Of Usurpers and Shrews: A Travesty Against the Great Chain of Being

January 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew both teach audiences a lesson about “the great chain of being” — by showing Richard and Kate’s refusal to accept the doctrine of passive obedience and the consequences that follow. In Richard’s case he is unwilling to accept the rule of his brother the King. In Kate’s case she is unwilling to accept the rule of the “King” of her household, her husband Petruchio. By the conclusion of The Taming of the Shrew Kate has realized the folly of her ways and conformed her behavior to the proper code. Richard’s inability to change his ways is what leads to his downfall. This is why The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy and Richard III is a history sometimes classified as tragedy. While the plays are drastically different they both have something to say about the great chain of being and the doctrine of passive obedience that supports it. The great chain of being is a philosophical theory about the structure and order of the universe. Under this theory everything in the universe from rocks to animals to men to God himself has a place in the natural order of things. According to the great chain of being “God had created the universe according to a system of hierarchies…and that awareness of that scheme and one’s place in it was a precondition for the peaceful and productive operation of society” (McDonald 319). Many subdivisions exist among the main hierarchy of the great chain. The King is at the top of the hierarchy of men, with nobles below him and merchants below them and on and on. A similar hierarchy exists within the family. The husband is at the top of his family hierarchy with his wife below him and their children below her. Followers of the great chain of being believe that to violate the order of the hierarchy is to face not only the wrath of those who inhabit higher places but of God himself. To challenge your place is both troublesome and, ultimately, futile. Central to the acceptance of the great chain of being is the concept of passive obedience. The doctrine of passive obedience contends that the only way to achieve harmony in life is to both know and accept your role in the hierarchy. To willingly submit yourself to the will of those above you in the hierarchy is to follow the doctrine of passive obedience. Richard violates this policy by attempting to usurp the throne from the King, who under the great chain of being was selected for his position by God. Richard pays for this violation of God’s will with his life. Kate’s attitude toward her father and later her husband is anything but one of passivity. Only when Kate learns to abandon her shrewishness and accept her role in Petruchio’s dominion are things in the household and the lives of those around her set straight. From the first moment Kate is brought on-stage in The Taming of the Shrew it is apparent that she is not content with her role in the hierarchy and that her unwillingness to conform is hurting those around her. She is first seen on the second floor of her father’s house with Baptista, Bianca, and her suitors below. From this position of power she screams and wails at her sister and the men before throwing a stool at them. This obvious display of shrewishness goes directly against her place in the chain of being below her father. It also comes directly after Baptista has declared that Bianca may not be courted until Kate has been married. This imposition on Bianca’s future is seen as purely Kate’s fault. Bianca states “Sister, content you in my discontent” (TS 1.1.80). She hurts not only herself by ruining her chances for marriage — the only real option for a woman at the time — but her sister’s life as well. Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the play emphasizes the visual cue of stage height in this early scene as a a means of denoting power. The same visual cue recurs when Kate is first introduced to Petruchio. After a brief conversation she breaks away, launching into an extended scene in which, per Zeffirelli’s direction, she continually takes flight to higher and higher places in the house. For nearly the entirety of this scene she stands on a higher plane than Petruchio as he gives chase. At the end of the chase the roof caves in and Kate plummets back to the ground, with Petruchio landing right on top of her. Kate is put back in her place, and Petruchio announces that they will be married. After a rather eventful marriage ceremony Petruchio claims Kate as his own, exclaiming: “She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (TS 3.2.230-232). Despite this claim Kate continues to act out instead of accepting her role as wife. In the ensuing journey to Petruchio’s home Zeffirelli places Kate below Petruchio, with him riding above her on hills while she remains in the valleys. She attempts to raise herself to his level, only to fall off her horse and into the mud after attempting to climb a steep hill. This is symbolic of Petruchio’s plan to take hold of Kate through domination. She is no longer above him. When she tries again to raise herself over her husband she ends up even lower than she was before. Eventually Kate grows to accept her place in the hierarchy below Petruchio, and only then does peace return to the household. The first sign of her acceptance of Petruchio as her God comes on the journey back to her father’s house for Bianca’s wedding. She declares: “Then, God be blessed, 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 for Katharine” (TS 4.5.18-22). She grants Petruchio the power to raise the Sun or the Moon — even as God proclaimed “let there be light.” By the end of the play, Kate has learned to accept her role, as is shown in the wager scene. Kate’s decision to obey her husband earns him the wager, and her the respect that her shrewishness could never have achieved. As she kneels before Petruchio all becomes right in their world as the natural hierarchy is restored. Unfortunately for Richard III, he never achieves such a revelation and never accepts his place in the great chain of being. In the Loncraine production of Richard III much of the lesson about the unnaturalness of Richards’s quest to usurp the throne is concretized in the costuming and physical portrayal of Richard himself. Fascist uniforms reminiscent of the Nazi party and McKellen’s portrayal of Richard as a deformed Hitler-like character effectively brand the title character as a deviant personality unwilling to play his proper role in God’s hierarchy. In the scene at the mortuary Richard himself proclaims his opposition to God, saying: “Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me, And I no friends to back my suit withal But the plain devil and dissembling looks” (RIII 1.2.237-239). After Richard ascends to the throne Loncraine provides us with the powerful image of a rally for the new King. Richard takes the podium flanked by torches that throw flames into the air before a crowd waving bright red banners that flow like the blood of Richard’s enemies. The imagery of the scene is striking and unsettling at the same time. It feels unnatural and almost satanic, as if the rally were taking place in the depths of Hell. It is clear that this King is an aberration to God’s natural order. Later in the staging Loncraine provides a foil for Richard in his adversary Richmond. In the scenes leading up to the final confrontation the atmosphere surrounding the two men is a highly charged set of opposites — almost electric in its foreboding. Richmond is shown with a priest at his marriage and then consecrates his marriage to the Queen’s daughter bathed in a heavenly light. Richard is plagued by terrible nightmares that haunt him in the dark. In Richmond’s speech to his troops before the battle he points out the atrocities that Richard has committed against the crown, and therefore against God. He argues that Richard is “A base, foul stone, made precious by the foil Of England’s chair, where he is falsely set; One that hath ever been God’s enemy” (RIII 5.3.250-252). It is made clear that Richmond rides with the good grace of God on his side. The staging of Richard’s death in the Loncraine production is significant because Richmond does not actually kill Richard. Instead Richard falls to his own death, descending into a fiery pit that foreshadows his fate in the afterlife. This ties into the doctrine of passive obedience because Richmond did not directly disturb the great chain of being. It is as if God’s hand struck down Richard and blessed Richmond with the throne. The ideas of the great chain of being and passive obedience are almost completely lost on modern readers of Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew. The basic tenets of strictly static societal subdivisions and timid acceptance of that with which you disagree, necessary to the support of the great chain of being, are long outdated and no longer widely accepted. Modern society, especially modern American society, places its faith in the ideas of upward social mobility and personal freedom, ideas that run contrary to what the great chain of being preaches. Presidents may be impeached and abusive husbands may be divorced. The theme of passive obedience is almost as foreign as the concept of slavery for modern readers. This outdated theme is one of the major problem areas that must be addressed in modern adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew.“For many years critics and audiences regarded Katherina as a miserable, unsocialized creature whose refusal of suitors and defiance of her father are signs of a maladjusted personality and an uncontrolled ego…But the same plot can be staged as an insensitive, even cruel exertion of male power, a sexist suppression of female desire in the interests of financial advantage and patriarchal norms” (McDonald 84). Works CitedMcDonald, Russ. The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare. Boston: Bedford, 2001.

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