by Gary Taylor
When is a person a commodity? When is a human being a thing that can be bought, sold, owned, loaned, inventoried, marketed, discounted and (in cases of loss or depreciation) written off as a tax deduction?
The Taming of the Shrew forces us to ask those questions, and many modern readers and spectators dislike the answers that the play offers. But when exactly did we become modern enough to be dissatisfied? Way back in 1897, George Bernard Shaw declared, “the last scene is altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.” From our perspective, Victorian 1897 no longer seems particularly “modern.” Nevertheless, more than a century ago Shaw felt that he belonged to a radically different epoch from Shakespeare’s. Shaw was “extremely ashamed” to watch the ending “in the company of a woman.”
Unlike Shaw, I don’t have to wait until the ending to start getting uncomfortable. Just before the conclusion of Act Three—where most modern productions place the interval—and immediately after the wedding, Petruchio infamously declares
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 (act 3, scene 2)
This speech shocks us—at least, I hope it shocks any 21st-century reader. Quite apart from the content, the timing is atrocious. We expect a decent, decorous interval between the ceremonial romance of a church-belled wedding and the blunt declaration of male economic dominance. Shakespeare and Petruchio are deliberately outrageous here. But they are also, from another perspective, simply calling attention to a fact we generally prefer to ignore.
“The cost of making a marriage work,” the actress Fiona Shaw said in 1989, after playing the role of Kate, “seems to me to be very one-way.” Her use of the word “cost” is a modern, quiet way of talking about the economics of marriage. But that is not the way Shakespeare dramatizes the costs of marriage. Fiona Shaw minimizes her complaint; she doesn’t want to come across as shrill or hysterical or bitchy; she wants to sound reasonable and plausible. Shakespeare never cared much about plausibility. Instead of minimizing, he maximized. No English writer does hyperbole better than Shakespeare. The best hyperboles work like microscopes or movie projectors: they take something small and make it huge, so that we can see it better, so that we cannot help but see it. The Taming of the Shrew does exactly that: it magnifies marriage.
Or rather, it magnifies certain aspects of marriage. Marriage is, as most of us were taught, a sacramental union, officiated and authorized by a priest. The Taming of the Shrew recognizes that religious dimension of marriage. However, Shakespeare leaves the church and the sacrament, the holy water and the litany, offstage. (Many films and modern productions, unsatisfied with the play that Shakespeare wrote, put the church back on stage.) But marriage is also a property transaction. That is, after all, why gay marriage has been debated in the courts. People can have sex without economic consequences, but legal matrimony affects property rights, inheritance, and tax deductions. Marriage as an economic transaction is what Shakespeare puts under the microscope.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca is a more valuable commodity than Kate, because the apparently pliable Bianca better satisfies the criteria of most male customers. Because of the high market demand for Bianca-objects, Bianca’s father can auction her off to the highest bidder. By contrast, there is no market demand for older, smarter, independent women like Kate. At the beginning of the play, Kate is what early modern businessmen called a “dead commodity:” something so undesirable that it just sits on the shelves, unsellable. Her father can only get her off his hands by artificially manipulating the market: he leverages the excess demand for her sister, by declaring that he won’t accept bids for Bianca until he finds a buyer for Kate. Petruchio has come to Padua “to wive it wealthily,” and he too leverages the excess demand for Bianca. Other men pay him to marry Kate. And once he marries her, she belongs to him.
In the larger arc of what we proudly call civilization, there is nothing particularly unusual about a woman being listed in the catalogue of a man’s property holdings. Human beings have always bought and sold other human beings. Slavery was not abolished throughout the United States until 1865, and until 1975 the “reserve clause” allowed the owners of major league baseball teams to buy, sell, and trade players as though they were any other form of property. The Global Slavery Index estimates that, even now, about 30 million people worldwide are still enslaved by debt bondage, forced marriage, child-selling, human trafficking and forced labor.
We now regard such behavior as profoundly immoral, despicable, disgusting. But why has it been so easy, for so long, to treat human beings as property? The answer is depressingly simple: we have never agreed on what qualifies as “human.” Theologians, philosophers, and our Founding Fathers seriously asked whether Africans were human, whether native Americans were human, and whether women should have the same rights as men. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Except for the black ones, of course. And even black men legally had the right to vote for more than half a century before women did.
The title of Shakespeare’s play implies that Kate is an animal (a small mammal called a shrew). A man’s property portfolio includes, in addition to his wife, other living things: a horse, an ox, an ass. Like women, these are all mammals with large brains and complex nervous systems. Petruchio lumps the woman and the other mammals together with inanimate objects (house, barn, unspecified goods and chattels). That confusion of human beings with other animals and objects actually begins long before the wedding. When Petruchio and Kate meet for the first time, she calls him “a moveable,” meaning someone who moves around, is not settled or stable, a rolling stone, a tumble-weed; after all, he’s just arrived in Padua. But the word also means “portable property” (as opposed to real estate). Petruchio pretends not to understand the insult.
PETRUCHIO Why, what’s a moveable?
KATHERINA A joint-stool.
PETRUCHIO Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.
KATHERINA Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
PETRUCHIO Women are made to bear, and so are you. (act 2, scene 1)
From mobile male to inanimate furniture, to a comfortable lap, to a beast of burden, to a woman. Kate defines Petruchio as a domesticated animal, and then he does the same to her. But Kate insults Petruchio by equating him with a particularly despised animal (an ass). Petruchio, by contrast, does not compare Kate to a particular animal. He simply includes her in the category “women,” and implies that “women” is a generic noun like “asses.” A woman is here defined as just another beast of burden (who bears the weight of the man on top of her) and also a beast of birthing (who bears valuable offspring, just as domesticated cattle do).
If we can domesticate other animals, then why not domesticate other humans? If we can treat other mammals as objects, properties, commodities, then why not do the same with other humans? The word “domesticate” comes from the Latin “domus,” meaning “house” or “home.” So a domesticated animal is one that you bring into your home. Few of us keep sheep, goats, or chickens in our homes nowadays, but in early modern England domesticated animals still lived with their human owners. They hadn’t yet been segregated in factory farms.
If a woman is just another variety of domesticated animal, then she is just another portable property, like Petruchio’s horse, ox, and ass. But having acquired Kate, Petruchio faces the problem of how to turn an undesirable commodity (I mean, woman) into a desirable one. Like someone who buys a ramshackle property in order to fix it and flip it, Petruchio’s entrepreneurial task is to transform Kate. An animal can only be domesticated, can only be turned into value-added property, if you can tame it.
No wonder that, for centuries, Petruchio’s most famous prop was a whip.
Gary Taylor is Professor of English at Florida State University and the author or editor of more than twenty books, including a new Oxford University Press edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works (forthcoming in 2016), an edition of John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed (an early reply to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), and a prize-winning edition of the Collected Works of “our other Shakespeare,” Thomas Middleton.