Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
Custom and Tradition The King of Siam announces from the very beginning of The King and I that he wants to lead Siam into the modern world. He says "Siam is to be modern, scientific country." However, when it comes to renouncing traditional attitudes in order to replace them with modem thinking, the King himself is the last to change. He maintains a chauvinistic posture toward women and his subjects, snapping his fingers to call them to attention or to do his bidding. He might admire Abraham Lincoln and express agreement with abolishing slavery, but he is blind to the slavery in his own palace. Anna chides the King for treating Tuptim like a possession, just "a bowl of rice." Then she realizes that he treats her, an English schoolteacher, in the same way, presumptuously demanding that she "take a letter" for him and ordering her about as though she were one of his wives or slaves. Anna tolerates his behavior because she understands that habits are difficult to change, even when one wants to embrace new ideas. She also understands that her modern attitude about women threatens his sense of manhood. The King respects Anna and recognizes the value of her opinions, but he refuses to ask for them, for to do so would raise a woman to equal status with him. When considering how to resist England's making a protectorate of Siam, he cannot bring himself to ask Anna for advice. Instead he pretends to have her play a guessing game so that he can adopt her guess as his plan. To combat the sense that Anna is indeed gaining in status with him, he demands that she follow the custom never to let her head be higher than his. He tests her by dropping nearly prostrate on the floor, and when she hesitates he reminds her that "a promise is a promise." The custom and traditions of old Siam are so deeply embedded in the ambitious King that his death is a necessity to allow his more flexible young son to carry Siam the next step forward.
Culture Clash The Ship Captain warns Anna of the unnamed dangers that threaten an Englishwoman alone in Bangkok. He expects harm to come of this confrontation between Western and Eastern cultures. Of course, the King himself has arranged for it by bringing Anna to his palace to teach his children about the world outside of Siam. What he does not realize is how difficult it will be for him to adapt to Western culture and how much he will have to sacrifice to do so. The play overtly assumes that in this encounter Siam stands to gain in modernity, while England generously and paternalistically contributes values to be adopted. Underlying the culture encounter is an issue of economics. Lady Thiang tells Anna that because of a rumor saying that the King is a barbarian, Queen Victoria may make Siam into a protectorate. The King understands that he would lose his kingdom under a British protectorateship. His goal conflicts with the goal of the British Queen. Queen Victoria wants to develop trade routes and to establish a foothold in Siam. The King wants to take advantage of British interest in his country to develop Siam into a modern country with a place in world trade but to do so as a sovereign nation that keeps its profits in his coffers, not in England's. These larger issues at stake beneath the culture clash compromise the relationship between Britain and Siam so that they cannot confront each other as equals. Anna acts intellectually...
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and morally superior to the King, proffering advice on how to impress the British government and congratulating him for reading the Bible. She barely tolerates being in the Buddhist temple, as though it was a profane place and not a religious sanctum. The British see the Siamese as culturally inferior but also enticing—a possession to be captured and controlled. This enticement is almost sensual, especially in scenes such as when the wives throw their skirts over their heads to run away from the British Ambassador because he "looks like a goat'' and when Anna dances with the King with his hand on her waist. Hammerstein's play seems to suggest that if only Siam would submit to the teachings of modern British people like Anna, it would be taken seriously among the world powers. It could always save its cultural heritage in the form of entertainment such as Tuptim' s orientalized version of Western ideology.
Knowledge and Ignorance With very few exceptions the characters in The King and I can be ranked in prestige according to their relative knowledge and ignorance— of Western culture. For instance, Tuptim ranks very high because she speaks and reads English; hers is a courageous spirit. She even writes her own play, although she bases it on an American (Western culture) novel. The wives who do not take their learning as seriously as Tuptim behave in a silly, "womanly" manner and ignorantly make fun of Tuptim for her unhappiness. They irresponsibly paw through Anna's clothing and assume that her body is shaped like her hoop-skirted dresses, while Tuptim politely asks for English books. The Kralahome ranks low because he resists Anna's teaching, even reveals his ignorance by suggesting that the young Prince should not waste his time learning about Western culture because it will make him a less effective leader. The King ranks high because he reads the great books of Western culture, such as the Bible. Anna stands on the pinnacle of knowledge because she dispenses knowledge to others and seldom appears ignorant or in need of teaching herself. Lady Thiang ranks fairly high because she has the most education of all the wives, and she is entrusted by Anna to teach a lesson now and then. Even more importantly, Lady Thiang actually teaches something to Anna. When Lady Thiang comes to convince Anna to help the King strategize how to avoid the protectorateship of Siam, she sings a song about her tolerant love for the imperfect but admirable king. Although Thiang does not impart factual knowledge to Anna, she does impart her special kind of wisdom about love.