The Interpretation of Misogyny in Taming of the Shrew

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Over the years, there has been much speculation into how Shakespeare intended The Taming of the Shrew with ideas about the role of women, to be interpreted. It has been subjected to much harsh criticism surrounding its misogynistic content with most opinions being divided into two categories, people who argue the play’s themes were not meant in a literal sense and then the views of feminist critics. I believe that the interpretation of misogyny is crucial to the effect the play has on an audience but I do not believe Shakespeare intended his play to be anti-feministic. The performances of the actresses playing the women are also very important to if an audience will view it as a misogynistic piece but in this essay I will examine the ways in which misogyny can be interpreted through the themes and Shakespeare’s presentation of different characters.

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The theme of misogyny and patriarchy arises through the presentation of the minor female characters as well as Bianca ad Katherina. The fact that Shakespeare chooses not to give Hortensio’s ‘Widow’ her own name creates the impression of her as someone with no individual existence of her own. Her name is defined by her husband death, suggesting the men in her life therefore define her and her disposition also illustrating their control over her. Shakespeare is trying to convey society at the time’s views and their treatment of women; how women were repressed by male-centred societies and classed as subservient while men were superior and had power oven women in the late 16th century.

Also the “wealthy widow” was Hortensio’s second choice to Bianca, he very swiftly moves on after he declares he is “never to woo her more” saying he will marry “ere three days pass”. Shakespeare does this to illustrate to the audience how dismissive men were of women, he uses Hortensio’s attitudes towards Bianca as an example of society’s attitudes towards women at the time. Shakespeare based the character of Bianca on the stock character of ‘Ingénue’, a young woman who is beautiful, gentle, sweet and virginal. However once Hortensio realises she is a “proud disdainful haggard”, Hortensio quickly “forswears her as one unworthy of all the former favours that I have fondly flattered her withal”. By using fricative alliteration, Shakespeare makes Hortensio’s anger and feelings of disgust at Bianca’s actions clear to us. This shows us that Hortensio only wanted Bianca when she was obedient and submissive representing how women were judged by their appearances and Bianca was only sought after and made endearing due to Shakespeare’s first presentation of her as a chaste and wholesome “young modest girl”. Hortensio then goes on to say that he requires “kindness of women”, portraying a stereotypical male chauvinist attitude toward women’s role in the Elizabethan era, to what is expected of a women and how they should offer “love, fair looks and true obedience” to their husbands because they have “such a duty as the subject owes a prince”.

In Act 5 Scene 2, the widow becomes insubordinate and refuses to come when asked by her husband. “She says you have some goodly jest in hand” showing how the widow is in control of the situation and thus representing her control over her marriage to Hortensio; this is backed up when Petruchio claims that “Hortensio fears his widow”. By doing this Shakespeare presents the widow as strong character which juxtaposes the earlier interpretation that she is weak and controlled my men due to the name given to her. This oxymoronic presentation of the widow suggests that Shakespeare did not intend the play to seem misogynistic but instead he was actually trying to put across his view that society treatment of women was imprudent. Bill Alexander wrote “on one level Shrew is about the power of theatre to change people, to actually make people see themselves, and you, through seeing life reproduced on the stage.” I believe Shakespeare wanted his audiences to view his play and then reflect on their own treatment of women in general; this allows ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ to be relevant when viewed in any time period, and not just when women were considered to be beneath men.

It could be argued that because Bianca acquires three suitors at the start of the play when she is docile and conforms to the expectations of women in society, Shakespeare believed that this submissive behaviour is the right way for a woman to act and the he agreed the Elizabethan traditionalistic views. For example, Phyllis Rackin wrote that ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a play “in which women are put in their subordinate place”; she believed that through the portrayal of Bianca, Shakespeare was trying to rationalize the submission of wives to their husbands. However as the play progresses we also see elements of stock character ‘Femme Fatale’ emerging in Bianca’s character traits. She shows signs of possibly becoming a disobedient wife when she disobedient woman when runs off and marries Lucentio against her father’s will, defying the doctrinaire concept of patriarchy which is a theme that runs throughout the play where the men hold the power and the women are excluded from it. In the last scene of the play, Bianca does not obey Lucentio’s requests, telling him “she cannot come”. This suggests the emancipation of Bianca and this idea is supported when Shakespeare begins to use suggestive language, implying to the reader that Bianca is now free from the restrictions of Elizabethan society and no longer the seemingly perfect and ideal 16th century wife. She uses euphemisms when talking to Petruchio and Vincentio, stating that she will “shift my bush” so Petruchio with “pursue me as you draw your bow”. By using the noun “bush” which can have sexual connotations, she refers to her pubic hair which would have been seen as a vulgar topic of conversation. When she says “pursue me” she is suggesting that another man who is not her husband should court her and in the Elizabethan era this would have been improper because then a woman should not be a “graceless traitor to her loving lord”. Bianca goes on to mention more taboo subjects such as adultery, when she suggests that that Hortensio’s “head and butt where head and horn” because his widow has been unfaithful. This refers to the stock Elizabethan jest of cuckoldry where a husband would be humiliated by being forced to wear horns on his head.

Through this bawdy banter, Shakespeare differs his presentation of Bianca in Act 5 Scene 2, suggesting that Bianca and Katherina have swapped roles because Bianca is no longer controlled by her father and she has become a shrewish character. We are led to believe that Kate and Petruchio are the only happy marriage which results from the play when Shakespeare uses rhyming couplets “come, Kate, we’ll to bed. We three are married, but you two are sped.” The rhyming of the words “bed” and “sped” represents how Katherina and Petruchio’s relationship is finally harmonious and there is a sense of frivolity and playfulness in their marriage. This is considered the dénouement of the play and therefore I think that through Shakespeare’s presentation of Katherina and Petruchio’s congruency at the end and because the ‘Ingénue’ of the play transforms into “a woman mov’d”, Shakespeare is trying to tell us that the perception of the ‘perfect woman’ in the 16th century is wrong. He shows us that it will not result in a happy life where as the feisty and stronger female in mind and in body (Katherina) who is stronger willed will fight for herself and her rights; Shakespeare presents his view that in reality this is the ideal wife even though this goes against the views of women in society at the time.

Another way in which Shakespeare shows he believes that the society in the 16th century and their ideals were narrow minded is his portrayal of Lucentio and Bianca’s relationship. Lucentio is portrayed as a character with true intentions with sincere and genuine affectionate feelings for Bianca when he says “sacred and sweet was all I saw in her”. Shakespeare uses sibilant alliteration here to emphasise Lucentio’s feelings for Bianca, it shows us his adoration and infatuation with her. This was an example of the Courtly Love Tradition in action, an ideal relationship where love is practiced as an art which is extremely passionate, yet disciplined. Bianca’s relationship with Lucentio originated from the ‘Lover’s relationship’ in Commedia Dell’Arte’s, Isabella and Flavio, they were over exaggerated characters foolish who were in love with idea of love. The foolishness and naivety of their way of thinking is shown when Lucentio says “I burn, I pine, I perish”. Shakespeare uses this tripartite anaphoric structure and adds an extra syllable to the full line, abandoning the use of iambic pentameter previously employed by Lucentio’s character, to add emphasise to the verbs used which are hyperbolic. By doing this Lucentio’s feelings seem even more over the top because he has only just caught a glimpse of Bianca from afar and he is already “found the effect of love in idleness”. Shakespeare also sets their idealistic relationship in the mist of farce showing he wants to mock the courtly love tradition and therefore mocking the idea that Lucentio and Bianca’s relationship is idyllic; the play was not meant to be misogynistic but Shakespeare finds a man yearning for a ‘perfect woman’ to be stupid.

The notion that Shakespeare lived in a time where all women were powerless and men were the superior race, is not entirely true. There were exceptions to the rule such as head strong and influential women such as Queen Elizabeth I, who was in power at the time. There were certainly gender issues present in the Elizabethan society, but most people had significant respect for the Queen, such as Pope Sixtus V who wrote “she is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all”. There appears to be many parallels in the characteristics of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s character, Katherina; both were feisty stubborn women who knew their own mind and did not want to be ruled by a man. Therefore I think the demise of Katherina in the play is meant to be perceived as tragic. The interpretation of Katherina’s final speech is vital to how an audience will interpret the entire play and its misogynistic theme throughout. To decide how Shakespeare wished the play to been seen by his audiences, we must analyse his presentation of Katherina in the play and how her character changes and develops as the play progresses.

We are first introduced to “Katherine the curst” in Act One Scene One where it is made clear to the reader that “she is an irksome, brawling scold” and a hot tempered shrew before she even speaks when Gremio states “she’s too rough for me”. He also says that he would “cart her” referring to the 16th century act of ridiculing unruly women by parading them through the streets in a cart. By doing this, Shakespeare invited pathos for Katherina’s character because the reader feels as though she is being prejudiced against because she is not “of a gentler and milder mould” like her sister. Katherina’s presentation greatly juxtaposed the presentation of her pure and “white” sister being referred to as “Minerva” by Lucentio. However because it is Gremio who is insulting Katherina, calling her a “fiend of hell”, and the idiocy of his character exists because he is based on one of Commedia Dell’Arte’s stock characters ‘Pantalone’, who was traditionally the fool of any play, Shakespeare is obviously ridiculing the Elizabethan expectations to be an obedient woman, meaning that his intentions for the play was not for it to interpreted in a misogynistic way.

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In Act 3 Scene 2, Shakespeare shows Katherina to be a character with intense emotions, he uses fricative alliteration by the repetition of the consonant ‘f’ when Katherina says “I told you, I, he was a frantic fool”. Shakespeare does this to make Katherina’s fury clear to the audience, which then contrasts with how she then exits the stage sobbing and in a fluster. This is totally out of character, juxtaposing her earlier “insolence”. Shakespeare does this to show the real depth of Katherina’s character; it reveals her true feelings for Petruchio allowing the audience to empathise with her character. Baptista also says that he “cannot blame thee now to weep”, and by doing this Shakespeare shows a new side to Baptista’s character; he is sympathising with the daughter he earlier called “a shrew” and “thou hilding of a devilish spirit”. This invites pathos for “poor Katherina” from the audience and because she “must forsooth be forc’d to give my hand oppos’d against my heart”. He is presenting his view which opposes how Elizabethan societies were antithetical towards women.

Shakespeare also does through Petruchio’s unorthodox methods to “man my haggard”, which push the boundary between comedy and cruelty because all of his actions being done to purposely aggravate Katherina. Shakespeare uses animal imagery to describe Katherina; Petruchio says “my falcon” using the imagery of this bird of prey as a metaphor for Katherina’s “impatient humour”. A falcon is a vicious bird when in the wild but they are also used in falconry where they are controlled and trained to be disciplined. The falconry reference is used as a foreshadowing device to imply to the reader that Katherina will soon be tamed and submissive to Petruchio’s demands. So that Katherina will “know her keeper’s call”, Petruchio adopts the same approach “to tame a shrew” that an owner would with his falcon. He says that Katherina “now is sharp and passing empty” and insists that “till she stoop, she must not be fully gorg’d”. Shakespeare uses the noun “keeper” to show Petruchio’s misogynistic views and his discrimination against women. We can see his obvious objectification of Katherina and how he wants her to belong to him and be in his possession. Many critics such as Bernard Shaw have felt that Petruchio victimised and abused Katherina and his treatment of her “is altogether disgusting”, he goes on to say that “no man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied” by his actions. However I think that Shakespeare supported women’s rights due to his portrayal of the female sex in some of his other plays such as Lady Macbeth or Cordelia and her sisters in King Leah. These were all strong minded women supporting Asimov’s idea that “Shakespeare’s heroines are, if anything, wiser, more capable, and better than his heroes”. Although critics have argued that in the last scene “what Shakespeare emphasises here is the foolishness of trying to destroy order” (G.I. Duthie, 1943), I believe that Conall Morrison was right when he said that the play is “a moral tale” saying that “it is so self-evidently repellent” due to the objectionable views concerning the women in the play “that I don’t believe for a second that Shakespeare is espousing this”. He believed that through ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare was “investigating misogyny, exploring it and animating it and obviously damning it” because of the male characters’ stereotypical behavior of “defaulting to power positions and self-protection and status” when “one woman was a challenge to them”. He said that because “they are all gleeful and relieved” to see Katherina and “with all her wit and intellect” crushed, Shakespeare’s play is “obviously a satire on this male behaviour and a cautionary tale”.

Katherina’s last speech is overdramatic and so ornate that it is hyperbolically misogynistic. There have been many different interpretations of this last speech, the most popular adopted by critics are that it is ironic, sarcastic, sincere or that it cannot be taken in context due to the comedic farcical elements of the play. Katherina talks about mentions materialistic things such as “beauty” which seems strange in context with her characters earlier presentation when she mocked Bianca in Act 1 Scene 1 for being a “pretty peat”. Thus it seems implausible that “she will be tam’d so” meaning that the likely interpretation of Katherina’s behaviour is ‘tongue-in-cheek’. Also this is backed up when Shakespeare adds emphasis to line “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” by using 11 syllables whilst writing in the form of iambic pentameter. This also highlights the link Petruchio’s earlier line referring to him being Katherina’s “keeper”. Petruchio’s “reign” over Katherina therefore seems to be too good to be true, making the audience believe Katherina knew about his plan to “kill a wife with kindness” all along, and hence her final speech would be performed sarcastically because she is not tamed but humouring Petruchio, making the play ironically proto-feministic.

However my view is like that of Lisa Dillon’s who played Katherina for The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012. She stated that “Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed”. Katherina’s “confident control of language ” in her final speech demonstrates that she is not broken or lobotomized but rather fired up and inspired. The language used is poetic, Shakespeare using rhetorical devices, for example the similes “as frosts do bite the meads” and “as whirlwinds shake fair buds” in succession of each other. Shakespeare uses a tripartite polysyndetic list and evocative adjectives, writing “soft and weak and smooth” to emphasize the extremities of what Katherina is feeling and saying, making the audience believe, not in Katherina’s sincerity to her words but her sincere feelings for Petruchio. Others have agreed with this view that “Kate’s journey can be seen as a process that brings her to a full realization of her potentialities as a woman rather than as a process of brainwashing, crushing her into cowed submission” (Wells 51). Katherina is still dominant over Bianca even though her views have seemingly altered significantly. This shows that Katherina’s spirit has not been “crushed” and she still is a forceful character but now has the approval of a male.

The theme of misogyny running throughout this play is questionable due to Shakespeare’s inclusion of the Induction. It places the Katherina and Petruchio plot on a none realistic level due to the idea of it being ‘a play inside a play’. This allows everything within the secondary play to seem less real and it is then viewed as a farcical and buoyant comedy and by doing this, Shakespeare shows that he wants the audience to not take play themes of ‘Female Submission’ literally. The induction, however, was not kept up throughout the play, thus, I believe audiences will take the misogynistic and patriarchal plots concerning Bianca and Katerina more seriously than Shakespeare intended them to be. Shakespeare shows that he did not believe in these recurring themes linking to the attitudes of societies of the time because in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ he mocks the all the expectations and traditions present in the Elizabethan period. At the time, Shakespeare’s view on women displayed through his female protagonists was very advanced and contemporary, presenting them as the dominant gender. However the attitudes of certain characters in his plays mirrored the mind-set of the people of his time however the way he presented his women showed that he saw women very differently from the way most people in that era.

 

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