Women and power in Shakespearean drama Taming of the Shrew
Kate’s difficult personality and behavior are not entirely due to the lack of love she receives. In fact, Kate’s problematic persona is caused by her self-absorption. For the first time in Kate’s life, when she is headed off with Petruchio, she sees others being verbally abused by someone other than herself, as Petruchio seemingly presents himself as an even worse shrew than herself. At this point in the play, we begin to see the transformation in Kate’s character. As Kate first witnesses the abuse Petruchio delivers onto his servants when they bring out the “burnt” meat, she begins to feel compassion and sorrow for the servants. Despite Petruchio’s utter rebuke of the meat, Kate insists that it is okay saying, “I pray you, husband, be not so disquiet”. In fact, due to his harsh words towards the cook, Kate tries to reason with him. On one hand, Kate is starved at this point and is saying anything to fill her stomach, but on the other hand, she does not refer to her own selfish need of hunger but instead defends the cook’s mistake. Again, when Petruchio belittles the tailor, Kate expresses the same emotion. This willingness to step outside of her own selfishness in order to defend someone reflects her ability to emphasize, something we had never seen of her character until this point.
As she continues to become less selfish and more aware of others, her ability to show love also grows. As Petruchio and Kate first arrive back at her father’s home, Petruchio motions for a kiss. When Kate refuses the first time, Petruchio asks, “What, art thou ashamed of me?” (5.2.137). She responds with, “No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss” (5.2.138). This signifies to the reader that Kate is not against kissing Petruchio, but rather it’s her feelings towards public displays of affection during this time period that keeps her from initially kissing Petruchio. Moreover, this resistance could also relate to Kate’s not knowing how to show or use affection due to the lack of love she previously felt from Bianca and especially her father. Kate’s response to the question of Kate’s embarrassment towards Petruchio is significant in its own right because it additionally expresses her sincerity towards Petruchio as a husband. She uses the expression “God forbid” which emphasizes her objection to the claim she feels ashamed of him. Throughout this scene and the progression of the play, the audience begins to see that Kate has truly fallen in love with Petruchio. In the next line, she again proves her love to him: she puts Petruchio over the shame of public affection when she kisses him, proving Kate’s willingness to make Petruchio happy. In fact, Kate’s willingness is more than just a desire to stay at her father’s house; her word choice proves this. She refers to Petruchio as “love” before she kisses him. Her use of affectionate language and her willingness to show their affection in public, something deemed extremely inappropriate at the time, signifies that she has fallen in love with Petruchio.
With her new understanding, Kate’s actions and words begin to change, but not her personality. While she may have stopped her temper tantrums and her nastiness towards others, she is still spirited. When Petruchio and Kate are on their walk to Kate’s father’s house, Petruchio tries to make the point that she should be in submission to him as he refers to the sun as the moon and the moon as the sun. Kate, confused at first, begins to recognize his quarrelsomeness as playfulness, and she reacts with a parallel intricate outburst of her own. She addresses his absurdity by saying, “But sun it is not when you say it is not, / And the moon changes even as you change your mind”. It’s important to note here that if she had been completely broken of spirit by his ‘taming,’ she would have simply agreed without hesitation, but instead, she made a show of his nonsensicalness. This interesting scene shows the playfulness between the two and the developed give and take in their relationship. If this is not evidence enough, you see her still playfully argumentative nature when she says, “And so it shall be still for Katherine. By not accepting the nickname Petruchio has given to her, she proves that she is still independent of him. She is capable of being a submissive wife, but still her own, feisty self as well. Her playfulness and feistiness are further shown as they approach Lucentio’s father. She does not say anything when Petruchio makes the ridiculous claim that the main is really a woman; instead, she plays along with Petruchio calling the man a, “young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet”.
The fact that she is so willing to play along with Petruchio’s crazy remarks proves she has not lost her spunk. Kate’s final speech at the end of the play is the ‘final test’ of Petruchio’s taming school. Just like the particular use of the word “love,” Kate’s word choices in the final speech of the play is the ultimate proof that she is truly in love with Petruchio and sincere in what she says to the two women. In her decisive speech, as she describes a husband to Bianca and the widow, she states, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, they keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee”. The first part of this important line reflects society’s views of marriage at the time of this play; however, the last part of this description shows Kate’s sincerity. The description, “one that cares for thee,” indicates her acknowledgment, despite Petruchio’s crazy antics, that he truly cares for her. We know this is not sarcastic because if she had meant it to be sarcastic, this admission of being cared for would have seemed out of place and misguided.
Furthermore, not only has her realization of her love for Petruchio flourished, her ability to empathize has continued to progress as well throughout the play. In the last scene, as she gives her speech to Bianca and the widow, this emergent compassion is once again revealed. During the speech, Kate begins to chide the behavior of Bianca and the widow towards their husbands by explaining their behavior through their husband’s eyes. Kate recognizes that her husband is working hard in order to care for her. This admission goes further than just recognition of a husband’s willingness to work hard and to provide for his wife because she also claims that her willingness to be submissive and loving is “too little payment for so great a debt”. This scene also serves a different purpose for Kate. For Kate, always being told Bianca is the more desirable sister, this scene is her moment to shine over her sister. It becomes apparent throughout the play, especially towards the end, that Bianca isn’t as submissive as previously believed. When Lucentio calls for Bianca, she refuses to come, but Kate comes immediately when her husband calls for her. Through Bianca’s refusal to come when called, Shakespeare suggests that this marriage will be hard on Lucentio. Bianca might turn out to be as stubborn in her role as a wife as she was mild in her role as a maid. Thus, in his last few lines, Petruchio observes, “We three are married, but you two are sped”. That is, the other two—Lucentio and Hortensio—seem destined for unhappiness in marriage, given the disobedient natures of their wives. Petruchio fought tooth and nail to finally win Kate, but he worked hard only because he wanted her to truly allow herself to accept, or choose, obedience in married life. Lucentio, deceived by Bianca’s meekness and flirtatious behavior when they were single, now finds that it is “harsh hearing when women are forward”.
Very few women, especially during Shakespeare’s time and even now, would be willing to risk humiliation for themselves or others unless they have a strong personality. Kate talks at length with a strong presence that captivates her audience, further proving that she is still the feisty woman she had been at the very beginning of the play, but, since then, she has transformed; she has new understanding. She now recognizes marriage as a partnership – a give and take. While in this society a woman is asked to be obedient, it is not without men serving women as well. This same spunk is reflected at other times in the same speech despite its strong patriarchal message. The fact that neither the women nor the men immediately argue back is a reflection of Kate’s continuing authoritative demeanor. She uses such piercing words in her speech such as “foul contending rebel” and “graceless traitor,” which again are not met with any challenge. In fact, she’s as full of strength now as she is in the beginning, if not more since she now understands the time and place to present this feisty side.
Throughout the play, Kate’s character has transformed from a callous shrew to an empathetic, playful, and submissive, yet fierce, wife. In the final act of the play, despite Kate’s apparent anti-feminist talk, Kate has not become a completely broken weak-willed woman. She still has the passion and energy she began with, but with a realization that her actions affect others. She also has learned how to love by being loved. Though she evolves in her ideas and actions, her personality is essentially the same as it is in the beginning with the addition of empathy and love. She is still willing and able to fight; however, she now does it with a tact and poise, which is no longer met with dispute. Though it is arguably Petruchio who helps her along the journey, if she hadn’t desired love from the beginning, her transformation would not have occurred as successfully.
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