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Gender and Subordination: Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

2630 words (11 pages) Essay in English Literature

08/02/20 English Literature Reference this

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Renowned Gender theorist Judith Butler argues that most people tend to ‘[act] in some way and that [this] is crucial to the gender [they] [have].’[1] In other words, Butler claims that both male and female individuals have distinct behaviours based on their distinct gender identities. William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew[2] and Hamlet[3]both feature characters who pose either a challenge to existent gender ideologies or uphold prevalent ideas of gender normative traits (or both at the same time). This essay will start off by taking a look at existing gender ideologies in the Elizabethan Era, i.e. 1558 – 1603,[4] in order to understand how the play challenges or upholds these gender stereotypes. Then, the paper will explore Elizabethan society in order to portray in how far women’s subordination to men is effectively endorsed by law in that time period. The essay will proceed to analyse if the character of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew presents either a challenge to the ideal submissive woman or upholds the notion of an obedient woman. Then, the paper will look into Hamlet’s Ophelia and in how far her character upholds the notion of a submissive woman. Lastly, the essay will try to analyse in how far the character of Ophelia also challenges the notion of female subordination.

 The people of the Elizabethan age seemed to have a clear understanding of gender stereotypes. Within Elizabethan society, there existed a strong notion of gender normative traits. Femininity was perceived as ‘inherently weak, passive frail, nurturing, gentle, and emotional.’[5] Likewise, Geddes and Thomson argue that ‘women were generally thought to be passionate, nurturing, and feeling natures’[6], which is why they were often responsible for tending to the sick or raising the children. In general, women were mostly occupied with the domestic sphere. However, Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled over England and Ireland at the time, is the accepted royal exception to the “rule.” As a woman of power, she transgressed the notion of a passive and weak female persona. As a queen, she occupied the public sphere of politics, and was responsible for rational decision-making. According to Thomson and Geddes, however, these traits (e.g. rational thinking, decision-making, etc.) were generally considered to be inherent to a male gender identity.[7] In general, the Elizabethan age saw a clearly established general concept of female and male gender stereotypes.

Next to a clearly established distinction between male and female gender normative traits and behaviours, the Elizabethan age also favoured women’s subordination to men. According to Helsinger, Veeder and Sheets, ‘the law regarded it as the end of a woman’s autonomous existence’[8] when she entered marriage. Having previously been considered a so-called feme-sole[9], she was now considered a feme-covert.[10];[11] Upon becoming a feme-covert in the eyes of the law, a woman experienced legally endorsed subordination and was no longer considered an autonomous entity. Therefore, marriage was essentially a means to subordinate a woman to her husband’s patriarchal rule. Further, John Knox, late Protestant leader, wrote that ‘woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.’[12] Knox effectively endorses a woman’s subordination to men by law, because he perceives it to be a woman’s nature to ‘serve and obey.’[13] Essentially, Elizabethan society was built upon the notion of a submissive woman within a patriarchal rule.

Looking towards Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, one observes a character, Katherine, who effectively challenges the prevalent notion of the ideal submissive woman. Elliott points toward Kate’s and Petruchio’s exchange in which the latter claims to be ‘moved to woo [Kate] for [his] wife,’ upon which Katherine replies, ‘Moved, in good time. Let him that moved you hither / Remove you hence.’ (2.1.194-7). Instead of appreciating Petruchio’s efforts to woo her, she denotes him and demands that he removes himself from her presence. Kate’s talking back confirms Hortensio’s earlier statement of her being ‘[r]enowned […] for her scolding tongue’ (1.2.98). Her outspoken nature certainly poses a threat to society’s norm of a passive woman. Similarly, O’Brien argues that Kate’s wilful character is ‘unbecoming in a woman,’[14] and links this fact to a lack of guidance by Baptista, her father. According to O’Brien, her father ‘has no authority […] over her’[15] which shows that Kate is not submissive to her father. In fact, she wholeheartedly refuses to submit to a patriarchal rule by either Petruchio or Baptista. Therefore, Kate effectively poses a threat to society’s idea of a submissive woman.

Even though Katherine initially challenges the notion of a subordinated woman, she essentially submits herself to Petruchio towards the end of the play. According to O’Brien, Kate’s behaviour becomes submissive in the end, because she has seen ‘the error of her ways.’[16] This is most likely due to Petruchio’s ‘implicit tutelage,’[17] i.e. his mistreatment of starving her until she shows compliance. Having previously been known for her sharp tongue, Kate becomes the ‘wife [who] is most obedient’ (5.2.67). Essentially, this obedience confirms Kate’s transformation to a submissive woman within marriage. Further evidence confirms this transformation:

 Petruccio ‘I say it is the moon that shines so bright.’

 Katherina ‘I know it is the sun that shines so bright.’ (4.6.4-5)

transforms into:

 Petruccio ‘I say it is the moon.’

 Katherina ‘I know it is the moon.’ (4.6.16-17)

Katherine’s newly adapted subordination to her husband becomes evident in this verbal exchange. Initially, Kate speaks her mind by insisting on her opinion of it being the sun, but quickly changes her mind when Petruchio says it is the moon. Further, Kate highlights this complete “verbal” submission by stating that ‘[what] you will have it named, even that it is / And so it shall be so for Katherine’ (4.6.22-23). All things considered, it seems to the reader that Katherine has accepted her role as wife, and finally submits to her husband’s rule.

Contrary to The Taming of the Shrew’s Katherine, Hamlet’s Ophelia seems to portray the ideal submissive notion of a woman. According to Faucit, Ophelia is obedient and submissive ‘to a fault’[18], which becomes apparent in the following exchange between Ophelia and her father, Polonius:

Polonius ‘I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth

   Have you so slander any moment leisure

   As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (1.3.131-3)

Ophelia ‘I shall obey, my lord.’ (1.3.135)

In this verbal exchange between father and daughter, the reader can observe both the fact that Polonius demands of his daughter to stay away from Hamlet, and the fact that the daughter willingly submits to these instructions. Faucit argues that Ophelia’s willingness to obey her father stands in contrast to her own desires and needs,[19] because, according to Murphy,  ‘Ophelia, the young, fair, inexperienced girl, […] loves Hamlet.’[20] Further, and confirming Faucit’s view, Elliott argues that Ophelia would never dream of disobeying Polonius.[21] Ophelia’s complete obedience to her father thus confirms Faucit’s view that she is loyal ‘to a fault,’[22] even when her desires are of different nature. All in all, Ophelia’s submissive and obedient character confirms the notion of an ideal woman in the Elizabethan age.

Even though Hamlet’s Ophelia seems to portray an ideal woman in Elizabethan society, there exists some textual evidence in the play that could suggest that her character also challenges this prevalent gender ideology of a submissive woman. Grace Latham notes that Ophelia is in a constant state of ‘unquestioning obedience’,[23] especially to her father Polonius. However, Ophelia, ‘credulous in her innocence’[24] effectively stains her innocent and submissive nature by lying to Hamlet:

Hamlet  ‘Where’s your father?’ (3.1.127)

Ophelia ‘At home, my lord.’ (3.1.128)

The term ‘lie’ is defined as ‘an intentionally false statement […] involving deception.’[25] One the one hand, Ophelia is being obedient to her father, but on the other hand, she defies Hamlet by lying to him. According to Latham, Ophelia’s sense of duty to Polonius, i.e. her subordination to her father’s patriarchal rule, is overbearing and ultimately results in her deceiving answer to Hamlet.[26] In other words, her subordination to one man leads to the defiance of another. Therefore, it is not entirely clear if the character of Ophelia ultimately challenges or upholds a woman’s subordination to men.

In conclusion, William Shakespeare’s plays The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet feature two characters who uphold and challenge women’s subordination to men. The character of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew initially poses a severe threat due to her outspoken nature, but quickly transforms into a submissive wife towards the end of the play, which can be seen in several verbal exchanges between herself and her husband. The character of Ophelia in Hamlet entirely confirms women’s subordination to men due to her father’s overbearing influence and the former’s sense of duty towards the latter. It becomes apparent however, that in being submissive, Ophelia also defies Hamlet as she is openly lying to the latter. Ultimately, it remains open whether or not Katherine and Ophelia constitute the ideal submissive Elizabethan woman, or if they effectively pose a threat to this notion of a perfect obedient woman. It remains to be said that William Shakespeare’s works in their entirety are a valuable contribution to literature.

Bibliography
Primary Sources

  • Anna Murphy Jameson, Shakespeare’s Heroines, (Toronto: Broadview, 2005)
  • Constance O’Brien, ‘Shakspere Talks with Uncritical People: Katherine’, The Monthly Packet (1882)
  • Grace Latham, ‘”O Poor Ophelia!”’, The New Shakespeare Society’s transactions (London: Trübner, 1880-1882), pp.401-30.
  • Helena Faucit and Lady Martin, On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1891)
  • Madeleine Leigh-Noel Elliott, Shakspeare’s Garden of Girls, (London: Remington and Company, 1885)
  • Patrick Geddes and John Arthur Thomson, The Evolution of Sex, (London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1908)
  • Sherri Thorne, ‘Shakespeare: Advocate for Women in The Taming of the Shrew’, Academic Forum, 21(2003-4)
  • William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, in The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016), pp.355-414
  • William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016), pp.1764-1853

Secondary Sources

  • Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘feme sole’, https://www.britannica.com/topic/feme-sole, 1999; [accessed 17 November 2018].
  • Judith Butler, ‘Judith Butler: Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender’, <https://youtu.be/Bo7o2LYATDc>, 2018; [accessed 17 November 2018].
  • Merriam-Webster, ‘feme covert’, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feme%20covert; [accessed 17 November 2018].
  • New World Encyclopedia, ‘Elizabethan age’, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Elizabethan_age, 2011; [accessed 17 November 2018].
  • Oxford Dictionaries, ‘lie’, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/lie; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[1] Judith Butler, ‘Judith Butler: Your Behaviour Creates Your Gender’, <https://youtu.be/Bo7o2LYATDc>, 2018; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[2] William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, in The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016), pp.355-414.

[3] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016), pp.1764-1853.

[4] ‘The Elizabethan Age is the time period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603)’

New World Encyclopedia, ‘Elizabethan age’, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Elizabethan_age, 2011; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[5] Sherri Thorne, ‘Shakespeare: Advocate for Women in The Taming of the Shrew’, Academic Forum, 21(2003-4), p.13.

[6] Patrick Geddes and John Arthur Thomson, The Evolution of Sex, (London: Walter Scott Publishing, 1908), p.14.

[7] Geddes, The Evolution of Sex, p.14.

[8] Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983), p.3.

[9] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘feme sole’, https://www.britannica.com/topic/feme-sole, 1999; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[10] Merriam-Webster, ‘feme covert’, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feme%20covert; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[11] Helsinger, The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883, p.3.

[12] John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women 1558 / in Selected Writings of John Knox: Public Epistles, Treatises, and Expositions to the Year 1559 / The First Blast To Awaken Women Degenerate

[13] Ibid.

[14] Constance O’Brien, ‘Shakspere Talks with Uncritical People: Katherine’, The Monthly Packet (1882), p.178.

[15] O’Brien, ‘Shakspere Talks with Uncritical People: Katherine’, p.178.

[16] O’Brien, ‘Shakspere Talks with Uncritical People: Katherine’, p.178.

[17] O’Brien, ‘Shakspere Talks with Uncritical People: Katherine’, p.178.

[18] Helena Faucit and Lady Martin, On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1891), p.15.

[19] Faucit, On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, p.15.

[20] Anna Murphy Jameson, Shakespeare’s Heroines, (Toronto: Broadview, 2005), p.182.

[21] Madeleine Leigh-Noel Elliott, Shakspeare’s Garden of Girls, (London: Remington and Company, 1885), p.52.

[22] Faucit, On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters, p.15.

[23] Grace Latham, ‘”O Poor Ophelia!”’, The New Shakespeare Society’s transactions (London: Trübner, 1880-1882), p.417-8.

[24] Jameson, Shakespeare’s Heroines, p.182.

[25] Oxford Dictionaries, ‘lie’, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/lie; [accessed 17 November 2018].

[26] Latham, ‘”O Poor Ophelia!”’, p.417-8.

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