Fletcher: The Tamer Tamed

September 7, 2022

The Tamer Tamed
Or, The Woman’s Prize
John Fletcher
(Cambridge, 1910) [c.1610]

This desultory tour through the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries has been instructive, in part, because these plays help me to better understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. When it comes to stage dramas in this period, we typically see Shakespeare simply as foreground, with the background blank, but exploring the work of the lesser-known playwrights of the time has helped me to fill in that background. Maybe I see the figure a little more clearly now that I also see the ground.

In any case, John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed is a particularly intriguing example of contextualizing Shakespeare, because the play is actually a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew. In that play, remember, Petruchio had triumphed by bringing his belligerent and intransigent bride, Katherine, to heel, setting himself up for a lifetime of domestic harmony. Or so he thought, but we learn in Fletcher’s first scene that it hadn’t turned out that way: Katherine had reasserted herself after the wedding, and Petruchio suffered a trying marriage.

For yet the bare remembrance of his first wife
(I tell ye on my knowledge, and a truth too)
Will make him start in’s sleep, and very often
Cry out for Cudgels, Colestaves, any thing;
Hiding his breeches, out of fear her Ghost
Should walk, and wear ’em yet.
(I, i)

Poor Petruchio. But Katherine, as this passage implies, has died, and he is looking for a new bride, one, he hopes, who will be more pliable and gentle. He believes he has found one in Maria. But some men just have bad luck in women, and on the eve of their marriage, Maria vows that she, too, will tame Petruchio:

I’ll make you know, and fear a wife Petruchio,
There my cause lies.
You have been famous for a woman-tamer,
And bear the fear’d-name of a brave Wife-breaker:
A woman now shall take those honors off,
And tame you; nay, never look so big, she shall, believe me,
And I am she.
(I, iii)

Her method, though, is quite different from that we saw Katherine trying in The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than being stubborn, rude, and difficult, she takes a simpler tack: she simply denies Petruchio her bed until he submits to her will. (In addition to reminding us of Shakespeare’s prequel, then, the play also brings to mind Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the same strategy is used.)  Misery for Petruchio, who cannot believe his ill stars, ensues.

The play isn’t much more complicated than that. By play’s end, Petruchio has heaped all manner of abuse on Maria, calling her (and I’m sorry about this harsh language) “thou Fruiterer”, and “thou Devil’s Broker”, and “thou seminary of all sedition” (an interesting anti-Catholic reference that presumably refers to the seminary in Douay), and also “thou thing”, and “thou pull’d Primrose”. But none of this shakes her resolve. There is, adding interest, a subplot in which Maria’s sister, promised in marriage to an old and ugly man, consorts instead with a dashing young lover and marries him in secret.

In the end, Maria gets her way: Petruchio becomes like clay in her hands, ready to do her bidding, whereupon she gives up the game and reconciles:

I have done my worst, and have my end, forgive me;
From this hour make me what you please: I have tam’d ye,
And now am vow’d your servant: Look not strangely,
Nor fear what I say to you. Dare you kiss me?
Thus I begin my new love.
(V, iv)

We expect comedies in this period to end in marriage; this one, contrarily, begins with marriage, but finds its happy ending all the same.

**

It’s not an especially brilliant play. The association with Shakespeare might lead a few readers to it — as it did me — but, having done so, it suffers in the contrast. Shakespeare’s play is simply wittier, more energetic, and more fun. Fletcher’s verse is relatively plodding, his plot relatively simple, and his characters relatively thin. But if a double-bill were played, I’d line up to see it.

***

(Parenthetically, while on the theme of Shakespeare in relation to other playwrights of his time, I noticed that in The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio says at one point, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness”. Zounds! I thought for certain this was a reference to Thomas Heywood’s play A Woman Killed with Kindness. But, alas, according to irrefutable authority the latter play was also the later, by a decade or so. And so my career as a literary sleuth came to an abrupt end.)

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