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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.2 (2002) 235-252

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The Public, the Private, and the Shaming of the Shrew

Gary Schneider

Relatively late in the action of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1592), Tranio tells the pedant of a fictional private quarrel that has been made public, and is, therefore, a potential threat to the pedant's safety in the city of Padua:

'Tis death for anyone in Mantua
To come to Padua. Know you not the cause?
Your ships are stayed at Venice, and the Duke,
For private quarrel 'twixt your Duke and him,
Hath published and proclaimed it openly.
'Tis marvel, but that you are but newly come,
You might have heard it else proclaimed about. 1

Tranio's "warning" marshals several pertinent implications of the interrelationship between the public and the private: there is a manifest danger when the private becomes public; private actions (the two dukes' personal quarrel) inform public life; and the dynamic interaction between ostensibly separate spheres creates a politicization of the private. In early modern England a theoretical distinction between the public and private spheres existed—one which imagined them as wholly distinct and self-contained; in practice, however, there was a dynamic relationship between the spheres—one which has potential repercussions for the citizenry, as the danger to the pedant suggests. One ignorant of the proclamation, that is, of the "publicizing" of the restrictions, might face serious consequences. [End Page 235]

Publicizing has a similar role in controlling aberrant women. For a woman to be publicized means to be confronted with the social role appropriate to her gender and class—one which is informed by patriarchy and its social, economic, and political imperatives. The bulk of The Taming of the Shrew, in fact, bears on the publicizing of Kate. This publicizing effort is enacted by public ceremony and social ritual that, in the play, frequently revolve around marriage customs. In addition to weddings, other social customs also inform the publicizing of Kate, much in the same manner as public shaming rituals such as skimmington, bridling, and cucking threaten Kate as an aberrant, uncontrollable woman. 2 In essence, The Taming of the Shrew presents a temporal process of taming that is also spatially oriented: on one hand, the processes, actions, and manipulations that publicize Kate in Padua and that are designed to tame shrewishness are intertwined with producing public shame; on the other hand, as evidenced by the spatial movement of Petruccio and Kate to Petruccio's country house, privacy and privation also mediate shrew taming.

A few studies have investigated the meaning and function of the public and the private in Shrew, but these studies examine only tangentially the public and private dichotomy as it functions in the play, typically as a self-evident binary. 3 The interrelationship of the spheres is extremely complex, and the early modern perception of them exceedingly ambiguous. I begin this study, then, by examining the specific emphases, associations, and resonances of the private and the public. I continue by investigating the "publicizing" of Kate, and consider the relationship between marriage, social customs, public ritual, and shame. I observe the play's consequent movement to the private, and take up an investigation of the maneuvering of the principles of asceticism and civility. Finally, I mark the return to the public as a spatial re-orientation that is energized by the performative, by the metatheatrical, and which serves as a consolidation of the civilizing process.

The Public and the Private

Jürgen Habermas states that, although there was a distinction between publicus and privatus, "an opposition between the public and private spheres on the ancient (or the modern) model did not exist." 4 There was an emerging, but by no means clear, distinction between public and private in the Renaissance. [End Page 236] Habermas locates a nascent distinction in the movement from feudalism to a centralized monarchy, which culminated in a relatively well-defined dichotomy late in the seventeenth century. 5 Since the emergence of the modern state...


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