'The Taming of the Shrew': A Feminist Reading

How Should the Modern Feminist Reader Respond to 'The Taming of the Shrew'?

Taming of the Shew staged
Petruchio (Kevin Black) and Kate (Emily Jordan) from a Carmel Shakespeare Festival production of "The Taming of the Shrew" at the outdoor Forest Theater in Carmel, CA., Oct, 2003. (Smatprt/Pacific Repertory Theatre/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

A feminist reading of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shew throws up some interesting questions for a modern audience.

We can appreciate that this play was written over 400 years ago and, as a result, we can understand that values and attitudes towards women and their role in society were very different then than now. 

Subordination

This play is a celebration of a woman being subordinated. Not only does Katherine become the passive and obedient partner of Petruchio (due to his starving her of food and sleep) but she also adopts this view of women for herself and ​evangelizes this mode of being to other women.

Her final speech dictates that women must obey their husbands and be grateful. She suggests that if women do contest their husbands, they come across as ‘bereft of beauty.’

They must look pretty and be quiet. She even suggests that the female anatomy is unsuitable for hard work, being soft and weak she is unsuited to toil and that a woman’s demeanour should be reflected by her soft and smooth exterior.

Modern Contrasts

This flies in the face of what we learn about women in today’s ‘equal’ society. However, when you consider one of the most successful books of recent times; Fifty Shades of Grey, about a young woman Anastasia learning to be subordinate to her sexually dominant partner Christian, a book particularly popular with women; one has to wonder whether there is something appealing to women about a man taking charge and ‘taming’ the female in the relationship?

Increasingly, women are taking more high powered positions in the workplace and in society in general.

Is the idea of a man taking on all the responsibility and burden of work more appealing as a result?  Would all women really prefer to be ’kept women’, with the small dispensation of having to obey your men folk in return? Are we willing to pay the price of male brutality over women for a quiet life as Katherine is?

Hopefully the answer is no.

Katherine - A Feminist Icon?

Katherine is a character who initially speaks her mind she is strong and witty and is more intelligent than many of her male counterparts. This can be admired by a female readership.  Conversely, what woman would want to emulate Bianca’s character who is essentially just beautiful but unremarkable in other aspects of her character?

Unfortunately it appears that Katherine wants to emulate her sister and eventually becomes even less willing than Bianca to challenge the men in her life as a result. Was the need for companionship more important to Katherine than her independence and individuality?

One could argue that Women are still celebrated more for their beauty than for any other achievement in today’s society.

Many women internalize misogyny and behave accordingly without even knowing it. Women like Rhianna cavort and look sexually available on MTV to buy into a male fantasy in order to sell their music.

They shave all over in order to conform to the current male fantasy demonstrated in prolific pornography. Women are not equal in today’s society and one could argue that they are even less so than in Shakespeare’s day...at least Katherine was just made to be subordinate and sexually available to one man, not millions.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Katherine

Feisty, outspoken, opinionated Katherine was a problem to be solved in this play.

Perhaps Shakespeare was demonstrating the way in which women are beaten down, criticised and derided for being themselves and in an ironic way was challenging this? Petruchio is not a likable character; he agrees to marry Katherine for the money and treats her badly throughout, an audience’s sympathy is not with him.

An audience may admire Petruchio’s arrogance and tenacity but we are also very aware of his brutality. Perhaps this makes him slightly attractive in that he is so manful, perhaps this is even more attractive to a modern audience who is tired of the metrosexual male and would like a resurgence of the cave man?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we have somewhat established that women are only slightly more emancipated now than in Shakespeare’s Britain (even this contention is debateable).

The Taming of The Shrew raises issues about female desire: 

  • Do women really want a man to tell them what to do and take charge or is an equal partnership something they should be striving for?
  • If a woman wants a man to be in charge does that make her an enemy of the feminist?
  • If a woman enjoys the Taming of the Shrew or Fifty Shades of Grey (Sorry to compare the two, Fifty Shades of Grey is by no means on a par in literary terms!) is she internalising patriarchal control or responding to an innate desire to be controlled?

Perhaps when women are fully emancipated these narratives will be rejected completely by women?

Either way we can learn from The Taming of the Shrew about our own culture, predilections and prejudices.

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Jamieson, Lee. "'The Taming of the Shrew': A Feminist Reading." ThoughtCo, Jun. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/taming-of-the-shrew-feminist-reading-2984901. Jamieson, Lee. (2017, June 13). 'The Taming of the Shrew': A Feminist Reading. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/taming-of-the-shrew-feminist-reading-2984901 Jamieson, Lee. "'The Taming of the Shrew': A Feminist Reading." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/taming-of-the-shrew-feminist-reading-2984901 (accessed November 18, 2017).