The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 4)

Much the same can be said of Katherine Minola, the character in all of Shakespeare’s plays most likely to end up as a version of the Wife of Bath. That Katherine is at the mercy of a society whose dictates shape her identity while she simultaneously surpasses and rejects them is evident from the moment that Katherine enters the stage in the Taming of the Shrew. Entering alongside her father Baptista, her sister Bianca, and her sister’s two suitors Hortensio and Gremio, Katherine’s first words are a rather mild rebuke of her father’s attempts to find a husband for her. “I pray you, sir,” she says, “is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”[1] Hortensio responds by warning her that she will find no husband “unless you were of a gentler, milder mold.”[2] Katherine’s response is, as is to be expected, a suitably shrewish threat of violence coupled with a rejection of the institution of marriage:

I’faith, sir, you shall never need to fear;

Iwis it is not halfway to her heart.

But if it were, doubt not her care should be

To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool,

And paint your face, and use you like a fool.[3]

While Katherine’s threats of harm aimed at Hortensio are unnerving, the reactions they elicit from the men present are of exaggerated proportions when one considers that the person making them is a young woman surrounded by older, and ostensibly stronger, men who possess the position of authority in the social order. “From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!” Hortensio cries.[4] Gremio follows Hortensio’s shriek of terror with his own “And me too, good Lord!”[5] Tranio, watching from a distance and with no knowledge of Katherine aside from what he has just witnessed, concludes immediately “that wench is stark mad or wonderful froward.”[6] If this is the reaction that she receives for defending herself against a father who offers her in marriage to men she has expressed no interest in and the insults of her younger sister’s suitors, it is easy to see why a strong-willed woman like Katherine cannot find a comfortable place in her society.

Later, Katherine follows up on this threat of violence to Hortensio when she smashes his head with a lute while he attempts to give her music lessons. As Hortensio, disguised as “Litio,” a music teacher, tells it,

I did but tell her she mistook her frets,

And bowed her hand to teacher her fingering,

When, with a most impatient devilish spirit,

“Frets, call you these?” quoth she, “I’ll fume with them.”

And with that word she struck me on the head,

And through the instrument my pate made way;

And there I stood amazed for a while,

As on a pillory, looking through the lute,

While she did call me rascal fiddler

And twangling Jack, with twenty such vile terms,

As had she studied to misuse me so.[7]

According to Coppélia Kahn,

the language in which her music lesson with Hortensio is described conveys the idea that it is but another masculine attempt to subjugate woman. . . . Later Petruchio explicitly attempts to “break” Kate to his will, and throughout the play men tell her that she “mistakes her frets”—that her anger is unjustified.[8]

Katherine, then, is not merely a “shrew,” but a woman who is, in a sense, in rebellion against cultural norms. Simultaneously, however, and like the Wife of Bath, she has no means by which to define herself apart from these cultural norms. The result is that she is placed in the tenuous situation of defining her identity according to a tradition she, again like the Wife of Bath, surpasses and rejects.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, I.1.57–58. All quotations from the Taming of the Shrew are taken from David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2014).

[2] Ibid. I.1.60.

[3] Ibid. I.1.61–65.

[4] Ibid. I.1.66.

[5] Ibid. I.1.67.

[6] Ibid. I.1.69.

[7] Ibid. II.1.149–159.

[8] Coppélia Kahn, “‘The Taming of the Shrew’: Shakespeare’s Mirror of Marriage.” Modern Language Studies 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1975): 93.

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