‘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.
BAPTISTAThe Taming of the Shrew I.i
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.
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.
BAPTISTAThe Taming of the Shrew, II.i
Now, Signior Petruchio, how speed you with my daughter?
How but well, sir? How but well?
It were impossible I should speed amiss.
Why, how now, daughter Katherine? In your dumps?
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.
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.
BAPTISTAThe Taming of the Shrew, II.i
The gain I seek is quiet in the match.
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.
Youngling, thou canst not love so dear as I.
TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
Greybeard, thy love doth freeze.
But thine doth fry.
Skipper, stand back, ’tis age that nourisheth.
TRANIO (as LUCENTIO)
But youth in ladies’ eyes that flourisheth.
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?
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.
Is’t possible, friend Litio, that Mistress Bianca
Doth fancy any other but Lucentio?
I tell you, sir, she bears me fair in hand.
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
Now, mistress, profit you in what you read?
What, master, read you? First resolve me that.
I read that I profess, the Art to Love.
And may you prove, sir, master of your art!
While you, sweet dear, prove mistress of my heart!
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.
What is your will, sir, that you send for me?
Where is your sister, and Hortensio’s wife?
They sit conferring by the parlor fire.
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 KATHERINAThe Taming of the Shrew, V.ii
Here is a wonder, if you talk of a wonder.
And so it is: I wonder what it bodes.
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?
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.
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.
Lord, let me never have a cause to sigh,
Till I be brought to such a silly pass!
Fie! what a foolish duty call you this?
I would your duty were as foolish too:
The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,
Hath cost me an hundred crowns since supper-time.
The more fool you, for laying on my duty.
Katherina, I charge thee, tell these headstrong women
What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.
Come, come, you’re mocking: we will have no telling.
Come on, I say; and first begin with her.
She shall not.
I say she shall: and first begin with her.
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.
Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate.
LUCENTIOWell, go thy ways, old lad; for thou shalt ha’t.
Tis a good hearing when children are toward.
But a harsh hearing when women are froward.
Come, Kate, we’ll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped.
‘Twas I won the wager, though you hit the white;
And, being a winner, God give you good night!
Exeunt PETRUCHIO and KATHARINA
Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew.
LUCENTIO’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.
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’Tweet
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