The speech that Katherine gives at the end of The Taming of the Shrew has been the subject of much discussion. Is this speech meant to be interpreted on face value, or is it ironic? Much of this is due to to the fact that her speech about wifely obedience is the longest speech in the book (one of the longest speeches in the entire canon!) and Katherine is promoting submissiveness while she commands the attention of the characters and audience.
However, there are two other ways that Katherine’s speech is ironic.
1 The idea of work in Katherine’s speech.
Katherine addresses the other women (and the audience) with the following.
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 labor both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st 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.
But here is the thing. The women in the the story are not married to men who have committed their bodies to painful labor both by sea or land. Petruchio has been a soldier but now he is settling down to his father’s inheritance and has enlarged it by “wiving wealthily.” Katherine argues that obedience is a debt owed to a husband, in large part, because he works hard to secure her livelihood while she sits at home safe and passively. But what happens when men do not commit their bodies to “to painful labor both by sea and land?” Does lessen the debt that wives owe their husband? Does this lessen the tribute that wives must pay to their husbands?
After Hortensio realizes that Bianca loves a lowly scholar (watching the play again I think Hortensio is more upset that she is in love with a man below her station than the fact that she is not in love with Hortensio!) he abandons his suit in favor of a “wealthy widow.” Notice that Hortensio does not abandon his suit for a poor widow, or a random washer woman widow. He abandons her for a wealthy widow. Hortensio marries a widow and takes her fortune, since her fortune would have become his property. She is not living off of his hard work; he is using her income to avoid hard work. Does she owe her husband the tribute of love, fair looks and true obedience if her husband is also lying at home, warm, safe and secure?
This question is even more pertinent in our own age.
First of all, as to women being less intelligent than men, fuck him. (Oh, and two can play this game. Did you know that Poland has only one player ranked among the top chess players in the world, and Russia has 24? Therefore, Russians are 24 times as intelligent as Poles.)
But as for the point about women being weaker, does that matter any more? During the time when people worked in the fields, toiled in masonry, or worked in steel mills, physical strength and prowess would be an asset and an advantage. But is physical strength an advantage in accounting? Not so much. As work becomes less physical, the differences in strength between the sexes become less important than other competencies. As this changes, the relationship between the sexes is also changing.
But there is actually another, more fascinating, irony in this speech, if we look at the world in which the play was written.
Katherine, a shrew, rebels against everyone in the play but at the end comes to obey her husband and accept his authority over her.
What I find fascinating is at this time, England was run by a Queen, Elizabeth I, who was unmarried. Parliament was unhappy with the lack of an heir, and even passed a resolution calling upon the queen to marry. She proclaimed that
“To conclude, I am already
bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that
may suffice you. Makes me wonder that you forget, yourselves, the
pledge of this alliance which I have made with my kingdom.”
So, if England is Elizabeth I’s husband, and the wife is supposed to obey her husband, does that mean that, for Elizabeth I, England is is her lord, her life, her keeper,
her head, her sovereign?
James I made a similar proclamation after uniting England and Scotland.
“What God hath
conjoined let no man separate. I am the husband. All the whole realm
is my lawful wife,”
But this analogy is far less trouble for him; the wife is supposed to obey the husband.
Elizabeth I always tried to minimize the “problem” of her sex.
I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…”
In this instance, Elizabeth I tried to portray the people of England, her subjects, as her children. But this arrangement would not last for her successors. Within 40 years after her death, Charles I will be executed (to this day no sovereign enters the House of Commons.) His son will assume the throne, but by the time the Stuart line comes to an end, the Sovereign will have no substantial power over the government.
I am not saying that Taming of the Shrew is somehow a call to revolution or regicide, or that it foretells the coming upheaval. But The Taming of the Shrew is a play about social upheaval and social order; men and women, lords and servants. It calls for order but undermines its own calls. Furthermore, by tying together the social hierarchy of men and women to that of lord and servant, it makes the hierarchy even more precarious; if one falls, the other falls as well.