Why, There's a Wench: Shakespeare's Unconventional Love Plots
“Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.” Much Ado about Nothing, 5.2.63
“For I am rough, and woo not like a babe.”
The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.137
Critics have lionized Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew for their depiction of unconventional romantic plots. Despite the pervading view in Elizabethan England of women as the property of their fathers (or, in the case of married women, property of their husbands), Shakespeare gives these two plays powerful female characters—Beatrice and Katharina—who refuse to be wooed in the traditional fashion. The above quotes from the plays embody the essence of nonconformity; however, the lines also starkly contrast the dramatic elements that Shakespeare used to effect the departure from stereotypes.
Benedick protests that he and Beatrice are too “wise” to woo typically, while Petruchio blames his “rough” nature for his failure at stock romance. This distinction between wise and rough temperaments extends to the plays themselves. Much Ado about Nothing explores the breach with romantic convention by intellectual wordplay, whereas The Taming of the Shrew goes a different route—that of physical combat.
Benedick’s courthsip of Beatrice is not a courtship at all. The attraction between the two is apparent from the inception of the play when Beatrice asks: “I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” (1.1.29-30). She is ostensibly worried about Benedick, although she follows this question with japes upon his character. The wit and acerbity of their first few encounters fails to suppress the obvious chemistry between them. Alexander Leggatt (1974) observes that “beneath the exchange of ideas we can detect a deeper interplay of minds” (p. 168). He later builds upon this observation: “This is a game in which the players are so deeply engaged that their instincts are no longer purely sporting ones: beneath the wit we sense two minds at work, each one probing the other’s defenses, each afraid of losing the other’s respect” (p. 169).
Leggatt emphasizes the struggle between faculties, which is where Shakespeare undoubtedly intended the emphasis to fall. Benedick and Beatrice practice an intellectual hegemony over everyone around them. However, as David Bevington (1992) notes, “She is a match for Benedick” (p. 217), and he serves as her foil as well. They cannot dominate each other, and so they intimidate each other. Unsteadied by frustration and feelings of inferiority, Benedick and Beatrice cannot express their love for each other—and that love churns within each of them.
In fact, this unrequited passion keeps them from appearing to be gods among men because it makes them melancholy. Leggatt elucidates this quality in Beatrice: “We suspect that she is cheering herself up [with her sense of humor]; indeed, she comes very close to admitting pain behind the gaiety” (p. 171). Similarly, Don Pedro and Claudio approach the truth when they indict Benedick’s sardonic reception of Hero:
Don Pedro: Thou wast ever an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty.
Claudio: And never could maintain his part but in the force of his will. (1.1.224-227)
This play treats love as a goal prior to and separate from marriage. Were their grim moods not filling their speech with cynicism, Benedick and Beatrice would exist as solitary admirers of each other, and love would become an abstruse exercise in the play. However, their friends, who bear the brunt of their incivility, decide to throw them together. For this reason, the courtship of Beatrice is not a courtship: The mating dance is active, and these two lovers want to part of it. Shakespeare relies on others to cajole his blithe sages into the act of wooing, but the love has always been present. The reluctance of Benedick and Beatrice to play the dating game is how Shakespeare chooses to explore the idea of unconventional romance in Much Ado about Nothing.
Benedick and Beatrice believe that “the dedication demanded by the rituals of courtship would be justifiable only if the loved one were utterly perfect” (Leggatt, 1974: 170). However, Petruchio, the suitor to Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew, does not subscribe to that theory. He accepts Katharina’s termagant reputation as a challenge to his manhood: “For I will board her though she chide as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” (1.2.94-95). Petruchio also admits that the wealth of Katharina’s father attracts him to her, “be she as foul as was Florentius’ love / As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / As Socrates’ Xanthippe” (1.2.68-70).
The other characters describe Katharina as a “shrew.” Her antipathy toward Petruchio during their first meeting supports that comparison, while Petruchio himself is depicted as a bawdy conquistador. Naturally, Kate—the irritating sobriquet that Petruchio gives her—spurns her suitor’s advances, and another odd dalliance has begun.
Many productions of The Taming of the Shrew portray Kate and Petruchio as warring individuals, and the early scenes of such stagings are filled with mayhem. Shakespeare indicates with stage directions one occasion for Kate to strike Petruchio, to which he replies: “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again” (2.1.220). However, the text does not support further fisticuffs between them. Instead, they show their physical orientation through hostility toward others. Unlike Benedick and Beatrice, who cope with depression by stepping up their ironic asides, Kate expresses her disgruntlement by flogging her sister and by twisting the lute around Hortensio’s neck. Likewise, Petruchio berates his servants for bringing him cold food and rips the dress that the tailor made for Kate (4.1).
Clearly, the theme of this play centers around the courtship and marriage of Petruchio and Kate. Unrequited love plagues Benedick and Beatrice until their friends push them together, but Petruchio weds Kate for money and for the sport of “taming” her. These motivations are worldly and base—as is Petruchio’s method of taming. Irene Dash (1981) has conjectured that “Petruchio’s wooing of Katharina is a contest of wits” (p. 47). Indeed, the two try their best to break each other down in their first encounter. However, the wit in their exchange is not as highly developed as that Benedick and Beatrice because of “the attempt of each to shock by using earthy language” (p. 47). The profusion of sexual jokes in the final scene reinformces Shakespeare’s inglorious but vigorous use of language in the play.
Petruchio’s wooing of Kate is more accurately a contest of wills. He subverts her by depriving her body of food (4.3.1-35) and sex (4.1.176-199). Michael West (1974) commends Shakespeare for not having Petruchio “wrest conjugal rights from an unwilling bride” (p. 70) because of the thematic significance: “To overlook or to minimize the obvious sexual method of taming or ‘training’ a wife is to miss part of what the play is saying” (Dash, 1981: 37). Kate eventually learns to love Petruchio, and he loves her in return. Shakespeare demonstrates the physical unconventionality of this romance by casting love as the product of—not the precursor to—an intense courtship.
Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew reject the usual Elizabethan love plots because the lovers change. The intellectual anti-courtship of Benedick and Beatrice presents the metamorphosis of despondency into true love, while the ordeal of Petruchio and Kate chronicles the curbing of Kate’s wretched behavior. Petruchio does not appear to change, for his wager with Lucentio and Hortensio in the final scene echoes the same bravado with which he initially tackled and subdued Kate. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s milieu kept him from writing a play in which a woman could alter a man. Benedick eliminates the bitterness of his perception of love by entering into a relationship with Beatrice, but she does not cause this change. Love transforms Benedick, which the Elizabethan audience could accept. Shakespeare often mentions the power of Cupid—but never that of Aphrodite.
Bevington, David, ed. 1992. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins, Inc.
Dash, Irene G. 1981. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Columbia University Press.
Horowitz, David. 1965. Shakespeare: An Existential View. New York: Hill and Wang.
Leggatt, Alexander. 1974. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Love. London: Methuen & Co.
West Michael. 1974. Folk background of Petruchio’s wooing dance. Shakespeare Studies: (65-73).
How to cite this article:
Aycock. Anthony. Why, There's a Wench: Shakespeare's Unconventional Love Plots. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/secondperiod.html >.