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’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

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 Baubles.


Because it’s December and Christmas decorations are everywhere, I wrote last night about the meanings and etymology of the word ‘bauble’ on WordyNerdBird. I wondered then if it were a word used by Shakespeare. To my delight, it was indeed!

Interestingly, Shakespeare references one of the continued senses and the obsolete sense of the word, and creates double entendre with it for extra credit.

In ‘Cymbeline’, the queen refers to Caesar’s ships bobbing around on the sea as ‘ignorant baubles’, describing them further as being like egg shells, being thrown and broken against the rocks.

A similar reference to boats as ‘baubles’ is made in ‘Troilus and Cressida.

In ‘Othello’, Cassio shows his disregard for Bianca by describing her as a bauble that follows him around and tries to make him fall in love with her.  That his companions laugh with him demonstrates that this use of the word to describe a pretty but not-so-valuable woman was easily understood at the time.

In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘bauble’ is used to refer to Kate’s hat – a decorative item of clothing, which is of little value in the play other than its use as a prop in her surprising demonstration of obedience to her husband, Petruchio.

‘Timon of Athens’ references a bauble as the staff of a jester or idiot, although in this instance, Aaron the Moor is suggesting that a king holding his sceptre and claiming to be faithful to God is the equivalent of his fool holding a bauble and pretending to be the king.

This sense of ‘bauble’ is extended in All’s Well That Ends Well, where the Clown refers to cheating on a man with his wife and giving her his bauble “to do her service”.  Clearly, this is a pun on the jester’s staff, used to reference an altogether different kind of rod with a special ending on it.

This is Shakespeare’s trademark wit in action, taking common language and creating word play loaded with double entendre that would delight the masses and the ‘gentlemen’ alike.

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.

21st Century Ways to Entertain Yourself in the Shakes-sphere

Contrary to what some people might think, enjoying Shakespeare isn’t all about seeing performances of plays, being academic, and knowinf your “thees” from your “thous”.

These apps for smart phone or tablet will appeal to devoted Bardophiles looking for new ways to enjoy Shakespeare, but also to students looking for ways to enrich and extend their knowledge of Shakespeare’s works.

There are loads of Shakespeare-related apps out there, but of all the ones I’ve tried, these three are the ones I have kept and continue to use.

Emoji Shakespeare has a variety of passages from well-known plays in which one is required to ‘fill in the blanks’ with emojis. It’s a great way to pass a bit of spare time, and definitely more interesting than endless reiterations of Candy Crush.

ShakesQuiz is a multiple choice quiz game that covers the plays, poetry, life and times of Shakespeare. Each quiz is ten questions long. Hints can be purchased if one is unwilling to achieve less than perfect scores. I prefer to think of it as something to improve on next time!

The Shakespeare Pro app offers a digital collection of Shakespeare’s works, analysis, quotes, and the facility to make and save notes. The search function is comprehensive and customisable, enabling a specific search within a particular work or across the entire canon.


If you have an app you enjoy, please leave your recommendation in a comment.

Knowing Your Literary Devices.

Knowing the literary devices used by Shakespeare and how they work helps those who read or study his works understand the ways in which he has shaped and crafted meaning in the lines delivered by his characters and in his poetry. It also helps readers to recognise the difference between literal and figurative language, and therefore to interpret more correctly the message of particular lines and scenes, and of texts as a whole. 

Of course, there are the standard ones that everyone should learn in school: simile, metaphor, alliteration, repetition hyperbole.  In senior high, that should extend to more sophisticated devices specific to the text being studied. My senior English class is studying ‘RichardIII’, so they are learning about stichomythia, anaphora and antithesis among others. Irony and dramatic irony are also heavy hitters in this play, so while they are by no means new concepts to the students, we are discussing them in detail. 

An excellent online resource for the definition and demonstration of rhetorical devices used by Shakespeare and many other dramatists, orators and writers is Silva Rhetoricæ.

The site is knowledgeable and fairly thorough, although some terms relating to Shakespeare’s plays are not included. The names of rhetorical devices are listed alphabetically, and the definitions are written in plain English with examples and alternative terms provided. There is also a handy pronunciation guide, which is really helpful when it comes to terms like ‘bdelygmia’ and ‘symploce’. 

While I do not expect my students to use the same degree of metalanguage that university students might use, there is definitely credit in nailing the key terms and using them to write about a text with greater eloquence and sophistication. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: The Balcony Scene

Pretty much anywhere you go, whoever you talk to, if they know only one thing about any play by Shakespeare, it’s the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the most famous scene ever written. 

There’s just one problem with that:  there was no balcony. 

That’s correct. 

There. 
Never. 
Was. 
A.
Freaking.
Balcony. 

In the script, the stage direction is clear: JULIET appears above at a window. 

Not a balcony. A window. 

You can read the entire scene and see that not once is a balcony mentioned. 

I don’t know who invented it, but it was a killer idea that I bet Shakespeare would wish he had thought of, were he still alive today. 

Of course, directors can stage a play however they like, and make use of whatever structures, sets and furniture is available to them. 

Filmmakers can do likewise, but one must keep in mind their tendency to just change whatever they want. Hollywood is notorious for that. The mayhem that comes from mass misunderstanding occurs when directors think they know better than the author, and when people watch a movie instead of reading the book.

It makes people and their assumptions about the original text wrong, and leaves them marinating in their wrongness until their wrongness is so commonly accepted that most people think it’s right. 

It just goes to show that what your English teacher always said is true: there really is no substitute for reading the book.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”

This line comes from Henry VI, Part 2, written in 1598. It was spoken by Dick the Butcher, a character nobody remembers except for this line, who was hanging about with his fellow rebels in a field at Blackheath.

It’s often quoted by people who are disillusioned with the legal system, or feel that certain members of the legal profession have less integrity than they should do. It is with these people for whom Dick the Butcher is likely to identify and sympathise. 

It is important to understand that the intent of the line was to be funny — a sardonic response from the sort of character who is likely to have suffered at the hands of a lawyer or witnessed them acting less than judiciously— rather than a serious suggestion or a statement of intent. When you read the scene as a whole, the jaded weariness of Dick and his mates is clearly evident as a contributing factor to their rebellion. This is the context in which this quotation must be read. 

Dick the Butcher is part of a group of rebels led by Jack Cade, who is extolling his qualifications to be king because of his noble connections, while the others are having a bit of a laugh at him because, realistically, he’s anything but noble. Jack does have ideas about a more egalitarian society, which form the context for Dick the Butcher’s punch line. As far as he’s concerned, if there were going to be some kind of ideal society, it wouldn’t have any lawyers in it. 

Cade concurs with Dick: lawyers using parchment to create documents is a waste of good lambs’ skins, and the beeswax used as a seal stings more than the bee does. He agreed to something legally once, and somehow gave up his freedom or rights by doing so. He doesn’t clarify what the issue was, but the audience certainly understands his sentiments regarding lawyers. 

The misunderstanding and misuse of this quotation arise from the interpretation that Shakespeare is saying that it’s the lawyers and upstanding citizens who would stand in the way of such a rebellion working because of their integrity and commitment to enforcing the law. 

I would be willing to put money on that theory having been dreamed up by a lawyer in the first place.  

If the predominant population of Shakespeare’s audiences were made up of lawyers, judges and clerks, this theory may have more credence.

However, the audiences were comprised of a much wider representation of society as a whole, only a small percentage of which was made up of lawyers. Many were quite common folk who stood throughout the performances, known as groundlings, while others were wealthier and could afford to pay for a seat. While some of those may have been lawyers, most were lords and ladies and members and other members of the gentry. 

It does seem that even in Shakespeare’s time there was a fair degree of scepticism about lawyers. While Shakespeare mentions the legal profession more than any other, this is by no means the only play in which Shakespeare makes a joke at their expense. Mercutio, for example, talks about lawyers grasping for money in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while the Fool in ‘King Lear’ makes a pointed statement about lawyers not saying or doing anything unless you pay them first. 

Shakespeare was not trying to incite violence against lawyers, but he certainly wasn’t suggesting that they are the protectors or upholders of society, either.  Dick’s statement is clearly satire, expressing cynicism about lawyers in ways that people understood even then. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them. 

Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well. 

It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else. 

Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way.