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 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.

A Favourite Shakespeare Play: ‘King Lear’.

I have loved ‘King Lear’ ever since I saw a performance of the play in my teens and was completely transported by it.
I find it impossible to consider a parent being betrayed by their child without thinking of Lear, and am compelled to utter the quotation, “Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks. Rage! Blow!” at least once during every good storm I witness. 

‘King Lear’ is the story of a king with one daughter who actually loves him and two who are the most selfish, greedy, and deceitful women the kingdom had ever seen. The problem was that he was unable to tell which was which. And so, his story turns to tragedy. 

Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about being historically correct or pleasing the right people with this play, although it wouldn’t be right to show the king as being a bit of an idiot when it comes to his family relationships, so he was sure to stay safe by putting the blame on the king’s horrible daughters and their ambition to take what was not rightfully theirs. Loyalty and faithfulness were, after all, very important qualities and concepts for anyone living in Elizabeth’s England, and you couldn’t have people just seizing land and power that didn’t belong to them. 

It’s not just Lear’s elder daughters, either, that turn on their father. The Duke of Gloucester, faithful supporter of Lear, also feels the dagger of betrayal planted firmly in his back Edgar, by his bastard son, Edmund, who is seeking to take all that rightfully belongs to his brother Edgar. 

In all of this, there are valuable lessons to be learned about who to trust, how to discern who is really loyal to you, and the fact that some people are far more driven by greed and ambition than they are by familial love. Given that we live in a world where kids have been known to turn on their parents and even divorce them in some cases, and where families are divided and sometimes irreparably broken by disputes over money and property,  ‘King Lear’ is clearly a play that still holds relevance for us today. 

It is a beautifully crafted story, full of pathos and tragedy and heartbreak. The language and imagery is magnificent. The dramatic irony of Cordelia’s fall from grace and Lear’s subsequent fall from power at the hands of General and Regan is heartbreaking. Cordelia’s fate hangs in the balance right up to the end of the play while, it seems, the evil people win. That is another point of relatability for the audience: we don’t like seeing the evil people win, and we want to see them get their just desserts. It’s a theme that Shakespeare explores at length in this play, and he expertly positions the audience to keep hoping that Lear and Cordelia will win the day. 

It is the nature of Shakespearean tragedy, however, that pretty much everyone dies and there are a few minor characters left to pick up the pieces at the end, so the audience has to be content with the poetic justice delivered to some and the beautifully tragic ending that comes to others. 

The fact that it doesn’t have a happy ending is one of the things I like about it. Life often involves less-than-happy endings, and it has always seemed to me that those who hope only for happiness are setting themselves up for an enormous struggle when adversity shows up instead. We can’t always have what we want, and Lear would have done well to remember that. Cordelia would have been better off if she had realised that not everyone who should recognise your integrity will do so, and that sometimes you need to play the game better than the cheats do in order to make them lose. 

Sure, I believe in happiness, but I know from my own experience that life is generally far more complex than being able to achieve happiness and simply stay there. We are constantly challenged to maintain a balance  between necessity and luxury, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, lest we be overrun by one or the other. Achieving that balance is the art of life.