Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Role of the Shrew

How are the characters of Adriana and Luciana changed and developed in the characters of Katherina and Bianca?

In Comedy of Errors, Adriana is simply seen as an overtly jealous and unpleasant wife—the basic shrew. Her sister Luciana is the opposite of her: a younger woman who, although, never condones adulterous affairs on behalf of the husband, sees its inevitability and cannot argue against it. Unlike Adriana, Luciana recognizes the social role of the wife is to remain subjugated and to surrender certain rights of equality to the husband in exchange for love, only to be rewarded with extramarital practices, which the wife is expected to turn a blind eye towards. Adriana is defined as shrewish, not by her irrational demands or suspicions of her husband—Adriana’s distrustful nature about the fidelity of her husband is not outrageous or unjustified, because she has a right to be angry with her husband because he is cheating on her—but rather by her demand for equality. In Act II, Scene 2, Adriana’s inquiry, “How dearly would it touch thee to quick, Shouldst thou but hear I were licentious”, can be seen as a veiled threat to her husband. For his affair, she would return the favor and cheat on him. This threat is the prime example of Adriana’s shrewish behavior, not because she is irrational, but because she doesn’t recognize and therefore defies her social role, to be subservient to her husband, and never to question his superiority and the certain liberties he is granted. Instead of objecting to Antipholus’ affair, Luciana advises him to be ‘soft’ or ‘nice’ about it, and here is the prime example of why Luciana is the idealized wife, because she knows her place among men.

The characters of the outspoken shrew and the idealized subservient woman are changed and developed in The Taming of the Shrew with Katherina and Bianca, albeit with an interesting twist. The play starts off with Katherine taking up Adriana’s role as an unmarriageable shrew, one that insults men with her clever wit and refuses to conform to her social role—she wants equality, and as a result, she is discontent. Bianca echoes Luciana because she is easier to manage than her sister, and is much more desirable to men, evident by her suitors Gremio and Hortensio (a motivating force of the men in the play to marry these women, is that their family is wealthy and these men want a piece of the pie). Katherine’s role as shrew is explored, when Petruccio begins to “tame” her as he would an unruly horse or dog. Petruccio initially matches wits with Kate, neutralizing her attempts to belittle him with her intellectual language, and Katherine’s attempts to challenge his male dominance fails. Petruccio conditions Katherine by starving her, keeping her awake, and baiting her with clothes among other things, ultimately breaking her spirit. In exchange for her subservience, Kate is rewarded with love and affection by her husband. Kate goes along with this because she finds happiness in her conformity to her social role, so evidenced by the speech that culminates in the final act: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign, on that cares for thee”.  Katherine’s reversal of character is quite disturbing to me, in the final invitation for Petruccio to stand on her hand—she has surrendered. In the end, Bianca is more of a shrew because she refuses to come when her eventual husband Lucentio calls for her. This is an interesting twist to the dynamic set up in the beginning of the play—Bianca becomes the shrew because she shows more authority in the relationship than Lucentio, which is bad according the social norms of the time, a sad fact that Katherine has learned and now lives by.

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