Social status – gender roles and class

The means to social status

Issues of social status, gender and class are explored and challenged in The Taming of the Shrew. What it means to be a lord or a gentleman is one element of the Induction that causes much comedy in the opening scenes and resonates in the rest of the play. 
Petruchio enters the play as a gentleman by breeding, yet too impoverished to maintain an appropriate lifestyle. His social status is greatly increased by his marriage to Katherina whose dowry brings him significant wealth. Similarly, Hortensio increases his social prestige through his marriage to the rich Widow. In Paduan society, marriage is primarily about economic and social advantage. This is why both Bianca and Katherina find that decisions about whom they marry are first made between their father and suitors, whilst their own decisions and desires are secondary. Bianca falls in love ostensibly with a tutor, but the marriage is only acceptable because Lucentio is in fact of the same social class as her.

The relationship between men and women 

Gender roles and relationships between men and woman raise issues that relate to the taming plot as well as to other social interactions in the patriarchal society of Padua (and early modern England). 
As products of an advanced Renaissance society, Katherina and Bianca have tutors who teach them Latin and music, with much more domestic and social freedom than women in other parts of Europe at the time. However, they do not embark on the same kind of education in the Arts that Lucentio intends to pursue in Padua and have far less legal, educational and financial freedom than any man they might marry. 

Idealised womanhood

Cultural expectations of women are portrayed both in realistic terms and parodied in exaggerated examples throughout The Taming of the Shrew. The initial attractiveness of Bianca is that she fits the cultural ideal of a woman who is (or appears to be) obedient, humble, chaste and silent. However, Shakespeare demonstrates that this is in fact an unrealistic representation. 
It is difficult for a director to know how to pitch Katherina’s long final speech:
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,

And not obedient to his honest will,

What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
Act 5 Scene 2     
This scene is sometimes performed with Katherina aware she is getting the upper-hand over the other wives, perhaps showing that such obedience is the result of intelligence and love rather than debasement and servitude. Alternatively, the speech can be delivered tongue-in-cheek, with Katherina not meaning what she is saying, but purely playing along with what she knows Petruchio wants to hear in order to then achieve her own ends.

Freedom in submission

The structure of the play appears to endorse the sentiments Katherina expresses about the relative roles of men and women (it appears as a conclusion of the drama, with no character contending it). And no one would wish to live with the extremes to which Katherina takes physical and verbal autonomy. 
In a society that valued order over individualism, and which was influenced by the teachings of the church, perhaps the least problematic resolution is to see the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina as an expression of the biblical paradox with which Shakespeare’s audience were very familiar. Christians believe that through complete submission to Christ, who lay down his life on their behalf, a person is utterly liberated and enabled to reach their fullest potential. Thus Katherina affirms the importance of submission within marriage, to a partner who puts her needs first, through which both are honoured and recognised. Certainly, the script suggests that Petruchio and his wife leave the stage in happy harmony, as opposed to the other couples, having achieved a balanced relationship, rather than having to be manipulative and/or domineering.
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