I had been thinking about this ever since I saw The Taming of the Shrew.
Much of the focus of Taming of the Shrew is on Katherine’s arc, from the shrew to the obedient wife. My 7th grade English teacher taught us that Shakespeare often uses foils, characters who are opposites of each other. Bianca is clearly the foil of her sister Katherine. When we first see her with her sister, she does not speak. She is an ideal Elizabethan woman, silent, obedient, and therefore chaste. At the end of the play, she rebels against her husband and refuses to come when her husband sends for her.
How does this happen?
Watching the play, I was struck by the fact that Bianca is a bit of rebel right from her first interaction with Lucentio. Lucentio is in disguised as a Latin tutor in order to woo Bianca because her father will not permit her to have any suitors until her sister is married. Bianca knows her father does not want her to be courted until her sister marries, but she seems content to ignore his rules and fall in love with her tutor in disguise. She also helps Lucentio in his schemes and conspiracies, even marrying him at the church without her father’s consent. Bianca rebels against her father at every turn; it is hardly surprising that she rebels against her husband.
It’s worth pointing out that the issue of parental consent in marriage had been an ecclesiastical debate topic for several centuries. If a couple married without the consent of their parents, was their marriage valid? This debate had proceeded in Western Christendom for several centuries, and the Catholic Church only determined its answer to the question thirty years previously. (Answer: no). While England was no longer a Catholic country by this point, they had certainly been shaped by the preceding centuries of the debate, and the Anglican Church would ultimately agree with the Catholic Church that a couple did not need parental consent in order to contract a valid marriage.
Official church teachings, of course, are one thing, the beliefs of the people are another. While the average Elizabethan might have believed that a marriage contracted without the consent of the parents was a valid marriage, they seemed to have considered it ill advised, and perhaps dangerous to the social order. Romeo and Juliet can be read as a cautionary tale for young women who do not obey their father’s wishes in marriage. The original Romeo and Juliet by Arthur Brooke certainly begins in this fashion, with a prologue that reads in part as follows.
And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death.
I haven’t read his version of Romeo and Juliet, so this passage may come across as ironic in context of the poem. Still, I have no doubt that many theater goers in the Globe would have agreed with the above proposition. It’s hard to blame the nobility for thinking that marriage for love against the advice of parents damaged the social order. The nobility used marriage to “wive it wealithy,” to preserve and consolidate wealth and land. Royals married in order to forge alliances. If young people could form valid marriages without the consent or parents, all of this could be undone.
Taming of the Shrew presents a rather curious view of Lucentio and Bianca. In the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production I saw, Bianca and Lucentio’s father were genuinely hurt that Lucentio and Bianca had married without their consent or knowledge. I got the sense that the relationship with their parents was damaged by their decision and would not easily be healed.
This is followed, of course, by Lucentio’s humiliation and loss of money when his wife is disobedient. With a damaged relationship with his father and a willful wife, the audience could be forgiven for wondering if Lucentio will know conjugal happiness.
I almost wonder if this isn’t the point. The wonderful Lindsey Ellis talked about Theater of the Oppressed, a theory by Brazillian Marxist playwright Augusto Boal. He talks about how playwrights have to walk a fine line; they must be edgy, but not too much that it scares of wealthy patrons who support theater. (I have thought about this before. Actors tend to be pretty liberal, even radical in their politics and yet they perform their art for some of the most conservative members of society.)
I wonder if there is a bit of that phenomenon going on in Lucentio’s story. The story presents a young wealthy man who disguises himself as a tutor in order to win the love of Bianca, in violation of her father’s orders. He has his servant dress up as him and barter Vincentio’s property as a dowry. Lucentio never consults with his father about this arrangement. Vincentio’s father does not know that Lucentio is pursuing a young woman and making financial arrangements with his own land.
Petruchio is not the same mold. Petruchio’s father is dead, so he does not barter away his father’s land. He also respects the wishes of Baptista, ignoring Bianca in favor of Katherine. Furthermore, he does not pursue marriage for love but rather to increase his personal fortune. The play is very kind to him; he gets wealth and an obedient wife.
What would the nobles have thought of that? I think they could accept this vision of marriage. It rewards Petruchio for observing the social norms of marriage for financial gain and respecting the role of fathers and hints at punishment for Lucentio for defying them and seeking love. No doubt they would have seen this an acceptable object lesson for their sons.
If Romeo and Juliet can be read as a warning to young women, Taming of the Shrew can also be read as a warning to young men. If you encourage a young woman to defy her , don’t be surprised if she defies you.