In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the meaning of domestic violence consisted in women’s control and re-education. In the play The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare discusses the topic of gender inequality paying great attention to the female obedience. Through Kate’s character, the author conveys the historical realities of his time. To be precise, taming the scold woman by shaming her in public was a very popular practice within that particular period. Furthermore, along with the historical women suppression within marriage by males, the comedic nature of the literary work undercuts the seriousness of the women’s abuse justifying treatment of them as commodities. While the early Shakespeare’s audience was familiar with domestic violence and verbal abuse towards women, the play shows that the societal standard for women in marriage has been designed by men in the male-dominated society. Although many centuries have passed since The Taming of the Shrew has been written and staged, the theme of women oppression remains topical till present days. Therefore, Shakespeare’s play is a farcical portrayal of the male dominance and oppressive attitude towards women within a marriage.
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Male Suppression of Women
The topic of women suppression by men can be observed through the whole play. A specific example of it is Petruchio’s attempts to re-educate Katherine. In this respect, Shakespeare’s female character is constantly referred to as a wild animal that her husband tries to domesticate. Both Petruchio and the other men consider their duty to tame their wives and make them obedient and agreeable spouses. Furthermore, after the marriage, Petruchio attitude towards his wife becomes stricter. Indeed, the man speaks about training Kate like a falcon comparing her to a bird that can be taught everything the master desires. When Petruchio succeeds in taming his wife and suppressing her rights and wishes, Hortensio starts to conceive the character’s house as a place where other husbands can learn to make their women obedient. Thus in early Shakespeare’s period, men possessed dominance and authority over women.
In fact, suppression of women was displayed through different ways in the play. For example, Petruchio’s intentional late arrival to the wedding was a means to humiliate his bride and make her a victim of social mockery. Hence the woman is ashamed experiencing that “the world [points] at poor Katherine” (Shakespeare 2.1.18). The public embarrassment that the female faces can be compared to humiliation the other women experienced being forced to wear bridles to prevent them from talking (Boose 189). Moreover, there were cases when women were transported through the street to be mocked and ashamed by the public (Boose 190). Consequently, proud and disobedient wives became the object of mass attention. Husbands purposely humiliated their wives to teach them to be agreeable and modest women. Thus Shakespeare’s Petruchio and his methods personify the general practice and tradition of that time.
Women as Commodities
In his play, Shakespeare emphasizes that the woman is a commodity, and only the husband is in charge of her life. A total denial of Kate’s identity proceeds when she is openly traded between her father and the future husband. Although Kate does not want to get married, her screaming and refusal in response to the marriage vows is interrupted by Petruchio’s shaming kiss. The man “[grabs] the bride about the neck/ And [kisses] her lips with … a clamorous smack” (Shakespeare 2.1.36). The poor woman searches for her father begging for help, but her voice and wishes are denied, and the transaction between Baptista and Petruchio is completed. The father sold his daughter to Petruchio for golden coins as an inanimate property. In the patriarchal society, Kate was simply an object that circulated from one man to another. In this respect, the wedding scene is a perfect example of Kate’s treatment by Baptista and Petruchio as a commodity.
After the marriage, Petruchio declares that his wife is his property, and thus he can do with her whatever he wants. The woman’s personal voice is denied, and she is treated by Petruchio like nothing more than a commodity. Indeed, living at the husband’s house, Kate is totally ignored. She is neither treated as a human being nor given a chance to make her voice heard. Furthermore, Petruchio’s treatment of his wife as a commodity becomes evident through his words: “And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate/ Comfortable as other house-hold Kates” (Shakespeare 2.1.271). According to Natasha Korda, “Petruchio likens Kate’s planned domestication to a domestication of the emergent commodity from itself, whose name parallels the naming of the shrew” (109). The scholar points out that the character’s name is consonant with the word ‘cates’ which means commodities a person can exchange and receive money for (Korda 109). Thus in the early Shakespeare time, women were considered as the objects in the hands of their husbands who treated them as they wished.
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The Societal Standard for Women in Marriage
During the early Shakespeare’s period, women were regarded naturally as interior to the men. While husband’s duty was to take care of the household, wife was expected to support him by serving and obeying his directions. Moreover, the portrayal of agreeable and modest wife listening to her husband was widely popularized in the early modern England (Korda 111). Hence disorderly wives were tamed by their husbands who were considered to behave according to the social norms of that time. In the play, Petruchio claims that his wife is “my good, my chattels, she is my house,/ My household stuff, my field, my barn,/ My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” (Shakespeare 3.2.230–32). Referring to Kate in such way, the man deliberately positions her as a voiceless servant expected to please her husband. The particular societal standard for women within marriage was a common thing for the early Shakespeare’s audience.
At the same time, women possessed inanimate household positions within marriage. Husbands desired to have voiceless and obedient wives who would agree with everything they said. In the final scene, Petruchio proves the audience that he has tamed Katherine, and now she is the most obedient wife. Challenging the other husbands, Petruchio offers to stage a contest in order to see whose wife will obey first. Surprisingly, Kate approaches immediately bringing Petruchio victory, and thus proving him to be the most masterful husband in taming his wife. Therefore, public adores Kate’s transformation because now she fits the societal standards for the ideal wife. In her final speech, she is the woman who claims Petruchio to be ‘lord’, ‘king’, ‘governor’ and ‘sovereign’: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/ Even such a woman oweth to her husband” (Shakespeare 5.2.155-56). In this respect, Kate eventually becomes a wife the society of the early modern England expects her to be – modest, obedient, and agreeable.
Violence and Verbal Abuse Towards Women
Throughout Shakespeare’s play, there is numerous evidence of Kate’s scolding nature. In her article “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member”, Lynda Boose defines the word “scold” as “any woman who verbally resisted or flouted authority publicly and stubbornly enough to challenge the underlying dictum of male rule” (190). In this respect, before the reader encounters Kate, Hostensio underlines her “scolding tongue” and habit to freely express her thoughts (Shakespeare 1.2.99). When Petruchio appears, Hortensio praises his intent to mold the woman into a quiet and obedient wife. At the same time, when Kate hits her husband in the play, the latter applies verbal violence against her threatening the woman that he will “cuff [her]” if she “[strikes] again” (Shakespeare 2.1.222). Hence Petruchio’s claims show that the early Shakespeare’s community has not considered domestic abuse as a criminal attack. Additionally, husband’s violence and verbal abuse were believed to be a part of his power in subordinating his wife.
Moreover, man’s rightful expansion of violence within the marriage enhanced his authority and dominance. According to Emily Detmer, besides the physical and verbal violence, there were other forms of managing and suppressing women at that time (274). The purpose of those specific methods was not improvement of the woman’s situation within the marriage, but increase of “man’s ability to subordinate” (Detmer 279). Although Petruchio does not possess any evident examples of physical violence, he abuses his wife mentally forcing her to obey his power. For instance, he humiliates her with his clumsy clothing at their wedding ceremony as well as with his late arrival to this special occasion. Moreover, Petruchio forces his wife to leave the wedding early in order to go to the “taming-school” (Shakespeare 4.2.55), where the man physically insults servants in front of his new wife. At the same time, the character hungers Kate and applies different tricks to prevent her sleep. Persuading his wife to agree with him in everything, Petruchio claims that he does it “under the name of perfect love” (Shakespeare 4.3.12). Thus through mental violence and verbal abuse, Kate’s husband breaks her spirit.
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Gender Inequality in Modern Time
Portraying the comic example of family life, Shakespeare’s play expresses the realities of that time. To be precise, in the early modern England, women were expected to be obedient and voiceless objects submitting their husbands’ will. Moreover, wives were treated as commodities of men who could do everything they wanted with their property. Those who did not meet the societal standard for women within a marriage underwent public embarrassment and humiliation in order to be re-educated. Although Petruchio does not commit any evident physical assaults, his methods are quite violent. According to Detmer, “the play signals a shift toward a ‘modern’ way of managing the subordination of wives by legitimizing domination as long as it is not physical” (274).
In modern time, women also face gender inequality in different spheres. Although contemporary women have a right of voice, occupy leading positions, and engage in political life of the country, there are still cases of domestic and workplace violence against them. Moreover, stereotypical view of women as housewives remains topical till present time. Carrying supervisory posts, women possess less authority compared to the males. In addition, they are expected to take care of children while their husbands are viewed as the main breadwinners.
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The Taming of the Shrew conveys an important message concerning the topic of violence and female suppression within a marriage. Shakespeare offers a farcical portrayal of marital life as well as of husband’s taming his wife in early modern England. Through the main female character, Kate, the author shows how sorrowful the societal standards for a married woman were. Nevertheless, violence and verbal abuse together with treatment of women as commodities were regarded as common practices of that time to re-educate disobedient wives. Moreover, women suppression by men was not considered as a crime against females during early Shakespeare’s period. On the contrary, women’s desires and rights were widely ignored by society. Although nowadays the issue of gender inequality is not as critical as it was in Shakespeare’s time, there are still cases of prejudicial and violent treatment of women.