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

Photo by Gioele Fazzeri on Pexels.com

‘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?

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. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

“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.