In Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, sexuality is a central theme that plays out in many different ways throughout the play. Whether it is through Petruchio and Kate’s complex relationship, or subtle references to sex and desire throughout other characters’ dialogue, sexuality is an important aspect of this iconic Shakespearean work.
Through careful analysis of key elements such as characterization, language, and themes, we can gain a deeper understanding of how sexuality shapes the story and characters in this celebrated play. Whether you are a scholar of Shakespeare or simply interested in exploring this captivating work, there is something to be gained from delving into the central role of sexuality in “Taming of the Shrew”.
Underlying many of the events in “Taming of the Shrew” is human sexuality. It influences the play’s themes, disputes, and conclusions. Throughout the play, it becomes apparent that sexual behavior denotes whether a person is considered good or bad (not necessarily a “good” character versus a “waspish” or “mean” character). There is an obvious contradiction between Kate and her sister Bianca at the start of the play.
Bianca is looked upon as the “nice” sister because of her docile and submissive nature, while Kate is considered to be a “shrew” because she is aggressive and outspoken. Bianca’s desirability to potential suitors makes her an object to be fought over, which in turn creates more conflict. This conflict between the sisters stems from their different views on sexuality. Kate believes that women should not be sexual objects, but rather people with thoughts and opinions of their own. Bianca, on the other hand, uses her sexuality to get what she wants.
The theme of the play also revolves around sexuality. The main plot line follows Kate’s journey from being a “shrew” to becoming a submissive and dutiful wife. Some may argue that this is a story of empowerment, with Kate eventually getting the upper hand in her marriage by “taming” her husband. However, it could also be argued that the play is actually a commentary on the societal expectations of women at the time. In other words, Shakespeare is suggesting that women should not have to change themselves in order to be desirable or marriageable.
The resolution of the play also hinges on sexuality. After Kate undergoes her transformation, she and Bianca are both married off to wealthy men. While this may seem like a happy ending, it is important to note that Kate’s husband openly admits that he only married her because she is now submissive and meek.
In other words, her worth as a wife is directly related to her sexuality. Bianca’s husband, on the other hand, appears to be genuinely in love with her. This suggests that Shakespeare is once again critiquing the societal expectations of women, suggesting that they should not have to change themselves in order to find love or get married.
Bianca’s father, Baptista, is sympathetic toward Bianca and has many admirers, whilst Kate has none. Baptista tries to persuade some of Biancas suitors to pursue Kate instead. They make it clear that no one of them could desire Kate. “Mates, maid? How do you mean that? You can’t have mates until you’re a nicer kind” (I , I , lines 58 – 60). It is evident from this that the males in the play prefer a higher “mold,” to use Shakespeare’s phrase, than does Kate.
As the play goes on, Kate becomes increasingly more defiant of her father’s wishes for her to be a “sensible” wife. When Petruchio comes along and proposes to Kate, we see that she is not interested unless he can prove himself worthy. She makes Petruchio go through various trials in order to win her hand in marriage. One of these trials is learning how to control Kate so she will make a good wife:
“And if I do forget myself in it, Awake me with fair Titanocometh” (I,I, lines 137 – 138). It seems as though Taming of the Shrew deals with newfound sexual freedoms (or lack thereof) and finding love without being tamed.
Kate’s sexuality is further explored when she meets Petruchio. She goes through a massive change in personality, from a harsh, defiant woman to a meek and submissive wife. However, it is debatable as to whether or not Kate truly changes, or if she is just pretending to be the “ideal” wife that Petruchio wants. Some argue that Kate was always meek and submissive, but was just hiding it behind her facade of being tough. Others say that Kate truly does change and becomes more feminine and loving.
Bianca, on the other hand, is not only able to be flirty, witty and coy around her admirers; she can also be mean to Kate. Bianca understands that it hurts Kate when she (Bianca) has more suitors while she (Bianca) has none. Bianca uses this to torture Kate. When Kate asks which suitor Bianca prefers, Bianna answers that she won’t take the suitor chosen by Kate. She carelessly offers either of the suitors to Katerina. Because he knows that the sole reason why Bianca has lovers while she has none is because of her playboy ways, Ken Terrell finds this amusing.
She provokes Kate even more by telling her that she will hook up with whoever Kate likes, simply to spite her. Kate is also repeatedly punished or demeaned for displaying sexual desire. When she tries to express her own sexuality and desires, the men in the play either ignore her or try to punish her for it. Ironically, however, their attempts at silencing and punishing her only lead to an increasingly dominant display of her sexuality.
She continues fighting back against them until Petruchio forces her into submission through a series of humiliating acts intended to break down not just Kate’s pride and independence, but also every shred of sexual identity that she might have possessed before marriage.
Also, Petruchio decided before meeting Kate that he would act as though she was being very nice to him and that she would welcome and accept him no matter what she did or said. This establishes the tone for their entire relationship.
At the beginning of Act III, Petruchio determines that changing Kate’s conduct is best achieved by acting against her wishes. He uses this to refuse her food, sleep, and clothing. For example, when they are served supper, he screams that the dish isn’t good enough and sends it back. When she tries to sleep, he banishes her from the bed with his ranting about how uncomfortable it is for her. He does so until she understands that if she does not satisfy him, she will receive nothing in return.
This use of reverse psychology serves to reinforce the idea that Petruchio is the one in charge. He controls her and dictates what he expects from her at all times. In this way, Taming of the Shrew explores sexuality by portraying a relationship in which one partner is completely subjugated to the will of another. Though many critics have argued about whether Taming of the Shrew actually condones this type of behavior or not, it remains an important exploration of sexuality and power dynamics in relationships.