The Image of the Rebellious Wife in Elizabethan England in Shakespeare’s Play “The Taming of the Shrew”

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Many cultural and literary historians, along with feminists, without leaving any margins of doubts, have demonstrated that throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, rebellious and defiant women were always a concern for men in the Elizabethan society. Evidence of unease, anxiety and discomfort about unruly women or referred as the “the contest for the britches” by Linda Woodbridge, a specialist in English Renaissance literature, can be found at various discursive places and occasions such as popular plays, legal treatises, ballads, accounts and reports of domestic violence, conduct books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and lectures on appropriate impersonal behavior within and outside the family.

The readiness to bring into line rebellious women, sometimes even in a violent way, is often documented and recorded in the accounts of the legal and extralegal correlation of nags, scolds and shrews as well as homeless or vagrant women, bearers of illegitimate child, whores, scolds and witches. The public communal practice of disciplining rebellious women, both that was acted out and imagined differs from the disciplining that was private and domestic and something that was being argued in perspective literature. The very same culture that supported or “felt good” about burning witches, dunking scolds, and flogging whores was, during the Elizabethan period became increasingly sensitive and was very much concerned about husbands beating their wives.

The play “The Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592, basically is about the courtship of Katherina, the obdurate and willful shrew and her wooer Petruchio. Initially, Katherina is unwilling to marry Petruchio, however, through various psychological and mental torments like not letting her eat or drink until she becomes an acquiescent, obedient and a desirable wife, thus, successfully “tames” her.

The play “The taming of the shrew” is inspired by many ballads, folksongs and folktales about shrewish wives being tamed by their husbands to be obedient, which were very popular in England at that time. Shakespeare created a troubling and problematic comedy that shed light on issues of gender which existed in the Elizabethan society. The practice of “taming” disobedient wives was common in England during the Elizabethan era, and it was combined with the popular image of a shrewish wife in a patriarchal literary tradition.

Though there is very little evidence to judge whether men in Elizabethan society actually became domestically less violent, there is no doubt that perspective literature ceased to permit the specific violence of wife-beating.

The strength of public discourse and discussion on wife-beating typify a culture at work reconstructing permissible and impermissible methods for men in the family, mainly husbands, to keep control of the politics in a household without questioning the goal. This new boundary was basically constructed on ideas of civil behavior and social division and class.

Shakespeare’s play “The taming of the shrew” works as a comedic roadmap aimed at rearranging and putting together these rising modes and means of “skillful”, “legitimized supremacy” and “civilized dominance” for “gentlemen”, that is to subordinate a woman, basically wives, without using a common man’s brute force. Despite the fact that the play puts Petruchio on the non-violent and gentle side of the new construction of permissible methods to subordinate a wife, a closer look at the play depicts that Petruchio’s civilized dominance was nonetheless, a portrayal of domestic violence.

Instead of brushing off Petruchio’s tactics and strategies as a mutual game being played between two equal players or as farcical, it is important to take Petruchio’s “civilized” strategies very seriously. Digging in the cultural assumptions and beliefs regarding domestic violence, past and current, makes the comedy of the taming of the shrew less funny and more problematic.

It can be argued that the play indicates a shift toward an improved and modern method of carrying out the subordination of disobedient or “shrewish” wives by legitimizing dominance and abuse provided that it is not physical. I argue that the assumptions made by many critics of this play who praised Shakespeare’s modifications of the sources of shrew-taming without taking into account the politics of dominance, obedience and discipline in the play.

Applauding Petruchio’s behavior for being non-violent and non-physical as “better” despite the fact that it was no less abusive, correlates the “reconstructing” distinction that can been seen being made in many sermons and early modern documents and books. Just because Petruchio’s doesn’t use physical strength to abuse Katherine, or hits her, or whip or flog her, or wraps the salted skin of his horse around her, as such practices were very common during those times to make unruly wives obedient and compliant including forcing a disobedient wife or the” shrew” to wear a “scold’s bridle” and the metal pronged attached to the bridle, when inserted into the mouth would depress the woman’s tongue and make it impossible for the woman to talk, doesn’t necessarily mean Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine in the play The taming of the shrew was any better or less abusive than if he had.

In the play, the characterization of Katherine as the shrew who needs to be tamed reflects the image of the rebellious wife in Elizabethan England who likewise made it necessary forms of subordination and social taming, apparent through practices that caused her embarrassment and humiliation in front of everyone. Katherine’s characteristics in the play, especially her blunt and outspoken nature and rejection of male dominance- are basically farcical representations of the unruly and rebellious woman, which the liberal audience of this play would have recognized while the play was being performed. Lynda E. Boose, author of Shakespeare The Movies describes a “Scold” in her essay, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member”, as “as “any woman who verbally resisted or flouted authority publicly and stubbornly enough to challenge the underlying dictum of male rule”. References to Katherine’s shrewish nature can be found throughout the play; Before she makes an appearance in front of Petruchio, Hortensio describes her as “Renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue”(Act 1 Scene 2) giving the impression to Petruchio and the audience of the play that her uncensored opinions and sharp language as problematic. He then goes on and gives her the title of “Katherine the curst”, identifying Katherine as an obstacle for him to marry Bianca and also indicating towards her rebellious nature, which helps connect the dots to early modern times in England when shrewd and rebellious women were associated with Witches. Petruchio is alluded to Katherine’s non-compliant and proud minded personality, depicting Kate’s defiance and stubbornness as that of the unruly women, while her father Baptista asks Petruchio to be prepared to be met with “some unhappy words” when he says in Act 2 Scene 1 “But be thou arm’d for some unhappy words’’, which again depicts Katherine’s troublesome nature as a result of her being a scold and her mouth as a source of her scolding.

As a consequence of her being a scold and having a shrewd character, she compels Petruchio to use a variety of methods intended to mold her into an obedient and compliant wife. However, even though in Act 2 Scene 1, Katherine hits Petruchio, throughout the play, not even once does Petruchio use any physical violence against her, albeit he threatens in Act 2 Scene 1 and says “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again”. Since the viewpoints began to change in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, petruchio’s non-violent and non-aggressive reaction as well as Katherine’s response “If you strike me, you are no gentleman” to his threat aligns with the changing beliefs and viewpoints of that era.

In the early modern England, domestic abuse was not considered a crime, and it was practiced because a husband was basically “entitled” to use violence to carry out his patriarchal power and violence was considered in terms of what historian Philippa Maddern called a “moral hierarchy of violence”, where the head of the family had the moral and ethical authority to employ violence school or discipline those lower than them in the hierarchy, though it was believed that the husband’s power couldn’t be excessive. Besides this, a couple of texts from Elizabethan time period suggest the husbands’ necessary extension of power and authority over the family, and reforms made by religious groups such as Protestants and Puritan preachers during the Elizabethan period were based on the belief that that it is not ideal for a husband to use violence to subordinate his wife. And that’s why other forms of subordinating and “disciplining” a disobedient wife without using physical violence were discovered and they were very much popularized during that time, the purpose of which was not to end atrocities against women or improve their situation, but it was rather used to enhance a husband’s ability to subordinate the wife. This shows that the reign of Queen Elizabeth was nothing but simply an exception to the usual life. Sources show that wives were not to be treated as slaves and their purpose was to help their husbands by serving them as per their directions and husbands were considered to be in charge and have all the power and authority. Thus, the shifts in the ways domestic violence was carried out emphasized progress and developments to male power and control, rather than any improvements in the rights and conditions the women were living in.

Consequently, in the play The taming of the shrew, the ways and methods Petruchio uses to tame Katherine, indicates the new, civilized way of “disciplining” a disobedient or rebellious wife and exercising control over her. In the play, at their wedding, Petruchio arrives late, and that too very awkwardly dressed in very clumsy attire, this subtle act of Petruchio humiliates Katherine on the day of their wedding and Katherine’s role as a bride. Because of Petruchio being absent from the wedding and her being temporarily left in Church at the altar, she faces so much public shame which she describes in these words in the play “No shame but mine………..Now must the world point at poor Katherine,

And say ‘Lo, there is mad Petruchio’s wife,

If it would please him come and marry her!

Petruchio’s clumsy attire and his behavior at the wedding is just one of many kinds of disguise we come across in the play. To dress like this, that he normally doesn’t, was all part of one of his strategies with the aim of “taming” Katherine by acting like an extremely domineering person and being so erratic. By arriving late at the wedding ceremony and the way he was dressed, he proves his abilities to bring public shame and humiliation to his bride and her family. Petruchio’s extremely awkward getup proves that Katherine has absolutely no control or power over what he decides to wear to how he chooses to behave. By looking at this, what we can deduce is the public shame and humiliation that Katherine goes through by temporarily getting abandoned at the altar in church connects the dots the practice of making disobedient wives or shrews wear scold bridle because Petruchio’s strategy to bring shame and humiliation to Katherine is similar to the shame that was experienced by many women in England who were considered aberrant and were prevented from speaking by being forced to wear bridles or those who were hauled through the streets and ridiculed, a practice which was related to another method of punishing disobedient wives which involved the use of a dunking stool or cucking, used for the same purpose of causing humiliation and embarrassment. Hence, the disobedient and shrewish wife becomes a focus of public attention and is embarrassed by the husband as a lesson to be taught and that too on purpose. The wedding is further made into an embarrassing and shaming act through the first kiss. Petruchio takes Katherine by her neck and kisses her with a smack, something which is very disgraceful and related to the feeling of shame and embarrassment, as Gremio describes what he sees at the marriage ceremony in these words,

“This done, he took the bride about the neck

And kissed her lips with such a clamorous smack

That at the parting all the church did echo.

And I, seeing this, came thence for very shame,

And after me, I know, the rout is coming.

Such a mad marriage never was before”

As soon as they get married, the supposedly shrewish Katherine is presented with a set of trials and punishments that were aimed at frustrating and thoroughly confusing her and as a result, he compels her to contemplate and re-examine her identity, her expectations from herself and people around her.

At one point in the play, Petruchio makes Katherine Stoop without using any being violent or using physical force but by alluring her just as someone would train a falcon and begins his journey of taming Kaherine in these words

Thus have I politicly begun my reign,

And ’tis my hope to end successfully.

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,

And, till she stoops, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Another way I have to man my haggard,

To make her come and know her keeper’s call.

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