Gender and Sexuality in the Taming of the Shrew

May 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Since gender and sexuality are interpreted as a construct of society and since literature is a method of cultural representation, works of literature can both emphasize gender norms and construct newer, less restricting portrayals of gender and sexuality. This fluctuating state of gender identity based on current societal values is conveyed in works ranging from Renaissance Shakespeare to Romantic Mary Shelley and Victorian Robert Louis Stevenson. While Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew demonstrates a female response against societal norms and both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde demonstrate a suppression of, and consequent outlet for, a self-identity unaccepted by society, all three works demonstrate how society has affected both the state and expression of individuals’ gender identities and sexualities.

The late sixteenth century England experienced a trend of stories on the shrew-taming theme, tales that primarily outline the conversion of an unruly wife to one obedient to her husband, often by bodily harm. Shakespeare, however, cushions the theme in The Taming of the Shrew by preventing the tamer, Petruchio, from using physical violence to subdue the shrew, Katherina. The three primary interpretations of the ending relationship between Petruchio and Katherina are: (1) true love, (2) Petruchio’s success in the taming of Katherina, and (3) an ironical analysis of Katherina’s final speech. Because Shakespeare provides minimal clues that point toward true love and refrains from fully embodying the format of the shrew-taming tales, the third interpretation of his work through a feminist lens appears the most plausible.

From the onset of Shakespeare’s work, Katherina and her younger sister Bianca are described and spoken for by the males. As early on as the first scene of act one, one of Bianca’s suitors, Gremio, alludes to Katherina in a negative and degrading light when the sisters’ father, Baptista, states that no one can marry Bianca before Katherina is courted and married (I.I.55). Katherina says nothing about herself in the first act except to respond or to defend herself against what others have said. Despite being perceived as the talkative shrew, Katherina speaks only 207 lines, less than half of Petruchio’s 564 lines. This disparity between the severity and characteristic of Kate’s ‘shrewish’ behavior and the male characters’ perceptions of it is again demonstrated by her obstinacy towards marrying either Gremio or Hortensio. When the monetary situations regarding the weddings are discussed, it is revealed that Katherina’s dowry is “one half of [her father’s] land” and “in possession twenty thousand crowns” (II.I.122). When Lucentio and Gremio vie for Bianca’s hand in marriage, Gremio’s entire estate is portrayed as less than two thousand ducats in total. Because a ducat is equal to approximately two crowns, Katherina’s dowry in immediate money alone surpasses his entire estate by five times, which in effect might be an adequate cause for her to recognize him as beneath her social and financial position. In this case, Katherina’s opinions against the men are ridiculed not because of hurt feelings on her part but because of hurt feelings on their parts. Katherina’s behavior here aptly sums up the difference between her own pragmatism and the men’s arrogance. She thus establishes to the audience her goals and motivations even prior to meeting her future husband Petruchio.

When wealthy Petruchio arrives at Padua to find a wife, Katherina is trapped in a scenario fostered by the fabricated gender role of her time and sex, obligated by her father’s approval of the wedding, into a marriage where she is vulnerable to Petruchio’s wants and needs. Thus began Petruchio’s quest to tame Katherina not through physical means but by manipulating her protests into submittal and to deny her every basic need under the guise that it is for her own benefit. When courting Katherina, Petruchio declares, “Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain [s]he sings as sweetly as a nightingale” and “if she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day [w]hen I shall ask the banns, and when be married” (II.I.170-171, 179-180). He creates a twisted aspect of reality, using clever language to portray insults or scorn creating a difference between the expected versus actual events. On her way back from Petruchio’s estate to her sister’s wedding at Padua, Katherina goes against her initial standpoint and cedes to Petruchio’s claim that he has the right of naming and renaming the world as he so chooses (IV.5). When he first gushes “how bright and goodly shines the moon” midday, Katherina begins to protest (IV.5.2-5). However, at a warning by Petruchio, she changes instantaneously, and having learned her lesson, affirms, “Forward, I pray, since we have come so far, And be it the moon, or sun, or what you please” (IV.5.12-13). However, by continuously changing the meaning of his words and language, he removes the level ground that serves as his ruling advantage. By granting himself the right to name and rename the world, Petruchio unintentionally admits that there exists no natural law that defines our perception of the world. The link between the items he names and what he chooses to name them is completely arbitrary. The outlandishness of Petruchio’s strategy allows Katherina to take advantage of the situation. Admittedly she concedes to every claim made by Petruchio, but her unwavering agreeability detracts from the value and meaning of whatever statement she is conceding to. The predicted female course of action, stretched to the point of absurdity, becomes a means of evaluating itself.

Similar to Petruchio, Katherina uses irony to create a discrepancy between the expected and actual events of their relationship. The irony is most obvious when she lectures Bianca and the widow in her final speech. She remarks how the very individuals who had ridiculed for her disobedience were now as unattractive as she was since “to wound thy lord… blots thy beauty as frost do bite the meads” (V.2.137-138) and she continues “[a] woman moved is like a fountain troubled, [m]uddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty” (V.2. 141-142). Katherina seems to say to the women in her audience that they are merely conditionally loved, and if they fail to adhere to their husband’s wishes they will be ridiculed and unwanted as she once was. She is not disappointed that her sister is defying her husband, only that her resistance is so obvious. By manipulating the sexist system for her own benefit, Katherina is no longer represented by Petruchio nor is she limited by her word usage. Not only is it the last major speech in Shakespeare’s work, Katherina’s final speech is also the longest. By putting on a façade of female submission and inferiority, she is allowed a larger platform to express her views. Katherina thus stands out against Bianca and the widow in that she is an active subject, who furthers her own interests, as opposed to a passive, obedient object. From this viewpoint, female submission is seen as an unexpectedly powerful response against male supremacy.

While Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew explores the course that an oppressed woman takes to regain stability in her relationship, Shelley and Stevenson both decide to exclude women from normal roles to expose the homosexual undertones present within Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Both authors create textual worlds where masculinity and innovation overpower the importance of women. Instead of confronting the issue of sexuality head-on, repressed emotions are manifested in the protagonists’ “monstrous” invention or alto-egos. However, the common thread from The Taming of the Shrew regarding the discontinuity between societal ideology and behavior – what people are expected to do and what they actually do – persists and is ever-clear among these two works.

According to Mary Wollenstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the ideal union is between two equal partners who base their relationship upon communication and mutual understanding as opposed to sexual passion. Mary Shelley, similar to her mother, conveys the same importance of maintaining a domestic family in Frankenstein, but does not utilize powerful female characters to portray this. Instead, she intentionally diminishes the position of women and communicates with the reader the consequences of usurping the biological function of women in exchange for a predominantly male society. As a result of the sexual segregation set in place by the gendering of public and private spheres as respectively masculine and feminine, the men in Frankenstein are the workers while the women are watchers that are protected by their male counterparts. Shelley’s work is composed of women who suffer compliably and then expire, as seen with Caroline Beaufort, the self-sacrificing mother who dies caring after her adopted daughter and the daughter Elizabeth, who is a “blessing” that exemplifies all the characteristics of ideal womanhood (Shelley 31). In fact, all of the women in Shelley’s work are idealized in a certain aspect, whether it be self-sacrifice, nurturing instincts, morals, beauty, or personality. These women, though, are little more than property, as insinuated by Victor when he confesses that he regarded Elizabeth to be a “possession of my own” (31). These over-simplistic portrayals cast women in a static, unappealing light, but why would Mary Shelley, daughter of one of the major feminists, choose to do this? Shelley specifically conveys her female characters in a way that parallels what English women had become in the society in which they existed. Her statement is clear: she manipulated Victor’s scientific endeavor as a means to eradicate the necessity for women, then goes on to spell destruction upon her characters; she demonstrates the consequences of a societal structure of gender which holds men above women. She thus sacrifices her female characters for the greater endpoint of pointing out the flaws associated with a patriarchal society.

Similar to Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson focuses on the male experience, reserving little room for female inclusion in his work. In Frankenstein, Victor successfully avoids any sexual connection from women, focusing instead on creating his scientific magnum opus, then consequently spending the rest of his life plagued by its existence. In the same way, Stevenson’s novel revolves around the peculiar dynamic between Dr. Jekyll and his villainous counterpart Mr. Hyde. A surface level observation alone already points out the most important relationships being forced as those between men, as opposed to those between men and women. The women in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are fleeting, possessing no names or memorable backgrounds that make them anything more than accessories. Stevenson’s work pushes forth the glorified image of women as desexualized participants of the nineteenth century, instead using his male characters as the vessels of feminine energy. This feminine angle of Stevenson’s male characters implies a redefining of how sexual identity and gender are sorted. Even though Hyde primarily targets women as his victims, his feminine appearance and dramatic feelings oppose the traditional structure of masculinity. The work seems to convey that sex and sexuality pervade all aspects of society. This instability of gender roles parallels the changing idea of sexual identities in that sexuality conflicts with not only the norms of lower-class morals, but shakes the very foundations of the relationships between genders and class hierarchies of society.

These changing viewpoints towards sexual identity and gender are reflected in both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. It should be noted that in both of the novels, the homosocial interactions, or social bonds between people of the same sex, shape how the protagonists associate with other men. The behavior of the men throughout both of the authors’ novels is insinuative of homosexual desires, but their repressive societies do not allow for an expressive outlet for these underlying passions. Both Frankenstein’s monster and Jekyll’s alternate ego become reflections of the unrepressed homosexual desire, which is represented by multiple literary techniques, such as physical appearance, societal isolation, living arrangements, and connections with their creators. On one hand, Frankenstein’s creature is judged harshly based upon his unappealing appearance, and the totality of his being is hidden away in secrecy. The fact that this creation exists is enough to expose the monstrous aspect of Frankenstein that he desperately tries to avoid. On the other hand, Jekyll goes through both a moral and physical transformation into Edward Hyde, using their closeted affair as an output for his erotic tensions.

The essential central motif of Shelley’s work orbits the obsession with modes of reproduction, implying that the male characters separate themselves from the females in an attempt to sidestep any paternal obligation to procreate or support a family. These reservations about female reproduction are what push Frankenstein to follow his scientific exploration to eliminate the need for females in the process of procreation. Frankenstein steals the root of a woman’s role in society for himself, unknowingly synthesizing a relationship between monster and creator that represents an example of repressed homosexuality. Frankenstein’s construction of his monster alone is portrayed as a secret affair, bringing forth images of masturbation as Shelley depicts how he used his “profane fingers” in a “solitary chamber” that houses his “workshop of filthy creation” (Shelley 53). Frankenstein experiences guilt over these very sexual impulses but his obsession with the creature’s completion prevents him from stopping (Shelley 163). This erotic scene is a suggestion of Frankenstein’s repressed sexuality embodied in the creature. His disgust with the monster’s displeasing appearance further demonstrates his obstinacy towards acknowledging these deeper truths about himself and his stifled passions against a civilized society which shuns the perverse. However, Frankenstein’s unyielding pursuit of the creature lies in his knowledge that the creature is a byproduct of the monstrosity that hides within Frankenstein, therefore allowing the dual search of one another.

Dr. Jekyll’s reasons for synthesizing a “monster” are very comparable to those of Victor Frankenstein. Robert Louis Stevenson implements the dual identities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to demonstrate that without any methods of expression for sexual appetites, mankind will fall to destruction and violence. With the arrival of the nineteenth century came the evolution of the homosexual community as its own active subculture. Like any men of his time, Jekyll hides certain aspects of himself that are connected to his sexuality in order to maintain his position in society. Stevenson’s study of duality through the separating of his characters Jekyll and Hyde points towards a side of Jekyll that does not align itself with what society deems worthy, resulting in the existence of Hyde, a physical manifestation of an aspect of Jekyll’s identity. Jekyll’s association with Hyde disturbs his friends, but they are unable to articulate why they do not like him. He appears normal upon first glance, but is set apart by his perverted characteristic. The men regard Hyde’s appearance and nature as unspeakable, but they cannot pinpoint the physical distinctions that make Hyde so unlikable. This inherent disgust and fear associated with Hyde is suggestive of the almost hysterical homophobia of the 1800. Hyde’s condition is akin to a disease in the same way that men who were “afflicted” with homosexuality were perceived as volatile and participants in criminal activities that threatened Britain’s traditional social, economic, and scientific values. As Jekyll’s repressed counterpart, Hyde demonstrates any homosexual tendencies, but is depicted as dangerous and monstrous, insinuating that homosexuality is seen as an attack on the heterosexual agenda of the patriarchal society.

As much as how Shakespeare’s Renaissance take on gender and sexuality likely gave way to further works inspired by society during the Age of Enlightenment, Shelley’s and Stevenson’s take on sexual identity and homosexuality inspired other writers in the 1880’s and 1890’s to write about their fears and desires and transgress the boundaries of masculine and feminine identity set by society. Thus the societies that influenced the protagonists of each novel would in turn be influenced by these very characters. The history of attitudes towards sex and sexuality portrayed throughout these three works is an ongoing cultural process that can be regarded through the literature of a time period, providing readers with a way to visualize the changes occurring in the gender and sex system and realize the continuity of how their own methods of sexuality affect the world they live in today.


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