Shakespeare the Sexist
During my high school years my parents tortured me by joining the highly fundamental Mennonite church. This particular church has very specific rules and expectations for men and especially women. During my family's time in this church we used the curriculum that the church considered acceptable for homeschooled children. One of the courses was a survey of British literature and of course the great Stratfordian Shakespeare was included. The curriculum had a brief look at Hamlet, but the focus was lavishly given to The Taming of the Shrew. Rather than just two acts, as was given to Hamlet, The Taming was presented in its full glory; from Induction to the final exeunt not a drop of ink was spared. It was held up as an example of proper gender roles and how unpleasant unwomanly behavior was. It was used as a warning to boys to avoid women of outspoken nature and to the girls an example of what not to be. Act V was given with the most absolute respect and reverence, Kate's final speech in particular. By the end of the play the curriculum had guided the reader to the conclusion that male dominance was the only way to lead a godly life. Any other variance was a sin and would be crushed out. I was complete revolted. The notion the greatest writer in human history could possibly think this way did not seem possible. How could this revered author be such a sexist pig? I could not accept this as true. I chose not to believe this very motive driven explanation and presentation of the play. Despite my misgivings about Act V, The Taming of the Shrew became my favorite Shakespearian play.
Fast forward a few years, an excommunication, the intellectual awakening that is college, and on to the English 205 class at WSU. We were starting out with The Taming again. This time with all the proper explanations of references and a much less purposefully motivated presentation I was finally able to truly understand this play free from a forced stereotype of a fundamentalist church's controlled viewpoint. The Taming of the Shrew is not a sexist's definition of gender roles, but a mockery of the social norms and closed-mindedness that humanity forces on the women and also men, and, in a way, a very clever romance.
Rather than a brief mention of the follies of drunkenness as had the previous course I took, the Induction scene was immediately given thorough attention. In the past I merely thought it a different way to start a play, not something that had a message subtly implied. Being told that one would have to "[pick] out the dullest scent" (Ind.i.24) confirmed that my belief that there was more to this play than mere sexism and inspired me to pay much closer to the little details and subtle implications. It was a fresh new perspective on this misunderstood play.
Following the Induction's message to pay close attention, we turned our attentions to Kate's behavior in the first few acts. In the first scene with Kate we see her giving out snippy remarks to her sister's suitors. At first glance this might seem like she is merely being a rude and jealous older sister, but her first lines in this play are a plea for her father to come to her defense after Gremio comments rudely insults her in public. "To cart her rather: she is too rough for me" (I.i.55). If she were truly of a shrewish nature she would happily use this opportunity to berate Gremio. Instead, she beseeched her father for defense: "I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates" (I.i.57-58). To this her father is silent and continues to allow the men to verbally berate and abuse her. This is the man who probably carries the majority of the blame for the woman she grew into. According to most traditional patriarchal based gender roles in the absence of a husband the girl's father is supposed to be in control and guide her life. The fact that Bapista remains silent and allows this treatment of her to continue indicates this has been an ongoing problem and he feels too guilty to own up to his failure. Kate only turns to the socially unacceptable self-defense after the man who was supposed to protect lets her down. While she may have originally had an abrasive nature or poor manners before the conditions she has lived in for an extended period of time have turned Kate bitter and "shrewish." While this does not relieve Kate of the responsibility of her actions, she is not the mindlessly crude woman the previous interpretations I have experienced have made her out to be.
Enter Petruchio! Beating servants and boasting loudly of a desire to marry for money Petruchio comes a crossed initially as a belligerent and domineering male. In my previous experience the reader was guided to the conclusion that Pet is a warning to independent girls to behave appropriately or they might get such a man as this. But Petruchio is more than just a gold-digging suitor. If he were only motivated by money why bother taming this headstrong and bitter wife? He could just marry Kate and send her away to avoid being around her. Instead he goes through an elaborate scheme to tame Kate and make her pleasant to be around and show her a different way of life. He picks up quickly on the extreme negativism directed towards her and the fact that she is not truly shrewish in nature. In their verbal sparring Kate lets down her guard briefly telling Pet, "I chafe you, if I tarry: Let me go" (II.i.245). Petruchio see that Kate knows she is unpleasant to be around and not entirely proud of it. He has been told by this point by Hortensio, Gremio, and even Kate's own father she is unpleasant and he sees the effects of the peoples' opinions and treatment have had on Kate. He immediately makes a spectacle of himself to distract everyone's attention from Kate and begins to change the way people see her. The fact that he is willing to do this for Kate shows Petruchio is far more intuitive and perceptive than some bloke out to get rich. Towards the end of the play we see another example of Pet wanting more out of his marriage than just money. "First kiss me, Kate" (V.i.148). Kate has been tamed by this time and we can see it in her answer. She is ashamed to kiss in public, a behavior that might be considered lewd or maybe slightly "shrewish." Kate appreciates the new image Petruchio has given her and does not want to compromise it. At this point my previous course in Shakespeare started crowing about the virtues of modesty. But it missed the most important part. Petruchio is completely disappointed. Why? Kate is tame, a perfect gentle wife. He should be happy and content. But Petruchio wanted something more than just an obedient wife. He loved the spunky woman who busted a lute over a phony tutor's head and poked fun of random travelers with him. Obedience and money was never what he was really after. He wanted a brave, outspoken woman with the cleverness to outwit everyone. This was the exact opposite of the perspective I had experienced before.
In my past experience, Kate's final speech was heavily used to support that the opinion that Shakespeare's standard for gender roles is patriarchal based control in a marriage. The speech is full of headship-order propaganda about "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee" (V.ii.146-147) that is very similar to the headship order that is repeatedly preached about in the Corinthians. But Kate is not merely expounding the proper role of a woman that she has recently learned from Petruchio. What she is saying in this speech is the complete opposite of her actions in this scene. She bodily drags her sister and the widow into a room to publicly berate and belittle them. She calls them names and accuses the two women of being stupid. These are the same actions that labeled her a shrew before Petruchio came along. Wither Kate believes her words or not is irrelevant, she is behaving exactly as she did before, only her words are different. Petruchio acknowledges this by saying, "Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate" (V.ii.179-180), which is the same endearment he used when he first met her and first declared his attraction to her. "Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench; I love her ten times more than e'er I did" (II.i.161-162). Back is the woman he fell in love with and he couldn't be happier; "Marry, peace it bodes, and love and quiet life" (V.ii.107). If this play was supposed to be a model for creating an obedient and godly wife, Kate is now far from a shining example of submissiveness.
Free at last from the grips of doubt! There is more to Shakespeare than silent women and controlling men as had been my previous experience. Being allowed to explore Shakespeare's works with more freedom of thought and new perspectives has been the absolute highlight of my collegiate level education this far.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 142-175.