Struggles of Female Protagonists in The Bell Jar and The Taming of the Shrew

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Sylvia Plath’s, ‘The Bell Jar’ and Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ follow two female protagonists making their way through extremely phallocentric societies. Both female characters are othered from society as they don’t fit the normal social conventions of their era. Even though The Taming of the Shrew is set in 1700s Italy and The Bell Jar is set in 1950s America both societies expect women to be completely subservient to men and become a loving wife to stay at home and look after the family. Katherina, in The Taming of the Shrew, is forced into marrying Petruchio who manipulates her into a submissive ‘housewife’ role by abusing her into a state of hysteria by locking her away with no food or water. Esther, in the Bell Jar, has the constant pressure put on her by her mother and sweetheart Buddy Willard to stay pure and marry for, “infinite stability” the weight of this becomes too much for Esther who then tries to commit suicide and fortunately seeks help and becomes a stronger person for it unlike Katherina who cannot escape her husband and her society. Nice overview here. Add in the technical areas of the texts that you will study and compare.

Katherina (The Taming of the Shrew) and Esther (The Bell Jar) are both strong willed characters who are trying to break away from the phallocentric societies they are forced to live in by going against normal social conventions that ultimately result in their downfall. Clear and focussed topic sentence In ‘The Bell Jar’ Esther completely rejects female ideologies of the 1950s- she did not want to be a submissive housewife and notes this when she says “That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security…I wanted change and excitement”. This highlights Esther’s desire for freedom as she feels confined by every other aspect of her life such as the confinement society puts on her as a woman in the 1950s, her mental confinement and her literal confinement by her basement when she tries to commit suicide. Esther sees matrimony as another form of entrapment which adds to her hysteria, this is supported by the critic: “her ‘madness’ is presented as a necessary consequence of the world surrounding her” (DeLauretis,) 125. I believe this critic is correct as the crushing weight of social and patriarchic struggles causes Esther to spiral into hysteria. Needs evidence and analysis Furthermore, I believe Esther feels constricted by the lack of freedoms and opportunities for women in 1950s America and the iconic “bell jar” mot motif only represents her entrapment due to mental illness but a metaphor for the confinement of women within the phallocentric society. The bell jar metaphor further represents distorted vision and reflection, Esther’s ability to form a version of herself is hampered by more than her own mind. The images of femininity available to her are so contained and distorted due to growing up in a very liberal background so the bell jar also represents her metaphorical and physical alienation from the world around her as she doesn’t fit into any ‘normal’ social conventions for women in 1950s AmericaStay focussed on evidence and analysis.

In Cold War America the commonest age for women to marry was as young as 18 which encapsulates Esther’s frustration with identity as she is slowly becoming less desirable as a wife leaving her with a life filled with no purpose as her life should’ve revolved around being a mother and a wife contributing to her further alienation and deteriorating sanity. Similarly, in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ Katherina desires to be a “shrewd” woman and take no man as her husband as she longs for a life of freedom much like Esther. However, she is forced by her father to marry Petruchio who belittles her into submission evidence and analysis. Elizabethan audiences would see this as normal behaviour in a relationship as the male always had more power over a woman in the Renaissance era but modern day critics and essays like Emily Detmer’s 1997 essay “Civilizing Subordination: Domestic Violence and The Taming of the Shrew” gives a more feminist perspective showing us that Katherina’s ‘taming’ can be paralleled with domestic abuse. At the start of the play, Katherina is a fiery woman whose hatred for men sparks an aggressive character trait and in Act 2 scene 1 we see this when Katherina slaps Petruchio. This highlights Katherina’s power and is a clear representation of Katherina rejecting phallocentric ideologies and Elizabethan expectations of women. However, Petruchio doesn’t use his physical power as a man to force her into submission he manipulates her through language and her mentality evidence and analysis. Petruchio deprives Katherina of food and sleep and isolates her from the rest of society which Detmer argues that: “Rather than beat Kate into submission, he threatens her in a manner that recalls the Stockholm syndrome, coercing her into internalizing his wishes if she is to eat or sleep or escape isolation: ‘She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat:/ Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not’ (4.1.168-69)” by using the private domain to employ his tactics of submission on Katherina is humiliating as the home in the Elizabethan era was the domestic or feminine space which goes against everything Katherina detested. We see Katherina go from a headstrong, proto-feminist protagonist who rejects patriarchal constructs descend into a stereotypical Elizabethan woman that’s sole purpose is to serve her husband which can be seen in the final didactic speech of the play: “when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour and not obedient to his honest will? What is she but a foul contending rebel to her loving lord?”. Esther in ‘The Bell Jar’ has a contrasting fate to Katherina as she begins the book believing she must conform to societal expectations “I was supposed to be having the time of my life” and by constantly trying to live up to these preconceptions she spirals out of control and into a manic depressive state. Unlike Katherina who can’t escape the horrors of her new life, Esther gradually gets better with the help of psychiatric hospitals and comes out with the realisation that she doesn’t have to live up to everyone’s expectations of her. This is very well expressed and convincing. Make sure you evaluate critical opinions as much as you can.

Although The Taming of The Shrew is usually considered as a ‘comedy’ or a ‘romance’ in 1986 the long standing farcical comedy was transformed into a “problem play” by Samuel Boas In his ‘Shakespeare and his Predecessors’. To be defined as a problem play he states that: “throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome.” I believe this play can be considered ‘problematic’ due to Kate’s issues with identity (especially with her gender) being defined as the “dim untrodden paths” as it is a clear theme throughout the play. For example, Katherina doesn’t comply to social norms of the renaissance era that required women to marry a man and have children for a sense of fulfilment In their lives as that was all they were able to do. Katherina isn’t considered “silent” on her views of matrimony unlike her sister Bianca (a stereotypical feminine trope) and is described by men as a “shrew” that nobody wants to marry “unless [she] were of a gentler, milder mould”(1.1.59-60) this completely others her from society as she doesn’t subvert to the only role women knew in the 1500s. Katherina struggles with her identity after the arrival of Petruchio as he “[comes] to wive it wealthily in Padua”(1.2.74) and manipulates her into a submissive and obedient woman through humiliation and force. Katherina and Petruchio are parallels of each other as they are both referred to as “mad” however Grumio refers to Petruchio as his, “master” which is an authoritative role unlike Katherina who is described by Tranio in act 1 as a “wench”. This clear separation in epithets encapsulates the phallocentric society, as stereotypically “mad” women are belittled instead of honoured for their voices whereas men are praised for their madness as violent tendencies Very strong evidence and analysis in this section. Good use of critical perspective. contributed to their hyper-masculine values. This contributes to the idea of ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ being a problem play due to the clear sexism to an audience of the 21st century as Katherina is subjugated by Petruchio and the rest of the male characters, including her own father, in the play. However, we can argue against this play being ‘problematic’ because of the era it was written in; it was socially acceptable in the 1500s for a man to objectify their wife as women were seen as their property and weren’t allowed their own opinion due to being completely in-synch with their husband. This complete lack of identity adds to the idea that Katherina and Petruchio are doubles of each other as after they got married Katherina figuratively becomes him as she is no longer permitted to have her own voice as the man speaks for the couple. “She is my good, my chattels, she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything; (3.2.230–32)” By describing her in this way, Petruchio deliberately asserts his power over Katherina and purposefully tries to endow her with all the characteristics of things which are desirable to him: obedience, submission and voiceless (everything Katherina doesn’t embody). Similarly, The Bell Jar could be considered problematic Is the genre problematized? Check your understanding of problem play.

This is more of a genre distinction. because of Esther’s mental illness being the “untrodden paths” as this takes her down a dark path eventually climaxing in an attempted suicide: “Society allowed a man to write about going mad, but when a woman approached the subject was disparaged” (Alexander, 322) Plath loosely based Esther’s struggle with mental health on her own and during the 1950s in America, mental health wasn’t properly explored and was incredibly stigmatised. Creating this book around female hysteria, is especially problematic for a reader in the 1950s due to mental health still being an incredibly taboo subject to talk about highlighting Plath’s intention to forewarn women of America to break out of their phallocentric society or their mental health would be at risk due to oppressing their desires and dreams to become a, “happy housewife”. Much like Katherina a contributing factor towards the ‘problematic’ aspect of this novel is the affect men have upon the protagonist. Buddy Willard, Esther’s childhood ‘sweetheart’ in the novel is perceived as a perfect specimen of the ideal 1950s American male because during that time Buddy was considered flawless. Handsome, athletic, prospers in his studies and a white catholic heterosexual male. At the start of the novel, Buddy and Esther come across as equals as they’re both incredibly smart and are ambitious and want to succeed in life. However, as Buddy is the male partner in the relationship he feels like he has to be superior to Esther and belittles and patronises her in every way he can going as far as calling poetry, “dust” to assert his intellectual superiority and no matter how awful Buddy was to Esther she idolized him because, “all [she’d] heard about…was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for” the semantic field of purity shows the importance of chastity in 1950s America and the double standards of men and women in the 1950s. Later on in the play we realise Buddy sleeps with a waitress just because she was, “free, white, and twenty one” the dehumanising way he talks about her encapsulates Plath’s intention to call out masculine hypocrisy within relationships and crushing toxic masculinity. Even-though I believe this could be defined as a ‘problematic novel’ the ending is “satisfactory” and we feel happiness and a sense of pride for Esther as she has overcome her depression and suicidal thoughts and not succumbed to the pressures of the patriarchal structure and rejects Buddy Willard and the lifestyle he represents (a highly common 1950s suburban family) and feels “perfectly free”. Whereas, in The Taming of the Shrew we are left with a less satisfactory ending as Petruchio and the phallocentric society she is trapped in has indoctrinated her into a staple wife of the renaissance era meaning she is completely obedient to Petruchio’s’ “honest will” leading me to believe that The Taming of The Shrew is a problem play, but only for a 21st century audience as our views on the mistreatment of women have changed significantly since the 1500s and would be classed as domestic abuse nowadays but back then it was simply family life. Restructure this to be more focussed on genre. What was Shakespeare’s intent? To craft a sexist comedy, or to present new ideas in a strange new genre with heavy tragic elements? You could look into Plath’s use of comic/tragic tropes in the same way.

The theme of reality vs construction is a key factor in both female protagonists’ stories and it blurs the lines of reality and imagination. In The Taming of The Shrew Katherina is but a character in a play trying to deceive the homeless man Christopher Sly into believing he is a wealthy gentleman with a lords status which leads us to question whether Katherina is just a fictional character who is used as comedic purposes for a performance or an accurate representation or the mistreatment of women in the renaissance periodEvidence and analysis. Performance is also a key theme in The Bell Jar because even-though Esther isn’t playing a character like Katherina she is constantly pretending she is someone else and constantly obsessing over the dead which highlights her confinement and hatred in herself as she constantly wants to break free from who she is as she isn’t a valued member of society due to her feminist views. In The Taming of The Shrew Katherina is a meta-theatrical character who is fictional in the play which makes us question whether Katherina’s speech of submission was an act of mockery or of complete obedience discuss levels of diegesis here. Woodbridge states, ‘I see little evidence that he was ahead of his time In his attitudes towards women’ and Micheal Hattaway, ‘there can be no authoritative reading’ make me believe her ending speech reinforces Patriarchal attitudes and during the Elizabethan era when the play was performed young ‘effeminate’ boys would play women in his productions further adding to the mockery of “shrewed” women in that period of time as it highlights the complete subjugation of women due to the male actor stripping away any power a women had from being female. In contrast to this, The Bell Jar has a very different approach to the theme of reality and construction; Esther likes to envision herself as other people (especially dead people) as she constantly comes back to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, a couple killed for being soviet spies evidence and analysis. By beginning her novel with Esther obsessing over their death, it symbolically ties together Esther’s acts of rebellion and her mental illness. Her obsession with pain and death parallels that of the author who struggled with depression herself and later committed suicide in 1963. “I couldn’t help imagining what it must be like, being burnt all along your nerves” this highlights Esther’s deteriorating mental health as she is desperate to feel anything other than nothingness and also represents her warped Image of life and death as she thinks shes a dead person due to her mental health creating her into a shell of a person. A quote about this from a critic states: “Esther’s internalization of the state-sanctioned ideal of domestic femininity and her subjection to the patriarchal ideologies of society have displaced her connection to the active citizenship and collective responsibility of a functioning member of democracy.” (rosie smith) Due to her dissociation from society due to her mental health she feels comfortable in death as she feels guilty for not living up to societal norms and feminine convictions of the 1950s.

Furthermore, Esther’s internalisation of her identity due to the regimented ideologies of femininity is a catalyst for her hysteria as society try to put her under a “bell jar” to keep her grounded and voiceless but the version of reality under the bell jar is a distorted reflection of society which creates conflict within Esther as she is torn between making her mother and society proud by conforming to social norms and becoming a house wife or following her own head, not “serving men” and writing her own life without restriction. “to the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” The way Plath describes Esther’s life as a “dead baby” is a commentary on the suffocating phallocentric society upon women as they are constricted to a monotonous life of looking after the home and being completely subjugated by their husband. Reality Vs construction rephrase as above is an important factor in both texts as it highlights their conflicted gender identities, both women are strong willed and independent but due to the crushing weight of patriachy they both start to slip into insanity as the lines of their realities and social construction blur together creating a warped version of society.

Overall, both women struggle with hysteria due to the crushing weight of their phallocentric societies forcing them into feminine ideologies. Katherina, an overly outspoken character who is known for her stubbornness and foul mouth ends up being voiceless due to the toxic masculinity within Petruchio that desired a woman that was submissive to him. In contrast to this, Esther’s life is controlled by the people around her expecting her to be “everything” all at once which breaks Esther and pushes her into depressive state and even though there was incredible stigma around mental health in the 1950s she was able to rehabilitate with the help of Dr Nolan ( the first supportive minor female character we see) and is able to take back her life and go back into education. This also highlights Plath’s message about the importance of education within women in the 1950s as many women drop out of university to become a housewife instead of finishing their degree so Esther symbolises hope for the many women who lost their way in education due to a man telling them what to do.


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