The modern feminist movement in America is closer to an ironic farce or sadistic tragedy than a movement based on anything of substance. Perhaps a great example of the comedy of this movement happened recently in the lifting of a ban on women in combat, for the American government is nothing more than a grand joke on humanity. The tragedy of this movement is, of course, displayed in the demonic worship of sex, best displayed in modern feminists pining for the slaughtering of unborn children: sex without that awful nuisance that is a newborn child. And this year “celebrates” that cause’s 40th anniversary. As one who leans conservative on various issues, I can obviously only hold these views in modern society because I am myself a raging misogynist who wants to suppress women’s rights. My arguments are without substance themselves. I lack reason. “I am talking like a madman.” And we are once again inserted back into the farce that is modern society: Common sense is folly, murder is wisdom. But with this tragic disclaimer, I must now turn to what I believe is an argument for feminism. Most evil causes this world observes people fighting for have at their core a good value in mind. Communism is a beautiful concept but that it doesn’t work. Feminism, in the same way began as a good cause in my mind, but when all the feminists groups finally get what they want, they must fight for more unnecessary rights, and this becomes a tragic-comedy. All this to lead into the work of literature that demands a critical eye in the way it treats women: Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare’s early comedy chronicles the story of two daughters who have a very patriarchal father, Baptista, who has deemed it unfit for his youngest daughter, Bianca, to be given in marriage until his older daughter, Katherina (Kate), is married off — much like the Biblical story of Jacob and Laban. The catch is that Kate is a shrew, an ill-tempered and scolding woman. Those familiar with the plot of the modern day adaptation, 10 Things I Hate about You, will perhaps catch on quickly to this post. I believe it is best to give Shakespeare his own context to be fair to him. Thus, I will display what is sexist in the play to the modern day reader before (very briefly) arguing for the traditional Christian view on the issues — views that obviously would have shaped Shakespeare’s own understanding as he lived in a very Christian world (though I don’t begin to believe he was a Christian).
Bianca is courted by multiple suitors, and one of them, Lucentio, falls in love with her at first sight. I discussed this idea of love at first sight in another post as being nothing but erotic love. This is common in Shakespeare’s comedies, and it too is a sexist device in my own opinion, devaluing women to nothing more than “objects of ocular affection.” The important thing to keep in mind when reading this play is the effects of courtly love which were well manifested in medieval literature. The courtly lover himself was ironically sexist because the woman became to him nothing more than an object of adoration. She functioned not as a person who was to experience life alongside her knight, but one who was set up on a pedestal for worship. This worshiping of the woman was meant to place her higher in the man’s eye, but consequently it stripped her of any personality. Thus, Arthur’s Guinevere functions more as a plot device than a person in many stories. These courtly lovers occur often in Shakespeare, and the consequence is that we cannot take their love very seriously, for how can one truly love what he does not understand?
Thus, the entire play begins in misogyny, and the subsequent courting of each daughter follows suit. Kate is quickly married off to Petruchio by her father who seems content with being rid of her than actually seeing her happy in marriage. After a somewhat lengthy dialogue between the two, as Petruchio shows his loving care for Kate as he woos her, she explains to her father her feelings about the courtship:
“Now I promise you, / You have shown me a tenderly fatherly regard, / To wish me wed to one half-lunatic, / A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jack, / That thinks with oaths to face the matter out” (2, 1).
Petruchio’s wooing scene seems somewhat legitimate despite the fact that he is bribed to do so by Hortensio and Gremio who are only interested in Bianca.
“Thou know’st not golds effect. / Tell me her father’s name, and ’tis enough; / For I will board her, thou she chide as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” (1, 2).
It quickly becomes apparent that Petruchio, like many of the characters, is simply wearing a mask in this wooing scene. He shows up on his wedding day clad in “a pair of old breeches thrice turned” a “pair of boots” and an “old rusty sword” along with other garments unfit for a wedding. He shows up for his wedding as if he cares as much for the bride as he would if he were going to claim livestock from Baptista and not his daughter. Even that unloving father can see the apparel as “an eye-sore to our solemn festival” (3, 2). Immediately, the marital strife begins in the marriage as Petruchio seeks to take Kate to Verona despite her unwillingness to leave Padua. Furthermore, Petruchio describes Kate as nothing but property: “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” (3, 2).
The “wooing” of Kate may actually be less misogynistic than the wooing of Biancia by three very dense suitors. The plot is quite confusing to keep up with as Lucentio is disguised as Cambio, Tranio as Lucientio, Hortensio as Licio, and the Pedant as Vicentio (not to mention that Gremio, the other suitor for Bianca can easily be confused with Grumio, Petruchio’s servant). The “mask” that was first dawned by Petruchio in wooing Kate takes on a physical presence in the masks of Lucentio and Hortensio who wear disguises so as to be closer to Bianca.
The plot is somewhat anti-climatic in this regard as Lucentio (i.e. Tranio) is quickly given Bianca by Baptista but only because he can provide a more substantial wedding gift in return. This plot suggests a couple of highly problematic assumptions. First, women like Bianca are won easily by false appearances. Her love for the real Lucentio (as Cambio) is based purely on his art in seduction: “I read that I profess, The Art of Love” says Lucentio alluding to a Latin book on seduction. Bianca’s reply? “And may you prove, sir, master of your art” (4, 2). And they kiss and court. The second assumption rears its ugly head in Baptista’s agreeing with Lucentio (i.e. Tranio) to marry his daughter. The lack of decisions that the two daughters are allowed to make is rightly appalling to the modern reader; neither are given their wishes by their father (though Bianca is in a round about way).
The most obvious case of poor treatment of women is Petruchio’s treatment towards his wife shortly after they are wedded. The “taming” scene is regarded as the most controversial in the play, but I would venture to guess that the scene is not controversial at all. For in order for something to be controversial, two sides should be taken on the issue, and no person in their right mind would take the side of Petruchio in this scene. The young husband treats his wife poorly by any standards, even Shakespeare’s. His new bride pines that she is not being fed and deprived of independent thought. This revelation is told to the audience shortly after they see Petruchio’s poor treatment of his entire house in act 4, scene 1. At the end of the scene, Petruchio reveals why he is acting the way he is: “to make her come and know her keeper’s call” (4, 1). But, of course, to be fair to Petruchio, he does reveal that “amid this hurly I intend / That all is done in reverend care of her.” And who can blame him? For “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness… He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak.” One must become even more shrewish than a shrew to tame a shrew.
The treatment actually gets worse, or at least more visible, as Petruchio and Kate travel back to Padua and he drives her to near insanity. The scene leaves Kate at her lowest point in the play. She begun as an independent and self-assertive women, but by the end of act 4 is driven to despair and hopelessness with only her pathetic husband as her savior. The next moment the audience sees her, she is in love with Petruchio, calling him love and giving him a kiss. The madness does not end there, but the play closes on one last misogynistic note: Kate is proved to be more obedient than her counterparts Bianca and the Widow who marries Hortensio. Her lengthy speech at the end of the play is certainly the most critical to the central theme of the play: women are bound to serve their husbands and should do so willingly and with joy. And Shakespeare was fortunate he had a male actor playing Kate’s part.
The attitude of the Christian to such a play is two-fold. Christianity has always taught and will always hold that the husband is the head of the household, or the leader. This is the one of the more controversial aspects of the religion, and Shakespeare’s culture would have been to some degree shaped by that theory. Something first must be addressed here, and that is the charge that will inevitably be brought up concerning how the church has dealt with the issue in the past. The argument would be that women have in the past been held down by the white male Christians in unjust fashions. The Christian should never excuse unjust actions by a person in the past simply because they are done by a Christian — attempting to justify the act to fit the supposed character of the person committing them. Better for us to admit that we were once wrong, and then to point out at the same time that a whole host of sins have also been committed by atheists in the past. And are atheists ever asked to answer for their sins? The issue is that man is sinful, and this includes the Christian. No Christian was, is, or will be perfect this side of heaven. And if the modern day Christian, feminist, or atheist had his or her eyes opened to the amount of sin in their own lives, they would forget in an instant the great evils of past generations and for perhaps the first time see themselves as the “foremost.” The issue of feminism becomes the issue of sin.
The feminist cannot accept Christianity because, at face value, the Bible places women at a lower level than men. This is, however, problematic. The first two-thirds or so of the Bible says very little if anything directly about marriage as far as teaching commands. Stories should not be twisted to create theology or commands, and the best love story in all of literature places the woman in a very good light however ironically the story may be with its author. Now, the New Testament really says very little about men as “head” of the family or wives in relation to the whole context. A whole lot more is said about how to cure that man who is the head than him being the head. If say 1% of the text speaks on how men are to “lead the wife”, the other 99% is about how that man should live a righteous life. Nowhere is praise for Petruchio found in the Bible. By consequence, the feminist problem is not so much one of equality (“there is no male and female”) as it is about fixing the man and making him a suitable leader. We don’t need more female leaders in the house. We need more men. The real problem is that this world is chalk full of Petruchios instead of Pickwicks.
The Taming of the Shrew will always be a problem play for Shakespeare, as its final great speech is by a woman who has been terribly abused by a second-rate husband, justifying his actions. The play we now have is actually unfinished, but as it is, it offers no explanation for the seemingly harsh treatment of Kate and her transformation. Thus, the play loses much of its humor because of this. While I’m sure it is a stretch at best, knowing the irony in which Shakespeare loved to write, it may just be that the play subconsciously shows the audience the dark side of a very patriarchal society through black comedy. Petruchio, like many Shakespearean characters, is neither all-evil or all-good, and we do not really take him seriously. Thus, he is a character we can laugh at as if we should laugh at the stereotypical patriarchs who believe his religion. And when we are done laughing we always reflect as good laughing should cause. We reflect on that apparent paradox of scripture and equality. We reflect on how man was called for many responsibilities and relationships on this fragile earth, but none is more pressing than his relationship with his Father. We reflect on how this relationship is the Source of all relations, how this communion is like little particles diffused up and in all other relationships. We reflect on how the more we love and cherish the relationship we have with our Father, the better we see him, the more like him we become. We reflect that this enhances all those petty relations we have on earth in comparison. And we reflect that “being lead” and “obeying” someone who is loving and becoming more like that perfect being — a man unmasked — is far more enjoyable than fighting it. Our masks are discarded. With boundaries, we are free.