Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lances are but Straws

Those of you paying attention (and I thank you for that) may remember that I sheepishly mentioned The Taming of the Shrew the other day while insisting that Shakespeare was not a misogynist. I promised to get back to that.

Now I am back. And I’m thinking that I have an explanation. Sure, I have to admit that “shrew” is a gendered insult. But I am also thinking that neither the “shrew” portrayed in that play nor the way she is “tamed” suggests unthinking woman-hating.

First, the Kate to whom we are initially introduced in that play is not a caricature—nor is she especially lovable. In fact, she is decidedly mean—especially to her sweet kid sister, Bianca, who just wants everyone to get along. So the fact that she is maligned is not totally outrageous. But her anger also makes sense: it gives her power; everyone is terrified of her. And she seems to know that she is likely to lose all that power once she is married off, as custom dictates.

Second, the guy who boasts that he will “tame” her—before they have even met—is not exactly the portrait of gentility. He is introduced as a shameless operator. That is, Petruchio is hardly a saint or a victim. He is a profoundly flawed “hero” who proves victorious in spite of his decidedly self-serving impulses. But he is clever. And nimble, learning effectively on the fly how to get what he wants after going about things all wrong at first.

Lawyers spend a lot of time trying to get other very stressed out people to do what the lawyers think is best. A really important part of the job is knowing what might be best in light of certain laws and other kinds of rules that can trip up regular folks and great big companies at every turn. But the trick is not just being knowledgeable enough to give sound advice; you have to get people to heed that advice. 

When I started practicing law, I was struck by how much of the job seemed to involve being a mother hen, scout leader, psychotherapist, or tireless nag—depending on one’s perspective.  Lots of e-mails and phone calls reminding people about pending deadlines or appointments; arranging meetings to ensure that people actually prepared for something serious like a deposition, court appearance, or board presentation; and talking people down from the ledge, i.e., their instinct to lash out, play ostrich, or run in the face of trouble or tedium. Striking the right note, while relentlessly bossing someone around, is definitely a challenge. (A challenge, I confess, I am still trying to master as both spouse and mother.)  Since someone is generally paying the lawyer to do all this nagging, that someone needs to trust that the lawyer has the client’s best interest at heart. And a lot of lawyers are never able to soothe the nagging doubts on this front….

I don’t know of any law school class purporting to teach how to be a really effective bossy-pants.  But I bet a lot of lawyers could use such a class. Or at least they could take a page out of Petruchio’s playbook.

In Shrew, when we meet Petruchio he is determined to marry up, and thereby get his hands on a substantial dowry. To achieve this goal, he is willing to take as a bride the region’s most infamous shrew, Katarina of Padua. Before meeting her, he vows to “kill [her] with kindness.” (4.1.208.)  That is, he thinks the way to tame her will be through a charm offensive, such that if “she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear/ As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.” (2.1.172-73.) When he actually meets his would-be bride, Petruchio suddenly forgets about his planned kindness-campaign. He resorts instead to unbridled verbal aggression. The moment he meets her, he rather presumptuously calls her by a nickname, “Kate;” and when she protests that “Kate” is not her name, he ups the ante:

You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation—
Myself am mov’d to woo thee for my wife.

The future couple then engages in one of the most delightfully venomous and bawdy battles of wit ever memorialized in English, which ends with Petruchio declaring:

Thou must be married to no man but me;
For I am he am born to tame you Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.

(2.1.185-93). I like to think that Katarina’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Petruchio works on him, makes him realize that he really wants a relationship with this fiery, verbally adept being—not just her father’s money.  And so he again shifts gears.

While Katarina is still reeling, Petruchio hastily forges a marriage contract with her father and exits to plan the marriage feast. 

Later, Katarina, seemingly resigned to her fate, is utterly humiliated when Petruchio shows up for the ceremony exceedingly late and dressed in an outlandish costume. Then, much to her amazement, he unceremoniously carts her off to his place before she can take any part in the wedding reception supposedly arranged in her honor.

Finally, to accomplish his objective of “taming” her, Petruchio employs an ingenious paradoxical approach: “He kills her in her own humor.” (4.1.180). When they arrive at his house, Petruchio starts acting just like she used to—imperious, tyrannical, petulant, impossible to please; but he acts this way towards everyone but her—all the while seeming to be concerned only for her needs. Without confronting her directly, he holds a mirror up to her previous ways such that she is able to see just how ugly she’d been to family and servants alike before Petruchio came along. And, at least if Kate’s final submissive monologue can be taken seriously, he seems prevail in the end. He does “tame” her—but not through cowering, sucking up, criticizing, bullying, or abusing her, as he’d initially been inclined to do. Instead, he succeeds by taking her outrageous conduct to the next level so that she can see for herself that it ain’t pretty and make a change on her own.

Okay, I am not really sure how lawyers could use this paradoxical approach to lull clients into submission. But at least it illuminates a process that seems to promote self-awareness:

  • model the behavior;
  • expose the pattern;
  • refuse to react in kind; and
  • let the other person take responsibility for changing the circumstances that are making him/her feel so angry and powerless.
Because of this, I don’t see Shrew as a story about putting an uppity woman in her place so that she will be a submissive housewife. Instead, it strikes me as a parable about how equally flawed people can experiment with strategies for helping each other become more self-aware, more generous, and more optimistic. If lawyers could incorporate similar experiments into their day jobs, it couldn’t hurt their professional relationships—and might even foster mutual respect and trust.

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