Monday, January 17, 2011

Baptista Minola - "What a Cruel Father's He"

Petruchio. And you, good sir! Pray, have you not a daughter
Call'd Katherina, fair and virtuous?


Baptista Minola. I have a daughter, sir, call'd Katherina.
...
Petruchio. I am a gentleman of Verona, sir,
That, hearing of her beauty and her wit,
Her affability and bashful modesty,
Her wondrous qualities and mild behaviour,
Am bold to show myself a forward guest
Within your house, to make mine eye the witness
Of that report which I so oft have heard.

...
Baptista Minola. Y'are welcome, sir, and he for your good sake;
But for my daughter Katherine, this I know,
She is not for your turn, the more my grief.


Petruchio. I see you do not mean to part with her;
Or else you like not of my company.

 (2.1.883-885, 889-894, 903-905)

Have you been keeping up with reading The Taming of the Shrew?  One of Shakespeare's most famous comedies, this rough-and tumble battle of the sexes, where the determined and bossy Petruchio marries the crabby and quick-tempered Kate, always gets an audience to sit up and take notice. But in this post, I'm going to concentrate on someone that I feel is kind of an overlooked character - Katherine's father, Baptista.

As I mentioned previously, Katherine has a really bad reputation among the gallants of Padua. Tough for her that she's way smarter and more witty than any of the guys in her hometown. From what we see and hear of her behavior, it seems clear that she's a young woman with a flash-quick temper and a razor wit who does not suffer fools - or mistreatment - gladly.

 But what does Katherine have to be so angry aboutI think most of the guys in the play - with the exception of Petruchio - completely miss the point of Katherine's anger and point at her as the problem. But I believe that if you've got dead fish in a river, you'll be wasting your time trying to perform CPR on the fish. Look upstream for the problem and find out what is poisoning them! Which leads us directly to the villain of the piece -

BAPTISTA MINOLA

(Baptista Minola is the grumpy, mean-looking guy in the middle)

Baptista, from the productions that I have seen, is usually portrayed as an ill-used, bewildered father who simply can't understand why he has such a bad-tempered daughter. He's so put upon! He'd be so grateful to anyone who would take her off his hands! "Was ever gentleman thus griev'd as I? "(2.1.877). Boo hoo!! Well, I for one do not feel sorry for him. Let's take a look at what Baptista actually says and does, shall we?

We first meet him parading Katherine and Bianca around in the public square, loudly proclaiming his determination that no one will be allowed to wed his daughter Bianca until Katherine, the older sister, is married. Although many directors seem to have interpreted this as Baptista offering an incentive for Bianca's lovers to help him find a husband for Katherine - which is in fact what Hortensio ends up doing - I believe that Baptista had a very different motivation. He thought that he was insuring that neither daughter would ever marry.

This certainly seems to be the way both Hortensio and Gremio interpret the news - Hortensio tells his friend Petruchio that, essentially, Baptista has both the girls locked up in a "keep" and that Baptista doesn't think anyone will ever want to marry Katherine. Katherine doesn't marry, then Bianca doesn't marry. Game, set and match to Baptista! Here's the relevant passage:

Hortensio. Tarry, Petruchio, I must go with thee,
For in Baptista's keep my treasure is.
He hath the jewel of my life in hold,
His youngest daughter, beautiful Bianca;
And her withholds from me, and other more,
Suitors to her and rivals in my love;
Supposing it a thing impossible-
For those defects I have before rehears'd-
That ever Katherina will be woo'd.

 Therefore this order hath Baptista ta'en,
That none shall have access unto Bianca
Till Katherine the curst have got a husband.

(1.2.663-674, emphasis added)

Gremio compares the idea that anyone would be able to handle being married to Katherine to the "impossible tasks" that we might be familiar with from fairy tales, myths and legends - only a hero, half-god, like Hercules could possibly have a chance!

Gremio.  Yea, leave that labour to great Hercules,
And let it be more than Alcides' twelve.


(1.2.810-811)


(Hercules and the Hydra)

SO - Baptista thinks he's got a sure thing that no one will ever court Katherine. No one ever has wanted to. Hortensio and Gremio rack their brains and can't think of any single guy they know who would be interested. No one wants to marry Katherine because of her awful reputation: as Hortensio observes, she is "Renown'd in Padua for her scolding tongue" (1.2.648).

Question is - why does Katherine have such a terrible reputation? Sure, her behavior is out there - she hits people, which is certainly no way to solve your problems,  and her angry speech is unattractive. However, if we remember that in the Renaissance women's arena was the home and that they did not necessarily participate much in public life, Katherine's noteriety becomes more surprising. Could it be that Baptista (purposely?) puts Katherine into in humiliating situations where, if she lashes out, it will be seen and spoken of by everyone? This kind of treatment is shown at the beginning, where Baptista deliberately leaves Katherine in the company of men that he - and she - both know don't like her and, in fact, are in love with her sister. Baptista's part in tearing down Katherine's reputation is touched on by Petruchio, who says to him that "Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world/ That talk'd of her have talk'd amiss of her" (2.1.1141-42).

Another indication that Baptista is not really serious about wanting to get Kate married is his reaction to Petruchio when the young man presents himself as a suitor. This is the exchange quoted at the top of this post. Petruchio says he wants to marry Katherine - what is Baptista's response? "But for my daughter Katherine, this I know,/She is not for your turn, the more my grief." SERIOUSLY? Woah, woah, woah. Stop it right there. This guy has just made a huge production out of the fact that he wants Katherine to get married - but when an actual, flesh and blood, interested MAN shows up, Baptista is all like, "oh....sorry...you wouldn't like her....I'm pretty sure..." LAME.

Petruchio's response to this is often interpreted by actors as sort of a satirical joke. However, let's look at what Petruchio actually SAYS. If we take his answer at face value, then Petruchio has put his finger on exactly what is going on: "I see you do not mean to part with her."

This accusation by Petruchio is backed up by Baptista's next action - he welcomes all the gentlemen, and vaguely talks of taking a walk: "We will go walk a little in the orchard, /And then to dinner." (2.1.954). He's not even going to let Petruchio talk to Kate! Petruchio, however, is pushy and challenges the old man on this: "Signior Baptista, my business asketh haste,/ And every day I cannot come to woo" (2.1.957-8).

As everyone knows, Baptista gives in and lets Petruchio court - and marry - Kate. Why does he allow this if goes against his agenda to keep both girls single at home? Well, Baptista made one rather stupid mistake - he announced in front of witnesses that he was willing to have Kate married off. He committed himself publicly in front of his peers - wealthy gentlemen of Padua - and he couldn't go back without serious shame (not to mention that he might be afraid to disappoint strong young Italian men who are intent upon winning both women AND money).

(thou know'st not gold's effect!)
  Next question - WHY would Baptista want to keep both his daughters unmarried at home? Well, the first obvious motive is money. He has to give them healthy dowries if they get married - that much less loose cash in the old coffers. One possible support for this theory is that Baptista arguably gives a pretty lame bid for a dowry when he offers Petruchio 20,000 crowns. Perhaps he didn't think that Petruchio would immediately accept this, because Baptista could obviously have offered a lot more - this is shown when he is able to double this dowry at the end of the play. If Baptista had really been intent on simply getting rid of Katherine, one would think he would have offered as much as he could afford to sweeten the deal with cash.

However, I think that Baptista was more likely just a creepy, mean dad, rather like the notorious Mr. Barrett, father of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This guy was famous for flying into apoplectic rages whenever any of his children hinted they might like to get married (those brave enough to defy his wrath and marry were disinherited).

Plus, Baptista clearly has a very doting relationship with Bianca, his pretty younger daughter. Observe his lovey-dovey talk to her: Katherina, you may stay; /For I have more to commune with Bianca (1.1.399); And let it not displease thee, good Bianca,/ For I will love thee ne'er the less, my girl (1.1.372). So, if Baptista is so besotted with his charming younger daughter that he never can bear to let her go, what better way to deflect blame away from himself than to create a useful scapegoat? When Bianca and her suitors start to ask questions about why Baptista will never give his consent, all the father has to do is point to Katherine and come up with some phony baloney story about how she must be married first. This way, Baptista has no incentive to help Kate get over her anger-management problems; he drives a wedge between the sisters, transferring Bianca's affection from Kate to himself; and he feeds Kate's feelings of bitterness and unhappiness because she is a major target for resentment, both from Bianca and all her thwarted suitors. Ick, ick, ick. Bad, bad, bad.

Well, now that I've established the facts on what a crumb-bum Baptista is, stay tuned for my next post - in which I'll look at how Petruchio comes to the rescue! Don't miss it!



3 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I can't wait for the next post!

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  3. I like this take on Baptista! For sure, he's the root of Katherine's anger and you've given some convincing arguments for why he wanted to keep both daughters at home and how it all backfired on him. However, your take on Petruccio coming to the rescue, though you make some good points in that text too, seems more of a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. I'm not as optimistic as you are and I deal with how both Baptista and Petruccio break Katherine's spirit on my blog Shakespeare Calling. I'd be interested in your comments!

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