Universal Themes in Literature

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My final essay for Studies in English Literature, grade 12.

Submitted: December 12, 2009

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Submitted: December 12, 2009



Universal Themes in Literature:
“The Taming of the Shrew” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”
A Comparative Essay
Often in literature there are common themes that stretch across eras and genres to link two otherwise different pieces of writing. On particular example of this occurring can be seen in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” Although these works have been written in very different time periods and use altogether separate styles, there are three common themes which link both stories and convey a very similar message. Strict societal roles, the use of language as a tool of power, and the treatment of women in patriarchal societies are prevalent ideas in both Shakespeare’s play and Atwood’s novel. These themes are approached and dealt with differently in each work, but ultimately convey the same meaning. There are some aspects of humanity that are able to transcend generations and still have an impact on the authors’ audience, and the themes portrayed in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Taming of the Shrew” are included among these. 
Specific roles for certain factions of people to follow exist in every society, and many works of literature make use of the existence of these roles to comment on human nature. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the entire structure of the Gileadean government is built around, and dependant on, the strict adherence to the designated social roles. ‘Eyes,’ ‘Commanders,’ ‘Angels,’ ‘Marthas,’ ‘Wives,’ and ‘Handmaids’ are all expected to behave and speak in certain ways and to perform certain duties. Any deviation from these expectations is punishable by law, where punishment means either exile or death. Each person’s role is signified by their clothing, as there is a specific uniform that corresponds with each role: Marthas must wear green, the Wives of Commanders all wear blue, and Handmaids have to wear red. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” society’s roles are less rigid, but they certainly still exist. Divided mainly by wealth and gender, the societal roles are enforced by the friends and family of the characters rather than by law. Men and women of the working class are expected to be polite and subservient to the upper class, who are in turn expected to heave wit, charm and class. Clothing also signifies the characters’ social role in “The Taming of the Shrew”- working class characters wear simple clothing and upper class characters wear fancier clothing made of finer material. In both stories, there are instances where characters change their clothing in order to temporarily have a different social role. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Commander gives Offred a bright pink feathered bathing suit and makeup to wear, and he takes her to his ‘business club,’ where women dressed in outrageous, revealing outfits entertain Commanders and foreign businessmen. At this club, everyone assumes that Offred is one of the entertainers because she is dressed like one. This freedom from the Handmaids’ required behaviour only lasts for the evening however, and Offred returns to her designated role the next day. The characters of Lucentio and Tranio in “The Taming of the Shrew” switch clothing so that others perceive them to have a different social role than they actually do.  Tranio is Lucentio’s servant in reality, but when they trade clothing, Lucentio passes himself off as a Latin tutor, and Tranio appears to be the upstanding young gentleman and wealthy merchant’s son. This trick is successful for a time, but in the end they must return to their actual roles. Each of these stories provides a different comment on the function of social roles in society. Atwood uses her characters’ fear of punishment for deviating from their role to warn against placing too much value on a strict status system. Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses the character of Katharine to suggest that society functions best when everyone adheres to their role: Katherine’s misery is caused by others’ reactions to her rebellion against her specified role, and when she finally conforms to what is considered her ‘place,’ other people accept her and she is happier. The value of societal roles is greatly debated, and many authors voice their opinion on the matter through their work, such as William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood have done.
Another universal theme that literature from all eras often deals with is the use of language as a tool of power. This is a very prevalent them in both “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” Atwood’s totalitarian society of Gilead creates a new vocabulary that uses made-up words and phrases to warp reality in order to serve the newly-formed society’s elite. The term ‘Prayvaganza’ is used to glorify the importance of an event that, in reality, is just an assembly that women must attend to listen to lectures from the Aunts and Commanders. Babies who are born deformed and women who refuse to conform to a role or who prove to be infertile are dubbed ‘Unbabies’ and ‘Unwomen.’ Blacks are referred to as ‘Children of Ham,’ and Jews as ‘Sons of Jacob.’ These titles set certain people apart from the rest of humanity and make their persecution easier for the authorities to carry out. Because people are taught to view a black person as a ‘Child of Ham’ rather than another human being, there is more detachment and less protest when Blacks are persecuted because of their skin colour. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” the power that language can give people over others is portrayed in Petruccio’s taming of Katherine. Most men, with the exception of Katharine’s father and Petruccio himself, fear Katherine because of her biting insults and threats. In order to tame Katherine’s fierce nature, Petruccio first proves to her that he is capable of matching her sharp wit and verbal acuity shot-for-shot. By doing this, he takes away Katharine’s ability to intimidate using her linguistic aptitude. Petruccio continues to wear Katharine down verbally, that same way that she previously wore others down. His clever use of rhetoric is also instrumental in taming her because as he refuses to let her eat his ‘inferior’ food, claiming that he thinks too highly of her to allow it, it is impossible for Katharine to directly confront him with anger. Therefore she is forced to resign herself to hunger. Ultimately, it is Petruccio’s skillful use of language that enables him to conquer Katharine. “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Taming of the Shrew” both emphasize the powerful influence of language on society as a whole and on individual people.
The treatment of women in society is another ageless theme in literature, but the opinions on it vary greatly in accordance with the time period and culture that the literature was written in, as well as the personal views of the author. “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Taming of the Shrew” offer very different views on the matter: Atwood gives a more sympathetic and feminist outlook, whereas Shakespeare tends to lean towards misogyny. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Gileadean government systematically oppresses the women of the country as the new theocracy gains more power. Women are deprived of the right to vote, to have jobs, to hold money or property, to have an education and even the right to read. Initially there is an angry outburst at this, and the women fight to get their freedom back, but as the totalitarian state grows stronger, they find that there is less and less that they are bale to do about their predicament. Eventually, women are reduced to being considered a ‘national resource,’ valued for their wombs and ability to reproduce, and seen as potential mothers rather than individuals. Rebellious behaviour is punished by death or banishment to work camps cleaning up toxic waste, so the oppressed women are limited to the smallest acts of rebellion, such as whispering among themselves when they are supposed to be silent. “The Taming of the Shrew” was written during the Elizabethan Era in England, so most of the attitudes towards women in the play are reflective or the established beliefs of the time. These beliefs were that women were the inferior gender and could not be trusted with the same responsibility and independence given to men. Because the play is a comedy however, it exaggerates those ideas in order to create the humor. This is seen most clearly in the ways that men behave towards Katharine. Hortensio and Gremio are very taken aback by Katharine’s harsh words, and declare that any man who would marry her must be either a devil or a fool, because she is so strong-willed. When Petruccio arrives and wants to marry Katharine, he does not behave like a gentleman; instead he is very domineering. He boldly announces to Baptista that Katharine had agreed to marry him, even though she had not. He then forces her to leave Baptista’s house and come to his own house immediately after the wedding ceremony, without even attending their own banquet, and she has no choice but to obey him, because he is now her husband, and in the Elizabethan Era, women were considered to be the property of their husbands. Society’s treatment of women will continue to be a popular theme in literature for many generations.
Regardless of the times, there are certain themes that will always be found in literature because they have a lasting significance for humanity. In Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” several of these themes are portrayed. The roles enforced on people by society, the influential power of language, and the treatment of women in society are ideas that affected literature in the Elizabethan Era when Shakespeare wrote his play as well as in the twentieth century when Atwood wrote her novel. Attitudes and opinions towards certain ideas such as the ones in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Taming of the Shrew” differ due to the time periods and culture that affects the author’s thoughts, but although the themes portrayed are shown differently in each work, the importance of the themes and their place in society is still communicated clearly.

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