The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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The Taming of the Shrew, Good Husbandry, and Enclosure

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Lynda E. Boose, Dartmouth College

Readings of The Taming of the Shrew have always felt compelled to begin at the end, the site where happily-ever-after presumably begins and, in this play, the site/sight where the play produces its theatrical tour de force by offering up a prostrated woman's body to the eye—and the boot—of the stunned viewer. But whereas the play's stage history of repeated revisions clearly marks Kate's final speech as the site of textual excess,1 what Shrew revisions have characteristically desired is not so much a way of undoing Kate's ventriloquization of male superiority as a way of making it more palatable. Kate's subjugation must be endowed with signs of resistance—but a resistance that Petruchio will not recognize. She must embody the illusion of subversiveness—but simultaneously be authorized to submit to whatever self-abnegation is imagined as necessary to preserve the heterosexual bond.

New Critical readings of The Shrew—even many feminist ones—have largely remained trapped within the revisionist conundrum, trying to resolve the play's contradictory desires from the already contained position of reading from "inside" the text and dismissing all considerations that lie "outside." Poststructuralist methodologies were probably necessary before this play could be read through a fully feminist perspective, for so long as readers adhered to the formalist injunction to stay "inside," critique was tautologically restricted by assumptions that granted not only texts but also "good readers" the ideal status of artifacts somehow immaculately conceived outside history, ideology, and all the disunifying politics of historical contingency. But masked behind the presumption of being apolitical and hence "objective," formalism's impulse to universalize the particular has always tacitly subscribed to a politics that affirms the status quo. Reading The Shrew from inside the text dissociates the reader both from recognizing how the material conditions of early modern England might be implicated in producing its narrative and from any consciousness of the reader's own potential distance from the cultural location of insider-ness. Seduced into reading patriarchal texts from their center, the woman reader remains safely divorced from any recognition of her own resistance. When lured into such a position, the feminist critic has inevitably felt defensively compelled to take Kate's part, a course that by definition leads to rationalizing Kate's actions, usually by means of finding some hidden assurance of marital "mutuality" lurking behind the play's formidable show of patriarchal domination. And while such ameliorating scripts may format an unconscious working through of both the culture's and the critic's own relationship to the entangled symbiotics of patriarchal culture and heterosexual marriage, they are virtually incapable of emancipating either female or male readers from the relentlessly gendered experience that the dynamics of this play have constituted as inseparable from its fulfillment of comic desire.

Outside of such a (too) close reading, there is an "other" space from which to generate a potentially different understanding of this play, one that neither denies nor unwittingly validates the play's patriarchal premises but tries instead to consider how the text itself may offer a revealing narrative not only of its own production but also of the markedly compulsive needs for masculine dominance that underwrite it. Central to this strategy is a reading order which, by insisting on the diachronic structure of the narrative, firmly binds the play's often forgotten Induction to its more familiar woman-taming material. In the perspective I propose, the issues of gender and hierarchy are pushed outside the fictive frame of the Kate and Petruchio story in order to be searched out again among a variety of historicized construction sites, including, most prominently, an overdue consideration of the ways in which the...

(The entire section is 13,740 words.)