Conduct Literature and The Taming of the Shrew

Mona Sewards

Conduct literature was intended to guide Renaissance citizens in their religious, moral, personal, and social behaviors (Dolan 162-165). Fueled by the humanist tradition and the proliferation of printing, conduct books became increasing popular, especially for the upper class and the emerging middle class. Although on the surface it may seem that the bulk of conduct literature is aimed towards women, in actuality, these texts of advice are extensions of those directed towards men (St. Claire xi-xviii). With careful consideration, the relevance of conduct literature in the context of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is evident.

Although the printings of certain texts were legally restricted in the 16th century, (St. Clair xiii), conduct literature remained intact: “…the printed word allowed authorities, or writers merely claiming to be authorities, to enter the intimate recesses of private life...The printed book opened this avenue of communication, directly in manuals meant to be read by good Catholics before bedtime…” (Bell, R. 8). These texts were sometimes imported to the stage, as possible in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Political concerns intact, “these connections have to be borne in mind when attempting to assess the significance, or the innovative elements, of conduct advice in this period” (St.Clair xii).

During the Renaissance, humanism emphasized the association between education and ethics. Especially for the upper class, although focused on intellect, humanists believed that education was strongly linked to social conduct. A solid education would incorporate moral teachings, resulting in decent and honorable creatures (St. Clair xi). “Whichever political or religious party was in power would regard printed texts as among their most effective instruments with which to promote ideology and control public order” (St. Clair xiii).

Religion, of central importance during the Renaissance, is popular subject matter in conduct literature. Advice was commonly given on how to respect and please God. This notion is strongly connected to the humanist ideal, for being virtuous is fundamental to religion. As an example, Anne of France advised her daughter to always remember to satisfy God: “No man or woman of rank can be too carefully dressed or too neat in my opinion, provided that their clothing is not too outlandish or so important to them that they forget to serve God (Jansen 36) and, “if at some point God takes your husband…be responsible for your children…because it pleases God” (Jansen 64).

Conduct literature geared towards women was, in fact, mostly written by men-men who sought to presume the temperaments of women (Fantazzi ix). Although Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, is a publicly defiant character, and her sister Bianca a closet rebel, social codes demanded differently in the Renaissance. Women were taught to be humble and pleasant in public (Jansen 34). The content of conduct books for women consisted primarily of wifely duties, but also ranged from how to have sex to how to be a good mother (Bell 9). One of the most popular conduct books of the Renaissance written by Juan Luis Vives in 1523 is The Education of a Christian Woman. This treatise consists of three books for women in each of their three stages of life: Unmarried young women, married women (including motherhood), and widows (Beauchamp, V. xlvii). Although said to have believed that women are as intellectually competent as men, Vives wrote in his preface to his work, “A woman’s only care is chastity; therefore when this has been thoroughly elucidated, she may be considered to have received sufficient instruction…To holy women I have merely given gentle advice concerning their duties” (Fantazzi 47-49). The ‘table of contents’ of one other conduct book includes the following topics: apparel, behaviour, complement, decency, estimation, fancie, gentilitie, and honour (Brathwait 2). It is important to note that these expectations are often given within the context that of men.

Prior to English Gentlewoman, Brathwait published English Gentleman. There are certain distinctions between conduct literature written for women and works written for men. As women were primarily taught how to be wives, mothers, and widows, men were advised on how to conduct themselves socially. Louis IX, the father of Anne of France, wrote enseignements, or books of advice, for his son entitled Rosetree of Wars. The majority of his work consists of war and warfare (Jansen 15-16). This differentiation in subject matter points to marked gender distinctions, as encountered in The Taming of the Shrew.

These differences lend to the interactions between the sexes. Conduct literature often counsels men and women (principally women) on how to behave towards one another, particularly in marriage and within the household. As Kate apparently conforms herself to Petruchio’s expectations, she becomes, in Petruchio’s eyes, the “conformable household Kate” (Duncan 29). As Natasha Korda writes:

…the early modern housewife’s new role in the symbolic ordering of household cates takes on its full importance. She was made responsible for maintaining the proper balance of economic and symbolic capital within the household economy…Domestic manuals of the period repeatedly express anxiety over the housewife’s ability to strike this balance… (124).

Pertruchio and Kate arguably conform to one another’s convictions (with ample prodding by Hortensio to Kate) in an important episode between the two characters. In Act Four, Scene Five, (Shakespeare, 35-36), as Petruchio and Kate banter over whether it is the sun or moon that shines, it is not merely these objects and the battle of the wits that carry weight. The sun and the moon, as analogous to Petruchio and Kate, are noted as to mirror one another. Although there are several conflicting interpretations of this encounter, and whether one interprets The Taming of the Shrew misogynistic as opposed to a social commentary, historical references suggest that husbands and wives mirror the sun and the moon (Duncan 30-3), for, “The relationship between the sun and moon was often used to explain the ideal relationship between husband and wife” (Dolan 30).
To beautifully summarize the seeming, yet conflicted, marriage between conduct literature and The Taming of the Shrew, editors St. Clair and Maassen state:
But though it may have seemed impossible completely to transcend the terms and boundaries of the discourse of woman’s conduct, the literature and drama of the period show remarkably flexible and inventive ways of negotiating and appropriating the dominant ideology for individual purposes. There is scope for the possibility that when Katherina, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, obediently delivered her speech about the duty of wives, which was to reinstate her into her husband’s favour and her neighbour’s respect, she did not so with a straight and humble face, but with a knowing wink to the audience (xli).

Works Cited

Anne of France. Lessons for My Daughter. Ed. Sharon Jansen. London: D.S. Brewer. 2004.

Bell, Rudolph M. How to Do It: Guides to God Living for Renaissance Italians. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999.

Brathwait, R. The English Gentlewoman. London: B. Alsop and T. Fawcet. 1631. Reprinted- Amsterdam: Da Capo Press. 1970.

Dolan, Frances E. The Taming of the Shrew- Texts and Contexts. Ed. Frances Dolan. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press. 1996.

Korda, Natasha. “Household Kates-Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 47 (1996): 109-131.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Necessary Shakespeare: Second Edition. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005. 2-41.

St. Clair, W., Maassen, I. (Eds.) Conduct Literature for Women 1500-1610: Volume 1. London: Pickering and Chatto. 2000.

Vives, Juan L. The Instruction of a Christen Woman. 1524. Eds. Virginia Beauchamp, Elizabeth Hageman, Margaret Mikesall. Urbana: University of Illinois. 2002.

Vives, Juan L. The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth Century Manual. 1524. Ed. and Trans. Charles Fantazzi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000.