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?

Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’: A Study of Grief

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In my post about Sonnet 18, I commented that Shakespeare very evidently understood grief.

Nowhere in the canon of Shakespeare’s work is this more evident than in Hamlet.In this play, we see a son struggling with grief for his father and anger at the circumstances of his death. In this one young man’s experience, Shakespeare demonstrates some crucial lessons about grief.

Grief is natural.It is an instinctive immediate reaction to loss. Nobody questions why Hamlet mourns his father, except for those who conspicuously do not mourn the late king.

CLAUDIUS
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?


GERTRUDE
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not forever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet, I.ii

It is those characters who do not feel or express grief who are portrayed as unnatural and heartless: had they been loyal, Gertrude, Claudius, and Polonius should all have been deeply affected by the death of the king and observed strict protocols of mourning as his wife, brother and trusted advisor. Instead, Gertrude marries Claudius, Claudius claims the throne that rightly should have gone to Hamlet, and Polonius switches his service seamlessly to the new regime. It’s all very convenient and it’s all very cold— but that’s how it goes when one is only in it for oneself.

This scene also demonstrates that grief is enduring. Unlike his mother, Hamlet doesn’t just “get over it”. That is not how most of us are designed. While it may change over time, grief is something that never fully goes away. It doesn’t take much to trigger a memory that unleashes a fresh wave of emotion.

HAMLET  
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer—married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married—O most wicked speed: to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,
It is not, nor it cannot come to good,
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.

Hamlet I.ii

Grief is existential. Grief makes us question the meaning of life: what’s the point of it all? Why are we here? What am I doing with my life? Is it worth going on? These are natural questions that many of us ask in response to the end of life, although perhaps less eloquently than Hamlet did.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet, III.ii

We often make observations like “life will never be the same” and that is essentially true. Grief often causes us to consider what is important and sort our priorities for life Thinking about the  changes that someone’s death makes in our life can  cause us to consider what we will do with the time, freedoms and opportunities that still lie ahead of us. This can be a time of significant decision making and resolution in response to the unavoidable change in our lives as a result of the death of a loved one.

Grief is pervasive. It affects every part of life, directly influencing motivations and willingness to meet commitments that all of a sudden seem mundane or irrelevant. It can take the joy out of other aspects of life that would otherwise bring joy, such as one’s relationships, achievements and career.  Otherwise important things tend to be put on hold while grief holds the floor.

HAMLET
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor women neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. 

Hamlet III.i

It also has flow-on effects in the lives and experiences of others:  when our emotions are most fragile, our relationships with others are proportionally vulnerable simply because of the impact of grief on one’s ability to connect and communicate effectively. The tendency to focus on one’s own self and situation may be a survival instinct in one sense, but it can also have a significant ripple effect among those around us.

Grief is relatable.The fact that we can all understand Hamlet’s feelings and responses show us that it is an integral element of life. Nobody lives forever, no matter how hard they try. That every society and culture has rituals and observances of death and mourning shows that grief is a universal experience: one which we will all encounter at some point in our lives.

From Hamlet, it is evident that there are constructive and destructive ways to deal with grief.

The pursuit of truth and justice, when necessary, is both healthy and appropriate. Questioning our priorities and examining our relationships can be a process of growth and refinement.

About, my brains! Hum—I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions:
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick. If ’a do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a dev’l, and the dev’l hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this—the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Hamlet, II.i

The observance and expression of grief is natural and should never be suppressed. The idea that men should not cry is not only unhealthy, it is absolute bunkum.

Grief complicates ones own emotions, affects mental and emotional health, adds pressure to relationships, and restricts one’s ability to ask for help.

It is crucial, then, to take great care to prevent grief leading us into self-destructive thoughts and behaviours.

HAMLET
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!
O God, God,How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie!

Hamlet, I.ii

Thoughts of self-harm and suicide are a definite sign that someone is not coping with their emotions and their circumstances, and that they need trustworthy help and support. 

Sacrificing our relationships with the living in the indulgence of grief for the dead. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia clearly had devastating consequences for her life, and ultimately caused more grief for those who knew and loved her.

HAMLET
I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t, it hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already (all but one) shall live, the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunn’ry, go.

Exit.

OPHELIA
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectation and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia withdraws.

Hamlet III.i

Had Hamlet and Ophelia shared their thoughts and feelings with each other and others instead of internalising everything and shutting them out, things may have ended far more positively for them both.

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

Shakespeare demonstrates that grief is life-changing and long term. It is complex and challenging. Through the examples and experiences of the characters in Hamlet, we can consider and evaluate healthy and not-so-healthy ways of dealing with it. While everyone’s circumstances are different, we can each grow in empathy and understanding of the effects of grief on ourselves and other people.

The Shrew and Why It Needed Taming

Shrew on Moss
Common Shrew. Photo by Hannah Knutson on Flickr. Creative Commons licence.

A shrew is a small mammal with small eyes and a pointy nose. Even though it looks like a mouse, the shrew is actually related to moles and hedgehogs. It has sharp, pointy teeth and eats insects, seeds and nuts. One of the most distinctive features is their odour, created by the multiple scent glands in various places on their bodies. There are numerous species of shrew, of which some, but not all, are venomous. 

As far back as the 11th century, shrew was also used to describe a woman who nags, gossips or argues, or is otherwise hard to get along with. This came from the Old English word for the animal: screawa. 

This probably came from the popular medieval superstition about shrews because of their aggressive nature and sharp bite. 

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“In such a night
Did pretty Jessica (like a little shrew)
Slander her love, and he forgave it her.”

Lorenzo in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, V.i

“Is she so hot a shrew as she’s reported?”

Curtis in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, IV.i

To beshrew someone was to corrupt,  curse or invoke evil upon them.

“A pox of that jest! And I beshrew all shrews.”

Princess of France in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.ii

To shrew was to scold or nag. 

“Go bid my woman
Search for a jewel that too casually
Hath left mine arm. It was thy master’s. Shrew me
If I would lose it for a revenue
Of any king’s in Europe!”

Imogen in Cymbeline, II.iii

We don’t use the word so much now, but in medieval times, being a shrew or a scold was a punishable offence that often ended in women being subjected to the stocks or the ducking stool in the hopes that they would learn to be quiet and submissive.

The shrew became a stock character or stereotype in storytelling and literature, by which stories would deliver morals about how women should behave and the negative outcomes of their refusing to change their ways. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is just one of the hundreds of plays and texts that have followed this trope. 

“Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her,
And in conclusion, she shall watch at night,
And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl,
And with the clamour keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew
Now let him speak, ’tis charity to shew.”

Petruchio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, IV.i

Thus, in the writing of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Shakespeare drew on an idea that was and still is very familiar to his audience, and was probably inspired by some of the other stories and legends that existed. That this play has lasted so long and remained so popular is testament to the enduring wit and quality of his writing, as well as the continued relatability of the characters and plot. 

These days, there are all sorts of words we use rather than shrew: dragon lady, witch, fury, battle-axe, and 2020’s own contribution: Karen*.

The Shrew & Why It Needed Taming.
#Shakespeare

Sources:
Etymonline
Britannica

* I offer all due apologies to the nice Karens out there.

Satisfying Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away #4: Avaunt!

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There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person.  It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
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Avaunt definitely carries spiritual or superstitious weight. This is the word one would use for commanding demons, witches and any other evil presence to leave. When directed at people rather than the supernatural, it carries connotations of derision, hatred, or fear; that the speaker seeks to protect themselves from those to whom they speak is clearly evident.

In The Comedy of Errors, Act 4, Scene 3, we see Antipholus and Dromio discussing the courtesan who has just demanded gold from Antipholus.

COURTESAN
Well met, well met, Master Antipholus. I see, sir, you have found the goldsmith now. Is that the chain you promis’d me today?

ANTIPHOLUS
Satan, avoid, I charge thee tempt me not.

DROMIO
Master, is this Mistress Satan?

ANTIPHOLUS
It is the devil.

DROMIO
Nay, she is worse, she is the devil’s dam, and here she comes in the habit of a light wench; and thereof comes that the wenches say, “God damn me,” that’s as much to say, “God make me a light wench.” It is written, they appear to men like angels of light, light is an effect of fire, and fire will burn: ergo, light  wenches will burn. Come not near her.

When the lady asks again for either the promised gold chain or the return of her ring, Antipholus uses avaunt to send her away, emphasising the spiritual or supernatural  theme of his earlier judgement upon her.

COURTESAN
I pray you, sir, my ring, or else the chain;I hope you do not mean to cheat me so?

ANTIPHOLUS
Avaunt, thou witch! Come, Dromio, let us go.

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

Othello uses the word twice. First, In the course of Iago’s subtle and insidious destruction of Othello’s belief in Desdemona’s innocence, Othello tells Iago, ‘Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.”

Later, he uses the term in the presence of Lodovico to dismiss Desdemona once he has finished accusing her of being false and mocking her distress at his treatment of her. Here, he speaks to Lodovico and Desdemona alternately in the one speech.

Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she’s obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient Proceed you in your tears
Concerning this, sir O well-painted passion!
I am commanded home. Get you away;
I’ll send for you anon. Sir, I obey the mandate,
And will return to Venice. Hence, avaunt!

Exit Desdemona.

Othello speaks politely to Lodovico while simultaneously disrespecting Desdemona. The tone of Othello’s words to his wife is very similar to that used by Antipholus, demonstrating the contempt and moral heft of the dismissal. At this point, it is clear that there is no going back for Othello: he has made up his mind, and his love and respect for her are dead.

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In Macbeth, Act 3 Scene 4, Macbeth is shaken by the appearance at dinner of Banquo’s ghost, which he addresses thus:

Avaunt, and quit my sight! Let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!

In that powerful second scene of Richard III in which Richard woos Anne Neville and begs her to marry him, Anne responds to Richard’s interruption of the funeral procession of the former King Henry VI with words and tone of superstition and the supernatural:

GLOUCESTER
Stay, you that bear the corse, and set it down.

ANNE
What black magician conjures up this fiend
To stop devoted charitable deeds?

GLOUCESTER
Villain, set down the corse, or, by Saint Paul,
I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.

GENTLEMAN
My lord, stand back, and let the coffin pass.

GLOUCESTER
Unmanner’d dog, stand thou when I command.
Advance thy halberd higher than my breast,
Or by Saint Paull Ill strike thee to m foot,
And spurn on thee, beggar, for thy boldness.

ANNE
What, do you tremble? Are you all afraid?
Alas, I blame you not, for you are mortal.
And mortal eyes cannot endure the devil.
Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell!
Thou hadst but power over his mortal body,
His soul thou canst not have. Therefore be gone.

The exchange that follows is full of the imagery of saints and devils, angels and demons, and heaven and hell.

In both these instances, the supernatural context of the use of avaunt! demonstrates the seriousness and spiritual gravity with which it was spoken. It was the word used to command sinners rather than saints and fiends rather than friends.

Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away: Avaunt!
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Satisfying Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away #3: Aroint Thee!

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There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person.  It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

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Aroint thee! Is stronger than Get thee gone! or Get thee hence! because of its implied disrespect for the recipient of the command.This intransitive verb of unknown origin means ‘go away’ or ‘begone’, but at the same time indicates that the speaker holds higher status or demands more respect than those to whom they are speaking.

Shakespeare uses this command twice in different plays.

In King Lear’, Act 3 Scene 4, Edgar has disguised himself as Poor Tom and feigns madness after his brother Edmund, who has allied himself with Lear’s faithless daughters Goneril and Regan and their husbands, convinced his father Gloucester that Edgar seeks to kill him. A manhunt ensues, and when Gloucester appears in this scene carrying a lit torch, Edgar speaks thus:

“This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibbet; he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squinies the eye, and makes the hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.
Swithold footed thrice the ’old,
He met the night-mare and her nine-fold;
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight,
And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee.

Anyone observing Edgar’s behaviour and apparently senseless ramblings would dismiss him as a madman, just as Gloucester did, but Edgar’s meaning here is clear: Gloucester is acting under the influence of evil, and Edgar is telling him to leave.

Given the widespread fear and superstition associated with witchcraft in early modern times, it would have been a natural understanding among Shakespeare’s audiences that even a madman has higher social status than a witch: he may be crazy, but at least he is not a willing agent of evil.

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The spiritual connotation of aroint thee! is also demonstrated in Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 3, where one of the Wyrd Sisters recounts a conversation between herself and a sailor’s wife:
“A sailor’s wife had chestnuts in her lap,
And mounch’d, and mounch’d, and mounch’d. “Give me!” quoth I.
“Aroint thee, witch!” the rump-fed ronyon cries.
Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger;
But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And like a rat without a tail,I’ll do,
I’ll do, and I’ll do.”

That the sailor’s wife bids the witch leave with the command “Aroint thee, witch!” underscores the difference in social and spiritual status between the two.

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At those times when ‘get thee gone’ and ‘get thee hence’ don’t seem to pack enough punch, ‘aroint thee’ might be just the phrase you need to achieve your goal in a most satisfyingly Shakespearean manner.

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When The Hurly-Burly’s Done

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When the Hurly-Burly’s Done comes from the opening scene of Macbeth, where the Wyrd Sisters chant in the midst of thunder and lightning:

1st WITCH.
When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

2nd WITCH.
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

3rd WITCH.
That will be ere the set of sun.

1st WITCH.
Where the place?

2nd WITCH.
Upon the heath.

3rd WITCH.
There to meet with Macbeth.

1st WITCH.
I come, Graymalkin.

2nd WITCH.
Paddock calls.

3rd WITCH.
Anon.

THREE WITCHES
Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

Exeunt.

In the context of war, treachery, the death of a king and the consequent struggles of a nation, it means they will get together again when the mayhem is over. Given their manipulation of Macbeth himself, it’s mayhem they are actively involved and interested in. Their words are mysterious and laden with magic and foreboding.

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Hurly-burly or hurlyburly is a word from the early 1500s which means commotion or tumult, which grew out of the  phrase hurling and burling which was used as early as the 1300s. Hurling time was the name applied by chroniclers of the time to the period of tumult and commotion around the Peasants’ Revolt against the young Richard II, led by Wat Tyler in 1381.

It is a wonderfully expressive word that is quite evocative of the chaos and tumult of its meaning, particularly when delivered with a Scottish accent as it might well be spoken in Macbeth.

Shakespeare also uses hurly-burly to refer to the conflicts and changes that occurred after that same Richard lost his throne to Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. In Henry 4 part 1, Act 5 Scene 1, Henry gives this answer in response Worcester’s complaints and accusations against Henry of a  lack of loyalty and consideration of his friends , by which Worcester justifies his involvement in Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy’s rebellion:

KING HENRY
These things indeed you have articulate,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches,
To face the garment of rebellion
With some fine colour that may please the eye
Of fickle changelings and poor discontents,
Which gape and rub the elbow at the news
Of hurly-burly innovation;
And never yet did insurrection want
Such water-colors to impaint his cause,
Nor moody beggars, starving for a time
Of pell-mell havoc and confusion.

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Shakespeare also uses the term hurly to refer to chaos and confusion.

In King John, Act 3 Scene 4, Pandulph foresees that the people of England will soon revolt against the corrupt and murderous King John, and says “methinks I see this hurly all on foot”.

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In Henry 4 part 2, King Henry delivers a powerful  soliloquy that personifies sleep as a contrary and uncaring being. In this speech, he refers to a mighty storm as being so noisy that the hurly is sufficient to wake death itself — another clever instance of personification.

KING HENRY
How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee,
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfum’d chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why li’st thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ’larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge,
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafing clamour in the slippery clouds,
That with the hurly death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give then repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then (happy) low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

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In Act 4, Scene 1 of The Taming of the Shrew we see Petruchio bringing Kate home to his country house and raising his voice and insulting his servants, making them jump to his commands. He explains his behaviour thus:

PETRUCHIO
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ’tis my hope to end successfully……
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverend care of her,
And in conclusion, she shall watch all night,
And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl,
And with the clamor keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak; ’tis charity to shew.

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Shakespeare and his audiences were clearly familiar with both words and understood their common meaning. That the word is still in fairly common use today is testament to its versatility and probably also to how much fun it is to say.

Sources:
Etymonline
Middle English Compendium

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Shakespearean Ways To Tell Someone To Go Away: Get Thee Gone!

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There are times when each of us needs to tell someone to go away. Adding a Shakespearean flavour to it lends both style and emphasis to any ejection of a bothersome person. It can also deliver a most satisfying sense of accomplishment to lovers of Shakespeare or of language in general.

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Begone is the base level entreaty for someone to leave. To say “Fellow, begone!” is the equivalent of “Okay mate, out you go…” today. If not addressing someone who is actually a fellow, you can use any other form of address, or simply say “Begone!” with an imperative tone. A flick of the hand toward the door could add a nice dramatic touch.

Get thee gone! adds a touch of urgency. It’s more like saying “Go, quickly!” or “Get out now!” This is used forty times throughout Shakespeare’s plays, usually when there is a sense of timeliness or hurry about the leaving. It can also suggest impatience or frustration with the person to whom the command is addressed.

In Henry IV part 1, Act 1 Scene 3, King Henry addresses Worcester thus:”Worcester, get thee gone, for I do seeDanger and disobedience in thine eye.”

In Act 3, Scene 1 of Timon of Athens, the grief-stricken Timon tells Alcibiades he wants to be left alone with the command “I prithee, beat thy drum and get thee gone.” This is a reference to the military practice of beating a particular rhythm for retreat, making it the Elizabethan equivalent of “beat it!”

In different parts of Henry 6 , we see Margaret of Anjou use Get thee gone in two different ways.

In part 2, Act 3 Scene 2, Margaret of Anjou farewells the Duke of Suffolk with an impassioned speech:
“O. let me entreat thee cease. Give me thy hand,
That I may dew it with my mournful tears;
Nor let the rain of heaven wet this place
To wash away my woeful monuments.
O, could this kiss be printed in thy hand.
That thou might think upon these by the seal,
Through whom a thousand sighs are breath’d for thee!
So get thee gone, that I may know my grief,
‘Tis but surmised whiles thou art standing by,
As one that surfeits thinking on a want.
I will repeal thee, or, be well assur’d,
Adventure to be banished myself;
And banished I am, if but from thee.
Go, speak not to me; even now be gone.”

In Act 3, Scene 6 of Henry 6  part 3, Margaret is far less heartbroken to be bidding her husband, King Henry VI, farewell. Furious and resentful at the amount of power he has given to his councillors– and her enemies– Warwick, Faulconbridge and York, Margaret announces her intention to summon her army and go to war with them. Henry begs her to “Stay, gentle Margaret, and let me speak.”
Her response is curt: “Thou has spoke too much already; get thee gone.”

Yet again, Shakespeare’s Margaret demonstrates that elementary truth: tone really is everything.

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Birthday.

April 23 is the date upon which we assume Shakespeare was born

Happy birthday, old chap!

The word birthday dates back to the late 14th century, having come from the Old English word byrddæg which meant the anniversary or celebration of one’s birth. At that time, though, it was usually used to commemorate the birth of s very important people, such as kings or saints. It was far more important to those early modern people that their children were christened, and that was the date recorded by the church. Regular folk did not commonly speak of the day on which they were born as their birthday until the 1570s, and about fifty years later they also spoke of their birthnight. 

Even though his own birthdate was not actually recorded, observation of one’s own birthday was far more commonplace by Shakespeare’s time. 

Cleopatra acknowledges her own birthday in Antony and Cleopatra: “It is my birthday: / I had thought t’have held it poor; but since my lord / Is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.”

The Roman senator Cassius says in Julius Caesar V.i: “This is my birthday; as this very day / Was Cassius born.” 

In Pericles II.i the first of three fishermen with whom Pericles discusses the king, Simonides, observes that it the king “hath a fair daughter, and tomorrow is her birthday, and there are princes and knights come from all parts of the world to joust and tourney for her love.” 

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These instances show that celebrating or at least making note of one’s own birthday was something understood by the regular folk who made up most of Shakespeare’s audiences in the late 1590s and early 1600s.

Sources:
Etymonline
Etymologeek

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A Butt-load of Butts

A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively—  one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.

A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot  which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.

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The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.

In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of  methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.

This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.

That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from  animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans  came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.

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Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.

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Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast,  Love,charity, obedience and true duty”  with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of  her insult.

By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but  which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.

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It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”

Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”

The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.

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In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’  V.ii, he admonishes  her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.

Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus:  “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”

While it may be tempting to think that Doctor Butts, the court physician in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is another example of delightful word play, that was actually the name of the historical figure. Dr William Butts was the royal doctor in the court of Henry VIII. He was not the only well known member of his family: he came from a family of prominent Butts.
(I’m not even sorry. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.)

Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary
ShakespeareandHistory.com

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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.