How does the Interpretation of Misogyny affect the Dramatic Impact of "The Taming of the Shrew"?
How does the interpretation of misogyny affect the dramatic impact of the play?
Before any occurrences of misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew can be explored, it is essential to define the word. The dictionary definition of ‘misogyny’ is, “ingrained prejudice against women.” Some audiences’ interpretations of The Taming of the Shrew as a misogynistic work means their opinion of the play’s comedic value may be altered.
Although we may not have achieved gender equality, women in the Elizabethan Era had far fewer rights still, and were objectified and traded as was customary of the time. To Elizabethan society, women were viewed as either one of two polar opposite roles: a wife and mother, or a prostitute. This is especially ironic, considering the ruling monarch was female. This second class treatment is apparent in the Great Chain of Being, an ancient chart Elizabethans believed depicted the order of the universe. Women fell below men in this chain, exemplifying their position in Elizabethan society. It was not just unconventional for a woman to act above her station, but was seen rather more as a disruption of the balance of the universe- demonstrating how truly misogynistic Elizabethan society was.
It is evident that Shakespeare’s audiences would have interpreted the Taming of the Shrew differently to audiences of today, because they perceived women very differently. The Taming of the Shrew is of course regarded as a Shakespearian comedy- although modern audiences may not be amused by elements of the play. However, to some Elizabethan audiences, the play would perhaps be received as a humorous work with a satisfying resolution. Katherina’s submission at the end would be regarded as a happy ending, as Katherina finds her rightful place in society, and her earlier defiant actions would be seen as laughable- if not morally repugnant.
In contrast, some modern audiences interpret that from the very start of the play, in the Induction, there is apparent misogyny. For instance, when The Lord humiliates Christopher Sly, he orders his page Bartholomew to dress in women’s clothes and pretend to be Sly’s wife. As the induction is a reflection of later attitudes in the play, the persona the Lord dictates for Bartholomew to be a convincing ‘woman’ reflects further misogyny in both the play and Elizabethan society, particularly when the lord suggests Bartholomew should speak, “With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,” implying that wives should be meek towards their husbands. This repetition of the word “low” seems to reinforce the position of women below men in Elizabethan society.
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It is also interesting to note the comedic device of cross dressing in the Induction. All the characters in Elizabethan theatre were played by men, as it was seen as prostitution for a woman to appear on stage (additionally, this shows with greater clarity the misogyny in Elizabethan society). Despite the negative attitude one might expect from audiences, it was seen as completely customary in Elizabethan times, and they would not be confused by a man playing a serious female character as audiences of today may be. However, when Shakespeare explicitly intends a male character to be disguised as female, the cross-dresser becomes a caricature of a woman, which Elizabethan audiences would have found comedic and amusing. Although cross dressing may still be comedic to many modern audiences, who may be amused by the effeminate actions of the man, Elizabethan audiences would perhaps be more amused by the caricatured representation of femininity in Bartholomew.
Perhaps the most debated aspect of the play is the actions of Petruchio towards Katherina. In many ways, Petruchio’s overall aim and the main theme of the play, the ‘taming’ of Katherina, can be viewed itself as misogynistic by modern audiences, who would not consider women in need of taming by men. However, Petruchio’s singular actions and speech allow for an alternative interpretation by modern, feminist audiences– meaning they are less likely to consider The Taming of the Shrew a comedy.
For example, Petruchio makes a speech about Katherina in Act 3 Scene 2, describing Kate as, “[his] goods, [his] chattels”, stating that Kate is his possession to use as he pleases. This theory is supported in Act 4 Scene 1, when he and Kate are married, with Petruchio’s comment of, “Thus have I politicly begun my reign,” the word “thus” implying he has finally achieved his goal. This is a direct reference to his ‘ruling’ over Kate, and audiences today may interpret this as misogynistic because Katherina has no power whatsoever under Petruchio’s control.
Petruchio’s actions, in addition to his words, seem to suggest inherent misogyny. In Act 4 Scene 2, he deprives Kate of food, sleep and dignity, saying that “when [she] is gentle”, she may have these things restored. Modern audiences may view this as a form of domestic abuse, with Petruchio’s forceful efforts to remove Kate’s spirit to make her answer to him being interpreted as deeply disturbing and misogynistic- and therefore, not comedic. To Elizabethan audiences, however, Petruchio’s actions would perhaps be viewed only as a man striving for the greater good- a heroic character in a comedy.
The interpretation of misogyny by modern audiences is perhaps found most strongly in Kate’s final speech. This is especially controversial to some, as it shows the true extent to which Kate has been ‘tamed’. Despite her defiant previous actions, she now informs the other women that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” her attitude completely changed. The words “lord”, “life” and “keeper” are emphatic words conveying power to the men they describe, and in contrast remove women’s own identities. The use of the power of three also emphasises the importance of this authority.
The submission is further amplified when she says, “I am ashamed that women are so simple… When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.” The language choices Shakespeare uses here conveys this message further. For example, the word “bound” implies that this submission is the correct and proper thing for women to do- and also that they have no choice in the matter. Not only would modern feminist audiences be offended by this notion when they wish to be treated equally, but the contrast of this speech in comparison to Kate’s previous attitudes may suggest to modern audiences that Katherina has had to endure horrific treatment in order for her opinion to change so drastically. This suggestion of abuse may be seen by audiences of today as sinister and disturbing, rather than comedic.
However, alternative modern interpretations may see that instead of abusing Kate, Petruchio is liberating her. Nichola McAuliffe, an actor who has played Katherina on several occasions, suggests that Petruchio’s treatment of Kate has direct parallels with the treatment of falcons during training- the owner has to be cruel in order for training to be effective, so the falcon can fly and have freedom. McAuliffe says that during training, the master may endure similar emotional pain in mistreating the falcon - The suggestion here is that Petruchio feels anguish himself in starving Kate, but does so in order for her to later experience liberation. There are several explicit references to hawking in the Taming of the Shrew which support this interpretation, for instance in the Induction, when the Lord asks Sly, “Dost thou love hawking?”
Similarly, Lisa Dillon makes an insightful point about Katherina’s final speech-“Petruchio gives her the power of speech and language: he gives her freedom to speak. That is not a woman being crushed,” suggesting that Petruchio’s actions were for Kate’s liberation, albeit as much as was possible within the social boundaries of the time. Some audiences argue that because the only way to liberate a woman was inside a marriage, the play is not misogynistic. However, this does not necessarily make the play comedic either; but presents the Taming of the Shrew as an insightful work of theatre reflective of its era rather than a disturbing one.
However, some critics subscribe to a more comedic theory, seeing the misogyny in the play as irony. One such interpretation is a 1929 film, where after Katherina’s submissive speech, unbeknownst to Petruchio; she turns and winks at the audience. This suggests she has remained 'untamed', whilst implying she has outwitted the men of the play by leading them to believe her submission. To modern audiences, this perhaps presents a refreshing, comedic interpretation of the play.
There are also examples of irony in the text, particularly through role reversals. One instance is between Katherina and Bianca, who have seemingly swapped roles entirely by the end of the play. Kate is initially shrewish, independent and wilful, while Bianca is considered the archetypal perfect wife. Petruchio’s taming of Katherina is an effort to make her a conventionally perfect Elizabethan woman, and his success in Kate’s submission defines her new role- she is more obedient than Bianca, and in contrast, Bianca is no longer the perfect woman. For example, in Act 5 Scene 2, when the men at Bianca’s wedding feast compete over their wives' obedience, Katherina is the only wife who complies, whereas Bianca refuses to come, unless called by Kate- this is especially poignant as Bianca will only answer to another woman, not a man. This could be considered ironic, meaning that audiences who would be disturbed by the play are perhaps amused instead.
Shakespeare’s intentions in writing this play were unlikely to have been to offend women or to be misogynistic, but in fact to write a comedy that would be amusing and appealing to his audience. The misogyny audiences may interpret today is not there as a statement, but rather as a reflection of Shakespeare’s time.
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