Is Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew sexist?
The subject of sexism itself is a highly subjective issue. What may seem outrageous to one person might be extremely normal to another person. There are so many disputes as to whether even chivalry might be considered a sexist concept. With so many different opinions on this, the line defining what is sexist from what is not sexist is very hazy and unclear. However, in Taming of the Shrew, the line is not hazy at all. William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is obviously not sexist.
First of all, the concept of women having rights was unheard of in the time and setting of this play. The concept of women’s rights is a fairly recent one. It was not until the twentieth century that women earned the right to vote. This situation is analogous to Thomas Jefferson writing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all mean are created equal,” while owning several slaves himself. Similarly, Kate defines what a good wife should be like when she states,
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, they sovereign; one who cares for thee
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
While thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe (V.II.168-173).
At that time, it was a commonly accepted fact for women to stay home while their husbands worked, just like it was normal for every man to own slaves in Thomas Jefferson’s time. These were all the social norm; there is no sexism implied in this play. This point is also supported by the fact that Baptista controls the marriages of his daughters, something that is not common nowadays. Baptists states, “For how I firmly am resolved you know; / That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter / Before I have a husband for the first” (I.I.49-51). No father can control when his daughters marry in the present day. It is clear that this play is not meant to be sexist; this is simply how life was during Shakespeare’s time.
Furthermore, Petruchio is an obnoxious man in general; he does not purely direct all his obnoxious personality towards Kate as a means to tame her. It is not a secret that Petruchio is a loud and pretentious character. He demonstrates his obnoxious personality when he converses with Baptists regarding Kate’s dowry. Petruchio bluntly asks, “The tell me, if I get your daughter’s love, / What dowry shall I have with her to wife?” (II.I.131-132). Even Gremio is astonished by Petruchio’s straightforward behavior and chides, “You are too blunt; go to it orderly” (II.I.50). Later on in the book, a character called Curtis learns of Petruchio’s behavior and states, “By this reckoning he is more shrew than [Kate]” (IV.I.15). This is a pretty big insult, especially due to the widespread knowledge of Kate’s personality.
Petruchio did not “tame” Kate because she was a woman and his wife; he “tamed” her because of her waspish personality. Most men would agree that Kate’s personality would not contribute to an idyllic household atmosphere. Kate was not an easy person to live with. Kate was extremely wild, even going as far as to bind Bianca’s hands. Bianca pleads, “Good sister, wrong me not, nor wrong yourself / To make a bondmaid and a slave of me / That I disdain; but for these other gauds / Unbind my hands, I’ll pull them off myself. . .’ (II.I.1-5). Petruchio taming Kate had an extremely positive effect on everyone who was close to Kate. At the end, Petruchio and Kate’s relationship turn into a healthy marriage, with Petruchio smiling and saying, “Why, there’s a wench! Come on and kiss me, / Kate” (V.II.134-135).
There are many people who believe Taming of the Shrew to be extremely sexist, but if analyzed clearly, it is clearly not sexist. One of the most controversial scenes of the play is when the husbands hold a competition to determining which of their wives is the most obedient. This scene can be interpreted as a sexist in a variety of ways, especially when Petruchio says, “And he whose wife is most obedient / To come at first when he doth send for her / Shall win the wages at which we will propose” (V.II.76-78). However, instead of thinking of this as some perverse wife contest, it can actually be thought of as a representation of how much these men trust their wives. When Hortensio asks his wife to come to him, he receives the response, “She will not come; she bids you come to her” (V.II.110). This statement renders the belief that women were nothing but submissive, obedient creatures obsolete. His wife, instead of coming to Hortensio, tells him to go to her.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare is clearly not sexist. The time period of the sixteenth century and now present a clear juxtaposition of the differences of women. Petruchio is naturally an obnoxious person, not all of his roguish personality is specifically targeted towards Kate. Additionally, Kate herself was a very pretentious character. Many people argue the play as sexist, but they are clearly wrong. Sexism is a very subjective issue, but in this play, sexism is clearly not present.