Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Induction to "The Taming of the Shrew": The Taming and Transformation of Christopher Sly

Both social status and tension between the sexes come into play the moment Christopher Sly appears on stage. He is named as a “beggar” in the stage directions, but we could guess that he is a low character both by his predicament and by the way he talks. He tells the Hostess of the Inn from which he has just been ejected that he’ll “feeze” her. According toThe Oxford English Dictionary, he’s threatening to “frighten,” “beat,” or “do” for her. He also calls her a “baggage.” OED quotes this very line to illustrate the sense of “baggage” as a “worthless good-for nothing woman; a woman of disreputable or immoral life, a strumpet.” In other words, Sly isn’t a gentleman and isn’t behaving like one.

Nonetheless, Sly makes the comic assertion that his family, “the Slys,” are an ancient one who came in with “Richard the Conquerer.” This is multiply comic. Some old aristocratic English families could trace their ancestry back to the nobles who accompanied William the Conqueror in his invasion of 1066. Not only does Sly get the name wrong (“Richard the Conqueror”), he doesn’t seem a likely member of any old noble family!

When the “Lord” then immediately enters and finds Sly asleep, presumably drunk, the absurdity of Sly’s comic pretensions are intensified by the contrast. Here is a ‘real’ Lord who talks and acts like on. He has just come from the favourite aristocratic pursuit of hunting, and he uses the characteristic language of that pursuit, naming and praising his hounds and giving instruction for their care: “Breathe Merriman – the poor cur is embossed.” He also addresses his huntsman as “boy,” which sounds almost as rude as “baggage.” Here, however, it indicates that the Lord’s status is much higher than that of his servant the huntsman, who is certainly an adult male but in an inferior social station.

Real vs. illusory aristocratic identity of course drives the main action of the Induction scenes, where the Lord and his servants work hard to convince Sly to “forget himself” and believe that is “a lord, and nothing but a lord.” They change Sly’s sense of himself by supplying him with the props and even the language of aristocratic identity – from “wanton pictures” to models of speech in iambic pentameter, which Sly begins to speak for himself when he wonders, “Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?”

It’s significant for the coming action between prospective husbands and wives that this dubious “Lord Sly” now modifies his relations with the opposite sex. He is much more respectful of his “Madam wife” and even agrees to practice restraint in order to complete his “amendment:” “I would be loath to fall into my dreams again. I will therefore tarry in despite of the flesh and blood.”

The unrestrained and beggarly Sly has been transformed and tamed! This looks forward to other tamings and transformations in the play proper.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Rome En-gendered

There don't seem to be many women in the Rome of Julius Caesar , only Calpurnia and Portia, and they seem to exist less as characters in their own right than as opportunities to see into the private lives and decisions of their husbands. Caesar's willingness (at least at first) to be swayed by Calpurnia's premonitions, deciding to stay at home because of a woman's "humor", stands in contrast with Brutus' reluctance to give in to his wife's entreaties to know his thoughts. Keeping one's thoughts to oneself is manly, while women are considered unable to govern their tongues -- a commonplace in Shakespeare's England and not just in Rome.

It is only when Portia gives a sign of her own 'manliness' (which in this play is equated with 'Romanness'), that Brutus gives in and promises to share with her the secrets that he has already yielded to his male friends. Interestingly, the sign that Portia gives of being a manly Roman woman, able to keep secrets, is a voluntary wound to the thigh (2.1.301-2). This is a sign of her Stoic self-control. But it is also an act of self-penetration: like a man, she wields the sword, but suffers for it as a wounded woman.

Roman manliness is in fact associated with health. Immediately after the scene in which Portia reveals her wound, Brutus receives his sick friend, Caius Ligarius, speaking with "feeble tongue" and with a "kerchief" on his head. But when he joins the conspiracy to restore manly republican virtues to Rome, he throws off his sickness. Julius Caesar, with his epilepsy, his deafness, and his barren wife, symbolizes the weakness and effeminacy that sets in when those republican virtues are abandoned. (Cassius' mean-spirited story of his sickness on campaign, crying for something to drink "as a sick girl" is intended to make this same point.)

Thus, Republican Rome can only be governed by men, and can only admire women who are like men. It's opposite, called 'tyranny', is associated with feminizing degradation, as when Cassius exhorts Brutus with this passage of inflaming metonymies:

... our fathers' minds are dead,
And we are governed with our mothers' spirits
Our yoke and sufferance show us womanish ....

Friday, March 6, 2009

The popularity of Julius Caesar

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar seems to have been extremely popular. It was the play that the Swiss tourist Thomas Platter crossed the Thames to see in September 1599, reporting it acted "very prettily in the house with the thatched roof". Nearly forty years later, the poet Leonard Digges recalled the hit made by Shakespeare's Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius:

So have I seen, when Cesar would appeare,
And on the Stage at halfe-sword parley were,
Brutus and Cassius; oh how the Audience
Were ravished, with what wonder they went hence ....

It's striking to think that Shakespeare's audiences might have found the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius before the battle of Philippi 'ravishing'. What particularly might they relish in it? Perhaps the complexity of these "honourable men", whose high principles and touching friendship combine with pettiness and irascibility?

Another draw would simply have been the title character, Julius Caesar. As well as a key figure from Roman history, whose writings were standard fare for Elizabethan grammar schools (one of which Shakespeare attended), he also featured in the popular culture of the period. In Richard III, one of the doomed little princes asks about the ancient story that Julius Caesar built the Tower of London. A stranger story about JC from medieval legend was that he was the father of the fairy king Oberon by the Morgana, the fairy half-sister of King Arthur!

Shakespeare may also have drawn on the widespread tradition of performing the downfall of Julius Caesar (there were a number of contemporary plays on which he might possibly have drawn, and it was a favorite subject for university students to dramatize). Although Shakespeare definitely used historical sources for his play which located the assassination in Pompey's Theatre, he may have bowed to another old popular tradition that located his murder in the Capitol. In Hamlet, Polonius recalled the time when he "did enact Julius Caesar" (probably as a student) and "was killed in the Capitol". As David Daniell, editor of the Arden Julius Caesar, notes, "Elizabethans wrongly understood ‘the Capitol’ as the citadel of ancient Rome, where the Senate met".

(For more information on the kinds of dramas, histories, and legends on which Shakespeare might have drawn for JC, as well as his other Roman plays, see volume V of Geoffrey Bullough's Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. You can download this in its entirety -- as well as the other seven volumes of Bullough and other neat stuff -- from

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On the Wheel of Fortune, going down

In The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (as it is titled in the Folio of 1623), as in The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Shakespeare is concerned with the downward swing of the Wheel of Fortuna, and even with what happens after a great historical ruler has reached bottom. After all, as Stanley Wells points out in his introduction to Julius Caesar, "Caesar is dead before the play is half over".

So in Richard II, the King's headlong fall takes place in the exact middle of the play, in 3.2. This is a highly compressed scene which begins with Richard's return from Ireland and his bold assertions that the very English stones and the angels of heaven too will fight for his divinely given kingship. But almost immediately after these assertions, by around line 150, Richard is dramatizing his fall by inviting his astonished court to sit upon the ground with him and "tell sad stories of the death of kings," all deposed by the various means of war, poison, murder. (Some are haunted by the ghosts of the rulers they've killed, as we'll see Brutus is in Julius Caesar.)

To an audience sensitive to the proper physical deportment and position of a king -- he is literally to be above his subjects -- this sitting on the ground is a stark gesture of abdication. (Remember there are very few stage directions in the early texts of the plays; but the Bishop of Carlisle's reproach, "My lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes," suggests that the actor playing Richard really did sit down on stage, in all his 'kingly' robes.) It looks forward to the highly symbolic gesture of Richard coming down from the "walls" of Flint Castle in the very next scene -- from the balcony above the stage to the level of the other actors on the stage. This kind of physical enacting of high and low points in the career of a ruler also resonates through the more metaphorical allusions to "mounting Bolingbroke" and to Bolingbroke and Richard as "two buckets" in 4.1.189-90:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Puritans and Marriage Contracts

Angelo may have some of the characteristics of the stereotypical Puritan. Historical Puritans of the Jacobean period were, however, much more in favor of marriage than Angelo seems to have been. The Puritan preacher William Gouge, for instance, published an enormous tome on marriage and other household matters, titled Domesticall Duties, in 1622. Gouge, unsurprisingly, affirms that the husband is the ultimate "head" of the household. Less expected, perhaps, is his emphasis on mutuality and reciprocity in marriage. (He argues, for instance, against the common view that adultery in men is less serious than in women -- against the so-called 'double standard'.)

William Gouge is also very clear that the sort of contracts that seem to have existed between Claudio and Juliet, and between Angelo and Mariana, were virtually as binding as marriage itself. Here is what Gouge writes about such contracts in his enormous domestic manual:

Of a Contract, What It is?
... The right making of a firm contract consisteth in two things:
1. In an actual taking of each other for espoused man and wife.
2. In a direct promise of marrying each other within a convenient time.
So as a form of contract may be made to this purpose:
first, the man taking the woman by the hand to say, I, A. take thee, B., to my espoused wife, and do faithfully promise to marry thee in time meet and convenient. And then the woman again taking the man by the hand to say, I, B., to take thee, A., to my espoused husband, do faithfully promise to yield to be married to thee in time meet and convenient. This mutual and actual taking of one another for espoused man and wife in the time present, and a direct promise of marrying one another afterward, setteth such a right and property of the one in the other as cannot be alienated without licence had from the great Judge of heaven, who hath by his divine ordinance settled that right ...

By this formula, it seems then that the "great Judge of heaven" overrules Angelo in the case of Claudio and Juliet, and judges Angelo himself, in his alienation of Mariana.

It's clear too that both parties are supposed to promise, to speak, to make the contract binding. If one recalls the "espousal" passage in The Taming of the Shrew (2.1 -- where Baptista says to Petruchio and Kate, "give me your hands"), only Petruchio speaks and promises, and yet the contract is treated by all as binding. At the end of Measure for Measure, we also hear only Isabella's silence, although she is prompted twice by the Duke to give her hand and her promise. At 5.1.503: "Give me your hand and say you will be mine"; then, at 547-8, perhaps feeling that the public offer of a hand is premature, the Duke proposes, "... if you'll a willing ear incline, / What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine."

At least the Duke ends by recognizing mutuality and reciprocity, but the actual contract is still in question, an if.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The letter of the law

Laws and contracts are plot generators in both The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. It is Antonio's (perhaps unaccountable) willingness to enter into the bond with Shylock that generates the crisis of the trial scene in 4.1, providing incidentally the occasion for Portia's tour de force performance as a "young and learned doctor" of law. In Measure for Measure, the long-deferred performance of the contract between Angelo and Mariana provides the legal premise for the famous plot device of the 'bed-trick'. The disguised Duke assures Mariana of the contractual basis of her sleeping with Angelo when he says "Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all. / He is your husband on a precontract" (4.1.70-71).

Both plays seem to suggest, by their plots, the wrongheadedness of sticking to the letter of the law. Shylock condemns himself by sticking to the terms of his bond, by craving only "the law" and nothing more. Angelo likewise insists upon the law, thereby preparing judgment for himself. Justifying his rigorous condemnation of Claudio, Angelo declares, "When I that censure him do so offend /Let mine own judgment pattern out my death" (2.1.29-30). It will only take Angelo until the next scene -- his first meeting with Isabella -- to reach that when.

And yet, laws and contracts aren't exactly cancelled by the comedic endings. Those with secret or super-clever knowledge, like Portia and the Duke, seem to be able to insist on super-literal meanings of the law which magically dissolve difficulties. So, Portia sticks even closer to the literal terms of Shylock's bond than Shylock, insisting that he may take his pound of flesh but no blood. And Angelo in fact hasn't condemned himself by his own rigor against fornicators, since he isn't a fornicator himself. In Shakespeare's time, a betrothed couple who had consummated their betrothal by sleeping together would indeed have been regarded as legally married.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fairy Tale Endings

You may have noticed that when Bassanio makes his choice of the leaden casket, he falls at the end of his speech of deliberation into one of those rhyming couplets that seem to signal a transition into a different mode -- perhaps one that it is more magical, more fraught with significance, more like a mythological than a realistic action.

Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
And here choose I -- joy be the conseqence!
Sigmund Freud, in a classic essay on the "The Theme of the Three Caskets", links this choice between three to a similar choice in another of Shakespeare's plays. Lear, however, makes the wrong choice, preferring the shiny flatteries of his two elder daughters to the silent love of Cordelia, his youngest. Freud interprets Bassanio's choice between three caskets as a choice between three women as well. (For Freud -- as you might expect! -- caskets, boxes, any sort of container stands in for woman.) But the choice of the third isn't a choice: it's inevitable that the third is chosen. Freud connects both Cordelia's silence and the pale lead of the third casket with death. Death is the inevitable third. But for Bassanio, a supremely desirable woman substitutes for death, putting off the inevitable. This is the wild wish fulfillment of dreams and of all comedies.

The wish-fulfillment woman, though, still retains something of death, and thus of the uncanny, about her. And this is something that might adhere to Portia, and make it difficult for us to picture what life will really be like for Mr and Mrs Bassanio of Belmont.