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Feminism in the Elizabethan Era

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In the Elizabethan era women were portrayed as less than equals to men. Male seemed to be the dominate gender and women were to be seen-not-heard. They existed within a patriarchal society. As a feminist himself, Shakespeare shows through his plays how women are ill treated and powerless; yet possess more intelligence than the male characters. This is why Shakespeare creates overwhelming female characters; which is evident in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, where the lead female character shows dominance.

The major themes and motives surrounding the feminist issue are “deception and disguise” in regards to marriage, “Marriage as an Economic Institution” and “position of women in society”. Characters use deception and disguise to manipulate other characters into falling in love under false pretences. People in this era have often used marriage as a way of gaining status and wealth, where no love was involved. Women in society were to be seen-not-heard; they were expected to be obedient and faithful to their husband, while the husband would simply do as he pleased. There are also a variety of techniques which Shakespeare uses to communicate with the audience such as language techniques including imagery, alliteration, rhetorical questions, soliloquies and puns.

Katherina, also known as the “shrew”, is the central character of the play. As Katherina is introduced in the play she is instantly revealed to be fierce, ferocious, and foul tempered. Katherina speaks direct and freely which is not accepted in her society, and as a result she is labeled a “shrew”. She is renowned for her sharp tongue:

Katherina Act 2 scene 1 line 205

If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

During Act 1, when Baptista and Grumio are talking about Katherina, Grumio remarks:


‘Katherine the Curst’

A title for a maid, of all titles the worst.”

This quote reflects what most of Padua thinks of Kate and the name given to her by the town’s people, she is known by every one to be Katherina the curst. The technique used within this quote is mocking rhyme.

Deception and disguise plays a major part in the play. This is portrayed when Lucentio disguises himself as Cambio (also known as Bianca’s tudor) in a desperate attempt to win Bianca’s heart. Hortensio, however, only wants Bianca for her money and disguises himself as Litio, Bianca’s music teacher. These acts of deception lead Bianca to choosing Lucentio out of her many suitors. However, she is not allowed to be wed until after katherina finds a suitor. This in turn creates conflict between the two sisters and their father:

Katherina act 2 scene 1 line 30-35

What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see,

She is your treasure; she must have a husband,

I must dance barefoot on her wedding day

And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell.

Talk not to me. I will go sit and weep

Till I can find occasion of revenge.

This is referring to all the suitor’s Bianca has in line; Kate is envious of her sister as she has no potential suitors of her own that could withstand her overpowering behavior. Kate is implying that Baptista prefers Bianca best; she feels angry and jealous of the fact that Bianca’s getting all the attention. Katherina is confused with her feelings, provoking eruptions of anger and frustration. In my opinion, her own confusion is what causes her to be misunderstood by others.

Hortensio and Lucentio are both fighting for Bianca’s affection. After catching his first glimpse of Bianca, Lucentio says to his servant Tranio


“Oh yes, I saw sweet beauty in her face

Such as the daughter of Agenor had,

That made great Jove to humble him to her hand

When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strand”

These lines are showing Lucentio’s innocence and that he’s not showing interest in Bianca because of her money. However is be entranced by her beauty.

Marriage was considered an obligatory sacrament that should be made at a young age. Many marriages in the Elizabethan era were a total sham, nothing more than a greedy attempt to get a hold of another’s money. Education was only to be of marital preparation as the only career option for a women would be marriage. All Elizabethan women would be expected to marry, and would be dependant on her male relatives throughout her life. Shakespeare often tried to justify the role of women in his plays by creating rebellious characters such as Katherine.

In this play Petruchio was planning to marry Kate for this very reason:

Petruchio act1 Scene 2 line 53-54

“Happily to wive and thrive as best I may.

Crowns in purse I have, and goods at home”

The techniques used in these lines are imagery “Crowns in purse I have” where Petruchio is boasting about how wealthy he is, and rhyme “Happily to wive and thrive” both of which draw attention to the central theme.

Petruchio comes to Padua in the hope of finding a wealthy woman to marry; he is portrayed as greedy and egotistical as he is introduced into the play, he is only interested in increasing his wealth through marriage. His attempt to “Tame” Kate breaks her spirit, and she loses her personal identity. Petruchio starves Kate and doesn’t allow her to eat, he makes her believe that the food isn’t good enough for her; he disguises these acts as love and concern for her.

However, as the play develops, so do his feelings for Kate.

Petruchio Act III; Scene 2; lines 218-221

“…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…”

Unfortunately, Petruchio still thinks of himself to be of a higher status than Kate, simply by being a man.

Katherinas attitude has changed drastically throughout the play, she started out as vocal and aggressive, all trembled in her presence. As the play comes to an end she is submissive and obedient towards Petruchio (or at least performs that way). In her last speech she states;

Katherina act 5 scene 2 line 155

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,

And for thy maintenance commits his body

To painful labour both by sea and land,

To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,

Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;

And craves no other tribute at thy hands

But love, fair looks and true obedience;

Too little payment for so great a debt.

This is evidence of katherina giving into Petruchio; she is now well mannered and obedient. It is sad to think such a powerful female character can lose herself through marriage.

In conclusion, women throughout the Elizabethan era and specifically Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ were ill treated and looked down upon by society; women were seen as objects and silenced, forbidden from expressing their opinion. Shakespeare’s obvious feminist stance and use of various techniques may have drawn attention to the female experience, but he alone was not capable of altering the views of a patriarchal society.

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