Monday, January 24, 2011

Petruchio to the Rescue?!

At last - the eagerly awaited post that I promised on Petruchio coming to the rescue! Probably my last post for a while on The Taming of the Shrew, as I'm deep in the Henrys by now - but I wanted to tie up a few loose ends about that most controversial character, Petruchio. Why he worthy of discussion? Because Petruchio's relationship with Kate is so wild! Should we as the audience hate him? Should we love him? Do we watch this play - in horrified fascination - only to be shocked ? Although Katherine hits and verbally assaults people on a regular basis, Petruchio uses some techniques in his "taming" of this woman that seem unjustifiable. He starves her; he isolates her from friends and family; he prevents her from sleeping. Sounds more like a KGB interrogation session than a honeymoon, right?

Petruchio as a "patriarchal oppressor" is a pretty popular interpretation of the character among some critical schools right now; for proof of this I offer this link to The Taming of the Shrew wikipedia page. The man comes across as a black-hearted villain!

(Petruchio, with a fearsome scowl, on the left)

Maybe not. For evidence of this, I'm going to point to some contrasts between Petruchio and Katherine's father, Baptista Minola. I've already exposed this guy's infamous behavior - not going to sing that song again. However, Petruchio, unlike dear old dad, helps Kate in one specific way: for the first time in her life, someone makes her look good in front of other people.

This favorable re-positioning and re-interpretation of Kate's behavior starts right away with Petruchio's first meeting with her. He comes up with a story (that, granted, helps him out) but also makes her look good in front of her friends and family:

Petruchio. Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world
That talk'd of her have talk'd amiss of her.
If she be curst, it is for policy,
For, she's not froward, but modest as the dove;
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn...

(2.1.1141-1145)

 Petruchio, in his one meeting with Kate, is perhaps savvy enough to figure out that WHATEVER happens, she will complain and kick about it. (Even when it's something she wants -  Katherine tries to send Petruchio about his business DIRECTLY AFTER she's been crying about her chances of being an old maid.) SO - could be that Petruchio's pretty sure she'll make a scene at the wedding and reception. What does he do? Through his outrageous behavior, he gives her something to complain about! If her complaining is not unreasonable, she won't be judged so harshly by her peers.

Note that after Petruchio returns to Padua for the wedding (dressed in his super special suit) and starts in on his "taming" by behaving much more socially strange than Kate, suddenly all her acquaintances who previously jeered at her start sounding a lot more conciliatory. Petruchio is taking a lot of the criticism that Katherine was previously getting.

Tranio. Curster than she? Why, 'tis impossible....
Gremio. Why, he's a devil, a devil, a very fiend.
 Tranio. Why, she's a devil, a devil, the devil's dam.
Gremio. Tut, she's a lamb, a dove, a fool, to him!
(3.2.1516-1519)

(Of course, the very fact that after the wedding all these "friends" laugh as their sister/daughter/friend goes off with this guy who they think is "a devil" kind of shows you what kind of environment Kate is coming out of.)

Likewise, Petruchio's servants get their first taste of Kate in comparison with him at his worst, and they come out with better feelings about Kate than they otherwise would have:

Curtis....By this reck'ning he is more shrew than she.
Grumio. Ay, and that thou and the proudest of you all shall find
when he comes home.
(4.2.1689-1691)

In a way, Petruchio's willingness to be obnoxious in front of everyone - to be more offensive in public than Katherine - to give up his "reputation" to make Katherine appear better - could be interpreted as self-sacrificial love.

On the other hand, it's really bonkers to think that Petruchio has to be meaner than Katherine to show her how unpleasant mean people really are. That's not the way grown-ups work things out! Also, although Petruchio makes himself appear ridiculous in public to benefit Kate, he also does it so he can get what he wants: "peace... and love, and quiet life" (5.2.1614). But that's what Katherine wants too - and that's why Petruchio really is a rescuer.

It's clear that Kate is very unhappy with the status quo, living with her father and sister, and longs for change. Why else does she weep when she is faced with the prospect of remaining single while Bianca is married? "Nay, now I see/She is your treasure, she must have a husband;/I must dance bare-foot on her wedding-day" (2.1.871-873).  She doesn't want to stay at home for the rest of her life! A husband is her one way out.

Petruchio, though domineering and sometimes mean, is able to take her away from her horrible family, rehabilitate her reputation, and give her a respectable position where once she had been an object of scorn. And that's why we manage to smile and give a thumbs up at the end of this crazy ride of a comedy. I'm not  ready to sign onto this (joking) slogan one of my brothers came up with, but...food for thought, eh?

1 comment:

  1. Really want to read the TotS, but alas don't want to fall behind in Henry VI. Though this as well as other post seem to provide a nice mini synopsis. Through these kinda give me a enthusiasm to pause this weeks play. Great job keep it going!

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