Is the "Taming of the Shrew" a Sexist Play?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

23 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Elizabethan Society
2.1 Marriage

3. The Female Idealistic Role Model vs. Katherina and Bianca

4. Elizabethan Theatre and afterwards

5. “The Taming of the Shrew” – a Sexist Play?
5.1 The Taming Plot – vicious or funny?

6. Summary

7. References

1. Introduction

From its title one would think that “The Taming of the Shrew” is about women’s lack of rights, duties , and their inferior social status in the 16th century.[1] That is one reason why it is considered to be a controversial play, but there are two sides of the story. Many of Shakespeare’s admirers have been embarrassed about his chauvinistic point of view of how to tame a wife. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone today in our feminist era would write such a play unless they did so tongue in cheek.[2] A play like “The Taming of the Shrew” would certainly get protestors out on the street marching; holding banners aloft.

“The Taming of the Shrew” seems to offend audiences today and engenders much debate.[3]

On the other hand “The Taming of the Shrew” should be seen as a comedy before we think about an interpretation. Comedies were written to cheer up the audience, make them laugh and it may have been Shakespeare’s intention to give an ironic point of view about masculine ideas of a female role model in a predominantly male world. It is the Shakespearean society that is offending us, not Shakespeare himself.[4]

2. Elizabethan Society

The term Elizabethan refers to Queen Elizabeth’s reign form 1558-1603, but in terms of literature it is often used loosely and goes as far as 1629 into Jacobean times.[5] In fact, the Elizabethan time did not change over night after her death. Most of the writers were still young when the Queen died, Shakespeare, for example, started writing his well known plays after her death. In terms of literature Elizabethan theatre deals with the time between 1558 – 1629, when drama was seen as harmless and entertaining.

The following chapter deals with marriage as one aspect of social life in Elizabethan society and uses Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” as an example of social life in the 16th century. The question is: Can “The Taming of the Shrew” be used to explore and explain the “issues in a domestic setting.”?[6] Might every play tell the reader more about the writer’s thoughts and fears about what should or might happen than about what actually did happen? To find out whether we can use “The taming of the Shrew” seriously to understand the time and society this chapter will look at the way wives were treated.

Men as masters were allowed to use domestic violence in order to maintain order and resolve disputes. There were legal rights to correct and discipline subordinates. According to “The Shrew” it means Petruchio was bound by laws and regulations to treat Katherina the way he did. He was forced to act like that because the household was seen as the miniature government of a larger society. It had to function properly to prepare everybody in the household for their roles in public life. The household was the foundation for public life and disorder in it would affect the social order of larger society negatively. Books like “Law’s Resolution of Women’s Rights” justify women’s subordination through reference to Genesis where God took a rib and flesh of Adam in order to make a women. [7] The wife has got a double function; she rules with her husband over all creatures and is subordinated to him.[8]

There is evidence that contemporaries like William Gouge and William Whately did not agree with the idea of wife beating as a correction because of the Bible’s quote “they two [husband and wife] are one flesh.”[9] They saw the importance of correcting a wife, but domestic violence should be only the last resort. Both men’s publications, Gouge’s “Of Domestical Duties: Eight Treaties” (1622, 1626, 1634) and Whately’s “A Bride-Bush, or A Direction for Married Persons” (1612, 1619, 1623), brought them into trouble with the church and government.[10] The fact that both men were in trouble because of their liberal opinion shows once more that Petruchio’s way of treating Katherina cannot be seen as sexist in that cultural and social context.

2.1 Marriage

In the Elizabethan world view marriage had a strict hierarchy which can be observed in “The Taming of the Shrew” and the fact that husbands dominated their wives. The Prince was superior to the husband and God was above all. As the disguised page in the induction points out “My husband and my lord, my lord and my husband;/I am your wife in all obedience.”[11] The superiority of a husband to his wife is supported by the Marriage Service of the Book of Common Prayer: “Wilt thou obey him, and serue him, loue, honor, and kepe him in sicknes and in health?” and alludes to the wives future role.[12]

This chapter deals with the two different motives for marriage in the 16th century. The reasons for marriage are explored in the three married couples – Petruchio and Katherina, Lucentio and Bianca and Hortensio and the widow. The two main reasons for marriage are the romantic and the conservative – materialistic one.

The materialistic reason for marriage can be seen in Petruchio’s example. Petruchio is not romantic at all, he has no illusions and expectations about being married. “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;/ If wealthily, then happily in Padua.”[13] He is a fortune-hunter and looking for a rich wife; it does not matter how shrewish she is as long as she is wealthy. For Petruchio, love is a bonus, not the main reason for getting married. This is a rather conservative and materialistic understanding of marriage; it is clearly made for financial reasons. The romance is subjugated to his idea of marriage as a business. Petruchio is only attracted to Katherina because of her dowry. He did not pay anything to Baptista to woo Katherina. He was fortunate, and the dowry was paid by the men who wish Katherina out of the way in order to marry Bianca. Petruchio won the bet on the wive’s obedience. Baptista was so impressed by Katherina’s obedience that he rewarded his son-in-law with a second dowry. Petruchio clearly makes a considerable financial gain from this transaction.

Lucentio illustrates the second example about marriage. He is the complete opposite to Petruchio. He is very impulsive and romantic. In Act I, sc. i, he sees Bianca and instantly falls in love with her; it was love at the first sight.

“I found the effect of love in idleness,/And now in plainness do confess to thee,/ [...] Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,/If I achieve not this young modest girl./”[14]

Love strikes him like lightning. Tranio, his servant, woos Bianca on his masters behalf while his master, Lucentio, disguises himself as a teacher to enable him to get as close – physically – as possible to his beloved. This is a perfect example of a romantic relationship. Romantic marriage is shown to be less successful than materialistic because Petruchio won the final bet about their wives’ obedience. Lucentio illustrates a change in the conservative idea of marriage. He can be seen as a trend-setter because at this time marriage was becoming more and more romantic and less materialistic. This is the opposite of Petruchio’s old fashioned idea of marriage. Romantic poets, such as Philip Sidney and Shakespeare with his love sonnets were much more the taste of the time.

At the end of the 16th century there was a change in marriage and domestic violence became less prevalent. Petruchio never raised his hand against his wife, but certainly put his wife through mental torture, lack of or disallowance of sleep, food and other things of life to which she was accustomed and he beats his servant in front of her which demonstrates to her that he will use physical violence if necessary against her. In contrast, Lucentio was never violent.

Hortensio’s marriage combines elements of both romantic and conservative traditions. In the beginning he was one of Bianca’s suitors and he had the same romantic idea of wooing for Bianca as Lucentio. In the beginning of the play, he obviously believed in love and would not marry solely for money because he says about Katherina: “I would not wed her for a mine of gold.” Petruchio replies: “Thou know’st not the gold’s effect.”[15] Perhaps Hortensio has taken note of this reply because he later married a rich widow after he had been disappointed in his suit for Bianca. Perhaps in the end he decided to try to copy Petruchio. Impressed by Petruchio’s shrew taming methods in Act IV, sc. iii, he wanted to follow his example. But he was not as successful as Petruchio because his wife did not prove to be as obedient as Katherina.

Hortensio can be seen as a connection between Petruchio and Lucentio. After he recognised that he would not get any further with love and romance he came back to earth and tried to follow Petruchio’s example.


[1] The Arden of Shakespeare - Brian Morris (Editor) (2002); The Taming of the Shrew, London: Methuen, p.111.

[2] Nick Curtis, “Problem Play” Royal Shakespeare Company, The Taming of the Shrew

(programm), (2003), p. 8.

[3] Michael Billington, “Problem Play” Royal Shakespeare Company, The Taming of the Shrew (programm), (2003),p. 9.

[4] Anne Thompson, “Problem Play” RSC, The Taming of the Shrew (programm), (2003), p. 9.

[5] Joseph, B.L. (1971); Shakespeare’s Eden-The Commonwealth of England 1558-1629, London: Blandford Press, p.307.

[6] Dolan, E. Francis (Editor) (1996); William Shakespeare-The Taming of the Shrew Text and

Context, Boston: Bedford St. Martin, p. 8.

[7] Dolan, E. Francis (Editor) (1996); William Shakespeare-The Taming of the Shrew Text and

Context, Boston: Bedford St. Martin, p.203.

[8] Dolan, E. Francis (Editor) (1996); William Shakespeare-The Taming of the Shrew Text and Context, Boston: Bedford St. Martin, p. 203.

[9] Dolan, E. Francis (Editor) (1996); William Shakespeare-The Taming of the Shrew Text and Context, Boston: Bedford St. Martin, p. 221.

[10] Ibid., p. 220.

[11] The Arden of Shakespeare - Brian Morris (Editor) (2002); The Taming of the Shrew, London: Thomson, IND,ii line107-108 p. 168.

[12] The Arden of Shakespeare - Brian Morris (Editor) (2002); The Taming of the Shrew, London: Thomson, p. 146.

[13] The Arden of Shakespeare - Brian Morris (Editor) (2002); The Taming of the Shrew, London: Thomson, I,ii line 74-75 p. 188.

[14] Ibid., I,i, line 152, p.179ff.

[15] Ibid., I,ii line 91-92 p. 188.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Is the "Taming of the Shrew" a Sexist Play?
University of Rostock  (Anglistik/ Amerikanistik)
Shakespeares Comedies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Taming, Shrew, Sexist, Play, Shakespeares, Comedies
Quote paper
Anett Senftleben (Author), 2004, Is the "Taming of the Shrew" a Sexist Play?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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