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The Shrew's Speech: Was It Really Antifeminist?

Updated: Sep 3

In honor of Women’s Equality Day, we’re taking a peek at Katherina’s final speech in The Taming of the Shrew. Viewed today as troublesome & antifeminist, it instructs women to be subservient to their husbands. Was this Katherina’s true intention - to promote the inferiority of women to men? Was it Shakespeare’s too? Let’s discuss.


For reference, a copy of Katherina’s speech is provided below the article.


An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Character Design


Shakespeare and his audience lived in a patriarchal society where a husband physically subduing his wife was considered acceptable. As for the extent of the “taming”? According to several ballads of the period, “the approved remedy for a domineering wife was physical violence, the more ingenious and excruciating the better.” (1) If a woman displayed any resistance to the abuse, she could easily be dubbed a shrew.


Katherina is often seen in this play as the “ultimate shrew”. Her husband, Petruchio, is quite extreme in his own right, going to unimaginable depths to abuse her despite his affection. Put the two of them together, add some humor & spice, and you’ll come up with… satire! A whole lot of it. Through his satire, scholars believe the Bard intended his audience to reconsider society’s treatment of women.


But his messaging didn’t stop at the handful of funny lines and over-the-top traits. In many ways, he garnered viewers’ sympathy for Katherina. Without this goodwill, it’s possible the audience would’ve too quickly agreed with Petruchio that the shrew must be punished, destroying the chance for the males in the crowd to reconsider their position on marital subjugation.


Now, you may be wondering: “What sympathy?” Glad you asked. Let’s briefly examine these examples:


#1: It’s Not Katherina’s Fault She’s a Shrew

Since Katherina’s mother is never mentioned, one can assume she’s deceased. As Katherina’s father (AKA Baptista) appears to be closer to her younger sister (Bianca) than he is to her, it’s fair to infer Baptista’s wife died from Bianca’s birthing. A newly single parent, Baptista was far more involved in raising Bianca, which may have caused Katherina to grow jealous. As negative behavior brought her more attention, she learned to act like a shrew. Unable to find an alternate means to garner the attention she coveted, the shrewish behavior only blossomed over time.


“Although the play does not provide information about Katherina’s family history, through the interaction of the characters, Shakespeare shows a wounded woman, wrapped in a protective shell of shrewish behavior. This invitation to feel sympathy for Katherina does not demonstrate Shakespeare’s approval for her shrewish deportment, but it does indicate that Shakespeare suggests her family and society have contributed to the circumstances that make her the shrew she is.” (1)


So that “shrewish” behavior society seemed to hate… maybe it was society’s fault to begin with.



#2: Her Husband’s Sanity is Questionable --> Embarrassment

Besides the unreasonable extremes of physical torture Petruchio imposes, numerous other examples of his madness fill the play. For instance, he arrives at his wedding late in unmatched, ragged clothes… not exactly what his fiancé had envisioned. This is both disheartening & incredibly embarrassing for her.


Was this a scheme to dupe the guests? A rebellion against society? Were they perhaps in on it together from the start?


A Truly Feminist Speech?

Is Katherina’s speech reflective of what she truly believed? Is she scheming with her husband to dupe society?


Great questions! Here are the biggest points to consider:


1. Remember this is all part of a bet.

In the scene, two men belittle Petruchio for having a shrewish wife. Consequently, Petruchio designs a wager based on whose wife is the most obedient. To the other men’s surprise, Katherina becomes the clear winner. Unlike the other wives, she completes all her husband’s commands, including the one to lecture headstrong women on “What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.” (2) Essentially, Katherina’s speech secures her husband’s hefty bet win.


2. She claims women should be, “obedient to his honest will.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like “obedient no matter what.” Back then, a fully tamed woman wouldn’t choose when to obey her husband… and when she shouldn’t.


3. Katherina’s final speech is strikingly comparable to that of Parr’s to her husband, King Henry VIII.

The audience’s common knowledge of Parr’s strong personality would indicate that like Parr, Katherina would never be fully tame.


Curious about this one? Read more next week in Katherina & Queen Parr: Women Putting Women Down?


Discussion

Using this knowledge, reread the speech and see how it informs your understanding of the text. Did you notice something you didn’t before? Have an awesome idea for how you might deliver this monologue? Let us know in the comments!


Katherina’s Speech. Act 5 Scene 2


Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,

And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,

To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:

It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,

Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,

And in no sense is meet or amiable.

A woman moved is like a fountain troubled,

Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;

And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty

Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,

And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labour both by sea and land,

To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,

Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;

And craves no other tribute at thy hands

But love, fair looks and true obedience;

Too little payment for so great a debt.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince

Even such a woman oweth to her husband;

And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,

And not obedient to his honest will,

What is she but a foul contending rebel

And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

I am ashamed that women are so simple

To offer war where they should kneel for peace;

Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,

When they are bound to serve, love and obey.

Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,

Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,

But that our soft conditions and our hearts

Should well agree with our external parts?

Come, come, you froward and unable worms!

My mind hath been as big as one of yours,

My heart as great, my reason haply more,

To bandy word for word and frown for frown;

But now I see our lances are but straws,

Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,

That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,

And place your hands below your husband's foot:

In token of which duty, if he please,

My hand is ready; may it do him ease.




Quoted References:

1. Thorne, Sherri. Shakespeare: Advocate for Women in The Taming of the Shrew.

2. Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew.


Cover Picture:

Photo by Karl Hugh, courtesy of Utah Shakespeare Festival


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