The Taming of The Shrew was one of Shakespeare’s earlier Elizabethan comedies, written in the early 1590s. Set in Renaissance Italy, it is likely that inspiration grew from popular English ballads and folktales, telling of shrewish wives tamed by their belligerent husbands. This relationship dynamic was common in this era, particularly in the male-dominated literary world. The play has recently become less popular, particularly due to its controversial assertion of the subordination of women that is distasteful to modern viewers. Whilst being viewed as an outrageous and comedic exaggeration of a husband’s rights, through a retrospective lens, the play appears oppressive and sexist.
The archetypal “shrew” was a common character in literature of the era and Commedia dell’arte. A “shrew” was a derogatory term for a woman with a bad temper, sharp tongue and strong mind, opposing the expectations of her gender role. Despite there being an unmarried queen ruling England, the roles of women in the Elizabethan era were very limited. Elizabethan society was patriarchal, with clear gender expectations. Men were the dominant breadwinners, whilst women were the property of their male counterparts, expected to be subservient wives and mothers. Men were seen as the head of the family and marriage, and thus he obtained the legal right to chastise his wife. However, there were limitations to this control; he could not inflict bodily harm upon her, and could be prosecuted for abuse.
However, the controversial plot centres upon this right, and questions Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine into a traditionally submissive role as his obedient wife. Throughout the progression of the play, the complex motif of taming a hawk frames the main plot, incorporating the power imbalance of a patriarchal society, societal values towards a husband’s role and the present social classes and roles.
The initial battle for power in the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine is framed by this motif, thus ignoring her strength of character and instead dehumanising her. Katherine’s behaviour is not suited to the traditional expectations of her time, and thus Petruchio claims he is “born to tame… Kate, / and bring [her] from a wild Kate to a Kate / Conformable as other household Kates” (Act 2.Scene 1.Lines 268-270). The intended subordination of Kate is enshrined in such language of animalistic domestication, with a pun of her animalistic qualities being like that of a “wildcat”.
Petruchio’s methods of domesticating his wife is likened to the process of a falconer taming a wild hawk. The aim of falconry is to force the hawk to lose its freedom and autonomy, taking its natural abilities and exploiting them for sport. As a model for marriage, the entrapment of a powerful and free bird appears as a harrowing metaphor of the fine line between bidding respect and brutal mastery. In Elizabethan society, hawking and falconry were sports for the elite. As seen in The Book of Faulconrie or Hauking (Falconry or Hawking) by George Turberville, published in 1575, the relationship between a falconer and his bird is based upon the ideal of subordination, whilst ensuring she is cared for, in order to do his bidding. Turberville recommends several methods of taming a hawk, which Petruchio utilises upon his newly-wed to extinguish her non-conformist behaviours. In this sense, Petruchio takes on the role of the falconer, forcing Katherine away from her natural instincts through a series of psychological torments and the disruption of the natural world order, thus literally and metaphorically perform the process of taming a wild animal.
The idea of “taming” is slightly ambiguous in this context. Taming referred to the training of the bird, as opposed to the complete change of behaviour. A trained peregrine was often referred to as being “gentled” or “manned”. Taming also refers to the “breaking the instinctive behaviour of an animal to make it serve human needs”; as such, Katherine can be seen in such a way also, as the dominance imposed shatters her natural, independent nature, in order to serve Petruchio as an obedient wife.
Turberville recommends several methods of taming a hawk, but this motif is extended to dehumanise women by Petruchio’s enlistment of the such methods of domestication. One such method involves the supposed disruption of the natural world order, as Katherine’s perception of reality is inverted. Whilst out in broad daylight, Petruchio praises what he claims to be the moon, to which Katherine replies obediently, “Be it moon, or sun, or whatever you please… / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.” (5, iv, Line 13-15). This sequence directly links to the training practices of hooding, shifting a hawk’s perception of reality, particularly in reference to night and day. This practice was relatively new during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and was based upon restricting the bird to complete darkness through a hood, instilling confusion and fear. Through the falconer’s ability to remove the animal’s hood, the master / servant dichotomy is established, as the falconer supposedly possesses the power to control night and day. Katherine is forced to sacrifice what she knew to be true for what Petruchio thinks to be true, further shattering her understanding of the natural world order. In such a way, both the bird and Katherine have been “hoodwinked” – misled into submission due to a disruption of reality.
The animalistic idea of hunting for prey also extends to the application of men’s sexual pursuit of women in such a society. Through Petruchio’s treatment of his wife, Shakespeare highlights the inequality of the sexes, as the male counterpart is free to subjugate his wife’s access to food, ability to sleep and understanding of reality. Modern values are greatly disturbed by Katherine’s mistreatment, seeing how a grown woman is subjected to the same process as that of an animal. Shakespeare scholars interpret Petruchio’s dehuamisation of Katherine as both a dangerous example of domestic violence in the pursuit of misogynistic, patriarchal ideals, as well as his fulfilment of his “husbandly duties”, strictly outlined by Elizabethan society.
Furthering the masculine ideals of Elizabethan society, In the final scene, we see yet again that not all characters are able to live up to the expectations set about for their gender. Petruchio, Baptista, Hortensio and Lucentio take a bet to see whom has the most obedient wife, but it soon comes to light that not all of those competing are able to achieve the masculine ideal of commanding one’s wife in the obedient manner expected.
Whilst characters of both genders are shown opposing these ideals, only women are punished for this behaviour. In particular, Katherine is insulted, humiliated and seen as less valuable than her conforming younger sister. This does give the play significant sexist and misogynistic undertones, by today’s standards of the treatment of women. Interpretations and teachings of the play have been highly contested since its earliest performances. John Fletcher wrote as early as 1611, that men “should not reign as Tyrants o’er their wives”, thus opposing the supposed tyrannical behaviour of Petruchio. Dependent upon interpretation, whether the relationship between Petruchio and Kathrine be that of harmlessly unruly or dangerously oppressive, this battle of the sexes is a combination of both comedy and tragedy.