Blogs by Susan M Phillips
Why the Shrew Had to be Tamed
3/24/2008 6:33:30 AM
When Shakespeare wrote his first play, was he just commenting on how a bride should behave?
Set the scene: a university campus somewhere in Middle England. A middle aged woman arrives with her two daughters and goes into the coffee bar in the centre of the complex. She gets them all a drink, they find a comfortable settee and sit down together, chatting briefly before the woman places her drink on the coffee table in front of her and gets up to go. Her daughters wish her luck and settle in to await her return.
The woman makes her way to a small office on the third floor of the adjacent building. She is nervous, but not worried. She has applied to do a course as a mature student. It will not ruin her life if she is turned down; will not transform her life if accepted. It would just be fun.
The interview takes place in the lecture room opposite the office and comprises two tutors and the woman. They begin to discuss the course and her reasons for applying. One of the tutors had promised that the Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew would be discussed as part of the interview and she has reread it in preparation, forming some surprising theories in the process.
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So that's me. In the interview and getting a bit passionate about old Will. I asked if they didn't find it odd that nobody had ever equated the play with the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury, given the content and thrust of the entire play.
Just to be clear, here is a potted history of the battle - not much detail is known, so I can only give a brief overview. A few years earlier, Henry IV had come to the throne assisted by, among others, the Percy family of Cheshire, renowned warriors of their age. It was customary to reward such assistance with gifts of land or other valuables. The Percys were expecting a generous settlement in Cumbria, but instead this was given to a rival. The Percys were not amused and, led by Henry "Hotspur" Percy, the family's greatest and most famous warrior, they set out to attack Henry, planning to gather forces from Wales en route.
Unaware of the rebellion, Henry IV was, at the time, making his way north to support the Percys in a battle with the Scots. Also unaware of the situation, Owain Glyndwr, self-proclaimed Prince of Wales, was fighting elsewhere and few Welsh troops joined Hotspur. The majority were gathered from Cheshire.
When he did hear of the threat, Henry diverted to Shrewsbury, the heavily fortified county town of Shropshire and the battle took place just north of the town. Henry won a decisive victory and it was reputed to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil.
Back to the plot. In The Taming of the Shrew, we have a bombastic, quarrelsome woman, Katharina. She is the elder daughter of a well to do father and he has decreed that until she is wed, her younger daughter, Bianca, may not be courted by any of her numerous suitors. This does not suit those suitors and so they hatch a plan to find a husband for Katharina as quickly as possible.
Enter Petruchio, a battle hardened noble on the lookout for a rich wife. He is not worried about a love match as he believes that he can create that, once he has his woman. The suitors tell him of Katharina, explaining all her faults and foibles. Petruchio is not remotely worried about her difficult nature and sets out at once to win her hand. In the meantime, two of the suitors impersonate tutors (note the rhyme there) and persuade the girls' father to employ them, one as a latin teacher and the other as a music tutor, thus allowing them free access to Bianca.
Within a week, Petruchion and Katharina are wed and Bianca also has a husband.
Using techniques generally employed to tame a hunting bird, Petruchio overcomes Katharina's difficult nature and has her at his beck and call. Bianca, on the other hand, feels a new independence with her marriage and is slightly less bidable. The unsuccessful suitor marries a widow who has been chasing him for some time and all are content.
Now I won't tell the entire tale here, or I'd be all day, but that's the gist of the story. The thing that struck me was that the term shrew could have been used to describe someone from Shrewsbury - remember the battle? If Katharina represented the rebel army, Petruchio would be the king. Bianca's name means white, as does Albion, an ancient name for the British mainland. I suspect Bianca represented the loyal people of England (the kingdom was not yet united). Of her suitors, the Latin scholar might be the Church and the musician parliament. Both institutions were powerful in a very real sense, but the play indicates that the real power rested with the king. In the final scene, the widow accuses Katherina of being a difficult wife, to which she objects. This might give the widow the place of the judiciary. Petruchio displays his successful taming of Kate the shrew by having her tell her fellow brides the duties of a wife. One of these includes a willingness to place her hand beneath the foot of her husband. This is an odd thing to do, even given an era when wives were considered the property of their husband; but if that foot were the king and placing the hand beneath indicated submission and giving up all arms against him, it makes more sense.
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So we talked on and I was asked why I wanted to study at such a level when I was clearly fairly able. I explained again my reason, not really following the fairly able point.
We parted and I had my shopping spree with my girls. It was lovely and nice to unwind, although I didn't buy anything. On checking my emails later at home I found an unconditional offer of a place on the course. Lovely, exciting and the perfect end to the day. Thing was, I didn't sleep a wink, wondering if I had actually gone in at the wrong level, just to stay within my comfort zone.
The following day I emailed one of the ladies who interviewed me and asked her opinion. She admitted that she had almost suggested I take the MA instead, but I had seemed so keen to do this course. So now I have an offer to do the BA and a hunger to do the MA. I am just trying to untangle the web that will let me do just that.
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