What Birth Status Means in The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew” starts off with two major conflicts. The first dealing with class relations and a cruel joke being played on Christopher Sly and the second dealing with gender relations within the play being presented to Sly where Baptista is the overbearing father to Katerina and Bianca. It can be argued that both of these present a character that have no control in Elizabethan society to decide their fates.

For Christopher Sly, a poor beggar, he is ridiculed by society and often treated as less than a human, this is shown in the first few lines of Induction One, where the hostess threatens to have him thrown in the stocks during an argument and then goes off to fetch the “headborough” because a beggar doesn’t have the money to pay off for a glass he broke (1.1.2-9). Granted, this is a drunken argument but then Sly is then asleep and the Lord speaks very badly of him simply because he doesn’t have the same opportunities or lifestyle the Lord does, “O monstrous beast! How like a swine he lies. / Grim death how foul and loathsome is thine image,” (1.1.30-31). While Christopher Sly may come from a lower class and be a drunk, he is compared to death by how he looks because of this. If this Lord were drunk it would most likely be in the comfort of his own estate, while Sly doesn’t have that option. Christopher Sly lives the life he was born into, he can’t change what his birth status was and yet because of it he becomes the butt of a cruel joke.

Similarly, women in the play are treated the same why; they are expected to be a certain way and yet have no say over their own lives. This is shown particularly by Baptista’s control over his two daughters. Bianca, his youngest daughter is being courted by multiple suitors and yet Baptista refuses to let her go saying his eldest must be married first, “Gentlemen, importune me no farther, / For how I firmly am resolved you know: / That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter / Before I have a husband for the elder” (1.1.48-51). In Elizabethan times women had no rights and were often considered the father’s property until marriage, this is clearly shown by Baptista’s lack of compassion for his daughter’s needs and wants and his desire to marry Katherine before Bianca. Baptista knows that Katherine speaks too freely for a women and most likely is afraid that she will never be married, and therefore he will always have to care for her. By creating a scenario where Bianca, who wants to marry can’t not until Katherine, who has no interest in marriage, does he insures that he will be able to marry off both daughters to men of good standing and not be stuck caring for one until he dies.

For both Christopher Sly of the lower classes in England and Katherine and Bianca who are both women, their lives are preplanned by birth and random chance. This idea leaves the reader with an uneasy questioning of what will happen in the following scenes of the play when all three characters are forced to accept their birth status.      

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3 thoughts on “What Birth Status Means in The Taming of the Shrew

  1. gallaghj1

    I agree that birth status meant a great deal. Throughout Shakespeare’s works, he revisits the popular belief (during Elizabethan times) of The Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare places each of his characters under another (Bianca and Katherine to Baptista and then to Lucentio and Petruchio, Tranio to Lucentio, Grumio to Petruchio, etc.) Shakespeare follows The Divine Order by allowing the reader to see that this order cannot be broken despite disguises. Your economic status and gender define who you will be for the rest of your life, as can be seen through Sly not being able to fall into the role of being a Lord. As you said, birth status (and gender) cannot be changed. As described in the explanation before the play “The only thing less than a beggar is a beggar’s wife.” Being able to accept your birth status was just one of the many aspects that The Great Chain of Being encouraged.

    Reply
  2. gallaghj1

    Throughout Shakespeare’s works, he revisits the popular belief of Elizabethan times of The Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare places each of his characters under another (Bianca and Katherine to Baptista and then to Lucentio and Petruchio, Tranio to Lucentio, Grumio to Petruchio, etc.) Shakespeare follows The Divine Order by allowing the reader to see that this order cannot be broken despite disguises. Your economic status and gender define who you will be for the rest of your life, as can be seen through Sly not being able to fall into the role of being a Lord. As you said, birth status (and gender) cannot be changed. As described in the explanation before the play “The only thing less than a beggar is a beggar’s wife.” Being able to accept your birth status was just one of the many aspects that The Great Chain of Being encouraged.

    Reply
  3. n02248774

    Birth status and social class seem to be a big part of Taming of the Shrew so far. Seeing how the seating of the play is divided up from standing room for the lower class, to the seats behind the stage for the upper class is an indication of how social status is of importance. In class, we discussed how seating behind the act was important because the audience is in clear view of everyone to see, to show off their status. It’s not only about the amenities, but also how the rest of their society perceives them and making sure they are noticed. It was interesting to see Christopher Sly’s language change from is language as a beggar, to that used by a lord. The transformation of Christopher Sly so far is an indication of how there is a certain way you must speak and act, to be socially accepted for what class you are in.

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