Shakespeare in Stepford
Comparing The Taming of the Shrew to The Stepford Wives
The Taming of the Shrew is, as most Shakespearean works have proven themselves to be, a play with many themes that are still applicable to modern stories. In Shrew, the prideful and slightly insane Petruchio insists upon marrying the eldest daughter of Baptista, Katherine. She is known by everyone as the incorrigible woman that nobody wants to marry. She is in stark contrast with her younger sister Bianca, who is pure and sweet and desirable. Petruchio, though taunted by his fellow suitors, is undaunted and aggressively starts his ploy to “tame” Katherine and make her his wife. In the 2004 movie, The Stepford Wives, we are introduced to Joanna Eberhart and her loving husband Walter. She is the epitome of the career woman as the CEO of a television network in Manhattan. But after being fired she suffers a nervous breakdown, and the family decides to move to the wealthy and pleasant town Stepford, Connecticut. Though the situations are very different in that no one is actively trying to court anyone else (all the couples in The Stepford Wives are married), there is still the objective of taming one’s partner. The same traits sought after in the women of Shrew are the ones sought after in Stepford Wives. The texts illustrate that though women have more opportunity than they once did, there is still an archetype that society wants them to fill, and to be outside of it means very negative criticisms. The act of taming has taken a different form but it is still as ingrained into relationships as it was in the days of Shrew.
"I shall be seven ere I go to horse.
Look what I speak, or do, or think to do,
You are still crossing it. Sirs, let’t alone.
I will not go today, and, ere I do,
It shall be what clock I say it is. "
(Act 4, Scene 4, 198-202)
At this point in Shrew Petruchio has succeeded in making Katherine his wife. However, he has not yet been able to tame her to his satisfaction. In order to do so he tries a new tactic. He states things that are clearly false and if Katherine does not agree then he punishes her by not allowing the journey to see her father continue. He is doing this because Katherine is not yet compliant as women are supposed to be. Even though he is doing something viciously manipulative, she is the one who is criticized by the other people in the play. In Stepford Wives, the men take a more radical approach to taming their women.
The men in the movie have created a machine that the husbands can coerce their wives into. The machine then, “We take a gloomy dissatisfied...Finally, we enhance her to fit the ideal Stepford Wife specifications.” The Female Improvement System allows for the men to dictate exactly what they want their wives to be like. It is again a harsh approach to completely change their partner, and yet they are not the ones being criticized. It is instead the faults of the women for not being (their twisted idea of) perfect. In the movie the women that end up as Stepford Wives are former CEO’s, judges, and other high ranking officials. But instead of praising them about their jobs or intelligence, the husbands call it “domineering,” or as Walter calls Joanna, a “Manhattan, castrating career b****.” It is just like in Shrew when Katherine is repulsive to everyone else because she’s outspoken and doesn’t want to be forced into things she doesn’t like. Though the women in Shrew and Stepford Wives are different in their social status, they still are not appreciated and others go to great lengths to change them.
"Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And, rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words. "
(Act 4, Scene 3, 78-85)
This is one of the many arguments that Katherine and Petruchio have as husband and wife. While she is dressing she chooses to wear a cap that he doesn’t like. He then demands that she take it off without hesitation. This, of course does not go over well with Katherine. She is telling him that she will not be treated as a child and will speak her mind whenever she thinks it necessary. In that time period is was not considered a virtue to assert yourself as an independent thinker. This is Katherine’s core personality and everyone, her father, her sister, and her husband included want to completely change her. In Stepford Wives, the woman who most resembles Katherine, especially in the beginning is, Bette Midler’s character Bobbi Markowitz.
Bobbi is a writer and she is completely outspoken. In the movie she makes all the Stepford women uncomfortable and makes her husband frequently embarrassed. However, it’s what makes her unique and interesting and human. When Bobbi is turned into a Stepford wife all of that is gone. She becomes another perfect cardboard cutout just like the other women. She is unnaturally jovial, docile, sexualized, and most of all quiet, unless spoken to. Shrew and Stepford Wives are centuries apart but they have one the same theme: women who need to be “fixed.”
"Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labor both by sea and land,
To watch night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe,
And craves no other tribute at thy hand
But love, fair looks, and true obedience--"
(Act 5, Scene 2, 162-169)
This is the very end of the play, where Katherine has been tamed for all intents and purposes. She goes into this long speech about the importance of being the right type of woman and honoring your husband because he is your sole protector and asks nothing more than to be the right type of woman. The interesting part of the speech is that it is coming from Katherine. Though she has been the driving force for female independence throughout the play, she has changed. It is also the first time of the play that we hear a woman advocating for all of the traits that previously only the men have voiced. In Stepford Wives, Claire Danes has a complete breakdown at the end and admits that she is the one who created Stepford and the program for the robotic wives.
At the end of the movie it is revealed that Mike, who was thought to be the leader of Stepford and the one to make all the women robots, is actually a robot himself. (His head is knocked off by a candlestick) Claire, his wife goes into a long speech about how all she wanted was to create a perfect world. She was a premier brain surgeon and used her intelligence to make Stepford and the Female Improvement System. But she needed someone the men could rally behind and the women could admire, so she made Mike. Stepford was a haven to her, a place where men could be men (aggressive and dominating) and women could return to former perfection, before there were stressful jobs, and the pressures of being more than a homemaker. In both societies, as much as it is very run by men, it is also the women who contribute to the taming of women. These scenes just prove that society hasn’t changed. There are still expectations of women and in relationships that are paralyzing.
These texts prove that although women have gained independence in other facets of society, relationship expectations are more or less the same as they’ve always been. This, of course, is not limited to women. In the movie Walter is expected to control Joanna, while she is expected to be easily controlled. There are expectations both ways. In Shrew, Petruchio is never challenged by anyone (except Katherine) because he is fulfilling his role as alpha male. Only Katherine is rebuked for not doing what is expected of her. Taming is so accepted in society, that it will continue to live on unless a massive relationship overhaul happens.
Shakespeare, William. Taming of the Shrew. N.p.: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d. Print.