The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew is thought to have been written between 1590 and 1592. It is a popular comedy, though its handling of gender roles has been, and continues to be, a source of deep dispute and consternation. Next to The Merchant of Venice, this ranks, perhaps, as one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays.
The ‘shrew’ of the story is Katherina, the wilful and obstinate eldest daughter of Baptista Minola. Baptista refuses to let his younger daughter, Bianca, wed any of her suitors, unless Katherina also marries. The intricate comic plot – full of deception and disguise – revolves around competition between Hortensio, Gremio and Lucentio to win Bianca’s hand in marriage. But at its centre is the attempt of one man, Petruchio, to tame the wild Katherina, and turn her into an obedient and doting wife. It is his apparent success in doing so that lies at the heart of the play’s controversy.
In her final speech, Katherina condemns any woman who is not obedient to her ‘loving lord’ as a ‘graceless traitor’ (5.2.160). Is the play’s final message, then, in support of female submissiveness?
Today’s scholars and directors tend to think not, arguing, instead, for an ironic reading of this final speech. Some critics point to the speech’s focus on the ‘soft, and weak’ female body, which, given that in Shakespeare’s time Katherina would have been played by a young man, might have struck the audience as ridiculous. Some also stress the importance of the play’s frame narrative, which presents the central drama as an entertainment performed for the drunken Christopher Sly – perhaps nothing more than a tinker’s fantasy of how he might tame his own wife. Others read the work as essentially farcical, and not intended as any profound statement on the role of women. Whether or not these readings hold true, in the context of today’s emphasis on gender equality, they sit much more comfortably with a 21st- century audience.
- Article by:
- Rachel De Wachter
- Comedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Power, politics and religion
Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate sexual inequality or does it show and critique men’s attempts to subordinate women? Rachel De Wachter discusses how we should think about relations between the sexes in the play, and examines how writers, directors and actors have explored this question over the past four centuries.
- Article by:
- Penny Gay
Penny Gay investigates how The Taming of the Shrew both draws on and challenges comic conventions.
- Article by:
- Emma Smith
- Comedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage
Emma Smith explores how clothing complicates ideas about gender and social status in The Taming of the Shrew.
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