I’ve had the good fortune of being somewhat involved in the current RSC The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Lucy Bailey. In my programme note for the production, I’ve written especially about the bestial life and imagery of the play, which has come to seem to me to be epitomized by the pointy little face of a shrew. So much so, in fact, that I’ve been rather haunted by the image, which (even as I type) I can see quite vividly in my mind’s eye. There’s usually a reason for such intense susceptibility to anything in Shakespeare, or any other work of art for that matter, whether it’s a painting or something on the telly. To think of just WOMEN as shrewish would be unacceptable, but I’ve come to think that in this early play Shakespeare sees human life and love AS SUCH in animalistic terms—we’re told Petruccio is even more of a shrew than Kate is. I think, further, that, although this has its unflattering aspect, it’s essentially affirming. We ARE animals after all.
And, with that recognition, my nose wrinkles and phantom whiskers twitch involuntarily ….
But there is another provocative truth of experience which the play insists on. After a long history of sexual inequality and exploitation, we are very sensitive to the objectification of women. And rightly so, not least because we’re in some ways even more guilty of it. But Shrew sins and sins again in this respect and in a way that, surely, can’t but be offensive. It puns, for instance, on the name Kate and ‘cates’, another word for household effects. This provocatively equates Kate with other domestic possessions, like the car or the marital bed; and insinuates, by turning a proper name—and marker for individual identity—into a more generic thing, that one Kate’s as good as another….
Then Petruccio asserts,
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. (3.2.230-3)
We will instinctively bristle at the equation of wife and ‘goods and chattels’, not to mention ox and ass. As well as at his assertion of possession—particularly given the verbal echo of the tenth commandment as a prohibition of covetousness. And yet, a palpable if pragmatic poetry opens up in Petruccio’s speech here. His comprehensive association of Kate with everything he owns—his house, but also everything in it (‘my household stuff’); his barn and field, but also all the livestock that sleeps and grazes there—is as expansive as it is diminishing. And there’s an irreducible touch of romance when he says, finally, she’s ‘my anything’.
This suggestively positive quality to Petruccio’s possessiveness may make us wonder if we can finally root out objectification from human life and relationships.
For if, as I’ve said, we are animals, we’re also THINGS. And we live as things among other things. Julia Lupton’s philosophically ambitious book, Thinking with Shakespeare, is very good on the way Shakespeare reveals this most fundamental and yet occluded aspect of our lives.
Some things assist us, others resist; we sleep with some and we eat with others; some we hoard, while there are those that will always elude us. A fully specific description of our lives in these terms would be an extremely complex thing.
A full description of my relation to everything in my desk drawer would take a considerable while!
And, come to think of it, lots of the things in my desk drawer are in a shabby and decaying condition that’s difficult to admit without embarrassment because it reflects my life back at me in an unflattering way….
Shakespeare’s great description of Petruccio’s eccentric appearance on his wedding day resonates with this:
Why, Petruccio is coming in a new hat and an old jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice-turned; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another laced with two broken points; an old rusty sword ta’en out of the town armoury with a broken hilt and chapeless; his horse hipped – with an old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred – besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose in the chine; troubled with the lampas, infected with the fashions, full of windgalls, sped with spavins, rayed with the yellows, past cure of the fives, stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bots, weighed in the back and shoulder-shotten, near-legged before and with a half-cheeked bit and a headstall of sheep’s leather which, being restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been often burst, and now repaired with knots; one girth six times pieced, and a woman’s crupper of velour which hath two letters for her name fairly set down in studs, and here and there pierced with packthread. (3.2.43-62)
Both Petruccio and his mount are characterized here as assemblages of vividly specific, miscellaneous and also mutable objects. The knackered horse is a host to and compendium of crippling diseases. But the overall impression is of life as a positively wild hotch-potch of decaying thinginess. Even language madly delights in and shows off its thinginess here, with word clinking against word in a sort of satire of literary effects: ‘stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the bot’.
Of course this sort of zany objectification isn’t at all the sort of thing usually to the fore at a wedding, but then a wife and husband giving themselves to one another in marriage does involve objectification of a certain sort and this particular piece of great prose reveals the wider life we live as and among objects as a context for this.
And this brings me back to Petruccio’s possessiveness. It has its cherishing aspect, which isn’t unattractive. At the end of the play, Petruccio gazes on Kate admiringly, saying, ‘Why, there’s a wench’. Kate, for her part, says to women in general, ‘Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot, / And place your hands below your husband’s foot’ (5.2.182-3), offering herself to do just that for Petruccio. Our first response will be to feel horror at her self-debasement. But if we imagine her cradling in her hand a most objectifiable and normally unglamorous part of her husband, we will see that he is, by our usual lights, degraded too, and yet at the same time loved.
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