Exploring Sexuality in "Taming of the Shrew"
Human sexuality underlies many of the happenings of "Taming of the Shrew." It affects the conflicts, theme, and resolution of the play. It becomes evident throughout the play that sexual behavior denotes whether a character is thought of as good or evil (not necessarily good evil as meant in conventional terms, but rather as a "nice" character versus a "waspish" or "mean' character).
In the beginning of the play, there is an obvious conflict between Kate and her sister, Bianca. This conflict stems from the fact that their father favors Bianca, as well as the fact that Bianca has many suitors, while Kate has none. Kate's father, Baptista, tries to persuade some of Bianca's suitors to pursue Kate instead. However, they make it clear that none of them could desire Kate. "Mates, maid? How mean you that? No mates for you unless you were of a gentler, milder, mold" (I,i, lines 58 - 60). From this it is clear that the men in the play prefer a better "mold" than Kate, in other words, she does not carry herself as well as Bianca. Kate does not play the coy flirting games, and is therefore thought of as harsher than Bianca.
Bianca, however, knows how to be flirtatious, witty, and coy around her admirers, and yet is almost intentionally mean to Kate. For instance, Bianca knows that it hurts Kate to have no suitors while she (Bianca) has several. Bianca uses this to hurt Kate. When Kate tries to find out which suitor Bianca really likes, Bianca swears that she won't take the suitor that Kate likes. She casually offers Kate whichever suitor she wants. Kate is enraged by this because she knows that the only reason that Bianca has suitors while she has none is because Bianca plays the sexual flirtation game.
When Kate gets a suitor of her own, Petruchio, there is a lot of sexual tension in their relationship. At their first meeting, they exchange a barrage of sexual comments:
Petruchio: Why, what's a movable?
Kate: A joint stool
Petruchio: Thou hast hit it; come sit on me.
Kate: Asses are made to bear and so are you.
Petruchio: Women are made to bear and so are you.
(II, i, lines 196 - 200)
Also, Petruchio decided before he met Kate that he would act as though she was being very kind, and as if she welcomed him and accepted him no matter what she does or says. This sets the tone for their entire relationship.
Later in the play, Petruchio decides that the best way to change Kate's behavior is to act contrary to her. He uses this to deny her food, sleep, and clothes. For instance, when they are brought dinner, he shouts that the food isn't good enough, and sends it away. When she tries to sleep, he rants that the bed is not good enough for her, and makes such a fuss about it that she cannot sleep. He does this until she realizes that if she does not appease him, she will not get anything.
In contrast, Bianca controls her relationships with her suitors. Bianca realizes that if she acts nice and flirts with her suitors, they will do anything she asks of them. All Bianca has to do is smile, and then anything she says after that is accepted without argument by her suitors. For example, when Hortensio and Lucentio are tutoring Bianca in different subjects, and arguing amongst themselves about who should tutor her first, when Bianca steps in.
"Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong to strive for that which resteth in my choice. I am no breeching scholar in the schools. I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times, but learn my lessons as I please myself. And, to cut off all the strife, here sit we down" (III,i, lines 16 - 21).
Hortensio and Lucentio accepted this reprimand from Bianca, however, had Kate reprimanded them in the same way, they would have talked amongst themselves about the fact that she was waspish. This again is a product of the perception of good and evil that Bianca and Kate personify.
The final scene is affected by sexuality and its tie in to the perception of Kate and Bianca as good or evil. In this final scene, the men - Lucentio, Hortensio, Petruchio, and Baptista - are sitting around a table talking. Kate, Bianca, and the Widow are in the next room carrying on their own conversation. The men are discussing their wives; Lucentio and Hortensio are certain that Petruchio ended up with the worst woman out of them all, Kate is still perceived as evil by them. Petruchio, however, realizing that Kate has changed due to his treatment, argues that his wife is the best, while Bianca and the Widow are not as perfect as perceived by their husbands.
The men decide to have a small contest in order to see whose wife is really more obedient and more accepting of her husband. They each, in turn send a servant to fetch their wife from the next room. Bianca and the Widow refuse to answer the summons, however, Kate responds immediately. At Petruchio's bidding, she goes back into the other room and brings the other women back with her to the men. She then delivers a lecture to them about their role as a wife. Her main concept is that since the man does all the work to provide for his wife, it is really not to much for him to expect for her to be obedient to him, and it is a small price for her to pay in return for him providing everything for her. At this point, Lucentio's and Hortensio's perception of Kate as a mean, crusty, shrew changes, and they notice that she is a desirable woman. At the same time, because their own wives were so reluctant to obey their wishes, the image of their wives becomes tarnished.
The desirability of women in "Taming of the Shrew" directly correlates to their obedience to men. After Kate's astounding final speech, Petruchio is overwhelmed. Petruchio is so happy that Kate has so accepted the fact that she should not argue with him, indeed, that she should try to please him no matter what, that he is stupefied to the point where his only reaction is: "Why there's a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate" (V,ii, lines 179 - 180).
We can also see how Bianca's desirability changed for Lucentio by the end of the play. Throughout the entire play, Lucentio was very happy with Bianca, even going as far as pretending not to be himself in order to spend more time with her. After they were married, however, and Bianca became less and less accommodating, Lucentio felt less attraction for her. "I would your duty were as foolish too. The wisdom of your duty, fair Bianca, hath cost me five hundred crowns since suppertime" (V,ii, lines 126 - 128). While he was courting her, Lucentio never would have rebuked Bianca in such a way.
Shakespeare relates sexual desirability with his character's actions and motivations. "Taming of the Shrew" exemplifies this trait well. It shows how underlying sexual themes run constantly throughout the play, as well as how it affects the outcome. By the end of the play, Bianca and Kate have switched roles, with Kate now being the desirable woman that Hortensio and Lucentio wish they had married, while Bianca has transformed into a shrew.
It would seem that marriage brought out Bianca's true nature, as she no longer has to worry about keeping suitors or pleasing them, while Kate has found someone she really loves.
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