Thursday, June 26, 2014

Deceit and Consensual Coercion: The Taming of the Shrew

I still remember seeing The Taming of the Shrew in person for the first time. For those of you who don't remember, Act 1 Scene 1 sets a play within a play. The shell plot features a jape in which locals attempt to convince a drunken sot that he's nobility after a rough night at the pub. The play-within-a-play that's been converted to many a movie (notably the one with a pre-Dexter Julia Stiles) tends to omit this shell plot.

This is a mistake.

This is a mistake because that very theme of kidnapping, deceit, and conversion is the central joke in the rest of the play. Christopher Sly, the drunk, knows that he's a down-on-his-fortunes tinker, not landed gentry, but allows himself the pleasant delusion that he's nobility (so long as the camera is on, so to speak). Similarly, Kate, the eponymous shrew, allows herself to be whisked away and by Act IV is at turns starved and neglected:
The more my wrong, the more his spite appears:
What, did he marry me to famish me?
Beggars, that come unto my father's door,
Upon entreaty have a present aims;
If not, elsewhere they meet with charity:
But I, who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat,
Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,
With oath kept waking and with brawling fed:
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under name of perfect love;
As who should say, if I should sleep or eat,
'Twere deadly sickness or else present death.
I prithee go and get me some repast;
I care not what, so it be wholesome food.
By the end of the play, she's positively docile. When Petruchio says that the sun is the moon, she goes all five-lights on him (it's no coincidence that Patrick Stewart is a classically-trained Shakespearean actor), not merely agreeing, but averring:
Then, God be bless'd, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.
If the audience forgets that this is all a show put on to trick a drunken tinker, or forgets that Kate chose to accompany Petruchio of her own volition, it looks indistinguishable from violent coercion inflicted by means of starvation and sleep deprivation rather than through sparing not the rod or the cane.

But since it is a show for some dude with a wicked hangover, it's moral suasion of a sort. And in the world of the play within a play, Kate agreed ex ante to subject herself to the terms of Petruchio's marriage agreement. Perhaps she knew something about her own character that could use some fixin'.

What price self-delusion, what price rehabilitation? Underneath the ribald comedy of the play, these are the questions ToTS encourages us to ask of ourselves. Reforming character is hard work, and it often requires advance planning and enforcement. In the Thomas/Shughart formulation, taming a shrew requires a non-euvoluntary constitution.

And if that's the case, third parties should be quite circumspect when they endeavor to break the terms of such a contract. Not all coercion is unjust.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?