8 December 1999
[comment1]Perceptual Manipulation in Shakespeare's Taming
of the Shrew
Teun A. Van Dijk,
in his essay "Pragmatics and Poetics," explains the reason for speech
is "to change the internal state of the hearer" (Dijk 30).
Ferdinand de Saussure describes in his essay, "Nature of the
Linguistic Sign," how a word is more connected to the minds of the speaker
and the hearer than to anything else.
He describes that the "linguistic sign" as a unit formed equally
by the association of a "concept" and a "sound-image."
The "sound-image" is what one would call a spoken word, something
that "signifies." Saussure describes it as "the psychological
imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses" (Saussure
832). He goes on to describe
its materiality: "the sound-image is sensory" (Saussure 832). The term "concept" is summed-up as being "generally
more abstract" (Saussure 833) than the "sound-image." The "concept," it appears, is what one would
call objective perceptions, for example, the table, or an ox. A "concept" is anything that can be "signified."
In The Taming of the Shrew Petruchio intends to break
Katharina by disassociating her from her sense of reality by prying
apart the linguistic unit she has intuitively taken for granted.
The first scene
demonstrates Katharina's personality through the interaction she has
with her sister, Bianca, and her father, Baptista.
She is shown to have "a devilish spirit" (Shakespeare 2.1, 25).
Katharina has tied her sister's hands and is taunting her, goading
her into telling her which of Bianca's suitors is her favorite. Petruchio, shortly afterwards, meets Baptista
and speaks to him about Katharina.
Instead of calling her a shrew, Petruchio compliments her on
her "beauty and her wit, / Her affability and bashful modesty, / Her
wonderous qualities and mild behavior" (Shakespeare 2.1, 47-9), all
of which strike Baptista as so strange a depiction of his daughter Katharina
that he thinks Petruchio must have mistaken her for a different girl.
Petruchio has started the process that will disassociate Katharina
from the world she knows to be true and make her dependent on the world
he asserts to be true.
Petruchio's claims of how sweet he has heard
Katharina to be are the absolute opposite of how she is perceived by
the other characters in the play. Katharina
is notoriously un-sweet. Bent
Rosenbaum explains in his essay, "The Discourse of Psychosis and the
Process of Listening," that when speech is manipulated so that what
is being spoken is radically different from what is spoken about, the
spoken realm takes on a reality of its own.
Whether or not this spoken realm is perceived by anyone but the
speaker does not diminish its existence for the speaker and, by extension,
those who respond to the speaker (Rosenbaum 206).
Petruchio is constructing an identity for Katharina that contradicts
completely the one Katharina herself demonstrates, and because he is
stating it as if it were true it begins to take shape as a truth.
Harly Sonne states that in certain forms of madness, language
becomes "liberated from its otherwise tightly bound relations to what
it means" (Sonne 228). Sonne
says it is as if the linguistic sign has been abnormally broken down
into its components, and the signifier begins to work independently
of the signified (Sonne 228). Petruchio works in this model and madly separates
signifier from signified.
Petruchio gives a soliloquy in which he communicates
his plan to "tame" Katharina. Petruchio
says that he will present the world to her as the opposite of how she
perceives it to be. When she
frowns, he will "say she looks as clear / As morning roses" and when
"she be mute and will not speak a word, / Then [he will] commend her
volubility / And say she uttereth piercing eloquence" (Shakespeare 2.1,
169-72). By asserting to be true the opposite of what
Katharina perceives, Petruchio intends to break her of her intuitive
bond between the world as it is and the world as it is communicated. He wishes to break Katharina's association
between the world and its signifiers.
Jacques Derrida, in his essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the
Discourse of the Human Sciences," suggests that there is a structure
that does not change, beneath a layering of words and concepts that
do change (Derrida 879). Petruchio
is aware of the relative independence of words from objects, or actions. He is in a position of power over Katharina
who relies on the existence of a complete linguistic sign.
Petruchio is not only destabilizing Katharina's
perception of the world around her, but he is also misrepresenting her.
Petruchio asserts the opposite of how Katharina is perceived
by the other characters in the play. When speaking to her father, Petruchio states
that Katharina is "not froward, but modest as the dove. / She is not
hot, but temperate as the morn" (Shakespeare 2.1, 286-7). There is no apparent change in Katharina's
attitude and nothing she has done validates his assertion that she is
now sweet and "temperate" (Shakespeare 2.1, 287).
Petruchio is creating a reality using nothing but words and imposing
it on to the other characters in the play.
His asserted reality is taken so far, that it traps Katharina
into a marriage against her will. Katharina
makes it clear to her father, and to Petruchio, that she does not want
to marry Petruchio. Yet when
Petruchio tells Baptista that they "have Īgreed so well together / That
upon Sunday is the wedding day" (Shakespeare 2.1, 290-1), Baptista readily
accepts Petruchio's invented reality over his daughters expressed wishes,
and the wedding is set.
In order to disassociate, for
Katharina, the intuitive assumption that appearances and words have a
structural attachment to something real, Petruchio dresses in a way that
is opposed to what is expected, and he says the opposite of the truth.
Petruchio then moves from demonstration to imposition and attempts to
dress Katharina as he wishes. Katharina guesses correctly when she says
to Petruchio, "you mean to make a puppet of me" (Shakespeare 4.3, 103).
He has set up his invented reality and made it clear that he will act
according to his invented customs and perceptions despite the other characters
in the play. Petruchio now begins to force Katharina to acknowledge his
reality over the one she perceives. Weakened by lack of sleep and food,
Katharina, in her last attempt to defend her vision of reality, refuses
to be dressed by Petruchio. It is the last time she speaks of the connection
between her words and a passion or an emotion she feels: "My tongue will
tell the anger of my heart, / Or else my heart, concealing it, will break"
(Shakespeare 4.3, 77-8); she never expresses her anger and her utterances
become shorter and shorter as Petruchio wins control of them.
Petruchio constructs a separate
reality that works independently of any form of objective reality. It
is fair to say that Petruchio has invented a cage to keep Katharina once
she is caught. In Petruchio's created world, Katharina will be dependant
on him for guidance because it is a world of arbitrary signifiers. Katharina
becomes dependant on Petruchio at the same time the word "say" comes to
have more validation than the word "know." It is day when Petruchio says
"it is the moon that shines so bright," and Katharina responds to him
by saying "I know it is the sun that shines so bright" (Shakespeare 4.5,
5-6). He has her trapped, if she does not agree with him he will punish
her. Katharina relinquishes what she "knows" in favor of what he "says":
"I say it is the moon" and Katharina responds with "I know it is the moon"
(Shakespeare 4.5, 16-17). Katharina does not try to argue or fight with
Petruchio, instead she easily accepts his worded perception over what
she knows to be true. He leads her back and forth, from the reality she
perceives to the reality he asserts. He addresses Vincentio as a "gentle
mistress" and urges Katharina to do the same, and when she has done so,
he drags her back by saying Vincentio "is a man, old, wrinkled, faded,
withered" (Shakespeare 4.5, 42).
Petruchio succeeds in separating
the signifier from the signified. He succeeds in creating a situation
in which Katharina depends on him for clues on how his world is currently
being perceive. Katharina learned well from Petruchio how to separate
the meaning from an utterance. She demonstrates how well she can say
it is night when it is day, and how she has learned to say an old man
is a young maiden, and then an old man again. But in a world where there
is no accordance between what is said and what is felt or perceived, the
spoken word loses its value. Katharina can say what she pleases without
any care for meaning. With this in mind, it is hard to tell if Petruchio's
plan to "tame" her has worked, or if it has set her free.
Derrida, Jacques. "Structure,
Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." The Critical
Tradition: Classic Texts and
Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. 2nd
ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. 878-889.
Saussure, Ferdinand de.
"Nature of the Linguistic Sign." The Critical Tradition:
Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed.
David H. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston : Bedford Books,
Shakespeare, William. The
Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Frances E. Dolan. Boston : Bedford Books,
Sonne, Harly. "Literature:
Madness and Literature; Psychiatry and Criticism." Approaches
to Discourse, Poetics, and Psychiatry.
Eds. Iris M. Zavala et al. 4 vols. Philadelphia : John
Benjamins, 1987. 223-233.
Rosenbaum, Bent. "The
Discourse of Psychosis and the Process of Listening." Approaches
to Discourse, Poetics, and Psychiatry.
Eds. Iris M. Zavala et al. 4 vols. Philadelphia : John
Benjamins, 1987. 201-213.
Van Dijk, Teun A. ""Pragmatics
and Poetics." Pragmatics of Language and Literature. Eds.
Teun A. Van Dijk and William O.
Hendricks. 2 vols. Amsterdam : North-Holland, 1976.1: 23-57.