The Taming of the Shrew
Twentieth-century scholarship of The Taming of the Shrew has reflected the growing historiography of the Elizabethan period and an increased understanding of Elizabethan ideology and culture. Numerous scholars have compared The Taming of the Shrew to earlier, more traditional shrew-taming tales. Stephen Miller (1998), for example, compares Shakespeare's version to Peter Short's 1594 story, Taming of a Shrew. Scholars note that the ways in which Shakespeare adapted his play from the traditional shrew-taming genre reflect the changes that were occurring in Elizabethan society. Natasha Korda (1996) discusses the way in which Shakespeare's play reveals changes in the economy and the commodification of the family. Jonathan Hall (1995) discusses similar themes, stating that market changes lessened the family's role as a productive unit and created tensions regarding the nature of marriage. Hall argues that in the play Shakespeare explored the advantages and disadvantages of the emerging notion of romantic unions, and traditional, arranged unions. Karen Newman (1986) also critiques The Taming of the Shrew against the backdrop of Elizabethan society, focusing on the way in which the uneasiness of social change is reflected in the play. Katherine A. Sirluck (1991) argues that The Taming of the Shrew is a satire of the Elizabethan patriarchal order, which was in flux during Shakespeare’s time.
Much recent criticism of The Taming of the Shrew centers upon feminist ideology, conflicts in how to comprehend Shakespeare's original intent, and ways of interpreting the play in light of changing views on the roles of women and the nature of marriage. Critic Barbara Hodgdon maintains that the play has sparked remarkable consternation as a result of its Elizabethan patriarchal power structure which no longer corresponds with modern cultural gender ideology. She states, "Shrew's obsessive attempt to circumscribe woman's ‘place’ has especially fatal attractions for late-twentieth century feminist readers and spectators." Her sentiments echo other scholars who are in consensus that a modern reading of the play is fraught with interpretive difficulties. Points of contention are Petruchio's physical abuse of his servants and method for breaking Kate's spirit (through denial of food and sleep), and his reliance on psychological abuse to achieve complete domination. Most puzzling for academics, as well as theatre companies, is determining how to decode Kate's final speech in Act V, in which she states that a wife's role is to serve her husband. Critics note that many modern productions of the play emphasize an ironic tone in this final speech, as a means of creating rapport with a modern audience who rejects inequality between men and women. Dale G. Priest (1994) suggests that while the play does reaffirm the traditional patriarchal order, Kate benefits from her transformation from selfish and angry shrew to loving wife. Other scholars interpret Kate's final scene as evidence of a bond of equality and love between the couple; Kate is not subjugated, but empowered through her love and her winning of the love of Petruchio. George Walton Williams (1991) argues that Kate benefits from knowing her place within a power structure which functions for the good of all. However, Hall cautions that Kate cannot offer herself in a power structure in which she has no control over her identity. Increasingly, scholars such as Ann Thompson (1997) and Hall are praising The Taming of the Shrew for the questions which it raises about feminism and gender roles in our society.
Barbara Freedman (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: “Taming Difference and The Taming of the Shrew: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Theater,” in Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 114-53.
[In the following excerpt, Freedman argues that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a challenge to critics and audiences, contending that it is a “labyrinth” that does not...
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