Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Tamer Tamed, by John Fletcher

The second book I've "pre-read" for my course on Shakespeare and Adaptation--meaning that while classes haven't started yet, I'm trying to get a jump on the reading because I have no idea how long it's going to take me to get through these book lists.

The Tamer Tamed  is a play, written by John Fletcher probably in 1611, and at least some scholars think it was written as a way for Fletcher to introduce himself to Shakespeare.  It is a sequel, of sorts, to WS's own The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio gets a taste of the medicine he so liberally dispensed to Katherine.

As the play opens, we find that Petruchio has been widowed, which from his perspective is probably just as well.  Apparently the "taming" he performed in Shakespeare's play didn't actually take, and his marriage was fraught with the level on conflict you would expect from someone as vivid and unhappy as the Katherine of Act I.  Nevertheless, Petruchio has chosen hope over experience, and married again, this time to Katherine's cousin Maria. Supposedly all that Katherine was not, Petruchio is unprepared for what happens that night, when Maria locks him out of his own house, and announces to the public that she will not be sleeping with him for the foreseeable future.

Maria has laid in food for a month, and brought in her cousin Bianca (also from Taming of the Shrew, Katherine's sister and herself now widowed) and invites all women who have been "worn out by marriage" to join her in laying down the conditions for their domestic lives.  Soon they are joined by Maria's (originally obedient and tractable) sister Livia, who loves the handsome young Roland, but who is going to be forced by her father into marriage with the old, ugly, smelly and disgusting (but rich!) Moroso.  Other women from the city and the country join the women inside Petruchio's house, bringing supplies and taking a stand for women's rights.  All this is by the second act, with three more to go.

According to the introductory materials, The Tamer Tamed was a very popular play, and was performed in repertory with Shrew.  It was performed before Charles I and his queen, and revived during the Restoration as well.  There are records of its performance into the 18th century, and the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it and brought it to America in 2003.

Certainly, when paired with Shrew, it makes the "taming" experience less deeply uncomfortable.  On the basis of the text alone, The Taming of the Shrew feels like psychological warfare and spousal abuse.  Katherine is deprived of food and sleep and purposely disoriented for days, until her spirit is broken, and apparently her mind as well, and it's all presented as good clean fun. I have seen a few performances that have subsumed the dialogue to broad slapstick, and in those cases, Katherine gives as good as she gets, but the text itself is still troublesome. After all, from the modern perspective, what has she done that is so wrong?  She doesn't want to get married, and she has found a way to avoid it--run off all your suitors.  She's managed to make a life for herself that suits her, and the only "problem" is that her father has this ridiculous rule that her sister can't marry until she does.  Is this Kate's problem?  Should she bind herself into marriage that she doesn't want just because her father has this stupid rule?

Into town drifts this lout--a man who will take any woman, provided she is rich.  Who would want to marry him?  And why should Kate agree to be handed over to a man who is idle, wealth-seeking, and arrogantly certain of his ability to break her?  Why is this an outcome anybody should cheer for?

It's a rom-com formula in extreme--in which the people who are "fated" to be together initially cannot stand each other, but learn to see each other in new and better ways.  Which is fine, except for the abuse.  Perhaps enforcing patriarchal privilege was funnier in the 17th century than it is now, or audiences were more frightened of women than they are now, but what looks like despotic parenting and authoritarian enforcement of heterosexual male privilege just doesn't amuse me.

Fletcher's play tips the balance the other way, more or less, but does so in obviously ribald fashion, which makes the whole thing more farcical and thus less disturbing.  It also benefits from the fact that when the obviously powerless women score some advantages for themselves, they do so without the men apparently losing anything in the bargain.  From the start, Maria's demands are actually small--she wants to have authority to run the household without being questioned about it.  She wants to guarantee she will have life's amenities--clothing, food, transportation--consistent with her station.  She wants to control her own sexuality, and require her husband to gain her consent.  What does Petruchio want?  He wants to be able to sleep with his wife, get into his house, and experience domestic tranquility.  All of which he gets.  What does he lose?  Only a smidgeon of "face"--other men see his wife make demands, and they see him acquiesce.  He doesn't seem too bothered by it, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as she tells him she is going to make demands, he basically agrees to them, whatever they might be.  It is her father and some of the other men who urge Petruchio to stand fast, to beat her into submission, to assert his manly rights to be in control.  Since none of the men are ever shown to actually be in control, the stakes are pretty low.

Contrast that to Katherine's plight in Taming of the Shrew.  She doesn't choose marriage, she doesn't chose her husband, and when she is sold into marital bondage, she has no control over what she wears, what she eats, where she goes, or the nature of her relationship to her husband.  She is forced to give up all her preferences, all her autonomy, and simply agree to anything and everything he says, regardless of how crazy that may be.  Sure, as far as the text goes, we don't actually see him beating her, but there is no real guarantee that she would be allowed to object to that either.  It is the doctrine of couveture in the extreme, where two people become one, and that one is Petrucchio.

Fletcher's play has an entirely different tone--the stakes are lower, and the strategems are much less squicky.  Rather than sleep deprivation and withholding of food, as in Shakespeare, Fletcher's Petruchio makes plays for sympathy and pity.  He pretends he is ill--and Maria beats him at that game by telling everyone that he has the plague and needs to be sealed inside his house so he doesn't infect anyone else.  Petruchio is reduced to shooting his way out of his own house.  Maria compliments his intelligence, and maneuvers him into having to travel abroad.  Rather than going, he fakes his own death, and presents his "corpse" to his supposed widow, hoping she will admit she treated him badly.  Instead, she cries for his wasted live and claims that his death is a blessing, because it means that now he is spared the worse things he was bound to do if he had lived.

This is the final straw, and in a scene that suffers from being seriously underwritten, he asks "Why, why Maria?"  And for no good reason that I can see, she confesses that this was all a trick to tame him, and she has now achieved her aim.  Now she can go back to her true personality and promises to dote on him and make his life pleasant.  In the B plot, Livia has also faked an illness, and supposedly signed documents releasing Roland from their engagment, witnessed by her father and Moroso.  In fact, she has switched the documents for a marriage contract, and thus managed to marry the man she wanted to marry.  They consummate the marriage while her father and Moroso believe she is still ailing. Again, the stakes for the men are low, and the women's victory doesn't require the utter defeat of the men they are set against.  Moroso is free to find another woman to marry--he doesn't seem to have any particular attachment to Livia other than her youth, and her father doesn't seem to have any reason to have preferred Moroso than the man's money.  Meanwhile, Livia manages to arrange a happier life for herself than would have been possible if she had simply obeyed her father's orders.

The silliness of the play is so pervasive that almost any page would provide some bawdy exchanges and double entendres--for the moment, take my word for it that it is not in any way a serious meditation of gender roles.  It also is worth noting that after writing the play, Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on at least three plays we know of: Henry VIII; Two Noble Kinsmen;  and the lost play Cardenio.  By all accounts, Fletcher had a brilliant and productive career, producing some 50 plays before his death in 1625.

When you hear of Puritans disapproving of theater, THIS  is the kind of play they must have had in mind--it's knee deep in sexual innuendo and outright sexual talk.  Characters are forever overturning chamberpots on each other, and pissing against door frames.  It's a silly play, and one that makes Shakespeare's language that much more impressive.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think Fletcher's play is far superior to Shakespeare's and qualifies as proto-feminist, in favour of equality, and farce is effectively used to make the points. Shakespeare's language has a surface brilliance, and Tranio has much fun in his disguise, but the play is thoroughly misogynistic, to the extent of being embarrassing and repugnant now. Attempts can be made to perform 'The Shrew' against the grain of the text - hard work indeed. Another thing - 'The Tamer Tamed' can be put on without 'The Shrew'.
Another free adaptation and development is the musical, 'Kiss Me Kate' - to be recommended.