King of Crowns - Petruchio
Dramatis Personae: Petruchio.
Text & Context: As The Taming of the Shrew begins, Petruchio appears to be a gold-digger whose determination to wed wealthy but shrewish Katharina Minola lookss destined to backfire. Shakespeare himself hints at just such madcap but also slyly, in the Induction scenes set in rural England, teases the audience into anticipating something perhaps more salacious. Christopher Sly, a drunken lout for whom a cliché-ridden reinforcement of gender politics seems tailor made, is dressed up in the attire of a Lord, offered pornography, and made love to by a page boy in drag. But as the Italian burlesque gets underway, instead of a Punch & Judy show, Shakespeare delivers us a love story. That Petruchio determines to love Kate, and sets about showing her love - what love actually is by being the only one who treats her lovingly, thereby awakening love in her - stands as a stark reprimand to the vain, pretended, mercenary love of such men so often seen elsewhere in Shakespeare - Troilus, Claudio, Bertram, Bassanio.
Had Shakespeare placed Kate in the hands of such a man, or shown Petruchio "taming" her spirit for the sole sake of breaking it, both intent and result would be dreadful. Instead, he gives Kate - and thus us - a man with as much character as she, begging the question obliquely posed by Sly : have we as much character? As it is, Shrew must appear to modern audiences what it certainly did not to 16th Century ones: a black comedy. Yet, aside from the most stern critics, the general consensus deems The Taming of the Shrew delightful, often performed for children - sometimes even by them.
And so as it turns out, with its stable of stock commedia dell'arte characters, Taming of the Shrew is a kind of Punch & Judy after all; albeit a shrewd and kind one. The author, by flipping the Lucentio-Bianca subplot on its head, slips in a modicum of tutelage under guise of sexual escapade: shallow characters in flimsy disguise who use chicanery to accomplish covetous motives get what they deserve. Namely: wed to contrary spouses, despite what they espouse to the contrary, who will not answer when they call.
Subtext: Despite reaching out to Kate with equanimity, Shakespeare is here domestically - as he is so often elsewhere socially and politically - staunchly hierarchical. Each has his station; the lower obeys the higher. Any notion the lower does so with loving obedience is that much the better - the very thing for many moderns which makes it that much worse. When the sanctity of this order is breached, such as Macbeth's vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself, everyone from ghosts to Greek Gods to weird sisters and melancholy princes may be enlisted to set it right.
As has often been noted, Petruchio reflects back to Kate her own behavior, and yet he is not as violent as she. He does not, for instance, respond in kind when she raises a hand to him, although he promises to should she ever do it again. In a similar way, and in Hamlet's words, Shakespeare may be holding a mirror up to our nature, reflecting back our own behavior, with equanimity. The fallacious equation "all men are created equal" is quite simply anti-nature; nor in the real world is it even workable, but understood to be ideological lip-service. As reflected in the very progression of the cards, the King crowns the Queen, as Petruchio - without raising a hand - crowns Kate.
The music of the spheres, ringing out the harmony of the universe, count on a great chorus of degrees - Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows!
Intertext: Queen of Crowns Katharina