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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: November ::
Re: Shrews Behaving Badly
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.1108  Monday, 9 November 1998.

From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Sunday, 8 Nov 1998 11:44:05 EST
Subject: 9.1099 Re: Shrews Behaving Badly
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.1099 Re: Shrews Behaving Badly

(1)     Jean Petersen writes, inter alia, that:

> Given the kind of (yes) brutality that women were subjected to
> as a matter of course in Shakespeare's era, I suppose we could say that
> the play is progressive FOR ITS TIME-she's starved, sleep deprived, and
> disoriented into submission rather than beaten, and she's merely
> "tamed", as opposed to burned, hanged or bridled.

I think you have consciously taken things out of context to bolster your
own argument, Jean: YES, ". . .Kate's submission speech echoes the
language in sermons, pamphlets and diatribes circulating through the
London of its day on the proper subjection of wives to their husband's
rule and governance," and YES, "in the rural villages of England, [some]
real women with Kate's 'fiery temperament,' who had earned the
reputation of 'shrew' or 'scold' were still liable to be dragged through
the streets with their heads clamped in irons"-but that is clearly NOT
KATE, either at the hands of her father, or at the hands of her husband,
though certainly, her behavior at the beginning of the play might be
enough to provoke Daddy to assert his patriarchal authority.
Shakespeare paints *most* of his characters with exaggeration, in
varying degrees, because he *has to,* given the economies required of a
stage representation that do not obtain, say, in the writing of a
novel-especially when he is dealing in non-Biblical "types" (the shrew,
the cutpurse, the fop).  But the part of Katerina that is caricature (a
representative shrew) is there to be *subverted* -- were she utterly
unsympathetic, as most true shrews (and curmudgeons) are, we would be
less inclined to be so judgmental of Petruchio's treatment of
her-obnoxious people of any gender deserve to be treated obnoxiously,
quid pro quo.  The point is that Shakespeare *is* progressive in his
attitudes toward the received stereotype, that he *is* demonstrating
that not all shrews are the way they are because they are innately
nasty-and that head-irons and abuse are not the way to "tame" the kind
of fiery spirit that is born of intelligence and wit and the kind of
strong character that comes of standing on one's own two feet.
Petruchio, the rake who has "come to wive it wealthily in Padua," who
sees women as stepping-stones to the kind of life he'd like to lead, is
as much tamed as taming . . . he learns to love and respect and
appreciate his wife's self-affirming defiance and independence, as much
as she learns that she doesn't always have to assert it to possess it.
Sly is the only one in the play who thinks brutalization in fact (rather
than pretense) is a good idea, and Lucentio is only beginning at the end
of the play to learn the meaning of "shrew."

As for seeing the relevance of Shakespeare's portrayals to life in the
'90s (rather than pillorying him for living in a society very different
from our own) . . . isn't that why we prize his work as some of the
greatest literature ever written in the history of humankind? because it
holds a mirror up to nature, and reveals to each beholder something
about himself (or herself)?

Somehow, I don't see people debating the fine points of _Valley of the
Dolls_ with this kind of enthusiasm 400 years from now . . .

We are all of us guilty of riding our personal hobby horses to some
degree, and of filtering everything we experience through our own
internal prejudices.  I can understand why you would find Petruchio's
treatment of Kate abhorrent, on the surface, and I think you are *meant*
to-it pushes all kinds of buttons, in a society as conscious of true
abuse as ours is.  But it is *not* malicious, it is *not* intended to
harm or injure her in any way, and it *does* make a point, that
mistreatment begets mistreatment, no matter who is the initiator . . .
and Petruchio's "aye, there's a wench!" can be read as much as
affectionate teasing, as role-playing in context (said with an implicit
wink, by a man who knows he'd be pummeled for saying it seriously), as
it can the kind of putdown you are trying to make it out to be.

Perhaps you have to live that kind of relationship (government by the
consent of the governed) to understand it.  My Dad used to have a plaque
that read "I AM THE BOSS IN THIS HOUSE (and I have my wife's permission
to say so)" . . .

> Just to set the record straight, I don't hold any men presently living
> responsible.

Responsible for what?  Not having been the Y chromosome on a zygote 400
years ago, they could hardly be complicit, one way or the other.

(2)             Cora Lee Wolfe, from the opposite perspective, wrote:

Hear! Hear! Carol Barton ["...highly intelligent Katerina, who is
anything but the sort of whining feminist who asserts "formulaic
brutalization and enforced submission of a woman to patriarchal
authority" as an excuse for her failure to defy such authority, and
stand up for her rights, as Kate does."]

>  A teacher of some 35 years, I have been disappointed in the direction
>  the feminist movement has taken.  Women want it all, but they don't want
>  to pay the price.  We cannot have it both ways.

Yes, Cora Lee: teach your daughters self-reliance, self-assurance, and
respect for themselves and others . . . AND teach them Lincoln's wise
insight, that as they would not be slaves, so they should not be masters
(the early Kate could use a dose of this medicine, but then, she hasn't
met the man she can't with perverse enjoyment terrorize).  Blaming
others for our deficiencies goes a long way toward absolving us of any
responsibility for our own actions (Edmund is a bastard . . . therefore
he can act like one), but it does nothing to erase those deficiencies,
or teach us how to overcome them.  Kate is tamed only to the extent she
elects to be, allows herself to be, out of love and respect for her
husband . . . and Petruchio knows it.  (If she seriously wanted to
oppose him, he'd have to kill her to "tame" her.)  As Mr. Weiss points
out, "Petruchio's conduct was not all-in-all abusive . . . it was
reformative, not retributive."  And as Sean Lawrence observes, "he
naming of the sun and moon has special metatheatrical significance,
because, for the audience, the sun and moon are only names": so, I
submit, are "shrew" and "goodwife," as applied to Katerina and her

Carol Barton
Department of English
Averett College

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