The Taming of the Shrew is set in Padua, Italy, during the Renaissance. On the heels of the medieval time period, which was marked by the rise and fall of feudalism, the Black Plague, and the extreme corruption of the Catholic Church, the Renaissance in Europe showed a dramatic shift in art, music, and literature. However, gender roles and stereotypes from medieval times carried over into the Renaissance. Women were often treated as property, first belonging to their fathers and then to their husbands. They were expected to be mild-mannered and agreeable, to tend to their houses and children, and to serve their husbands to their utmost capacity. Men were valued more than women and had much more social and economic power than their female counterparts.
In The Taming of the Shrew, we see gender explored for both male and female characters. The major male characters are the decision-makers in the play. Baptista, father of Katherine and Bianca, is the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the trajectories of his daughters’ lives. It is ultimately he who decides that Katherine must marry before Bianca, as well as whom they will marry and what price he will pay. In short, he controls their marital destinies completely. Petruchio decides that he will tame Katherine because of “gold's effect” (act 1, scene 2). Lucentio, rather than go to school as originally planned, decides to set in motion a complicated plan to woo and wed Bianca, because he has both the time and money to do so. Time and time again, they reference their money as proof of their credibility and identity, asserting the idea that men had to have power and wealth in order to be socially successful.
The main female characters in the play are Katherine and her younger sister, Bianca. Bianca is the epitome and embodiment of a desirable woman during the time period. She is referred to as “modest” and “sweet,” while her older sister, Katherine, is a “shrew” because of her quick wit, sharp tongue, and contrary nature. In act 1, scene 2, Hortensio tells Petruchio that Katherine’s “only fault, and that is fault enough / Is that she is intolerable curst / And shrewd and forward, so beyond all measure / That, were my state far worser than it is / I would not wed her for a mine of gold.”
Bianca is mild-mannered and sweet, so many suitors compete for her hand. Katherine is quick to lash out verbally and physically, and therefore her strength of spirit is off-putting to men. While the male characters’ identities are tied to their power and wealth, we here see female worth tied to their perceived weakness and desirability in the eyes of men.
10 Things I Hate About You explores similar themes but in a modern 1990s high school. Kat and Bianca’s father is still the ultimate decision maker, and, terrified of teen pregnancy, he decides that no one can date his sweet Bianca until rebellious, antisocial Kat is also dating. Again, we see that he is able to control his daughters by making decisions about their romantic lives. Cameron, who fills Lucentio’s role, is desperate to date Bianca and goes to great lengths to do so. Eventually, we see money connecting to male power in the movie, as Cameron offers to pay Patrick (Petruchio) to date Kat, and Patrick accepts both the money and the challenge.
However, the men in the movie depart from gender roles set forth in The Taming of the Shrew by ultimately allowing themselves to be emotionally available to women, rather than consistently asserting their social dominance. The girls’ father ultimately listens to his daughters about their inner feelings and allows them to make their own romantic decisions, Cameron allows himself to be vulnerable in front of Bianca by making himself available when she is wronged by senior Joey Donner, and Patrick uses the money he was paid by Cameron to buy Kat a thoughtful gift and token of his admiration.
The female characters in this movie are a stark departure from those in The Taming of the Shrew. Though Bianca is desirable because she is sweet and seemingly docile, she ends up punching Joey in defense of both her sister and Cameron. She is rewarded by her father for her plucky behavior by being allowed to date Cameron, even if Kat chooses to not have a boyfriend. Though Kat resembles Katherine in that she is sharp-tongued and suspicious, she ultimately allows herself to be vulnerable by writing a sonnet and reading it in front of Patrick, professing her love for him. She and Patrick enter a new phase in their romance as consenting equals.
Both the play and the movie explore the idea of masculine identity being tied to wealth and power. However, while the female characters in The Taming of the Shrew are only valued insofar as they are deemed pliable and desirable by men, we see the female characters in 10 Things I Hate About You enjoying much more social power and freedom thanks to the more modern setting of the movie. It is still important to note, however, that while the girls are ultimately allowed to choose their own romantic paths, their inherent female worth is still tied to their romantic relationships with men, as both girls end up with their “correct” male counterparts rather than choosing to remain single.