A Feminist Defense of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

As part of the Literature Profile Integrating Activity course, students write a 10-page paper. These two excellent papers, by Genevieve Daigle and Eric Neilson, are the presentation versions delivered at the Literature Profile Conference. This year’s conference programme appears in the final pages of this journal.

Written by: Genevieve Daigle

To our modern social sensibilities, William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1580-1582) is easily the most disconnected and uncomfortable of his comedies. Though there is no consensus as to whether or not The Taming of the Shrewcan be considered a feminist piece, I propose that it was, in fact, a piece of proto-feminist work. Despite the initial scruples a modern audience might feel regarding the play, through an analysis of the ways in which the play subverts the standards of an early modern audience, an analysis of how Katherine is an outspoken dominant female figure and of Shakespeare’s treatment of women in his other works, I will argue that The Taming of Shrewis in fact a piece of proto-feminist literature.

Contemporary critics of Shakespeare have often found themselves looking upon The Taming of the Shrewin a critical light, and for good reason. The premise of the play, a woman who is “tamed” by a man, certainly runs counter to the values that modern feminism has taught us to uphold. Katherine, by the very fact of her taming, seems to be the antithesis of what a contemporary audience would consider a strong, independent female character. Indeed, as psychoanalyst Marvin B Krims reflects, when faced with a theatrical production of the piece, “we enlightened folk in the audience may find ourselves squirming in our seats, asking ourselves just why we had found such behavior so damn funny” (Krims 53). This reaction should be considered fairly normal because, to a contemporary audience, the behavior Petruchio displays in regards to Katherine and her taming could easily be considered abusive. In fact, literary scholar Emily Detmer likens Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine to Stockholm syndrome, a syndrome where victims develop trust or affection towards their captors or abusers as a means of survival (Detmer 284). Much like an abuser, Detmer explains that Petruchio “isolates Kate from those who could intervene on her behalf, and […] threatens her survival” (Detmer 284). Though a contemporary audience may be inclined to read their interactions in this abusive light, the reactions of an early modern audience would not have seen Petruchio’s actions as abusive. Wife-beating as a form of subjugation was widely accepted in Elizabethan England (Detmer 275). In The Taming of the Shrew, however, Petruchio never once lifts a finger against Katherine during his taming. In fact, the only person among them to use any physical violence is Katherine, which would have been an incredibly visceral example of female disobedience to an early modern audience. The absence of such physical violence in the way Petruchio tames Katherine, though not a forward-thinking concept by our standards, is indicative of Shakespeare subverting the expectations of an early modern audience and anticipating future social and political movements to abolish the practice of domestic violence.

Another way in which Shakespeare subverts the expectations of an early modern audience is through Katherine’s strong intellect. Consistently throughout the text, Katherine exhibits a considerable amount of wit and intellect in her verbal exchanges. This is particularly highlighted during her initial interaction with Petruchio. Before they meet, Petruchio confidently proclaims that through his wooing, he will tame Katherine when he says “So I to her and so she yields to me, / For I am rough and woo not like a babe” (II, i, 126-129). However, as soon as he meets Katherine, he quickly finds that his wooing falls short in the face of her wit and strength of character. Their banter challenges the dynamic of a man being necessarily a woman’s intellectual superior by creating an atmosphere in which the reader is uncertain of who in fact retains the dominant position (Smith 300). Another example of Katherine’s wit and intellect occurs in Act IV when the two later travel back to Padua. Petruchio continues his “taming” through further verbal banter by proclaiming that the sun is in fact the moon. Here, Katherine seemsto submit to the mental gymnastics that Petruchio is proposing. However, it is far more probable that Katherine has in fact simply conceded to humor Petruchio in his little game. Indeed, critics such as Velvet D. Pearson have suggested, counter to what Detmer argues, that Petruchio is in fact playing a game of wits with Katherine to allow for “an intellectual freedom unavailable to many Elizabethan women” (Pearson 286). This argument posits Katherine not as a victim of abuse but rather as an active, intelligent participant in a game of wits: one that Petruchio allows and encourages within Katherine. Further proof of this occurs in the final scene, when Katherine has an exchange with a widow. The widow, offended at Petruchio’s remarks, turns on Katherine and attempts to make a fool of her. Katherine never misses a beat, however, and Petruchio, confident in his wife’s wit and intellect, is even willing to wager that Katherine will win the argument, which indicates that she has never lost this aspect of her character. These moments of Katherine’s intellectual superiority further point to Shakespeare’s care in depicting women as being far more dominant than audiences of the sixteenth and seventeenth century would have expected.

Katherine’s strength is not restricted only to her wit, however. She is a woman who has strong opinions about her plight and that of other Elizabethan women. Katherine’s status in the play is likened to that of a mere commodity to be bought and sold. This is especially highlighted by the fact that Petruchio proclaims he intends to find a wife with a large Dowry. This situation, however, is something that Katherine herself vehemently objects to. In fact, she fights this plight and accuses her father of trading her away as if she were a less desirable commodity or a prostitute when she says, “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (I, i, 57). This moment, seeming at first glance to be part of how she acts “shrewish,” is in fact a powerful display of her outspoken reaction against her situation and a rejection of patriarchal control. It is also an obvious protest against a situation many if not all Elizabethan women would experience.

Not all scenes can as easily be interpreted as acts of patriarchal rejection, however. Critics such as Dale G. Priest continue to argue that Katherine’s final speech in Act V of the play, no matter how one attempts to deconstruct it, ultimately “reassert[s] the patriarchal order” (Preist 31). As Pearson suggests, however, the perception of whether Katherine is a broken woman at the end of her taming or a liberated woman relies heavily on the direction and performance of the play (Pearson 236). This is particularly the case with Katherine’s final speech. Despite the fact that her speech is seemingly an outpouring of wifely subservience, if the play is directed in a way that signals Katherine has not lost her vivacity, the speech would be delivered with confidence and power. This supremacy is further highlighted by the fact that Katherine’s speech is the longest in the play, thus showing us that Katherine never loses her outspoken character.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for The Taming of the Shrewas a proto-feminist piece lies in the Induction and the overarching implications it makes. In the Induction, Sly, a beggar, falls unconscious and a lord decides to play a trick on him. They pretend that Sly is a lord and treat him as such. When he awakes, at first Sly resists this new role imposed upon him. However, as the scene moves on, Sly settles into his role as a lord and ultimately submits to it upon learning that he supposedly has a wife. This entire interaction highlights the way performativity is essential to Katherine and Petruchio’s entire relationship (Smith 297). In fact, as literary scholar Amy L. Smith highlights, “this scene is less about the lord’s power than about how through enacting subjection the wife can establish a powerful position of her own” (Smith 298). Similarly to the page who pretends to be Sly’s wife, Katherine, through her own performativity, often enacts a similar power over Petruchio. Continuing with the reading that Katherine never in fact loses her power and wit and is simply performingthe role of a good wife, then not only has Katherine tricked Petruchio as the page has tricked Sly, but she retains a position of power over her husband. In this way, Shakespeare subverts the standards of the time and positions Katherine as a powerful, independent woman.

A further example of how the Induction influences the perception of Katherine and Petruchio is in regards to the relationship between male masculinity and the role a woman plays in the way it is defined. The Induction shows us that it is only when his supposed “wife” submits to Sly that he truly takes to his position as a dominant figure in the situation (Smith 297, 298). This model of superiority and assertiveness of masculinity is present in the dynamic that Petruchio and Katherine have. Although some argue that Petruchio arriving late to their wedding is one of the first steps in his “taming,” it is also a symbolic loss of his supremacy and respectability. As he ridicules himself at the wedding, the other men look upon him with distaste. In fact, Batista himself, who was once so eager to wed off his eldest daughter to Petruchio, makes no attempt to hide his distaste with his future son-in-law. In fact, Petruchio seems to completely lose his ‘gentlemanly’ attitude as soon as they return home. It is only in the final scene, once Katherine has made her speech and Petruchio has “proven” his dominance over his wife that the men come to fully respect him. However, as discussed earlier, his actual superiority is not necessarily authentic, as in the case of Sly. It is thanks to this comedic set-up that Shakespeare’s ridicule of masculinity becomes most apparent. Just as an audience member is meant to view Sly’s assertion of dominance and masculinity with ridicule, we are asked to view Petruchio’s plight in the same fashion. Shakespeare shows us the misplaced importance men give women as a way of defining themselves in the eyes of others. This anticipates a very modern facet of feminism that expresses the urgency for men and women to define themselves not in regards to the roles that gender norms dictate but as unique individuals.

Though The Taming of the Shrewcan be considered a more difficult play to attribute a feminist reading to, I would like to argue that Shakespeare was in fact also himself a proto-feminist and that this play was never meant to present women as weak, subservient creatures. Katherine, as shown above, is a female character with a strong will, wit and self-worth. These are hardly unique traits when it comes to Shakespeare’s female characters. Juliet in Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet (1597), is an example of one of the most intelligent, independent women in all of his plays. Juliet herself is in fact just as rebellious, if not moreso, than Katherine. Though Katherine criticizes her father, she never betrays him or her family. Juliet, on the other hand, actively rejects her family and rebels against their wishes for her to marry Paris. Her wit and strength of character, much like Katherine’s, often put her in dominant positions. One such example is in Act IV, when Juliet goes to see the friar, and runs into Paris. During their exchange Juliet continuously spins her words in a way that is never quite a lie nor ever truly quite the truth. In this scene, she is given a far more dominant position than Paris, much the way Katherine is given the dominant position in many of her interactions with Petruchio.

Othello(1604) is another play in which Shakespeare includes strong female characters.Shakespeare gives Emilia, Desdemona’s maidservant, a powerful feminist voice. In Act V, Emilia defies Iago, a patriarchal figure, in order to defend Desdemona in female solidarity. Shakespeare presents her defiance as an act of courage, strength and virtue despite the fact that it is an act of wifely disobedience. This depiction of female disobedience is a far cry from what Shakespeare’s audience would have considered proper.

In all of these examples, however, it is important to note the way Shakespeare has framed the way his female characters enact their agency. Art, no matter its medium, often pushes social and political boundaries. Shakespeare is no exception to this. In Elizabethan England, however, social norms and values forced Shakespeare to reconcile how far he could push these boundaries whilst still allowing for these plays to be successful. Had Shakespeare written Katherine’s taming as one of abuse and her plight one to pity, not only would he have removed all of Katherine’s agency but the play’s underlying message, which is one of female strength and individuality, may not have been received as positively. This is also true of Juliet and Emilia. Juliet’s rebellion against her family is framed as an act of true love, not one of outright familial defiance, thus allowing for an Elizabethan audience to more readily sympathize with what would otherwise have been seen as deplorable. As for Emilia, her defiance of her husband in the final act is framed as a defense of Desdemona’s womanly virtue (class notes). Shakespeare, clearly the proto-feminist writer, carefully constructs the situations in which his female characters display their agency and Katherine is no exception.

Shakespeare consistently presents strong female characters as having agency, be it Katherine, Juliet or Emilia. Though The Taming of the Shrew can seem misogynistic and sexist to a contemporary audience, Shakespeare lived and wrote at a time when more progressive feminist values were non-existent. However, this did not stop him from consistently challenging the values of his time regarding the treatment of women. Katherine is meant to be a character of strength, intelligence and outspoken wit. And thus, The Taming of the Shrew should indeed be seen as the proto-feminist piece it has always been.

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