A comedy by William Shakespeare “The Taming of the Shrew” raised several essential and controversial topics that are still discussed by modern scholars and readers. Some academics argue that the play is misogynistic; others state that the work depicted the changes in gender politics of Shakespeare’s current time (Smith, p. 15). Contemporary analysts claim that The Taming of the Shrew is an argument for modern women’s liberty (Clare, p. 92). The play shows the relationship of Petruchio, a man, who tames Katherine, who is a shrew, with various psychological tricks. Reactions to the work have evolved through centuries as changes in perception of female gender triggered the start of new movements and discussions about gender and misogyny.
To analyze the play by Shakespeare regarding the specific topic of gender and misogyny, one should provide a definition for both terms. Oxford Dictionary states that gender is “the fact or condition of belonging to or identifying with a particular gender” (“Gender”). Misogyny is defined as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women” (“Misogyny”). The reason why The Taming of the Shrew is viewed as a controversial play on the topic of gender and misogyny nature is the evolvement of the feminist movement and reconsideration of women’s essence in the modern world.
As the perception of women’s state changes through time, the play becomes even more interesting for scholars, readers, and analysts who argue about the interpretation of motives and themes presented in Shakespeare’s work. The rationale behind the research of the play is based on the opportunity to analyze the transformation of former and newer views on gender and misogyny. This paper will present the discussion of the gender and misogyny themes in Shakespeare’s play, a review of the literature on the same topic, and a different interpretation of the work that the author will introduce.
Review of the Literature
The controversy of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew lies in the area of female submission to the patriarchy that rules the society of the sixteenth century when the work was written. The question of women’s surrender to male power shows the discrepancies of gender politics in love relations that the main characters, Petruchio and Katherine, are involved in. From the point of view of former academics, the “tamer” tries to humiliate wildcat Katherine and oppress her female state. If the reader focuses on the main story and forgets about the comedy’s subplot that shows how several men are trying to court Katherine, it might be stated that the play is ambiguous. It is indicated by various scholars and critics of the past century that the work of Shakespeare is misogynistic, brutal, and offensive (Costa). Modern society has tried to re-evaluate the position of former academics.
In 2016, two adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew appeared, whose directors and screenwriters tried to adjust the play and make it more acceptable by the public in the twenty-first century. Both creations that were introduced for the Hogarth Shakespeare series and the Shakespeare in the Park event took a different path in the analysis of the initial work. One of the plays was aimed to avoid the humiliation of the main character, while the other adhered to the misogyny that was seen in the original work. After the release of both plays, journalists suggested that the combination of gender issues, hate of women, and violence is what makes the play so appealing and ambiguous at the same time (Grady). This controversy provides space for different interpretations that any director, scholar, or reader can imagine.
The discussion around the play is explained by the timelessness of the topics raised by Shakespeare that draw the attention of the contemporary public. The gender roles that are shown in The Taming of the Shrew scold the audience’s perceptions of gender politics. Gündüz suggests that “it must be admitted that uneasiness about what are seen as the play’s gender assumptions goes back a long way” (p. 833). However, others claim that the role of the male gender in the play is direct and depicts the power a man has due to a social hierarchy that gives him the authority to humiliate a woman (Wachter). This position is defined by the language used in the play, for instance, when Baptista, the father of Katherine, tells men that he can “court [Katherina] at [his] pleasure” (Shakespeare 1.1.54–55). The agreement on the issue in the general public might never be found.
As the changes in gender politics evolve, society tries to transform the theme of gender in The Taming of the Shrew. It is argued that the central issue of the twentieth century was the situation when “the personal is political” (Hanisch). Journalists nowadays suggest that contemporary feminist movements cannot admit that in the Shakespeare’s play, the personal situation is personal (Costa). When Katherine in the final speech says that she is willing to place a hand beneath her husband’s foot, it is her statement that does not claim her surrender to a male. The culmination of the play shows that Katherine, who was seemingly humiliated and hated, demolishes Petruchio and pulls him down to her level (Wachter). It might be stated that the play itself provides opportunities for different interpretations and construction of various scenes when analyzing it.
Discussion of the Topic
At first glance, the situation in The Taming of the Shrew seems ridiculous: the obstinate Katherine is quiet and submissive, and those who seem quiet from the very beginning, do not want to be oppressed. Jokes and funny situations enhance the irony of the case. Despite the laughter, Shakespeare shows that the “taming of the shrew” is not submission but understanding. Petruchio decides to treat Katherine with her methods, which shows that gender roles can change, and people can adapt to them. Petruchio is not intimidated by warnings about the obnoxiousness of Katherine, which are presented as the misogynistic humiliation for women. He is ready to marry her, no matter how misbehaving she is.
The controversy rises because Petruchio is honest from the beginning: he wants to marry Katherine to get financial benefits. He does the same thing everyone else does to Katherine, but he is honest about his intentions. It might be stated that the tragedy of the society is that gender and misogyny themes in Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship have been interpreted differently and have caused outrage throughout centuries. For the contemporary reader, the behavior of Katherine after the “defeat” seems much more reasonable if the reader was raised in a patriarchal society. However, feminist movements that defend women’s rights and freedoms today do not accept that obedient behavior and the portrayal of women as submissive to men.
The work contrasts natural relationships between people with dead social prescriptions. Shakespeare suggests that all sympathies in the play are on the side of people, and not social norms, no matter what standards are implied: gallant, feminist, or communal. To defend this position, the words of Petruchio can be mentioned: “If she and I be pleased, what’s that to you” (Shakespeare 2.293). Therefore, the ambiguity of the play can give rise to polemic discussions that might not find common ground.
To the extent that The Taming of the Shrew touches upon gender and misogyny issues, it raises questions in the spirit of a vicious critique of established norms. Society, scholars, and readers are still debating about gender politics and how misogynistic views challenge the perceptions of women’s position. One can state that the norms themselves change over time, but The Taming of the Shrew will still be perceived as an infamous and controversial play.
The gender and misogyny topic in The Taming of the Shrew closes in the final Katherine’s speech and is open to interpretation by readers. Katherine seems to be “tamed” by Petruchio and gives up her power to the man; however, the sincerity of this surrender can be questioned. Shakespeare’s evaluation by various contemporary screenwriters does not show uniquely “tamed” Katherine, instead, it depicts gender politics that imply the impossibility to subdue a woman. Despite the fact that the gender issue and misogyny themes are raised in the play, the paradoxical nature of The Taming of the Shrew presents ample space for debates, interpretation, and conclusions. Future changes in society may cause another round of discussion and challenges for those who want to convey the controversy of The Taming of the Shrew to contemporary audiences.
- “Gender.” Oxford Dictionary. Web.
- “Misogyny.” Lexico, Web.
- Clare, Janet. Shakespeare’s Stage Traffic: Imitation, Borrowing and Competition in Renaissance Theatre. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
- Costa, Maddy. “The Taming of the Shrew: ‘This is not a Woman Being Crushed.’” The Guardian, 2012. Web.
- Grady, Constance. “Is it Possible to Make a Feminist Taming of the Shrew? 2 New Adaptations Try.” Vox, 2016. Web.
- Gündüz, Ela. “Gendered Identities: Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.” Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 17, 2018, pp. 833-843.
- Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal Is Political.” Carolhanisch.org, 2006. Web.
- Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Penguin Books, 2016.
- Smith, Emma. This is Shakespeare. Pelican, 2019.
- Wachter, Rachel. “Power and Gender in The Taming of the Shrew.” British Library, 2016. Web.