Defining the Shrew

by Brianna Lundgren
a Fellow Shakespeare Enthusiast

The concerns of married life, not just the courtship and becoming married, were in the minds of many during the Renaissance Period in England, partly due to Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic church because he could not get an annulment from Catherine, his wife, to marry Anne Boleyn, his current infatuation. It was a perfect issue for young William Shakespeare to explore in one of his early romantic plays.   Most of his other romantic plays dealt with emotional love and the institutions of parental involvement in the choice of a mate. Most of his plays ended once the couple was married, for better or worse. The fact that most marriages were arranged for economic reasons, not love, was brought out but was particularly accentuated in this play. Another major issue within marriage at the time was what to do with an uncooperative wife or one who refused to be submissive to the husband. A man’s role in marriage was to protect and provide security for the wife and to assure peace was kept within the home, particularly between the spouses. Within the hierarchy of marriage, the man was dominant and his word was the final rule. The wife’s role was to submit to the husbands wishes and demands, to faithfully obey the husband, and to be loyal. She also was expected to make him comfortable within his home and assure peace prevailed.

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As with other controversies during the Renaissance, the role of women, their legal and moral rights, their behavior and actions were much debated. The Taming of the Shrew , besides illustrating marriage for economic reasons, focuses mainly on only one of the issues pertaining strictly to women, their behavior as wives. Being a shrew or a scolding wife was deeply frowned upon and lessened the husband in the eyes of society, as he was expected to be able to control his wife and be the ultimate authority figure. Therefore, most men avoided marrying shrews, no matter how wealthy or attractive the woman might be. If he was unfortunate enough to have married a shrew, as Petruchio did in this play, he is expected to tame her or lose part of his manliness. Petruchio made it very clear to Katherine and the audience that he was marrying her for economic reasons, although he also found her attractive, and that he had no doubt he was man enough for the job of shrew tamer. Shakespeare portrays Katherine in the beginning of the play as a well-known shrew, harsh, bold, loud, opinionated, therefore not a candidate for marriage. She also was sometimes viewed by the audience as an unhappy woman, possibly secretly hoping someone will help her to fit more within society’s mores.

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Shakespeare does not conform to widely accepted methods of taming an unfit wife though. Although he does bring the play to a conclusion that is acceptable to his audience, the husband is triumphant and the wife vocally and in length describes how happy she is to be tamed, the taming itself is done unconventionally. Many of the discussions, essays and ballads of the time promote beating and/or publicly humiliating the wife into submission. Women in general were subjected to domestic violence at the time, and forcible correction was certainly accepted in the case of a wife seen to be wild or uncontrollable. Divorce was still relatively uncommon and people were expected to stay married. Men were expected to take whatever measures necessary to maintain control of their wives. In one ballad, A Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior, the husband beat the wife then wrapped her tightly in the hide of a dead horse. Needless to say she then became an acceptable, meek wife. Shakepeare suggested elevating the wife, making her feel that she is strongly valued as a person by the husband, even though he does retain control. This is a fairly new concept for the period and considered a sophisticated idea today from a playwright that was still in his early stage of. Petruchio, it was clear in the play, was not a man that would have enjoyed being married to a meek woman. He wanted someone to match his fiery personality and foresaw a great union with Katherine, once she was tamed, he saw her as contributing to his thoughts, not just agreeing to them. Katherine, in turn, accepted the social mores of the day and admitted this was what a marriage should look like and she was finally happy. Hopefully, the audience went home with at least a kernal of an idea about better ways to resolve one major marriage problem of the time. And, maybe they discovered that it worked on even more issues; shared decisions could be enjoyable and not threatening.

Word Count: 800

Sources:

Brooks, Charles. “Shakespeare’s Romantic Shrews.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1960): 351-56.

Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “Crossing Boundaries in Shakespeare.” http://www.academia.edu/1410858/Crossing_Boundaries_in_Shakespeare

Merry Jest of a Shrewd and Curst Wife Lapped in Morel’s Skin, for Her Good Behavior, a popular and fairly lengthy ballad composed around 1550

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