How does Shakespeare present society's treatment of women in "The Taming of The Shrew"?

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Rachel Henderson

How does Shakespeare present society’s treatment of women in “The Taming of The Shrew”?

Throughout “The Taming of The Shrew” the audience is shown the manner in which women were treated in the 16th Century.  This is done through the female characters: Katherine, Bianca, Widow, Bartholomew: yet we must question Shakespeare’s intentions.  Was the play written in order to instruct inexperienced husbands as to how they could tame an unruly wife; which would display Shakespeare’s acceptance of the treatment of the women; or is he mocking the customs of the time by using theatrical comedy to warn men who wish to consider ‘taming’ a wife, as Petruchio does in the last scene?

        “Petruchio: … We three are married, but you two are sped. …”

                                                        (Act 5: Scene 2)

He is making the point that Katherine may have been tamed.  Yet both of the other men’s wives have shown themselves to be ‘shrews’.

I referred above to Katherine having supposedly being ‘tamed’, yet we have to question why she was deemed that unacceptable to make it necessary to ‘tame’ her.  At the time this play was written there were specific social norms, to which people had to conform, particularly in the way women were supposed to act.  Shakespeare displays these in the Induction scenes, through Bartholomew.

As part of the deceit, which is inflicted upon Christopher Sly in the Induction scenes, we are introduced to a page, Bartholomew, who is expected to act as a wife to the drunken tinker, whom the Lord has decided to ‘practise’ upon.  While he is being given instructions as to the way a lady should act, the audience is shown an informed description of the standard against which other women are measured.

        “Lord:  …He bear himself with honourable action

                Such as he hath observed in noble ladies

                Unto their lords, by them accomplishèd.”

                                                (Induction 1)

At this time women were considered inferior to men, and it was their place to obey their husband, their lord.  They were expected to be a ‘humble wife’ who carried out ‘her duty’ without arguments or complaints.  Bartholomew is also instructed to engage in ‘kind embracements’ and ‘tempting kisses’ in the hope that this might further convince Sly of his apparent role.

In the inner play we are first introduced to Katherine, the ‘shrew’, and the namesake of the title.  Katherine is shown to be a woman who is determined to belie the behaviour expected of her, and before we hear her speak, Shakespeare displays opinions made of her by those wishing to court her younger sister.

        “Baptista: …Leave shall you have to court her [Katherine] at your pleasure.

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        Gremio:  To cart her rather! She’s too rough for me…”


This is a severe insult towards Katherine as Gremio is referring towards her as a prostitute.  The phrase ‘cart her’ was one used when talking about transporting prostitutes (stales) to prison, in a cart. This displays the way in which the male characters of this play are fearful of her and avoid contact with her.  Shakespeare is showing how they respond towards Katherine even before we meet her. The realm of insults suffered by Katherine is continued.

        “Hortensio:  …                No ...

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