Shrew and Subtext

So we have a play called The Taming of the Shrew.

What is a “shrew”?  “A person, esp. (now only) a woman given to railing or scolding or other perverse or malignant behaviour; freq. a scolding or turbulent wife” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).  I find it interesting that it is “frequently” used to describe a woman who is already married.  The shrewish, harping wife has long been a stereotype in literature and drama (for a more recent example, see Peg Bundy).

For a play with “shrew” in the title, it’s interesting that the term “shrew” is used only eight times in the play, with the adjectival form “shrewd” used four additional times (all uttered before Petruchio meets Kate, then never used again).  “Shrewd” can have multiple meanings:

  • Depraved, wicked; evil-disposed, malignant
  • Of persons and their actions: Severe, harsh, stern
  • In early use: Cunning, artful…; astute or sagacious in action or speech (The chief current sense.)

So it’s a good thing that each time “shrewd” is used, it’s paired with another word to help clarify its meaning within context:

  • “curst and shrewd” (Tranio: I.i.178; Petruchio: I.ii.69)

“Curst,” wouldn’t you know it, also has multiple meanings:

  • That has had a curse pronounced or invoked upon him or it; excommunicated, anathematized; under a curse, blasted with a curse.
  • Deserving a curse; damnable, execrable, heinously wicked
    Used intensively in expression of hatred, dislike, vexation
  • (Usually spelt curst.) Of persons (or their dispositions, tongues, etc.): Malignant; perversely disagreeable or cross

(all OED)

though it WOULD be interesting to go with the first “cursed” definition (under a curse) and then — thus — the first “shrewd” definition… could this be an early precursor to The Exorcist?  That might make for a very weird production…

but since the first three are usually spelled “cursed” and ours is “curst,” let’s go with the last.  If we look to “curst” for our context, then in these cases, “shrewd” probably hews closest to “severe, harsh, stern.”

  • “a shrewd ill-favour’d wife” (Hortensio: I.ii.59)
    While “ill-favoured” can mean “Having a bad or unpleasing appearance, aspect, or features; ill-looking, uncomely,” here it most likely means “Offensive (to some other sense than sight, or to the mind); objectionable” (both OED).  This again would point more to a “severe, harsh, stern” definition of “shrewd.”
  • “shrewd and froward” (Hortensio: I.i.89)
    “Froward” means “Disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable; perverse, difficult to deal with, hard to please” (OED).  Hmmmm, all three “shrewd” definitions can work here.  This instance is pretty inconclusive.

The text is supportable (by, well, the TEXT)… subtext, not nearly as much.  Here, we’re just making educated guesses.  Educated, yes.  But guesses all the same.  Welcome to my conjecture nightmare.

Taken on the whole, the contextual uses of “shrewd” point to the “severe, harsh, stern” definition.  So we have a “railing” and “severe, harsh, stern” woman in Kate.  That’s the TEXT.

But what about the SUBTEXT?  What has made Kate the way she is?

Kate is of marrying age, obviously.  She has a younger sister who is also of marrying age.  If we take into account what we know about Elizabethan marriage conventions, we know that most people married between the ages of 20 and 29.  Kate is still young enough to have Hortensio refer to her as “young and beauteous” yet mature enough for him to reference her as a “gentlewoman” (I.ii.85 and 86, respectively); Bianca is never referred to as a woman, but only as a “girl” (I,i.77; I.i.154; II.i.24).  So let’s put Kate at around the upper end of the range, say 29, and Bianca near the lower, say 20.  But can we trace their ages any closer than that?

When the two sisters are compared by others, not only is the dual-comparative “elder”/”younger” used, but also the multi-comparative “eldest”/”youngest.”  There doesn’t seem to be any difference between the two uses, as far as scansion is concerned, and their use within the poetic lines isn’t made any more interesting by any alliteration, either.  So why would a wordsmith such as Shakespeare give us more than just the dual-comparative?  Was there a third daughter, one who was a middle child?  Might this make the age difference even greater?

We know that this mythical middle daughter cannot be alive now.  Baptista promises Petruchio “after (Baptista’s) death, the one half of (his) lands” (II.i.122).  Might she have died young?  Could she have died in childbirth?  Infant mortality rates at the time were much higher than they are today.  Could the mother have died as well?  This, too, was common; remember that one of the purposes for the dowry was to pay for the raising of the children if the bride were to die.  Baptista could have remarried; it was very common to have a father remarry to maintain the stability of the home.  In fact, a widow would not be seen as cold or heartless or hasty if he married as quickly as the “month’s mind” was over.

So let’s say for argument’s sake, Kate’s mother and sister die in childbirth.  Let’s say Baptista waits some time before marrying again, this time to Bianca’s mother.  More time passes, and Bianca is born.  Maybe there’s a second child by this new wife on the way, and mother and child also die in the process.  Might not Baptista be leery of another marriage, another opportunity for heartbreak.  Might he not remain single, and also subconsciously attempt to keep his eldest daughter single as well.

Remember, beyond tutoring, the only education afforded to women were those in the domestic arts, and those usually taught by the mother.  Kate is being raised by a single father.  There is no mother figure in the Minola household.  No Minola mother is ever referenced in the play.  She would have been rudderless (with regard to socially acceptable gender conventions, at least) during her formative years.  Could Baptista have seen the error of his ways early on, and decide that young Bianca would need precisely that kind of schooling, and then put it onto the only female in the house?  Was Kate picked to do the motherly duties of raising Bianca to be a good wife?

This is not completely unsupportable by the text.  When Baptista finds Bianca bound by Kate (who, remember, wants to know Bianca’s mind on her suitors… not completely unlike Lady Capulet wanting to know Juliet’s mind on Paris), he asks of Kate, “Why, how now, dame, whence grows this insolence? // Bianca, stand aside.  Poor girl, she weeps” (II.i.23-24, emphases mine).  He refers to Kate as the dame–“The ‘lady’ of the house, the mistress of a household, a housewife” (OED)–and Bianca as the girl.  This is the dynamic of the Minola household.  A dynamic not softened by Bianca’s spiteful remark that Kate is her “elder” (II.i.7).

Kate is of marrying age, but because of her upbringing, she is virtually unmarriable.  She has been burdened with the creation of a marriable Bianca, a girl who is doted upon by her father (who does not pay the same kind of attention to Kate).  She sees her own marriage window closing, but she has no suitors.  Might not this turn any young girl with a mind of her own into a shrew?

Think about it… she fights against the marriage.  But on the wedding day, she is devastated by Petruchio’s absence.  She wants love, wants it so badly it hurts.  And when she hurts, she hurts those around her.  Pain has made her the shrew.

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