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The Taming of the Shrew: Male Chauvinism?

By Ace G. Pilkington
From Midsummer Magazine, 1991

 

A friend once complained to me that The Taming of the Shrew was merely the story of a spirited woman turned into a Stepford wife. The term comes from Ira Levin's novel, where women are replaced by docile android replicas with limited vocabularies and insatiable desires to clean house. There are, of course, Shakespearean critics who hold such views. G. I. Duthie describes Katherina as a "spirited woman who is cowed into abject submission by the violence of an egregious bully" (Shakespeare, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1966, 147). Objecting that the creator of Portia, Rosalind, and Viola is unlikely to send such a message elicits the response: "These women must change their costumes if they are to express sentiments otherwise unfitting for a heroine. They must pretend to be men to reveal their wisdom or to show a happy aggressiveness in the courting game. Without the manly disguise . . . women who express 'masculine' traits are unequivocally threatening" (Myra Glazer Shotz, "The Great Unwritten Story: Mothers and Daughters in Shakespeare" in The Lost Tradition, ed. by Cathy N. Davidson and E. M. Broner, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, 44-45).

How then are Shakespeare and Petruchio to be rescued from the charge of male chauvinism? One might begin by pointing to the many women in Shakespeare's plays who exhibit "masculine" traits without adopting male attire or becoming monsters: Cordelia leads an army to King Lear; Helena, though a "right maid" for her cowardice, chases her lover through the forest night in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; another Helena outwits and ultimately catches Bertram in marriage in All's Well That Ends Well, in part because of her skill in the "masculine" profession of physician; Beatrice expresses a desire to eat Claudio's "heart in the market place" in Much Ado about Nothing; and Paulina is the only member of Leontes' court courageous enough to call the King mad in The Winter's Tale. All these "spirited" women marry without taming. Why, then, is Kate different?

Perhaps it is because The Taming of the Shrew itself is different, starting with the Induction and making what happens between Katherina and Petruchio a performance designed to deceive Christopher Sly.

Although most productions of Shrew cut the Induction (as the Utah Shakespeare Festival has done this summer), the play within the play is still part of Shakespeare's text and his intent, and this pointedly artificial structure should help us to see the actors in the main plot as role players whose actions shift with their situations. Further, inside the play within the play are yet other "productions." Bianca's suitors–Lucentio and Hortensio–disguise themselves to woo her, and Lucentio, who pretends to be the emissary of Gremio, directs his own actors–Tranio and a chance-met Pedant–in a comedy designed to end with Lucentio's wedding to Bianca. Meanwhile, Petruchio and his servants play out a drama which might be called Petruchio the Shrew.

Indeed, there is scarcely a scene which does not involve a deceptive performance for an on-stage audience. The Induction draws attention to the tricks of actors and to the acting that others do, "And if the boy have not a woman's gift / To rain a shower of commanded tears, / An onion will do well for such a shift" (The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972, 1.124-6). Preceded by those lines, Kate's words to Bianca, "A pretty peat! It is best / Put finger in the eye, and she knew why" (1.1.78-79), show Bianca as a boy actor who plays the role of a girl who pretends to cry. Kate accuses her sister of playing teacher's or father's pet, and much of Kate's shrewish behavior may be attributed to her frustration with the success of Bianca's role playing. That Kate's assessment of her sister's nature is accurate is clear from Bianca's words to her tutors, "I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times, / But learn my lessons as I please myself" (3.1.19-20), from her marrying without her father's knowledge, and from her behavior at the play's end.

Enter Petruchio to act many parts–fortune hunter, wealthy suitor, swaggering master, true lover, shrew tamer, and (in the pursuit of this last) shrew, a title which initially belonged to men anyway, the word appearing first (the Oxford English Dictionary indicates) in 1250 and not being applied to women until l386. That Petruchio is not an "egregious bully" is obvious from his servants' reactions to his new persona. After Grumio recounts Petruchio's return from the wedding, Curtis says, "By this reck'ning he is more shrew than she" (4.1.77), an unlikely exclamation if shrewishness is Petruchio's usual humor. And Grumio responds, "Ay, and that thou and the proudest of you all shall find when he comes home" (4.1.78-79), a warning that makes no sense unless Petruchio's behavior is new-minted for shrew taming. Grumio's own penchant for wisecracking and for interrupting and expanding on his master's speeches is one of the best arguments against Petruchio the brute. What domestic tyrant would keep so rebellious a servant?

If any doubt of Petruchio's nature remains, his soliloquy at the end of Act 4, Scene 1 removes it. Here he explains the theory of his taming, using the extended metaphor of training a hawk. The comparison with the art of falconry is especially significant, since the falconer undertakes only to redirect the hawk's natural impulses; it is impossible to break such a bird's spirit. Petruchio speaks of "a way to kill a wife with kindness" (4.1.197), and his words to Katherina are almost always gentle. He praises her wit and beauty in phrases that must ring in her ears with a refreshing strangeness.

This is, of course, precisely the wrong way to break her. If that were his intention, he would be better advised to make her worthlessness clear to her, until in very weariness and despair she does as she is told. Instead, he treats her as a lady who deserves the best of everything, while acting himself as the very mirror of her shrewishness. As Robert Speaight writes, "it is only to the others that he is rough" (Shakespeare: The Man and His Achievement, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1977, 59).

There are indications that Kate's "spirit" is precisely what first attracts Petruchio. He is, after all, a young man of wealth and social position, and Italy offers many beautiful, docile, well-dowered young ladies for him to marry. Why then does he seize on Kate and pursue her so peremptorily? When he hears, for instance, that she has broken a lute over Hortensio's head, Petruchio says, "Now by the world, it is a lusty wench! / I love her ten times more than e'er I did. / O how I long to have some chat with her!" (2.1.160-63). Unlike Lucentio, who is taken in by Bianca's performance, Petruchio seizes on Kate's essential nature as a starting point for their relationship. In a stage-play world, Petruchio's is the safer course. Nor is there any question but that Petruchio is well aware of the kind of world in which he lives. He acts and speaks repeatedly against "outward shows." He says, in answer to the criticism of his wedding attire, "To me she's married, not unto my clothes: / Could I repair what she will wear in me, / As I can change these poor accoutrements, / 'Twere well for Kate, and better for myself" (3.2.116-19). And again to Kate, when it is her dress that is at issue, "Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor; / For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich" (4.3.170-71). Even his insistence that Kate treat an old man as a young woman can be a glance at an actors' world where such changes of role are possible.

And so we come to the last large speech in the play, the one delivered by Kate in praise of male supremacy, the one that makes many members of modern audiences squirm and think of Stepford wives. It is important that this speech is spoken by a "woman," not by Petruchio while Kate nods defeated acquiescence. It is also important that in the speech Kate boasts of her "mind . . . as big . . . heart as great . . reason haply more" (5.2.172-74). But most important of all in this play within a play is the on-stage audience. Kate does not speak these words in soliloquy or alone to Petruchio or as the play's epilogue to the real audience, but to her family and friends as a means of winning a bet for her husband and besting her sister in public.

There is only one other speech in all of Shakespeare which has quite this male chauvinist ring to it, and it too is spoken in sisterly rivalry by a woman who demonstrably does not mean what she says. It is Luciana's sermon to her sister, Adriana, in The Comedy of Errors (very possibly written just before or at the same time as Shrew), where she says that men "Are masters to their females, and their lords" (2.1.24). Luciana speaks in a private quarrel, and she reverses herself to defend her sister in public. When Adriana is accused of nagging her husband into madness, Luciana excuses the woman and attacks the man, "She never reprehended his but mildly,/ When he demeaned himself rough, rude, and wildly." Then, instead of recommending meekness, Luciana says, "Why bear you these rebukes and answer not?" (5.1.87-89).

Katherina's speech, too, is a performance, a piece of rhetoric shaped to a purpose. As Peter Levi notes, it "is as eloquent as any speech of the kind in Terence or Menander, but only as convincing as they are" (The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, New York: Henry Holt and Company, l988, 8l). Kate, who has long been chastised by her father for the way she treats her sister, now gets the chance to play the role of dutiful wife, beating and berating Bianca in the process. What better ending could Kate wish than to be loved and praised by a husband who sees through her shrewishness to her spirit while, at the same time, she outacts Bianca in her sister's chosen role? And what other ending should we expect in a play so loaded with deceptive performances than one last wink between Kate and Petruchio that says they know the truth beneath the outward show?


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