Two of Shakespeare’s plays which focus heavily on the theme of gender are The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night. In both plays, Shakespeare simultaneously supports and poses challenges to early-modern understandings of gender. In The Taming of the Shrew, the misogynistic treatment of Kate reflects the patriarchal values which were standard of the period, whilst subtle mocking and satire directed at her abuser, Petruchio, challenge the notion of male superiority. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s indication of homoerotic feelings challenges the status quo of same-gender relations being unacceptable, however the lack of resolution for the character who possesses these feelings, Antonio, supports early-modern beliefs that only heterosexual relations were acceptable. This essay shall argue that Shakespeare challenges early-modern understandings of gender, but only to the extent that would have been tolerated by an Elizabethan audience.
In the opening act of the play, Shakespeare depicts an ideal early-modern woman through descriptions of Bianca, while at the same time asserting Kate as the total opposite. Tranio states that ‘The one, as famous for a scolding tongue, As is the other, for her beauteous modesty’ (1.2.250-251). The play revolving around Bianca’s suitors so desperately attempting to find Kate a husband so that they may be granted permission to marry Bianca highlights both how desirable Bianca’s traits are but also how undesirable Kate’s; they are eager to compete for Bianca’s love, yet recognise the challenge in finding a suitor willing to take on Kate’s strong temperament. This depiction of Kate continues throughout the first three acts of the play, yet in the fourth act, we see these traits that are employed to negatively portray Kate begin to appear in Petruchio. Grumio describes to fellow servant Curtis how Petruchio reacted to Kate’s horse falling: ‘how he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me’ (4.1.63-65). Here, we see Petruchio demonstrating the characteristics that Kate has been so heavily criticised for thus far in the play. Shakespeare even goes so far as to have Kate try to extinguish her husband’s outburst, creating a sense of irony and suggesting that Kate may not be a problematic woman, but rather that this kind of aggressive attitude can be of issue in all people, regardless of gender. Shirley Nelson Garner makes a similar point, arguing that ‘The strategy of the plot allows Petruchio “shrewish” behaviour […] it is more or less acceptable. Dramatically, then, Kate and Petruchio are not treated equally.’ Indeed, habits that are used to portray Kate as a wild, unattractive woman can be observed in Petruchio without him attracting any real criticism. As such, Shakespeare challenges early-modern attitudes that it was chiefly women who were prone to being shrew and difficult, yet he maintains the rule of the patriarchy through Petruchio facing no consequences for his ‘shrewish behaviour,’ while in Kate this same attribute must be quashed.
Shakespeare continues with this portrayal of Petruchio in the following scenes, again using other characters to comment on Petruchio’s arrogance. One such example occurs when Petruchio declares ‘It shall be what o’clock I say it is.’ (4.3.189), to which Hortensio remarks ‘Why, so this gallant will command the sun’ (4.3,190). This remark appears to be sarcastic, with Hortensio mocking Petruchio’s arrogance in implying that he is in control of the time. The fact that Hortensio is speaking of Petruchio in third person suggests that Shakespeare intended this to be directed to the audience rather than directly at Petruchio, which would be effective in terms of the play being a comedy. Notably, Petruchio is not criticised for his haughtiness, he is instead humoured; it is most probable that if Kate were to make such a remark she would be condemned. This again highlights the unjust way in which the two genders are treated, and reaffirms that it is not just Kate who behaves in this manner.
A further example of Petruchio’s arrogance comes in Act 4, Scene 5, where Petruchio states that it is moonlight, and Kate corrects him and says that it is sunlight. Echoing his previous remark about what time it is, Petruchio states ‘It shall be moon, or star, or what I list’ (4.5.7), at which point Hortensio says to Kate ‘Say as he says, or we shall never go’ (4.5.11). This is another example of Hortensio mocking Petruchio rather than criticising him, accepting that Petruchio will not back down and instead encouraging Kate to do so. Emily Detmer says of this encounter that ‘Defeated, Kate has surrendered herself as hostage… While the field is not bloody and her body is not black and blue, the process that Kate has undergone is nonetheless abusive because it signifies Petruchio’s domination over her speech and actions’. While Petruchio’s actions are of course abusive, especially to a modern-day reader, the scene follows in the pattern of other characters humouring Petruchio for the sake of simplicity. Moreover, Kate does not concede until Hortensio encourages her to do so, perhaps making her realise that it would make her and Hortensio’s lives easier to just agree with him. There would be comedic effect in Petruchio constantly changing his mind about whether it is sun or moon and also in Hortensio and Kate humouring him, fitting with the genre of the play. Kate having to concede in this way is abusive in itself, but an early-modern audience probably would not have seen it in such a way, and thus the scene would have solely been comical to them. Ultimately, Kate does appear to be in control of her opting to give in to Petruchio, portraying her as intelligent enough to make her own decisions for her own benefit. However, Shakespeare again returns to supporting early-modern understandings of gender as it is the female character who concedes in this situation, whilst the male continues to assert his dominance.
One obvious point of support for early-modern gender expectations comes at the end of the play, where Kate is eventually ‘tamed’ by Petruchio and gives a large speech confirming this. She declares ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign’ (5.2.150-151). Here, Shakespeare uses Kate herself to promote early-modern beliefs about the gender roles within a marriage. This is a huge shift on Kate’s part from the beginning of the play, where she refused to conform to Petruchio’s expectations of her and fought back with her ‘scolding tongue’ (1.2.250). However, there is an indication that Kate may have some control over her taming when she states ‘My hand is ready, it may do him ease’ (5.2.183). It seems here that Kate has allowed herself to be tamed as she was ‘ready’ to do so, rather than having been forced. The statement ‘it may do him ease’ is interesting, as it implies that Kate committing to Petruchio will help calm him, rather than the other way round. This makes sense, as in the latter acts of the play, it is Petruchio who acts in a shrew manner, as opposed to Kate. However, although Kate did decide to allow herself to be tamed at this point, it is likely that further down the line she would have lost her choice in the matter, as ultimately she is stuck in a marriage with Petruchio, who would not have given up on his attempts to make her submit. As previously, Shakespeare both challenges and supports early-modern understandings of gender with the play’s conclusion; Kate is depicted as having the capacity and intelligence to chose to accept her taming, perhaps in order to make life easier for herself, but at the same time her submission in itself is illustrative of expectations of wives in the period.
Before Kate’s speech at the end of the play, the widow who Hortensio has married advises Kate against going to Petruchio when ordered to. She tells Petruchio ‘you’re mocking. We will have no telling’ (5.2.136) and ‘She shall not’ (5.2.138), serving as one last challenge to Kate’s taming in the play. The widow also refuses to go to Hortensio when ordered to, representing the general opinion of widows at the time, which was that they were dangerously uncontrolled by the patriarchy and encouraged fellow women to push back against the control of their husbands. Olivia is similarly depicted as a typical widow in Twelfth Night, although not in her influence on married women. Despite not technically being a widow, Olivia constantly wears a veil as a sign of bereavement, having lost both her father and brother. As such, Olivia is head of her house and very wealthy, making her an extremely attractive prospective wife to numerous characters in the play. However, Olivia falls in love with Viola who is disguised as Cesario. This is a subtle challenge of early-modern gender understandings as Olivia falls in love with a woman as opposed to Osario who had fallen in love with her. Although Viola is disguised as a man, she would still have had feminine features, so perhaps Olivia found these attractive. However, as all characters in performances of Shakespeare’s plays during the early-modern period were played by men, this plot line may just have been intended for comedic effect rather than as an implication of homosexuality.
Although Olivia falling in love with Viola is not necessarily an indication of homosexuality, Antonio’s love for Sebastian seems to be one. Antonio consistently speaks to Sebastian with affectionate language, such as ‘If you will not murder me for my love, let me be your servant’ (2.2.32-33) and ‘come what may I do adore thee so’ (2.2.43). Antonio is extremely loyal to Sebastian, following him to Osario’s home despite them being old enemies. When Antonio is arrested by Osario’s men and Viola states that she does not know him, the level of betrayal Antonio feels (as he believes Viola to be Sebastian) is further indicative of the depth of his feelings: ‘Relieved him with such sanctity of love […] Most venerable worth, did I devotion’ (3.4.358-360). This depth of homoerotic feeling strongly challenges early-modern understandings of gender, as only heterosexual relations were accepted at the time, with homosexual sex considered a crime against the queen, which warranted the death penalty. It may be for this reason that there is a lack of resolution for Antonio in the play, while Sebastian marries Olivia; the inclusion of homoerotic feeling would have been thrilling for an audience, yet by it only being spoken of rather than an actual relationship, Shakespeare stays within the realms of what would have been acceptable at the time.
Ultimately, Shakespeare challenges early-modern understandings of gender, but only to the extent that an Elizabethan audience would have had the capacity to tolerate; his challenges would have made his plays interesting to his audience, yet he returns to their standards by the end of the plays. Moreover, the two characters who pose the strongest challenges to gender conventions eventually suffer, with Kate being ‘tamed’ by Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Antonio being left alone in Twelfth Night.
- Cavallo, Sandra and Warner, Lynda. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. (Harlow: Longman, 1999)
- Detmer, Emily, ‘Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Quarterly 48.3 (1997) 273-94 (p. 288-9) https:www.jstor.orgstable2871017Gen ed. Dympna Callaghan, The Taming of the Shrew: Norton Critical Editions, (United States: W. W. Norton