William Shakespeare was a fantastic playwright whose works still move us even today, centuries later. The universal themes expressed in his plays have lost no potency with the passage of years, and this remarkable mans legacy is as alive today in the minds of readers and audiences everywhere.
The role of women has changed greatly throughout the centuries. Today in the twenty first century women are treated as equals to men, they have just as many rights and are given just as many opportunities. Today women are career striving and it is quite acceptable for the man to stay in the home and look after the children while the woman goes out to work each day. They are far readier to take on responsibilities of home and childcare and to enjoy an equal partnership with their wives. Women today enjoy equality in education, politics and the workplace. The ready availability of birth control means that women can choose to marry and have families but still maintain the right to career opportunities. Things were very different in Shakespeare’s day. Wives were the property of their husbands and although some women were more independent than others, every woman expected to get married and to depend on her male relatives throughout her life.
The Taming of the Shrew is generally grouped among Shakespeare’s “early comedies”. This group could also loosely be termed as his “romantic comedies”. Its essential characteristics are its light hearted or slapstick humour, disguises and deception, and a happy ending in which nearly everybody comes out satisfied. Like many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, The Taming of the Shrew focuses on marriage. However, it also gives a great deal of attention to married life after the wedding, while the other plays often conclude with the wedding itself.
The play The Taming of the Shrew opens with two induction scenes. A drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, is thrown out of a pub, and picked up by a lord who is out hunting. The lord takes him to his castle, where Sly wakes up. He is persuaded that he himself is a lord who has lost his memory. A ‘wife’ is provided and a play put on to entertain him. The play is called The Taming of the Shrew.
The main play opens in the Italian city of Padua. Baptista, a nobleman has two daughters, Katherine and Bianca. Bianca is quiet and obedient, but her father insists that Katherine should marry first. Katherine is the ‘shrew’ in the title, a woman who is always answering back and is very aggressive.
To help his friend Hortensio marry Bianca, Petruchio agrees to marry Katherine. He pretends to be attracted to her personality. When the wedding takes place, Petruchio surprises everyone by his eccentric dress and behaviour. He then takes his bride Katherine back to his home in the country.
Meanwhile, in the parallel plot, Lucentio, another young man, swaps roles with his servant Tranio, and disguises himself as a tutor to Bianca because he has fallen in love with her.
At his home Petruchio ‘tames’ Katherine by humiliating her and depriving her of food and sleep, until she agrees with everything her husband says, including that the sun is the moon and the moon is the sun.
They return to Padua, where Lucentio is about to marry Bianca, and Hortensio marries a rich widow instead. In the final scene of the play, after Bianca’s wedding, Petruchio, Lucentio and Hortensio place bets on whose wife is the most obedient. Bianca and the rich widow do not come into the room when their husbands send for them, but Katherine does, and so Petruchio wins the bet. Katherine makes a speech, directed at the other two women, arguing that women must submit to and obey their husbands.
Queen Elizabeth I said:
” Obedience in marriage was seen as only part of obedience to God and the state, and Kate’s obedience is a metaphor for obedience to the crown.”
This is demonstrated by Kate’s words:
” And when she is forward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a fouls contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving Lord?”
At the time when the play was written, in the early 1590’s, England was seething with discontent at the government of the old Queen Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare was employed as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, an Elizabethan Theatre Company, and was therefore under pressure to contrive drama that was politically correct for the time. So it could be seen that rather than a play of brutal wife battering it is supposed to be interpreted as a mythical text which sticks strictly to political malcontents obeying lawful authority at the time.
At the time when Shakespeare wrote this play it was assumed that the world was a fallen place. On this potentially unruly and unmanageable earth in which sin was rife, sovereign state was needed in order for there to be some kind of control. In the family it was the husband and father who was in control, and in the state it was the King. The woman was required to obey, not simply because it flattered the vanity of the man but also because only one person could be in the position of responsibility and have complete authority.
John Fletcher wrote a sequel to the Taming of the Shrew called A Woman’s Prize or The Tamer Tamed, this play was written between 1604 and 1617. In this play Katherine had died and Petruchio had married again. His new wife Maria turns the tables on him and subdues him; to do this her tactics include locking him out of the house on his wedding night.
Fletcher’s moral is rather different from Shakespeare’s, as we can see from this quotation from the epilogue:
“To teach both sexes due equality, and as they stand bound, to love mutually.”
Other writing at this time also suggests that there was a debate about women’s role in marriage.
Ideas about women’s role in society and marriage have changed over the centuries since the play was first performed. From the late seventeenth century it was performed in versions very different from Shakespeare’s original. Scenes, speeches and parts of the plot were cut and new speeches and dialogue were added. In 1756 the famous actor David Garrick adapted the play in a version called Catherine and Petruchio. He simplified the plot, basing it entirely on the relationship between Petruchio and Catherine. Lines that would make the audience sympathetic towards Catherine were cut, and some of the lines in her final speech were given to Petruchio. This emphasised the message of the need of a wife to obey even more. It was Garrick’s version that was performed rather than the original until the end of the nineteenth century.
In both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the play and particularly the final speech were taken at face value. The ideas about a wife’s obedience were seen as an excellent moral lesson, and young women were even encouraged to learn parts of the speech by heart before they got married. By the end of the nineteenth century however, women were beginning to challenge their role as obedient servants to men. The playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose plays often had strong female characters, wrote in 1897:
“…The last scene is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility. No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord of creation moral implied in the wager and the speech into the woman’s own mouth.”
In the twentieth century the original version of the play was regularly performed. However, it became much more difficult to take the final speech at face value, because of the modern ideas about women’s equality. One way of making the speech more acceptable is to see it as ironic, a performance by Katherine in the play in which disguise is an important theme.
Within the play there are many similarities and differences with the perceptions of the time. It was very likely for a well off man like Baptista Minola to have two daughters of marriageable age. He would have wanted the best for them and would have known that a man in search of a wife would look for a well brought up young woman who was reasonably wealthy. For these reasons it was common practice for the father to offer dowries to make his daughters financially attractive to suitors.
If there was more than one daughter in a family it was customary for the eldest to be married first, if this was not the case and the youngest married first this would disgrace the eldest daughter, possibly making her feel unwanted and unattractive to others. It would not only be an embarrassment to herself but also to the family, it was not the way of doing things and would make you the subject of other people’s criticism. Baptista Minola says:
“That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter before I have a husband for the elder.”
He is prepared to pay any price so that Katherine is married first and will not be disgraced. However he will not allow her to marry just anybody he wants her to feel comfortable within her relationship and maybe even find it in her heart to love. He says:
” When the special thing is well obtained this is her love, for that is all in all.”
At this point in the play we see that Shakespeare does show sympathy to the feelings of women. From the words of Baptista Minola we get the impression that Shakespeare does not treat women as objects but as human beings who do have the ability to love. This factor is one of the differences with the perceptions of the time. The father would have only been concerned in marrying off his daughter to a wealthy, young man who would look after her and provide for her. It is very doubtful that he would ask if this is what his daughter wanted and it is likely that the daughter wouldn’t question it, as it is what was expected of her.
There are other aspects within the play that can be likened to life in the sixteenth century. For example, when Petruchio arrives in Padua and tells his friends that he has come expressly to find a wife and to increase his fortunes by marrying her. When he hears about Katherine “the shrew” he is determined to master her, regardless of the problems he might face. He achieves his goal and once married to Katherine he becomes her master. She must obey him and her father will not intervene, when he says that she must leave before the wedding reception she is obliged to obey. On the arrival back at his home he can treat her as he chooses and expects her to obey even his most unreasonable commands. He likens her to the hawks that he must train.
His method of taming the wayward Katherine is to treat her like a wild animal that needs to be tamed and put in its place. He deprives her of food and sleep until she does his bidding. He justifies these actions by telling everyone that these deprivations are made through concern and love for her. This is an example of how women were just the property of their husbands, Katherine’s views and opinions would not be listened to if they contradicted those of her husbands. Nobody questioned the way Petruchio was treating his wife, it was the man’s prerogative to treat his wife in the way in which he pleased and he was rarely ever challenged.
Another example of how the woman was the property of the man in Elizabethan England is shown in Katherine’s words at Bianca’s wedding feast. She is speaking to her sister and Hortensio’s widow, about how a wife must be subservient to her husband because she now belongs to him. Her words are:
” Thy husband is they Lord, thy life, thy keeper
They head, they sovereign; one that cares for thee…
…My mind has been as big as one of yours
My heart as great, my reason haply more
To bandy word for word, and frown for frown
But now I see our lances are but straws.”
The above mainly outlines the aspects of the play that show similarities with perceptions of the time in which it is set, however, there are also many differences. Shakespeare leads us into suspecting that Katherine may not be truly tamed but is just very cleverly playing along with what Petruchio would like, this way she gets what she wants and is able to lead an easy life. This is unlikely, women in the sixteenth century usually had the utmost respect for there husbands and would not even begin to think of deceiving them. Shakespeare has probably allowed us think along these lines as it leaves the play open to interpretation and allows for a much more open and interesting end to the story. This way the play is something out of the ordinary and will stay in the reader or audiences mind long after it has finished.
The fact that after the wedding both Bianca and Hortensio’s widow refuse to obey their husbands commands also shows a spirit not expected of women of that time.
Much Ado About Nothing is also one of Shakespeare’s plays loosely termed as his “romantic comedies” it shares many of the same essential characteristics being a story of reluctant love and sexual confrontation. It is set in Messina, Sicily. The governor Leonato, and his daughter Hero, and her cousin Beatrice (Antonio’s daughter) learn from a messenger that Don Pedro has won victory in a battle and is returning home. He arrives with Claudio, Benedick, and Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John. Claudio falls in love with Hero at first sight. Benedick and Beatrice chide one another and trade witticisms. In private, Claudio tells Benedick of his love, but Benedick only teases him. Don Pedro, however, vows to help Claudio by disguising himself as Claudio and making advances upon Hero. Leonato’s brother Antonio overhears Don Pedro and Claudio’s conversation, but believes Don Pedro is in love with Hero, rather than Claudio. Informing Leonato of this, both rejoice at prince Don Pedro’s supposed intentions and plan to tell Hero. Don John’s servant Conrade informs Don John of Claudio and Pedro’s plans to woo Hero for Claudio, but John, who enjoys being grouchy and spreading gloom, plans to attempt to foil the plans.
At dinner, while discussing husbands, Beatrice vows to never marry, echoing Benedick’s earlier vow. The men arrive in masks: Don Pedro and Hero dance; Benedick and Beatrice dance, and she makes fun of Benedick in general, possibly not knowing she is in fact dancing with him. Don John appears to Claudio, who identifies himself as Benedick, even though Don John knows he’s Claudio. Don John tells him Don Pedro is actually in love with Hero, causing Claudio to become depressed. Benedick carries the ruse further, depressing him more. To his relief, though, Don Pedro unites Hero and Claudio in future marriage and also plans to convince Beatrice and Benedick to marry one another, even though both have vowed to never marry. Soon, Don John learns of Claudio’s engagement to Hero. Still hoping to foil their marriage, he and his servant Borachio plan to brand Hero as a prostitute and thus compromise the marriage. In the orchard, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discuss Beatrice’s “love” for Benedick. Although Benedick is hiding, they know he is there and lead him to believe she loves him; Benedick takes the bait.
Similarly, Hero and her servant Ursula discuss how Benedick is “in love” with Beatrice, while Beatrice herself hides in the trees and listens; she too takes the bait. Separately, Don Pedro and Claudio tease Benedick for being quiet. Don John appears and tells Pedro and Claudio that Hero is a whore and will give proof of it the evening before the wedding. At nightfall, Dogberry and Verges instruct the night watch to watch over the city. In hiding, they hear a drunken Borachio tell Conrade how he has let Margaret woo him from Hero’s bedroom; therefore deceiving Don Pedro and Claudio into believing Hero is a whore. The next day, at the wedding, Claudio plans to denounce Hero and will not marry her. The watch arrests Borachio and Conrade, then Dogberry and Verges come to Leonato to tell him of the arrest, though he impatiently shrugs them off.
At the wedding, Claudio and Don Pedro accuse Hero of being a whore. Leonato vows to determine if the accusations are true. The Friar suggests they pretend that Hero has died from the accusation, so that if a lie is being propagated, the source may admit the lie out of remorse. Privately, Benedick and Beatrice profess their love for one another. She asks him to prove his love by killing Claudio for wronging Hero. In prison, Dogberry interrogates Borachio and Conrade; the Sexton plans to tell Leonato of their crimes.
In a courtyard, Benedick charges Claudio to a duel. Before this can occur, Dogberry brings Borachio who admits of his wrongdoings to slander Hero. Leonato, still dissembling that Hero is dead, instructs Claudio to come to his house in the morning, so that he can marry a “cousin” of Hero, who is nearly identical to her (and actually is her). Beatrice and Benedick continue to fall in love. At the tomb, Claudio delivers and epitaph to Hero. Then, in the morning, Benedick asks Leonato for Beatrice’s hand in marriage. Hero and Claudio are again engaged to be married. Lastly, it is reported that Don John has been arrested for his deceit and will be punished.
Many aspects within this tale of romance and courtship fit our perceptions of life in the sixteenth century. For example Hero is portrayed as a beautiful, gentle and virtuous virgin, who is loved by Claudio, a young officer much loved by the prince. Claudio immediately sets in motion his suit to marry her and the Prince agrees to help him to win her hand. Don John the, the Prince’s jealous bastard brother, sets in motion a plan to discredit Hero.
The common law courts had been active against sex offenders since the early sixteenth century. Women were expected to be pure virgins. At the time of their wedding if this was not the case they were considered unclean and no man would want to be with them. If a woman committed adultery she may be sentenced to whipping or even to prison or a house of correction. In addition to this women may have had to have their hair cut off. It was very common for women to be punished in this way but for men it was not. The wicked charade planned by Don John clearly demonstrates this aspect of women’s life in the sixteenth century. It fits exactly the expected picture of the time in which it is set. As soon as Claudio hears that Hero has been sleeping with another man he immediately rights her off as impure, saying:
” There Leonato, take her back again, Give not his rotten orange to your friend”
He does not know her well enough to disbelieve it. He denounces her on her wedding and refuses to marry therefore disgracing her in front of the priest and the whole congregation. He says:
” If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her tomorrow, in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her.”
He knows full well that no one will marry after this and believes this is just what she deserves.
However, although certain aspects of the play do fit the expected picture of life in the sixteenth century others do not. We see that Shakespeare contrives a ludicrous and hilarious way for Don John’s wickedness to be discovered; due to this the whole male belief in Hero’s “love affair” appears undignified and silly. Shakespeare has turned something, which in the sixteenth century would have been taken very seriously into something that is light hearted. He has made it possible to laugh at the situation Hero finds herself in. Does this suggest that Shakespeare was sexist? Did Shakespeare feel that women were the inferior sex and deserved to be treated in such ways?
Another aspect that does not fit the expected picture is that Claudio had a jape played on him. He is made to feel so sorry when he is told that Hero has died of a broken heart that he agrees to marry one of her cousins in her stead, even though he has never met her. This would not have been the case. There would probably have been an expected time of grievance and respects would have had to be paid in aftermath of the tragedy. As Claudio really was in love with Hero he would maybe have married another woman eventually but not straight away.
Benedick and Beatrice as a couple, go totally against all that we expect of the age in which they live. They are intellectual equals and bandy sarcasm’s at each other throughout the play. Both Benedick and Beatrice declare that they intend to remain unmarried for the rest of their life, even though we suspect they have strong feelings for one another. In Beatrice’s case women were expected to marry. For unmarried women poverty was a serious problem; wage rates were often insufficient to support themselves, domestic services were fine for the younger woman but it was no answer for the older unmarried woman. It is in my opinion that the majority of women would want to settle down as soon as possible, they would want a family and would want to be loved and feel happy.
Throughout the play both Benedick and Beatrice are in denial to themselves about their feelings towards one another. They have vowed to themselves never to marry and feel unnerved when they realise they are attracted to another person. A trick, played by their friends eventually brings them together and we begin to see the signs of admittance to themselves, Beatrice says:
” By troth I am sick.”
Here she is pretending to be unwell rather than announce that she is in love. Benedick says:
” It seems her affections have their full bent…Love me! why, it must be requited.”……………… ” No – the world must be peopled…When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should until I were married.”
Here we see how Benedick changes his mind about Beatrice and his feelings towards her. He says that he has always thought that it is natural for people to love each other, get married and have a family and that he just did not believe he would live as long to see the day when it would happen to him.
Beatrice has such power over Benedick that he is even prepared to challenge his friend Claudio to a duel to please her. He believes what she says about Hero’s virtue unlike the other men. This is extremely unrealistic the man would have been dominant in the relationship and he would not have questioned the fact that Hero was unclean. In reality if Beatrice had made her feelings clear that she felt Hero was being treated unfairly Benedick would probably have looked upon her in disgust and maybe even disowned her. However in the play this is not the case and we know that when they marry theirs will be a much more equal marriage than that of Claudio and Hero, but was there really such a thing as an equal marriage in the sixteenth century?
It was the men who were given all the opportunities and the women who were increasingly confined to the home; there were few opportunities for them to work and a dimunition of their rights to hold office. Woman, with very few exceptions, were regarded as faceless and passive, the subjects of historical developments unleashed by men.
In fact in the play it is almost as if Beatrice has tamed Benedick. She has found a man who once vowed to remain a bachelor until the day he died but falls in love and is prepared to marry her, make her happy and treat her on equal terms. In Benedick’s words:
“In brief, since I do propose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world I can say against; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is not a giddy thing; and this is my conclusion.”
The fact that Shakespeare introduced a relationship where both the man and the woman treated each other as equals suggests to me that Shakespeare has a positive attitude towards women; he believes that their opinions should be valued and they should be treated with respect. However this totally contradicts the ideas that come across from the way he discussed the situation Hero found herself in. What was Shakespeare’s attitude towards women and does he really show his feelings within his writing?
In conclusion I would say that the plays The Taming of the Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing in general do fit in with perceptions of typical sixteenth century courtship and marriage which I have gathered from my wider research into Shakespeare’s life and times. I feel that Shakespeare’s attitude to women was what was to be expected of any man living in this period. His beliefs came from those of the people he had grown up with and they were nothing out of the ordinary. I believe that any differences found in his writings were added to make the plays seem more exciting. At the time it would have seemed almost rebellious for people to think in such ways and this would have made Shakespeare a popular playwright as he was introducing new ideas, however preposterous they seemed at the time. We could say that the ideas portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays were ahead of the time in which they were set, however unintentional this may be.