Women characters who transcend the narrow boundaries of their social positions and exert control over their own destinies and those of the people around them are not rare in the plays of Shakespeare. In his thirty-seven dramatic works, Shakespeare probably created a richer and more varied gallery of female characters than any other playwright, and many of these women are just as strong, or even stronger, than the men surrounding them; but to assert that Shakespeare himself, or his heroines, were truly liberated in a modern sense of that word is pushing the point too hard.
The Taming of a Shrew gives a good example of this quasi-liberation in Katherina, the shrewish young woman who disrupts her father’s house and terrorizes most of the men around her until she comes up against Petruchio, the first man willing to challenge her at her own game. In many ways Kate is her own woman. Yet, even a woman as headstrong and determined as she must allow herself in Elizabethan society to be “given” in marriage to a man she has not chosen for herself–and her more docile sister Bianca consents to waiting, perhaps forever, until Katherina is wed before she can have a husband of her own.
In Shakespeare’s time a young woman, whether she was English, French, or Italian, had very little to say about whom she would marry. Most marriages were arranged, at least among the upper classes, and in the great houses a marriageable daughter was a valuable commodity. Among the great land-owning and land-trading families, as among the royalty of Europe, a marriage was the equivalent of an alliance. Thus, unreasonable as the arrangement may seem, Katherina likely has no choice but to try to make the best of her contracted marriage to Petruchio–and her decision to exert her will creates the conflict of the play.
A young woman had to be very courageous, or very foolish, to disobey her parents’ wishes. These situations of obedience or defiance occur again and again in Shakespeare: Katherina, Juliet, Desdemona, Perdita in The Winter’s Tale–all these women fight or flee to protect their domestic integrity. Either they disguise themselves in order to confront men as equals and show them the error of their ways; or without resorting to disguise they courageously exert their wills in spite of the conventions of their time and place, as does Katherina. The result is usually the same: the men learn a moral lesson, the problem at hand is resolved, and order and happiness are restored.
Yet, even within this male-oriented frame of reference, Petruchio and Kate are surprisingly like Benedick and Beatrice of Much Ado about Nothing. Petruchio, for all his rant, is increasingly drawn to Kate by her spirit. As wit-combatants they are worthy of each other’s enmity–or love. No one else in the play is a fit match for either of them. Kate, too, is attracted to Petruchio, despite her war of words. Her guise of hostility is part defensive protection, part testing of his sincerity. If she is contemptuous of the wooers she has seen till now, she has good reason to be, and she rightly fears that her father wishes to dispose of her so that he may auction off Bianca to the wealthiest competitor. Kate’s jaded view of such marriage brokering is entirely defensible. Not surprisingly she first views Petruchio, whose professed intentions are far from reassuring, as another mere adventurer in love. Possibly she is prepared to accept the prevailing Elizabethan view of marriage, with its dominant role for the husband, but only if she can choose a man deserving of her respect.
Yet, even with all this, do these female characters who rebel against their situation, and there are many more of them in Shakespeare’s works, mean that Shakespeare was a “liberated” man? Probably not, if the term “liberated” implies that he thought men and women should be true equals. Like most Elizabethans, Shakespeare accepted a view of the “proper” order of things. In that order, women were subordinate to men; Kate says something very similar in Act V: “Each duty as the subject owes her prince, / Even such a woman oweth her husband.”
In the idealized picture of society which is usually found onstage at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s comedies, men and women are in their respective place, collaborating to create harmony between them. As long as the men behave as they should, fulfilling their duties and acting with honor and intelligence, Shakespeare seems to say that women should be supportive and loyal. When a man needs a lesson, a wise and courageous woman will teach him one.