The Taming of the Shrew
Season 07-08 Season
“Every man can rule a shrew but he that has her” went one of the many proverbs circulating in the Elizabethan period—a quip suggesting that the shrewish wife represents a test case in the debate over women’s place in a culture where power is everywhere invested in men (except at the top, where Queen Elizabeth sits on the throne). Given the shrew’s centrality, it may be useful to reflect on the word’s meanings. In the mid-13th century, “shrew” denoted “a wicked, evil-disposed man,” a definition later expanded to include the Devil; but by Chaucer’s time, the term had switched genders and applied to a “woman given to railing or scolding”—a meaning that, by the 16th century, became dominant. Yet the shrew’s devilish nature did not disappear altogether, for derivatives such as “shrewd” or “shrewish”—terms evoked throughout Shakespeare’s play—originally meant “rascally” or “villainous.” Noisy, irascible and aggressive at first, Katherina Minola, “renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue,” is defined by language and behavior (the base and pillar of Shakespeare’s theatre) that nets up nearly every one of these descriptors. Yet many of the derogatory terms applied to Kate—“devil,” “froward,” “shrew,” “scold,” “wildcat”—come not just from hearsay but from men’s mouths: is “shrew,” then, simply (theatrical) disguise, gossip? In Shakespeare’s later Much Ado about Nothing, Beatrice shares Kate’s shrewd speech (Benedick calls her “my Lady Tongue”); she, however, is considered witty—not quite shrew, not quite not shrew. In a sense, neither is Kate, for her loudness and energy soon dissipate once she arrives at Petruchio’s house, where her behavior takes second place to Petruchio’s outrageous performances. As Petruchio’s servant Curtis notes, “he is more shrew than she”; in this play, as in the history of its definitions, the term not only migrates between genders but also oscillates back and forth.
Certainly Katherina Minola was not the “original” English shrew. Familiar with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, that prototypical “woman on top” who sought mastery over her various husbands, Shakespeare might also have seen shrews staged, from Noah’s wife in the medieval mystery plays to similar figures in Tudor plays such as John Heywood’s Merry Play between John the Husband, Tyb his Wife and Sir John the Priest (1533). He may even have recalled seeing, in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church, several 15th-century choir-stall carvings depicting husband-beating as well as wife-beating: one carving shows three women’s faces, the first with an oversized, lolling tongue, another grimacing, a third with a bit in her mouth. Perhaps the most significant traces of what might be called the “Shrew complex or syndrome,” however, come from oral traditions. Although they do not provide the model for Shakespeare’s play, narrative elements or motifs common to shrew-taming tales offer a compelling map of the play’s events as well as some localized details. In these tales, the shrew-figure invariably is the eldest of two daughters of a wealthy man; in addition, a suitor who claims that he will wed and tame her arrives late for the wedding, poorly dressed, and behaves boorishly. Later, his taming tactics include beating his servants as a warning to his wife, depriving her of food, and getting her to agree to absurd statements; finally, a test of the wife’s obedience ensures that the husband has won a wager entered into with other suitors. Since such tales circulated widely throughout Northern Europe and the British Isles during the early modern period, Elizabethans may have been pre-conditioned to enjoy Shakespeare’s taming spectacle.
That scenario, which culminates in a finale where Kate, the “tamed” shrew, delineates a wife’s duties to “her loving lord,” certainly seems designed to please a male spectator. Was that also the case for Elizabethan women who attended the play? And did some women, even those who complied with the culture’s prescriptions for wifely behavior, see their own rebellious desires mirrored in both folktales and Shakespeare’s play? If so, they also must have been aware of the consequences, for although conduct books and sermons urged husbands to avoid physically abusing their wives, men had a legal right to use violence in order to ensure their wives’ obedience. In addition, formal public punishments for scolds included being stocked (put in wooden frames that immobilized their legs and arms), being jailed in the town “cage,” and being carted and paraded around the town. Such communal rituals, in which neighbors mocked the conduct of men as well as women, were festive occasions that often ended with some sort of public atonement or reconciliation; as in many plays, where a final speech or speeches attempt to impose a (rhetorical) order, these staged lessons in the proprieties of gender relations offered one means of healing the social fabric.
By the early 17th century, cucking—binding the offender to a stool and dunking her in water—had become the typical punishment for brawling or abuse, indiscriminate slander, tale-bearing or deliberately sowing discord among neighbors and was perhaps responsible for establishing “scold” as a legal category for the shrewish woman accused of instigating domestic violence. A story in The Anatomy of a Woman’s Tongue (1638) tells of how one cucked scold, though unable to talk while under water, “spoke” her resistance—apparently with a legendary (and still current) gesture. Potentially less dangerous than the risk of drowning was the practice of bridling scolds, a custom that, though by no means widespread, directly addressed verbal belligerence at the source. Made of metal, bridles (such as those carved in Stratford’s choir stalls) either covered the mouth or inserted a prong, or brank—sometimes sharp or tooth-edged—to hold down the tongue.
Turning the woman who had offended into a public spectacle, these brutal practices would seem to be overtly excessive reactions to insulting speech. But it is important to remember that flaunting rebellious behavior went against the assumed order of things and so jeopardized that order for men and women alike. Likewise, early modern patriarchy was hardly a monolithic entity. Still, if folklore and social custom represent the unruly woman primarily as a collection of faults—laziness, vanity, gossiping, consorting with other men, husband-beating—nowhere is shrewish behavior endorsed or lionized, even in texts written by women, some of which tell stories of how women not only successfully tame men but also remain talkative, angry and unrepentant. Yet the equally “disorderly” male tongues that spoke out against them railed just as loudly and insistently, and had more legitimate cultural power. Somewhat ironically, that very “speaking against” offered one way to give the shrew or scold her own form of cultural power within a curious double standard in which men and women acted out forms of aggression within a coded domestic terrain in a self-sustaining, never-ending cycle.
In contrast to oral tradition and the cruelty of public punishments for talking “big,” the taming process in Shakespeare’s play emerges as a distinct alternative, both in the physical violence it stages and that to which it alludes. Shrew may subscribe freely to folktale traditions, but it skirts historical practices such as cucking and bridling altogether; both serve as what might be called deep historical (though dramatically invisible) background, evidence of the ways in which early modern women not only were wrapped in stereotypes (which often seem as severe and strait-jacketing as the punishments worked out on them) but also occupied a marginal position. In the tales as in the drama, inversion is the name of the game that makes domestic violence funny—a tradition that survives in farce, film and television situation comedy, where the “woman on top,” however badly treated, is given remarkable powers of recovery. Significantly, however, a wide gap separates dramatic from social histories. If opting for the festive comic perspective can neglect or ignore the very real differences that social historians have discovered about early modern husbands’ and wives’ access to socio-economic power, in the theatre, farce (if indeed Shrew can be considered that) always plays at deadly, intensely serious games. After all, then—as now—the matter of how women and men negotiate the social contract called marriage is no joke.
Professor of English,
University of Michigan,
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