"Coming of Age:
Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet
The Taming of the Shrew"
Problems of sexual identity, family relationships, and gender roles fill Shakespeare's work, from the sundered twin brothers who find themselves by finding each other to the prime duke who renounces sibling rivalry and reclaims a patrimony through his rough magic. His male characters are engaged in a continuous struggle, first to form a masculine identity, then to be secure and productive in it. In the action of his plays and poems, he explores the unconscious attitudes behind cultural definitions of manliness and womanliness, and behind the mores and institutions shaped by them. Leontes' horns, Macbeth's "unmannerly breech'd dagger," Kate's hand beneath her husband's foot, and Coriolanus's wounds are prismatic and ambivalent images at the center of works that examine sexual identity as shaped by the patriarchal culture in which the playwright lived. (1)In the preceding paragraph it's important to pay particular attention to the phrase, "definitions of manliness and womanliness," because as it turns out, Kahn is really only interested in masculine identity as it intersects with feminine identity. Furthermore, she believes that she knows Shakespeare's attitude about the gender identities of his time. She says that "Though he accepts conventional arguments for patriarchy, perhaps because he sees no preferable alternative, he objects to the extreme polarization of sex roles and the contradiction underlying it." The "contradiction" is, according to Kahn, that though "patriarchy granted near-absolute legal and political powers to the father, particularly powers over women," yet "in unacknowledged ways it conceded to women, who were essential to its continuance, the power to validate men's identities through their obedience and fidelity as wives and daughters" (12).
In The Taming of the Shrew, Kahn says, this contradiction within patriarchy is manifested by the ambiguity of Katherine's taming. At the crucial turning-point in the play, when Katherine agrees to call the sun the moon if he will have it so, she exaggerates her submission to wild absurdity, and so mocks the idea that women must be obedient, just as Petruchio's exaggeration of patriarchal attitudes mocks patriarchy. And Katherine's famous speech on women's obedience at the end of the play shows that Petruchio "has gained her outward compliance in the form of a public display, while her spirit remains mischievously free" (115). Thus her display of womanly obedience makes us "realize that the myth of feminine weakness, which prescribes that women ought to or must inevitably submit to man's superior authority, masks a contrary myth: that only a woman has the power to authenticate a man, by acknowledging him her master" (117).
Bottom Line: Thoroughly persuasive.