Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Controlling Clothes, Manipulating Mates: Petruchio's Griselda

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Controlling Clothes, Manipulating Mates: Petruchio's Griselda

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE MOST HILARIOUS--or hideous--scenes in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew occurs in act 4, when Petruchio, with the aid of Grumio and Hortensio, symbolically addresses Katherina in apparel he chooses for her. Throughout the scene, Petruchio in effect undresses his new wife by contradicting enough of her sartorial desires to the delight of the assembled males, and to Katherina's manifest discomfort. Editors and playgoers have usually relished the banter among the men and Katherina's resultant frustration; they have often been relieved that Petruchio chooses to tame his new wife in so innoculous a manner. (1)

But apparel is too potent a tool in any power dynamic to dismiss its manipulation as a benign taming game. In early modern England, as today, any contention about apparel raises issues of personal and social identity. Although Petruchio employs less physical abuse than traditional tamers, we cannot blithely disregard any attempts by one party to control another's identity through this most intimate device, even if those attempts are made by Shakespeare's "humane" husband.

"Dress defines not only who one is, but how one is: that is, how one fits into a culture's moral and religious value system." (2) Female dress was complicated for early modern women by legal and social codes that, when they mention women at all, subjected wives to the personal taste and generosity of their spouses. This essay will examine the potency of apparel as a battle-site in gender relations in early modern England through an analysis of texts that retell the Griselda story. We can then return to Shakespeare's Shrew--perhaps to re-vision the controversial tailor scene.

Christiane Klapisch-Zuber has characterized the economic and social implications of nuptial arrangements in early modern Italy as the "Griselda Complex." (3) The term derives from Boccaccio's tale of the Marquis who chooses to wed a poor peasant girl and proceeds to rest her worthiness through a series of emotional ordeals that rival Job's. Her image in cassone (wedding chest) paintings popularized her for patrician Italians; and the early modern English public would have been familiar with the tale through versions by Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Petrarch, as well as contemporary ballads, prose pamphlets, and plays. (4)

Klapisch-Zuber appropriates the fictional character to illustrate a social system that bridled women in an increasingly complicated pattern of trafficking in women. (5) The exclusion of daughters as heirs in favor of their brothers effectively subjected wives to husbands--who managed, then, to control the entire conjugal estate. The considerable expenditure on apparel in this time period had the very real effect that the lady sported her husband's estate on her person; he was also responsible for her dressing within her class.

The very fact that the husband presents his bride with gifts of expensive clothing suggests a pecuniary one-upmanship between the father of the bride, who dowers his daughter, and the new husband, who expensively clothes her. The effect of this counter-trousseau is to restore the economic imbalance (of giver over recipient) that occurs when the wife's father establishes his superiority by paying the dowry. That the new bride's clothing might have been rented or borrowed by the husband for the wedding (6) points up the symbolic character of the exchange, even as it reminds us of the material considerations.

A husband's investment in clothing his wife has resonances far beyond its significance as a fact of material culture. Indeed, the present study is most interested in Griselda's betrothal as a ritual act that uses apparel to mark her transformation from daughter of one male to the wife of another. This transformation, her vestizione, places the husband's gifts of apparel in the symbolic sphere where we can best analyze their use by Griselda's Walter and Katherina's Petruchio.

I noted above that a woman's garb defines her place in society's moral and religious value system, and that as the early modern bride dons her husband's gift of apparel, she is symbolically integrated into her husband's household and lineage. …

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