I was unsure whether I should read Vinegar Girl (2016), the latest book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. “The Taming of the Shrew” is a challenging play, and retelling it in the 21st century could either be an invigorating endeavor or, most probably, a pitiful trap.
In Shakespeare’s play, a wealthy Italian man, Baptista Minola, must marry off his older daughter Katherine, so that her younger sister can marry. Different from her sister, the blond Bianca is docile and much sought-after. The brunette Kate, on the other hand, is known for being hot-blooded and sharp-tongued. Petruchio, a bachelor, agrees to marry her for the money, and sets out to break his wife’s strong will.
Your Katherine, my dear, is hardly a shrew. The 29-year-old Kate Battista can be short-tempered at times, but is extremely compliant to her father’s eccentric moods. She is still living at home, as a housekeeper for her widower father and her 15-year-old sister, Bunny. Having dropped out of college, Kate now works as preschool teacher assistant in Baltimore. Her father, Dr. Battista, is an absent-minded and self-centered academic who deems himself to be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough, partly because of the help of his brilliant Russian lab assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov. However, this project is threatened by the fact that Pyotr’s visa is about to expire. Dr. Battista then sets out to marry Kate to his assistant, in order to get him an US green card.
For one thing, the way you render immigrants and non-white people is a stereotypical one: those characters are portrayed as “noble savages”, subject of jokes, nothing more. The marriage plot hardly involves a taming, either, and rapidly evolves to a romantic comedy. Your Petruchio is as saccharine and good-natured as Kate. Both act as cute outsiders: Pyotr, because of his foreignness; Kate, by refusing to play the role of a sexy woman. Unlike Shakespeare’s Katherine, your Kate isn’t tamed nor forced into marriage; unlike Petruchio, Pyotr genuinely likes Kate for her eccentricities. Slowly, he begins to grow on her. Differently from the couple in Shakespeare’s play, the relationship between Kate and Pyotr is marked, from the beginning, by a fundamental equality.
In fact, while one reading of the play would accomodate the idea that Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship evolves from inequality to equality; upon reading your novel, I cannot but remark that Kate and Pyotr take the exact reverse path. Your Kate seems to agree to the fake marriage mostly out of a suppressed longing for a husband. Her final monologue only maintains the reductive views on gender roles Kate herself once abhorred: “It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
Shakespeare’s play is so powerful, because it is unsettling and remains unsettled. We are left with many questions: is it misogynistic, or is it a morality play (an example of what not to do)? Is Petruchio an abuser, or is he an equal to Katherine’s shrewdness? Is the couple a good match? If so, is the submission process a game of seduction, “where two raging fires meet together”? In fact, was Kate really subdued? Was she complicit in everything that happened to her? Was she merely mocking Petruchio? Or is her submission part of this game she’s been playing out with him? How playful is the taming, how sincere is the submission? Is this also a play about the taming of the tamer? If unruly women at that time were commonly punished with the suppression of their speech, what are we to make of Katherine’s chance of retaining speech in her final monologue? While Petruchio makes use of violence to subdue Katherine’s will, could we say that she uses speech to tame the taming process, and ultimately to tame the tamer? Is she shaming him in her final monologue? Is Shakespeare mocking the irrationality of male supremacy in marriage? Beneath the surface of this brutal marriage farce, can we find the story of two difficult people learning to live together?
Your version of Kate’s submission speech, on the other hand, is troublingly reductive, as if you were trying to accomodate those questions rather than to challenge them. It almost sounds like a lecture on how men are the “real victims” of their own sexism. “It’s hard being a man. (…) Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it (…). They’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it.” While Shakespeare plays with gender roles in a way full of irony, nuance and ambivalence, your take on the subject is a much more tamed one: smoothly, you took the politically correct path, no acidity necessary.
Most probably I am the one to blame, for expecting to find piss and vinegar in what in the end amounted only to milk and cookies 1. However, I cannot but agree with what your own Pyotr says: so much sugar has no nutritional value, Anne. Or maybe, as a reader, I am yet to be tamed, my dear.
1 Ref. to Mars-Jones, Adam. “It’s not only the marriage that disintegrates”, The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2004: “By making the disappearance of a daughter in the Sixties into the central event of The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler invites comparison with one of the strongest performances in recent American fiction, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Alongside Roth’s paroxysms of rage and understanding, his astonishing display of piss and vinegar, Tyler seems to be offering milk and cookies, milk and cookies not quite fresh.” Here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/jan/25/fiction.features2
“’In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’ This was intriguing. Kate said: ‘Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.'”
– Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl