Feminist criticism

The focus of feminist criticism

The most relevant critical interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew has been the interpretation developed from the perspectives of feminist criticism. This concentrates on:
  • The presentation of female experience in character and action, frequently pointing out the misrepresentation of female characters by male authors, and challenging sexist views and statements
  • The ‘silence’ of women in certain works of literature and how different those works might seem if the female point of view were more fully represented
  • In terms of literary history it draws attention to the work of overlooked or neglected female authors, who are seen as constituting a separate literary tradition, which is different from, but not necessarily inferior to, a tradition dominated by male writers.
A feminist reading of The Taming of the Shrew will analyse the ways in which Shakespeare portrays the narrative of male domination and will explore the economic, social, political and psychological forces that silence or marginalise women.

Questioning Petruchio’s perspective

The falconry analogy

Petruchio’s soliloquy in Act 4 Scene 1, in which he describes his plan to tame Katherina, is a rich point at which to engage with feminist readings of the play. Questions about gender, relations between the sexes and the politics of women’s lives in early modern England and today shed new light on the text. 
Petruchio understands his relationship with Katherina as one in which he must ‘reign’ and be in control of her behaviour and desires. He sees himself as a falconer and Katherina as a haggard (wild hawk) who must be manned and taught to respond to the lure. The sexual politics of patriarchy are at play here as Petruchio desires to control Katherina and ‘make her come and know her keeper's call’. 
The historical censorship and control of women in early modern England is evoked in the imagery of falconry and the emphasis on obedience and male sovereignty. A narrative of oppression emerges as the extent to which Petruchio intends to control Katherina is described in detail. Her sleep, her food, her appetites and her independence are all to be minutely controlled by her new husband:
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites

That bate and beat and will not be obedient.

She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;

Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;
Act 4 Scene 1     
Like a wild hawk, Katherina is being trained so that she behaves as a well-trained hawk would while hunting:
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;

And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.
Act 4 Scene 1     
The lure is the instrument used by the falconer to get the hawk’s attention and bring it back under control. As Petruchio knows, it is a form of reward that reinforces good behaviour. 

Male abuse?

For Petruchio to apply this kind of behaviour management to his wife seems to be a form of abuse. However, his language towards the end of the soliloquy shows contradictory motivations. He speaks of having ‘reverend care of her’ yet he says he will ‘kill a wife with kindness’, the alliteration highlighting the relationship between them. The ‘care’ and ‘kindness’ seem to contradict the ‘killing’ and again foregrounds the potential violence that underpins this kind of ‘taming’ within the relationship. 
Petruchio’s plan seems to be ultimately to save Katherina from her ‘mad and headstrong humour’ which will destroy her own sense of worth as well as her social status. Given this, Petruchio’s extreme form of education may be seen to be necessary when considering the social and personal damage Katherina is inflicting on herself through her shrewish behaviour. Petruchio’s taming plan, although it highlights issues of male domination and patriarchal politics, may be just the boundary which Katherina needs to feel secure, if it is tempered with respect and love. 
Petruchio’s soliloquy may be intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but it does put the gender relationships which are at the heart of the play in a new light when viewed through the lens of feminist approaches.
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