“The Taming of the Shrew” was a play written by William Shakespeare during the early 1590’s. It combines both comedy and social commentary, which raises questions and ideas regarding the prominence of women in this time in history. Shakespeare draws from other texts of that era to appropriate his understanding of a “shrew”, the integral idea of the play. Through two of the main female characters, he illustrates the vast differences between his conceived notions of a shrew, and the qualities of the expected female roles of this time.
According to dictionary definitions, a shrew is a term used to describe a woman with a violent, scolding, or nagging temperament. Placed in the context of Shakespeare’s play, a shrew is a woman who refuses to exist complacently with their right to a life of subservience and passiveness. For this to be exercised was to be ashamed of and strongly disapproved. However, the original meaning of “shrew” was the name of an insect-eating rodent not unlike a mouse in appearance and behaviour.
This mammal confines itself to solitary lives, and is rarely seen or heard, except for a recognizable high-pitched squeaking. The origins of the concept of the “shrew” in question were likely to have been drawn from this animal. As the qualities of this animal are undesirable and unpleasant, this word’s intended use is as a direct insult. The church was responsible for issuing the most prominent influence over the manner in which people live. The church clearly dictated the operation of society and gave people roles and expectations of their behaviour.
Female equality was absolutely unheard of in Elizabethan times. The population took to Biblical principles devotedly, and it was the Christian interpretations of the Bible that translated into the ground rules for appropriate, correct lifestyles. They adhered to the belief that God created Adam first, and Eve from his body, and this is where the notion of subordination first appeared. The people reflected this concept upon women, citing that as Eve was conjured specifically for the comfort and satisfaction of Adam, they would be obedient and self-sacrificing.
This ethos was obeyed so strictly that a woman demonstrating dominant characteristics was considered unnatural, at fault, disorderly, and evil. It is on this basis that the word shrew’ was used. Women who had not married were also regarded undesirable and have a lower status. They were even looked upon with suspicion, as single women were even thought of as witches by their neighbours. As marriage was the destined goal of any right-minded woman, those that refused to marry were thought of as failures. In other instances, women were bought and sold as commodities, and were in entire possession of the husband.
They were often subject to beatings, which in this time was not considered so blatantly inhumane as it is now. If the wife displayed an act of disobedience, they were sometimes marched around the entire town to intense humiliation. These examples of treacherous handling and absence of respect show that they were seen as mere objects; one that if in resistance, would earn the title of shrew’. A departure from this ethic was present in the royal hierarchy of the country, as a woman held the highest position.
Queen Elizabeth committed true defiance and contradiction of the traditional ideals of women, as being subservient and only allowed an occupation of lowly status. She advocated her beliefs and remained in power, refusing to wed any man or instate an heir to her throne. In a theoretical perspective, this went directly against society’s general views of womanhood. This went to the extent that men would be voluntarily subservient to her, and would compliment and attempt to impress the Queen. The common thoughts of the day were challenged when Elizabeth became Queen, as royalty was perceived as having been given God’s power over the nation.