Throughout the history of human civilization, society has always assigned women roles subordinate to men. Under patriarchal social structures, women are often regarded as inferior compared to men and, consequently, subjected to social prejudice, mistreatment, and inequalities. For instance, the value systems of most traditional societies required women to show modesty, submissiveness, and obedience to men. Thus, women lived under the authority of men with the latter using their social perch to dominate and exploit women. One way through which women were exploited was the objectification of their bodies by treating them as sexual objects for the satisfaction of men’s desires. Thus, women were valued in terms of their beauty, the extent to which their physical endowment aroused men’s sexual fancies. Not surprisingly, therefore, Elizabethan literature written in a period when patriarchy was dominant portrays the exploitative way in which women were treated in traditional societies. In The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare portrays the position that women held in medieval England. Women were regarded as properties to be owned and used by men as they pleased. However, since the ability of a man to dominate a woman’s life was very important to men, assertive and independently thinking women, pejoratively referred to as “shrews,” were often despised and ignored by potential suitors. Consequently, societal values promoted the subjugation of women’s rights by allowing men to mistreat their women in the name of “taming” them, which simply involved the use of violence to control women. As a part of this “taming” process, women were denied access to better education because it would empower them and threaten male domination. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes portrays the condition of women in Greek’s ancient Athenian and Spartan societies. However, unlike the total triumph of patriarchy portrayed in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Lysistrata showcases female rebellion and triumph over the influence of male dominance. In particular, Lysistrata portrays the revolution of women not only to rise to positions of influence and tilt the balance of power, but also to play important political roles in determining the destiny of their communities. In reference to the major characters in the two texts, this essay provides a comparative analysis of the portrayal of women in terms of the position they held in traditional societies, with particular emphasis on women sexuality, power, and education.
The Taming of the Shrew represents the exploitation of women in the society by highlighting social values that promote male violence, female submission to male authority, the objectification of women’s bodies as well as keeping them ignorant. The glorification of women’s ignorance is exemplified in Bianca and Katherina’s father’s decision to recruit a music teacher for them instead of taking them to school. Teaching women art skills like dancing and singing agrees with patriarchy’s goals of tutoring women in areas that enable them to entertain men. The fate of the play’s major character, Katherina, is testimony to the entrenchment of patriarchal values in society. At the beginning, Katherina displays independence and ability to stand against male chauvinism. She readily attacks men who challenge her independence and always have a view of her own on many issues. In Act I, she tells Hortensio and Gremio that Iwis it is not halfway to her heart: But if it were, doubt not her care should be To comb your noodle with a three-legged stool, And paint your face and use you like a fool (1.1.61–65).
The men around her misinterpret her attitude as a sign of the lack of respect; she frequently insults, degrades or physically attacks any man who offends her. This male-view, however, is blind to the real issues behind her rebellious behavior. Katherina is evidently a victim of societal expectations of women. Society glorifies women who are beautiful to attract the attention of men and humble enough to submit to male authority. Katherina’s independence and intelligence puts her at conflict with male chauvinism. Men in her society want a woman they can control, and these are the qualities that she lacks. In contrast, her sister Bianca embodies feminine qualities that the society expects of women. She is unassuming, soft-spoken, and physically attractive. She exhibits the virtues that society approves: she is candid, innocent, and humble (Beiner 102). Consequently, because of her independence and willingness to challenge male authority, Katherina has grown out of favor with her father, who shows bias towards her younger sister, the beautiful and humble Bianca. Similarly, Bianca attracts more suitors than Katherina. These factors are responsible for making Katherina feel out of place; she does not fit in a society with patriarchal values. In this regard, The Taming of the Shrew reveals the society’s aversion to women who wield power, either through their intelligence or independence. Due to her independence and intelligence, Katherina refuses to play the role the society has assigned to her – the role of a maiden daughter to her father and a submissive wife-material to the men around her. Her potential as a wife is limited, because she fails on these scores, thus presenting possible cause for her anger and rebellion towards men. She hates society’s expectation of her to be a dutiful daughter and display courtesy and grace toward her male suitors.
In addition, society has degraded female sexuality down to the role women play as sex objects (Bean 65). As such, physical beauty is a major factor in a girl’s getting a potential marriage partner. Katherina understands that beauty and sexual attractiveness determine her chances of getting married. However, she equally understands that she does not fit in this definition of a potential wife. At the same time, she is conscious that this perception of women as sexual objects degrades her dignity. Thus, her self-awareness of her physical undesirability compels her not only to loath the men around her, but also rebel against the society’s designation of a woman’s role and place in society. Nevertheless, she recognizes the rigidity of social values that dictate her role in society (Beiner 104). Since she finds it hard to compromise her independence and surrender to whims of men, she ends up becoming ill-tempered and miserable. Unfortunately, the more she becomes angry toward the rigidity of society’s values, the more she reduces her chances of getting a husband and alienated from her own society. Thus, she eventually surrenders her independence by playing the role of an ignorant and submissive wife to her husband, Petruchio. From their first encounter, Petruchio makes it clear that he will marry her regardless her wishes. He uses force to assert himself and force Katherina to conform to her role as a woman. Finally, she gives up her resistance to male domination to escape from the cold disapproval she receives from the society due to her reputation as a shrew. Any social role, even that of the exploited wife becomes more appealing and attractive than living under social rejection. This is shown in Scene II of Act III, where Petruchio tells those present that Katherina is his rightful property to do with as he pleases. He says:
I will be master of what is mine own. She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing (ll.231-234).
Not surprisingly, Katherina gives a speech in the play’s end espousing the need for women to obey their men, which shows the final triumph of patriarchy.
Katherina’s situation, therefore, shows that society only accommodates women who surrender their independence by submitting to male authority as well as conform to the male-perspective on female sexuality, the treatment of women as vessels for satisfying men’s sexual desires (Rackin 2005). Her husband, Petruchio, attempts to put her in her right place by torturing her and attempting to diffuse her independence by forcing her to agree with everything he says regardless how absurd or awkward it is. For instance, she agrees with his claim that the sun is the moon, saying that "if you please to call it a rush-candle, Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me" (4.5.14–15). This situation portrays Petruchio’s desire to control her intellectually as a means of taming her dealing with her independence, intelligence, and assertiveness. In this light, Petruchio’s attitude shows that female independence is an attempt to disrupt social order (Duthie 59), and society resists such attempts by alienating those who try to assert their independence or rebel against tradition.
Lysistrata, the heroine of Lysistrata, contrasts with Katherina by rising above the challenges of patriarchy. Whereas Katherina allows her sexuality to be used against her, Lysistrata uses it as a weapon to gain power in a male-dominated society. The play’s opening scene portrays the traditional and stereotypical representation of women in Greece; domestic-oriented and content being under male authority. This is exemplified by Lysistrata’s neighbor, Kleonike, who explains to her that women are late in coming to the meeting Lysistrata has called for, because they are tending to their children. However, Lysistrata is portrayed differently from the rest of her womenfolk; she has no husband to whom she is answerable and is not keen to play a housewife’s role.
Athens and Sparta are at war, and all the men have gone to the battle. Traditionally, war and all issues to do with it were the preserve of men (Hunt 73). Lysistrata departs from this traditional view by convening a meeting of women to discuss about ending the war. From the onset, therefore, the play shows a transformation of women’s role in society. Lysistrata represents the rise of women to positions of power and influence. She shows anger at the women’s failure to come out and talk about serious issues affecting their society (war and peace). Equally, she is angered by their unwillingness to stand up to the negative/demeaning stereotyping of women, exclaiming that “I'm positively ashamed to be a woman- a member of a sex which can't even live up to male slanders” (15-16). This is because women in Greece were regarded as irrational creatures that needed protection from their feminine shortcomings (Murray 215). Concerned about the effects of the war, however, Lysistrata engineers a coup in which women literally take over Greece, forcing the warring states of Athens and Sparta to begin peace talks.
Lysistrata’s success in overcoming patriarchy and male domination is centered on her deviousness in employing women’s feminine features to prey on the men’s sexual urges. However, Lysistrata is different from The Taming of the Shrew, because Greek women use their bodies as objects of sexual attraction to control and manipulate men rather than satisfying male lust. She convinces women to use their bodies to their own advantage by making men desire them. Aristophanes’ treatment of female sexuality, therefore, is different from Shakespeare’s portrayal. In Lysistrata, the female body is a powerful weapon that helps women gain power in society. It reduces the assuming men (the view that it is the right of a man to use a woman’s body for sexual satisfaction) into beggars who pleads with the women to allow them have sex. Thus, Lysistrata sees women’s feminine features as the assets that could be exploited to control men. For instance, she examines women’s bodies for their strengths to arouse desire in men; the curves on Ismenia’s genitalia and her hairless vulva, and the Korinthian girl’s monstrous buttocks. The women remark how men will find it difficult in resisting this exhibition of raw eroticism. This approach contrasts with Katherina, who allows her femininity to be used against her. The scheming of women around their sexuality, therefore, becomes a source of power rather than being a source of exploitation and objectification of their bodies as seen in The Taming of the Shrew. The women in Lysistrata gain power by playing upon male stereotypes ? the idea that men cannot resist sexual temptation or control their lust. This development shows a remarkable departure from the submissiveness of Katherina and her womenfolk, who surrender to their fate as sexual objects. In this regard, Lysistrata shows masculine qualities by adopting a male perspective on sexuality (exploiting the female identity to control men). She looks at the women as sexual objects that could be exploited to counter male power. This is evident in the scene where, upon Lysistrata ‘s urging, Myrrhine tempts her husband with a promise to have sex, but eventually abandons him in mad desire without satisfying the sexual fire she had ignited.
Nevertheless, Aristophanes asserts the continuity of patriarchy by excluding women from future leadership roles in Lysistrata’s idealized Athens. The omission of women from positions of power suggests that even for a feminist like Lysistrata, women have their socially dictated roles to play. This conclusion of the play agrees with Shakespeare’s closing views in The Taming of the Shrew on the role of women in society. Both texts concur that political and leadership roles (positions of power) are the preserve of men. This concurrence asserts the traditional values and beliefs of patriarchal societies, where women are regarded as the subordinates of men.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. London: Wildside Press LLC, 2008. Print.
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Beiner, George. Shakespeare's agonistic comedy: poetics, analysis, criticism. NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1993. Print.
Duthie, George. Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, 1951. Print.
Hunt, Peter. War, Peace, and Alliance in Demosthenes' Athens. London: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.
Murray, Oswyn. “Life and Society in Classical Greece.” In The Oxford History of the Classical World, Boardman, John, Griffin, Jasper, and Murray, Oswyn, (eds). London: Oxford University Press 1986. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. London: Plain Label Books, 2008. Print.