting a harmonious complexity, man ruled, but natural. Originally planted with aromatic herbs used for cooking and in medicine, it had a domestic purpose - so too with 'tying the knot' (as we still say in England) - with marriage.

And marriage, not love, is the point of 'The Taming of the Shrew'.

Petruccio makes it very clear in his first appearance:

Antonio, my father, is deceas'd,
And I have thrust myself into this maze,
Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.
Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home,
And so am come abroad to see the world.

Unlike the 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' - who went not for love but education, and found love leading to marriage, Petruccio, as a consequence of his father's death, is now 'head' of the household - and in need of a wife. It is in a maze he seeks - indicating a complexity that belies the apparent rough crudity of the actual pursuit he undertakes. He is not poor (a point several critics and productions miss - although he seeks a wealth-bringing wife) - he has come to a place he knows and is known:

Verona, for a while I take my leave
To see my friends in Padua, but of all
My best beloved and approved friend,

so with single-minded determination, and with a knowledge of his 'self' that is important to understanding Katherina's conquest:

for I tell you, father,
I am as peremptory as she proud-minded;
And where two raging fires meet together,
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury

he sets about winning Kate's 'love'.

Two things are important - he knows, if he is successful, he will be changed - his fire will burn out, just like hers; and secondly, he is seeking an equal - who he is willing to treat equally. If he wants a big dowry - he offers equal - and assures her father of her security in the event of Petruccio's death:

After my death, the one half of my lands,
And in possession twenty thousand crowns.
And for that dowry, I'll assure her of
Her widowhood, be it that she survive me,
In all my lands and leases whatsoever.
Let specialties be therefore drawn between us,
That covenants may be kept on either hand.
If this sounds mercenary and loveless, it is not - it is the mechanics of arranged marriages. The 'covenants' bind both sides. A 'suitable' suitor is needed for a rich girl - a rich girl is needed for a rich husband - the knot tied with equal thicknesses of thread is stronger.

This knottedness, this interlocking is what Kate is signing up for when she submits at the end of the play.

Petruccio has said he will turn her from a wild Kate to a domestic Kate - but implied in that is a change in himself - he has come to wive it, after all.

Kate's speech of acceptance is not one sided - it lays duties on Petruccio.

When Katherina tells the widow:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor, both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;

it is a double edged sword - these are responsibilities, these are duties more than privileges. They reflect the society in which they were written and a view of the hierarchical relationships thought to be needed for safety, comfort and love - but that doesn't take away the point that marriage is about wrapping yourself and your partner in the sort of knot that takes an Alexander with a sword to unravel. Kate 'ties the knot' and Petruccio willingly submits.

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Ian Thal said...

I've seen a number of excellent productions of Taming of the Shrew in that the actors who play Petruccio and Kate capture both character's delicious grotesque nature-- but it's this understanding of marriage (and love's) place in Elizabethean society that seems to be missing and always makes the ending difficult to stomach.

Is it possible that our era's expectations regarding love, marriage, and gender roles are such that even if the subtleties of marriage are made more explicit the end will still rankle us, or can our improved understanding make us better appreciate the resolution?

Alan K.Farrar said...

I suspect the ending was 'controversial' even then - is the final line admiration or disbelief?

I see the cultural element always making a difference - there are some parts of the world where this view of marriage is the norm today.

And the final thing you've put in to my mind is the point that, until we accept people are allowed to have different views and different opinions from us - including religious and moral - then the ending is likely to remain unsatisfying for a large number of the modern audience.

As I've worked on the play this time I see Petruccio and Kate accepting the common humanity in themselves - of uniting in their difference - it's taken nearly half a century for me to actually understand that.