Let’s talk dowries, and bargaining, and let’s use the Bard. The following passages are modernisation of Shakespeare, from “The Taming of the Shrew”. To set the scene: Baptista is a medieval merchant, who has no sons and two daughters, Kate and Bianca. Bianca has four suitors. Kate has none, because she’s a shrew. Bianca cannot marry until Kate does. Baptista and Bianca’s three suitors want to find Kate a husband. Petruchio is of a wealthy family and arrives in Padua looking for a rich marriage. He doesn’t much care about what his wife is like, provided he gets a lot of money for her. Let’s just pause it here for a second, our players waiting on the stage, frozen, while we consider them to a degree not envisioned by Shakespeare.

Baptista has no heir. Technically, in period this is not correct, there are ways for a merchant family to continue its business in the female line, but even then, the guy has a problem with regard to posterity. Neither daughter is married. So, no grand-children. So, no heir. Oddly, he doesn’t seem to have the sorts of hanger-on nephews that people in his situation seemed to attract. He wants to get a daughter married off quickly, and won’t marry off the young one before the older one.

The problem is Kate, the elder daughter, who, to use the musical again, hates men. Actually, she hates having to be a wife to them, because its so bloody ghastly, but in her explanation you kind of wonder if she’s not laying it on a bit thick, because she talks about the labour of cleaning up after them, and the first thing you ask is “Does she plan to marry a man too poor to have servants?” Obviously she has no intention of it: be damned to love in a cottage, to quote Diana Maturin. She wants her own time, her own space, her own money. And until she marries, its an embarrassment for her younger daughter to marry.
So, that’s the setup: rich guy…daughters…suitors for the youngest.

Petruchio talks to one of Bianca’s suitors, and the suitor jests that he might marry Kate. Petruchio hears she’s lovely and rich but shrewish, and says “I’ve braved thunder and canon fire…why not, mate?” The joking guy goes “Are you, like, serious dude?” and Petruchio is all like “Yes, dude. If the bag’s full of gold, who cares if it’s a bit old?” and so the suitor introduces him to all of the other suitors, who shout him drinks, and the suitors agree to all be cool with each other, and hang. Rivals in love, but the best of mates. See, that’s an adventuring party, right there. Really, it is that teenage boyish, even though one of the suitors is old enough to be Bianca’s father.

Now, why, exactly, Kate doesn’t just step out of line and join an Italian nunnery is an interesting question. Some Italian nunneries were quite liberal, even by modern standards. Let that go: it seems to be that Baptista genuinely loves his daughters and wants them to be happy. This was less rare than some commentators seem to think.

So, we wave a hand and the people upon stage, like coin operated simulacra, come to life, and move, and speak thusly:

PETRUCHIO Signior Baptista, my business asketh haste, And every day I cannot come to woo. You knew my father well, and in him me, Left solely heir to all his lands and goods, Which I have better’d rather than decreased: Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love, What dowry shall I have with her to wife?
BAPTISTA After my death the one half of my lands, And in possession twenty thousand crowns.
PETRUCHIO And, for that dowry, I’ll assure her of Her widowhood, be it that she survive me, In all my lands and leases whatsoever: Let specialties be therefore drawn between us, That covenants may be kept on either hand.
BAPTISTA Ay, when the special thing is well obtain’d, That is, her love; for that is all in all.

So, the deal is done. Let’s look at the deal:

Baptista offers half his stuff once he’s dead. Well, he has two daughters. That’s no big deal. He has offered not to give all his stuff to Bianca’s kids if she has sons and Kate daughters, but that’s about it. As the spice for the deal, he offers a whole heap of cash: 20 000 crowns.

How much is 20 000 crowns? A crown’s five shillings. A crown is a quarter of a pound. That’s 5 000 pounds. Now, in Shakespeare’s time that’s silver not gold, but still, that’s about 500 actual pounds of gold in money right there. So why is he willing to drop that down as his opening offer? “Here – have a roomful of gold.”

Well, first he is very rich. Very, very, very rich. He wants Petruchio to know he’s very, very rich. He wants –everyone- to know, he’s very, very rich.

Baptista, you see, isn’t making one deal, he’s making two. He’s looking at the Bianca deal.

His problem isn’t his youngest daughter: she is lovely, and loved by many, and would love many if she could. Kate’s dad, who knows that time is not on his side, because, among other things, the younger daughter may go boy crazy and get pregnant before things are formalised legally with a husband, decides to go for Petruchio’s offer, because it clears the way for the second deal.

Cole Porter gives Bianca “Any Tom, Harry or Dick!” as her signature tune, and it’s clever, but when in the final lines she repeatedly says she’ll take any…well, any not Tom or Harry, you can see he’s doing the thing he does where he pushes the sex angle as hard as he thinks he can get away with.

Baptista is, however a bit of a softie: he says that Kate needs to consent. Now, legally this is true, but what he means is that he won’t threaten her until she consents. He doesn’t do this with Bianca.

PETRUCHIO And therefore, setting all this chat aside, Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented That you shall be my wife; your dowry ‘greed on; And, Will you, nill you, I will marry you.

Now, this is just wrong in canon law. Kate must give free consent – practicalities often intrude.

PETRUCHIO Give me thy hand, Kate: I will unto Venice, To buy apparel ‘gainst the wedding-day. Provide the feast, father, and bid the guests; I will be sure my Katharina shall be fine.

Note that Baptista provides the wedding feast.

So, let’s look at the second deal. Baptista gets the two suitors, Gremio and Triano (who is pretending to be a nobleman named Lucentio, who was his foster brother) and he auctions Bianca’s future on her behalf.

BAPTISTA Content you, gentlemen: I will compound this strife: ‘Tis deeds must win the prize; and he of both That can assure my daughter greatest dower Shall have my Bianca’s love. Say, Signior Gremio, What can you assure her?
GREMIO First, as you know, my house within the city Is richly furnished with plate and gold; Basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands; My hangings all of Tyrian tapestry; In ivory coffers I have stuff’d my crowns; In cypress chests my arras counterpoints, Costly apparel, tents, and canopies, Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl, Valance of Venice gold in needlework, Pewter and brass and all things that belong To house or housekeeping: then, at my farm I have a hundred milch-kine to the pail, Sixscore fat oxen standing in my stalls, And all things answerable to this portion. Myself am struck in years, I must confess; And if I die to-morrow, this is hers, If whilst I live she will be only mine.
TRANIO That ‘only’ came well in. Sir, list to me: I am my father’s heir and only son: If I may have your daughter to my wife, I’ll leave her houses three or four as good, Within rich Pisa walls, as any one Old Signior Gremio has in Padua; Besides two thousand ducats by the year Of fruitful land, all which shall be her jointure. What, have I pinch’d you, Signior Gremio?
GREMIO Two thousand ducats by the year of land! My land amounts not to so much in all: That she shall have; besides an argosy That now is lying in Marseilles’ road. What, have I choked you with an argosy?
TRANIO Gremio, ’tis known my father hath no less Than three great argosies; besides two galliases, And twelve tight galleys: these I will assure her, And twice as much, whate’er thou offer’st next.
GREMIO Nay, I have offer’d all, I have no more; And she can have no more than all I have: If you like me, she shall have me and mine.
TRANIO Why, then the maid is mine from all the world, By your firm promise: Gremio is out-vied.
BAPTISTA I must confess your offer is the best; And, let your father make her the assurance, She is your own; else, you must pardon me, if you should die before him, where’s her dower?
TRANIO That’s but a cavil: he is old, I young.
GREMIO And may not young men die, as well as old?
BAPTISTA Well, gentlemen, I am thus resolved: on Sunday next you know My daughter Katharina is to be married: Now, on the Sunday following, shall Bianca Be bride to you, if you this assurance; If not, Signior Gremio: And so, I take my leave, and thank you both.
GREMIO Adieu, good neighbour. (Exit)
BAPTISTA Now I fear thee not: Sirrah young gamester, your father were a fool To give thee all, and in his waning age Set foot under thy table: tut, a toy! An old Italian fox is not so kind, my boy. Exit
TRANIO A vengeance on your crafty wither’d hide! Yet I have faced it with a card of ten. ‘Tis in my head to do my master good: I see no reason but supposed Lucentio Must get a father, call’d ‘supposed Vincentio;’ And that’s a wonder: fathers commonly Do get their children; but in this case of wooing, A child shall get a sire, if I fail not of my cunning. …

Now, we see here that Baptista is a smooth operator. He has strung up Tranio-as-Lucentio like a goose. Tranio has bid things he, personally, does not have, and because he has gone too far (“My dad has seventeen ships!”) Baptista has caught him and said “If you can get your Dad here, and offering all of that, in a fortnight, then you’ve got her. Otherwise, she goes to my dear old friend and neighbour here. Yes, she goes to my dear old neighbour who, because he was bidding against you, has just promised my daughter all of his stuff, to the absolute exclusion of the rest of his blood kin. And he’s old, and if he dies and she’s a widow, then she comes back under my care. Either they have kids and they get his stuff, or I do, and then Kate and her kids get it.”

He even –tells- Tranio that he’s an idiot. He says “This is how we roll in Padua: you take my stuff from my cold, dead fingers.”

So, Baptista offers no dowry to anyone. He never even promises them the other half of his lands after he dies: he might give it to the Church, or to Kate’s kids, or to his mistress or new wife or something. He knows Traniop is a dummy bidder, and uses him to gouge Gremio. Gremio, fortunately, doesn’t care – he knows what he wants, and he’s willing to go all in to get it, and if he can’t have Bianca, then he’s going to make sure she gets as much of the other guy’s stuff as he can. Bianca does get a dowry of some kind, Petruchio tells her eventual husband’s father than she is “well dowered”, but that’s at Baptista’s whim. It’s not part of the deal.

Baptista doesn’t go for this “and only if she loves you” business, that he pulled with Kate. She’s trouble and he needs to sort her out, and he’s a bit inclined to the view that she mightn’t care which one he chooses.

I have to say, I quite like Gremio. I wish he had a happy ending. This play is badly written, in the sense that minor characters just fade out when the playwright’s plot wanders away from them. Eventually, Bianca does what her father worries she might do: she just marries who she likes without asking him. She marries her tutor, who, as happy fortune would have it, is the real version of the guy that Triano was pretending to be. His name’s Lucentio.

LUCENTIO Here’s Lucentio, Right son to the right Vincentio; That have by marriage made thy daughter mine, While counterfeit supposes bleared thine eyne.

“She’s mine. You were distracted by a decoy.”

This is perfectly legal. You don’t need a father’s consent. That being said, there are social consequences if you follow this route. Baptista, who is very, very rich, gets ready with the smiting:

BAPTISTA But do you hear, sir? have you married my daughter without asking my good will?

Fortunately, Lucentio’s dad, who is a nobleman, is here by now, and he just says:

VINCENTIO Fear not, Baptista; we will content you…

Which, because he’s frighteningly rich, and noble, is what he’s meant to say. Compare this to Triano’s bid. Vincentio’s bid is all “I know my game. I know you know your game. We have your daughter. We don’t want to annoy you so much you disinherit. We have a lot of money and prestige. We can deal. Privately. I have some revenge to deal with, and so do you. Let’s go get some revenge on Triano together, then we’ll talk. By the way, my son’s noble, so you have to just forgive all that lying to you he’s done. That’s how it works if you want to step up into the lower upper class. We’ve offended you, sure, but you’ll forgive us as part of the package, and I’ll go a tiny bit easier on you than I would usually.” He can say this with: “We will content you.”, because these guys have big Etiquette and Bargain scores, and they can both do the numbers.

Later, Baptista gives a second dowry to Kate, when she is changed in the final scene. Petruchio also gets a couple of other guys to bet him 200 crowns apiece she’ll obey him, and she does. There is one read of the text that indicates that she can see the angles of the thing, and is playing along in his game, but that’s a bit forgiving and post-modern. So, Petruchio comes out of this with, in Ars terms, ten thousand and eighty Mythic Pounds. This is atypical, but is a great starting story for a merchant house. He grabs Bianca’s suitors, and says…guys, I have a big idea…

And so we come to the end of our lengthy foray into Shakespearean dowries. I admit I was thinking Austen rather than Shakespeare when I first designed that section of City and Guild. She is an excellent sources for ideas, because her books  are generally about characters of middle class seeking advancement. I hope you can see the sort of story potential I saw there.

 

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