Review of

"Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew"

Novy, Marianne L. "Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew."
Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Chapel Hill, N.C.: U of North Carolina P, 1984. 43-62.
Thesis: Novy introduces her book by asking, "Why have Shakespeare's dramatic images of love and power in relations between the sexes fascinated so many diverse audiences?" (3). Her answer is based on a common-sensical view of history as something that is ever-changing. We may have the idea that in the "good old days" (or bad old days) everyone acted the same, thought the same, and never changed their minds, but even a very little study of history will show that this has never been true.

Concerning Novy's subject matter, we may think that in Shakespeare's time marriages were arranged, women were subservient, and husbands were lords and masters of their houses, but though there is truth in these generalizations, they don't tell the whole story. And so Shakespeare is still relevant simply because he does tell the whole story, one that is often ambiguous rather than perfectly clear, and suggestive rather than conclusive. Specifically, Novy points out that "a surprising range of evidence suggests that both patriarchy and mutuality were ideals for marriage in Elizabethan England" (4), and goes on to say, "in his comedies and romances Shakespeare creates images of gender relations that keep elements of both patriarchy and mutuality in suspension" (6).

In The Taming of the Shrew, says Novy, "Petruchio is not only a dominant husband but also a player of games he wants Kate to join" (6); thus Petruchio, the "dominant husband," represents patriarchy, but he invites Kate to join a game of spoof against convention, and so he also represents mutuality. Similarly, Kate gives a famous speech commanding other women (her sister in particular) to obey their husbands, but she is in on the game that Petruchio plays against the other men. The members of the audience, in Shakespeare's time and ours, can take it as they like, and perhaps do a little thinking while they are laughing. Here is how Novy puts it:
In summary, the ambiguous combination of patriarchy and play in The Taming of the Shrew helps it appeal to spectators who are divided among and within themselves in their attitudes toward marriage. In a time of social transition when Renaissance England felt conflict not only between contrasting images of marriage but also between nostalgia for an older order and a new awareness of individuality, inner passions, and outer chaos, the game element in The Shrew sets up a protected space where imagination permits the enjoyment of both energy and form, while the dangers of violence, tyranny, deadening submission, and resentment magically disappear. The game context permits Petruchio and Katherine to modulate from antagonists to co-creators of a new world to ruler and subject, and encourages the spectators to see as most important whichever pair of roles they choose and consider the others as "only a game.' (62)
Bottom Line: Something of a trudge, but persuasive.