Throughout The Taming of the Shrew how can Shakespeare be found to present the struggle for female identity in a comedic fashion?
In the time Shakespeare was active, society was vastly different to today. Not only were class boundaries more distinct, but so too were the differences in gender and their accompanying rights. It is my opinion that Shakespeare can be seen to pre-empt the emerging role women would come to have in society, rather than the establishment of male dominance, I see the play as a satirical social commentary on the treatment of women at the time.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of numerous characters within the play indicates that his message in writing The Shrew may not be the commonly perceived assertion of a patriarchal society. There are strong female identities in the form of Katherina and Bianca, and the main oppressor Petruchio is not depicted in a positive manner.
With Katherina’s first line, ‘I pray you, sir, is it your will to make stale of me amongst these mates?’1 Shakespeare encourages the audience’s sympathy for Katherina, who is begging her father not to marry her to a fool. Her pleading shows a vulnerable side to her that contrasts the image of the evil ‘devil’2 painted by Gremio and Lucentio. The subversion of the audience’s expectations of Katherina as a female character would have been comedic to the original audience of The Taming of the Shrew. Early audiences would have expected to see a reserved and quiet character on stage, yet Katherina is the opposite. Suitors go as far as to call her the devil and a ‘fiend of hell’3 because of her aggressive and abrasive attitude. The only character who does not immediately disparage her is the servant Tranio who says that she is either ‘stark mad or wonderful froward’4. It could be inferred that the suitors speak so negatively of Katherina because they are intimidated by her fierce personality while Tranio, who is not viewing Katherina as a potential wife, is the only one who sees her in an un-biased light. A character that appears to contrast Katherina in every way is her sister Bianca. At first it seems that where her sister is the opposite of the conventional Elizabethan lady, Bianca fits the stereotype in every way. She is obedient to her father and eager to marry, while also appearing well-mannered and charming to suitors. Nonetheless, Shakespeare writes heras another strong female personality. Looking past the façade of a subordinate, compliant girl, Bianca is shown to be rebellious and determined to do what she wants. She claims to ‘know [her] duty to [her] elders’5, in almost a boastful and superior way, yet she later fools her father into thinking she is devoted to her studies in order to spend time with Lucentio and later goes against the wishes of her father and elopes. Her deception and hypocrisy juxtaposes the immediate perception of her as a good, lady-like figure in a comedic fashion. It cannot be argued that what Petruchio does to Katherina is anything but abuse- throughout the play he submits her to a form psychological torture in his attempts to ‘tame’ her. The fact that Katherina is referred to as a ‘shrew’ and Petruchio even feels the need to tame her is indicative of Elizabethan society’s view of women as second class citizens. At the couple’s first meeting, Petruchio makes several advances towards Katherina despite her obvious reluctance and discomfort. The dialogue in the scene is filled with innuendo on Petruchio’s part- ‘with my tongue in your tail?’6 The witty discourse between them could be taken as teasing or flirting, however another interpretation is that Petruchio is using such lurid sexual jokes to embarrass and belittle Katherina to try and gain dominance over this unusually audacious woman. Katherina does not seem to reciprocate the ‘flirting’, rather her retorts and jokes aim to be more insulting than flirtatious. She calls him ‘witless’ and a ‘fool’, very bold language for a woman to use towards a man. At one point she even hits Petruchio. The way in which Shakespeare portrays Katherina’s response to her taming is one element of the play that suggests he did not subscribe to this Patriarchal outlook.
However, Katherina eventually seems to succcumb to Petruchio’s ‘taming’. Their relationship can be linked to the suggestion, ‘We might say that comedy traces the movement from distress to happiness, from ‘bad’ to ‘good’.’7 Though at first Katherina resists Petruchio’s attempts to make her a subservient wife, eventually she begins to show contentment in her marriage as she berates Bianca and the widow for disrespecting their husbands.
During their first exchange, Petruchio and Katherina are shown to be matchedin wit and intelligence. For every witticism Petruchio makes Katherina is able to instantly answer with a line similarly facetious; when Petruchio rudely says to Katherina ‘sit on me’8 she answers him cleverly with the line ‘Asses are made to bear, and so are you’9. This behaviour is the opposite of what would have been expected of the archetypal sixteenth century woman, and Shakespeare’s choice to depict his female character in this way proposes that he viewed women as more than the subservient beings they were supposed to be. Writer Andrew Stott described comedy as ‘An experience of pleasurable merrymaking and social inversion’10 which describes the relationship of Katherina and Petruchio fittingly. They engage in joking and ridiculing of one and other while also subverting the expectations of an Elizabethan audience with their unusual dynamic.
In conclusion, though it is widely received by a modern audience as a very misogynist play, The Taming of the Shrew could also be received in a much more positive way. Though ‘feminism’ is a concept that could not have existed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, many aspects of this play as well as several of his other works can be considered to show a similar ideology. Through the use of comedy Shakespeare presents a strong female heroine in a dominant patriarchal society, as well as implied criticism of the abusive treatment of women during the 16th century.