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.

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