- Within the play of The Taming of the Shrew, the word ‘curst’ is usually used as an adjective to mock and make fun of another person. In most cases within The Shrew, the word curst refers to Katherine Minola and her uncharacteristically unfeminine personality. The men, including Horensio and Gremio, who are looking for a woman with more socially acceptable behaviors, call Katherine a “curst” woman because they do not how outspoken and “ill-tempered” she is. The word curst was first seen in text around approximately 1300 AD. It seems that the word was derived from the word accursed (also spelled accurst), which was used even earlier around 1225AD. Accurst means “That has been cursed; lying under a curse; doomed to perdition or misery” as well as “Worthy of being cursed; damnable, detestable, hateful.” By the time Shakespeare used the word in his texts, curst and accurst had two very different usages. Around the time of the penmanship of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare utilizes the definition “Of persons (or their dispositions, tongues, etc.): Malignant; perversely disagreeable or cross; cantankerous, shrewish, virulent. Obs. or arch. (also dial.)” as an adjective to describe both people and situations which are less than agreeable.
- This connotation also seems to stem from the word cur, a name for “a dog: now always depreciative or contemptuous; a worthless, low-bred, or snappish dog”, but also used “as a term of contempt: a surly, ill-bred, low, or cowardly fellow”. Shakespeare even uses this definition in Midsummer Night’s Dream. This analogy between a “scoundrel” or “ill-bred” person and an animal acts as a comparison between bad behaviors and bestial or uncivilized living.
- In Richard II, the usage of ‘curst’ has a similar connotation to how it is used in Taming of the Shrew. He uses curst as a way to describe a negative situation or person, while utilizing accurst to describe an actual “cursed” person, event, or object. The word ‘cursed’ is found approximately 30 times in plays such as Taming of the Shrew, Henry VI, King Lear, Midsummer Nights Dream, and Much Ado about Nothing, among others. The word ‘accurst’ is seen generally much less in the plays Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Two Gentleman of Verona, as well as Venus and Adonis.
- This difference in connotation between the two words shows a difference in plot and context of each of Shakespeare’s plays. The word ‘curst’ shows up more often in plays with humor and wit, since it is used as a derogatory term. The word ‘accurst’ is used as an actual explanation for negative situations, and thus is found in more serious, problematic plays.
- As I traversed Shakespeare’s works to find examples of the usage of ‘curst’, I noticed that the term was utilized in a defamatory way for women in more than just The Shrew. I also found examples of this same word choice in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where Boyet says “Do not curst wives hold that self-sovereignty…” and Much Ado about Nothing, when Antonio states “In faith, she’s too curst”. Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, and Two Gentleman of Verona all also have similar indications of using ‘curst’ to describe women, pointing to the argument that during Shakespeare’s time, it may have been regularly utilized to describe negative traits within women that did not subscribe to traditional societal values. By comparing women to animals, Shakespeare makes the claim that women must be tamed and civilized to live with man; they are ‘beneath’ man. This ideology lines up with thinking from Shakespeare’s time- similarly to animals, women are owned and act as companion-servants to men, instead of being independent humans with a personal will.
- Because Petruccio and other characters adopt the use of ‘curst’ as an epithet for Katherine, elevating the word above a basic description. This points to the idea that Katherine’s identity is dominated strictly by her behavior (or in this case, her lack of proper, expected behavior). She is degraded to a level of baseness that does not include her desires and personality, and is only valued based on how useful she is to the men in her life.
“Accursed.” N.d. Oxford English Dictionary Online [Oxford UP]. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
“Cursed.” N.d. Oxford English Dictionary Online [Oxford UP]. Web. 27 Sept. 2015.
“Cur”. N.d. Oxford English Dictionary Online [Oxford UP]. Web. 8 Oct. 2015
Shakespeare, William, and Barbara Hodgdon. The Taming of the Shrew. 3rd ed. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010. Print.