“You Know Him Not, Sir”: Shakespeare And Limitations On Self-Shaping

How much can you change your life and those of others, really? That’s a question I’ve been gnawing on a bit after seeing this past weekend an outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Shakespeare, famously, was obsessed with metamorphosis, and the central story line of The Shrew is whether a man, Petruccio, can turn a male dominating and terrorizing single woman, Kate, into a docile and quiet married woman. (I’ll set aside for the moment the Elizabethan era misogyny in the play.) As Petruccio’s servant, Grumio, says of his master early on (1.2.108-10):

[H]e [Petruccio] will throw a figure in her [Kate’s] face and so disfigure her with it that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat. You know him not, sir.

In other words, Petruccio means, through skillful image casting–his own and hers–to so disorient Kate that she’ll no longer know who she really is. (Television producers and ad men, take note.)

To echo a line from Hamlet (3.2.21-22), Petruccio will hold, as it were, a mirror up to her nature, but it will be his mirror–his interpretation of who she is. And Petruccio’s own self–if the self can be said to really exist–will be concealed through costume, image, language, and feigned manner. He intends to shape-shift before Kate, presenting her with a “figure” of himself–that of a “shrew tamer”–that will confound her very powers of reason and resistance. She will then be malleable to re-creation. This is a familiar strategem in Shakespeare’s plays, as when the villain Iago relies on manipulation and misperceptions to transform and destroy “good Othello.”

Petruccio thus suffers from a misalignment of what he wants and what he has, and he means not to live with this misalignment–either to accept or adjust to it, but rather to fix it–to fix Kate–and make her a harmonious match with him–one in which his self is aligned with her self as one (his will, of course, being dominant while hers is passive).

Petruccio’s strategem for alleviating the pain of his longing for Kate recalls for me an observation by John Koller in his book, Asian Philosophies (Pearson-Prentice Hall 2007, p. 9):

Two fundamentally different approaches to the problem of suffering are possible. Both approaches recognize that suffering is the result of a gap between what one is and has, and what one wants to be and wants to have. The solution to the problem seems obvious: what is and what is desired must be made identical.

But how can this identity be achieved? One approach to the solution is to try to attain what one desires. The person who desires wealth should try to accumulate wealth. The person who wants to be immortal should support medical and technological research that promises to extend life. The second approach consists in adjusting one’s desires to what one has. If one is poor, one can eliminate the desire for wealth. The person who suffers fear of death […] can eliminate this suffering by accepting death […]

Basically, it is the second approach that Indian philosophy has emphasized, […]

Put in sexist terms, Indian philosophy is for Kate and women generally; Western Apollonian mastery is for Petruccio and men generally. The Shrew holds up to audiences a double standard.

And, of course, accepting things as they are and adjusting to them–the path of Eastern equanimity–would kill Western drama, and Shakespeare is writing drama–the dramas of characters trying by strategems to make their unhappy selves line up–harmonize, become one–with their desires. In Petruccio’s case, he means for he and Kate, as two, to “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), and in this he succeeds. Kate, by contrast, means to retain her own voice and autonomy, yet fails.

And so I return to my original question: what are the limits on self-shaping projects? To what extent, in other words, can we guide our own metamorphoses and unions with others and get the things we want? And in what ways are we re-bound–and in what ways are we made free–by the very choices that we make?

In the introduction to The Shrew in The Norton Shakespeare (2008, edited by Stephen Greenblatt), some first borders limiting our self-shaping are mapped out, among them being poverty and gender. Pointing to three characters–the drunk and impoverished tinker, Sly, who is cruelly tricked by a rich person into believing he is a nobleman; the gentleman Lucentio; and Kate–The Norton says the following (160):

[The play] invites reflection on the sources of and possibilities for change both in people’s behavior and in their social circumstances. From the play one might, for example, conclude that lords and gentlemen can play with their social roles with more success and less risk than can tinkers. Sly’s transformation is thrust upon him; but his lack of wealth and education would in any case make it impossible for him to “pass” as nobility without the complicity of the Lord who found him asleep outside the tavern. His transformation is precarious, a mere dream from which he will have to awaken, no matter how much he might want to live on in his new circumstances. But for Lucentio, his role as a Latin master is nothing but a temporary strategem, a part that his education allows him to play to perfection but that his social rank permits him to cast aside when he has won his bride. Similarly, the social fact of gender sets different limits on possible presentations and transformations of self. […] Like many characters in the play, she [Kate] can only improvise a self in relation to the social constraints and possibilities available to her, and the constraints operating upon a tinker or a woman are very different from those affecting a university-educated gentleman or a lord.

In other words (to put all of this in Sartrean terms), we are each of us in a very particular existential situation–a situation consisting of facts from which all of our present self-shaping–if it is to occur at all–must begin. We are, for example, land mammals and therefore cannot survive in Antarctica without shelter; nor can we live at the bottom of “dragon seas” just because we want to. These are facts of our existential situation. And the rich can put on and cast off roles in ways that the poor cannot. This too is part of the existential situation of being rich or poor. The poor can oftentimes only dream of a different world; the rich can actually manipulate that world into existence. But whether rich or poor, we can’t, from where we are, just become anything we want. And each successful move toward liberation and union introduces new forms of bondage and exile for us. When we imagine ourselves in Zion, we are also in a new Babylon.

Thus adding to the Norton list of class and gender as among the hindrances and constraints on self-shaping and successful union, we can also list such things as the following:

  • unforseen contingencies
  • misperception of circumstances
  • lack of energy
  • lack of sleep
  • distractions of noise
  • malice coming from others
  • interruptions
  • sexual orientation
  • desires and aversions (you can’t experience belief, indifference, love, or hate at will–you can only be aware of whether you have an inner experience of these things and whether you want to follow them)
  • social censure
  • overbearing father figures
  • age
  • education
  • employment (or not)
  • habits
  • ethical constraints
  • the law
  • inherited temperament and intelligence
  • access to technology and social networks
  • weight, height, and body type (endomorph, ectomorph, mesomorph)
  • health
  • marital status
  • family, racial, and religious background
  • location and nationality
  • culture
  • era into which one is born
  • whether one is in prison
  • whether one is exposed to the elements
  • whether one is exposed to time urgency
  • whether or not physics and chemistry exclude humans from ever really having contra-causal free will (a scientific and philosophical question)

This is the stuff of drama. And in real life–because real life is a drama–self-fashioning and the exercise of will against so many obstacles, both actual ones and those we mistakenly imagine, can seem daunting, even futile. It is thus tempting to adopt Arthur Schopenhauer’s view (akin to Eastern quietism and the one ultimately arrived at by Kate) that to be at least moderately happy, you should resign yourself to the greater forces at work around you. This is from Book 1, Section 16 of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818, translated from the German by E.F. Payne):

[W]henever a man in any way loses self-control, or is struck down by a misfortune, or grows angry, or loses heart, he shows in this way that he finds things different from what he expected, and consequently that he laboured under a mistake, did not know the world and life, did not know how at every step the will of the individual is crossed and thwarted by the chance of inanimate nature, contrary aims and intentions, even by the malice inspired in others. Therefore either he has not used his reason to arrive at a general knowledge of this characteristic of life, or he lacks the power of judgment, when he does not again recognize in the particular what he knows in general, and when he is therefore surprised by it and loses his self-control. Thus every keen pleasure is an error, an illusion, since no attained wish can permanently satisfy, and also because every possession and every happiness is only lent by chance for an indefinite time, and can therefore be demanded back in the next hour. But every pain rests on the disappearance of such an illusion; thus both originate from defective knowledge. Therefore the wise man always holds himself aloof from jubilation and sorrow, and no event disturbs his ataraxia  [peace of mind].

There’s no doubt where Schopenhauer stands. But how about you? Like a chess board, your life’s “pieces” are in a very particular configuration from which you are in a position to choose some aspect of your own next metamorphosis, closing by strategem and action (Petruccio) or resignation (Kate, Schopenhauer) the gap between your unhappiness and what you imagine will make you happy. This is Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the vantage of each individual’s own wits and circumstances.

So who are you and what do you mean to become and have from here?

Nervy as it is, it’s your move.

santi lia aria playing chess

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to “You Know Him Not, Sir”: Shakespeare And Limitations On Self-Shaping

  1. dust850 says:

    I like this post. I especially like the ataraxia qoute at the end. Who wrote that qoute? The self help industry sells the promise that it is possible to guide our own metamorphoses. This sounds great until you develop an alcohol, drug or eating addiction. Addictions will make you question the concept of being able to change and control your destiny.
    The eastern philosophy of indifference is appealing. I don’t know which one is correct. Maybe the truth lies somewhere between the Eastern and Western philosophies.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The quote is Schopenhauer’s. And the truth is always somewhere in the middle as well as at the edges. It just depends on how you rotate the diamond, and how deeply you peer into it. Even what is false typically contains some truth. The truth “is a subtle whore” (to quote Othello from another context). No cheating with oversimplification. No rest for the wicked.


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