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:

Bianca.

Fie, what a foolish duty call you this?

Lucentio.

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.

Bianca.

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.

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