Updated: Aug 14, 2022
Last week, we questioned whether Katherina (the “shrew”) spoke her mind when she advised women to treat their husbands as “Thy head, thy sovereign.” Well— Fun Fact: Katherina’s speech was strikingly similar to that of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s wife in real life. Since Shakespeare’s audience knew Parr never turned fully tame, they inferred Katherina wouldn’t either. And an untamed Katherina would not believe herself inferior to her husband. Confused or curious? Let’s explore!
So...What Happened With Parr?
Katherine Parr (c. August 1512 – 5 September 1548) was the last of Henry VIII’s six wives & reigned from 1543–47. To keep her distinct from The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherina, we’ll call the queen Parr.
Though not considered a shrew, Parr was outspoken & was known to have disputed with her husband… just like Katherina. Unsurprisingly, this behavior was not admired by all. In fact, King Henry’s court became enraged. Two of the most pro-Catholic court members, the Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, convinced the king to turn against her: “Foxe, the primary popular record of the incident, claims that the argument was a combination of appealing to the king’s pride after his losing several arguments to his queen and her having not produced an heir in the three years they had now been married, coupled with her growing demand for a Protestant reform in England.” (1)
Disheartened, King Henry issued a writ to bring in Parr’s fellow conspirators for questioning. Supposedly, a councilor who fancied the queen was assigned to deliver this writ and “accidentally” dropped it outside her door. An informed Parr, aware of the situation’s severity, was determined to save herself from execution. She stormed into her husband’s bedroom and, in front of him, the Bishop of Winchester, and Lord Chancellor Wriothesley, announced the following:
*Note the following uses modern spelling. A copy of the original version is at the end of article.
Your Majesty (quoth she) does right well know, neither I myself am ignorant, what great imperfection & weakness by our first creation, is alotted unto us women, to be ordained and appointed as inferior and subject unto man as our head…even so also made he woman of man, of whom and by whom she is to be governed, commanded and directed. Whose womanly weakness and natural imperfection, ought to be tolerated, aided and born withall, so that by his wisdom such things as be lacking in her, ought to be supplied.
…your Majesty being so excellent in gifts and ornaments of wisdom, and I a seely poor woman so much inferior in all respects of nature unto you…I refer my judgement in this and all other cases to your Majesty's wisdom, as my only anchor, supreme head, and governor here in earth next under God, to lean unto.…
If your Majesty take it so (quoted the Queen) then has your Majesty very much mistaken me, who have ever been of the opinion…to learn of her husband, and to be taught by him…I assure your Majesty I have not missed any part of my desire in that behalf, always referring my self in all such matters unto your Majesty, as by ordinance of nature it is convenient for me to do. (2)
Low and behold, Henry was swayed and pardoned his wife.
Speeches: Katherina VS Parr
Both speeches agree wives are “less than” their husbands & ought to submit to their will.
Long seems a suitable adjective to describe them. They’re certainly much longer than a quick, “I’m sorry, just a poor woman, & forever in your service.”
If you skim the speeches, you’ll notice that overall, there aren’t too many points made. In other words, there’s a LOT of repetition. Perhaps these restatements were implemented to hint at the speaker’s underlying disagreement with her “confession”. However, this theory proves hard to hold in Parr’s case. As Parr found herself surrounded by three powerful men who wanted her gone, she had little room to chance someone interpreting her speech as anything but accurate. Therefore, she would not have repeated ideas to seem over-the-top & insincere but rather because “she was speaking to what virtually all sources reveal as a very vain, prideful man, and [these reiterations] proved exactly the right strategy.” (1)
Royal Language— More than Just Rulership
Parr refers to her husband, the king of England, as her “Majesty,”, “governor,”, & “supreme head.”.
Katherina instructs wives to consider their husbands, “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy sovereign, one that cares for thee.” This depiction is likened to Parr & Henry VIII, regardless of how often the description was used at the time in general society.
From here, Katherina continues tossing in royal metaphors--Read her speech & see if you can find the rest! (A copy of her speech is found in last week's Part I post: The Shrew's Speech: Was It Really Antifeminist?)
“At the turn in her speech, Minola [Katherina] changes from treating husbands as royalty to a discussion when wives are ‘froward, peevish, sullen, sour / and not obedient to his honest will.’ The wives are presented as being guilty of treason in light of the abundance of royal metaphors previous, after all ‘What is she but a foul contending rebel / and graceless traitor to her loving lord?’. These metaphors echo the state of Queen Parr before King Henry, and her response. It is curious that Shakespeare chose to have Minola [Katherina] call a forward wife ‘contending’ and ‘graceless,’ bringing to mind Parr’s habit of disputing (‘contending’) religious matters (‘grace’) with her husband.” (1)
Just like a fairytale, both speeches end with a kiss between husband & wife.
Why Did Shakespeare Do This?
Why did Shakespeare write Katherina’s speech to be so similar to Parr’s famous one?
Through Parr’s marriage to Henry VIII, she became Queen Elizabeth I’s stepmother. And their bond was quite strong. Thus, “Any allusion that praised Parr could also likely be seen as praise of Queen Elizabeth, a step that a politically aware Shakespeare was capable of making and capitalizing on in portraying Minola’s [Katherina's] final act as strong-willed, noble, and, in reference to Parr, wise and socially aware.” (1)
Basically, Shakespeare was paying homage to his queen while simultaneously strengthening the audience’s understanding of Katherina’s strong character & messaging in the scene.
Wrap Up of Parts I & II
For the wrap up, let’s circle back & add to a question posed in last week’s article: Was it Shakespeare’s intention to promote the inferiority of women to men?
Besides the points discussed last week in Part I & the likening of Katherina to a powerful female ruler of a rather patriarchal society, the kiss after Katherina’s speech may help reveal the answer to this question: When Katherina goes to put her hand under Petruchio’s feet as a display of subservience, he disrupts this action with a kiss-- arguably a sign of the “more equitable and affectionate relationship that has developed between the pair.” (1)
This, however, does not necessarily indicate the Bard saw both partners as equal. “Shakespeare’s use of falconry [in the play] to describe a good marriage relationship illustrates his support of patriarchal dominance, tempered by the necessity of considering the wife’s well-being. The falconer (husband) must maintain control of the hawk (wife) without breaking her spirit. Although Shakespeare’s ideal marriage is governed by the husband, it raises women to a level of respect that is above absolute robotic subjugation...Although Shakespeare’s ideal marriage might not satisfy the liberated women of the twenty-first century, he succeeds in defending Renaissance women against the tyrannical subjugation that some patriarchal husbands imposed on their wives.” (4)
In short, we must look to other scenes for clues...
“When Lucentio comments at the end of Taming that ‘’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so,’ it is not drawing a question, but presenting a confirmation that Minola, like her namesake, doesn’t mean a word of it.” (1) Do you agree?
How do you think Shakespeare viewed wives in relation to their husbands--or more generally, women to men?
Let us know in the comments!
Original Spelling of Parr's Speech to Her Husband
Your Maiestie (quoth she) doth right well know, neither I my self am ignoraunt, what great imperfection & weakenes by our first creation, is alotted vnto vs womē, to be ordeyned and appoynted as inferiour and subiect vnto man as our head…euen so also made hee woman of man, of whom and by whom shee is to bee gouerned, commaunded and directed. Whose womanly weakenes and naturall imperfection, ought to be tolerated, ayded and borne withall, so that by his wisedome such thinges as be lackyng in her, ought to be supplyed.
…your Maiestie beyng so excellent in giftes and ornamentes of wisedome, and I a seely poore woman so much inferiour in all respectes of nature vnto you…I referre my Iudgement in this and all other cases to your Maiesties wisedome, as my onely anker, supreme head, and gouerner here in earth next vnder God, to leane vnto.…
If your Maiestie take it so (quoth the Quene) then hath your Maiestie very much mistaken me, who haue euer bene of the opinion…to learne of her husbande, and to bee taught by him…I assure your Maiestie I haue not missed anye part of my desire in that behalfe, alwayes referring my selfe in all such matters vnto your Maiestie, as by ordinaunce of nature it is conuenient for me to doo.
Written by Mariela Rivero
Edited by Laura Yumi Snell
McKimpson, Karl. Wise Wives: Kates’ Final Speeches to Henry VIII and in The Taming of the Shrew.
Foxe, John. Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew.
Thorne, Sherri. Shakespeare: Advocate for Women in The Taming of the Shrew.