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Shakespearian submission: Women as wives, mothers and SHREWS?

Lisa Fails

December 1, 2000

Shakespearian submission: Women as wives, mothers and SHREWS?

Mary Beth Rose has given incredible insights on some of the most important concepts within the works of William Shakespeare. “Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare?” is not only a question, also an issue that will be bravely dealt with by newcomers of mainstream feminism as well as those historians who look to the past to discover the faults and misrepresentations of sexuality and gender construction in the Elizabethan Era and those to follow.[1]

Juliet Dusinberre, another notable author, shows that “The Taming of the Shrew (TOTS)” was merely another production put on by William Shakespeare so that he could show images of power in the male world throughout the roles of Pertuchio, Baptista and Lucentio. Through the female character representation by males upon the stage, Dusinberre argues that “Women in the theatre audience may return to the subservient lives of women in Elizabethan social structures, but they too have [finally] been allowed within the theatre, the fantasy of different kinds of power, which link’s them in sympathy with the boy himself as he represents women on stage.”[2]

In Dusinberre’s “The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting and Power” she begins to address how Shakespeare’s female roles were played as men. By showing that TOTS, is the most significant of all plays, she reveals to the readers that although Shakespeare will not be presumed a “She-hater,” he did indeed play by the rules of the patriarchal society in which he lived. If women were to play the parts named for them, would this [freedom] given to them cause the modern jealousies of females being the breadwinners, or in this particular business, the female/wife/mother being the popular actress in the household as oppose to the man?

In the opening of this play, the first female role is that of the Hostess. She is one of the few females that will appear in Shakespeare’s works who holds power. She is an innkeeper, with a trade and because of her apprentice status, she as access to authority over Christopher Sly. Her character is still a female. She has thrown Sly out of the bar because of his drunken ways, but she still must call onto the Lord to “help” her out.

Reviewing Shakespeare’s complete works, notice that throughout all of his six remarkable romances, including TOTS, there are no mothers around. Most of Shakespeare’s mothers and wives are portrayed imperfectly. In the eyes of a young child, preferably a female, a mother is next to perfection. She is supposed to be subservient to the husband, while raising the perfect daughter (IF she has already given birth to the next male who will indeed heir after the death of his father, whom she will still be subservient too).

If a mother’s love is what holds families together, why aren’t there any acceptable ones present in Shakespeare’s writings? Looking at those who are present like Lady Macbeth (in Macbeth), the love driven Gertrude (in Hamlet) and the dreaded Tamora in Titus Androcicus, why are they represented in such filthy manners? Why must Gertrude sleep with her brother-in-law and not care as to how she would be looked upon, especially by her own son. Lady Macbeth’s character is far more shrewish then that of Kate in TOTS. Lady Macbeth plots to kill, just to have power. Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a wicked woman, who obviously in Shakespeare’s eyes, represents a woman who is given too much power.

Rose also notes that, on behalf of Shakespeare, women during Renaissance England, might not have been portrayed, due to the realities of having a deceased mother. Because of the risks associated with childbirth, one out of four women would die in the first fifteen years of marriage. Rose believes this data to be inadequate now that new demographic finding are more complete and consistent proving stronger evidence that mothers were important, present and should be represented. [3]

The history of this role given society, has a back bone credited too the many (significantly male) writers of the numerous “Books of Advice on Marriage” or simply known as the “Conduct Books.”[4] These books outline what a marriage should be like. They set out clearly the roles of a husband and wife, and harshly criticized those who did not conform to this prescribed ideal. Around the sixteenth centuries, these “books of advice” were infrequent and their very existence could be sought as insignificant, but because they are fairly numerous, and were published and republished constantly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they must be considered reputable.

When looking at these ‘conduct books’, two fundamental questions arise. First, do they actually reflect relationships between husbands and wives during this period, or do they merely represent an ideal, an ideal that was strived for, but never successful in obtaining?

In TOTS, Katherine’s character gives a first impression as an unruly woman, who obviously is in need of a man in her life to “tame her.” A shrew is, a difficult or gossipy wife, bad-tempered and scolding, who resists or under mind’s the assumed authority of the husband within a marriage. [5] Kate’s character is split. First, as the shrew she is out spoken and not molded into societal roles. Then at the end, Kate is finally free from her evil spirit, and able to conform to the everyday life as a wife by submitting to her husband.

Why would Shakespeare change her? Why couldn’t she be the outspoken wife, who could one day be a good mother/wife, while maintaining her persona as a mellow shrew? According to Shakespeare and others, a disobedient wife was not only a threat to a man’s peace of mind, but to his reputation. However, this situation goes both ways. A man was nothing if his wife was undisciplined and unrespectable, and it reflected badly on the “shrew” if her husband and family were neglected. [6]

In the Induction, Dusinberre points out the portrayal of how a woman should treat her husband. Although this marriage is solely based on lies, once Christopher Sly begins to think that he is indeed a lord, a Lady is “given” to him. She says unto him:

“My husband and my lord, my lord and my husband I am your wife in all obedience.”

Dusinberre’s point continues as the male (Sly) begins to be more comfortable with his role as husband or head of the household. He tells the Lady that he seems to have slept for fifteen years, the Lady replies:

“Ay, and the time seems thirty unto me, being all this time abandoned from your bed.”

Now a full grown misogynistic, Sly says:

“Tis much. Servants, leave me and her alone. Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”[7]

Shakespeare shows in the above passages that as long as a wife acknowledged her inferiority, and behaved always in a way that befitted her status and role as wife and mother, then she could do whatever she liked. The married world the writers were advocating was not an arbitrary one, even if it would seem so by modern standards, as the emphasis was always on companionship, the need for love and affection, and the sharing of domestically duties.

This play raises a few concerns about Shakespeare’s childhood. Did he and his mother have a good relationship? Was he once hurt by a woman, or was it because of his wife’s age difference that he began too see the difference in how a woman should act. Could he have had problems with his wife, and referred to one of the many “Books of advice on Marriage” and then began his writings on the “The Taming of the Shrew?”

Rose and Dusinberre have given much insight to the patriarchal roles in Shakespeare’s society. They’ve shown how mothers and wives have been throughout these years, represented wrongly and without justice. Kate was a shrew, but she changed her ways and began to submit. Not all women will be that way and during Shakespeare’s Era, women probably weren’t.


[1] M.B. Rose. “Where are the Mothers in Shakespeare? Options for Gender Representation in the English Renaissance.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991) 291-314.

[2] J. Dusinberre. “The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting and Power. Studies in the Literary Imagination 26 (1993): 67-84.

[3] P. Laslett. The World we have Lost. (1983) London: Methuen, 18, 102.

[4] R. Houlbrooke (ed.), English Family Life (Oxford, 1988).

[5] C. Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York, 1975) M. Prior (ed.) and Women in English Society 1500-1800 (London, 1986).

[6] Lady Payton in L. Pollock, Ibid. p.247. (London, 1982).

[7] W. Shakespeare. The Taming of the Shrew. Induction. Scene II lines 107-116.

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