Sexuality and gender relations in Shakespeare's England - Analysis of the play Taming of the Shrew

Seminar Paper, 1999

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)

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Sexuality and Gender Relations in Shakespeare´s Days

Sexuality and Gender Relations in The Taming of the Shrew
The Induction of The Taming of the Shrew
The Women in The Taming of the Shrew
The Men in The Taming of the Shrew
Marriage in The Taming of the Shrew
Sexuality in The Taming of the Shrew



This work deals with sex and sexuality in Shakespeare´s England. Shakespeare´s England is on the one hand to be understood as the society as it were at the time when Shakespeare lived. It could be therefore also called sixteenth-century, Elizabethan or Renaissance England. On the other hand it is to be understood as the „world“, Shakespeare created and described in his plays.

I compare the actual understanding of sexuality and its associated areas that was dominant at that time to the understanding that is discernible in Shakespeare´s plays.

In the first part, I give an overview of the meaning and reputation of sexuality in Sixteenth-Century England. I go into the role of marriage in general and the role of the married women and men in particular. Furthermore, I mention adultery and its consequences. The last chapter of the first part deals with homosexuality.

In the second part, I examine one of Shakespeare´s plays. A play offers insight into a created society with its own power structures, gender relations and social interactions. These structures must be influenced by those, existing in real life. In a play they can be either adopted, ironically criticised or portrayed in a completely different way but all depictions have to be comprehended within an actual social context. I chose The Taming of the Shrew[1]. because its content perfectly corresponds with my aim[2]. Out of the play, I try to filter the pictures, Shakespeare draws of the role allocation of men and women in general and within marriage. Besides, I pay special attention to hints, Shakespeare gives through his figures on sexuality. Through this I try to find out in how far the actual views are confirmed or rejected in Shakespeare´s play.

Sexuality and Gender Relations in Shakespeare´s Days

By choosing to write about sexuality in Shakespeare´s England I chose to write about a period of time in which attitudes towards sexuality were significantly changing. It was „a time when sex as a moral preoccupation was changing into sex as a subject for self-reflection and intellectual discourse“ (Bruce R. Smith, 1991, p.10). Sex was no longer only an abstract „something“, one ought not to speak about or think about too much. On the contrary, by rising discourses about it, Sexuality gained new value as a topic of not only private but public concern.

Mary Beth Rose identifies two modes in which eros and marriage were conceptualised:

„A dualistic sensibility, in which sexual love is idealized beyond physical existence on the one hand or derided as lust on the other, and which views marriage as a necessary evil; and a more realistic, multifaceted sensibility, which, while retaining much of the skepticism about erotic love contained in the first view, nevertheless begins to conceive of affectionate marriage with great respect as the basis of an ordered society.“ (Mary Beth Rose, 1988, p.13)

Furthermore, she states, „that in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, the second sensibility was gaining ground over the first.“ (Mary Beth Rose, 1988, p.13).

The understanding of sexuality was different to our´s and it would be misleading to transfer our twentieth century point of view to the past. Sixteenth-century sexuality existed and is to be understood within a certain sixteenth-century context. Therefore, it is important to grasp that „sixteenth-century structures of power and sixteenth-century structures of knowledge shaped sixteenth-century images of sexual desire“ (Bruce R. Smith, 1991, p.6).

By looking at sexuality in Renaissance England one has to use two different points of view. On the one hand there is sexuality as defined by theologists: They understood sexuality merely as a means for procreation, only to be performed within marriage. This understanding was closely connected with ron. It is very clear that he wants to fulfil his marital duties. It may not sound romantic but it does not sound as if the topic was tainted with a taboo, either. Although the page/ „his wife“ finds an excuse for not sleeping with him, Sly cannot stop himself from commenting his state. His remark „Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long“ (scene II, line 126; my italics) shows clearly that he is sexually aroused, for „it stands“ unmistakably refers to an erect penis. The conversation between Sly anhaviour. Lawrence Stone says: „There is some evidence to suggest that throughout the Early Modern period, English attitudes to sensuality were more free than they were in most areas of Europe.“ (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p. 519). He refers to an extremely high number of persons who were provably accused of sexual offences and to a very high level of extra-marital sex.

In the upper-class society, extra-marital sex often took place within one´s own house: „Very many cases of fornication were between maidservants and either fellow-servants (...) or their masters. (...) Some masters were quite frank about the services they expected, like the man who offered a girl 40s to serve him by day and 40s to lay with him on nights.“ (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p.519).

All this, he points out, „suggests a society which was (.) sexually very lax“ (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p. 519). Evidently, English people lived on double standards: In theory they knew how they were expected to act and would not hesitate to institute legal proceedings against persons who did not behave accordingly. It was not unlikely, however, that the persons who accused others of sexual offences or having extra-marital sex, could see themselves confronted with accusations for the very same reasons. I assume, that a very high percentage of people lived out their sexuality if not regardless of the theological doctrines but by trying to cut them out. They probably made more of an effort in trying to not getting caught than in restraining themselves.


By writing about sexuality in Shakespeare´s Days I have to write about marriage as well. In those days, dominated by religious thinking, marriage was the one and only „institution“ in which sexuality officially should take place.

At the time when Shakespeare lived, significant changes of the meaning of marriage had taken place. Before, in „the upper classes, marriages revolved around questions of property and (in) royalty, around international relations as well.“ (ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, 1991, p.ix). That means, marriages were arranged for rather monetary than emotional reasons. However, „the Protestant Reformation encouraged a new perspective on marriage as more than a property transaction, as a relationship demanding both mutual respect and companionship.“ (ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, 1991, p.ix). That lead so far that by the time around 1590, it was common place to express „distaste for arranged marriages that did not take into account the preferences of the marriage partners“ (ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, 1991, p.ix) in literary works.

The reading of several extracts of Marital Conduct Books (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, pp.79ff)[3], which then were available to the public, leaves no doubt about the role allocation within marriage: The husband is the head; he is his wife´s teacher and comforter. The wife is the heart; she is her husband´s yoke-fellow, helper and comforter, too. Besides, she has to be a good housewife. The husband had to „provide for his wife and her housekeeping, according to his ability“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, p.97)[4]. In return she had to be obedient, submissive and silent; and she had to accept that she was subject to him. It was not required but demanded that the wife „observe(d) the servants lesson, not answering again (...) and hold her peace to keep the peace“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, p.83)[5]. Obviously, the balance of power within marriage was one-sidedly structured to the disadvantage of the woman. The Renaissance world is to be understood as a man´s world, and in this, women were, in mental as well as in physical respect, not thought fit enough to live on their own capability.

That leads to the conclusion, that a woman could be a complete member of society solely by becoming a husband´s wife, one who would guide her and to whom she could look up and submit to. These assumption is confirmed in a comment made by Carol Thomas Neely:

„By theology then, and by law as well, women are defined and contained through their place in the marriage paradigm - as maids, wives, or widows. These roles are in turn defined by the mode of sexuality appropriate to them: virginity for maids, marital chastity for wives and abstinence for widows.“ (ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, 1991, p.5)[6]

This quotation makes very clear that „female sexuality is necessary for men to satisfy their desires and to fulfill their gender role requirements appropriately - to marry, procreate, and pass on money and property to their children.“ (ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, 1991, p.4, my italics)[7].

The man, therefore, needed the woman in so far as legal marriage (as a union bound by God) represented the only institution in which procreation should take place. For procreation is, of course, closely related to sexuality, marriage functioned „as a means of controlling human sexuality“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, p.103).

It has to be added, that in Puritanism, women were looked at not from a completely but slightly different angle than discussed earlier in this chapter:

„While insisting on the obedience and subordination of women, the Puritans simultaniously stressed woman´s importance, both as a companion to her husband and as supervisor of the new exalted household. Furthermore, the fact that Puritan doctrine give woman´s soul full equality to man´s in the sight of God grants woman an undeniable dignity.“ (Mary Beth Rose, 1988, p.31, my italics)

Women and men were acknowledged to be of equal sexual activity. This sexual activity and the sexual pleasure that accompanies it, however, were eminent only for the already mentioned procreation.

The following quotation proves this statement: The Puritan „perception that sex in the context of marriage - when practiced with moderation, of course, and as a solemn religious duty - is a holy and undefiled action does grant consummated erotic love a distinct prestige.“ (Mary Beth Rose, 1988, p.31, my italics). The fact, that sexuality should be practiced „as a solemn religious duty“ explicitly denys sexual pleasure.

„The link between sexual pleasure, conception and legal marriage is maintained through the dominant ideological modes and laws of the time“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, p.104).


To make clear what adultery meant to the religious people of Renaissance England I sum up the content of an official sermon on this topic. The preachers were required to read those official sermons in the church so we can assume that most people knew them.

Adultery was looked at as one vice next to others such as whoredom, fornication and uncleanness. The sermon criticised that „this vice is grown unto such an height that in a manner among many it is counted no sin at all, but rather a pastime (...) not punished, but laughed at. Wherefore it is necessary at this present to entreat of the sin of whoredom and fornication, declaring unto the greatness of this sin, and how odious, hateful and abominable it is (...) before God and all good men“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, pp.20-1)[8]. This quotation leads to the assumption that adultery was rather the rule but the exception. Before God it made no difference who committed the sin of adultery. In a real life situation, however, there was a sharp distinction between women and men: Women were more likely to be accused of committing a crime by betraying their husbands or behaving whorishly, so was whoredom for example the one and only reason that could lead to a divorce. In contrast, the same behaviour of a man was, if not accepted but tolerated.

Often it was not adultery itself that was punished, but its consequences. Above all, for less moral than monetary reasons because „the production of a bastard child was likely to drain on the financial recources of a parish and was, therefore, treated with exceptional severity“ (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p.520). The common punishment of parents of an illegitimative child was public exposure: „Both mother and father were often stripped naked to the waist and whipped though the streets at a cart´s tail.“ (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p.520).

It is one of the ten commandments of God that thou shalt not commit adultery and in the sermon´s sense, adultery is not just „the unlawful commixture or joining together of a married man with any woman beside his wife, or of a wife with any man beside her husband, yet thereby is signified also all unlawful use of those parts which be ordained for generation“ (ed. Kate Aughterson, 1995, p.21). Thus, it was not only forbidden to betray one´s wife or husband but to take part in any sexual activities not destined to produce offspring. It must therefore include homosexual acts and masturbation, too.


Before I start to outline the role that homosexuality played in Renaissance England I may put in front the following: It is important to understand that there was no separation of heterosexuality and homosexuality at that time. „No one in England during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries would have thought of himself as „gay“ or „homosexual“ for the simple reason that those categories of self-definition did not exist“ (Bruce R. Smith, 1991, p.11). That there was no „official term“ for the preference of one´s own sex does not mean, it did not exist. It did, of course, exist. There were women who loved women and there were men who loved men. In my short explanation, I concentrate on male homosexuality for the very reason that „documents on female homosexuality are virtually non-existent“ (Bruce R. Smith, 1991, p.27).

In early modern England, homosexual behaviour was strictly prohibited by law on one hand, so carried anal intercourse for instance the death penalty (Lawrence Stone, 1979, p.520). On the other hand, it was approved to depict homoerotic desire in the visual arts and literature. Or, as Smith put it, it was „a culture that could consume popular prints of Apollo embracing Hyacinth and yet could order hanging for men who acted on the very feelings that inspire that embrace“ (Bruce R. Smith, 1991, p.14).

Here again, a double moral standard, not unlikely the one I discussed in the chapter on Sexuality, is discernible: The same people who took pleasure in watching a play or a painting with more or less obvious allusions to homoerotic behaviour would probably most willingly take people to court who showed the same behaviour in everyday life.

Sexuality and Gender Relations in The Taming of the Shrew

After describing the attitudes towards sexuality and its associated areas that were typical of Renaissance England, I try to depict in how far they are reflected in contemporary drama. To achieve this, I closely examine William Shakespeare´s The Taming of the Shrew[9], first published in 1623.

The comedy could also be headlined with „How to make an unruly woman a perfect wife“. Even this very rough description makes clear that it must contain information about what were considered an unruly woman, i.e. a shrew and what were considered a perfect wife. Within the text of The Taming of the Shrew one can find numerous remarks concerning sexuality. In addition, it is quite conceivable that the content of the words was even enhanced by appropriate gestures of the actors. Apart from this, the play offers views about the role of the married and the unmarried woman, about the role of the married and unmarried man, and about marriage and marriage arrangements.

In my work, I expound and interpret the views that are mentioned in the play and compare them to the actual views of that time. Beforehand, I may point out that the play is only one piece of the huge work of William Shakespeare and its views reflect his personal and subjective opinions.

The Induction of The Taming of the Shrew

I dedicate a separate chapter to the induction because to me it is to be seen as separate from the play itself. The text of the induction, however, gives important information concerning the role of the woman and the man within marriage, as it should be. I assume, these depictions function to a certain extent as a basis for the following play.

This hypothesis needs further explanation: I understand the woman as represented by the page as the personification of an archetype of an ideal or perfect wife. This ideal is probably not often to be met in reality. Nevertheless, it is the archetype of an ideal wife, Petruchio wants to make of Katherine by taming her and it is the perfect wife, all three suitors to Bianca (falsely) see in Bianca. Therefore, the page´s impersonation of a wife in the induction serves as a basis for the understanding of a wife within the play.

Next to my interpretation of the connection between induction and play exist, of course, other interpretations: Goddard, for instance, sees an analogy between Christopher Sly, who is persuaded to be a great lord and Petruchio, who „is likewise persuaded that he is a great lord - over his wife.“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.2). In contrast, Garber points out, it „has been frequently suggested, the induction as it stands provides a thematic parallel for the later action: Sly´s acceptance of a new personality (...) foreshadows Kate´s own.“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.6). I would rather support the latter interpretation, because the first takes it too much for granted, that the taming of Katherina is to be understood as an irony, i.e., that the tamed is rather the tamer and vice versa.

Already in the first scene of the induction of The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare tells through the Lord´s words how an „ideal wife“ should behave. He gives order that his page Bartholomew has to impersonate Sly´s wife. To be most convincing, he should speak „with soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,/ And say „What is´t your honour will command,/ Wherein your lady and your humble wife/ May show her duty and make known her love?““ (Scene I, lines 112-15). These four lines give a very clear idea of what an „ideal wife“ is to Shakespeare. She is the one who receives and obeys orders from her husband and by doing so shows her love to him.

In the second scene of the induction, the page himself, dressed up like a lady, even emphasises this idea when he submissively introduces himself to Sly with the following words: „My husband and my lord, my lord and husband;/ I am your wife in all obedience.“ (Scene II, line 107-8) The concept of the role of the wife, revealed in these remarks, very well corresponds with the Renaissance ideal, I mentioned above.

That sexuality as part of married life was of certain importance becomes clear when the page (as his wife) tells Sly that the time of his disease seemed twice as long to him/her, for „being all this time abandon´d from your bed“ (scene II, line 116). Sly simply replies „Madam, undress you and come now to bed.“ (Scene II, line 118). This sentence leaves not much space for interpretation. It is very clear that he wants to fulfill his marital duties. It may not sound romantic but it does not sound as if the topic was tainted with a taboo, either. Although the page (as his wife) finds an excuse for not sleeping with him, Sly cannot stop himself from commenting his state. His remark „Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long“ (scene II, line 126; my italics) shows clearly that he is sexually aroused, for „it stands“ unmistakably refers to an erect penis.

The conversation between Sly and the page (as his wife) is characterised by a very casual understanding of sexuality within marriage and that was assumably the common opinion at that time.

The conversation between Sly and the page (as his wife) can furthermore be understood as full of homoerotic remarks made intenional by the page and unknowingly by Sly. As I mentioned in the chapter on Homosexuality, it was approved to depict homoerotic desire in arts. In this case, the homoerotic aspect in the conversation serves to emphasise the comic character of the situation. The audience can laugh at Sly who is taken in by the masquerade and tries to convince a man to make love with him; an act that could, if performed, lead to death sentence.

The role of the woman in The Taming of the Shrew

The three female characters of the play represent three different concepts of women. The two main characters, Katharina and Bianca, could hardly be more different. Katharina is the Shrew. She possesses character traits that were at that time considered not very adorable in women: she openly shows her self-confidence, has got a quick mind and an even quicker tongue and tends to be rather aggressive. Bianca, in comparison, appears to be all lovely woman: she seems to be obedient to her father, is silent, submissive and vulnerable. The widow is, in contrast to both Katharina and Bianca, no maid anymore but already used to be someone´s wife with all her duties.

Katharina is indirectly introduced in the first scene of act one by a remark made by Baptista, Katharina´s and Bianca´s father, with regard to the marriage arrangements he is planning for his daughters: „That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter / Before I have a husband for the elder.“ (1.1.50-1). This points out, that it must be easier to find a husband for Bianca, his younger daughter than for his elder daughter, Katharina. The reason for that becomes obvious, when Gremio, one of three suitors to Bianca, says with regard to Katharina „She´s too rough for me.“ (1.1.55). Katharina herself proves her „roughness“ with her first remark in which she openly criticises her father´s plans to find a husband for her: „I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?“ (1.1.57-8). In her second remark, already, she makes clear that she is not interested in marriage and gives an idea of her aggressiveness:

„“I´faith, sir, you shall never need to fear. / Iwis it is half way to her heart. / But if it were, doubt not her care should be / To comb your noddle with a tree-legg´s stool, / And paint your face, and use you like a fool.“ (1.1.61-5).

Not only Gremio but Hortensio and Tranio also give an estimation of Katharina. Hortensio says to her that she will not find someone who would marry her „Unless you were of gentler, milder mould.“ (1.1.60). Tranio puts it slightly more drastic when he says „That wench is stark mad or wonderful froward.“ (1.1.69) for this comment can by no means be mistaken for a flattering remark. The most drastic comment on Katherina is made in her absence by Gremio. He uses in line 125 the „hell“ as a metaphor for her.

Bianca, in contrast, is introduced very politely by Lucentio´s words: „But in the other´s (Bianca´s) silence do I see / Maid´s mild behaviour and sobriety.“ (1.1.70-1). Silence was, as already mentioned in the chapter on Marriage, considered a great virtue in women. That Bianca is, in fact, considered a virtuous woman is clearly perceptible because the male characters in the beginning often refer to her as „good Bianca“ and „sweet Bianca“. Bianca herself shows her obedience towards her father when she accepts his plans that she will has to stay alone until a husband for Katherina is found: „Sir, to your pleasure I subscribe, / My books and instruments shall be my company, / On them to look and practice by myself.“ (1.1. 81-3).

Furthermore, Bianca shows that she is also obedient towards her elder sister Katherina when she tells her „What you will command me will I do, / So well I know my duty to my elders.“ (2.1.6-7). Afterwards, Bianca states that she would be more than willing to reject her suitors to the advantage of Katherina. This can be understood either as the behaviour of a loving sister or as a false promise because Bianca very well knows, none of the suitors to her would want to marry Katherina instead.

By comparing Katherina and Bianca, it has to be said that Katherina represents character traits that men fear in women and Bianca represents character traits, men prefer in women.

The third female character of the play is the widow. Her character is not described in detail because she appears for the first time in the very last scene. She appears to be quite serene concerning her behaviour towards men. In her conversation with Petruchio, she always has an answer ready to reply and when Lucentio sends for her to come over she choses not to obey his request. Her behaviour is comprehensible because she is, as a widow, already a woman of a certain status and she therefore does not need to behave over-submissively to gain further respect. The widow represents the picture of a woman who has reached and fulfills her place in society and can afford to be relaxed.

The Role of Men in The Taming of the Shrew

The main male character, Petruchio, is introduced in scene II of act one as likewise violent as Katherina. So does he wring his servant´s ears when he does not behave in the way Petruchio expects it (stage direction He wrings him by the ears, act one, sceneII, between line 17-8). There is, however, one difference: His aggression is rather laughed at than condemned like Katherina´s.

Petruchio makes it very clear that he came to Padua to marry a woman, who would provide him with a huge dowdry, regardless of what kind of woman she is:

„One rich enough to be Petruchio´s wife - / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance - / Be she as foul as was Florentius´ love, / As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / ... / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua.“ (act one, scene II, line 66-74).

His attitude towards marriage was even considered old-fashioned and out-of-date at the time, the play was written. As already discussed in the chapter on Marriage, marriage as a means for property transaction was replaced by marriage, that, whilst not discarding the monetary aspect altogether, was based on mutual affection and respect.

Petruchio is not only interested in property in form of money and everything else that belongs to Katherina´s dowdry. In addition, he considers Katherina herself as his property, too:

„I will be master of what is mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, / My household stuff, my field, my barn, / My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing“ (scene II, act three, line 227-30)

He regards himself as master and thus as authority over Katharina. Patriarchally structured authorities play an important role within The Taming of the Shrew. A patriarchal social order can also be identified by observing the authority of Baptista over his daughters, and of the male characters over the female characters in the play.

Novy suggests, that there is a relation between „the games in The Taming of the Shrew, almost always initiated by Petruchio, ... (and ) the patriarchal traditions of the world of the Shrew and of its audience.“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.13)[10]. I approve this suggestion, for I consider Petruchio´s tendency to play games with Katherina as a means of putting extra pressure on her. She did not choose to play games with him, she has to. She did not even choose him as her husband, she had to accept him because another authority, her father, arranged this marriage.

In the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio and Katherina start to play games but they are by no means equal playmates: It has to be said that Katherina is completely on her own while Petruchio has got the support of all the male characters in the play and in a figurative sense of all male persons who trust in patriarchy, too.

The patriarchal structure, as given in the play, is challenged two times: Vintentio, first, serves Petruchio and Katherina as a piece in one of their games. He is welcomed by Petruchio as „gentle mistress“ (4.5.27) and introduced to Katherina as „gentlewoman“ (4.5.29). When Katherina plays along and refers to Vintentio as „young, budding virgin“ (4.5.36), Vintenio, as a representative of „the class at the top of the social order within a patriarchal society“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.20)[11], is „degraded“ from upper to lower class of the patriarchal system.

Secondly, the patriarchal or rather the social structure is challenged when Tranio disguised as Lucentio denys to know Vintentio, Lucentio´s father. Tranio, as Lucentio´s personal servant is subject to Vintentio, also. For a moment, however, the roles are interchanged: In his disguise as a man of certain respect, as Lucentio, he is able to show his (temporary) power over Vintentio, whose identity is still unrevealed by instructing an officer to „Carry this mad knave to the gaol.“ (5.1.84). Here again a „degrading“ of Vintentio is perceivable. At the same time, Tranio experiences an „upgrading“ from the lower classes of the social system to the upper. This interchange of roles is, however, suspended immediately after the true identities of both are unveiled. So it was no real shock to the system but rather a reapproval of it because no one starts to ask why one should be master and another subject to him, it was just the way it was.

I agree with Novy, when she states that „Fathers are clearly important in the Shrew “ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.21)[12]. In the play, fathers are depicted or refered to as persons of special authority to whom their children owe special respect. The „children“, namely Katherina, Bianca, Lucentio, Hortensio and Petruchio, show their respect in different ways. Lucentio (or rather Gremio, disguised as Lucentio), Hortensio and Petruchio are proudly referring to their fathers when they ask Baptista for his daughters´ hands. Petruchio, for instance, states, when he introduces himself to Baptista „Petruchio is my name, Antonio´s son, / A man well known throughout all Italy.“ (2.1.68-9). Even Katherina is in so far obedient to her father, that she fulfills his request to marry Petruchio.

Marriage in The Taming of the Shrew

Marriage in The Taming of the Shrew is characterized by monetary transactions. As I stated in the chapter on Marriage, that was already in Shakespeare´s time an old-fashioned and much criticized motive for marriage arrangements. In The Taming of the Shrew, however, this motive is still alive: When Baptista wants to marry his daughter Katherina first, he is using what Kahn describes as a clever marketing technique: „make the sale of the less popular item the prerequisite of purchasing the desirable one.“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.42). Baptista is very keen on marrying his daughters as quick as possible, for „both marriages (...) provide insurance against having to support his daughters in widowhood, promise grandsons to whom he may pass on the manegement and possession of his property, and impart to his household the prestige of marrying well“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.42). Therefore it is no wonder that he accepts Petruchio´s offer regardless of what Katherina says. In his marriage arrangements for Bianca, Baptisto is likewise driven by financial interest because he promises his daughter to the one whose offer is the highest.

Marriage within the play is closely connected with changes of the female part involved. Katherina develops from former Shrew to a wife, behaving in the way that is expected from a proper wife. Bianca, however, changes from submissive and obedient daughter to a wife that is no longer willing to obey her husband´s demands. The final point of this change is the scene when all three husbands of the play bet on their wives obedience. They send for their wives to come and the man whose wife obeys this demand wins. Both, Bianca and the widow refuse to comply with their husband´s request. Katherina, against all expectations, appears promptly after she is called and asks as if it were the most natural thing in the world „What is your will, sir, that you send for me?“ (5.2.101). She has learned that she can lead a much more comfortable life by behaving accordingly to the existing role allocations. Kahn states in this context, that Katherina is to be understood as „outwardly compliant but inwardly independent“ (ed. Harold Bloom, 1988, p.50). That means, she publicly behaves in the way that is expected from a loving wife and will therefore neither offend nor be offended. Her spirit, however, remains untouched and her thoughts stay free and she herself realises that these are the most important things to possess when she says “I see a woman may be made a fool / If she had not a spirit to resist.“ (3.2.218-9). This strategy must be considered as very clever because she shows respect towards her husband Petruchio in so far that she does not, as Bianca and the widow do, make him an object of ridicule by open disobedience. At the same time, she can be sure that her cleverness and intelligence is highly valued by her husband because the play made clear, he is one who is very interested in witty conversations and his wife is in fact a perfect match for him.

Petruchio respects Katherina for her intelligence and cleverness and she respects him. The mutual respect of the couple represents the modern attitude towards marriage.

Sexuality in The Taming of the Shrew

In the whole text of The Taming of the Shrew there is no evidence that sexuality actually takes place. Only the last but second line of Petruchio „Come, Kate, we´ll to bed.“ (5.2.185) quite explicitly refers to forthcoming sexual activity.

Despite that, there are of course hints on sexuality within the play. So could the games, Katherina and Petruchio play be considered as a kind of „verbal foreplay“. The most obvious allusion to sexuality is to be found in a dialogue between Katherina and Petruchio that takes place shortly after they had met for the first time:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Both, Katherina and Petruchio by talking about tongues and tails play a word game that appears to be highly flirtatious and sexy in a rather cheeky way.

Another hint on sexuality is to be found in act IV, when Petruchio prevents Katherina from sleeping. He will not let her sleep in order to tame her and he will not consummate their marriage either. We learn from Curtis, Petruchio´s chief servant, that Petruchio is with Katherina in her bridal chamber but not to consummate the marriage as one would expect. Quite the reverse is true, because Petruchio is „Making a sermon on continency to her (Katherina)“ (4.1.170). This behaviour is rather contrary to the commonsensical opinion, dominant at that time. It was approved to consummate the marriage after the promise is given. Petruchio, however, withholds his sexuality from Katherina because he is not willing to give pleasure to her until she is tamed. In that sense, sexuality can be considered as a reward for Katherina´s behaviour. If understood in that way, sexuality gains a very high status that one has to earn.


It can be said that Shakespeare very well knows about the attitudes towards role allocations, marriage and sexuality, dominant at that time. Furthermore he knows how to draw a bead on these attitudes. So does he for instance parody marriage arrangements that are made for monetary reasons only.

There are numerous parallels between the actual opinions and the opinions, discernable in The Taming of the Shrew. The role allocation between men and women, depicted in the play and those in reality very well correspond: Renaissance England used to be a man´s world and so is the „world“ in The Taming of the Shrew.

The same virtues that are prefered in women in Renaissance England, i.e. silence, obedience and submission towards men, are the prefered virtues in women in The Taming of the Shrew.

This confirms my hypothesis that literature does not develop within a vacuum but in a certain social context of a certain time and one has to know about the actual circumstances to fully comprehend a piece of literature like The Taming of the Shrew.


Smith, Bruce R. 1991. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare´s England: A cultural poetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Aughterson, Kate (ed.) 1995. Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femeninity in England. London: Routledge.

Stone, Lawrence 1979 (1977). The Family, Sex and Marriage: In England 1500-1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Levin, Carole and Robertson, Karen (ed.) 1991. Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Rose, Mary Beth 1988. The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press

Bloom, Harold (ed.) 1988. Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare´s The Taming of the Shrew. New York and Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers


[1] Brian Morris (ed.)1997 (1981 ). The Arden Edition of the works of William Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew. Walton-on-Thames Surrey: Thomas Nelson& Sons Ltd.

[2] I neglect the fact that it is set in Italy for I understand the „exotic“ setting rather as a means of making it more attractive than actually describing Italian circumstances.

[3] Chapter on Marital Conduct Books

[4] Text from: William Vaughan. The golden grove, 1608

[5] Text from: Henry Smith. A preparative to marriage, 1591

[6] Text from: Carol Thomas Neely. Constructing Female Sexuality in the Renaissance: Stratford, London, Windsor, Vienna.

[7] ibid

[8] Text from: Certain sermons or homilies appointed to be read in churches, 1547. „A sermon of whoredom and uncleanness: against adultery“, 1547.

[9] In my work, I refer to the following edition: ed. Brian Morris. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew. 1997 (1981)

[10] Text from: Marianne L. Novy. Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew. First published 1979

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

18 of 18 pages


Sexuality and gender relations in Shakespeare's England - Analysis of the play Taming of the Shrew
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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Sexuality, Shakespeare, England, Analysis, Taming, Shrew
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Katja Bartholmess (Author), 1999, Sexuality and gender relations in Shakespeare's England - Analysis of the play Taming of the Shrew, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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