The silencing of daughters in Shakespeare’s works: Titus and Shrew

TW: Rape

In Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, and comedic The Taming of the Shrew, both female voices of the daughter are represented as dutiful and pure in Lavinia and Bianca. On another level, however, the daughters’ voices are extinguished by the men of the play and eventually silenced in both opposing genres, expressed in Lavinia and Kate. However, where Kate is silenced, Bianca gains a voice. In this way, comedic structures arguably give way to another shrew. Do the male-centric gender conventions of tragedy then allow for Shakespeare to silence daughters of the play more readily than in a comedy genre?

Adelman argues that violence is typically deployed with greater brutality to women in tragedies; it is women that are treated cruelly more so through social hierarchal acts of isolation, facing accusations of crimes they did not commit, being taken as property, and suffering violence at the hands of their husbands. In comedy, however, although women are traditionally subordinate, there is significantly less violence as one would expect, and women are given room to have their say against male characters in the play through tactful jokes, monologues, and use of irony, wit and sarcasm. Titus Andronicus (TA) and The Taming of the Shrew (TS) exhibit the gender in genre divide in that Shakespeare’s tragic female heroine is most violently handled to the extreme as she is left alive to endure her mutilated condition, whilst Shakespeare’s comedic female heroine is socially ridiculed by men; yet, given space to break conventions and not be silenced at least at one point in time.

When a female voice is actively present and heard in both plays, they submit to gender conventions. Lavinia and Bianca are good examples of daughters that are admired for their beauty and innocence, but are only heard if they comply to what people wish to hear from women. Demetrius remarks to his brother, Chiron, when competing for Lavinia that “She is Lavinia, therefore must be loved” (Titus Andronicus, 2.1.84), conveying the weight of purity and beauty that her name and self alone carries. Despite this, Lavinia’s presence is later dismissed on stage when her appearance and new symbolisation (of tragedy) does not agree with the characters of the play. Titus tells Chiron and Demetrius, “Here stands the spring whom you have stained with mud” (Titus Andronicus, 5.2.169) as he holds a knife and Lavinia stands beside him with a basin, ready for her revenge. Lavinia is the stained ‘spring’ in the metaphor that portrays her fresh youth, purity and innocence before losing “her spotless chastity” (Titus Andronicus, 5.2.175); despite this being an outcome of her rape, she is still viewed as stained. The stained Lavinia is the mute, silent Lavinia on stage, suggesting how the lack of purity silences the daughters voice; similar to Kate’s silencing after the wedding and taming in The Taming of the Shrew.

Bianca’s femininity is admired by Lucentio who says to Trunio, “I saw her coral lips to move, / And with her breath she did perfume the air. / Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her”, (Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.168-170). Bianca is perceived as pure here in the assonant binomial pair ‘sacred and sweet’, the first adjective holding religious connotations of purity, and the latter connoting innocence, fitting the conventions in Elizabethan times for women to wait to have sex after marriage. For one’s breath to ‘perfume’ the air suggests that Bianca is seen to be adding something pleasant to nature that is not already there; Lucentio says this in past tense, in a reminiscent tone exhibiting the lasting effect and enchantment she has on him. One could argue, however, that it is the impression that other characters project onto the daughters of both plays that makes them appear pure in the perfect form, and it is this projection that enables them to have voices that are heard. Social expectations then seem to be the determinant of the silencing of daughters in both tragedies and comedies.

The voices of Lavinia and Kate are eventually silenced, whilst Bianca gains a ‘voice’ at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Lavinia is physically silenced as she loses her agency and becomes like the silenced Kate at the end of TS, who is silenced by the patriarchy in contrast to Bianca, who is wilfully silenced by the patriarchy at the beginning of the play. Kate is silenced for her bawdy nature as double standards played into the comedy see the men view Kate as unruly for speaking the same way that they are free to speak.

Lavinia is compliant and dutiful; so why is she silenced, and so brutally? The silencing of Lavinia seems unnecessary and selfish of Demetrius and Chiron in comparison, who greedily indulge their lust on her. Tragedy then appears as a space for the brutal and violent, the unapologetic and shocking. Lavinia’s only best option is to plead for her life, “’Tis present death I beg, and one thing more / That womanhood denies my tongue to tell” (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.173-174); womanhood perhaps permits her to be subtle and not beg, but to be obedient, suggesting that womanhood and society are the systems silencing her individual voice. Alternatively, perhaps ‘womanhood’ is the Empress Tamora, who does not give Lavinia the opportunity for mercy and a quick death. Both plays and genres stand out for their “capacity to shock (and) concern with extremes” (Gibbons, 79) in this way. The extremes of the brutality to Lavinia, and the methods of taming that Petruccio uses to treat Kate like an animal, denying her nourishment and rest, the latter aspects that would shock a modern audience more so than a sixteenth century audience due to the break of traditions, whilst the violent silencing would shock both audiences.

Comedy, on the other hand, soothes the audience with Kate’s silencing by giving way to Bianca as the new ‘shrew’, or rather, allowing her to gain a ‘voice’. Bianca elopes and marries Lucentio without her father’s consent or knowledge, following Kate’s marriage, revealing that she, too, has her own mind and own voice. Eloping, to a modern audience, is arguably not ‘shrewish’ behaviour, but simply depicts the fact that Bianca is not completely obedient and has a persona. A shrew, however, was known as a woman with a wagging tongue who was not properly submissive to her husband (Shakespeare, 164); therefore, based on this definition, perhaps Bianca does transform into the shrew at the end of the play, thus showing that comedies give space for the female voice and in part, disallow the silencing of daughters.


Comedy conventions such as foolery and jest both allows and disallows for the silencing of daughters in The Taming of the Shrew. The mocking of male mastery, for instance, can give way for daughters to be more vocal. The battle of the sexes plot setting of TS easily allows for men to be mocked, in jest, through their wooing, and for women to be compared to animals in good humour. Petruccio’s servant, Gremio, asks him the interrogative and metaphor, “will you woo this wildcat?” (Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.191) when Hortensio tells Petruccio about Kate. This question inadvertently sets up the challenge to Petruccio to tame Kate, which is to silence her unruliness, as she is presented to him as a wild animal so he endeavours to later treat her as such. The mocking of the wooing of women in TS is a prime example of how “the project in the comedies; the correction by women of the foolish romanticism of the men” (Bamber, 12). Men foolishly romanticise the daughters in the play, such as Bianca whose affections are competed for by three suitors. Hortensio, Grumio and Lucentio go as far as disguising themselves in order to get closer to Bianca without her father knowing. Even for the purest daughter, the romanticising of Bianca as the perfect, obedient lady seems foolish as she turns around at the end of the play to be the opposite of submissive to her husband when he calls for her, but sending word to him that she is busy; an act that would have seen Kate labelled as ‘shrewish’.

Foolery and jest leads to mockery and teasing that is usually at the start of loving relationships. Neely states that “in all of the comedies…mockery grounds and strengthens love” (Neely, 136); this trope suggests comedies can give way for the daughters’ voice to be heard and not silenced through mocking which travels both ways between the sexes. The women mock their husbands in jest; in TS, Bianca gains her voice by lightly mocking the men who fight to woo her by entertaining their back and forth to teach her music and Latin to hold her attention, and in the end, she playfully mocks her husband Lucentio when called to him. Furthermore, it is Kate’s mocking of Petruccio that drew him to like her more. Petruccio reports to like Kate for being a “lusty wench! / I love her ten times… I long to have some chat with her!” (Taming of the Shrew, 2.2.159-161), his own fiery nature being attracted to Kate’s ferocity, and being up for the ‘challenge’. Neely argues that such mocking strengthens the bonds between partners in comedies and this is certainly true of Kate and Petruccio, who fall in love following their exchanges of insults.

Tragedy, on the other hand, has conventions that easily enable the silencing of the daughters voice. Violence and murders are reoccurring in revenge tragedies; English Renaissance plays of this genre would include a man with raped and murdered family members at the hands of a King, Emperor, or Duke so justice could not be served by an institution. Then a tragic hero would enter, who usually loses his own sanity and morals, much like Titus, who Tamora presumes has gone insane during his plot on her sons. After vengeance is served, the tragic hero usually dies, at the hands of others or by himself, just as Titus is killed by Emperor Saturninus after he stabs Empress Tamora at the feast (Titus Andronicus, 5.3.63) and finishes his revenge. The villain, Aaron, revises his plan with Tamora, before the mutilation and rape of Lavinia, “This is the day of doom for Bassianus, / His Philomel must lose her tongue today, / Thy sons make pillage of her chastity” (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.42-44). Referring to Lavinia as ‘Philomel’ from a rape classical narrative, coupled with the possessive pronoun ‘his (Philomel)’ casts Lavinia as the property of Bassianus. This arguably reduces the gravity of the situation for Lavinia herself as a physical violation is made to her but it is reported through her husband-to-be’s, ridding her of her voice to express this.

Titus asks the Emperor if it is right to slain his own daughter for being ‘enforced’ and ‘deflowered’ like an old classical story, and the Emperor declares that it is, based on the fact “the girl should not survive her shame, / And be her presence still renew his sorrows” (Titus Andronicus, 5.3.40-41), meaning that the victim will be clouded in shame for their entire life and their existence will be a reminder of the rape, causing ongoing sadness. It is this that makes Titus certain that he will kill his daughter, perhaps because he cannot bare anymore sorrow; or rather, wants to release Lavinia from her pain. This decision is made on the part of the father, however, so the voice is stripped away from the daughter who lacks any autonomy over herself as Titus presumes she feels too much shame. On the other hand, Lavinia can be seen as feeling shame when she enters Act 5, Scene 3 “with a veil over her face” (Titus Andronicus, 5.3.25) which could imply that she is attempting to hide herself from shame, or, that she is keeping her identity hidden during the feast so not to spoil Titus’ plans. One could also interpret the veil as a foreboding of Tamora about to eat her sons in the feast, as one would wear a veil to a funeral, just as Lavinia wears it for the feast occasion which turns into an onslaught.

Lavinia is ostracised from several situations including Titus killing his own son, Mutius, for guarding her from the Emperor and defying him, and from the knowledge that Titus will kill her so he does not have to bare the pain and shame of seeing her that way. Titus exclaims “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee, / And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die” (Titus Andronicus, 5.3.45-46), inverting the pain away from the woman and onto him; another way of silencing the daughters in Shakespeare’s plays, by ridding Lavinia of her emotion and feeling. Lavinia’s murder is the“ultimate silencing of the mute girl” (Aebischer); it is depicted as an honourable act due to her violated status, but it is problematic for a modern audience to see a father kill his own daughter. Titus reiterates his sadness, “Killed her for whom my tears have made me blind” (Titus Andronicus, 5.3.48), suggesting that sorrow was the main reason he silenced his daughter. On the other hand, once Lavinia is in her brutal state, she is no longer ostracised from the violence and murder that happens as she aids her father in the killing of her perpetrators and then is present as he reveals their heads at the feast in the pie he baked them in. It then seems that the ‘stained’ Lavinia is no longer sheltered from the brutality of Ancient Rome, and her silence means that she cannot express sorrow over the barbarous events.

Lavinia’s rape and mutilation is partly based on a story retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where King Tereus rapes his sister-in-law, Philomena, and cuts out her tongue so she cannot reveal him as the culprit. Lavinia’s body as a representation of Rome suggests that rape of her body is rape of Rome; she represents an amalgamation of a history of classical rape narratives in Rome (Shakespeare, 401), and violence against women and daughters. This tragic character set up within the revenge tragedy genre, instantly makes it easier to silence daughters in the sense that Lavinia represents the brutality against women already in history, and thus, the evidence of repeated silencing. One might argue, however, that the silencing of women in the classical rape narratives was usually executed because of the power of the men, such as the King, which meant the women would be easily discredited. Similarly, Lavinia’s perpetrators are the Emperor’s step-sons; although, this was not the defining factor in her silencing, but the inability to reveal their identities by speech or written word, and in her murder at the hands of her father.

The natural pathos of tragedies means that the daughters voice is less likely to succeed, mirroring the tradition in Shakespeare’s period.

Marcus utters the metapoetic phrase, “O, why should nature build so foul a den / Unless the gods delight in tragedies?” (Titus Andronicus, 4.1.59-60)

Kesler writes of “images of suffering, often inscribed in gender” (Adelman, et al., 114) which is evident in Shakespeare’s heroine encased in tragedy. Marcus’ utterance is metapoetical in the sense that ‘the gods’ that ‘delight in tragedies’ are the theatre-goers that demand these images of suffering for entertainment and drama making the tragedy the ideal genre to silence the female voice. Furthermore, after the tragic incidents to Lavinia, upon realising she cannot speak, Marcus asks his niece “Shall I speak for thee?” (Titus Andronicus, 3.1.33), taking on her voice that is now already silenced. One might argue that Marcus is giving Lavinia her voice back in assisting her. On the other hand, one could argue that Shakespeare writing a male character to take on Lavinia’s voice in this way suggests a triumph for the patriarchy on stage that wished to silence her in the beginning, as she no longer possesses the option to express her own thoughts.

One might argue that even in Lavinia’s new-found capability in expressing her voice whilst mute, she is still subject to the tragedy that befalls her; she uses a staff in her mouth to reveal the perpetrators of her mutilation, the staff which acts as a “phallic surrogate for her absent tongue” (Adelman, et al., 117). The phallic object in place of Lavinia’s stolen tongue, is arguably the resemblance of the superiority of man having claimed ownership over Shakespeare’s heroine. Further, Lavinia’s betrothed, Bassianus, is killed by Tamora’s sons and thrown into the pit. The womblike pit that Lavinia’s brothers are lured into before their murder shows Shakespeare’s use of transgressive images of female sexuality (Adelman, et al., 117), conveying the brutality towards women in tragedies.

Women are also viewed as commodities by their fathers and suitors in Shakespeare’s tragedy. In fighting for Lavinia, Demetrius tells Chiron that “she is a woman, therefore may be won” (Titus Andronicus, 2.1.84), marking her as an object of their lust. Similarly, in TS, Hortensio and his servant, Grumio, initially compete for Bianca; “he that runs fastest gets the ring” (Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.135), making it a race to compete for her affections, meanwhile forgetting that Bianca has a say in whether anyone ‘gets the ring’. Male entitlement is at the pinnacle of the marriage market, Petruccio states “thou must be married to no man but me / For I am he born to tame you Kate / And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate / Conformable as other household Kates” (Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.268-270), as though he holds a right to marry her. The almost mocking, sardonic tone in the declarative ‘I am he born to tame you’ perhaps mocks the patriarchy in men that believe they are entitled to own someone as their birth right as a male, illustrated in how Petruccio sees it as his duty to tame Kate and make her submissive to fit in with social norms. The pun on ‘wild Kate’ to mean wildcat teases Kate in playing on her appeal to Petruccio as an untamed woman that he perhaps sees as a project and seeks to control. To fit into expectations of a wife, like the ‘other household Kates’, Kate realises “you mean to make a puppet out of me” (Taming of the Shrew, 4.3.103) under Petruccio’s harsh treatment upon being newly-wed. In contrast to Titus Andronicus, Baptista respects his daughters’ rights to marry for love, and does not merely wish to hand them away as commodities at the request of a suitor; instead, the numerous suitors for Bianca are left up to her to decide, and Petruccio is left to win Kate over. Baptista is not concerned with the taming quest, but rather that Kate chooses to marry her suitor,“when the special thing is well obtained – / That is her love, for that is all in all” (Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.126-127), showing the father figure give his daughters a voice in the comedic play. Kate’s love is ‘the special thing’ which must be ‘well obtained’, suggesting security and emphasis on a loving connection for a marriage that is ‘all in all’, which perhaps means reciprocating and cyclical love, putting the daughters’ emotions above tradition.

Tragedies and comedies share conventions of the marriage market, and family expectations. Tragedies, however, have greater conventions such as violence and murder, that ostracise and silence the daughters voice more than the foolery and wit used in comedy. Ultimately, therefore, the extremity of the revenge tragedy certainly suggests that Shakespeare can readily silence daughters in this genre as opposed to a comedic atmosphere; thus, genres can determine the silence of daughters in Shakespeare’s plays.


Primary reading

Shakespeare, william. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 2nd Edition. New York: w. w. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

Secondary reading

Adelman, Janet, et al. “Enacting Gender on the English Renaissance Stage.” Kesler, R. L. Subjectivity, Time, and Gender in Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Othello. Ed. Viviana Comensoli and Anne Russell. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 114-135.

Aebischer, Pascale. “’Yet I’ll speak’: Silencing the female voice in Titus Andronicus and Othello.” Shakespeare et la voix17 (1999): 27-46.

Bamber, Linda. Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982.

Gibbons, Brian. “Shakespeare’s ‘road of excess’: Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear.” Gibbons, Brian. Shakespeare and Multiplicity . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 79-116.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Men in Othello: “what should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?”.” Shakespeare Studies 10 (1978): 136-158.


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