Sisters Doing It For Themselves: The Problem of Female Agency in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

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‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a play in which Shakespeare exposes the lack of agency for early modern women, who are treated as commodities and bargaining chips by a society that cares little for their emotional wellbeing at all.

Even Baptista, who claims to care  about his daughters’ happiness, still considers their futures in terms of economic power and wealth rather than healthy relationships.

The play portrays two sisters constrained, albeit differently, by the same things: social expectations of what women should be like, and their father’s decision that the younger one cannot marry until the older one is married. 

BAPTISTA
Gentlemen, importune me no farther,
For how I firmly am resolv’d you know:T
hat is, not to bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder.I
f either of you both love Katherina,
Because I know you well, and love you well,
Leave shall you have to court her at your pleasure.

The Taming of the Shrew I.i

Both Katherina (Kate) and Bianca exemplify the social position of young women of their time: constrained by a plethora of social conventions, young women in Shakespeare’s day had to resort to more subtle measures to pursue their own goals and interests.

The two sisters respond differently, each responding to the social norms for women in their own way, but neither of them is particularly compliant or obedient: they simply express it in different ways.

Katherina, called a shrew because she is oppositional and argumentative, exerts control over her situation through her behaviour. She sets her own terms for her relationships by making others work for her cooperation and acceptance. Her independence and intelligence make her unwilling to be an easy choice for any man, and an unsuitable choice for most of the rich and privileged men of Padua. She will not be objectified as a token wife or an ornament for some man’s arm. 

BAPTISTA
Now, Signior Petruchio, how speed you with my daughter?

PETRUCHIO
How but well, sir? How but well?
It were impossible I should speed amiss.

BAPTISTA
Why, how now, daughter Katherine? In your dumps?

KATHERINA
Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack,
That thinks with oaths to face the matter out.

The Taming of the Shrew, II.i

Her behaviour, then, is not a straightforward matter of having an unpleasant personality. In fact, the verbal reports of of her behaviour are far worse than anything witnessed by the audience in the play.

It is fair to say that Kate’s relationship with Petruchio does not work out any better for her independence than anyone might have expected.  Sadly, where there was so much potential for a meeting of their intelligent minds and a relationship that served to refine them both, it is fair to say that Petruchio’s treatment of Kate in his attempts to tame her are nothing short of abusive and cruel– and that is precisely Shakespeare’s point. Other men praise Petruchio for his achievement, but Shakespeare leaves an sour aftertaste in the mouths of his audience by showing that her spirit had to be sacrificed for security, or possibly even survival. 

Similarly, Bianca is faced with the challenge of pursuing her chosen husband despite the constraints of her father’s house rules, and society’s expectation that she will make the best match socially and financially rather than following her heart. Her responses show her to be tenderhearted and emotional, but neither the wealthy old man or the rich, eligible bachelor are actually interested in her feelings. One reads the scene in which Grumio and Tranio compete for Bianca’s hand with a sense of foreboding, wondering what kind of life she might have with either one of them.

BAPTISTA
The gain I seek is quiet in the match.

GREMIO
No doubt but he hath got a quiet catch.
But now, Baptista, to your younger daughter;
Now is the day we long have looked for.
I am your neighbor, and was suitor first.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
And I am one that love Bianca more
Than words can witness, or your thoughts can guess.

GREMIO
Youngling, thou canst not love so dear as I.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
Greybeard, thy love doth freeze.

GREMIO
But thine doth fry.
Skipper, stand back, ’tis age that nourisheth.

TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
But youth in ladies’ eyes that flourisheth.

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?

The Taming of the Shrew, II.i

Bianca may appear compliant and sweet in her father’s observation, but she is quite disobedient and deceitful in response to her father’s wishes. She dissuades those she does not want, and encourages the one she desires to marry— all while pretending to be a well-behaved young lady going about her lessons. The question must be asked: is Bianca really any more obedient or cooperative than her sister?

Enter Tranio, dressed as Lucentio, and Hortensio, dressed as Litio.

TRANIO
Is’t possible, friend Litio, that Mistress Bianca
Doth fancy any other but Lucentio?
I tell you, sir, she bears me fair in hand.

HORTENSIO
Sir, to satisfy you in what I have said,
Stand by and mark the manner of his teaching.

They stand aside.Enter Bianca and Lucentio, dressed as Cambio

LUCENTIO 
Now, mistress, profit you in what you read?

BIANCA
What, master, read you? First resolve me that.

LUCENTIO
I read that I profess, the Art to Love.

BIANCA
And may you prove, sir, master of your art!

LUCENTIO
While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart!

They retire.

This is confirmed in the final scene of the play, where Bianca’s behaviour is both defiant and uncooperative in response to her husband’s requests. Neither she nor the widow who marries Hortensio is any less a shrew than Kate might have been earlier in the play. This is a profound contrast to Kate’s submissive responses to Petruchio’s orders, and the irony of the situation is not lost on neither the present company nor the audience.

Re-enter KATHERINA

KATHARINA
What is your will, sir, that you send for me?

PETRUCHIO
Where is your sister, and Hortensio’s wife?

KATHERINA
They sit conferring by the parlor fire.

PETRUCHIO
Go fetch them hither: if they deny to come.
Swinge me them soundly forth unto their husbands:
Away, I say, and bring them hither straight.

Exit KATHERINA

LUCENTIO
Here is a wonder, if you talk of a wonder.

HORTENSIO
And so it is: I wonder what it bodes.

PETRUCHIO
Marry, peace it bodes, and love and quiet life,
And awful rule and right supremacy;
And, to be short, what not, that’s sweet and happy?

BAPTISTA
Now, fair befal thee, good Petruchio!
The wager thou hast won; and I will add
Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns;
Another dowry to another daughter,
For she is changed, as she had never been.

PETRUCHIO
Nay, I will win my wager better yet
And show more sign of her obedience,
Her new-built virtue and obedience.
See where she comes and brings your froward wives
As prisoners to her womanly persuasion.

Re-enter KATHARINA, with BIANCA and Widow

Katharina, that cap of yours becomes you not:
Off with that bauble, throw it under-foot.

WIDOW
Lord, let me never have a cause to sigh,
Till I be brought to such a silly pass!

BIANCA
Fie! what a foolish duty call you this?

LUCENTIO
I would your duty were as foolish too:
The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,
Hath cost me an hundred crowns since supper-time.

BIANCA
The more fool you, for laying on my duty.

PETRUCHIO
Katherina, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women
What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.

WIDOW
Come, come, you’re mocking: we will have no telling.

PETRUCHIO
Come on, I say; and first begin with her.

WIDOW
She shall not.

PETRUCHIO
I say she shall: and first begin with her.

KATHERINA
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
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.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
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.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

PETRUCHIO
Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.

LUCENTIOWell, go thy ways, old lad; for thou shalt ha’t.

VINCENTIO’
Tis a good hearing when children are toward.

LUCENTIO
But a harsh hearing when women are froward.

PETRUCHIO
Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped.
To LUCENTIO
‘Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white;
And, being a winner, God give you good night!

Exeunt PETRUCHIO and KATHARINA

HORTENSIO
Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.

LUCENTIO’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.

Exeunt

The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii

The fact that, in the end, Kate is forced to surrender those very qualities that make her strong and interesting is a profound indictment of early modern society. It doesn’t matter if her submission is played straight or with irony, and it doesn’t matter whether Kate submits out of love for Petruchio or desperation for her own circumstances: it leaves a nasty aftertaste either way. Ultimately, she had no choice but to do and say what her husband insisted, and nothing else. It is difficult to see any selfless love or respect for her on Petruchio’s part: he got what he wanted, and then smirked about it to his mates.

That final scene and the discomfort it create further highlight the flawed attitudes to women of both the Early Modern society, and of men who only see people through an economic lens. Baptista’s perceptions of his daughters, and of the men who wanted to marry them, were as skewed as the values of the society that created them.

While it might be satisfying to think we have come so much further than that, and in some ways, we have– there are also ways in which we have not. Sure, women can drive, vote, own their own property, have a job and a career, and make their own choices and decisions about their futures. However, they still get disrespected for being strong and independent, for having thoughts or opinions of their own, or for choosing a career over family and marriage. For as long as women are paid less than men for equal work, or disregarded and slut-shamed as victims of sexual harassment or assault, or expected to do the lion’s share of child rearing or domestic tasks while working as hard as their male partners do, this play will remain relevant.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
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Helpful post: What Is Female Agency in Literature?

Sonnet 18: An Expression of Grief

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

This sonnet is popularly believed to be a poem of love and admiration. That may be a fair interpretation of the first two lines, and I suppose that might be as far as some people read.

However, when one reads the whole poem, a much more somber message unfolds.

I cannot help but read this sonnet as a reflection on the fleeting seasons of life and an expression of grief as a beloved life comes to an end. As I read, I think of those whom I have loved and lost, particularly those who died young. Now, the foremost person in my mind when I read this sonnet is my beautiful cousin and friend Helen, who died last year- far too young and far “more lovely and temperate” than any summer’s day.

A summer’s day is lovely but soon over; a life is longer, embracing the growth of spring, the warmth of summer, the storms and changes of autumn, and the dormancy of winter. Just as summer fades, so do the vigour and health of youth.

How, then, does one achieve “eternal summer” that “shall not fade” and avoid wandering about in Death’s shadow? How does one not grow old and lose their beauty?

By dying in their youth.

When an old person dies, we reflect on what they achieved, and that they had a good, long life. When a young person dies, we feel shortchanged. It feels far less natural. We have a profound sense within ourselves that it’s just not fair.

One who dies too soon remains forever young in our minds and memories. They do not age, and faults and flaws are remembered far less than their talents and endearing qualities .

Shakespeare certainly understood grief: his son Hamnet died in 1596 when he was 11 years old. The powerful contrast of Hamnet’s “eternal summer” with the regular seasons of life would have been very real to Shakespeare and his family, as Hamnet’s twin Judith lived well into adulthood,  marrying and having children of her own.

Grief is a powerful muse — as a poet, I can attest to that myself— and the loss of a child in his youth could certainly have inspired a sonnet such as this. Those who are left behind understand the imagery of “rough winds [that] do shake the darling buds of May” and the tendency to cling to memories and the places and activities that honour and polish them.

“And this gives life to thee”… even when thou art long gone.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65: The Relentlessness of Time

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Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! Where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

This sonnet expresses a reality of life: nothing can withstand the relentless power of time.  Erosion, degradation, and decay overwhelm not only the frail, but also the mighty. True, rocks and brass may outlast flowers and flesh, but they too will yield eventually.

This is a poem of contemplation and resignation, but also one of defiance: time may be relentless, and there may be no way to “hold his swift foot back”, but one who is immortalised or memorialised in ink lives on, albeit in a different way. We can continue to remember and honour them, and to express our love for them.  Our memories and mementos remain long after those who have fallen prey to time and mortality.

In Shakespeare’s time, they had fewer options for immortalising those who passed away than we do. They had eulogies and poetry – the black ink  in which “love may still shine bright”. They could create drawings and paintings.

Now, in addition to those, we have photographs, video, and voice recordings. Poetry and eulogies still touch our souls just as powerfully, though— whether written in the 21st century or the 16th, beautifully written tributes and reflections endure and move us still.

“Thou art too malapert…”

Peacock malapert know-it-all overconfident showy
Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Malapert refers to a person who acts like they know everything and is confident that they are always right. 

While there are a number of characters in Shakespeare’s works whom we might consider to be malapert, Shakespeare uses the word only three times in his plays.

In Henry 6, Queen Margaret and her son, the young Lancaster Prince Edward, engage in a contest of insults with their captors: Clarence and Gloucester. As sons of Richard, Duke of York these two are the Lancastrian King Henry’s enemies, as the two houses are rivals for the English throne. Clarence calls the young prince malapert, highlighting his youthful confidence by calling him an “untutor’d lad”. 

Almost as proof of Clarence’s assessment, the prince responds by insulting them again. Despite the clevernesand bravery of his words, this proved to be a bad move, as “perjur’d George” and “misshapen Dick” respond by stabbing him to death. End of argument. 

In Richard III, the same Queen Margaret tells the Marquess of Dorset that he is malapert and warns him that his newly found nobility won’t protect him from being destroyed by the Yorks, particularly Richard (Gloucester) whom  she describes as a “bottled spider” and a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”. Richard turns the insult back on Margaret, and Dorset promptly turns it right back on him. 

In the comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch and Sebastian are engaged in an argument when Sir Toby insists that he “must have an ounce or two of this malapert blood” from his rival. 

Malapert
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Book Review: The RSC Shakespeare – The Complete Works

The Complete Works, produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and edited by Jonathan Bale and Eric Rasmussen, is a brilliant book. 

Having read and enjoyed several of the RSC texts of individual plays,

As always with RSC editions of individual plays, the notes provided are excellent. Each play has a thoughtful introduction that explores key ideas and themes, as well as providing insights for dramaturgy, performance and production.

The printing is clear, and of a good size —  not so small that it is almost impossible to read, as with many collected works editions —  and the paper quality is beautiful.

In addition to the texts, there are pages of annotated photographs and illustrations to give added context and to highlight RSC performances of the plays.

Physically, it is quite a big book, so it is  most comfortably used on a desk or table. The paperback is lighter in weight, but I am a little disappointed that I did not buy the hard cover edition, as that would make it more durable.  

Even so, I’m delighted with this volume and have found it very useful thus far.  Should I find that my paperback does not stand the test of time and regular use, I will definitely invest in a hard cover copy, as this is a book I will want to read and make use of for many years to come.

Desdemona’s Lament

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Often when I see a willow tree, I think of the  desperately sad song sung by Ophelia as she prepares for bed in Act 4, scene 3 of ‘Othello’.

‘Willow’ is a folk song that tells of lost love and resulting tragedy, although Ophelia doesn’t quite get that far in the song before she stops to talk with her maid, Emilia. The song was not written by Shakespeare, and it seems to have been widely enough known for the audience to have understood the gravity and foreboding of it being sung by Ophelia. 

Shakespeare did, however, make one significant change. The original song was about a man dying as the result of the cruelty of a woman, but when Ophelia sings it, the song is about a woman suffering at the hands of the man she loves. 

The poignancy of the song is heightened by Ophelia’s revelation to Emilia that her mother’s maid, from whom she learned the song, died tragically while singing it. 


The song takes another tragic twist when Emilia herself sings the song as she, too, dies from injuries inflicted by her own husband. 

Shakespeare uses this song to evoke pathos,  tragedy and foreboding in abundance. 

It seems to me that he willow tree, graceful and mournful at the same time, is a most fitting image for achieving that effect.


Desdemona’s Lament.
#Shakespeare #Othello #willow #tragedy #ShakesepeareNerd #blogpost

Life’s But A Walking Shadow

Macbeth, V.v

This short speech by Macbeth is his response to the news that Lady Macbeth is dead. It is not as emotional as Macduff’s response to the death of his wife and children, but instead is quite poignant and philosophical. A soliloquy might have been more expansive on his thoughts and feelings.

It is a reflection on the brevity and meaninglessness of life. Every day we live is someone else’s last, and our stories are full of noise and bother, but ultimately pointless. 

Perhaps he anticipated her death, given her descent into guilty madness. His observation that “She should have died hereafter; There would have been time for such a word” suggests that he thought he had bigger problems at that point, and he simply didn’t have time to grieve properly. Implying that her timing was inconvenient is the kind of self-interest that those who love to hate Macbeth might find satisfying. 

Either way, Macbeth’s musings on the futility of life contrast profoundly with his belief in his own invincibility and his headstrong determination to fight to keep the kingdom he usurped by killing Duncan and blaming it on his bodyguards. 

It just goes to show that you can not encapsulate a character in one quotation or by examining one event. Shakespeare’s leading characters are complex, conflicted individuals designed to provoke thought and conscience. Macbeth is no exception. 

Horror In Shakespeare: The Haunting of Richard III

While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be. 
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween. 

Of all the scenes written by Shakespeare, this is the most Halloween-worthy. What is more appropriate for All Hallow’s Eve than a haunting, right?

Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ portrays Richard as an evil, conniving, murderous villain who plots and murders his way onto the throne of England. His deeds are ruthless and his victims are many.

In Act 5, Scene 3, the ghosts of all of Richard’s victims haunt him in his tent the night before the battle. Each of them bids him to “despair and die”, which becomes a powerful refrain that haunts him as he sleeps. This kind of regular repetition of a phrase is called epimone (uh-pim-o-nee): it compounds and gives power to an idea by dwelling on it.

 Each of the ghosts also visits Richard’s opponent, Richmond, as he sleeps, bidding him to live, conquer and flourish. It is significant that their words to him are not so distinctly and deliberately repeated and echoed as they are to Richard. They are content to give him their various blessings, while they are intent on cursing Richard in no uncertain terms. 

This is a beautifully crafted and deliciously vindictive sequence of indictment and cursing, in which the eloquence of the language only adds to the darkness of the scene. 

The haunting definitely disturbs Richard, who responds to his troubled dreams with a soliloquy that uses strong imagery of guilt and judgement, and of fear and cowardice, revealing the disquiet of his conscience and his mind. He, too, uses the words “despair” and “die” immediately before referencing the visitation of the ghosts, showing that even though he thought it was a dream, they have had a profound effect on his spirit. 

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

You can read the whole scene, or the entire play, here

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “A Foregone Conclusion”

These days, when people talk about a “foregone conclusion” they mean something is a given: it is inevitable, it will happen, it may safely be assumed. As certain as it sounds, it is still a statement of conjecture about an event that is yet to occur.

When Shakespeare had Othello speak those words in Act 3, Scene 3 of the play that bears his name, it had quite the opposite meaning.
In this scene, Iago is manipulating Othello’s thoughts and making him believe that Desdemona has cheated on him. 

Othello says, “But this denotes a foregone conclusion:  Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be a dream.” 

Here, he is speaking of the adultery between Desdemona and Cassio as something that he is certain has already happened. This gives the phrase “foregone conclusion” the opposite meaning to that which it holds today. 

This, and statements such as “I’ll tear her all to pieces” and “O blood, blood, blood!” are evidence that Othello has already made up his mind about the guilt of his wife and former second-in-command. 

The scene ends with Othello swearing his loyalty to Iago and thinking of ways to kill Desdemona. Charming, I know. 

Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespeare: “Lead on, Macduff!”

“Lead on, Macduff!” is a phrase often used to say “after you” when people are being polite and opening doors for someone, or showing that they will follow another person’s lead. 

People who use this phrase think they are quoting Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, but they’re not quite doing so: those are not the words Shakespeare wrote. 

Both the phrase and its meaning have been changed over time. 

What Shakespeare wrote was “Lay on, Macduff”, and Macbeth wasn’t opening any doors or following Macduff’s lead when he said it. Macbeth and Macduff were fighting one another, and only one of them would survive. The words “Lay on, Macduff” were Macbeth saying “come on, fight me!”

So, next time you open a door, or commit to following someone else’s lead, be careful about saying “Lead on, Macduff”. If they know their Shakespeare, they might just fight you!