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Gender Politics of Early Modern England

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3056 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Literary theorist, Louis Adrian Montrose argues that Queen Elizabeth I’s reign during a persistent time of patriarchal control did nothing to deter her sovereignty as the matriarchal ruler of sixteenth-century England. While being the head of an entire country, the same could not be said for her female subjects (Suzuki, Subordinate Subjects, 75). Although men had a leading role in Elizabethan society, the patriarchy not only attacked women but men as well. With the notion that men were supposed to be authoritative figures in the household, there were cases in which men failed to be a symbol of authority (Amussen, The Contradictions 345). William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew brings the topic of gender politics into the threshold of the sixteenth-century. The roles that women and men had were pushed in Taming of the Shrew and seemed to unconsciously advocate for submissiveness of women and domination among men.

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During the sixteenth-century, gender was approached as more of an ideology and was described as a process of social construction that was created (Richards, Gender, Power, and Privilege 8). As opposed to it being about sexual difference, biological factors were given a cultural meaning through performances in clothing, speech, and conduct (Richards, 8). Shrews, or scolds as Lynda Boose mentions in her essay, Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds, were women who were “guilty of [so] egregiously violating the norms of community order and hierarchy” (Boose, 185). Scolds were described as being one of the most threatening factors put against the patriarchal society of the sixteenth-century (Amussen, 347). Women who were accused of being scolds, were a hinderance to the gender hierarchy that emplaced men as the sole authoritative figures in the appropriate contexts. Both men and women had to adhere to roles established by the patriarchy but the importance of women marrying and displaying the norms of an obedient wife was detrimental to the institution of marriage (Boose, 181).  Many of these norms include, as we see in Taming of the Shrew, is the silence and obedience of women and wives; which would define what “speech and conduct” means.

In Act 1 of Taming of the Shrew one of the very first scenes show how this performance is seen in sixteenth-century society. Tranio and Lucentio are commenting on both sisters’ manners and behaviors:

TRANIO, aside to Lucentio
 Husht, master, here’s some good pastime toward;
 That wench is stark mad or wonderful forward.

LUCENTIO, aside to Tranio
 But in the other’s silence do I see
 Maid’s mild behavior and sobriety.
 Peace, Tranio.  (1.1.69-73)

Tranio and Lucentio are having a conversation that is, not only based on their perspectives of how women should behave and act but is the standard for the patriarchal control on women. Katherine is not the typical woman of the sixteenth-century. Katherine is known for being free-minded and quick-tempered. For a young suitor during the early modern period, a woman who often speaks her mind would be referred to as difficult, which is how Tranio and Lucentio describe Katherine. Bianca on the other hand is silent and that wins her favor among the gentlemen. Bianca’s reserved stature makes her the perfect wife in a patriarchal society. Instead Katherine, becomes this figure that is against what society has in place for her and refuses to accept the natural order of the patriarchy (Boose, 192). She is seen as hard to handle, to control and takes on a male-oriented gender norm that, in the eyes of Tranio and Lucentio, throws off the balance of heteronormative marriage (Boose, 181). Shakespeare seems to be attempting to introduce his viewers to only a patriarchal perspective that is obsessed with women acting the way that men intend them to.

Assertiveness in a woman’s personality was worrisome enough, but her continued shrewish behavior is even after marriage is what interconnects men’s struggle with the patriarchy Men had to constantly display bouts of socially acceptable masculinity, and those who were could not control their wives were not “real” men. Cuckolds were defined as men who had adulteress wives or men who had failed in their roles of the patriarchy (Amussen, 348). Cuckold men were subjected to abuse, but it was not as severe as women who were scolds (Amussen, 349).  Lucentio and Hortensio were challenged by Petruchio of who had the most obedient wife. In Act 5, Petruchio says to both men:

 Well, I say no. And therefore, [for] assurance,
 Let’s each on send unto his wife,
 And he whose wife is most obedient
 To come at first when he doth send for her
 Shall win the wager which we will propose. (5.2.66-71).

The wager ends with Lucentio and Hortensio losing as both Bianca and the widow do not come. Shakespeare proceeds to advocate the idea that if one were to truly display the conventions of masculinity, one must show that they have full influence and authority of their wives. He is showing the male audience that they do not want to end up like Lucentio or Hortensio, who are made fun of. He equates the value of women’s obedience to capital as Hortensio says, “The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,/ Hath cost me [a] hundred crown since suppertime” (5.2.141-142). In congruence with authority over the household, “…in England, the income of the household belonged to its male head, not jointly to him and his wife” (Amussen, 345-346). The disobedience of Bianca cost Lucentio a hundred crowns, showing that not only can he not control his wife, but his wife’s misbehavior made him lose control of his capital.

Susan D. Amussen says, “that it was almost impossible for either men or women to meet the standards established by patriarchy” and that may be why Petruchio resorts to abuse to control Kate. Their marriage in the play is seen as a prime example of the way the patriarchy shows how men should treat disobedient wives, and how wives were supposed to behave. While the marriage of Bianca and Lucentio is based around them falling in love, Petruchio marries Kate with the challenge of taming her. His taming practices involve starving and keeping Kate awake throughout the night, “Am starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep/With oaths kept waking and with brawling fed (4.3.9-10). While Petruchio does not use physical violence to tame Kate, his methods make prominent the importance of the patriarchal control over food to the maintenance of relations of power in the larger socio-political sphere (Holderness,189).

Along with his methods of starvation, Petruchio asserts his masculinity over Kate by his use of manipulation. His speech on how he is going to woo Kate is an accurate example of silencing her through his authority. In Act 2, scene 1 Petruchio says:

  I pray you do. I’ll attend her here—

All but Petruchio exit.
  And woo her with some spirit when she comes!
  Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain
  She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
  Say that she frown, I’ll says she looks as clear
  As morning roses newly washed with dew.
  Say she be mute and will not speak a word,
  Then I’ll commend her volubility
  And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
  If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks
  As though she bid me stay by her a week.
  If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day
                        When I shall ask the banns, and when be married
  But here she comes—and now, Petruchio, speak. (2.1.175-189).

 Throughout Petruchio’s speech, he is showing how he plans to undermine her own valid feelings as a way of promoting his masculinity. He says that if she is frowning, he will compliment her looks instead of being concerned on why she is frowning. The most important line in this speech is when he says that even if she were to refuse his hand in marriage, he would declare that they were to be married anyway. This scene calls for the submissiveness of not just Kate but her scolding attribute. Petruchio knows that having a wife as a scold would be damaging to his own reputation as a man of Padua and as a man in the patriarchal society in the sixteenth-century.

This would be an example of the patriarchy attributing this behavior onto Petruchio but as it is more endowed into the minds of men, there is no recognition on the carelessness of his words on his part. Susan D. Amussen states that the failures of patriarchs in controlling women showed the way they undermined the structures of order (347). Petruchio is told of what kind of scold Katherine is and as he must find a means of marriage, takes it upon himself to find a way to not be seen as a patriarch that threatens the gender hierarchy.

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The patriarchal order of the sixteenth-century called for the manhood of men to reach certain standards or be made fun of by the community. Cuckolds were made fun of and were the center of many adulteress jokes and while they were made for humor, men who were accused of being cuckolds did not find them funny (Amussen, 349). By Amussen’s description of the cuckold during the sixteenth-century, men who were cuckolded were so without their knowledge. There is the implication that as these wives went behind their husband’s backs meant that these women were smarter than the men. This discourse is shown in the play when Petruchio, trying to get the upper hand in intelligence, finds it necessary to undermine her intelligence:

 Come on, i’ God’s name, once more toward our father’s.
 Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
 The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.
 I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
 I know it is the sun that shines so bright. (4.5.1-6).

Kate is forced to say what he wants her to say, only for him to reverts his previous claim and call her a liar (4.5.20-25). This scene not only shows the submissiveness that was expected of women, but it shows the lengths that men are pressured to go in order to establish themselves among the patriarchy. Not only must men remain smarter than women, but women must refrain from frustrating men by speaking out of term. A woman correcting a man is something that razes society’s conventions of gender difference (Boose, 1991). Petruchio, in the battle of establishing his manhood, written during a time where people were faced with an authoritative matriarch, was doing a public service. Manhood was not only defined by patriarchal control in the home, but it was also the involvement in public duties (Richards, 16).

The public service that Petruchio provides for the citizens of Padua is a new Kate. Kate, fully tamed, makes a speech that serves to implement her own oppression and increase sixteenth-century patriarchal ideologies. In this scene Kate is now the type of woman that would be valuable for marriage in this time. She speaks to the other two women, Bianca and the widow, telling them that they should be treating their husbands as if they were kings (5.2.162-163). Kate claims that since the men go off and fight and endure harsh conditions at sea to provide for their wives, that by even exchange the women must provide, “But love, fair looks, and true obedience—” (5.2.169). Petruchio claims that Kate is pretty, “But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom” (2.1.195). We also know that Kate never wanted to get married to Petruchio:

 Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
 You have showed a tender fatherly regard,
 To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
 A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack,
 That thinks with oaths to face the matter out. (2.1.302-306).

 She was sold off by Baptista and no one even thought about whether Katherine loved Petruchio. In the next line Kate says that love, looks, and obedience are meager reparations for the debt that men provide for their wives (5.2.170). The payment is more than just insignificant, for when Kate was being tamed by Petruchio, it is more than just these three factors that are given to him, we see how she is being broken down. Piece by piece, the assertiveness that Kate founded herself with is eradicated with the need to please her husband only and become the poster woman of the sixteenth-century. Petruchio also becomes the ideal husband in this situation, establishing his masculinity through Kate’s obedience speech.

Petruchio’s taming of Kate was seen as a heroic act and a public duty by many of the other characters. Petruchio, forging this conventional Kate, is treated like a hero when at the end Hortensio says, “Now, go thy ways, thou hast tamed a curst shrow” (5.2.205). Baptista, Kate’s own father, even exclaims after the wager scene:

              Now, fair befall thee, good Petruchio
              The wager thou hast won, and I will add
              Unto their losses twenty thousand crowns,
              Another dowry to another daughter,
             For she is changed as she had never been (5.2.124-128).

 Baptista’s reaction shows the importance of upholding patriarchal values over the value of one’s daughter. The patriarchy that allows for Kate to be tamed, is the same patriarchy that enables Baptista’s exclamation. It enables Petruchio’s abuse of Kate and paints him as the hero. He becomes this damaging, manipulative man who, in Shakespeare’s narrative, is looked at as model of what to do when you have a wife who is a scold. This furthers the argument that gender politics in the sixteenth-century was about upholding the patriarchy and that came with making women submit themselves to their husbands.

 Throughout Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare is acknowledging the structural order of gender in early modern England and seems to know that there are pressures being applied on both men and women when it comes to the patriarchy. Petruchio and Katherine may seem to be a match, as Baptista says in Act 2, scene 1, line 338, but it may be attributed to the fact that they are both facing sways of their conventional norms. Petruchio attempts to establish an authority that is expected of him because of his gender, while Kate tries to fight against what society has made out for her. While Kate seems to accept her title as the shrew as it keeps her from bowing to the patriarchy of that time being, Petruchio is desperate to claim his rightful position as the patriarch. He resorts to manipulating Kate and even goes as far as to starve her in order to tame her shrewish behavior. 

The patriarchal ideologies of the sixteenth-century provided almost unrealistic requirements for both men and women, with contradictions throughout its entire establishment. Women were deemed inferior to men on all levels but there were the exceptions in which some women refused to be governed by men. The cycles between scolds/shrews and cuckolds began to reaffirm heteronormative values as those who were labeled as such were ostracized by the community. Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew truly highlights the topic of gender politics and pressures of the patriarchy of the sixteenth-century.

Works Cited

  • Amussen, Susan D. “The Contradictions of Patriarchy in Early Modern England.” Gender & History, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 343-353.
  • Boose, Lynda E. “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 1991, pp. 179–213. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2870547.
  • Burgess, Kasey. “16th Century Patriarchy”. 2018.
  • Holderness, Graham, and David Wootton. Gender and Power in Shrew-Taming Narratives, 1500-1700. Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire;New York, NY;, 2010.
  • Montrose, Louis Adrian. Shaping Fantasies. University of California Press, www.jstor.org/stable/2928384
  • Richards, Penny, and Jessica. Gender, Power and Privilege in Early Modern Europe: 1500 – 1700. Routledge, 2014. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.emich.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=818643&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  • Shakespeare, William, et al. The Taming of the Shrew. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014
  • “shrew, n.2 and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/178824. Accessed 8 December 2018.
  • Suzuki, Mihoko. Subordinate Subjects : Gender, the Political Nation, and Literary Form in England, 1588–1688. Routledge, 2017. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.emich.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1480413&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  • Wiesner‐Hanks, Merry. “Forum Introduction: Reconsidering Patriarchy in Early Modern Europe and the Middle East.” Gender & History, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 320-330.


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