Wives in the Renaissance

Amanda Anderson

“Let’s each one send unto his wife; And he whose wife is most obedient To come at first when he doth send for her Shall win the wager which we will propose.” ~Taming of the Shrew.

Obedience, a virtue that was highly valued as a trait in renaissance wives, is just one of the many expectations of husbands that played into how women were treated. Wives in the renaissance were submitted to roles and treated in ways that are clearly portrayed in Shakespeare’s work The Taming of the Shrew.

Marriage in renaissance times was viewed completely different than marriage in today’s day and age. One difference is that marriage in the renaissance was often not built on love but would be arranged by the families (http://www.lepg.org/family.htm). Many times as in the case of nobility, marriages were arranged as a way to reach social and political gain. The family of the bride was required to present a dowry to the husband which often padded the husbands wealth. After marriage a woman’s body and possessions became the property of her husband. This possession allowed a husband to beat his wife for disobedience. A family would only allow their daughter to be married to a man who was well established in a trade or business proving that he had a means of supporting his wife. When a woman in the renaissance became widowed, often due to the great age difference caused by the need of the husband to establish himself, she often inherited the business and was allowed to continue to run the business on her own.

People in the renaissance also believed that woman was created by God with the sole purpose of serving and obeying man. From early on in a young girls life she is taught that she is inferior to man. Wedding services during renaissance times even required the woman to vow to be agreeable and cheerful towards her husband. The wife who was loving, virtuous, and obedient were so valued that they were believed to be gifts from God.

Many of these views are expressed through the characters in The Taming of the Shrew. In the beginning of the play the audience is introduced to the characters of Bianca and Katharina, also known as Kate. Bianca is portrayed as being very quiet, and virtuous the epitome of the renaissance wife. Kate on the other hand is described as rough and outspoken. Hortensio, a suitor of Bianca, says of Kate “No mates for you, unless you were of gentler, milder mold.” Bianca and Katharina’s father will not allow Bianca to be wed until Kate has been married but because Kate does not exhibit the valued traits none of the men want to marry her. This problem is solved, however, by a man named Petruchio who wishes to marry a woman who has a wealthy father so that he can collect the dowry and improve his social status. Like many men in the renaissance Petruchio is looking to marry for social gain. The specific gain that he is set to get by the marriage to Kate is half of her fathers land upon his death and twenty thousand crowns. He follows the renaissance beliefs that women can be shaped and formed to mans will. This belief is the reason that he is willing to marry Kate even though she does not posses the qualities valued during the time.

Petruchio uses his wit to try to woo Kate and make her willing to marry him. When Petruchio first meets Kate he calls her virtuous and fair claiming that he has heard of mildness praised in every town and that this has given him reason to woo her. When Kate denies what Petruchio has said he starts a battle of wits in which he contradicts everything she says. Although at the end of this Kate still is not impressed with Petruchio, he tells her father that they will be married. Kate’s father, Baptista, agrees to the marriage. This is a common example of arranged marriage during renaissance times in which a father and a man agree upon terms of a marriage. This marriage also is an example of how in renaissance times marriages were not built on love.

Once Petruchio and Kate are married he whisks her away to start forming her to the obedient woman she should be. The first ploy at making Kate an obedient wife is made immediately following the wedding ceremony. Petruchio will not permit Kate to attend her wedding feast but claims his property. Petruchio declares “She is my goods, my chattels;” which goes along with the renaissance belief that once a marriage has taken place the woman’s body and possessions are that of her husband. The next ploy at taming Kate comes when Petruchio arrives at his home with his new wife. They have traveled a long way and Kate is tired and wanting food but when the food is brought in Petruchio gets angry and throws all of the food at the servants thereby keeping Kate from eating. Petruchio then reveals his plan to the audience of keeping Kate from eating or sleeping until she submits to his will like a good wife should. Today this would be considered abuse but in the renaissance a husband was allowed to do what he pleased with his wife.

Petruchio continues to assert his dominance granted to him by renaissance culture throughout the play. One such assertion occurs when Kate is to be outfitted for Bianca’s wedding. Every item that Kate picks out Petruchio finds fault with until they are left to go in their plainest clothes. When they finally get ready to set out Petruchio declares that it is seven o’clock, and when Kate disagrees with him he declares that they shall not leave that day. While they are traveling to her fathers house Petruchio and Kate have an argument about the moon and sun. Petruchio is testing how obedient Kate is for during the renaissance times a wife should agree with her husband no matter what he says. This goes back to the woman’s marriage vows of being agreeable and cheerful towards her husband. Along the way Kate finally succumbs to her husbands will. She even goes so far as to embrace an old man and call him a young maiden because her husband has told her the man was a fair maiden. Two final tests of obedience occur at the wedding. The first happens when Petruchio demands that Kate kiss him in the street before they attend the feast. This is a very great test of obedience because in renaissance times it was not appropriate to show affection in public. The final test occurs when Petruchio bets the other men that he has the most obedient wife. Each man sends for his wife and only Kate is quick to respond. She has finally become the renaissance wife she is expected to be by social standards of the time.

Kate’s character throughout the play is in complete contrast with that of her sister Bianca’s. In the beginning of the play Bianca is made out to be the perfect renaissance woman valued and prized to be the perfect wife. Bianca displays quiet obedience towards her father at all times. Baptista declares that Bianca shall not be married till Kate is married and Bianca calmly accepts this decision applying herself to her lessons. During renaissance times women were often not educated unless they came from wealthy families. The fact that Kate is educated makes her that much more valuable as a wife because her father will have a large dowry to bestow on her husband.

Bianca’s marriage, like Kate’s, is a good example of a renaissance marriage. Like most marriages of the time Bianca’s is arranged by her father. Baptista informs Bianca’s suitors that he will give her hand to the man with the most to offer. This is clearly stated by Baptista when he says “That like a father you will deal with him and pass my daughter a sufficient dower, the match is made, and all is done. Your son shall have my daughter with consent.” As was common in renaissance times the marriage was agreed upon by both fathers as a way to pad social status. Bianca has no say in the marriage, and clearly love is not a part of the father’s decision.

At the end of the play Kate and Bianca have traded places in which one is the better picture of the renaissance wife. The shrew that was Katharina has successfully been changed into the ideal renaissance wife. Her transformation follows the beliefs that woman is inferior to man and that man has the ability to change his wife into what he believes she should be. Bianca on the other hand has undergone the opposite transformation, changing from the ideal woman to a wife that is not immediately obedient. This is demonstrated in the final scene of the play. The husbands of Kate, Bianca and an old widow make a wager as to which has the most obedient wife. The first man to send for his wife is Lucentio, Bianca’s husband. Her response to his call is that she is busy and can not come to him. A response of this sort would not be looked upon favorably by those in renaissance times. The second wife sent for is the old widow whose response is that she believes her husband is up to some trick so will not come to him at all but requires he come to her. By laws during the time the old widows’ husband would have the right to beat her for such a response. Finally the husbands send for Kate and are surprised to get the response of a good renaissance wife.

At the very end of the play Katharina gives a speech on the duties of wives to their husbands. Throughout her speech se exemplifies the renaissance beliefs how wives should act and be treated. She says that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, they sovereign;” Kate demonstrates that she believes in the renaissance mantra that wives owe everything to there husbands. She goes on to declare that women are “bound to serve, love, and obey” their husbands.


Works Cited

"Children and Families." 1 Jan. 2004. Le Poulet Gauche. 02 Nov. 2007 <http://www.lepg.org/family.htm>.

Desoto, Ronnie. "A Woman's Life During the Renaissance." Sarasota County Schools. 2 Nov. 2007 <http://www.nextgen.sarasotacountyschools.net/Cyesis/student.projects/renaissance/ronnie/women_life#marriage>.

"History of Women." 01 Jan. 2004. Le Poulet Gauche. 02 Nov. 2007 <http://www.lepg.org/herstory.htm>.

Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington & London: Indiana UP, 1977. 66-78.

Shakespeare. "Taming of the Shrew." The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005. 2-41.

Zajko, Vanda. "Petruchio is 'Kated': the Taming of the Shrew and Ovid." Shakespeare and the Classics. Ed. Charles Martindale and A. B. Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 33-48.