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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2799

First produced: c. 1604

First published: 1647

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Farce

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Locale: Italy

Principal Characters:

Petruchio, the wife-tamer

Maria, Petruchio's bride

Livia, her sister

Bianca, their cousin

Moroso, an old man, in love with Livia

Sophocles ...

(The entire section contains 2799 words.)

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First produced: c. 1604

First published: 1647

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Farce

Time of work: Sixteenth century

Locale: Italy

Principal Characters:

Petruchio, the wife-tamer

Maria, Petruchio's bride

Livia, her sister

Bianca, their cousin

Moroso, an old man, in love with Livia

Sophocles, a friend of Petruchio

Tranio, another friend

Petronius, father of Maria and Livia

Rowland, a young gentleman, in love with Livia

Jacques, Petruchio's servant

Critique:

Attempting no doubt to capitalize on the earlier success of Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, Fletcher in this play turns the tables on Petruchio by having a new wife bring him to heel. Although it is by no means a failure, THE WOMAN'S PRIZE OR, THE TAMER TAMED is considerably inferior to the comedy on which it is based. To cite only one point of difference, Shakespeare manages very skillfully to have Petruchio show Katharina her shortcomings by subtly mirroring her meanness and perversity; she is tamed, as it were, with love and emerges reformed but with her spirit unbroken. Fletcher is incapable of this kind of finesse. Maria, Katharina's successor, completely humiliates Petruchio by means of a series of extravagant tricks, all of which are ultimately made possible by taking advantage of her husband's unsatisfied desire for her. The resulting comedy of situation is, however, very tightly constructed; the subplot, which deals with the love affair between Livia and the rather ineffectual Rowland, is skillfully interwoven with the main plot. Much broadly comic business is introduced more or less for its own sake—notably the invasion of the townswomen—but the pace of the action is so fast and the matter so high-spirited that the whole play comes off successfully.

The Story:

As they gathered in Petruchio's house after the wedding, Moroso, Sophocles, and Tranio discussed the match that had been made between Petruchio, the shrew-tamer, and the soft and yielding Maria, daughter of Petronius. Although Moroso, an ancient dotard who was infatuated with Livia, Petronius' second daughter, held that Petruchio was not so terrible as some believed, the others agreed that his first wife, now dead, had so inflamed his ill humor that Maria was in for a very bad time indeed. As a man's man Petruchio left nothing to be desired, but as a woman's man he was fiery and unpredictable.

A different conversation occupied two other wedding guests. Young Rowland was half afraid that Livia, enticed by Moroso's gold, would renounce the love she had secretly sworn to him, and he was attempting to induce her to elope with him. But Livia, who was as practical as she was beautiful, was unwilling to sacrifice her marriage portion by marrying without her father's permission. Vowing that she had a plan which would make her legitimately his, she sent Rowland from her. She was immediately joined by the new bride Maria and her cousin Bianca.

Influenced by Bianca, Maria had undergone such a change that Livia was shocked. Gone were her soft and gentle manners; in their place Maria, urged on by Bianca, exhibited a firm resolution. She would fight a holy war for the salvation of all womanhood. Never would she yield herself to her husband until his spirit was broken, until the wife-tamer was himself tamed. This she proclaimed in so imperious and immodest a tone that Livia left offended, but Maria's plans remained unchanged. When Jacques entered to inform her that Petruchio was ready to come to her, she replied that Petruchio could sleep elsewhere—he would share no bed with her. Dumbfounded, Jacques sought the impatient bridegroom.

Jacques interrupted Petruchio's boasts of his sexual prowess with the news that Maria and Bianca were firmly entrenched in the bedchamber with a month's rations and the determination that no man should enter until he had come to terms with them. Just then the window opened above the courtyard where Petruchio was standing, and Maria appeared to announce that she would remain barricaded until Petruchio signed the articles she proposed. Petruchio began to reason with her, gently at first but with increasing fire, but for every one of his arguments she had a counterargument of greater weight. Finally, in a blind rage, Petruchio swore that he would starve her into submission. Thus the engagement ended, with the bride inside and the bridegroom firmly locked out.

Livia, meanwhile, began to put her plan into action. With Moroso looking on, she purposely offended Rowland and bade him what seemed to be a final farewell as the young man stalked away, cursing women and all their works. Moroso took this as a sign that his suit had prospered; yet when he attempted to kiss Livia, she gave him a box on the ear. Somewhat discomfited, Moroso complained to Petronius, who assured him that within two hours the girl would be married to him. But Livia had other ideas. Approaching the sealed chamber, she begged to become a member of the women's party. Her admission was assured when Maria learned that she was laden with provisions.

Outside, the siege continued. Sophocles argued for a peaceful settlement, but Petruchio was adamant; he would assert his rights as a husband—no woman could daunt him. But Petruchio had reckoned without the townswomen, who had learned of Maria's stand. Armed with pot lids, ladles, and other household utensils, they formed a relief column and forced their way into the women's stronghold. The victory was celebrated with dancing and wine, and several of the victors drank rather more than they should have. The siege was lifted and the vanquished men agreed to a treaty. Petruchio yielded to Maria's terms, liberty and clothes; and Moroso agreed to Livia's, that she should be forced to marry no one for a month. Then victors and vanquished celebrated at a supper attended by all the townswomen.

Although the women had temporarily called a truce, the war was not yet over. As Rowland sulked and swore that he was forever through with love, Petruchio, attempting to bed his bride, met another cold rebuff. Once more in a rage, he offered half his land to the one who could make him stop loving her. Continuing to press her advantage, Maria first ordered an elaborate gown, then new horses and hawks for hunting, and new hangings for the house. Finally she considered having the house torn down altogether and rebuilt in a more pleasant location. Hard pressed, Petruchio again attempted to reason with her as sweetly as he could; however, he once more flew into a rage when Maria began to flirt openly with Sophocles. In despair, Petruchio resolved simply to die; he declared that only his death could shame his shrewish wife.

In the meantime Rowland was still having difficulties. Tranio had induced him to show how little he cared for Livia by attending her forthcoming wedding to Moroso. He returned to her the various favors she had given him during their courtship and gave her a parting kiss. Suddenly, his resolution beginning to weaken, he had to hurry from the scene to prevent love's stealing upon him again.

At the same time all was in confusion at Petruchio's. Declaring that her husband was sick of the plague, Maria was having the house stripped of all its furnishings. In spite of his protests that he was as healthy as anyone else, Petruchio was put under guard, and all of his friends deserted him for fear of infection. Left alone except for some members of the watch, the supposedly dying man burst open the door and put his guardians to flight by threatening them with a fowling piece. Only then did he realize that Maria had executed another maneuver in her campaign to humiliate him, but this blow was not the final one. Soon Maria returned and belabored him soundly for casting her off during his sickness. Stung beyond endurance, Petruchio nearly struck her, but caught himself because she vowed to repay any mistreatment by cuckolding him with the first man she met.

Moroso also was feeling the pangs of despised love, and Petronius again promised him that he should enjoy Livia soon. However, Bianca and Tranio were hatching a plot to aid Livia in her efforts to thwart her suitor. Tranio's task was to persuade Rowland to return to Petronius' house while Livia, under Bianca's tutelage, feigned illness. After she was safely abed and Tranio had lured Rowland to the scene, Bianca informed Moroso that although Livia was suffering an emotional upset she had renounced Rowland forever and would accept him instead. When the entire party had gathered around her bed, Livia, speaking in the weak voice of one desperately sick, contritely begged Moroso's pardon for the many tricks she had played upon him. She then sadly took her final leave of Rowland and had him sign a paper which she produced, a document in which he formally renounced any claim he had upon her. After Moroso and Petronius had affixed their signatures, the party left the ailing maid to recuperate. But as Rowland sadly walked toward his home, he looked more closely at his copy of the paper. To his delight, he found that it was not a renunciation at all, but a marriage contract. Livia's strange actions then became clear to him; she had tricked Moroso and her father into giving her and her dowry to the man she loved.

Petruchio, during this time, was attempting to meet Maria's strategy with some ruses of his own. Pretending that her treatment of him had killed any love he had felt for her, he threatened to set out on a journey. She took the announcement calmly and encouraged him to do so. This scheme failing, he had himself carried home in a coffin surrounded by mourners who lamented that his wife's evil ways had killed him. On seeing his body, Maria wept, but not for his death. Rather, she grieved that he had led such a misguided and foolish life.

This was the last straw; Petruchio sat up in the coffin. But at last he had to admit himself outwitted and defeated. Maria now had her wish; her campaign had been an unqualified success. Embracing her husband, she announced that from that moment she was entirely his to do with as he chose. With the tamer tamed, she vowed to be a humble and dutiful wife. And Petruchio, his lesson learned, forgave her.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

The author of THE WOMAN'S PRIZE, John Fletcher, was born in 1579 into a well-placed family. He was the son of Richard Fletcher, the Bishop of London, and the cousin of the poets Giles and Phineas Fletcher. Little is known of his early life, but his father's death left debts and a large family, and the young Fletcher must have needed to provide for himself.

By the early years of the seventeenth century, Fletcher had become connected with the King's Men, one of London's leading dramatic companies. He remained their most productive playwright until his death of the plague in 1625. His output was enormous by any standard: in 1679, a folio of fifty-two plays was published, of which fifteen were written by Fletcher alone, and at least thirty others were the result of his collaboration with other authors.

Fletcher is chiefly remembered in conjunction with Francis Beaumont with whom he wrote at least eight plays, but he also co-authored HENRY THE EIGHTH and THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN with William Shakespeare, and collaborated with Philip Massinger (among others) after Beaumont's retirement. To form an idea of his productivity, one should note that he worked on more than four plays a year for the last twelve years of his life.

THE WOMAN'S PRIZE shows Fletcher's unaided work at its best. As the subtitle suggests, the play is a sequel of sorts to Shakespeare's THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. The continuation of the story of the woman-taming Petruchio, it is recorded that Fletcher's play was better liked than Shakespeare's when both were played at court in 1633, and after the Restoration, THE WOMAN'S PRIZE was revived.

But Fletcher's play is more an extension of Shakespeare's main idea than a simple continuation of the story. Only three of Shakespeare's characters remain—Petruchio, Tranio, and Bianca—and the scene has been shifted from Padua to London. There are occasional references to the action of the earlier play, mainly concerning Petruchio's reputation as a master at bending spirited women to his will, but Fletcher succeeds entirely in giving a different direction to his story.

Fletcher conceived of the idea of furnishing Petruchio with a wife who could tame him as effectively as he had tamed Katharina, Shakespeare's "shrew." We are told, as the play opens, that Kate has died, and Petruchio has remarried a gentle girl named Maria. Through the main action of Maria's subjugation of Petruchio is skillfully woven a wholly new subplot, the successful resistance of Livia to an arranged marriage to an old man.

The plot of THE WOMAN'S PRIZE immediately invites comparison with Aristophanes' LYSISTRATA, where women likewise overrule their husbands by withholding their favors. But the full-scale engagement in Fletcher's battle of the sexes, the siege of Maria's chamber, ends with the second act, leaving the stage free for the single combat of Maria and Petruchio. In their struggle, Maria wins every skirmish, and is completely victorious in the end.

The play sounds exceptionally modern in this time of Women's Liberation, since Maria demands complete equality in her relationship with her husband and settles for nothing less. When Petruchio insists on obedience as his right in justice, she answers:

That bare wordShall cost you many a pound more, build upon't;Tell me of due obedience? What's a husband?What are we married for, to carry sumpters?Are we not one piece with you, and as worthyOur own intentions, as you yours?* * *Take two small drops of water, equal weighed,Tell me which is the heaviest, and which oughtFirst to descend in duty?(Act III, Scene iii, lines 95-103)

Maria successfully counters all of Petruchio's devices: shouts, the orders of her father, the pretended illness of Petruchio, his threats of violence, even his feigned death, a piece of fakery that is concealed from the audience until it fails.

Fletcher's comedy derives from two sources: first, there is the comedy of incident. Several scenes are exceptionally good theater: the women barricaded in their stronghold, appearing at the window of an upper floor to bargain with the men below is a comic situation seldom equalled; and the scene in which Petruchio, locked in his room and abandoned by friends fleeing his "sickness," breaks through the door with pistol in hand is a masterpiece.

The second source of humor is Fletcher's language. Ironically, the language may have kept the play from frequent performance. The speeches are often bawdy, and what is more surprising, the language of the women is as frank as that of the men. Fletcher seems to have felt that such speech from gentlewomen might be thought excessive, since he attempts to explain it. After an explicitly sexual statement by Maria, he has Livia ask, "Dear sister, / Where have you been you talk thus?" Maria answers, "Why at Church, wench; / Where I am tied to talk thus: I am a wife now." (Act I, Scene ii, lines 83-86).

Despite Fletcher's claim of greater license in speech for wives than maidens, there is a deeper justification for the often open sexuality we find. Fletcher's play concerns how a man and woman live together in marriage. In the society of the time of the play (and for centuries afterward), a wife's body was not just her main weapon, but often her only one. Hence the characters discuss their anatomy as a soldier might talk about his armament.

When the play was revived in 1633, it attracted the attention of the Master of the Revels, the official censor for the government. He demanded a copy of the play to be presented to him, and he then purged it of what he considered blasphemy, profanity, and obscenity. The play was much more drastically cut for an eighteenth century performance. In fact, the editors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often seem to show an embarrassment at the franker language of the play. In our own time, T. M. Parrott and R. H. Ball have claimed that "the jesting is rather broad for modern taste" (A SHORT VIEW OF ELIZABETHAN DRAMA, New York: 1943). So rapidly though has that taste changed that no one who sees today's motion pictures would be offended by THE WOMAN'S PRIZE.

All things considered, Fletcher's comedy is a play rich in wit and humor, with well-developed characters, a fast-moving plot, and a theme relevant to our time. Unlike many comedies of its day, it fully repays its readers in enjoyment.

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