In his reaction to an all-male casting of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a prospective father gains insight into why he is indifferent to whether his child is a boy or a girl.
When I recently told a female colleague my fiancée Kara is pregnant, one of the first questions she asked was whether it’s a boy or a girl.
‘She wants to wait until delivery to find out,’ I replied, adding that I don’t feel strongly either way so I’m willing to wait too.
‘What are you hoping for?’
And before I could answer, she supplied an answer for me, with a knowing grin, as if she sensed an impropriety, but not one that was intrusive or offensive. ‘A boy, right?’
‘You know,’ I said, ‘I guess I always thought that would be my preference, but actually I don’t care either way.’
I’ve encountered a similar presumption in others to whom I’ve told the news. My answer is always the same: I don’t care. And that’s the truth. I don’t. I am admittedly a bit surprised by my indifference, though I should not be. I had never given the question much consideration, in part because the prospect of being a father was so far away. I had never progressed in a relationship to the point of contemplating with my partner whether to have a child. So the question was always abstract and never of immediate concern. Yet to the extent that I ever considered the prospect of being a father, it seemed a safe assumption that I would prefer a boy over a girl. And now here I am, a few months away from cradling a newborn in my arms, and I am intrigued to discover I have no strong preference for a boy over a girl.
I became vividly aware of this indifference recently while at a performance of Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC. I arrived about a half-hour before the show, which afforded me an opportunity to take a tour of the souvenir shop. While browsing, I saw a baby-size shirt with a caption stitched on the front quoting a line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘though she be but little, she is fierce.’ I smiled, remembering that Kara once invoked that quote as one of her favorite lines from Shakespeare. Perfect, I thought. Impulsively, I decided to buy it.
Five minutes later, it dawned on me: what if she gives birth to a boy? Here was a reason I was beginning to have second thoughts about waiting until birth to find out the gender. If I knew it were a boy, I would not have purchased it, right? I would surely not put a shirt on my son that implies he is a she!
In buying the shirt, I had implicitly assumed I had a daughter on the way. But if I’m wrong and Kara ends up giving birth to a boy, I had just wasted $20. A pang of regret overcame me—I had violated my typically ironclad rule to eschew impulse buys, and now I possibly had a $20 loss to show for it. I tried to take consolation in knowing that Kara would find the shirt endearing. This could prove useful if I got home from the play later than I expected and she was in a sour mood as a result. But then that means I just paid $20 simply to mollify Kara in the event I arrived home late.
As expected, she thought it was endearing. I arrived home from the play at midnight and she was a bit sour because I got home late (I prefer to go to plays alone, so a date for the two of us had not been an option), but her eyes lit right up when she saw the shirt. She seized her phone and took pictures. She held out the shirt, took a long glance, and smiled. She was happy. My tardiness was forgiven.
I pointed out how I had blindly assumed we had a daughter on the way, and we would have to discard the shirt if the baby turned out to be a boy. She suggested we just blot out the ‘s’ on ‘she’ if we end up having a boy.
Wow, great idea babe!
Meanwhile, it was suddenly apparent to me that I was indifferent to whether my child is a boy or a girl. I had not so much implicitly assumed I was having a girl as I had not thought seriously about gender at all. I liked the quote and I liked the shirt. I did not make the connection between the quote and the assumption that I had a daughter on the way. It was simply a cool shirt for my child. Gender was irrelevant.
Maybe I should not be so indifferent. The presumption that I would prefer a boy perhaps says a great deal about the relative social, psychological, and economic advantages we impute to masculinity. I found myself guilty of the same presumption when discussing gender with friends who were about to become fathers, assuming they probably wanted a boy rather than a girl. And if they professed their indifference, I was incredulous. Maybe I am wrong, but this presumption seems to indicate that, on some gut level, the average male is inclined to prefer a boy over a girl, perhaps because he looks forward to reliving his own boyhood through his son, but maybe also because he senses there are social prerogatives enjoyed by boys that are not so easily available to girls. He wants the best for his child. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where it is often easier to be a man than a woman, in ways that it should not be, and it is easy for a man to assume that life will carve an easier path for his son than it will for his daughter.
Upon reflection, however, I wonder why this should necessarily be true in all cases. I am not convinced that life is inherently easier for a boy than it is for a girl. This is not to turn a blind eye to the ongoing institutional obstacles that women face in the workplace and in society as a whole. Nor do I aim to discount the hurdles women face by pointing out that more girls than boys are enrolled in college or that Hillary Clinton has a good chance of becoming the first female president of the United States. This is not an article about policy or politics. It is, rather, only to point out that life is hard for everyone, and by ‘life’ I mean the compendium of aspirations, disappointments, and compromises that are common to us all, regardless of gender. As an example, I turn to what is perhaps the most universal, and political, of human endeavors: the endless quest for happiness, love, equilibrium, and security in the inherently precarious and dynamic context of human relationships.
When I bought the baby shirt, I was a few minutes away from sitting down to a see an all-male cast perform Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The all-male casting was supposed to provide a novel perspective on the play. In an email sent to attendees, it was promoted as an innovative means of shifting the focus “from the battle of the sexes to the internal struggle over identity and belonging, exploring the masculine within the feminine, and vice versa.” Combined with musical set pieces designed to give voice to the interior lives of women in a play that, according to many interpretations, subjects women to treatment that is, to put it euphemistically, ‘problematic,’ the peculiar production was presumably a way of uprooting historical attitudes about the dominant role of a man in marital relationships that critics have seen as endemic in the play (even though the men were dressed as women, thus preserving the essential aspect of femininity in the play’s female characters).
But this assumes that a central theme of the play is about male chauvinism, misogyny, and the inability of women to do anything about it. I’m not so sure. That strikes me as a literalist and superficial reading of the play. The play is about an anomalous couple in which a male character, Petruchio, employs a kind of reverse psychology to exert his influence on a ‘shrewish’ woman named Katharina whom he has set out to woo as his wife. He has come to a new city to seek his fortune and quickly learns that a nobleman named Baptista will not allow his younger daughter Bianca to marry till his older daughter Katharina is married. But Katharina has a reputation for being obstreperous and quarrelsome. She is known as a ‘shrew.’ The young men of Padua (the city in which the play takes place) might otherwise ignore her, except that a group of suitors to Bianca are dismayed because they can have no hope of wooing Bianca until the pariah Katharina is wedded. Enter Petruchio, who is friends with Hortensio, one of the suitors to Bianca. Hortensio suggests to Petruchio that he woo Katharina, but warns him of her reputation. Petruchio, enticed by the prospect of a large dowry, is undeterred and promises to seek the approval of Katharina’s father to have her hand in marriage. Hortensio and his fellow suitors are incredulous but Petruchio marches up to Baptista’s home that very day and proclaims his intent. As he waits for Katharina, he begins to dwell on his strategy for ‘taming a shrew:’
I will attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale:
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew:
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence:
If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks,
As though she bid me stay by her a week:
If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns and when be married.
He immediately discovers that Katharina’s reputation is well-deserved, but Petruchio is determined. After a lusty and vibrant exchange, rife with Katharina’s insults and Petruchio’s headstrong overtures, Baptista and the young suitors return to observe how Petruchio has progressed in his suit. Petruchio announces they will wed on the following Sunday. Katharina interjects: ‘I’ll see thee hanged on Sunday first.’ But Petruchio ignores her, attributing her professed resistance to an agreement between them:
‘Tis bargain’d ‘twixt us twain, being alone,
That she shall still be curst in company.
I tell you, ‘tis incredible to believe
How much she loves me: O, the kindest Kate!
She hung about my neck; and kiss on kiss
She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath,
That in a twink she won me to her love…
Amazed but without recourse to think otherwise, Baptista is content and gives his consent (some critics maintain that Baptista himself is guilty of instigating Katharina because he is partial to his docile daughter Bianca; yet one wonders why he would then obstruct Bianca’s chances at marriage while simultaneously promoting Katharina as a prospective bride. Maybe he wants to be rid of Katharina, but why hold hostage the happiness of his favored daughter to the recalcitrance of her older sister? In a truly misogynistic world, it would seem he could simply disown or neglect her, and yet he does not).
Baptista joins their hands in anticipation of the big day. But when the occasion arrives, Petruchio is nowhere to be found, while Katharina and everyone else are dressed lavishly for the ceremony and reception. After a long delay full of suspense, Petruchio finally shows up dressed in an outlandish outfit, almost manic in his proclamation that he and his new wife must leave immediately, though he absurdly exhorts the party to remain and enjoy the reception. The party is appalled but cannot sway him otherwise.
This turns out to be the first salvo in Petruchio’s quest to tame his shrew. At this point, it is important to acknowledge that this is a play. It does not seem to me a dubious proposition to assert that most women so thoroughly embarrassed on their wedding day would then cast off their previous vows and cut ties with the man to whom they had given their consent in marriage (regardless of century, and excepting repressive societies where women are married off against their will). Or would they? Ay, there’s the rub. What if the woman is truly smitten with the man? Note Katharina’s disappointment before Petruchio shows up.
No shame but mine: I must, forsooth, be forced
To give my hand opposed against my heart
Unto a mad-brain rudesby full of spleen;
Who woo’d in haste and means to wed at leisure.
I told you, I, he was a frantic fool,
Hiding his bitter jests in blunt behavior:
And, to be noted for a merry man,
He’ll woo a thousand, ‘point the day of marriage,
Make feasts, invite friends, and proclaim the banns;
Yet never means to wed where he hath woo’d.
Now must the world point at poor Katharina,
And say, ‘Lo, there is mad Petruchio’s wife,
If it would please him come and marry her!’
As famed literary critic Harold Bloom notes: “No one enjoys being jilted, but this is not the anxiety of an unwilling bride. Kate, authentically in love, nevertheless is unnerved by the madcap Petruchio, lest he turn out to be an obsessive practical joker, betrothed to half of Italy.” The dramatic flare-up of what was already a combustible situation might seem to invoke pity for Katharina as a woman tied up in a hasty marriage with a man she does not love, but one must read carefully to observe the undercurrent of her disappointment. No doubt there is embarrassment too, but not the embarrassment of a woman disenfranchised, but a woman who is smitten, who has previously shown every willingness to exert her will, who broke a musical instrument over the head of Hortensio, who has insulted any number of men to their face, and who comes from a noble house and is not forced to marry for financial security. In Petruchio she meets her match, and she succumbs to affection. She could have refused to show up for her day of marriage. Instead, she shows up in a wedding dress.
Petruchio carries her home, where his antics continue, subjecting her to famine and sleep deprivation, but under the guise of a doting husband who will not allow her to eat meat that he deems overcooked, or sleep in a bed he deems insufficiently prepared. His zany antics continue until she finally realizes the way to tame this beast: she disagrees with Petruchio when he remarks on how brightly the moon shines, saying it the sun that shines; when Petruchio insists it is the moon, she has her epiphany, saying, almost in exasperation:
Katharina: Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please.
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
Petruchio: I say it is the moon.
Katharina: I know it is the moon.
Petruchio: Nay, then you lie. It is the blessed sun.
Katharina: Then, God be blest, it is the blessed sun.
But sun it is not, when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katharine.
As Bloom observes: “From this moment on, Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio, a marvelous Shakespearean reversal of Petruchio’s earlier strategy of proclaiming Kate’s mildness even as she raged on.” Katharina learns how to play and master the game of reverse psychology. She finds the way to ‘tame’ Petruchio by making him believe she has been tamed, admittedly in a state of refined resignation, but nevertheless by employing the same elementary tactics of reverse psychology that Petruchio employed on her. She is empowered to play her part in a time-honored psychological game that is part and parcel of any modern couple, friendship, or family. Reverse psychology might be tried and true, or tried and trite, and thus transparent, but it is nonetheless one of many tactics employed, with transparency by the less skilled and with deft disguise by the more skilled, in the art of subtle manipulations and compromises that uphold the inherently precarious equilibrium of any human relationship, especially marital relationships.
Once Katharina has learned to ‘tame’ her husband, the marriage settles into a calm, happy routine. As Bloom writes: “There is no more charming a scene of married love in all Shakespeare than this little vignette on a street in Padua:”
Katharina: Husband, let’s follow, to see the end of this ado.
Petruchio: First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
Katharina: What, in the midst of the street?
Petruchio: What, art thou ashamed of me?
Katharina: No, sir, God forbid; but ashamed to kiss.
Petruchio: Why, then, let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.
Katharina: Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
Petruchio: Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate.
Better once than never, for never too late.
Shakespeare’s play is a dramatic representation of what is mundane fact of life. Petruchio and Katharina are one particularly madcap couple, but they are only one couple. This singular representation of marriage may not be unique, but it is also not common. How common could it be for a husband to show up late for his wedding in a clownish costume, subject his wife to famine and sleep deprivation, and still succeed in wooing a woman who has no need for his financial security and who has a reputation for strong-willed independence? Not common at all. Petruchio and Katharina are indeed smitten with each other, but they are also two strong personalities who learn to navigate their expectations of what each brings to the relationship. Not all men are like Petruchio, not all women are like Katharina, and not all couples are like Petruchio and Katharina. But for a man like Petruchio and a woman like Katharina, one can only expect a courtship of fireworks.
This is a play about the politics of marriage. No marriage is without strife, selfishness, and the combat of independent personalities. A man and a woman must find their way in marriage, as they must find their way in the world. Shakespeare is no misogynist. One need only read Much Ado about Nothing to be charmed by the conquering wit of Beatrice, who would have made mincemeat of Petruchio. Katharina is no Beatrice, but she is astute and self-reliant nonetheless. She proclaims:
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey….
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
This is not a shrew who has been tamed, or an assertive woman made docile. This is a sophisticated woman who has learned that marriages are compromises between distinct personalities, a perpetual combat of parry and dodge, of triumph and disappointment. She understands that marriage is a microcosm of all relationships in life, and even of life itself. No matter whether one is a boy or girl, a person must face up to the challenges of human relationships in particular, and life in general. Petruchio seems to be in the dominant role in this relationship, but he is also a bit of a buffoon, one who manages to endure the surly insults cast at him by Katharina (and her violence as well; Petruchio himself never lays a hand on her). Katharina seems to be ‘trained’ to be a docile wife. But what we witness instead are two combative personalities who navigate their way to a mutual understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their partner’s personality, as well as their own.
So what does all this say about fatherhood and not having a preference whether my child is a boy or girl?
It is undoubtedly true that we still live in a world where women continue to strive to break the glass ceiling, obtain equal pay for equal work, and fend off the continual onslaught of sexism. On that basis alone, it would seem a no-brainer to prefer a boy because he will have an easier path in life.
But it seems perverse to base a preference for a boy on a pessimistic outlook of what life will be like for a girl. For one, that world is likely to change. But a more transcendent point is that, even in a changed world, neither a boy nor a girl is ever likely to escape the universal and timeless trials of faith that life presents, no matter the age in which one lives, no matter the culture into which one is born, no matter the personality or gender with which one is endowed. The tests of one’s will in life do not discriminate.
Romantic relationships are the epitome of a universal quest for happiness, a quest that neglects no one. Human beings are social creatures, no more evident than in their deep yearning to find someone to love. It is as universal a calling as one can find, but it is also as fraught with disequilibrium, uncertainty, disappointment, and the risk of falling short of expectations as any venture in life.
I have no reason to suspect that women are any less capable or willing to hold their own in romantic relationships with energy and skill. In relationships, women are as active and interested and sophisticated a participant as men, as they always have been. Shakespeare depicts the courtship experience of one especially zany couple. Petruchio and Katharina are two strong and vibrant personalities, and though Petruchio appears to have the upper hand, it is not really a competition between them, but a negotiation, one that is arms-length at first, and then more intricate as they become more intimate.
That is the way of all relationships. The building of a relationship is a complex lifelong negotiation, and I am as confident in a daughter as I am a son to navigate the ever-evolving dynamic of human relationships with strength, resolve, wit, insight, and, of course, love. Perhaps it is true that I hope my child is not as loony as Petruchio or Katharina, but if my child is, it does not appear to me that eccentricity is gender-specific. Boy or girl, dad will love his child, however odd, or however ordinary.
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