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 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.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 6)

Like the Wife of Bath and Janekyn, the relationship of Petruchio and Katherine too is characterized by a struggle for mastery each over the other which finally reaches its resolution in a symbolic mutual destruction of the authoritative “texts” by which they had hitherto defined themselves, each other, and their relationship. Given the respective natures of Katherine and Petruchio before they meet each other, the conflict between them is as inevitable as the eventual denouement is surprising.

If Katherine is Shakespeare’s character most likely to become a Wife of Bath, Petruchio is almost certain to become like the Walter of the Clerk’s Tale to any lesser wife than Katherine, a tyrannical husband who lords over his wife as a king over his subjects, and perhaps with even greater cruelty. Petruchio’s mistreatment of his servants is surely a sound indication of the sort of husband he might become. Upon arriving home after his wedding to Katherine, Petruchio enters his home with pomposity and hostility: “Where be these knaves? What, no man at door / To hold my stirrup nor to take my horse? / Where is Nathaniel, Gregory, Philip?”[1] When his servants report, Petruchio greets them with disdain and vulgarity, referring to them as “loggerheaded and unpolished grooms” and Grumio, his chief servant, especially, as “you peasant swain, you whoreson, malt-horse drudge!”[2] A servant unable to remove Petruchio’s boot with sufficient swiftness receives a kick.[3] Another who spills some of the water he has fetched for his master receives a blow from Petruchio along with the epithet of “whoreson villain.”[4] When Katherine, moved to pity for Petruchio’s servant, attempts to interject on the servant’s behalf, Petruchio adds that the servant is, in addition, “a whoreson, beetleheaded, flap-eared knave!”[5] The servants who bring dinner for Katherine and Petruchio receive little better as he hurls the overcooked meat at them along with exclamations at their being “headless jolt-heads and unmannered slaves!”[6]

All of this, however, reveals little about Petruchio’s character that has not already been seen in his initial appearance on the stage. From the moment he enters the stage, Petruchio is violent, abrupt, and pompous. As Kahn accurately describes him,

he evokes and creates noise and violence. A hubbub of loud speech, beatings, and quarrelsomeness surrounds him. “The swelling Adriatic seas” and “thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” are a familiar part of his experience, which he easily masters with his own force of will and physical strength. Like Adam, he is lord over nature, and his own violence has been well legitimized by society, unlike Kate’s, which has marked her as unnatural and abhorrent.[7]

Petruchio’s violence is certainly more socially acceptable than Katherine’s, as when he describes the sounds and sights of battle:

Have I not in my time heard lions roar?

Have I not heard the sea, puffed up with winds,

Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?

Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,

And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?

Have I not in a pitched battle heard

Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets clang?[8]

Petruchio’s description of war is, ultimately, a description of a decidedly masculine and certainly, within the boundaries of law, socially acceptable outlet for violence. Both the masculinity and the social acceptability of participation in warfare are evidenced, for example, in the speech famously delivered by Queen Elizabeth in 1588, only a few years before Shakespeare wrote the Taming of the Shrew, to her soldiers before their confrontation with the Spanish Armada menacing England:

I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.[9]

In spite of the greater social acceptance of Petruchio’s violence, however, he is nonetheless an outsider because of it. As Gremio, the elderly suitor of Bianca, comments beforehand on Petruchio’s plan to woo Katherine, “such a life with such a wife were strange.”[10] When Petruchio, with his usual abruptness, approaches Katherine’s father Baptista to inquire about Katherine, Gremio warns him, “You are too blunt. Go to it orderly.”[11]

In this, Petruchio bears still more resemblance to Walter of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale. His cruelty toward Griselda is also ostensibly socially acceptable. Walter is, after all, “a markys whilom lord was of that lond” in which he lived.[12] All of his actions, including the apparent killing of his own two children, are performed free of consequence because of his position, along, no doubt, with a bit of the magic of a story-world. He even takes the trouble to “countrefete / The popes bulles, makynge mencion / That he hath leve his firste wyf to lete, / As by the popes dispensacion” to maintain the appearance of legality when he pretends to divorce Griselda in favor of a younger woman.[13] Though Walter’s actions were socially acceptable in that they were entirely within the bounds legality and, though exaggeratedly, the traditional notions of a husband’s authority over his wife and children, Walter was no more well-received by the story’s original medieval audience than he is likely to be among audiences today. Frederick Halm records the reactions to the story as told by Petrarch, Chaucer’s source for the story:

It is related, that on one occasion when Petrarch was reciting the tale to a company in Padua, a gentleman present became so much affected, and burst into such frequent fits of tears that he was unable to read to the end; another, hearing of this, and incredulous as to the possibility of such an effect being produced, read the story aloud in presence of Petrarch without betraying the slightest emotion, but on returning the book to the Poet declared, that he would have been equally affected could he have persuaded himself that the story was true, and that the conviction, that there never was, and never could be, such a wife as Griselda, alone enabled him to reserve his composure.[14]

While Walter and Petruchio behave within the bounds of the legal, the exaggerated cruelty of both sets them apart from social acceptability.

Given the violence-prone natures of both Katherine and Petruchio, it is hardly surprising that their initial meeting is of the sort that Petruchio had predicted shortly before encountering her for the first time:

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.[15]

Their initial dialogue is a hilarious exchange of insults and thinly veiled sexual innuendo which leads Katherine to slap Petruchio, an initiation of a power struggle like that of the Wife of Bath and Janekyn. After the strike, Petruchio warns Katherine, “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again.”[16] She does not, however, strike him again, and Petruchio never again threatens or performs violence against Katherine. Such a turn works well enough in the telling of stories, but would be improper for a performance on stage. Instead, the battle for mastery continues through verbal sparring.

In the various barbs they exchange, both Petruchio and Katherine attempt to force each other into submission. Petruchio reminds her of the social expectations of women to “bear” their husbands and, subsequently, to “bear” children.[17] Katherine, in turn, compares Petruchio to inanimate objects, referring to him, for example, as “a joint stool,”[18] and to animals, such as “asses” and a “jade,”[19] which David Bevington identifies as “an ill-conditioned horse”.[20] In so doing, she attempts to establish mastery over him like the mastery she has over other objects and animals. Petruchio continues this theme in his antics following their wedding ceremony. As the wedding guests begin to depart for the banquet, he prevents Katherine from leaving with them, declaring,

I will be master of what is my own.

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,

My household stuff, my field, my barn,

My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;

And here she stands, touch her whoever dare.

I’ll bring mine action on the proudest he

That stops my way in Padua.—Grumio,

We are beset with thieves.

Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man.—

Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate!

I’ll buckler thee against a million.[21]

Petruchio asserts his mastery over Katherine by classing her with the various objects and animals in his possession, bolstering this assertion of mastery with an appeal to the relevant textual authorities through his paraphrasing of the tenth commandment. In addition, Marion D. Perret, commenting on this scene, notes that “since protecting his wife is a man’s duty, this exaggeratedly masculine role, uncalled for by the immediate situation, acts as a public declaration that Petruchio will do his duty as a husband.”[22] This “brilliant stroke” then “forces Kate into the traditional feminine role.”[23]

Petruchio continues his attempts to force Katherine into the traditional female roles after the newly-married couple arrives at his home. His orders to the servants upon entering, for example, are a usurpation of Katherine’s wifely prerogatives of household management and food preparation. Petruchio drives this point home by asking her, once the food has been served, “will you give thanks, sweet Kate, or else shall I?”[24] Given that it was the role of the husband to lead the household’s grace before meals, Petruchio’s question is a sly means of indicating to Katherine that he knows she would usurp his mastery. He gains the upper hand, however, as one of Petruchio’s servants observes, by “kill[ing] her in her own humor,” outdoing the shrew in shrewishness.[25]

Petruchio continues this usurpation of what would otherwise be Katherine’s wifely prerogatives when he calls upon a tailor and a haberdasher to prepare clothing for her to wear during their upcoming visit to her father’s house. In a statement that echoes some of the themes of Chaucer’s discussion of the clothing of the Wife of Bath, Petruchio tells Katherine,

We will return unto thy father’s house

And revel it as bravely as the best,

With silken coats and caps and golden rings,

With ruffs, and cuffs, and farthingales, and things

With scarves, and fans, and double change of brav’ry,

With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav’ry.[26]

As the tailor and the haberdasher enter the stage, Petruchio first casts his scorn first upon the cap which the haberdasher has made for Katherine, and which bears similarity to the cap worn by the Wife of Bath in its ostentatious size, exclaiming,

Why, this was molded on a porringer—

A velvet dish. Fie, fie, ‘tis lewd and filthy.

Why, ‘tis a cockle or a walnut shell,

A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby’s cap.

Away with it! Come, let me have a bigger.[27]

When Katherine briefly interjects that the cap “doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these,” Petruchio launches again into a litany of insults aimed at the cap. “It is,” says Petruchio, “a paltry cap, / A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie.”[28] Katherine, however, continues to resist Petruchio’s attempts to gain mastery over her domain and, by implication, over her. “I like the cap,” she says, “And it I will have, or I will have none.”[29]

Petruchio then turns his disdain toward the dress the tailor has prepared for Katherine. “What’s this, a sleeve?” Petruchio asks, commenting, “‘Tis like a demicannon,” surely a reference to the warfare that is raging between he and Katherine for mastery in their marriage.[30] Petruchio’s usurpation of Katherine’s prerogatives is highlighted in the exchange between Petruchio and his servant Grumio in the course of the discussion of the dress:


Well, sir, in brief, the gown is not for me.


You are i’the right, sir, ‘tis for my mistress.


Go, take it up unto thy master’s use.


Villain, not for thy life! Take up my mistress’ gown for thy master’s use!


Why sir, what’s your conceit in that?


Oh, sir, the conceit is deeper than you think for:

Take up my mistress’ gown to his master’s use!

Oh, fie, fie, fie![31]


That the joke about the dress being for Petruchio rather than for Katherine is repeated three times emphasizes Petruchio’s usurpation of Katherine’s prerogatives and the potential usurpation of his prerogatives by Katherine which Petruchio intends to prevent. Grumio sees that his master may end up in the subordinate position, the position traditionally assigned to women in marriage, if he loses this risky battle with Katherine.

Petruchio, realizing the meaning of the joke, moves to immediately end the exchange. Dismissing the tailor, Petruchio turns to Katherine and proclaims,

Well, come, my Kate. We will unto your father’s

Even in these honest, mean habiliments.

Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,

For ‘tis the mind that makes the body rich;

And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,

So honor peereth in the meanest habit.[32]

In this, there is a subtle indictment of Katherine for her failure to fulfill her duties. While “our purses shall be proud” because they have enough money, an indication that Petruchio has fulfilled his traditional husbandly duty of providing for the household, “our garments [shall be] poor,” an indication that Katherine has failed to fulfill her traditional role. Petruchio’s use of the word “honor” also contains within it a subtle reference to the battle for mastery in marriage. To “honor” her husband is among the vows a wife speaks in the wedding service of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer then in use; also included among her vows are that she will “obey him and serve him.”[33] The entirety of Petruchio’s statement, in fact, seems to be a loose paraphrasing of the instructions to new wives from the conclusion to the wedding service, in which they are told that their “apparel [should] . . . not be be outward, with broided hair and trimming about with gold, either in putting on of gorgeous apparel, but let the hid man which is in the heart, be without all corruption, so that the spirit be mild and quiet, which is a precious thing in the sight of God.”[34]

Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine reaches its climax as the two journey back to her father’s house. Along the road to Padua, Petruchio stops to note the brightness of the sun, misidentifying it as the moon: “Come on, i’God’s name, once more toward our father’s. / Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!”[35] A debate between Petruchio and Katherine over the celestial source of the light ensues:


The moon? The sun. It is not moonlight now.


I say it is the moon that shines so bright.


I know it is the sun that shines so bright.


Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,

It shall be moon, or star, or what I list

Or ere I journey to your father’s house.—

Go on, and fetch our horses back again—

Evermore crossed and crossed, nothing but crossed![36]


Katherine at last begins to relent, imploring him to continue “forward, I pray, since we have come so far,” she allows that it may “be . . . moon, or sun, or what you please; / An if you please to call it a rush candle, / Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.”[37]

While this exchange appears at first to be another attempt by Petruchio to subjugate Katherine, this is, in fact, the moment of mutual text-burning which will at last allow Katherine and Petruchio to together surpass the stereotypes their society has attached to each of them, thereby forging a relationship like that of the Wife of Bath and Janekyn. The targets of their mutual text-burning are not literal texts, but instead symbols of the received traditions which have hitherto made it impossible for each of them to see and interact with the other with authenticity. Their first target is nature itself and, through nature, the same tradition of biblical interpretation which allowed Petruchio previously to class Katherine among his “goods” as one of his “chattels” alongside his “house, . . . household stuff, . . . field, . . . barn, . . . horse, . . . ox, . . . [and] ass.”[38] The initial dual invocation of God by Petruchio, who exclaims “i’God’s name” and adds again “good Lord,” evokes the opening chapter of Genesis and the biblical creation story it contains.[39] In a satirical reenactment of the creation, Petruchio notes the brightness of the light, created on the first day (Genesis 1:3), but is confused about its source, the sun and the moon having been created on the fourth day (Genesis 1:14–19). The debate over whether the source of light is the sun or the moon also raises once again the issue of mastery. The first time that government of any sort is mentioned in the Bible is in the description of the sun and the moon each possessing rule within their allotted times, “the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night” (Genesis 1:16). Like Adam and Eve, who will be created on the sixth day, to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28), the sun and the moon are created as a couple intended to possess a shared mastery over the world around them while each acts within its respective sphere.

The next target for the creative text-burning of Petruchio and Katherine is the venerable and elderly Vincentio. Vincentio, as a representative of the authority of tradition and social propriety is as significant a text to be burned as the first. As Marianne L. Novy explains,

Vincentio, as an old man, represents the class at the top of the social order within a patriarchal society, but when he is with Katherine and Petruchio his identity is temporarily within their power. . . . It is as if, in the new world of the game, ordinary social identities and inequalities are arbitrary and unimportant because other identities can so easily be assigned—anything can be its opposite. Categories of day and night, young and old, male and female, lose their strict boundaries. It is interesting that Petruchio, who so often refers to his father, in this scene alone swears by himself as “my mother’s son” (4.5.6).[40]

Petruchio conspires with Katherine to pretend that Vincentio, who is, in fact, “a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered,”[41] is a “fair lovely maid.”[42] Katherine goes at the task with gusto, exclaiming,

Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet,

Whither away, or where is thy abode?

Happy the parents of so fair a child!

Happier the man whom favorable stars

Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow![43]

Vincentio is reduced to a “child” and the submissive “bedfellow,” or sexual partner, of a “man.” It is the first time in the play—and, the audience may infer, in her life—that Katherine has found herself in agreement with another and she celebrates. In the light of a celestial fire, by which, says Katherine her “eyes / . . . have been so bedazzled . . . / That everything I look on seemeth green,” or newly made, Petruchio and Katherine have engaged in a destruction of the symbol of authority, asserting their shared mastery over their world.[44]

The old texts having been burned through the symbolic destruction of the authorities which they represent and which, in turn, represent them, the forging of a new order is completed in their shared kiss in the following scene. Having entered Padua, Petruchio pulls Katherine aside before proceeding to her father’s house and insists that she kiss him.


First kiss me, Kate, and we will.


What, in the midst of the street?


What, art thou ashamed of me?


No, sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.


Why, then let’s home again. Come, sirrah, let’s away.


Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.[45]

The emphasis of Katherine’s initial objection to the kiss, that she is “ashamed to kiss” “in the midst of the street,” is another indicator of the gradual movement away from a struggle of mastery between the marriage partners and toward a shared mastery over the world around them. With this shared kiss, Katherine and Petruchio seal their own unity and simultaneously assert their mutual mastery over social expectation.

The famous final scene of the play with its variously interpreted final monologue by Katherine and its emphasis on the service wives may offer to their husbands is a fitting conclusion to the play taken as a whole. While Katherine’s expressions of disapproval for wives who “seek for rule, supremacy, and sway” fit obviously with the abandonment of a contest for mastery in marriage, however, her admonition that they should “serve, love, and obey” may seem out of place given what has preceded.[46] As always with Shakespeare, however, context is the key here. Katherine’s speech proceeds from a wager made by Petruchio, Hortensio, and Lucentio, each betting that his respective wife will answer to his call when a servant is sent to fetch her. Unsurprisingly, only Katherine comes at the request of Petruchio, and she answers because, as she says in her speech, she knows that he “cares for” her as her husband.[47] The money he has won he has won through her and it is theirs together. In addition, the final approbation of Katherine’s new behavior and the content of her speech comes from Vincentio, the same whom Petruchio and Katherine had insulted on the road to Padua. “‘Tis a good hearing when children are toward,” he exclaims, thereby placing the authoritative stamp of approval upon the marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.[48] By abandoning the struggle for mastery that prevents the other couples present, Bianca with Lucentio and Hortensio with his unnamed Widow, from winning the wager and gaining the approval of their elders, Katherine and Petruchio are able to gain greater wealth and prestige. They are, in short, able to assert a sort of mastery over the society around them because they no longer seek mastery over each other. They are, in addition, says Harold Bloom “rather clearly . . . going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare.”[49]

[1] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.1.108–110.

[2] Ibid. IV.1.113, 117.

[3] Ibid. IV.1.135–136.

[4] Ibid. IV.1.143.

[5] Ibid. IV.1.145.

[6] Ibid. IV.1.154.

[7] Kahn, 92.

[8] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, I.2.198–204.

[9] Queen Elizabeth I, “Queen Elizabeth Inveighs against the Spanish Armada,” in Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, ed. William Safire (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 85.

[10] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew I.2.191.

[11] Ibid. II.1.45.

[12] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales IV.64.

[13] Ibid. IV.743–746.

[14] Frederick Halm, Preface to Ralph Abercrombie Anstruther, Griselda: A Drama in Five Acts (London: Black and Armstrong, 1840), vii.

[15] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, II.1.132–137.

[16] Ibid. II.1.220.

[17] Ibid. II.1.200.

[18] Ibid. II.1.197.

[19] Ibid. II.1.199, 201.

[20] Bevington, Complete Works of Shakespeare, 125.

[21] Ibid. III.2.229–239.

[22] Marion D. Perret, “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 23, no. 2 (Spring, 1983): 231.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.1.147.

[25] Ibid. IV.1.168.

[26] Ibid. IV.3.53–58.

[27] Ibid. IV.3.64–68.

[28] Ibid. IV.3.81–82.

[29] Ibid. IV.3.84–85.

[30] Ibid. IV.3.88.

[31] Ibid. IV.3.151–159.

[32] Ibid. IV.3.165–170.

[33] John E. Booty, ed., The Book of Common Prayer, 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2005), 292.

[34] Ibid., 298–299.

[35] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.5.1–2.

[36] Ibid. IV.5.3–10.

[37] Ibid. IV.5.12–15.

[38] Ibid. III.2.230–232.

[39] Ibid. IV.5.1–2.

[40] Marianne L. Novy, “Patriarchy and Play,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 20.

[41] Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew IV.5.42.

[42] Ibid., IV.5.33.

[43] Ibid. IV.5.36–40.

[44] Ibid. IV.5.44–46.

[45] Ibid. V.1.135–141.

[46] Ibid. V.2.167–168.

[47] Ibid. V.2.151.

[48] Ibid. V.2.186.

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

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 5)

This simultaneous self-assertion coupled with subjection to social expectations is evident in the Wife of Bath’s treatment of biblical passages on marriage. While accepting the authority of Scripture in consonance with the expectations of her society, the Wife of Bath applies interpretations that allow her to assert her authority over her society’s most authoritative texts. She appeals, for example, to the polygamy practiced by certain Old Testament patriarchs in an attempt to justify her own polyamorous behavior:

What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye

Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,

And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;

And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,

And many another holy man also.[1]

Turning to New Testament texts on marriage, she admits St. Paul’s advice to prefer virginity over marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, but turns to assert her own authority over the text: “He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly; / And lordynges, by youre leve, that am not I.”[2] In a reference to the Epistle to the Ephesians, she mentions that “the Apostel” Paul “bad oure housbondes for to love us weel,” proclaiming that “al this sentence me liketh every deel.”[3] To fit this passage to her argument, however, she leaves out the preceding injunction that “wives” should “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” and the immediately following injunction to “let the wife see that she respects her husband.”[4]

At this point in her prologue, the Pardoner interjects, “Now, dame . . . by God and by Seint John! / Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.”[5] The accusation that the Wife of Bath has been preaching is an indication of what Chaucer is doing here. He has taken up the methodology employed by the medieval misogynists while turning it on its head. In the same way that, for example, St. Jerome quotes selectively from Scripture to justify his preference for virginity over marriage and to defame femininity, the Wife of Bath provides carefully selected biblical references coupled with creative misinterpretations to substantiate her own position.

The most powerful example of the Wife of Bath’s attempts to assert her dominance over the textual tradition in which she stands comes at the conclusion of her prologue. There, the Wife describes her fifth husband, Janekyn, reading from his “book of wikked wyves.” At last, she grows impatient with his impetuous reading and, snatching several pages from the book, strikes Janekyn on the cheek:

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne

To reden on this cursed book al nyght,

Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght

Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke

I with my fest so took hym on the cheke

That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.[6]

Janekyn’s reaction, she continues, is to jump up “as dooth a wood leoun, / And with his fest he smoot me on the heed / That in the floor I lay as I were deed.”[7] Although Janekyn has struck her so hard that she will remain deaf in one ear, the Wife of Bath seizes on this opportunity to practice the sort of manipulation attributed to women in the very misogynistic tradition she is struggling to assert herself against. Appealing to Janekyn’s sympathy, she cries out, “O! hastow slayn me, false theef? . . . / And for my land thus hastow mordred me? / Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.”[8] Janekyn, moved by his wife’s suffering, falls down on his knees and begs her to “foryeve it me.”[9] At last, after Janekyn is subjected to one more punch from his wife, the two are reconciled in a manner that fits the Wife of Bath’s tastes:

He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,

To han the governance of hous and lond,

And of his tonge, and of his hond also;

And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.[10]

In a commentary upon the Wife of Bath that, fittingly, evinces the influence of Michel Foucault’s notions of asserting power through “the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of” a text,[11] Susan Crane lauds the Wife of Bath’s actions as “suggesting that fundamental changes can arise from limited acts of destruction.”[12] Adding to Crane’s commentary, Bisson remarks on this passage that “the right to say what the culture’s central texts mean underpins the right to rule.”[13] By applying her own interpretations to her culture’s texts and, finally, engaging in a symbolic mutual destruction of those texts alongside her husband, the Wife of Bath is asserting her right to define her marriage and herself on her own terms.

More than that, he and she together are rejecting the sort of typology which has hitherto defined their respective self-understandings and, through so defining their identities, defined both of their understandings of each other and of their relationship. Whereas Janekyn and the Wife of Bath previously saw themselves and each other through the lens of the medieval misogynist texts, their mutual destruction of those texts is an act symbolic of their new mutual recognition of their own and each other’s personhood. The result, says the Wife of Bath, is that

After that day we hadden never debaat.

God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde

As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,

And also trewe, and so was he to me.[14]

The Wife of Bath has, through this mutual text-burning, found the means by which to surpass social expectations. She is able, albeit temporarily, to define herself and her relationship with Janekyn in fresh, creative terms because they have together made a decisive break with the tradition that had hitherto colored their relationship and prevented them from authentically offering themselves to each other.

[1] Ibid. III.53–58.

[2] Ibid. III.111–112.

[3] Ibid. III.160–162.

[4] Ephesians 5:22, 5:33, respectively (English Standard Version).

[5] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.164–165. There is no small irony in the Pardoner being the pilgrim who interjects here as his prologue and tale, told later, indeed constitute a sermon on avarice.

[6] Ibid. III.788–793.

[7] Ibid. III.794–796.

[8] Ibid. III.800–802.

[9] Ibid. III.807.

[10] Ibid. III.813–816.

[11] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 119.

[12] Susan Crane, “The Writing Lesson of 1381,” in Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 216.

[13] Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World, 163.

[14] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.822–825.

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.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 3)

In the Canterbury Tales, it is the Wife of Bath who introduces the topic of mastery in marriage into the discussion. Apparently piqued by the earlier fabliau-style tales of adulterous women and their cuckolded husbands as told by the Miller and the Reeve, as well as the aborted Cook’s Tale which surely would have continued this theme had it been completed, the Wife introduces into the tale-telling the topic of headship in marriage. In her prologue, which, at 856 lines is by the far the longest prologue of any of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales and more than twice the length of her Tale, the Wife of Bath enters into an extended detailing of and tortuous justification for her unfaithfulness to and dominance over her first four husbands.

In so doing, she consistently draws upon the tradition of misogynistic literature in her descriptions of herself and of women in general. In a claim that echoes the claims of these texts, for example, she says, “Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive / To wommen kyndely, whil that they may lyve.”[1] While women are more deceitful and emotional than men, says the Wife of Bath, again repeating the claims of medieval misogynistic texts, “man is moore resonable / Than womman is.”[2] She also consistently draws upon this tradition to explain and justify her socially unacceptable behavior, as when she claims,

We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,

In this matere a queynte fantasye:

Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,

Thereafter wol we crie al day and crave;

Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;

Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we flee.[3]

Similarly, she invokes the conventions of misogynistic literature to explain certain aspects of her physical appearance, her wide-set teeth and birthmark:

Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;

I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.

As help me God, I was a lusty oon.[4]

According to medieval physiognomists, gapped-teeth were an indication of “an envious, irreverent, luxurious, bold, faithless, and suspicious nature.”[5] A Latin gloss in the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, an early 15th century manuscript widely considered among the most authoritative, comments on the Wife’s astrology and physical appearance. “Whenever they [any of the houses of Venus, as at the Wife’s birth] are in ascendance unfortunately one will bear an unseemly mark upon the face. At the nativities of women when a sign is ascending from one of the houses of Venus while Mars is in it, or vice versa, the woman will be unchaste.”[6]

More recently, Walter Clyde Curry, in “casting the Wife of Bath’s horoscope” has provided a helpful compilation of a number of similar remarks in the works of various astrological authorities.[7] According to the Wife,

For certes, I am al Venerien

In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.

Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,

And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;

Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.[8]

Expanding upon this, Curry draws upon a number of astrologers predating or roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer, discerning in their prognostications an image of the Wife of Bath. A late 13th or early 14th century misogynistic text titled De secretis mulierum, or “Women’s secrets,” and falsely attributed to Albertus Magnus claims of a woman born under the astrological signs the Wife of Bath describes for herself that, “She reaches maturity at the age of twelve years, has small breasts becoming full and hard, and coarse hair. She is bold in speech, having a keen, high-pitched voice, proud in mind, red of face, erect in carriage, given to drink, she loves to sing, wanders much, and delights in adorning herself as much as possible.”[9] This could nearly be a description of the Wife of Bath herself. She was, she says, married for the first time at “twelve yeer . . . of age.”[10] She is, similarly, “bold in speech” and “proud in mind,” as is evidenced from the outspoken nature of her prologue and tale as well as her emphatically and frequently expressed desire to dominate her husbands. She also “wanders much,” as Chaucer informs us through the list he provides of her various previous pilgrimages:

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,

In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coloigne.

She koude muchel of wandryne by the weye.[11]

In addition to providing an accurate prediction of her personality, Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s horoscope also matches the Wife of Bath’s physical appearance as described by Chaucer. Says Chaucer,

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;

I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound

That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.

Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,

Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.[12]

In addition to being “red of face,” then, she is also a woman who clearly “delights in adorning herself as much as possible.” Her adornment, in fact, does not end with the “ten pound” “coverchiefs,” “scarlet reed” “hosen,” and “moyste” (or supple) “newe” “shoes” described here. She is also, continues Chaucer, “ywympled wel,” wearing a fashionable hat “as brood as is a bokeler or a targe,” two species of shields in use in Chaucer’s day.[13] In spite of this ostentatious abundance of clothing, however, Chaucer tells us that “upon an amblere esily she sat,”[14] a feat no doubt made possible by her astrologically-endowed “erect . . . carriage.”

Firmly connecting her personal identity with the statements about the nature of women in the misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath spends much of her prologue detailing the ways in which she cuckolded and domineered over her several husbands by manipulating their desires and emotions. “Her account of her first three marriages to old husbands,” summarizes Lillian M. Bisson, “captures the misogynists’ most nightmarish visions about women, as she unabashedly relates the ways in which she controlled her husbands.”[15] She has, in short, internalized and become the embodiment of the medieval tradition of misogynistic literature. In this, Chaucer has perhaps painted an accurate, if quite exaggerated portrait of many medieval women. “When a medieval woman sought her own features in her mind’s mirror, she found reflected there a preexisting pattern that patriarchal culture had already shaped,” says Bisson.[16] And this is precisely what we find in the case of the Wife of Bath.

Yet, if this were all there is to the character of the Wife of Bath, she would hardly merit the enduring interest she has attracted. Derek Pearsall has argued that the Wife was already “something of a talking point in London literary circles in the 1390s.”[17] More recently than the 14th century, George Lyman Kittredge has enthusiastically asserted that “the Wife of Bath is one of the most amazing characters that the brain of man has ever yet conceived.”[18] Such claims could hardly stand if the Wife of Bath were merely another iteration of the medieval type of the conniving and adulterous woman.

As Bisson remarks, “her confessional prologue consists almost entirely of amalgamed antifeminist texts like those contained in Jankyn’s ‘book of wikked wyves.’”[19] The power of the Wife of Bath as a character arises from the simultaneity of her embodiment of a well-worn type coupled with a remarkable individuality that seeks to thwart any typical appellation applied to her. As J. R. Hulbert observed in a comment on the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales as a whole, the genius of Chaucer is to be found in his ability to merge “individual features with typical ones in such a way as to gain vividness and realism, not to be found in type delineations before him.”[20] The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most outstanding exemplar of this species.

While identifying with the characters described in medieval misogynistic literature, the Wife of Bath surpasses an absolute identification with the women described in this literature, thereby calling the accusations levelled by this literature into question. As Bisson explains, “as Chaucer imagines the Wife appropriating those texts, she becomes a whole much greater than the sum of its parts; she balloons into an independent self, generating energy that her creator can scarcely control.”[21] At one point in her prologue, the Wife of Bath trenchantly inquires, for example,

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?

By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,

As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,

They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse

Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.[22]

With this, the Wife of Bath has entered into a battle with the culture into which she was born and its texts which have shaped her identity. While necessarily living under the influence of these texts, she asserts herself against them.

[1] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.401–402.

[2] Ibid. III.441–442.

[3] Ibid. III.516–520.

[4] Ibid. III.603–605.

[5] Benson, ed., Riverside Chaucer, 818–819.

[6] Ibid., 870.

[7] Walter Clyde Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 166.

[8] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.609–613.

[9] Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, De secretis mulierum, quoted in Curry, “The Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht, 179.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.4.

[11] Ibid. I.463–467.

[12] Ibid. I.453–458.

[13] Ibid. I.470–471.

[14] Ibid. I.469.

[15] Lillian M. Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 210.

[16] Ibid., 191.

[17] Derek Pearsall, The Canterbury Tales (New York: Routledge, 2002), 6.

[18] George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1915), 198.

[19] Bisson, 213.

[20] J. R. Hulbert, “Chaucer’s Pilgrims,” in Chaucer, ed. Wagenknecht,  25.

[21] Bisson, 213.

[22] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.692–696.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 2)

In his Marriage Group, Chaucer draws upon the robust medieval tradition of misogynistic literature. Among his many sources drawn from this tradition are writings of Church Fathers like St. Jerome in his Epistola adversus Jovinianum, to which, says Thomas R. Lounsbury, “the prologue to the tale of the Wife of Bath owes not only numerous passages, but even its existence.”[1] Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, was originally written “in response to an opponent who had dared to suggest that chastity and marriage were of equal value,” says Helen Cooper.[2] “It is in fact,” she continues, “less theological than anti-feminist—as is demonstrated by his inclusion of a vivid description of the bad habits of wives translated from the pagan Greek author Theophrastus, and preserved only here.”[3] Although too lengthy to quote in full, a survey of Jerome’s selection from Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor as head of the Lyceum, reveals contents that reflect precisely the sort of misogynistic statements found in similar medieval texts and which closely mirror many of the stories of marriage woes told by Chaucer’s pilgrims. “Matrons want many things, costly dresses, gold, jewels, great outlay, maid-servants, all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches,” says Theophrastus in a claim that explains the Wife of Bath’s first three marriages to wealthy elderly men.[4] Similarly, “she complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she: that another is looked up to by all,”[5] continues Theophrastus, which claim the Wife of Bath echoes in her complaint to one of her husbands, “Why is my neighebores wyf so gay? / She is honoured overal ther she gooth; / I sitte at hoom; I have no thrifty clooth.”[6] In a passage that could be a description of the Wife of Bath, Theophrastus goes on:

Upon whomsoever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. If you give her the management of the whole house, you must yourself be her slave. If you reserve something for yourself, she will not think you are loyal to her; but she will turn to strife and hatred, and unless you quickly take care, she will have the poison ready.[7]

The wife whom Theophrastus-via-Jerome describes is, in short, a wife who is always potentially adulterous, always burdensome, and never a satisfying partner. She is, in other words, just the sort of wife featured in a number of the Canterbury Tales, including those of the Miller, the Reeve, the Merchant, and, especially, the Wife of Bath.

Other sources put to use by Chaucer were of more recent origin, such as the Miroir de Mariage of Chaucer’s French contemporary Eustache Deschamps.[8] Chaucer also drew heavily for both style and content upon the French fabliaux, short works of poetry whose stories focused on, as Jean Rychner has succinctly summarized them, la femme surprise en adultère et niant l’évidence avec succès [the woman caught in adultery denying the evidence with success] and similar themes.[9]

In her prologue, the Wife of Bath provides a bibliography of the sort of misogynistic literature contained in the “book of wikked wyves”[10] from which her fifth husband enjoyed reading, “in which book . . . there was,” in addition to the Ad Jovinianum of St. Jerome,


Crisippus, Trotula, and Helowys,

That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys,

And eek the Parables of Salomon,

Ovides Art, and bookes many on,

And alle thise were bounden in o volume.[11]

The Wife of Bath’s treatment of these misogynistic texts evinces some irony on Chaucer’s part in that she reacts with hostility toward them while, simultaneously, internalizing the claims these texts make about the inherent vices of women.

Shakespeare creates Katherine Minola of the Taming of the Shrew from a similar set of source materials and with a similar effect. In addition to drawing upon the same medieval misogynistic textual tradition as did Chaucer, Shakespeare drew upon more recent texts which exhibit not only a disdain for women as inherently sinful but, in addition, encourage violence toward women to gain the upperhand in the marriage. Richard Hosley has shown, for example, that Shakespeare drew upon “an anonymous verse tale printed by Hugh Jackson in about 1550 under the title Here Begynneth a Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morelles Skin, for Her Good Behavior.”[12] Going beyond mere defamation of women, the husband of the shrewish woman in this popular ballad demands of her “Thou shalt giue ouer or we departe / The maystership all, or all this day / I will not cease to make thee smarte.”[13] What ensues is a violent battle for mastery in the marriage between a husband and wife, both of whom share with each other and with the Wife of Bath the belief that the marital relationship must necessarily involve one member in subjection to the other.

[1]  Thomas R. Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer: His Life and Writings, vol. 2 (1892; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2013), 292–3.

[2] Cooper, 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Theophrastus, “On Marriage,” quoted in Jerome, Epistola adversus Jovinianum, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol. 6: Jerome, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 383.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales III.236–238. All quotations from the Canterbury Tales are taken from Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[7] Jerome, 383.

[8] John Livingston Lowes, “Chaucer and the ‘miroir De Mariage’ (continued),” Modern Philology 8, no. 2 (Oct. 1910): 166.

[9] Jean Rychner, Les XV joies de mariage (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1999), xiii.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales III.685.

[11] Ibid. III.676–681.

[12] Richard Hosley, “Sources and Analogues of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’” Huntington Library Quarterly 27 No. 3 Shakespeare (May 1964): 295.

[13] Thomas Amyot, ed., The Old Taming of a Shrew (London: Frederick Shoberi, 1844), 86.

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 1)

Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare dedicated a large portion of their respective bodies of work to stories about marriage and examinations of marriage through those stories. In addition, these two great authors of the English language both evince a tendency to focus upon similar questions surrounding marriage, such as the origins and nature of romantic love, the consequences of spousal unfaithfulness, and the roles of husbands and wives in relation to each other.[1] There are many possibilities for the origins of this similarity of interests between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Marriage and all of its facets, including male-female relations, ἔρως, childbearing, and childrearing, are, after all, ubiquitous aspects of the human condition and always of immediate interest in any historical moment.

In spite of Chaucer’s frequent identification as a “medieval” poet and Shakespeare’s popular designation as a “Renaissance,” or, more recently, “early modern,” poet, it is also not to be overlooked that, as John Spiers writes, “The community that discovers itself in Chaucer is already recognizably the English community of Shakespeare.”[2] The implications and assumptions engendered by the identification of each with his particular historical era aside, the two are separated by only 200 years, a substantial but not exceptionally large amount of time. “If [Shakespeare and his contemporaries] are moderns, Chaucer also is a modern,” continues Spiers,” if Chaucer is mediaeval, they also are mediaeval.”[3] Ultimately, Spiers concludes, “Shakespeare’s English is the complex fulfilment of, or development from, Chaucer’s.”[4] This is true not only of the language itself, but also of the ideas conveyed through that language as well as the style in which they are conveyed.

The influence, direct and indirect, of Chaucer upon Shakespeare is evident in the latter’s treatment of marriage in comparison with that of the former. It is well-established that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other works by Chaucer for the subject matter of his plays. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, says Helen Cooper, “influenced two earlier plays of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”[5] two plays written around the same time as the writing of the Taming of the Shrew.[6] Shakespeare, in addition, continued to draw on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales throughout his career. “A further possible area of influence from the Tales on Shakespeare emerges in the last plays,” continues Cooper.[7] “The theme of women’s endurance of undeserved suffering in Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles may owe something to the Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales.”[8] Given that Shakespeare drew upon at least one of the members of Chaucer’s Marriage Group of Tales for his depictions of suffering women and that he was writing plays influenced by Chaucer at nearly the same time that he was writing the Taming of the Shrew, the similarities between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola seem unlikely to be merely coincidental. Instead, the character of Katherine Minola and the story of her “taming” present another case of Shakespeare’s borrowings from Chaucer.

[1] For example, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde examines the origins of romantic love as well as the consequences of unfaithfulness. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an examination of the origins of romantic love with a substantial amount of content that is fascinatingly similar to the story of Troilus and Criseyde, of which Shakespeare wrote his own version in the play Troilus and Cressida.

[2] John Spiers, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.

[6] Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 109, 118. Wells and Taylor date Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1590–1591, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1595, and The Taming of the Shrew to 1590–1591, placing all of the plays within four to five years of each other and making Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew coeval.

[7] Cooper, 422.

[8] Ibid.

Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.