Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Theology of the Body in Shakespearean Comedy

Jonathan Pryce as Petruchio and Paola Dionisotti as Kate in The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1978 production of The Taming of the Shrew
Whether we realize it or not, the love of “mutual submission” John Paul II writes about is the defining characteristic of the happy ending we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the tension between duty and inclination, and the various conflicts that arise from this tension. In Shakespeare’s comedies – take The Taming of the Shrew, for example – man’s struggle to reconcile duty and inclination is often typified in a conflict related to sex and marriage, which is resolved only when the characters learn to compromise their inclinations for duty’s sake. In Taming, for instance, Petruchio and Kate learn to channel their passions and to relate to one another respectfully as they are obligated to do as husband and wife. In Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB), Pope John Paul II discusses the necessity of this sort of compromise and couches it in terms of his theology about the meaning of creation, sex and marriage.

Shakespeare makes the basic thematic point that while duty and inclination seem to contradict one another, they do not have to remain at odds. John Paul II develops this idea further and argues that if we allow our inclinations to be ordered properly, that is, toward our duty to obey the moral law, we will find the happiness and fulfillment that we seek in God’s plan for sex and marriage.

In the TOB, the Holy Father presents what he terms an “adequate anthropology,” a comprehensive philosophy intended to help man better understand himself in light of his created body, his sexuality, and the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The significance of the sexual act transcends the physical because we are not merely bodies; rather, we are beings with great worth because God created us, body and soul, and His plan for sex and marriage redeems our entire person, bodies included (144). Marriage is sacramental, and therefore more than merely a social convention; it is the visible sign of a spiritual reality, and it is intended both to safeguard the sacredness of sex and to help husband and wife grow in virtue, specifically in love for one another and for God (363).

We noted earlier that conflicts involving sex and marriage often form the basis for the theme of “duty vs. inclination” in Shakespeare’s comedies. More often than not, marriage becomes purely a matter of duty, and sex – or sexual desire – purely a matter of inclination. John Paul II argues that this dichotomy is due, in part, to the ways in which God’s plan for sex and marriage is tarnished and obscured by human sinfulness (256). He uses Sacred Scripture and natural law to support the TOB as he explains that in God’s plan for sex and marriage, man’s desire for sex directs him toward marriage, and the sacrifices married life requires ensure that man’s sexual desire remains properly ordered toward its unitive and procreative ends, and thus toward his eternal happiness.

We can see John Paul II’s ideas at work in the ways audiences typically respond to Shakespeare’s characters. At the beginning of Taming, Petruchio treats marriage as merely a binding social contract, and we cannot help but disagree with him for doing so; nor are we wiling to believe that marriage is merely as Lucentio imagines it to be: a lifetime of infatuation, sunshine and roses. We recognize very early on in the play that both men’s views are erroneous. If, at the play’s end, it seems that Petruchio still regards marriage as “a contract of domination,” we will most likely be unsatisfied with the play’s resolution (473). Shakespeare seems to point out that marriage is not purely a matter of obligation or purely a matter of romance; ideally, it is a combination of both.

The TOB echoes this idea, while of course developing it further: if we wish to be happy, we must submit our inclination to our duty; we must place sex within its intended context, that is, within the sacrament of marriage. At the center of the Holy Father’s reflections on married life are the words of St. Paul in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:21-33), in which Paul calls husbands and wives to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” The Pope calls this practice “reciprocal submission” expressed in love (473). While Paul is often quoted as simply instructing wives to submit to their husbands, the Pope examines this directive in context and concludes that spouses “are, in fact, ‘subject to one another,’ mutually subordinated to one another” (473).

This ideal of mutual submission plays a central role in the resolution of the sex-and-marriage conflicts in Shakespearean comedy. Depending on how Taming is played, it may seem by the end of the play that Petruchio and Katharina have learned to practice the sort of reciprocal submission necessary for a happy, lasting marriage; or it may seem that only Katharina practices submission, which we find distasteful and unfair, since we know intuitively that Petruchio ought to submit, in some way, to her as well. Whether we realize it or not, the love of “mutual submission” John Paul II writes about is the defining characteristic of the happy ending we expect from Shakespeare’s comedies.

While The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the TOB at work in Shakespearean comedy, John Paul II’s ideas are certainly applicable to the other comedies as well, perhaps especially to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

1 comment:

LG Broussard said...

I'm taking a Shakespeare class this semester and had similar (although not as labored-out and clear) thoughts about Taming of the Shrew as well as Much Ado about Nothing. Brilliant, Emily! I've got nothing to add to the discussion right now (we're about to go rescue a new puppy as soon as my husband finishes up what he's doing on his computer), but I may come back to this if I think of anything useful to contribute.