Marriage in Shakespeare’s day

Reasons to marry

Marriage is a central theme in The Taming of the Shrew. It covers the relationship between a man and woman as well as the broader social and cultural aspects of marriage. Whilst early modern drama and poetry often concerned itself with the power of romance and erotic passion to lead to marriage, within Elizabethan society as a whole, the idea of marriage as a ‘love match’ was still relatively rare. In this play marriage is seen by different characters variously as:
  • A means to get rich
  • A means of increasing social status
  • A way of having power
  • A way to escape family
  • The consequence of true love. 

Working at marriage

Petruchio states the bald legal reality when he declares of his new wife:
I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.
Act 3 Scene 2     
But this is not the status quo with which either character can be satisfied. Through the struggle for understanding and partnership between Petruchio and Katherina, marriage is increasingly shown as a relationship in which power and desire are always present, sometimes in conflict and have to be negotiated. By Act 5 Scene 1, Petruchio and Katherina’s linguistic and relational negotiation results in a partnership that balances power and desire in a better way than the other marriages in the play seem to.

The exercise of power

In The Taming of the Shrew, the quest to find love is also a quest to gain power or wealth. Petruchio arrives in Padua and immediately announces his plans to ‘wive it wealthily’ in the city. In his wooing of Kate he speaks of love and courtship, but he also engages her in a battle of wits in which each character attempts to wield power over the other. Recognising that Katherina exerts control through fear of her tongue, Petruchio denudes her of it by treating every utterance as if it expressed its opposite sentiment
Say that she rail; why then I'll tell her plain

She sings as sweetly as a nightingale:

Say that she frown, I'll say she looks as clear

As morning roses newly wash'd with dew:

Say she be mute and will not speak a word;

Then I'll commend her volubility…
Act 2 Scene 1     
Whilst Lucentio and Bianca’s relationship seems based on true love, they have only effected it by gaining the upper hand over their fathers, manipulating and deceiving them in order to get what they want. The final scene show the seeds of this technique germinating within their own relationship as they play ‘control games’ with each other.

The married ideal

Shakespeare both alludes to popular treatments of female ‘shrewishness’ and questions such assumptions in order to provide a more sensitive and nuanced exploration of marriage and social order. The Taming of the Shrew asks:
  • Is marriage merely a financial arrangement in which women are marketable properties? 
  • Should a man’s relationship with his wife simply be one based on supremacy/ownership? 
  • Does a successful marriage entail male domination and female submission? 

The biblical perspective

Elizabethan BibleThese ideas are also questioned in the understanding of marriage put forward in the Bible, homilies and popular sermons. Biblical passages on marriage (with which Shakespeare would have been familiar from weekly public readings at church, from the marriage liturgy and from homilies on the subject) speak of love as well as submission:
Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. 
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.
Ephesians 5:21-25 KJV     
Later in the same chapter is an explicit rejection of male domination or violence that characterised some of the shrew literature in Shakespeare’s day:
So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
Ephesians 5:28-31 KJV     
Other contemporary sermons, such as Henry Smith’s Preparative to Marriage (1591), similarly speak of affection in marriage as a mirror of Christ and the Church, while also speaking against ‘shrewish’ behaviour. Shakespeare seems to have been familiar with this since Katherina’s language mirrors Smith’s ideas:
The man is to his wife in the place of Christ to his Church. Therefore, the Apostle requireth such an affection of him toward his spouse as Christ haveth towards his spouse…Though a woman be wise and painful, and have many good parts, yet if she be a shrew, her troublesome jarring in the end will make her honest behaviour unpleasant, as her over-pinching at last causeth her good housewifery to be evil spoken of.     
It is this inclusion of theme, imagery and rhetoric from contemporary religious discourses which gives The Taming of the Shrew greater depth than other popular literature. The latter focused on the elaborate punishments meted out for shrewish behaviour, such as the anonymous English ballad A merry jeste of a shrewde and curst Wyfe, lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her good behauyour.
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