The Taming of the Shrew: Misogynistic or Just ‘Of Its Time’?

Taming of the Shrew

This post is a response to Pages Unbound’s Classic Remarks meme.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s family-friendly romp about a tough, street-wise hero who falls in love with and marries a fast-talking heroine. They decide to play an elaborate prank on their friends and family, so the pair pretend to hate each other and the hero torments the heroine, in order to highlight the atrociously misogynistic attitudes of early modern England.

Hmm. Maybe not so much. Although there’s been some debate about the extent to which Taming of the Shrew is in fact a misogynistic play (some people even argue that it’s just the opposite) I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty problematic. It includes a great many jokes about women needing to be ‘tamed’, not to mention scenes of abuse: Katharina, the ‘Shrew’, is abducted and starved by her new husband Petruchio.

So is the play misogynistic?

I guess ‘misogynistic’ depends on how you define it: for instance, does it count as misogynistic if the era in which a text was written had no concept of feminism as we understand it today? Personally, I’m inclined to say yes; just because people in Renaissance England didn’t know about bacteria doesn’t mean they couldn’t die of tuberculosis. Inasmuch as misogyny is a deep-seated hatred of women, I think we can comfortably say that Taming of the Shrew is misogynistic. Or, at the very least, it contains misogynistic elements and characters.

I don’t think it’s enough to simply ‘excuse’ texts because they were written in ‘different times’. That’s not to say we should reject them outright, but we need to acknowledge that they are problematic, that they reflect attitudes and themes which we today are more aware of and more critically engaged with. Of course, we also need to recognise that these texts do not represent the totality of human experience and opinion in the period, and that of course they’re open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Sure, we can keep staging Taming of the Shrew – but we can never simply shrug off the gender issues in the play. In fact, given that domestic abuse is a continuing issue in the contemporary world, it can in fact serve as a vehicle for exploring contemporary experiences.

In many ways, you could say that Taming of the Shrew is only as misogynistic as we make it. This is particularly true because it’s a play, and therefore made to be performed, and consequently re-interpreted by every actor who takes up the roles. In Taming of the Shrew, there’s a moment in the play upon which the whole story’s ‘misogyny’ in some way hinges. It’s the speech that Catherine delivers at the very end, where she talks about wives needing to bend to their husband’s will. Nowadays, these lines are almost always delivered by actors ironically, subverting the interpretation of the play as a celebration of male dominance over the female:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign: one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience –
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
(V:ii, ll. 146-60)

If we’re going to keep staging this play, it needs to be with an awareness of what it can tell us about contemporary gender issues. We need to look at it critically and confront its misogynistic elements, rather than hiding behind the excuse that ‘Shakespeare didn’t know about feminism’.

The Taming of the Shrew plotline is not dead, incidentally: just take a look at any rom-com from the past few decades that features an angry, asexual, bitchy businesswoman who is eventually ‘tamed’ by a scruffy, likeable hero. (This is even the approach that the BBC used for their ‘ShakespeaRe-Told‘ series; Katharina is a career politician and Petrichio is some kind of down-on-his-luck loser. Whether they were making an ironic comment on the trope of the shrewish career woman or not is probably open to interpretation.) This in itself should tell us something about the way we continue to write gender in the modern world. Clearly, Shakespeare’s play is reflecting a wider pattern in society, one we need to be deeply aware of, not simply brush under the carpet.

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6 thoughts on “The Taming of the Shrew: Misogynistic or Just ‘Of Its Time’?

  1. I agree that it can be problematic to brush aside contemporary concerns with books just because they are “products of their time.” It’s still possible to look at how the gender relations are working and why in this text, even if we don’t apply a modern label like “misogynistic” to it–we don’t have to accept blindly that Petruchio is starving his wife just because “Shakespeare’s audience would have had no problems with it.”

    I also think it can be somewhat misleading to use an argument like “early modern audiences would have responded thusly.” While early modern audiences were certainly operating within a different cultural framework, that doesn’t mean they all responded to everything the same way, like some sort of hive mind. Even at the time there could be differing opinions and interpretations. We have John Fletcher responding with The Tamer Tamed, for example, indicating that not everyone in the audience may have been comfortable with what was happening in The Taming of the Shrew.

    • Great point – individual members of the audience would doubtless have responded differently to the play, and imagining that all individuals thought the exact same way in the period is definitely simplifying matters.

  2. The Taming of the Shrew is my favorite play by Shakespeare. If you look at the frame story surrounding it, you can see that he is presenting a ridiculously misogynistic attitude and then undermining it with the frame story.

    I think Shakespeare was a feminist. Look at Shylock! Look at Rosalind.

    I think this play is hysterical and subversive because that final speech by Katherina is completely over the top, and probably most playgoers couldn’t see it as over the top. Which is the point.

    Shakespeare usually appears to be saying one thing, and is actually challenging the very thing he appears to be presenting by a side story which turns the main story completely on its head…

    • I agree, the final speech by Kate is a pivotal one for the whole play. It does seem pretty ridiculous and over the top, which is why I’ve usually seen it delivered with a heavy dose of irony (although I seem to remember that in the Burton/Taylor film Elizabeth Taylor was a little closer to sincerity; it’s been a while since I saw it though, so I can’t remember precisely).

  3. “I don’t think it’s enough to simply ‘excuse’ texts because they were written in ‘different times’. That’s not to say we should reject them outright, but we need to acknowledge that they are problematic, that they reflect attitudes and themes which we today are more aware of and more critically engaged with.” I completely agree.

    It bothers me when people say things aren’t racists/sexists etc… because that wasn’t something they understood to be wrong in their time. And we see it that was as a society aware of those things. Mainly because just because there wasn’t the term racism or sexist doesn’t mean people in that time weren’t thinking ‘this isn’t right’, because, other wise we wouldn’t have evolved to think they way we do now. But, unless something is explicitly wrong, I don’t think it should be dismissed. The perception of it just needs to change it. Like Jane Eyre, Bertha is problematic, this doesn’t mean we need to dismiss it, just look at it differently and acknowledge it’s problems and then think about why she is there and what she represents in that time and now. It makes for a richer discussion.

    This is a brilliant post, it’s really got me thinking.

    • Thanks, Alice! I agree, I don’t think we can simply brush aside racism or sexism in older texts. Bertha’s a good example of this, there’s been a lot of very interesting criticism about her role in the story – I think it would be short-sighted to ignore the racial and gender issues that are a part of her characterisation, especially given that the novel was written at a time of empire. As you said, it definitely makes for a richer discussion.

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