Feminist Themes in and Critiques of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew

Erin Furstnau

Shakespeare’s plays open themselves up to a world of interpretation. Whether in discourse, historical context, symbolism, or intentions to leave the audience in conflict with themselves, there is no dispute about his plays lending themselves to every reader’s response. My response to reading “The Taming of the Shrew” was a strange one. I understand that this play is meant to be one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and one of his most popular ones at that; however, there seemed to me to be an awkward seriousness in Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine that bordered on something darkly misogynistic rather than comedic. In that response, it seems as though I’m not alone. “The Taming of the Shrew” has faced many feminist critiques assessing patriarchy, misogyny, woman as commodity, and subordination of woman’s story within a larger, more “serious” frame of class.

Regarding the interpretation of Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine, questions are raised as to whether his behavior is a mirror to hers, simply reflecting back her own demeanor so that, in turn, she understands how she’s treated others, or if his actions towards her are much more misogynistic and cruel, and his intentions to “tame” her a reflection of patriarchy instead. In “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,” John C. Bean argues:

What we should emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew is the emergence of a humanized heroine against the background of depersonalizing farce… If we can appreciate the liberal element of Kate’s last speech--the speech that strikes modern sensibilities as advocating male tyranny--we can perhaps see that Kate is tamed not in the automatic manner of behavioral psychology but in the spontaneous manner of the later romantic comedies where characters lose themselves in chaos and emerge, as if from a dream, liberated into the bonds of love.(66)

He goes on to explain:

Since farce treats persons as if they lacked the sensitivities of an inward self, that genre is appropriate to a view of marriage in which the wife is mainly the husband’s chattel. But Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is concerned with the discovery of the inward self, with love as personal, and hence with the relationship of lovers who face together the problem of reconciling liberty and commitment in marriage.(66)

However, Dorothea Kehler presents a different perspective in “Echoes of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew,” stating:

The explicit and implicit subjects of this play--arranged marriages, the authority of fathers and husbands, the obedience expected from daughters and wives, the economic helplessness of most women--were issues and experiences that touched the lives of everyone in Shakespeare’s audience. While modern interpreters may see Shrew as a high-spirited comedy about role-playing of game-playing, they suppress the knowledge that men, not only on stage, but off, wrote the play and assigned the roles, chose the game and made the rules. (31)

George Bernard Shaw also had a striking opinion and criticisms of the play according to Lise Pederson in her essay “Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew VS. Shaw’s Pygmalion.” She explains that Shaw’s Pygmalion is a similar story to The Taming of the Shrew, as “in both plays a man accepts the task of transforming a woman from one kind of person to another, radically different kind.”(15), but that the treatment is drastically different.

Petruchio consistently plays the role of a bully in his relationship with Kate, and it is, indeed, the means by which he transforms her from a quarrelsome shrew to a sweet-tempered and obedient wife. Not only does he frustrate her every wish, but he subjects her to mental anguish in the humiliation brought upon her by his attire and behavior at their wedding and to physical abuse in causing her horse to dump her Into the mud, in preventing her from sleeping night after night, and in keeping food from her with the declared intention of starving her into submission. (Pederson 15)

Pederson explains the parallels between The Taming and Pygmalion, but that one thing in particularly is drastically different--the “transformed” woman’s final speech. Shaw’s character of Eliza Doolittle delivers a speech that “expresses a direct repudiation of the method by which Shakespeare allows Petruchio to ‘tame’ Kate, because it asserts that the example of bad-tempered, uncontrolled behavior can only bring about behavior of the same kind in the learner, not a change to sweet-tempered reasonableness such as Kate exhibits.” (19).

In both The Taming and Pygmalion there is a similar frame of a subordinate figure, the characters of Christopher Sly and Alfred Doolittle, who transcends his own social status. (Pederson 17). Such a frame, but in comparison to The Rape of Lucrece rather than Pygmalion, is explored by Annabel Patterson in her essay “Framing the Taming,” in which she invokes Ann Thompson’s introduction to The Taming of the Shrew in the Cambridge Edition, stating that, “Thompson emphasizes the complex meta-theatrical effect whereby the taming plot is mimetically and hence ontologically subordinated to the Sly plot, so that the woman’s story must be regarded as less ‘real’ than it seems.”(309). Patterson explains that in the framing of Taming of the Shrew there is a direct correlation between Sly’s superior/inferior, master/subject class distinction and that of the subordination of wife to husband, as delivered in Katherine’s final speech.

Patterson also touches upon Christopher Sly’s wordplay, as “in the quarto text, “comonty” is replaced, correctly, by ‘commoditie’--that is to say, goods, merchandise, a possession, or, in a more abstract sense, advantage, profit, self-interest.”(310). She continues, “This canny mistake of Sly’s is intensified by a second misunderstanding so that ‘stuff’ as abstract matter or content becomes, in Sly’s materialist thought, household ‘stuff’ or furnishings. Both terms, we soon learn, define Katherine’s marriage to Petruchio.”(310). Patterson observes, “Sly has somehow perceived, or made perceptible to others by unintentional wordplay, that the play he is about to see is not only ‘about’ the commodification of women but is itself a commodity.”(311). Similarly in “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage” by Coppelia Kahn, she describes the ever-present attitude of women as commodities through the eyes of the merchant, and Kate’s father figure, Lord Baptista: “Baptista is determined not to marry the sought-after Bianca until he gets an offer for the unpopular Kate, not for the sake of conforming to the hierarchy of age as his opening words imply, but out of a merchant’s desire to sell all the goods in his warehouse.”(87).

Not only were women in the Renaissance something like “chattel” to use for a sort of bargaining between fathers and suitors, but the qualities that made them either desirable or undesirable as wives leads to the notion of a rightful patriarchal judgment of who a woman should and should not be, that men have a right to reject or “tame” qualities in a woman that they find unattractive. These unattractive qualities usually involve a dominant, mouthy woman such as Katherine. In “Misogyny is Everywhere,” Phyllis Rackin observes, “Reminders that women were expected to be chaste, silent, and obedient probably occur more frequently in recent scholarship than they did in the literature of Shakespeare’s time;” however, she explains, “the connections between female speech and female sexual transgression are retraced and the anxieties evoked by the possibility of female power are discovered in play after play.”(44). Rackin goes on to discuss the importance of history in literary studies, but that “the historical records of the past are often man-made and shaped by men’s anxieties, desires, and interests.”(47).

One such anxiety of man is the empowerment of women, thus to alleviate that, disempowerment must follow. As a mouthy, aggressive female character, Kate must be “tamed” to alleviate a collective patriarchal anxiety. States Rackin, “Feminist Shakespeare criticism has been almost completely shaped by the scholarly consensus about the pervasiveness of masculine anxiety and women’s disempowerment in Shakespeare’s world.”(47). Revisiting “Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage” Kahn manages to turn that disempowerment around:

[critics] claim that [Petruchio] is Kate’s savior, the wise man who guides her to a better and truer self, or a clever doctor following homeopathic medicine. They have missed the greatest irony of the play. Unlike other misogynistic shrew literature, this play satirizes not woman herself in the person of the shrew, but male attitudes toward women. (86)

So should the whole of Taming of the Shrew be taken lightly as farce of with the weighty seriousness of Renaissance history and patriarchy? With so many interpretations no reader is required to focus too heavily on any one argument. There are a variety of arguments, speculations to be made of ambiguities, and a variety of conflictions within oneself to appropriately place when reading any of Shakespeare’s plays. What feminist theorists, and all literary theorists ask, is that we the reader account for all the possibilities.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.” The Woman’s Part; Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1980. 65-78.

Kahn, Coppelia. “Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage.” The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards. Amherst: University of Massachussetts, 1977. 84-100.

Kehler, Dorothea. “Echoes of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew.” Renaissance Papers 1986. 31-42.

Novy, Marianne. “Patriarchy and Play in Taming of the Shrew.” Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1984. 45-62.

Patterson, Annabel. “Framing the Taming.” Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions. Ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, Stanley Wells. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1994. 304-313.

Pederson, Lise. “Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew VS. Shaw’s Pygmalion: Male Chauvinism VS. Women’s LIB?” Fabian Feminist: Bernard Shaw and Woman. Ed. Rodelle Weintraub. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1977.

Rackin, Phyllis. “Misogyny is Everywhere.” A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Malden: Blackwell, 2000. 42-56.