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Wise Wives: Kates’ Final Speeches to Henry VIII and in The Taming of the Shrew

Karl McKimpson

Katherina’s final speech at the end of Act 5.2 in The Taming of the Shrew has long caused confusion among scholars for its perceived condemnation of women, directing that wives are “bound to serve, love, and obey,” their bodies “Unapt to toil and trouble in the world.”  For many readers today, this final speech seems abrupt and unlikely for a character that is repeatedly presented as shrewish for her resistance to being tamed and is at odds with the sheer length and voice that make Kate’s speech the most powerful in the play.  In exploring this problematic scene, I believe the conflict can be resolved to some degree by considering Katherina’s final speech as a historical analogue to a similar statement by Katherine Parr to her husband Henry VIII, where, in very probable danger of her life, she stated her own firm belief that all women were to be governed and instructed by their husbands, reflecting the tenuous position of Katherina to Petruchio (Foxe).

Katherine Parr was not considered a shrew in the way that Minola is seen in the play.  However, like Minola, Parr was considerably outspoken and noted for her willingness to dispute with her husband.  She was popular with the people publicly and as an author.  In the second of her two books, The Lamentacion of a Synner (1547), Parr details what would become two of the most vital issues in her life: the justification by faith alone, and a wife’s behavior towards her husband.  In describing how a wife should act towards her husband, Parr takes a very “Petruchioesque” [sic] position in claiming to believe that wives “should “learn of St. Paul to be obedient to their husbands…and to learn of their husbands at home’” (Weir 496).  These two aspects of her book would lead to both her downfall and her redemption.

Wedded to Henry VIII at the age of 31, Parr entered into marriage after the death of her two previous husbands, (Weir 491, 497).  Because of her status as a twice-married women, she was not suspected of being unchaste before her marriage, and did not have to worry about being killed for this violation of Henry’s Act of Attainder, which had resulted in the death of his previous queen Katherine Howard.  She was regarded as smart and frequently engaged in religious disputes with her husband.  It is unclear whether these disputes were always private or occasionally public.  However, the presence of these disputes does seem to belie Parr’s stated “belief” in Lamentation that women should “be obedient to their husbands” in all things.

The combination of these disputes with the Protestant leanings published in Lamentacion led to a growing unrest in Henry VIII’s court, especially concerning two men, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, and the Lord Chancellor Wriothesley.  Both men were religious conservatives, the opposite of Parr’s position, and desired that the Church of England remain as “Catholic as possible” (Foxe).  The views of Henry himself are less clear.

Since the break with the Church in Rome, no laws had been passed to define the Church of England as Protestant or Catholic.  The historical record is sketchy on what Henry’s religious views were at this time, but his later actions would seem to indicate that he leaned towards conservative, anti-protestant views.  Gardiner and Wriothesley drew upon Henry’s leanings to try and dispose the queen.

The two men were able to convince Henry that his wife “encouraged others to oppose the King’s efforts to establish religious uniformity in the kingdom” through her heresies (Martienssen 213).  How they did it is unclear.  Foxe, the primary popular record of the incident, claims that the argument was a combination of appealing to the king’s pride after his losing several arguments to his queen and her having not produced an heir in the three years they had now been married, coupled with her growing demand for a Protestant reform in England.  Foxe then tells us that Henry issued a writ for Parr’s ladies to be brought in for examination, and sent it out with one of his councilors.  Somehow Parr was informed of the writ.  The councilor accidently dropped the paper outside her door, or more likely, was partial to the queen and informed her of the writ.   Parr resolved herself to speak to Henry, and met with him the following night in his bedroom (Foxe).  There she found him with both Gardiner and Wriothesley.  Foxe gives an account of the queen’s words, which draws remarkable parallels in length and content with the words spoken by Minola at the end of 5.2 in Taming.

Your Maiestie (quoth she) doth right well know, neither I my self am ignoraunt, what great imperfection & weakenes by our first creation, is alotted vnto vs womē, to be ordeyned and appoynted as inferiour and subiect vnto man as our head…euen so also made hee woman of man, of whom and by whom shee is to bee gouerned, commaunded and directed. Whose womanly weakenes and naturall imperfection, ought to be tolerated, ayded and borne withall, so that by his wisedome such thinges as be lackyng in her, ought to be supplyed.

…your Maiestie beyng so excellent in giftes and ornamentes of wisedome, and I a seely poore woman so much inferiour in all respectes of nature vnto you…I referre my Iudgement in this and all other cases to your Maiesties wisedome, as my onely anker, supreme head, and gouerner here in earth next vnder God, to leane vnto.…

If your Maiestie take it so (quoth the Quene) then hath your Maiestie very much mistaken me, who haue euer bene of the opinion…to learne of her husbande, and to bee taught by him…I assure your Maiestie I haue not missed anye part of my desire in that behalfe, alwayes referring my selfe in all such matters vnto your Maiestie, as by ordinaunce of nature it is conuenient for me to doo.

(Foxe 1424-1425)

Henry was convinced by her speech.  Parr wisely chose to argue as she did in her Lamentation, that women should submit and be ruled over by their husbands, regardless of what her thoughts might actually have been at the time.  In her situation, she had little choice.  Politically, she could not claim authority over the king or aid her opponents’ arguments.  Religiously she had the same problem, as Henry was considered the head of the Church of England.  Socially as a woman and a wife, regardless of her popularity, she still existed in a patriarchal society where men held the most powerful positions and she could not assert power based on womanhood.  As a result, she probably saved her own life. 

John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs came out in 1563, and again in 1583.  In addition, Thomas Bentley’s The Monument of Matrones, containing works by the then Princess Elizabeth, and both of Parr’s books, was released in 1582.  These two works brought the trial of Parr to the soon Elizabethan, and to Shakespeare’s, mind, and it is likely that he would have been aware of Parr as she was portrayed in Foxe’s work, if not from reading the work himself, then from oral stories and references made in the heavily religious climate of the time.  Bentley’s Monument also provides a second connection possibly exploited by Shakespeare; the connection between Queen Katherine Parr and Queen Elizabeth.

Shakespeare was a popular enough playwright that he had to consider the political ramifications of his actions.  This is evidenced in the pre-1601 missing “parliament scene” from Richard II.  It is clear that Shakespeare was politically aware of the impact of Richard II resigning his throne, if not from his choice to leave the scene out in the earlier printings of the play, then in putting the scene into the play 1601.  When his company was hired by Essex to perform Richard II with the additional scene, it is unlikely that Shakespeare and his company were unaware of the lurking political potential in their performance.

In light of Shakespeare’s political awareness, it would not be unseemly to acknowledge the possibility of a political appeal in his other plays.  The non-canonical Henry VIII centers around the infant Elizabeth.  Katherina Minola in Act 5.2 can be seen as Katherine Parr in an appeal to the favor of Queen Elizabeth and her more vocal supporters.  This is strongly supported by the relationship between the two women.  Previous to her reign, Queen Elizabeth was on good terms with her stepmother Katherine Parr. 

When Princess Elizabeth was exiled by her father in 1544, it was Parr who stepped in and argued for a reconciliation, eventually achieving success in the latter part of that year (Weir 506-508).  She also personally oversaw the princess’s education (Weir 514).  Elizabeth sent Parr gifts for New Year’s, including a personal translation of Margaret of Navarre, along with a dedication to Parr written in the front (Weir 512).  Both were strong-willed women noted for their education, public voice, and Protestant leanings, and it is likely that a fair amount of Queen Parr rubbed off on the young Princess Elizabeth.  Any allusion that praised Parr could also likely be seen as praise of Queen Elizabeth, a step that a politically aware Shakespeare was capable of making and capitalizing on in portraying Minola’s final act as strong-willed, noble, and, in reference to Parr, wise and socially aware.

Like Parr, the sheer length of Minola’s speech stands out.  Over the forty-three lines, the characteristically shrewish Minola serves an about-face to her company, attacking shrewish behavior and directing the other wives to submit to their husbands.  Yet, also like Parr, closer inspection reveals an accompanying subtext to this message that implies Minola’s words are only a rhetorical play used for effect to conceal her actual beliefs.  When Minola commands wives to submit and serve their husbands, she repeatedly uses not just the vocabulary of rulership, but royalty, while unruly wives are likened to treasonous rebels and traitors.  Taking Minola’s speech on these two levels, on the one hand praising husbands as rulers, and on the other seeing these words as a smoke screen for her actual thoughts, provides a strong correlation to Parr’s speech to Henry VIII when he accused her of treason. 

Minola begins with the proclamation that a wife should submit not just to her husband, but to her husband as “thy lord, thy king, thy governor” (154).  This phrase is repeated in various forms overthecourse of her address to constantly remind the wives of their duties.   The wives are told that “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ Thy sovereign, one that cares for thee” (162-163).  The women are instructed that it is not their place to “seek for rule, supremacy, and sway/ When they are bound to serve, love, and obey” (179-180).  This duty is likened in the speech to what “the subject owes the prince” as Minola continues to heap on the royal metaphors (171). 

At the turn in her speech, Minola changes from treating husbands as royalty to a discussion when wives are “froward, peevish, sullen, sour/ and not obedient to his honest will.”  The wives are presented as being guilty of treason in light of the abundance of royal metaphors previous, after all “What is she but a foul contending rebel/ and graceless traitor to her loving lord?” (173-176).  These metaphors echo the state of Queen Parr before King Henry, and her response.  It is curious that Shakespeare chose to have Minola call a forward wife “contending” and “graceless,” bringing to mind Parr’s habit of disputing (“contending”) religious matters (“grace”) with her husband.  Parr also used the same type of language as Minola in her defense to Henry in her role as wife to husband, calling her husband her “heade,” her “Loard,” and her “governer.” 

Underneath these words Minola and Parr both slip a subversive context.  With Parr, her previous actions reveal that she was outspoken and learned, fully capable of not only comprehending the situation she was in, but able to create an able defense.  Evidence of Minola’s subversion is found both in her choice of words and in her rhetorical approach.

In the second half of her speech, when she is addressing “froward” women, Minola phrases “But that our soft conditions and hearts/ Should well agree with our external parts?” as an apparently rhetorical question, mocking that the other wives should desire to be anything but as  meek as their “external parts” (182-183).  However, the answer is not quite so obvious as Minola presents it.  By bringing up this issue, Minola is calling into question the assumption that women should be as weak willed as they are weak physically.  Her invocation of the external nature being at odds with the internal nature also hints that Minola’s praise may be less representative of her actual beliefs than it might appear.  She then continues to note that “My mind hath been as big as one of yours,/ My heart as great, my reason haply more” noting that her inner nature is greater than those of her audience, an audience, it should be noted, that includes the husbands as well as the wives (186-187).

I noted earlier how Minola uses repetition to remind the wives of their husband’s proper status.  The same devices are used to undercut the argument being presented.  A closer examination of Minola’s repetitions reveals that she gives perhaps too much information.  The argument seems a bit over the top as Minola goes on and on with the royal metaphors.  Tillyard notes that none of Minola’s commandments to wives are all that original.  Most serve only to echo what were already well-known commonplaces (Tillyard 84).   Looking back at Parr’s speech to Henry reveals that her use of repetition also undercuts the idea that she really means what she says, and in fact the royal titles do seem a bit over the top.  However, in her case, she was speaking to what virtually all sources reveal as a very vain, prideful man, and proved exactly the right strategy.

Together, these similarities indicate a strong possibility that Shakespeare may have intended to invoke Parr with Minola’s speech.  His audience certainly would have been aware, if not of the actual events approximately forty years previous, then through the literary acts of Foxe and Bentley, as well as the oral tradition.  Examining Foxe closer reveals a further connection between Katherine Parr and Katherina Minola.  After both woman finish their speeches, and prove themselves proper women, they are kissed by their husbands.  Petruchio demands the well-known line “Kiss me, Kate” later used by Cole Porter.  John Foxe tells us in his Book of Martyrs that when Henry heard his wife’s words

Hee satte in hys chaire, embracing her in hys armes and kissing her, hee added this saying: that it did him more good at that tyme to heare those wordes of her own mouth, then if he had heard present newes of an hundreth thousand poundes in money fallen vnto him. And with great signes and tokens of marueilous ioy and liking, with promises and assurances, neuer agayne in any sort more to mistake her, entring into other very pleasaunt discourses with the Queene & the Lordes, & Gentlemē standing by, in ţe end (being very farre on ţe night) he gaue her leaue to depart. 

(Foxe 1425)

While Minola did not end up saving her life as did Katherine Parr, she does end up helping Petruchio win his wager, and subversively reveals just how much he depends on her.  In presenting Minola as Parr, I do not believe that Shakespeare was intending us to see Minola throughout the play as Katherine Parr.  Rather, Minola’s portrayal of Parr would serve as a politically useful homage, at the same time providing a sense of dramatic irony to the final scene.  An audience aware of Parr would be able to see that Minola is not really tamed.  Her mind, thoughts, and beliefs will never be tamed, just as Parr’s beliefs were never truly subdued.  When Lucentio comments at the end of Taming that “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so,” it is not drawing a question, but presenting a confirmation that Minola, like her namesake, doesn’t mean a word of it (206).

Works Cited

Foxe, John.  Actes and Monuments of Matters Most Speciall and Memorable.  Foxe's Book of Martyrs Variorum Edition Online v. 1.1, 2006.  14 April 2008.  http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/johnfoxe/index.html.

Martienssen, Anthony.  Queen Katherine Parr.  New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973.

Shakespeare, William.  The Taming of the Shrew.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 5th Edition.  David Bevington.  Ed.  New York: Pearson, 2003.

Tillyard, E. M. W.  Shakespeare’s Early Comedies.  New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.

Weir, Alison.  The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.

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