Title: JOHN FLETCHER'S RESPONSE TO THE GENDER DEBATE: THE WOMAN'S PRIZE AND THE TAMING OF THE SHREW ,  By: Smith, Molly Easo, Papers on Language & Literature, 00311294, Winter95, Vol. 31, Issue 1


Critical evaluations of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew have frequently centered on the issue of patriarchy and on whether the play reiterates or undermines gender-based social expectations.[1] Interestingly, critics on both sides of this issue target the same theatrical space for their scrutiny, namely, Kate's final speech. Unlike modern critical readings focussing on gender, however, John Fletcher's commentary on Shakespeare's text, voiced in his sequel, The Woman's Prize or the Tamer Tamed (ca. 1612), does not concentrate on the final scene in The Shrew, though it does rewrite that scene along entirely different lines.[2] However, critics have either ignored or minimized Fletcher's pervasive commentary on Shakespeare. George Ferguson, for example, dismisses the play's relationship to the earlier text as superficial and tenuous:

Beyond these rather general hints (direct references in the text) there is little else to remind the reader of the Shakespeare play except the Italian names, but only three of them are to be found in The Taming of the Shrew. Of these three--Petruchio, Tranio, and Byancha--only Petruchio bears any resemblance to the characters of Shakespeare's play. (12)

Even modern notices of Fletcher's play dismiss its importance as little more than a passing reference to Shakespeare's concluding vision.[3] On the contrary, characters and situations in The Woman's Prize seem closely modelled on The Shrew, and Fletcher's calculated intertextual glance comments, rewrites, and undermines the ideological assumptions in Shakespeare's.

Indeed, the play's more radical stand on the issue of gender may account in part, for the attitude of Sir Henry Herbert, the Master of Revels, in 1633 when he suppressed a scheduled performance. Of course, the play's use of "oaths, profaneness, and ribaldrye" seems to have been the target of his censure, but his choice of words in reiterating the need to censure old plays points to other equally serious transgressions posed by earlier texts, and presumably The Woman's Prize as well:

All auld plays ought to bee brought to the Master of Revells, and have his allowance to them, for which he should have his fee, since they may be full of offensive things against church and state . . . (qtd. Ferguson 23; italics added)

One suspects that at least part of his concern about "offenses to church and state" centered on the threat posed by the play's clearly anti-patriarchal theme.

In fact, Fletcher's sequel provides more than a farcical continuation of Shakespeare's plot; Fletcher comments on Shakespeare 's text in a variety of ways and perhaps provides an example of the ambivalent and problematic nature of Renaissance attitudes towards gender roles. As Jean Howard, for example, insists, "early modern England was not only permeated by well-documented social mobility and unsettling economic change, but by considerable instability in the gender system as well" (425).[4] Fletcher's play provides one gloss on this social instability and resolves its conflicts in entirely different ways than Shakespeare's text did in the previous century. In this sense, The Woman's Prize demonstrates an aspect of Fletcher's dramaturgy that has only recently received critical attention, namely, its critical and frequently subversive engagement with topical issues of the day?

Of course, the explicitly farcical nature of Fletcher's play probably bears some responsibility for its comparative critical neglect, though similar charges against The Shrew have not detracted from its interest. Recent revaluations of farce, however, have moved towards recognizing the genre's ability to subvert and criticize under cover of excessive play. Alice Rayner's point about comedy in general may apply equally to farce and to The Woman's Prize in particular: "For all its playfulness, it engages moral and ethical material which it appears either to trivialize or mock. . . . comedy consistently appears to have a didactic purpose, suggesting an ethically better world" (5). Peter Berek, speaking of The Shrew as an example of farce, makes a similar point: "the conventions of farce seem to be a way of treating matters that might well be seen as highly important, such as sex, money, and power, but doing so in a way that pretends they are unimportant." He insists that farces do more than provoke laughter: "such plays are striking for the way they veil their own complexity" (99).[6]

In this sense, farce as a literary entity bears a generic resemblance to carnival as a cultural activity. As in carnival, farce enacts excesses of comic freedom and the exaggerated nature of these excesses seems to render them innocuous as political or social criticisms. Farce, in other words, constitutes a clear form of "play" and its inversions of social norms seem to pose no threats. But, as observers of carnival have repeatedly recognized, the excessive play of carnival festivity could provide a facade for real threats to the officialdom that sanctioned it. Indeed, as Peter Stallybrass argues, "elements of carnival and charivari were central to the symbolic repertoire of political subversion in early modern England" (51). The nearest generic kin to carnival on the stage, farce more than any other genre could force a revaluation of the cultural practices it inverts and mocks. The argument may be especially true about a play such as The Woman's Prize which invokes carnival and charivari explicitly through the taming of Petruchio and all the men in the village by Maria and her friends. In its reliance on metaphors of topsy-turviness, Fletcher's seventeenth-century farce shares aspects with carnivalesque Renaissance activities such as May day celebrations which, as Stallybrass notes, provided "a privileged time for gender inversions" (54). The central figure in these inversions, which often included a procession led by women, was "the unruly Marion," a figure often used "to legitimate political action by the powerless" (Stallybrass 55). Such was the case in Essex food riots in 1622 and 1629, where the format of the rebellion differed little from that depicted in the play. Anne Carter, who led the revolt in 1629, even assumed the title of "Captain" as Maria does in Fletcher's play (Stallybrass 54-55). And it may be no accident that the carnivalesque procession by women in Fletcher's play is led by the aptly named Maria, whose name inevitably suggests Marion. The resemblance of actual later riots to circumstances depicted in the play suggests the extent to which Fletcher's text registers real possibilities in seventeenth-century England rather than merely literary, artificial, and impossible inversions.

Even the women's mode of attack in the play resembles those used successfully by rebels in Renaissance England. In 1549, for example, crowds that had gathered for July celebrations got together under the leadership of Robert Kett and marched on Norwich. By July twenty third they had actually taken the city, but as Stallybrass notes, "the defenders were overpowered not by weapons but by the naked arses and obscene gestures of the rebels" (53). The incident has its parallel in The Woman's Prize when the country wives and the city wives march through the streets led by Maria. Tranio recounts this clearly carnivalesque display of female authority to the bewildered men in vivid detail:

Arme, arme, out with your weapons,
For all the women in the Kingdom's on ye;
They swarme like waspes, and nothing can destroy 'em,
But stopping of their hive and smothering of 'em.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

They heave ye stoole on stoole, and fling Potlids
Like massive rocks, dart ladles, tossing Irons,
And tongs like Thunderbolts, till overlayd,
They fall beneath the waight; yet still aspiring
At those Emperious Codsheads, they would tame 'em.
There's nere a one of these, the worst and weakest,

(Choose where you will) but attempt the raysing
Against the sovereign peace of Puritans,
A May-pole, and a Morris, maugre mainly
Their zeale, and Dudgeon-daggers: and yet more,
Dares plant a stand of battering Ale against 'em,
And drinke 'em out o'th Parish. (II. iv. 33-67)

Tranio here explicitly links the rebellion to May-day festivities, thus evoking memories of legendary rebellions such as Kett's. The men, surprised by the attack, resort to spying and peeping through windows to ascertain the women's agenda. The details provided by Jaques of the women's activities recall the equally successful mode of attack adopted by Kett and his followers in 1549:

They have got a stick of Fiddles, and they firke it
In wondrous waies, the two grand Capitanos,
(They brought the Auxiliary Regiments)
Daunce with their coats tuck't up to their bare breeches,
And bid the Kingdom kisse 'em, that's the burden;
They have got Metheglin and audacious Ale,
And talk like Tyrants. (II. vi. 36-42)

Modes of rebellion and festivity merge quite completely as the women usurp male roles and perform a perfect imitation; Petruchio, we might recall, had been categorically referred to as a "tyrant" in the early scenes of the play.

Audiences of the seventeenth century would have seen the tactics adopted by the women and the nature of the rebellion, not as an entirely farcical improbability simply to be enjoyed within the artificial confines of the theater, but as a genuine possibility similar to numerous such revolts that occurred and were occurring in Renaissance England. Commenting on the close relationship between festivals and revolt, Yves-Marie Berce insists that "like the festival, revolt noisily proclaimed its beginnings to the sound of bells and drums, both traditional instruments of alarm and symbols of the major collective disturbances. Like the festival, it interrupted day-to-day normal existence, led men abruptly into another system. It procured a sort of utopian time-scale in which the ordinary workings of society ceased . . ." (116-117). No doubt, those Renaissance figures who argued vigorously for the curtailing of sports and festivities instinctively recognized the close connection between festival and revolt. Even in 1580, in Edmund Assheton's objection to May games conveyed in an official letter to William Ffarington, one senses an awareness of the license from tradition that festive occasions invariably provided, especially to women:

I am sure Right Worship you have not forgotten the last yere stirres att Brunley about Robyne hoode and the May games. Nowe consideringe that it is a cawse that bringeth no good effecte, being contrary to the beste, therefore a number of the justices of Peace herein in Salford Hundreth have consulted with the Commission to suppresse those Lewde sportes, tendinge to no other ende but to stirre opp of freiyle natures to wantonness; and meane not to allowe neither olde custome. (128)

This close relationship between festivity and revolt is vividly illustrated in The Woman's Prize. The raucous festivities of the play with all the traditional accompaniments of rough music, images of topsy-turviness, and carousing constitute an orchestrated communal revolt by women who remain determined to correct the inequities of the past, a past which seems explicitly to include the lessons taught by Shakespeare's consideration of gender issues in The Taming.

However, in its successful enactment of the taming of Petruchio by Maria, the play goes considerably farther towards social subversion than Shakespeare's play had done. If, as Robert Hillman argues, Shakespeare's Shrew "beyond any other work in the canon, has value as a tensely poised paradigm of subversion's power and its suppression," Fletcher's enactment carries the argument a step farther; Fletcher presents subversive power as a realizable goal rather than as an idea to be debated and then contained. In this sense, The Woman's Prize presents a revision of Shakespeare's argument; in 1613 Fletcher rewrites the gender debate to force a more liberal outcome than was perhaps possible in the theater of the 1590s.


In fact, Fletcher goes beyond simply reversing earlier themes and instead, takes Shakespeare to task for his inadequate representation of gender conflicts. The prologue initiates this contention by deliberately targeting female members of the audience and announcing this preference as a deviant but more appropriate practice than the customary nod to males.[7] The Shrew, on the other hand, as Shirley Garner argues, is performed for the male characters in the Induction, an audience which reveals "its own erotic fantasies," for the play they witness "is intended to have the same salacious appeal as are the paintings proposed for his [Sly's] enjoyment" (115). Indeed, Fletcher's differentiation between male and female audiences in his prologue may be treated as tongue-in-cheek commentary on Shakespeare's catering to salacious male tastes, for despite Fletcher's suggestion that we not look for intellectual argument and debate in his play, Maria's final victory, as I hope to illustrate, results from highly original and intellectually stimulating verbal battles with Petruchio.

The author's suggestion that his play might function as "physick" to cure one's melancholy also recalls the outer frame of Shakespeare's text where the Lord tricks Sly and makes a similar claim about the effects of comedy. Indeed, the prologue's invocation of this motif implicitly aligns the audience with the deluded Sly in the earlier play, and posits that Fletcher's text either undoes the psychological damage enacted by the earlier play or provides the closure explicitly denied by it.

Fletcher's play opens some years after Kate's death, with Petruchio's marriage to a shy and demure young maiden named Maria. Maria, however, with the help of her cousin Biancha, resolves to tame Petruchio; her reputation as a spokesperson for women's rights soon spreads and she receives help from severer city and country wives who desire similar freedom from their husbands. Their rebellion against the men takes a farcical turn as the women march up the streets with pots and ladles, wear breeches, drink ale and carouse to music, and stick their arses out of windows calling to the men to kiss them.[8] This concerted rebellion achieves a temporary conclusion in Act III where Petruchio finally signs a contract containing diverse demands drawn up by Maria.[9]

Fletcher's opening scene between Tranio and his friends, Moroso and Sophocles, who gossip about Petruchio's just-concluded wedding, blatantly deconstructs the nominal closure constructed by Shakespeare's play. While The Shrew had concluded with a recanting speech by Kate describing the subservient role of women, Fletcher insists that Kate had never been "tamed." In fact, in the course of her tempestuous marriage, she converted Petruchio to her own ways, "turn'd his temper, / And forced him blow as high as she" (I. i. 19-20). Her influence has been so total that Petruchio apparently still lives in terror of her, as Tranio explains:

For yet the bare remembrance of his first wife
(I tell you on my knowledge, and a truth too)
Will make him start in's sleep, and very often
Cry out for Cudgels, Colstaves, any thing:
Hiding his breeches, out of feare her Ghost
Should walk, and weare 'em yet. (I. i. 31-36)

This opening scene clearly responds to Shakespeare's concluding vision and reverses the pattern of the earlier work. Is Fletcher targeting Shakespeare's text as unnatural in its concluding transformation? Certainly, his reading suggests that Shakespeare may have sacrificed veracity for dramatic convenience. The close parallels between the plays forces us to consider that Fletcher's text projects the author in a dual role, as dramatist and theater critic at once.

Similarities between the texts are numerous. The just cited speech by Tranio, for example, recalls the men's similar show of sympathy for Petruchio just before his marriage to Kate; as in the earlier play, Petruchio is once again marrying the older of two daughters; the younger daughter, Livia, has an old wealthy suitor, Moroso, who like Gremio in Shakespeare's play, has the initial approval of her father; her true love, Rowland the young and learned suitor, ultimately wins her through the machinations of Biancha and Tranio (the latter, one recalls had coordinated a similar union between Bianca and Lucentio earlier). Petruchio's friends even take a wager that marriage to Petruchio will take Maria to her grave within three weeks, a veiled suggestion perhaps about Kate's plight as a result of constant verbal battles with her husband. They even suggest that the only way for Maria to survive in her marriage would be by outmatching Petruchio's tyranny; Tranio, who has presumably seen Petruchio adopt a tyrannical attitude towards Kate, explains the sole means by which Maria might cope with her tyrant husband:

I would learn to eate Coales with an angry Cat,
And spit fire at him: I would (to prevent him)
Do all the ramping, roaring tricks, a whore
Being druncke, and tumbling ripe, would tremble at:
There is no safety else, nor morall wisdom,
To be a wife, and his. (I. i. 25-30)

Biancha, Maria's cousin, echoes the same sentiments and advises a similar course of action. Indeed, this is precisely what Maria proceeds to do. Thus, Fletcher insists on reading Kate's transformation speech ironically or as an unfelt repetition of learned platitudes. Fletcher's comedy emphasizes the fallacy of claims such as Peter Berek's recent one that "ironic readings of the sexism in the play have to be regarded as ahistorical" because "Elizabethan audiences do not seem to have perceived Kate as kidding when she thanks her husband for his support" (98).[10] On the contrary, the popularity of Fletcher's play with later audiences suggests that ironic rereadings of Kate's transformation may have been a commonplace of the theatrical experience for many early audiences.[11] Petruchio himself acknowledges that Kate had never been tamed, and that his marriage had been a perpetual hell:

Had I not ev'ry morning a rare breakfast,
'mixt with a learned lecture of ill language,
Louder than Tom OLincoln; and at dinner,
A dyet of the same dish? was there evening
That ere past over us, without thou knave,
Or thou whore, for digestion? (III. iii. 158-162)

Even Fletcher's choice of Biancha as the instigator of women's rebellion could not be merely accidental, and hardly at odds with Shakespeare's portrayal of her as "the mild sister of Katharina" as Ferguson claims (12). As "engineer" to the rebellion, Biancha functions as an extension of Shakespeare's manipulative Bianca who seemingly poses no threat to the males until she shows her hand overtly at the end of the play by making her own choice of husband and then by refusing to be available at his beck and call. Biancha's role, in short, simply continues Shakespeare's depiction of her during the last scene where she causes Lucentio to lose his wager.

The earlier play and Kate in particular are, in fact, invoked by Fletcher at several points. Kate's memory looms large over the events in The Woman's Prize: Petruchio, in the first half of the play, mistakenly compares Maria's behavior to Kate's, though he ultimately recognizes that their motives differ radically; Maria, on the other hand, when presented with the comparison by Biancha, reacts with disdain, denying any parallel and asserting her superiority and clearly communal agenda:

Shee was a fool,
And took a scurvy course: let her be nam'd
'Mongst those that wish for things, but dare not do 'em.
(I. ii. 142-44)

Unlike Kate, Maria wishes to be "chronicled" and go down in history as a selfless liberator of women. It is this aspect of her character that invokes the Marion figure of May day celebrations and suggests the play's links with actual revolts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By contrast, Shakespeare's text seems to provide a successful charivari, a model explicitly designed as social schooling by officialdom, its lessons to be absorbed and then used to control unruly women who deviate from the norm.

Of course, Fletcher's intertextual glance extends beyond these discussions of Kate's role to involved metaphors that recall similar ones in Shakespeare. The central metaphor of falconry invoked by Petruchio as an analogy for his triumph over Kate in Act IV, Scene i, for example, is expertly reversed by Maria:

Hang these tame Eyasses, that no sooner
See the lure out, and heare their Husbands hall,
But cry like Kites upon 'em: the free Haggard
(Which is that woman, that hath wing, and knowes it,
Spirit, and plume) will make an hundred checks,
And look out every pleasure; not regarding
Lure nor quarry, till her pitch command
What she desires, making her founderd keeper
Be glad to fling out traines, and golden ones,
To take her down again. (I. ii. 148-58)

By allying herself with the haggard, a type of falcon that cannot be trained, Maria reiterates her individuality and value. The bestial metaphor suggested by Shakespeare's title is also adeptly reversed to propound a more radical philosophy; Mafia insists that "that childish woman / That lives a prisoner to her husbands pleasure, / Hath lost her making, and becomes a beast, / Created for his use not fellowship" (I. iii. 136-140). Fletcher thus posits an entirely new argument about gender relationships, though his invocation of The Shrew at every stage suggests that he is simultaneously rewriting Shakespeare's text. Maria's choice of words in describing marriage as mutual "fellowship" reflects attitudes that dominated contemporary Puritan discourse on the subject. In this context, we might recall that Fletcher "secured the patronage of Henry Hastings, fifth earl of Huntingdon, a member of a family that had been staunch defenders of Puritanism during the reigns of Elizabeth and James" (Hamilton 168).

Fletcher also rewrites the gender debate as a literal text rather than an oral one; marriage partnership in The Woman's Prize emerges as a direct result of texts first proposed by males and then rescripted by females: Maria insists on a signed contract from Petruchio after his suggestion that she draw up conditions; Livia's marriage to Rowland is accomplished by duping the men (her father, Moroso, and Rowland) into signing two separate documents devised by Biancha; the women talk about being chronicled and thus providing a textualized precedent for future generations of women; Petruchio himself concludes the play by promising to keep to his text hereafter in his treatment of Maria. In the women's insistence on written records to authenticate their marital agreements, we see a record of the increasing currency in seventeenth-century England of the written text.[12] The following extract from a newspaper account demonstrates the reliance on the written word that typified seventeenth-century attitudes and habits: "In these days the meanest sort of people are not only able to write, but to argue and discourse on matters of the highest concernment and thereupon do desire that such things which are most remarkable may be truly committed to writing and made public" (cited by Friedman 422). Maria insists on a text that can be circulated and used as a model by others who choose to follow her example. Fletcher's association of the women's movement with the ascendancy of the written word over the oral which men prefer and find quite satisfactory, constitutes the most radical revision of the Shakespearean vision. His persistent depiction of the women's struggle as a revision of texts also emphasizes his own role as a revisionist playwright, and implicitly argues for the primacy of literary revision over the oral tradition of communally accepted norms on which the earlier play had clearly relied.

Fletcher's more serious agenda emerges most vividly in his depiction of Maria. She does evoke the Marion figures of carnivalesque revolts staged by women, but she is not simply a farcical figure of unruliness and excess, a claim more appropriate to the country wives and city wives who support her cause. Maria's victory over Petruchio, established only in Act V, emphasizes the inadequacy of farcical and temporary illusions of power acquired at the end of Act III by the women's rambunctious march and revelry; in fact, Maria insists that Kate's previous victory (marked by her ability to turn Petruchio into a shrew) remains inadequate as an example to other women for precisely this reason and that she herself plans to move beyond simple concessions by males to genuine equality between the sexes and to a rewriting of gender relations along entirely different lines than had been conventional practice.[13] That we are to take Maria more seriously than we do the other women emerges most clearly in the marked difference in her attitude towards such ideas as "love," "marriage," and "duty." While the men see all three items as closely dependent on the ability of women to satisfy men sexually, the women recognize the efficacy of withholding sex as a means of getting the attention of men. On the advice of Biancha, who most vehemently supports such exertion of power, Maria begins her rebellion by withholding sex, but moves well beyond such a monolithic interpretation of male-female relationships. In Fletcher's delineation of Maria as simultaneously a figure of rebellion and a serious champion of liberty, we perhaps glimpse the cultural transition of Marion from a figure of misrule who dominated early representations to the virtuous and noble maid we recognize today.

The second half of the play, which Ferguson sees as a mere continuation of the farcical battle between the sexes with no surprises in plot, are crucial in establishing Maria's more serious intent to win respect and equality from her husband. To a baffled Petruchio, who believes the battle over once he signs the contract containing concessions, Maria's continued unwillingness to "behave as other wives do" remains perplexing. In response to Sophocles' suggestion that he might try force on her because "some women love to struggle" (III. iii. 10), Petruchio notes in bewilderment that he did and that it proved ineffective, for "She swore my force might weary her, but win her / I never could, nor should until she consented; / And I might take her body prisoner," but "her mind" would remain unconquered (III. iii. 19-15). His second attempt at force receives similar treatment and Maria threatens to take back her love for him:

I defie you.
And my last loving teares farewell: the first stroke,
The very first you give me, if you dare strike,
Try me, and you shall find it so, for ever
Never to be recall'd: I know you love me,
Mad till you have enjoyed me; I doe turne
Utterly from you, and what man I meet first
That hast but spirit to deserve a favour,
Let him bear any shape, the worse the better,
Shall kill you and enjoy me. (IV. ii. 143-151)

She thus undermines the importance of appearance as a criterion for love and emphasizes instead, the need to "deserve" love in order to receive it. Her attitude seems typical of Marion figures on the Renaissance stage. Maria, the heroine in another Jacobean play which treats the subjects of license and women's freedom, The Family of Love, reacts in similar language when her uncle keeps her locked up: "My body you may circumscribe, confine / And keep in bounds; but my unlimited love/Extends itself beyond all circumspection" (I. i. 32-34). The third and fourth acts of The Woman's Prize pit the couple against each other in a series of arguments which have a similar outcome. Petruchio again and again echoes conventional notions about marriage and women, only to be taunted and effectively chided for such mindless repetition. Petruchio's demand that "due obedience" should follow her marriage to him, for example, meets with an emphatic denunciation of such platitudes:

Tell me of due obedience? what's a husband?
What are we married for, to carry sumpters?
Are we not one piece with you, and as worthy
Our own intentions, as you yours?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Take two small drops of water, equall weighed,
Tell me which is heaviest, and which ought
First to descend in duty? (III. iii. 97-103)

Petruchio's response indicates that he recognizes that he has lost the argument, for he retracts quite completely from his original point about duty. Maria had earlier won a similar exchange on the issue of beauty by arguing for the natural beauty of independent women:

And we appear like her that sent us hither,
That onely excellent and beauteous nature;
Truly ourselves, for men to wonder at
But too divine to handle; we are Gold,
In our own natures pure; but when we suffer
The husbands stamp upon us, then alayes,
And base ones of you men are mingled with us,
And make us blush like copper. (I. iii. 239-246)

Fletcher's invocation of platitudes through Petruchio and his subversion of them through Maria itself recalls Shakespeare's play as it mimics the pattern of the final scene where Kate seemingly parrots Petruchio's philosophy with precision; in The Woman's Prize, Maria's subversive doctrine, at first rejected by Petruchio as preposterous, is similarly absorbed and then rehearsed before an admiring audience in the last scene.

Thus, the play concludes with Petruchio's avowal that he will never turn tyrant again and thereby cause his wife to resort to taming him a second time. Contrary to being an abrupt and dissatisfying conclusion, as Ferguson claims, Maria concludes the taming only after Petruchio has acknowledged that he is "new born." While Maria's claim that "I have tamed you, / And now am vowed your servant" (V. iv. 45-46), may jar modern sensibilities, one must remember that neither Maria nor the play rejects notions of duty altogether; both illustrate the mutual responsibility of couples in marriage, and Maria's reversion is decidedly qualified by Petruchio's oath that he will never give her cause to complain about his behavior. In her reiteration of her love for him, she insists on reminding him of his responsibility in the partnership: "all my life / Since ye make so free profession, / I dedicate in service to your pleasure" (V. iv. 57-59; emphasis added). Indeed, Petruchio concludes by suggesting, as Kate had done earlier, that he will use his acquired learning to correct others who misbehave as he had done in the past: "Well, little England, when I see a husband / Of any other nation stern or jealous, / I'll wish him but a woman of thy breeding" (V. iv. 61-63). In his desire to provide an example to other men, he imitates Maria's earlier claim that succeeding generations of women will use her example to free themselves from male tyranny.

This mutual validation of their roles as examples for the future, reminiscent of The Shrew, also emerges in the "Epilogue" which announces that the author proposes "To teach both sexes due equality." But one recalls that the ultimate outcome of the debate remains entirely in favor of women.[14] In the course of the play, women "tamed" the entire male populace in the town, including Petruchio, and concluded the schooling only after the men acknowledged their inherent weakness and promised not to assert their authority in tyrannical fashion. Thus, Fletcher's conclusion, despite the "Epilogue's" attempted moderation, seems equally as one-sided as the outcome in The Shrew had seemed.[15]


In his presentation of power struggles between men and women, Fletcher thus draws on the same folk roots as Shakespeare, but converts them to different purpose. As in Shakespeare, the central images of the world-upside-down and the woman-on-top in The Woman's Prize derive from popular cultural activities such as the charivari; but unlike the conventional charivari or skimmington, as it was known in England, which purported to teach women their place in the ordained hierarchy and men how to impose such order, Fletcher's play targets male tyranny and expectations by invoking the potential for subversion that always existed in carnivalesque activities. In Fletcher's play, the tone of mocking laughter which always accompanied skimmingtons in practice quite clearly targets the males.[16]

This difference between the comedies may reflect emerging changes in cultural attitudes, changes which have been noted by historians such as Natalie Davies, who has shown that in England during the sixteenth century, skimmingtons invariably directed themselves against aggressive women who beat their husbands, whereas in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, recorded cases of skimmingtons involved men who beat their wives. As Ira Clark argues, "Recognition of women's rights in marriage seems to have been increasing during the early Stuart period" (163). And in the mid-century, for the very first time, Parliament even considered legislation to prevent husbands from treating their wives cruelly; the author of The Parliament Scout in early December 1644 records the consideration of this legislation by the Commons in language that clearly registers sympathy for women in unfortunate marriages: "we hope hereafter care will be taken . . . to punish the exorbitancies of the husband to the wife: if a Master strike a servant as is not fit, there is a remedy, but if a husband be never so cruell to the wife, unlesse to death, we know not where relief is to be had" (Raymond 161). Major differences between Fletcher's play and Shakespeare's more conservative comedy suggest that changes in cultural attitudes might already have been in the making in the early seventeenth century. It might even be argued that in Fletcher's play, we witness the prior enactment in the theater of a cultural change that would reach the record books only considerably later. It may also be no accident that this play with its radical revaluation of marriage was composed during a period when not only patriarchy, but its equivalent in the political realm, monarchy, figured as subjects of public discourse and debate. Like the equally radical Maid's Tragedy written by Fletcher in collaboration with Beaumont, The Woman's Prize was written in the period between 1609 and 1614 when, as Donna B. Hamilton points out, "the oath of allegiance controversy ran at its peak" (11).

Linda Boose, who consistently explores the extent to which Shakespeare's The Shrew represents a romanticized version of contemporary practices for controlling the unruly woman, has noted a similar change in official records between the early seventeenth and later seventeenth centuries; she concludes her essay by speculating on the virtual absence of any mention of scolds in church records after 1642. Citing T. N. Brush field who in 1858 commended women in Cheshire for being true ladies unlike the scolds of Shakespeare's England, Boose posits that his text records "the social process by which women of one generation . . . were shamed, tamed, and reconstituted . . . into the meek, amiable, softspoken ladies he so admires in his own time" (213). It is perhaps equally likely that scolds disappear from record books and that skimmington practices changed in the later century because of an emerging recognition among at least some segments of English society that male tyranny and female silence do not constitute universally desirable social norms; perhaps plays such as The Woman's Prize record the beginnings of this dawning recognition. The very popularity of Fletcher's play in later years may indicate its currency and topical relevance. Alan Sinfield suggests that invariably the movement in Shakespearean comedy is towards the transformation of bold and sprightly women into submissive obedient wives--Katherine, Rosalind, and Beatrice come to mind (54-55); the opposite applies to Fletcher's comedy where the meek and mild Maria is transformed by the experience of marriage to rectify its inequities.[17]

  1. See, for example, Coppelia Kahn, "The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage," in The Authority of Experience; Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1977), 84-100; John C. Bean, "Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, "in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn R. S. Lenz, Gayle Green, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980), 65-78; Kathleen McLuskie, "Feminist Deconstruction: The Example of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew," Red letters 12 (1982), 33-40; Valerie Wayne, "Refashioning the Shrew," Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 159-87; Karen Newman, "Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, "English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 86-100; Tita Baumlin French, "Petruchio the Sophist and Language as Creation in The Taming of the Shrew, "Studies in English Literature 29 (1989): 237-57.
  2. All citations from Shakespeare's play, hereafter referred to as The Shrew, will be from the Arden edition of The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris, New York: Methuen, 1981. All citations from Fletcher's play, hereafter referred to as The Woman's Prize, will be from George Ferguson, ed. The Woman's Prize or the Tamer Tamed, London: Mouton, 1966.
  3. See for example, Linda Boose's essay, "Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member," Shakespeare Quarterly 42:2 (1991): 179-213. Though Boose sees Fletcher as a dramatist who does not radically revise patriarchal ideology, she recognizes that his engagement with the issues raised by Shakespeare itself suggests "the kind of discomfort that Shrew characteristically provoked in men" (179). Brian Morris, in his introduction to the Arden edition of Shakespeare's play, also notes Fletcher's sequel, citing it as proof of The Shrew's popularity in the seventeenth century (88).
  4. For other considerations of gender tensions in early modern England, especially with regard to the taming of shrews, see for example, Ruth Melinkoff, "Riding Backwards," Viator 4 (1973): 153-76; Martin Ingram, "Ridings, Rough Music and Mocking Rhymes in Early Modern England," in Popular Culture in Seventeenth-Century, England, ed. Barry Reay (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 166-97; Alan Macfarlane, The Justice and the Mare's Ale: Law and Disorder in Seventeenth-Century England, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981); David Underdown, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England. 1603-1660 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).
  5. For a reading that suggests that Fletcher and Beaumont were not merely court entertainers reflecting Stuart tastes, but ideologically committed and involved with debating issues of the day, see Philip J. Finkelpearl's study. A similar revisionist view pervades Sandra Clark's more recent study, The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher: Sexual Themes and Dramatic Representation (New York: Harvester, 1994).
  6. A similar and extremely convincing revaluation of the genre pervades Douglas Bruster's convincing study of Renaissance theater, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 1992).
  7. The controversy surrounding the authorship of the "Prologue" and "Epilogue" is summarized by George Ferguson in his introduction to the text.
  8. In its format, the event imitates "rough music" or the "skimmington" invoked also by Shakespeare's play. This metaphoric analogy becomes especially vivid and acquires a double irony in the context of Renaissance theater, where, as in the case of the "skimmington," male actors played women's parts.
  9. The list of thirteen demands Maria draws up ranges from material demands such as "continuall moneys" to "Musick" and the company of women "to read French" (II. v. 138-143). Its focus on commodities and economic value, though it may deter somewhat from the dignity of the women's struggle, may be seen as a mere first step towards equality, for Maria continues her rebellion even after Petruchio agrees to these concessions.
  10. A similar claim is made by Brian Morris in his introduction to the Arden edition: "The play is rooted and grounded in well-known, sacred, and serious expressions of the duty of wives. Shakespeare cannot possibly have intended it to be spoken ironically" (146). Morris, of course, leaves open the possibility of ironic interpretation and concentrates on authorial intent. Fletcher's rereading, which Morris notes in passing, seems to me, however, to detract somewhat from such magisterial claims about authorial intention.
  11. On speculations about the play's popularity in the eighteenth century, see Ferguson, 23-24.
  12. Writers who discuss the increased literacy of seventeenth-century England include the following: David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing' in Tudor and Stuart England, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980; R. A. Honston, Literacy in Early Modern Europe: 1500-1800, London: Longman's, 1988;Jerome Friedman, "The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford's Flies: Miracles and Popular Journalism During the English Revolution," SCJ 23 no. 3 (1992); and Joseph Frank, The Beginnings of the English Newspaper I620-I660, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.
  13. Indeed, the extent to which The Woman's Prizeshares the general tendency of farce to mask seriousness in the form of excessive play becomes most apparent when one considers its literary precedent, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, which similarly voices trenchant commentary on contemporary political and social events; as critics have long recognized, the play directs a potent argument against the state to end the demoralizing and wasteful Peloponnesian war between the Spartans and the Athenians.
  14. This discrepancy between the moderate note of the "Epilogue" and the play's content might be partly accounted for by the possibility that somebody other than the author was responsible for the "Prologue" and the "Epilogue," as Ferguson suggests.
  15. The play's return lo a seemingly conventional arrangement between Maria and Petruchio thus remains fragile and one recalls that the action had continually reiterated Maria's ability to assert her independence. Harold C. Goddard's early attempt at a feminist response to Shakespeare's play, might be more appropriate to Fletcher's: "the play is an early version of What Every Woman Knows--what every woman knows being, of course, that the woman can lord it over the man so long as she allows him to think he is lording it over her" (68-69).
  16. Shakespeare's play, by contrast, seems to direct its mockery at both males and females. Petruchio's appearance at the wedding provokes taunts from the men, as does Kate's behavior throughout; even the final scene is fraught with ambivalence, for despite Kate's seeming conformity, the behavior of Bianca and the Widow results in the public shaming of Lucentio and Hortensio.
  17. Initial work for this essay began during an NEH summer seminar directed by Dr. Stephen Greenblatt and I am grateful to Professor Greenblatt for his comments and suggestions. I am also grateful to Dr. Clarence Miller for valuable advice on a later draft of the essay and to St. Louis University which has, in the form of grants and stipends, funded my current research into Renaissance drama, of which this essay is a part.


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