A* GCSE English Literature Essay - Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

What does the modern audience learn about marriages and the roles of men and women in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’?

The roles of men and women were very different in society during Shakespeare’s time. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ reflects these attitudes and I shall explore how marriage and the roles of men and women are presented in this play.

InPadua, marriage was a decision that involved members of both families and the amount of wealth a family had played a strong role in determining who married whom. Romantic love and physical attraction were considered to be relatively unimportant. Wealth played a large role in marriage decisions among the upper classes, once families agreed to a marriage, several financial transactions were considered. Dowries (a gift of money and property) were paid to suitors, and characters like Petruchio used marriage as a way to make money.

Even at the very start of the play we know Petruchio is hoping to get married as a way to make money, in I.ii.72, he states, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua”, he means he wants to make a rich marriage. Petruchio is very interested in marrying Katherine once he’s heard about her reputation and wants a suitable dowry. This is reflected in I.ii.178-179 when Hortensio says “Will undertake to woo curst Katherine, Yea, and to marry her, if her dowry please.” He is saying that if her dowry is sufficient to Petruchio’s liking than he will hopefully marry Katherine. Another example of how important money was is displayed in II.i.119 where Petruchio discusses his dowry with Baptista. He wants to make sure that the marriage is very profitable and asks Baptista, ‘What dowry shall I have with her to wife?’ At the time of marriage, this dowry may have been unusually high because of Katherine’s temper.

InPadua, marriage was a decision that involved members of both families and the amount of wealth a family had played a strong role in determining who married whom. Romantic love and physical attraction were considered to be relatively unimportant. Wealth played a large role in marriage decisions among the upper classes, once families agreed to a marriage, several financial transactions were considered. Dowries (a gift of money and property) were paid to suitors, and characters like Petruchio used marriage as a way to make money.

Even at the very start of the play we know Petruchio is hoping to get married as a way to make money, in I.ii.72, he states, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua”, he means he wants to make a rich marriage. Petruchio is very interested in marrying Katherine once he’s heard about her reputation and wants a suitable dowry. This is reflected in I.ii.178-179 when Hortensio says “Will undertake to woo curst Katherine, Yea, and to marry her, if her dowry please.” He is saying that if her dowry is sufficient to Petruchio’s liking than he will hopefully marry Katherine. Another example of how important money was is displayed in II.i.119 where Petruchio discusses his dowry with Baptista. He wants to make sure that the marriage is very profitable and asks Baptista, ‘What dowry shall I have with her to wife?’ At the time of marriage, this dowry may have been unusually high because of Katherine’s temper.

In Shakespeare’s time, and in the play, they followed certain conventions. The eldest daughter had to marry before the youngest. As patriarch (head of the family), Baptista knows the elder daughter is to marry first, however, he also has the option of disregarding the convention. He does not consider this option as it would most probably bring public disgrace and humiliation. However, the prospects for Kate do not look good, she has no suitors, while her sister Bianca has many. Baptista enforces that Katherine must get married first in I.i.49-51 where he tells Bianca suitors, “I am firmly resolved you know – that is, not to bestow my youngest daughter before I have a husband for the elder” in other words he will not let anyone marry Bianca unless there is someone willing to marry Katherine. This makes the audience curious because they would think that there is surely no such man that will tolerate a scold like her.

In Shakespeare’s time men hated scolds. Scolds were women who perpetually offended the public through their speech and whose behaviour was mostly disorderly and aggressive. A scold constantly gossiped and insulted through speech, and deliberately and maliciously attempted to stir up trouble between neighbours, a ducking stool was generally used for women of bad repute as a cleansing process. The women in Shakespeare’s time were regarded weak, and all legal rights were denied from them. They had no say in what went on in the family or in society and were expected to do what men told them to do. In ‘The Taming of the shrew’ Petruchio says he will tame Katherine from her wild, shrewish behaviour in II.i.67-68 when he says to her “thou must be married to no man but me, for I am he am born to tame you, Kate” this shows Petruchio’s determination to tame her. Their first meeting was full of aggressive quick witted exchanges in which Petruchio establishes that he is Katherine’s verbal equal, making him a change from the usually ‘weak minded’ males that surround her. An example of Petruchio’s quick wit is found in II.i.209-210, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting”…”My remedy is then to pluck it out”. The audience relishes the fact that Petruchio always has a repost for Katherine no matter how hard she tries to insult and degrade him.

In the play and certainly in Shakespeare’s time women were treated as possessions and were not expected to be independent or outspoken, like Katherine. In act 3 scene 2, Petruchio displays his possessiveness over Katherine when he prepares to pull her away from the wedding feast, “She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household-stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (III.iii.101–103). When he says this he completely insults and embarrasses Katherine but she cannot do anything about it. If that had been said in today’s society it would be regarded as highly rude and contemptuous. The speaker would immediately be seen as an obnoxious and offensive individual.

In Shakespeare’s comedies, the plays end with a feast or celebration that symbolises the end of confusion. In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Lucentio throws a banquet to celebrate the three recent marriages in Padua: Petruchio to Kate, Lucentio to Bianca, and Hortensio to the widow. All the characters that had previously been in disguise are now their true characters and Katherine has finally been tamed of her shrewish behaviour. Lucentio implies that Kate, in the end, allowed herself to be tamed: “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so” (V.ii.193)

In act 5 scene 2, Katherine starts to argue with a widow, the argument nearly turns to violence in which the widow teases Katherine for being shrewish, she also implies that Petruchio is unfortunate for having such a wife. “Your husband, being troubl’d with a shrew, Measures my husband’s sorrow by his woe” (V.ii.28-29). The audience is overcome by excitement because they are curious and want to know how Katherine will react. If she does react, however, Petruchio will most probably punish her in some way and the audience suspect this.

The husbands respond to the wives’ argument with excitement, they cheer them on to fight and they use their wives as part of their own rivalry. In V.ii.33-35 Petruchio and Hortensio urge on their wives as though they were at a prize fight, “to her, Kate”…”To her, widow”…”A hundred marks my Kate does put her down”. They find their wives’ behaviour very entertaining and amusing. The audience find these scenes very enjoyable and love watching all the commotion arise.

Throughout the play men often use animal and hunting imagery to describe their wives, this illustrates that men have a very domineering attitude towards women. A lot of animal imagery is used at the end of the first scene in act IV and shows Petruchio’s characteristics towards Katherine. He explains his motivations and methods for taming her.”My falcon now is sharp and passing empty, and till she stoop she must not be full-gorged, for then she never looks upon her lure." ( IV.i.171-174). So in other words: Kate is like the falcon, who has gone without food for over two days, until she flies to the decoy, or in this case Petruchio’s demands, as a trained falcon or wife should.

Near the end of the play at the marriage feast Baptista, Lucentio, Tranio and Hortensio begin to chide Petruchio because they still think he has been stuck with a vicious shrew, “Now in good sadness, son Petruchio, I think thou hast the veriest shrew of all” (Baptista: V.ii.63-64) Petruchio confidently suggests a bet to see which of the three new husbands has the most obedient wife. Shakespeare used this to show that women were expected to be very subservient and do exactly what was asked of them immediately and without question. Petruchio compares the women to hawks and hounds, “Twenty crowns? I’ll venture so much of my hawk or hound, but twenty so much upon my wife.” (V.ii.71-73).This shows that Petruchio’s is confident enough to place a significant amount of money on the bet because he trusts that Katherine will come when she is called.

Petruchio’s bet involved himself, Lucentio and Hortensio. Each will send for his wife and the one whose wife obeys first will be the winner. Lucentio and Hortensio both send Biondello for their wives, both of whom say they are busy. When Petruchio sends for Katherine, however, she returns at once to everyone’s surprise but Petruchio’s. Baptista is so impressed that he gives Petruchio 20 thousand crowns on top of his winnings from the bet and he congratulates Petruchio for changing Katherine. The events at the marriage feast tell us that marriage is definitely used as a way to show how obedient a wife is towards her husband and that the wife should respect her husband. “Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life, an awful rule and right supremacy and, to be short, what’s not that’s sweet and happy,” (Petruchio, V.ii.108-110). Petruchio is implying that to marry commands great respect from the wife.

Petruchio states that he will further prove that Katherine is tamed. He sends Kate back to bring in the other wives and she immediately obeys. Upon their return, Petruchio comments that he dislikes Katherine’s hat and tells her to throw it of and stamp on it, again, she obeys. Petruchio talks of Kate’s obedience, “I will win my wager better yet, and show more sign of her obedience,” usually the word ‘obedience’ would be used to describe an animal, but in Shakespeare’s time woman were continually referred to as being obedient. Bianca and the widow, aghast at Kate’s subservience, become even further shocked when, at Petruchio request, Kate gives a speech on the duty that wives owe to their husbands.

During the speech Katherine compares shrewish woman to a muddy fountain,” A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty”. She proclaims that the widow and Bianca are ungrateful for being angry with their husbands- who she describes as being their lords, kings and governors. She says that a woman is “warm at home, secure and safe” while her husband supports and protects her, living a life of danger and responsibility. She says that in return the husband only asks for “love, fair looks, and true obedience” and that it’s only a tiny payment for “so great a debt”.

She says that when a woman is shrewish, she’s nothing but a rebel and a traitor to her loving lord, “Even such a woman oweth to her husband. And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour, and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord?” Katherine states that she is ashamed that women are so simple minded as “to offer war when they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, when they are bound to serve, love, and obey”. Katherine says that women’s bodies are “soft, and weak, and smooth” unfitted for “toil and trouble in the world”.

Katherine then tells Bianca and the widow that in her time, she has been as proud and arrogant as they are now, “My mind hath been as big as one of yours, my heart as great” but she now understands that “our lances are but straws,” implying that their weapons prove irrelevant and inappropriately used. Katherine then makes a gesture with her hand to show that she is totally obedient to Petruchio, “In token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease”

Overall I think “The Taming of the Shrew” was a very effective and unusual play in that it was different from most Shakespearean comedies. Modern audiences learn a lot from Shakespeare’s plays, but in particular, this one. Shakespeare did not conclude the play in the examination of love and marriage with the wedding, instead he offered a significant glimpse into the future lives of married couples (Katherine and Petruchio).

The overall tone of the play is light and comic which prevents the audience/readers becoming impatient and bored, though the exploration of larger social questions such as the proper relation of the sexes in marriage, lends much of the comedy a more serious tone which I personally think added to the excitement. In my opinion the fact that Katherine is a shrew and has a very aggressive nature shows the audience just what will happen if she-or even he, does not concede to the conventions of society. However, I respect Katherine because of the fact that she chose to stand up for herself, even though it meant being ridiculed and feared by certain members of the community and even, arguably, being loved less by her father. I think that Katherine’s shrewishness resulted directly from her frustration concerning her enforced position as a woman in society, and not because she was naturally like that.

Shakespeare was very clever regarding the character of Bianca. She might, to most people seem innocent, polite and well-behaved, however I think she manipulated Katherine and turned others against her. I think Katherine complied with petruchio’s humiliating regimen of taming her because she knew that, on some level she would be happier accepting her social role than living as she had been: at odds with everyone connected to her. I think the way Shakespeare ended the play was very effective as the conventional order re-established itself and those characters who harmonized with that order achieved personal happiness.

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