The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 3)

Sly is not the only character in the play whose failures at self-understanding result in unhappy relationships. Shakespeare presents two female characters whose troubled identities will no doubt lead to quite unhappy marriages with their respective husbands. These are Bianca, the younger sister of the supposedly shrewish Katherine, and the Widow, whose identity is so troubled that she is never so much as granted a name of her own.

The play-within-a-play which takes up most of The Taming of the Shrew and gives the play its name begins with Lucentio’s experience of love at first sight as he observes Bianca, the younger sister of the shrewish Katherine. His infatuation with Bianca, however, arises out of a false first impression. As he describes her after his first observation of her, Lucentio sees her as “young” and “modest,” assuring his servant Tranio that “sacred and sweet was all I saw in her.”[1]

In the end, however, it is revealed that while Bianca may indeed be “young” she is far from “modest” and neither “sacred” nor “sweet.” While exchanging barbs with the other characters at the wedding banquet in the final scene, Bianca offers a series of jests with defiant overtones and bawdy undertones. In a reference to the common Elizabethan image of a horned cuckold, Bianca takes a jab at the other newly-married couples, Petruchio with her sister Kate and Hortensio, her former suitor, with the Widow:

Head, and butt! An hasty-witted body

Would say your head and butt were head and horn.[2]

When Petruchio offers to bring her into the exchange of comical insults, Bianca responds with a double entendre, indicating her current intention to drop out of the conversation through reference to sexual imagery:

Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush;

And then pursue me as you draw your bow.[3]

At this, she exits the room along with the other women at the banquet.

Bianca completes the revelation of her true, and certainly less than “modest” or “sacred and sweet,” identity in her refusal of obedience to her new husband. When called upon by Lucentio to depart from her female friends and join him at the banquet, she sends the message through the servant Biondello “that she is busy and she cannot come.”[4] Having been forced to rejoin her husband by the newly-tamed Katherine, Bianca offers mockery to the very notion that she has a “duty” to obey her husband:


Fie, what a foolish duty call you this?


I would your duty were as foolish [as Katherine’s], too.

The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca,

Hath cost me a hundred crowns since suppertime.


The more fool you, for laying on my duty.

In this public chiding of her husband for having relied upon her to fulfill her duties as his wife, Bianca reveals herself as quite immodest and hardly “sacred” or “sweet,” contrary to Lucentio’s initial impression of her.

While Bianca’s case is one of a true identity hidden under an assumed one, the case of the Widow to whom Hortensio is married is one of an identity that has become static. It is remarkable that the Widow is still referred to as “Widow” in the text of the play even after she has married another man. Petruchio, for example, refers to her as “his [that is, Hortensio’s] widow.”[5] She is not his widow, however; she is his wife. Even Hortensio, her husband, however, refers to her as “my widow.”[6] Her identity is static and unchanging. It is still attached to her former husband.

Her lack of devotion to Hortensio is exhibited in the final game played among the men in which each calls his wife to see which of them responds most promptly. As the men discuss calling the women, she is finally referred to by Hortensio as “my wife” and by Petruchio as “Hortensio’s wife.”[7] She rebuffs this identity, however, by rejecting the obligations it entails. When the servant Biondello is sent to her by Hortensio to tell her to join him, the servant returns to inform him, “She will not come. She bids you come to her.”[8]

Katherine, in obedience to Petruchio, finally brings Bianca and the Widow to their husbands of the earlier refusal of each of the latter, upon which act the Widow comments, “Lord, let me never have a cause to sight / Till I be brought to such a silly pass!”[9] For the Widow, a wife’s obedience to her husband is “silly.” When Petruchio orders Kate to lecture Bianca and the Widow on the responsibilities of wives to their husbands, the Widow objects that it is “mocking” and she “will have no telling,” reinforcing once again her objection to a change of identity from Widow to wife with all that the latter identity entails.[10]

The result of the hidden identity of Bianca and the static identity of the Widow for themselves and for each of their respective husbands is, undoubtedly, quite unhappy marriages. Each of them refuses to see themselves in the role of an Eve to their respective Adam, fulfilling a role of mutual responsibility, cooperation, and affection like that implied by Adam’s exclamation in Genesis following the creation of Eve from his side:

This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.[11]

It is, with a great deal of Shakespearean irony, the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine that best fits this biblical pattern. Indeed, Petruchio’s own description of his initial meeting with Katherine draws upon this model of mutual compatibility. Addressing the men who are astonished at Petruchio’s report of his love for Katherine, and her love for him, he says,

O, you are novices! ’tis a world to see,

How tame, when men and women are alone,

A meacock wretch can make the curstest shrew.[12]

The establishment of a relationship based on mutual compatibility between Petruchio and Katherine is indeed “a world to see” as the story follows the structure of Elizabethan cosmogony.

In his classic work on The Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard cites Edmund Spenser’s Hymn of Love as particularly illustrative of this cosmogony:

The earth the air the water and the fire

Then gan to range themselves in huge array

And with contrary forces to conspire

Each against other by all means they may,

Threat’ning their own confusion and decay;

Air hated earth and water hated fire,

Till Love relented their rebellious ire.[13]

It is this cosmogony that is embodied in the plot following the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio offers a description of himself and Katherine that closely resembles Spenser’s depiction of the elements at war:

Where two raging fires meet together,

They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

Though little fire grows great with little wind,

Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.

So I to her, and so she yields to me,

For I am rough and woo not like a babe.[14]

Petruchio’s predicted conclusion does not prove entirely accurate, however, as, as will be seen, the actual outcome is much closer to Spenser’s description of the elements at peace with one another than Petruchio’s belief that one element will triumph over the other. Just as the Elizabethans pictured the movement of existence from chaos to cosmos, from disorder and strife to cooperation and compatibility, Petruchio and Katherine move from fractiousness with society, with each other, and within themselves through a process that mirrors the story of creation and culminates in the establishment of their own Edenic relationship to each other, to the world, and to their respective selves.

[1] Ibid., 1.1.157, 176.

[2] Ibid., 5.2.40-41.

[3] Ibid., 5.2.46-47.

[4] Ibid., 5.2.86.

[5] Ibid., 5.2.16.

[6] Ibid., 5.2.24.

[7] Ibid., 5.2.90, 105.

[8] Ibid., 5.2.96.

[9] Ibid., 5.2.127-128.

[10] Ibid., 5.2.136.

[11] Genesis 2:23, ESV.

[12] Ibid., 2.1.309-311.

[13] Edmund Spenser, Hymn of Love, qtd. in E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), 12.

[14] The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.132-137.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 2)

That commentary begins with the first lines of the induction, which feature the beggar Christopher Sly begin forcibly removed from an alehouse by the hostess. From the moment he is introduced to the audience, Sly is immediately exhibited as a henpecked buffoon. Throughout the induction, he continues to display his buffoonery as well as to have all of his desires denied by women. As the dupe of the Lord’s trick to convince Sly that he is actually a lord who has been sleeping for many years and only dreamed that he was a beggar, Sly’s frustrations with females reach their climax when the Lord’s Page, who is actually a boy pretending to be Sly’s wife, refuses his requests for sex.

Entering the stage dressed as Sly’s “madam wife,” the Page begins by proclaiming “her” devotion to “her” husband in a manner befitting an Elizabethan wife: “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband; / I am your wife in all obedience.”[1] Sly’s thoughts quickly turn toward the consummation of this relationship; he brusquely dismisses his “servants” and orders his wife to “undress you and come now to bed.”[2] Sly’s desires are once again rebuffed by a “woman” as his “wife,” unable to fulfill the requirements of the marriage bed, explains,

Thrice-noble lord, let me entreat of you

To pardon me yet for a night or two,

Or, if not so, until the sun be set.

For your physicians have expressly charged,

In peril to incur your former malady,

That I should yet absent me from your bed.[3]

Sly, then, is spurned by a woman in both of the scenes of the play in which he appears.

It is not merely that Sly is a fool, though he is, that places him under the control of women who, in the Elizabethan social hierarchy, he would otherwise be in authority over. It is Sly’s own inauthenticity, which, in turn, leads him to misunderstand these women, that places him under their control. In both of the scenes of the induction, Sly claims an authority that derives from a fictional self-understanding.

In the first scene of the induction, having been ejected from the alehouse and referred to by the hostess as a “rogue,” Sly justifies himself by appealing to an undoubtedly fictitious family history:

You’re a baggage. The Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror. Therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide. Sessa![4]

Sly’s erroneous historical information and mangled Spanish belie his claimed lineage and station. The name of the “Conqueror” who led the Norman invasion of England was William, not Richard; though William had both a father and a son whose names were Richard, he himself was not a Richard. Sly’s “paucas pallabris” and “sessa” are mispronunciations of the Spanish “pocas pallabaris,” meaning “few words,” and “cese,” meaning “cease.” The identity Sly claims for himself in the opening scene of the induction, an identity which includes an ostensible noble lineage and knowledge of a prestigious foreign language, is as much a fiction as the identity that the Lord and his henchmen will endow him with in the second half of the induction.

It is in the second half of the induction, in addition, that the relationship between Sly’s self-misunderstanding and Sly’s misunderstanding of and subordination to women is revealed. As the Page enters the scene dressed as the wife of a lord, Sly makes two simultaneous yet quite different mistakes about the Page’s identity. He fails first to recognize that the Page is dressed as a noble lady. When she at first enters and addresses him, he speaks to her as if he were speaking to a servant and asks “where is my wife?,” not realizing that the woman wearing the clothing of a noble lady must be his wife given that he is, supposedly, the lord.[5] When the Page-as-Lady identifies “herself” as Sly’s wife, Sly immediately turns his attention to “her” but fails to recognize that his “lady” is in reality a boy dressed as a woman.

These two mistakes regarding the identity of his “wife” are compounded by Sly’s need to turn to the actual Lord, who is pretending to be one of Sly’s servants, to find the proper words with which to address his “lady.” In spite of his assurances to his “wife” that “I know it well” when she explains that it is proper for ladies to refer to their husbands as “lord,” Sly then turns to the Lord and asks, “what must I call her?”[6] The lord responds by telling Sly that he should call his wife “madam,” prompting Sly to ask for clarification: “Al’ce madam, or Joan madam?”[7] The Lord explains more clearly, “Madam, and nothing else. So lords call ladies.”[8] Even with this clarification, however, Sly is still unable to address his “wife” correctly. When he turns to speak to her, he begins by incorrectly referring to her as “madam wife.”[9] He then attempts to order “her” into bed with the same tone in which he orders his servants, commanding all at once, “servants, leave me and her alone.— / Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”[10] Even with the help of the actual Lord, Sly is unable to understand women because he is unable, or unwilling, to understand himself. The result is that the women around him, who understand him better than he understands himself, are able to control, snub, and manipulate him, as do the Hostess and the Page-as-Lady.

[1] Ibid., Ind.2.104-105.

[2] Ibid., Ind.2.114.

[3] Ibid., Ind.2.115-120.

[4] Ibid., Ind.1.3-5.

[5] Ibid., Ind.2.100.

[6] Ibid., Ind.2.106.

[7] Ibid., Ind.2.106-107.

[8] Ibid., Ind.2.108.

[9] Ibid., Ind.2.109.

[10] Ibid., Ind.2.113-114.

The Taming of the Shrew as Biblical Commentary (part 1)

The Taming of the Shrew, written perhaps as early as 1592, is Shakespeare’s earliest treatment of the subjects of love, marriage, and the relationships between men and women. It is also, arguably, his fullest treatment of those subjects, particularly the subject of marriage. While other later plays, perhaps most notably A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, offer a commentary upon these subjects as well, The Taming of the Shrew is the only play by Shakespeare that is focused totally upon the subject of marriage and what makes for a happy—or unhappy—relationship between husband and wife. It also features the couple, Petruchio and Kate, whom Harold Bloom, the Yale-based scholar of literature, describes with characteristic succinctness and insight as the couple “who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare.”[1]

As a commentary upon marriage, The Taming of the Shrew is also a commentary upon the primeval marriage between Adam and Eve as described in the Book of Genesis. As a denizen of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare lived at a time and in a place in which the doctrines of Christianity were still taken seriously. Disputes over doctrine and church order had recently and violently shaken England and certain mores derived, in part, from the Bible still dictated acceptable behavior and language both onstage and off.[2] One of the most important marriage manuals of Elizabethan England, Edmund Tilney’s The Flower of Friendship, of which “seven editions were published between 1568 and 1587,” including “three . . . within the first year of issue,” derives its principles for the proper relationship between husband and wife from the relationship between Adam and Eve.[3] According to Valerie Wayne, a professor at the University of Hawai’i whose work has focused upon women in Early Modern England,

only three other Renaissance texts on marriage appeared in more English editions [than did Tilney’s work]: Heinrich Bullinger’s Christen State of Matrimonye of 1541 . . ., John Dod and Richard Cleaver’s Godlie Forme of Householde Government of 1598, and Erasmus’s Encomium matrimonii in its English translations.[4]

All three of these works make extensive use of the biblical account of Adam and Eve in their respective discussions of marriage.

Indeed, the service for the “Solemnization of Matrimony” itself, from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, the service book then in use in the Church of England, contains a prayer specifically invoking the example of Adam and Eve immediately before the Communion prayers begin:

Almighty God, who at the beginning did create our first parents, Adam and Eve, and did sanctify and join them together in marriage; Pour upon you the riches of his grace, sanctify and bless you, that ye may please him both in body and soul, and live together in holy love unto your lives’ end. Amen.[5]

Significantly, this is the same book Petruchio knocks down along with the priest presiding over the marriage ceremony “when,” as Gremio describes it,

the priest

Should ask, if Katharina should be his wife,

‘Ay, by gogs-wouns,’ quoth he; and swore so loud,

That, all-amazed, the priest let fall the book;

And, as he stoop’d again to take it up,

The mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff

That down fell priest and book and book and priest:

‘Now take them up,’ quoth he, ‘if any list.’[6]


It is this disdainful attitude toward decorum and social convention that characterize both Kate and Petruchio. Through a presentation of a commonality that begins with this mutual hostility toward the expectations of society and culminates in their eventual agreement to manipulate those expectations for their own benefit, Shakespeare offers to the audience of his play a new and altogether original commentary upon the story of Adam and Eve.

[1] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 28.

[2] There was, for example, “An Act to Restrain Abuses of Players” passed by the English Parliament in 1606, which stipulated that ‘no person or persons . . . in any stage play, interlude, show, maygame, or pageant’ might ‘jestingly or profanely speak or use the holy name of God or Christ Jesus, or of the Holy Ghost or of the Trinity.’ Thus,” says Marjorie Garber, a scholar of Shakespeare at Harvard University, “swearing by the name of the Christian God on the stage was forbidden by law.” Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), 660.

[3] Valerie Wayne, “Introduction,” in Edmund Tilney, The Flower of Friendship, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005), 297.

[6] The Taming of the Shrew, 3.2.158-165.


The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 8)

Though love is mentioned by name a plethora of times in the Taming of the Shrew, the word is pronounced by Katherine few times. The first is when she rages against her sister Bianca, demanding to know “Of all thy suitors . . . / Whom thou lov’st best.”[1] The next, a little later in the same scene, is in Katherine’s accusation toward her father Baptist that he leaves Bianca more than her and Katherine will, as a result, end up a spinster: “I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day / And for your love to her lead apes in hell.”[2] Several times, she refers to Petruchio’s love for her in terms that indicate her doubt of it. After her wedding to Petruchio, she entreats him “Now, if you love me, stay.”[3] She refers to Petruchio’s love again with doubt when describing his shrew-taming antics as having been performed “under name of perfect love.”[4] Later, she dismisses his statement of love for her with “love me or love me not.”[5] Before the final act of the play, the only time Katherine uses the word “love” to refer to her own feelings about anything is in her answer to Grumio’s offer of “a piece of beef and mustard” that it is “a dish that I do love to feed upon.”[6] It is only after their mutual text-burning that Katherine at least refers to her love for Petruchio, and her willingness to seal that love with a kiss: “Nay, I will give thee a kiss: now pray thee, love, stay.”[7] This proclamation of her love for him mirrors her first mention of love to Petruchio. It is, as in the first mention of love, part of an entreaty that he will “stay.” Now, however, it is her love for him that is being alluded to, rather than the doubtful reference to his love for her as in the first instance.

A similar phenomenon may be noted in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Though she speaks often of “love,” it is only her fifth husband, Janekyn, whom she says she “took for love, and no richesse.”[8] And it is this same Janekyn with whom the Wife of Bath was at last able to establish a relationship not based on rivalry and mastery. Kittredge’s comment on the lesson to be drawn from Chaucer’s Marriage Group provides an apt summative moral to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as well. “The difficulty about mastery,” he says, “vanishes when mutual love and forbearance are made the guiding principles of the relation between husband and wife.”[9]

In reaching this conclusion about what constitutes a happy marriage, Chaucer and Shakespeare were neither reinforcing the expectations of their culture nor positing a radical break from it. A relationship of “mutual love and forbearance” is, ultimately, the sort of relationship described as ideal in the most authoritative text of their shared tradition, namely the Bible. According to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:4, “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Similarly, he writes in Ephesians 5:33, “let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” The sort of marriage being advocated here is quite obviously one of “mutual love and forbearance.” Yet, in spite of these high ideals in this central text, the real practice and subsequent textual tradition of the culture often aimed much lower. The result is, of course, that long history of misogynistic texts against which the Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola rebel. Chaucer was certainly not the first to advocate an equality and shared mastery in marriage, but he was an important milestone in the maintenance of this ideal. It is natural, then, that Shakespeare, seeing a like mind on this subject as on much else in his great forebear in English poetry, should choose Chaucer’s stories as models for creative imitation in his own story of a perfect marriage.

[1] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew II.1.8–9.

[2] Ibid. II.1.33–34.

[3] Ibid. III.2.204.

[4] Ibid. IV.3.12.

[5] Ibid. IV.3.84.

[6] Ibid. IV.3.23–24.

[7] Ibid. V.1.141.

[8] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.526.

[9] Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage,” 467.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 7)

In its resolution in particular, the story of Petruchio and Katherine also bears a remarkable similarity to the Franklin’s Tale, which, as Kittredge has shown, offers Chaucer’s definitive word on the subject of mastery in marriage.[1] The Franklin’s Tale lays its foundations, like much of the work of Chaucer, upon the thought of Boethius, which places the greatest emphasis on one’s virtuous dealings with one’s external circumstances rather than upon those circumstances themselves. As the Franklin exclaims in a succinct summation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, “Fy on possessioun, / But if a man be vertuous withal!”[2] This is, it should be noted, in the same spirit as the words spoken by Petruchio after his dismissal of the haberdasher and the tailor when he insists that “honor peereth in the meanest habit.”[3]

The resolution to the issue of mastery in marriage offered by the Franklin is told in the form of a story of a knight, Arveragus, and his wife, Dorigen, whose arrangement at the inception of their marriage was

That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,

Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie

Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,

But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,

As any lovere to his lady shal,

Save that the name of soveraynetee,

That wolde he have for shame of his degree.[4]

In a combination of the characteristics attributed in the Middle Ages to courtly and to medieval love, then, Arveragus has promised to obey Dorigen and never to exercise authority over her so long as she obeys him in public as befits his station as a knight and as her husband. The Franklin comments on this arrangement and the marital bliss it engendered:

Thus been they bothe in quiete and in reste.

For o thyng, sires, saufly dar I seye,

That freendes everych oother moot obeye,

If they wol longe holden compaignye.

Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye.[5]

This mutual obedience and love between the two was so strong that each time Arveragus had to go away on a military campaign, “for his absence wepeth she and siketh.”[6] She is unable to be cheered by her friends and their dances and holds nothing but scorn for any man who would attempt to woo her into betraying her husband while he is away.

It is this, however, which gets her into trouble when she jests to Aurelius, a young man trying to win her favors, that she will “been youre love” if “ye remoeve alle the rokkes” along the seashore “stoon by stoon.”[7] Though Dorigen intends to mock Aurelius with the imposition of this impossible task, Aurelius is able to accomplish the feat, albeit temporarily, with the help of “his brother, which that was a clerk” who had studied magic.[8] Upon returning home and finding out what his wife had promised, Arveragus, with tears, orders her to fulfill the promise she had made because “trouthe is the hyeste thyn that man may kepe.”[9] She must do as she said, says Arveragus, in order to avoid the further and greater dishonor of dishonesty. Dorigen, in obedience, sets out for the place where she will meet Aurelius. Aurelius, however, is unable to go through with the act, so impressed is he by the virtue of Arveragus and the love of Dorigen for her husband. In the end,

Arveragus and Dorigen his wyf

In sovereyn blisse leden forth hir lyf.

Nevere eft ne was ther angre hem bitwene.

He cherisseth hire as though she were a queene,

And she was to hym trewe for everemoore.[10]

As Petruchio and Katherine will in the Taming of the Shrew, Arveragus and Dorigen have, through their shared mastery in marriage, attained a mastery over the world around them, including nature, as embodied in the black rocks which quickly vanish from importance when the couple are reunited, and the society around them, as embodied by Aurelius and his clerkly brother. As Bloom said of Petruchio and Katherine, so one might say of Arveragus and Dorigen that they are the couple in Chaucer most likely to live a happy life together.

[1] George Lyman Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage,” Modern Philology 9, no. 4 (Apr. 1912): 467.

[2] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.686–687. Of course, the influence of Chaucer upon Shakespeare and the fact of the pervasive presence of Boethius’s thought in Chaucer’s work is also indicative of a strong Boethian strain of thought in Shakespeare, though it must be remembered, as Will Durant has written, that Shakespeare “is an inescapable psychologist, but he is not a philosopher: he has no structure of thought unified by a purpose for his own life and for mankind. He is immersed in love and its problems, and thinks of philosophy, through Montaigne’s phrases, only when his heart is broken. Otherwise he accepts the world blithely enough; he is not consumed with the reconstructive vision that ennobled Plato, or Nietzsche, or Bacon.” Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961), 180–181. The same could not be said of Chaucer.

[3] Taming of the Shrew IV.3.170.

[4] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales V.746–752.

[5] Ibid. V. 760–764.

[6] Ibid. V.817.

[7] Ibid. V.990, 992.

[8] Ibid. V.1105.

[9] Ibid. V.1479.

[10] Ibid. V.1551–1555.