The Taming of the Shrew

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Plot summary
Pages: 35
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Taming of the Shrew
1592

INTRODUCTION

Shakespeare is thought to have written The Taming of the Shrew between 1590 and 1594, although the only version that has survived is the one published in the First Folio in 1623. It appears to have been staged several times during Shakespeare's lifetime at both the Globe and the Blackfriars theaters, and a sequel written by John Fletcher between 1604 and 1617 attests to its popularity. It was also produced in 1633 at the court of Charles I.

The play has a complex structure. It begins with a two-scene "Induction" or introductory segment, which concerns an elaborate practical joke played by a nobleman on a drunken tinker. At the end of the Induction the various characters settle down to watch a play. This play within a play, which in turn consists of a main plot and a complex subplot, constitutes the main action of The Taming of the Shrew.

The depth and complexity of The Taming of the Shrew is evidenced by the wide range of interpretations that attend it, both on stage and in literary criticism. Moreover, modern interpretation of the play is complicated by the centrality to the play of issues that are hotly debated in our own time—in particular, the question of what roles men and women can and should play in society and in relationship to each other. The play raises probing questions about society and relationships. Is Petruchio a loving husband who teaches his maladjusted bride to find happiness in marriage, or is he a clever bully who forces her Page 829  |  Top of Articleto bow to his will? Does Katherine's acquiescence in playing the part of obedient wife reflect a joyous acceptance of her assigned role as a married woman and the beginning of a fulfilling partnership with her husband? Does it, instead, mean that she has learned to play the obedient wife in public so as to get her own way in private? Or does it reflect the defeat of a spirited and intelligent woman forced to give in to a society that dominates and controls women and allows them only very limited room for self-expression? The answers to these questions may have less to do with the play itself than with readers' attitudes about the issues and ideas it explores.

PLOT SUMMARY

Induction

At the beginning of The Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, is expelled from a tavern and falls asleep on the ground. He is discovered by a lord and his huntsmen. As a joke, the lord orders his men to dress Sly in fine clothes, lay out a feast, and put him to bed at the lord's home in the best chamber. When Sly awakes, lord and servants conspire to convince him that he is really a nobleman.

Meanwhile, a traveling group of actors has come to the lord's home, and he asks them to perform for his guest. He only tells them not to react to the odd behavior of the other lord in the house. Sly is told that a comedy will be played for him to aid his recovery. The lord's page (a young male attendant) dresses like a woman and pretends to be Sly's wife, delighted that he has finally come to his senses after all those years of believing he was a beggar. After some initial confusion and a great deal of convincing by the servants, Sly accepts that he is a nobleman. Sly will comment briefly on the play at the end of act 1, scene 1, then disappear from the text.

Act 1

The play-within-a-play begins. Lucentio, son of a wealthy Pisan merchant, and his servant, Tranio, arrive in Padua, where Lucentio intends to study. Baptista Minola, his two daughters (Katherine and Bianca), and two suitors to Bianca arrive. Katherine is outraged and loud, and Baptista informs the suitors that until Katherine, his elder daughter, is married, Bianca must remain single. From the remarks of Bianca's suitors, Hortensio and Gremio, and Katherine's angry reaction to them, it appears that Bianca is perceived as sweet-natured and mild, while Katherine is considered a shrew—a stubborn, domineering, and sharp-tongued woman.

Lucentio tells Tranio that he has fallen in love with Bianca. In order to gain access to Bianca, they plan that Lucentio will pretend to be a schoolmaster, while Tranio will pretend to be Lucentio and present himself as another suitor for Bianca. Petruchio and his servant, Grumio, arrive in Padua from Verona. Petruchio tells Hortensio that he has come to Padua to find a wealthy wife. Hortensio tells him about Katherine, warning him that while she is wealthy and beautiful, she is shrewish in temperament. Petruchio insists that he cares nothing for looks, youth, or manners, so long as his bride is rich. Grumio enters with Lucentio, whom he presents as Cambio, a schoolmaster for Bianca. Tranio also enters, dressed as Lucentio, and reveals his intention to woo Bianca. Lucentio hopes that the other suitors will be distracted by the competition of a third suitor, thus leaving him freer to woo Bianca. Tranio and the other suitors agree that they can be friendly toward one another, and they leave for drinks.

Act 2

Katherine beats Bianca, whose hands are tied. When Baptista scolds Katherine, she accuses him of favoritism. A group of men come to the door, interrupting the squabble. Petruchio presents his suit for Katherine and offers Litio (actually Hortensio in disguise) as a music teacher for her. Baptista welcomes Petruchio but expresses doubt that he will find Katherine to his liking. Gremio presents Cambio (actually Lucentio in disguise) as a schoolmaster, while Tranio (in disguise as Lucentio) asks to be admitted among Bianca's suitors. Baptista and Petruchio quickly agree on terms for Katherine's hand. Petruchio is not fazed when Hortensio appears with his head bleeding, after Katherine hit him with the lute he attempted to teach her to play.

In their first meeting, Katherine responds to Petruchio's compliments by telling him to leave. She finds that Petruchio, unlike the men with whom she is used to sparring, is as quick-witted and biting as she. Their ensuing exchange of insults soon turns to sexual innuendo. She hits him, and he threatens to hit her back if she does Page 830  |  Top of Article
The Music Lesson "The Music Lesson" (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) it again. When Baptista enters with Gremio and Tranio, Katherine denounces Petruchio as "one half lunatic / A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack." Petruchio, however, insists that they have reached an agreement to marry on the coming Sunday, and Baptista agrees to the marriage. Baptista immediately turns to the matter of a match for Bianca, settling on "Lucentio" (Tranio) when he offers the largest dower (her inheritance should she be widowed). However, he stipulates that Lucentio's father must first guarantee the dower. Tranio resolves to find an old man to pose as Lucentio's father.

Act 3

Cambio and Litio take turns tutoring Bianca. While pretending to translate a passage from Ovid, Cambio reveals his identity to Bianca; Bianca responds by the same method, telling him, "presume not … despair not." While she does not tell him she loves him, she does not reject him, either. When Litio subtly lets her know of his love, she outright rejects him. When she and Cambio leave, he is alone and resolves that if Bianca will not marry him, he will simply find another woman who will.

On Katherine's appointed wedding day Petruchio first is late, and then appears wearing tattered and mismatched clothing and riding a broken-down horse. Baptista asks him to change into clothes that are more appropriate, but he refuses. While Petruchio and the others go off in search of Katherine, Tranio tells Lucentio of his plan to have someone pose as Lucentio's father, while Lucentio suggests that he may elope with Bianca. Gremio enters and reports on the wedding ceremony: Petruchio swore at and struck the priest, threw wine in the sexton's face, and kissed the bride noisily. The wedding party enters. Although Katherine wants to stay for the banquet, Petruchio draws his sword, announces that he will protect his property, and forces her to leave with him immediately. Once they are gone, the wedding party wonders how two such people ever got married, and Baptista turns his attention to Bianca's wedding.

Act 4

Petruchio and Katherine arrive at Petruchio's country house after various mishaps along the way. Petruchio is unhappy that the servants are not prepared to attend to him and his bride properly, and he demands a meal. Petruchio finds fault with everything the servants do, cursing and beating them and refusing to let Katherine eat supper because, he says, the meat is overcooked. Katherine, exhausted herself, attempts to speak out on the servants' behalf, asking Petruchio to be kinder and more patient. He refuses to take her advice, insisting that his bride will only have perfection.

After Katherine and Petruchio exit to the bridal chamber, one of the servants reports that Petruchio is "making a sermon of continency" to Katherine, while she sits bewildered, "as one new risen from a dream." In a soliloquy, Petruchio compares his treatment of Katherine to the taming of falcons, which were left hungry and deprived of sleep until they became docile. He decides that he will keep her from sleeping by complaining all night.

Meanwhile, in Padua, "Lucentio" (Tranio) convinces "Litio" (Hortensio) to abandon his suit after they find Bianca flirting with "Cambio" (Lucentio). Hortensio tells Tranio he will marry a wealthy widow. Tranio tells Bianca and Lucentio that Hortensio will go to Petruchio's "taming school" to learn to control the widow. By a clever ploy, Tranio persuades an aged Pedant (scholar) to pose as Lucentio's father. Back at Petruchio's house, Hortensio is visiting. Petruchio invites Page 831  |  Top of ArticleKatherine to eat with them, but insists that she thank him before allowing her to eat. A tailor and a haberdasher arrive with new clothes that Petruchio has ordered for Katherine, but he finds fault with everything they offer and, despite Katherine's protests, sends the men away. After announcing that they will leave for Padua immediately he begins talking nonsense, saying they will mount their horses and go on foot and claiming that it is morning when it is afternoon. When Katherine corrects him, he states that before they go to Padua, "It shall be what a' clock I say it is."

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • The 1929 production by Pickford Corporation, Elton Corporation, and United Artists is the earliest film version of The Taming of the Shrew. It was an early talkie featuring the only pairing of real-life couple Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The film was distributed by Nostalgia Family Video, and was a Critics' Choice Video. It was reedited in 1966.
  • In 1953 MGM released Kiss Me Kate, the film version of the 1948 Cole Porter musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, directed by George Sidney. In this version, two divorced actors are unable to separate their real lives from their stage lives after they are cast to play Katherine and Petruchio in a production of Shakespeare's play. Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson star as Petruchio and Katherine.
  • Columbia's 1967 The Taming of the Shrew was a lavish screen version, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. It is distributed by Columbia Tristar Home Video, The Video Catalog, and PBS Video.
  • In 1974, the International Film Bureau produced The Taming of the Shrew, which presents two scenes from the play: Petruchio vows to marry Katherine, and he begins the process of taming her.
  • NET's 1980 The Taming of the Shrew features a performance by the American Conservatory Theatre at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco. It is distributed by WNET/Thirteen Non-Broadcast.
  • In 1981, the BBC released its version, produced by Cedric Messina and Jonathan Miller. It stars John Cleese and Sarah Badel, and is distributed by Ambrose Video Publishing. Jonathan Miller also directed, envisioning Petruchio as an early Puritan who values essences over social superficialities.
  • In 1981 a documentary titled Kiss Me, Petruchio was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, directed by Christopher Dixon. It is a backstage look at the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of The Taming of the Shrew, with legendary performances by Meryl Streep as Katherine and Raul Julia as Petruchio. It is distributed by Films Inc. Video, Professional Media Service Corporation.

Back in Padua, Tranio, the Pedant, and Baptista agree to meet at Lucentio's lodgings to seal Bianca's betrothal. Meanwhile, on their way to Padua, Petruchio and Katherine argue about whether the sun or the moon is shining. Petruchio insists they will not continue to Padua until she agrees with him. Katherine gives in, saying, "What you will have it nam'd, even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherine." Hortensio tells Petruchio that "the field is won." They encounter an old man, whom Petruchio addresses as a young woman. Katherine follows Petruchio's lead, calling the old man a "budding virgin." When Petruchio then corrects her, she begs pardon for her "mad mistaking." The old man turns out to be Lucentio's real father, Vincentio, and they all continue to Padua together.

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Act 5

Lucentio and Bianca sneak off to be married. Katherine, Petruchio, and Vincentio arrive at Lucentio's lodgings. The Pedant and Vincentio argue violently over which of them is Lucentio's father, and Vincentio is in danger of being arrested until Lucentio and Bianca, newly married, arrive on the scene, explain the deception, and beg pardon of their fathers. They all exit, and Katherine wants to follow; but Petruchio first obliges her to kiss him in public. At the wedding banquet, the men place bets as to which of them has the most obedient wife. All three send for their wives, but only Katherine obeys and appears. Petruchio sends her to bring the other wives. The men concede the bet to Petruchio, but he insists on a further demonstration. He tells Katherine to take off her cap and stamp on it, which she does, then orders her to tell the women their "duty" to "their lords and husbands." Katherine responds with a long speech in favor of wifely obedience. Petruchio praises and kisses her, and they go off to bed as the other men congratulate Petruchio on having tamed his shrew.

CHARACTERS

Bartholomew

The Lord's page (a young male attendant) on the Lord's orders, dresses like a woman and pretends to be Sly's loving and obedient wife.

Bianca

Baptista's younger daughter initially appears quiet and submissive. However, she skillfully intrigues with Lucentio, with whom she eventually elopes, and in the final scene of the play refuses to come when her husband calls her.

Biondello

As one of Lucentio's servants, Biondello is aware of Lucentio and Tranio's ploy of changing identities but is not immediately told the reason for it.

Curtis

Curtis is one of the servants at Petruchio's country house. Grumio tells him about the journey from Padua to the country house. Later, Curtis tells the other servants about Petruchio's odd behavior during the marriage ceremony.

First Huntsman

This is one (of two) of the Lord's huntsmen who are with him when he discovers Sly.

Gremio

Gremio is an elderly man, but one of Bianca's suitors. In act 3, scene 2, he tells Lucentio and Tranio about Petruchio's scandalous behavior during the marriage ceremony between Petruchio and Katherine.

Grumio

Grumio is Petruchio's servant. He often misunderstands, or pretends to misunderstand, Petruchio's commands, with comic results. In act 4, scene 1, he recounts the various mishaps that befell him, Katherine, and Petruchio on their way to Petruchio's country house. Later, he teases Katherine when she asks for food.

Haberdasher

The haberdasher is summoned by Petruchio to make new clothes for Katherine.

Hortensio

Another of Bianca's suitors, and a friend of Petruchio's, Hortensio pretends to be a music teacher named Litio in order to see Bianca. When he discovers her flirting with "Cambio," he abandons his suit and marries a wealthy widow after visiting Petruchio in the country to obtain tips on controlling a woman.

Hostess

The hostess ejects Sly from the tavern at the beginning of the play.

Joseph

Joseph is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

Katherine

Katherine (Katherina or Katharina, according to some sources), or simply Kate, is established as a shrew—a loud, unmanageable, bad-tempered woman—by her own behavior and by the comments of other characters, who repeatedly characterize her as ill-tempered and unreasonable. Unlike the stock character of the shrew found in many plays from Shakespeare's time, however, Katherine emerges as a complex individual who engages the audience's sympathy and concern. Baptista's obvious preference for Katherine's sister, Bianca, his crassly materialistic approach to his daughters' marriages, and the shallowness Page 833  |  Top of Articleand rudeness of the Paduan suitors suggest possible reasons for Katherine's shrewish behavior. Her shrewish remarks are generally also clever and to the point, suggesting that she possesses a keen intelligence. Moreover, despite her shrewishness, she is capable of concern for others, repeatedly trying to shield the servants from Petruchio's violent displeasure.

Katherine's personality is so strong that it dominates nearly every scene in which she is present. Katherine first appears in act 1, scene 1, where she vigorously protests both Baptista's decision not to allow Bianca to marry until a husband is found for Katherine, and also the insulting remarks of Gremio and Hortensio. This leads Tranio, who is looking on with Lucentio, to comment that she is "stark mad or wonderful froward [disobedient, unmanageable]."

Despite her strong temper, Katherine sometimes follows the leadership of the men in her life. In Katherine's first meeting with Petruchio, she meets his initial overture with hostility and insults. He responds with sexual innuendos to the point that she strikes him. When her father enters, she denounces Petruchio as "one half lunatic" and responds to his insistence that they have agreed to be married on Sunday by commenting, "I'll see thee hang'd on Sunday first." But when Petruchio claims that she is only pretending to oppose the marriage and Baptista agrees to the match, she exits without saying anything further. In act 3, when Petruchio at first fails to show for his wedding, Katherine complains bitterly: not only has she been forced against her will to accept "a mad-brain rudesby full of spleen," but now she is being made a fool. She exits weeping. Nonetheless, when Petruchio insists that they leave immediately after the ceremony, Katherine resists, first entreating Petruchio to stay, then firmly refusing to leave. When Petruchio insists on his right to make her leave, she goes with him without further comment.

In Petruchio's house, two of Katherine's traits reveal themselves—her compassionate side, and her acceptance of Petruchio's will. After her horse falls on her, Petruchio begins to beat Grumio, and Katherine "waded through the dirt to pluck him off." When at the country house Petruchio upbraids and strikes the servants, Katherine defends them and urges him to be patient. In subsequent scenes, Petruchio repeatedly imposes his will despite Katherine's resistance and verbal protests. In act 4, scene 5, as they return to Padua for Bianca's wedding, Katherine again contradicts Petruchio, saying that the sun is shining when he has commented on the brightness of the moon. When he refuses to go on unless she agrees with him, she gives in, only to have him insist that it is indeed the sun. Commenting that "the moon changes even as your mind," Katherine gives in again, agreeing to call it whatever he chooses. Katherine's acceptance of Petruchio's will here is generally seen as a turning point in their relationship, although critics have offered varying opinions as to Katherine's mood, as well as the real meaning of this turning point. When the travelers meet Vincentio on the road, Katherine easily falls in with Petruchio's joke of addressing the old man as if he were a young woman.

In Padua, as the Bianca-Lucentio subplot comes unraveled, Katherine wants to follow the other characters to see the outcome. Petruchio insists that she first kiss him publicly, and after brief resistance, she complies. At Bianca's wedding banquet, Katherine becomes involved in an argument with the Widow when the latter refers to Katherine's reputation as a shrew. Later, when Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio place bets on their respective wives' obedience, Katherine is the only wife to come when summoned. She obediently brings in the other wives, and when Petruchio tells her to take off her cap and stamp on it, she complies. When Petruchio orders her to instruct the other wives on their duty to their husbands, Katherine responds with a long speech advocating wifely obedience. Emphasizing the "painful labor" a husband takes on to ensure the security of his wife, she states that wives owe husbands a "debt" of "love, fair looks, and true obedience." She remarks that women are "soft" and "weak," and urges them to give up their pride, "for it is no boot" [there is no remedy]. In her final words in the play, she offers to place her hand under Petruchio's foot, to "do him ease."

The complexity of Katherine's character is evident in the interpretive range of her final speech. Directors and actresses have adopted a variety of approaches to this speech, depending on their interpretation of the play's meaning. Sometimes it is delivered ironically, as if Katherine does not mean what she says and is either humoring Petruchio or treating his wager as a joke. When the speech is delivered seriously, Page 834  |  Top of Articlethe tone adopted may vary from one of joyful acceptance to one of despair and resignation.

Lord

Returning from a hunt, the Lord finds Sly drunk and asleep. As a practical joke, he and his men try to convince Sly he is a nobleman. The Lord arranges for the players to present the play that constitutes the main action of The Taming of the Shrew.

Lucentio

The son of a wealthy Pisan merchant, Lucentio comes to Padua intending to study but immediately falls in love with Bianca, whom he sees in the street. He pretends to be a schoolmaster named Cambio in order to gain access to Bianca, and eventually elopes with her.

Messenger

The messenger announces that the play is about to begin.

Baptista Minola

Baptista is a wealthy Paduan merchant with two daughters, Katherine and Bianca. He decides that he will not allow Bianca to marry until a husband is found for Katherine.

Nathaniel

Nathaniel is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

Nicholas

Nicholas is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

Pedant

The pedant is an elderly scholar from Mantua who is persuaded by Tranio to pose as Lucentio's father.

Petruchio

The traditional interpretation of the character of Petruchio sees him as a romantic and dashing figure, sweeping Katherine off her feet with his manly energy, intelligence, and determination. His displays of violence and bad temper are presented as merely a ploy, intended either to show Katherine the absurdity of her own violence and bad temper, or to shock her out of her habitual contrariness. While this remains the most common dramatic interpretation of the role, more recently literary critics and some productions of the play have portrayed Petruchio as a less than ideal man. These interpretations present his violent, domineering, and frequently unreasonable behavior as an intrinsic part of his character, rather than as an affectation assumed for Katherine's benefit. They also tend to stress the crudity of many of his comments about marriage and about Katherine.

Petruchio first appears at the beginning of act 1, scene 2. When he tells Hortensio he has come to Padua to seek a wife, Hortensio tells him he knows of a woman who is very wealthy, but shrewish. Despite warnings from both Hortensio and Gremio about Katherine's temperament, Petruchio insists that he will woo her, claiming that wealth is his sole requirement in a wife and that he will not be frightened off by mere noise.

In act 2, Petruchio presents himself to Baptista as a suitor for Katherine and immediately opens negotiations about the amount of money to be settled on Katherine. He and Baptista swiftly reach agreement. When Baptista stipulates that Petruchio must first obtain Katherine's love, Petruchio replies that "that is nothing," adding that he is "as peremptory as she proud-minded" and predicting that she will "yield" to him.

Petruchio is a bit of a schemer and seems to enjoy engaging his mind in unusual endeavors. In a soliloquy in act 2, scene 1, just before his first meeting with Katherine, Petruchio describes his plan for dealing with her. Whatever she does, he will act as if she has done the opposite: If she is verbally abusive, he will praise her sweet voice; if she refuses to speak, he will applaud her eloquence; if she refuses to marry, he will ask her to set a date. When Katherine enters, they become embroiled in an exchange of insults that soon turns to sexual innuendo. When she strikes him, he threatens to strike her back if she hits him again. Despite Katherine's hostility, when Baptista returns Petruchio says they have agreed to marry. When Katherine protests, Petruchio claims they have agreed that she will continue to behave shrewishly "in company." Baptista agrees to the marriage.

Petruchio's irreverence for authority reaches its height on his wedding day. He arrives late and dressed in rags, defending his inappropriate attire by saying that Katherine is marrying him, not his clothes. His behavior at the ceremony, which takes place offstage, offends Gremio, who subsequently describes it: Petruchio swore in Page 835  |  Top of Articlechurch, struck the priest, guzzled the wine and threw the remainder in the sexton's face, and kissed the bride noisily. After the ceremony, Petruchio insists that he and Katherine must leave immediately. He overrides Katherine's objections by announcing that he "will be master of what is [his] own" and pretending to protect her against the others' desire to detain her.

Never hiding his true self, Petruchio shows what kind of master he is as soon as he and Katherine arrive at his country house. He verbally abuses and beats the servants and sends the dinner back uneaten, telling Katherine it is burned and bad for their health. In the bridal chamber, he treats her to a lecture on self-restraint. In his second soliloquy, Petruchio likens Katherine to a wild falcon that must be prevented from eating and sleeping until it is tamed. Subsequently, he repeatedly frustrates Katherine's needs and desires, all the while insisting that he does so for her own good.

He also insists that Katherine agree with him even when he contradicts the most obvious realities, leading even his friend Hortensio to comment on his unreasonableness. Later, on the road to Padua, he repeatedly changes his opinion as to whether the sun or the moon is shining and refuses to continue until Katherine agrees with him. Her eventual statement that "What you will have it nam'd, even that it is" is usually regarded as marking her capitulation to Petruchio. When they meet Vincentio on the road, Katherine plays along with her husband's joke when he pretends to think the old man is a young woman.

Through the remainder of the play Petruchio repeatedly tests Katherine's compliance. When they reach Padua, he threatens to return home unless she kisses him in the street. At Bianca and Lucentio's wedding banquet, a number of the other guests imply that Petruchio has failed to get control over Katherine. Petruchio proposes a wager on which of the three new wives—Katherine, Bianca, or the widow Hortensio has married—is most obedient. When Katherine is the only one of the three wives to come when summoned, Petruchio sends her to fetch the other wives, then tells her to take off her cap and stamp on it. Finally, he orders her to "tell these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands." At the end of Katherine's long speech in favor of male authority and female obedience, Katherine offers to place her hand under her husband's foot, to "do him ease." Petruchio praises her, kisses her, and takes her off to bed, suggesting as they leave that Hortensio and Lucentio have a hard road before them in their marriages.

Critical commentary and play productions reflect a wide diversity of opinion regarding both the nature of Petruchio's treatment of Katherine and his reasons for it. Motivations ascribed to his character range from love for Katherine to a will to dominate, from self-interest to a simple enjoyment of a challenge. Similarly, a wide variety of interpretations have been put forward regarding the dynamics of his relationship with Katherine. Some see him as bullying his wife into submission; others claim that he insightfully leads her to an acceptance of her "true" nature and of her rightful role in society. Still others claim that in the course of the play, Katherine and Petruchio negotiate a mutually acceptable mode of co-existence within the limits imposed by their society.

Philip

Philip is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

Players

The players are a group of traveling actors who arrive at the tavern. The Lord, who has seen them perform before, asks them to put on a play.

Second Huntsman

The second (of two) of the Lord's huntsmen is with him when he discovers Sly.

Servants

The Lord's attendants, who join in his practical joke on Sly.

Christopher Sly

Sly is a poor tinker (a traveling mender of housewares). As a practical joke, a lord and his attendants try to convince him that he is really a nobleman who has been suffering from insanity. The play that constitutes the five acts of The Taming of the Shrew is put on for Sly's entertainment. He comments once on the play at the end of act 1, scene 1, then disappears from the text.

Sugarsop

Sugarsop is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

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Tailor

The tailor is summoned by Petruchio to make new clothes for Katherine.

Tranio

As Lucentio's servant, Tranio assists Lucentio in plotting the latter's elopement with Bianca. On Lucentio's orders, Tranio pretends to be Lucentio while Lucentio is pretending to be Cambio. As Lucentio, Tranio presents himself as a suitor for Bianca's hand and is selected by her father to marry her.

Vincentio

Vincentio is Lucentio's father. On his way to Padua to visit Lucentio, he becomes the butt of a joke initiated by Petruchio and taken up by Katherine. On his arrival in Padua, he is nearly thrown into prison when Tranio, the Pedant, and Biondello all insist he is an imposter.

Walter

Walter is a servant at Petruchio's country house.

Widow

Hortensio marries the widow when he gives up his suit for Bianca. In the final scene of the play, she quarrels with Katherine and refuses to come when Hortensio summons her.

THEMES

Gender Roles

Since Katherine's shrewish behavior constitutes the central problem of the play, it is not surprising that most critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew deals to some extent with the play's vision of the relative roles of men and women. Until well into the nineteenth century, audiences and critics alike seem to have accepted at face value what appears to be the play's central assumption about gender roles: that male dominance and female submission constitute the right and natural relationship between the sexes. In this context, Petruchio's taming of Katherine was generally seen as innocent fun. By the end of the century, however, critics were beginning to show some discomfort with the relationship between Petruchio and Katherine.

The play's treatment of gender goes well beyond its basic plot. Unlike most playwrights who wrote plays about shrews in the early modern period, Shakespeare suggests possible motivations for Katherine's shrewishness. Her father clearly favors her sister, Bianca; the prospective suitors are shallow and rude; father and suitors alike tend to treat marriage as a purely commercial transaction. Katherine's relationship with Petruchio is complex. Their early verbal exchanges suggest a certain equality of intelligence. Although the text of the play leaves room for a wide variety of theatrical interpretations of the relationship, the traditional and most common approach emphasizes a strong sexual attraction between Katherine and Petruchio as well as a growing comradeship. Moreover, although Petruchio seeks to control Katherine, he appears to admire and value her spirit.

The relationship between the play's main plot, subplot, and Induction also affects its depictions of gender roles. A struggle for power between men and women is introduced as an issue from the beginning of the play, when, in the Induction, a woman—the Hostess—throws a drunken Christopher Sly out of her tavern. In the course of the Lord's practical joke, one of his young male attendants dresses like a woman and pretends to be Sly's noble, soft-spoken, and obedient wife. The practical joke itself can be seen as a parallel to Petruchio's efforts to reform Katherine, as both involve attempts to transform one sort of character into another. For some critics, the Lord's inability to effect a convincing change in Sly's character contrasts with Petruchio's successful transformation of Katherine in the main plot. For others, however, the obvious artificiality of both Sly's transformation into a nobleman and the page's transformation into a woman are meant to indicate that Katherine's transformation is equally artificial.

Appearance versus Reality

Confusion between appearance and reality is a principal source of humor in The Taming of the Shrew. In the Induction, Sly is misled by carefully orchestrated appearances into believing that he is really a wealthy nobleman rather than a poor tinker. The subplot likewise depends on the confusion of appearance and reality as various characters practice elaborate deceptions. Hortensio pretends to be the music teacher Litio. Lucentio poses as the schoolmaster Cambio. He and Bianca use Latin lessons as a cover for their courtship, and they deceive her father by eloping on the eve of her planned betrothal to another Page 837  |  Top of Article
Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in a scene from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in a scene from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.) man. Lucentio's servant, Tranio, pretends to be his master and persuades an elderly scholar to pose as his master's father.

In the main plot, the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality is emphasized in various ways. Petruchio's servant Grumio often misinterprets his master's instructions, with comic results. More crucially, Petruchio's strategy in dealing with Katherine often involves replacing the most apparent of realities with something more to his own liking. "Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly as a nightingale," Petruchio resolves before his first meeting with Katherine. Although she insists she wants nothing to do with him, he tells her father they have agreed to be married. At his country house and on the road back to Padua he declares that it is morning when it is afternoon and that the moon is shining in broad daylight. When Katherine finally gives in to him, her surrender is signaled by her acceptance of his version of reality, in defiance of appearance: "What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,/ And so it shall be so for Katherine."

The various deceptions in the Induction and the subplot seem to poke fun at social distinctions, suggesting that the difference between a servant and a master, or between a poor Latin teacher and a wealthy merchant's son, is merely a matter of appearance. This idea is echoed in the main plot by Petruchio when he appears at his wedding in rags and says of Katherine, "To me she's married, not unto my clothes," or when he tells Katherine not to worry about the way she is dressed because "'tis the mind that makes the body rich."

The theme of appearance and reality is also related to the play's treatment of gender roles. Some commentators maintain that Petruchio transforms Katherine by refusing to accept her appearance of shrewishness as reality. Instead, he sets up a sort of alternate reality, insisting that she is really lovable and obedient until she accepts his view of her identity. Other people Page 838  |  Top of Articleargue, however, that the continual confusion of appearances and reality in the play undermines the concept of male dominance. They suggest that with so much deception going on in the play, the audience should be suspicious of taking Katherine's transformation at face value. Perhaps she is merely pretending to give in to Petruchio. Or perhaps—as other critics have maintained—male supremacy itself is shown to be merely an illusion.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • There is critical controversy surrounding Katherine and whether or not she is really changed by the end of The Taming of the Shrew. What is your position on this issue? Find a partner and stage a debate in front of at least three people. Structure your debate so that each of you makes your case, the other has the opportunity to ask questions, and each presents a concluding speech to persuade your audience to adopt your position.
  • What specific techniques does Petruchio use to tame Katherine? Using the presentation format of your choice (poster board, Power Point, display board, etc.) list at least three, with details about how they would be used on a person. Predict how effective each of these would be and explain why. Conclude with a statement about the ethics of using such techniques in interpersonal relationships.
  • The dynamics among Baptista, Bianca, and Katherine are not uncommon, even today. Conduct psychological research in family dynamics to determine how realistic Shakespeare's portrayal of the young women is. Based on your findings, what kind of wives and mothers will Bianca and Katherine become? What kind of man will Baptista be as he continues to age?
  • Producing The Taming of the Shrew for a modern audience presents certain challenges. Imagine that you have been chosen to direct the play, and the producers have given you complete creative control. What decisions would you make? Would you do the play as Shakespeare wrote it? How would you direct Katherine, especially in her last speech? What would you look for in casting? Write out a plan for the producers, describing your vision and your approach.
  • Gender roles and expectations comprise a major theme of The Taming of the Shrew. Gender roles continue to be discussed today. Create a timeline of major historical events related to this issue from 1600 to the present. Explain how the issue has evolved since Shakespeare's time.
  • Read about Queen Elizabeth I's upbringing, ascension to the throne, and reign. Given what you understand about her, what do you think her reaction to The Taming of the Shrew was? Write a diary entry in her voice on the evening after she first saw the play.

Games and Role-Playing

Closely related to the theme of appearance versus reality is the play's emphasis on games and role-playing. It has been suggested that Petruchio treats social conventions—including the conventions governing relations between men and women—as a sort of game. The airy cynicism with which he discusses his search for a wife contrasts with both Lucentio's romanticism and Baptista's businesslike materialism. He treats the marriage ceremony itself as a joke, arriving late and poorly dressed, insulting the clergy, and forcing the bride to leave early. He seems to welcome Katherine's shrewishness as an interesting challenge, and compares his efforts to tame her to a sportsman's taming of a falcon. According to this view, Petruchio's strategy in taming Katherine is Page 839  |  Top of Articleto convince her to join in this game with him. This strategy seems particularly clear during the journey back to Padua in act 4, when Katherine finally decides to go along with Petruchio's assertions contrary to fact and joins him in pretending that the aged Vincentio is a young woman. Katherine's final speech to the other wives is then seen as marking her agreement to play the role of obedient wife, secure in the knowledge that she and her husband both know this is merely a role.

Role-playing and playacting also figure prominently in The Taming of the Shrew. The play-within-a-play structure emphasizes to the audience members that what they are about to see is a performance—not reality, but someone's interpretation of reality. Many of the characters become actors in the play: Tranio plays the role of Lucentio, Lucentio poses as Cambio, Hortensio poses as Litio, and so on. Thus, for instance, a single actor might appear as one of the players in the Induction, as Tranio at the beginning of act 1, and later as Tranio-playing-Lucentio. Petruchio himself often seems to be playing an exaggerated role for Katherine's benefit. Recently, several critics have pointed out that Shakespeare also draws attention to the Elizabethan practice of using boys to play women's parts. This is especially true in the Induction, where the page Bartholomew pretends to be Sly's wife.

STYLE

Play-within-a-Play

Shakespeare begins The Taming of the Shrew with the Induction, whose purpose seems to be establishing that the rest of the play will be a play-within-a-play. The action of The Taming of the Shrew is performed by an acting troupe for the entertainment of Christopher Sly. Oddly, Shakespeare does not return to Sly, the lord, and the troupe at the end of the play. Critics have debated the necessity of this technique, but the fact remains that readers must approach the play with the understanding that it is being performed, seemingly, for an audience of one. Based on what the reader imagines as the lord's (or the troupe's) motives with the entertainment, the play is being performed either to please him (reflecting his views) or to educate him (challenging his views). The reader's assumptions about the actors' intention in performing this play for Sly will affect how much of the play is taken as farce and irony, and how much is taken as an honest portrayal of the characters and their situations.

Farce

There has been much critical commentary about whether The Taming of the Shrew is farcical. While some critics point to the exaggerated antics and satire of the play to argue that it is farce, others point to the genuine feelings and realism of the play to argue that it is not. In either case, it is important to understand what farce is in order to follow the debate.

Farce is a humorous dramatic approach that favors action over characterization. Its humor results from absurdity, wit, crudeness and vulgarity, and physical comedy. Farce appears outlandish and unrealistic on the surface, but its deeper content is often serious and pointed. Farce is often satiric, satire being a humorous way of criticizing customs, issues, trends, society, or people. Satirists generally take something that their audiences will recognize (usually a type of person or a social convention) and make its faults larger than life in order to point out those faults. Readers often see Katherine, Petruchio, or both characters as overdrawn to make a point about love relationships and the ability (or inability) to "tame" another person.

Imagery

Of particular importance in The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare's use of imagery in portraying various characters' attitudes toward other characters, toward women in general, and toward marriage.

The play is especially rich in animal imagery, beginning with the traditional use of the word shrew to describe a willful and quarrelsome woman. When Katherine and Petruchio first meet, their rapid exchange of insults is filled with references to animals, as is the exchange of jests by the wedding guests in the final scene of the play. Dogs and horses figure prominently in the play, and several characters are compared to animals. In act 4, Petruchio likens his handling of Katherine to the methods used in taming falcons or hawks. In many cases, the use of animal imagery to describe a character is clearly demeaning, as when Gremio refers to Katherine Page 840  |  Top of Articleas a "wild-cat", or Hortensio describes Bianca as a "proud disdainful haggard [untamed hawk]". In other cases, the effect is more complex. While some critics see Petruchio's use of animal imagery in referring to Katherine as indicative of a desire to subdue and control her, others have argued that Petruchio's likening of Katherine to a falcon, for instance, reflects a recognition that a successful marriage requires two minds working in partnership.

Much of the play's animal imagery is also an imagery of games and sport. Early in the Induction the Lord arrives from hunting, and subsequently hunting is used to typify both the pursuit of women by the play's various suitors, and the behavior of women toward each other.

Clothing and entertaining, particularly dining, also figure prominently as images in the play. Petruchio's strategy for subduing Katherine involves both his refusal to dress as expected when he arrives at their wedding in outlandish clothes, and his refusal to allow Katherine to purchase the clothing she wants. Clothing is also important to the various deceptions in the Induction and the subplot. At various points in the play, Katherine's exclusion from or participation in banquets or dinner parties becomes an issue. Petruchio prevents her from taking part in the banquet at her own wedding, and later allows her to join him and Hortensio at dinner only after she has thanked him for providing food. Toward the end of the play he threatens to keep her from Bianca's wedding banquet unless Katherine kisses him in public. Finally, it is at that banquet that Katherine makes the public display of obedience which convinces the other guests that she has truly been "tamed."

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Textual Background

Shakespeare appears to have drawn on many sources in writing the play. The character of the shrew—a word used to indicate an opinionated, domineering, and sharp-tongued woman—is found in the folklore and literature of many cultures. The earliest example in English drama is thought to be the character of Noah's wife in the medieval mystery plays. In the sixteenth century, shrewish wives were featured in a number of plays, many of which depicted cruel physical punishments for the shrew. The principal source of the Bianca-Lucentio subplot is George Gascoigne's play The Supposes (1566). Gascoigne's play was itself derived from an Italian play, Ludovico Ariosto's I suppositi (1509), and many of its elements can be traced back to the classical Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence.

As for the Induction, the story of a poor man tricked into thinking he is a nobleman was common in Europe and Asia in the sixteenth century. In addition, an anonymous play entitled The Taming of a Shrew and published in 1594 is generally thought to be either a pirated copy of Shakespeare's play or an inaccurate copy of an earlier play that may have been another source for Shakespeare's version. While the action of The Taming of a Shrew is very close to that of Shakespeare's play, both the language and the names of the characters are different. One interesting difference between the two plays concerns the Induction. In Shakespeare's play as we have it, the characters in the Induction are not mentioned in the text after the end of act 1, scene 1. In A Shrew, on the other hand, the story line of the Induction is brought to a conclusion at the end of the play. Some modern productions of Shakespeare's Shrew incorporate material from The Taming of a Shrew in order to complete the story introduced in the Induction. Others eliminate the Induction altogether.

Reign of Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth is remembered as the great Tudor monarch who brought stability and growth to England over the course of her reign. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth became what many deem England's greatest monarch. She was beloved by her people and respected among world leaders. During her rule, great artistic, literary, and naval figures rose to prominence. It was during her reign that the defeat of the Spanish Armada took place. Her years on the throne were not without conflict, however. Europe was in the throes of religious turmoil, and Elizabeth's establishment of the Anglican Church, observing Protestantism, was controversial. Persecution against Catholics followed, with the religious question far from resolved.

Elizabeth's court was widely regarded as a great cultural center. In fact, Elizabeth herself was sometimes the subject of artistic expression. Page 841  |  Top of ArticleEdmund Spenser dedicated his epic work, The Faerie Queene (1590), to her, explaining in a letter to Sir John Walter Raleigh that the queen represents Elizabeth. She employed foreign artists in her court to paint portraits and create theatrical pieces and other works. Elizabeth also patronized Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, arguably the greatest English composers of the

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • Late 1500s: London theater is thriving as the English language has become a major vehicle for literary expression. By combining English interests and culture with conventions of classical drama, the English theater is full of relevance. Besides portraying stories about relationships, history, and politics, the London theater has become a vital part of the passionate religious debates of the day.
    Today: Theater must compete with television and film for audience interest. Although many theaters still attract large audiences, the most popular plays tend to be well-known musicals, or plays by already-established playwrights. While there is room in the theater world for experimental and modern drama, audiences for these types of plays tend to be made up of a small but committed group of theatergoers.
  • Late 1500s: Gender roles are well established, and characters such as Katherine are intended to portray the exception, or even the extreme, of feminine independence. In the play, Katherine is outspoken, rash, and independent, but she is still subject to the will of her father before her marriage and Petruchio's will after her marriage. This reflects the limitations on women; even women from well-to-do families are expected to marry unless they choose to enter convents. The ideal woman is seen at the end of the play, when Katherine has been (at least seemingly) tamed. Men, on the other hand, are free to be docile or rowdy, with few social consequences.
    Today: Gender roles have been seriously challenged and redefined over the course of the twentieth century. Women are often as outspoken and independent as men, and the negative backlash of such behavior is lessening. As for marriage, women are free to choose not only whom they marry, but if they marry at all.
  • Late 1500s: It is common for families to arrange marriages, and they can be arranged while the bride and groom are young teenagers. The parents make these deals with one another to try to improve the social or financial standing of their families. Gender roles in marriage remain traditional, with the man working to support his family and the woman overseeing domestic responsibilities. Women possess no political power (with the obvious exception of monarchs) and they are not empowered to own land. Submission to their husbands is important for the family to run smoothly and for the family to be respected in society.
    Today: Not just in England, but throughout the Western world, gender roles in marriage are more fluid than ever. Men and women decide whether they will both work, and if not, which of them will stay home. Men and women share an abundance of work opportunities, based on their education and experience rather than gender. This gives married couples a greater degree of flexibility than in the past to make decisions about how their work will factor into their marriage. At home, gender roles are no longer assigned or assumed. Either the husband or the wife may perform domestic duties, manage the family finances, or make social plans. The norm is for the couple to make major decisions together in equal partnership.
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time. She even set aside her religious intolerance for them; they were both Catholic, yet she extended her protection to them. Elizabeth was also a lover of theater, and Shakespeare was a favorite.

Shakespeare's English Theater

A prolific writer of comedies, tragedies, and histories, Shakespeare is credited with authorship of thirty-seven plays, many of which are frequently performed in today's theater. As a playwright, Shakespeare's achievement is considered by many to be unparalleled and his era to be a pivotal time in Western literature. Historians frequently observe that Shakespeare's arrival on the London theater scene was well timed. In many ways, Shakespeare is a product of Elizabethan theater because the opportunity was wide open for his talent when he arrived. The theater was coming into its own as a serious literary venue, and plays were diverse in subject matter. The theaters in London were also well attended and patronized. Shakespeare's unique ability to write about universal human experiences and truths brought depth and accessibility to his dramas as well as his comedies. By also writing histories, he reinforced the popular interest in national, classical, and monarchical history, while paying homage to the monarchs on whose support he depended.

Shakespeare wrote during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, and he found the two monarchs preferred different things. Elizabethan drama often took neoclassical themes and settings, a thread obvious in Shakespeare's body of work. Some of his histories include events in the lives of Elizabeth's ancestors, such as Henry VII. Shakespeare also employed what is called Elizabethan bawdy, a type of low humor that specifically targets the mentally ill, the uneducated, and female sexuality.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

The Taming of the Shrew has received a great deal of critical commentary and, because of its subject matter, that commentary has reflected trends over the years. The central idea of the play is the taming of a shrewish woman, a concept that became less favorably received over the course of the twentieth century. Thus gender roles and the analysis of the play's two main characters has been the subject of much criticism. The play is complex, however, lending itself to commentary on its themes, imagery, and even debate as to whether or not the play is a farce.

Numerous critics have weighed in on the play's treatment of gender roles: that is, what it has to say about socially accepted definitions of appropriate male and female behavior. In the end, Kate has apparently come round to the socially accepted definition, giving a long speech proclaiming the rightness of male dominance and female submissiveness. Until fairly recently, few people challenged this view of the play. In fact, the play knew centuries of popularity with audiences who found Petruchio's taming of Katherine both inoffensive and amusing.

Critics' examinations of various aspects of the play have led to no consensus as to the play's attitude toward gender roles. A number of critics continue to maintain that the play ultimately accepts and reinforces male dominance of women. In "Bad" Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, Shirley Nelson Garner exposes what she sees as a misogynistic, or woman-hating, overtone of the play. Garner explains that even if a teacher offers an "ingenious reading" of the play, students will quite likely see through it. She adds, "They will know in their hearts that—at the least—there is something wrong with the way Kate is treated. And they will be right." Later in her treatment of the play, Garner notes, "The central joke in The Taming of the Shrew is directed against a woman. The play seems written to please a misogynist audience." Many of these critics also argue, however, that while accepting male dominance, the play emphasizes the need for mutual affection, cooperation, and partnership in marriage. Another view maintains that Katherine's final speech should be read ironically, with the implication that she will pretend to defer to Petruchio in public while ruling the household in private. Yet other commentators argue that the play ultimately undermines male dominance of women by showing this dominance to be artificial and illogical. Directors of modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew have also offered a wide variety of interpretations of this issue. In fact, in her Introduction to Cambridge Page 843  |  Top of ArticleUniversity Press's edition of the play, Ann Thompson remarks:

[T]hroughout its stage history The Taming of the Shrew has probably received fewer completely straight performances than any other Shakespearean play of comparable popularity on the stage. The apparently unrelieved ethic of male supremacy has proved unpalatable, and generation after generation of producers and directors have altered and adapted the text in more or less flagrant ways in order to soften the ending.

Subsequently, many critics have sought to defend The Taming of the Shrew against charges of sexism by contending that the play takes a tongue-in-cheek view of traditional gender roles. The idea is that Katherine's submission is not to be taken seriously. In this view, the audience is meant to perceive that Katherine will dominate the marriage by allowing Petruchio an outward show of mastery. More recently, several commentators have suggested that the play ultimately undermines conventional social and gender roles. Many critics, however, reject an ironic reading of Petruchio's subduing of Katherine.

The prevalence of animal imagery in The Taming of the Shrew, particularly imagery having to do with falconry and hunting, has been interpreted in various ways. Margaret Loftus Ranald in Essays in Literature finds this imagery very revealing. She notes that "Petruchio rejoices in Kate's faults. She will be a haggard worth the taming, a good hawk for his hand." Ranald explores this theme fully, concluding:

[T]he hawking imagery carries more weight than the mere suggestion that wives and falcons are more tractable when half starved. Its real value lies in emphasizing the fact that the taming of a wild, mature falcon aims at achieving mutual respect between bird and keeper.

Images having to do with clothing and various forms of entertainment also figure prominently in The Taming of the Shrew. Norman Sanders in Renaissance Papers points out that while the domestic realm reveals the social implications of Katherine's temperament, "it is by sartorial imagery that she is shown the personal [implications]. For clothes can be a measure of either the inward man or of the deception he practices on others or on himself." Sanders adds that at the end of the play, it is Katherine's cap that Petruchio tells her to throw down, and that this is "a symbol of her new realization of what she has been but is no longer."

Many different interpretations of Katherine's character have been put forward both on the stage and by the critics. One popular view sees Katherine as a miserable and maladjusted woman at the beginning of the play who by its end has been transformed into a happy wife who has learned to accept joyfully her appointed role in society. A number of other critics see Katherine's true character as loving and amenable. Others see her as a forerunner of Shakespeare's later, more attractively drawn comic heroines, such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. Like them, these critics point out, Katherine possess a keen wit, a passionate nature, and a strong will.

A rather different interpretation also common on the stage is that Katherine is not really tamed at all. Rather, she learns to humor Petruchio's need to feel that he is in control; she plays the obedient wife in public so as to exercise control at home. In an article for Modern Language Studies, Coppélia Kahn describes the last scene as one in which Petruchio finally achieves lordship over his wife and is seen as a superior husband compared to his peers. She adds that Shakespeare "just makes it clear to us, through the contextual irony of Kate's last speech, that her husband is deluded." In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom analyzes the moment in which Katherine agrees with Petruchio that the moon is the sun. He asserts, "From this moment on, Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio, a marvelous Shakespearean reversal of Petruchio's earlier strategy of proclaiming Kate's mildness even as she raged on."

A key question in interpreting The Taming of the Shrew is whether Shakespeare presents Petruchio as an admirable character or as an offensive one. Closely related is the matter of his motives for wanting to marry Katherine and his goals in taming her. Productions of the play have differed widely in their answers to these questions, as have the critics' opinions. Many writers point to Petruchio's energy, imagination, and firmness of purpose as qualities that make him an attractive character. Petruchio's violent and willful behavior is not limited to the taming process, but is demonstrated in the play well before he meets Katherine. Petruchio, they Page 844  |  Top of Articleargue, is even more shrewish than Katherine, but his behavior is considered acceptable and even praiseworthy because he is a man.

Petruchio's motives have also been the subject of critical debate. While some critics see Petruchio as a strong-willed man smitten with a woman who is strong enough to be his mate, others see him as little more than a bully. In Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, author Kenneth Muir reminds readers that by his own admission, Petruchio is seeking a wealthy wife. Muir adds that Petruchio's "method of taming Katherine is that of a bully." Muir lists the ways Petruchio tames Katherine, including using his physical strength, humiliating her at her wedding, forcing her to leave her wedding feast, starving her into submission, forcing her to say untrue things, and betting on her. Muir concludes, "A high-spirited girl has been tamed by brutal and shameful methods into accepting slavery." Bloom comments on how the process of taming Katherine worsens Petruchio's character. He points to "their shared, quite violent forms of expression, which Petruchio 'cures' at the high cost of augmenting his own boisterousness to an extreme where it can hardly be distinguished from a paranoid mania."

As fascinating as Katherine and Petruchio are individually, the issue of their love for each other proves equally intriguing. George R. Hibbard in Shakespearean Essays concludes that the two enjoy a happy, healthy marriage. He explains, "It is their knowledge of, and their trust in, each other, which have grown out of experience, that give this pair such an advantage over the other two pairs at the end of the play." Hibbard notes that Hortensio and his widow, and Lucentio and Bianca, do not even know each other, not yet having had the chance to build love and trust. He sees in the play Shakespeare's distaste for arranged marriages. He writes, "The play's disapproval of the arranged match, in which no account is taken of the feelings of the principals, could not be plainer." Critics such as Ruth Nevo make the argument that Katherine is truly in love with Petruchio. Nevo writes in Comic Transformation in Shakespeare:

That Kate is in love by Act V, is, I believe, what the play invites us to perceive. And indeed she may well be. The man she has married has humour and high spirits, intuition, patience, self-command, and masterly intelligence; and there is more than merely a homily for Elizabethan wives in her famous speech.

Because of the complexity of the issues surrounding characterization, motivation, and true resolution, critics have not reached a consensus on whether The Taming of the Shrew is a farce or not. Harold C. Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare contends that "the play within the play is given a simplification and exaggeration that bring its main plot to the edge of farce, while its minor plot, the story of Bianca's wooers, goes quite over that edge." Kahn writes, "In making Kate react almost automatically to the contradictory kinds of treatment Petruchio administers … Shakespeare molds her to the needs of the farce." Kahn adds that Shakespeare's use of farce in this play is intended to reveal a failing in Petruchio: "It … pushes us to see this wish for dominance as a childish dream of omnipotence. In short, the farce portrays Petruchio's manliness as infantile." H. J. Oliver categorizes the play as a farce, but notes the realism in its portrayal of the problems of marriage at the time, "not as it appeared in the romances of the day, but as it was in Shakespeare's England." In his Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, Oliver contends that Katherine is too sympathetic a character to be farcical: "It is as if Shakespeare set out to write a farce about taming a shrew but had hardly begun before he asked himself what might make a woman shrewish anyway—and found his first answer in her home background." Oliver concludes, "We sympathize with Katherine—and as soon as we do, farce becomes impossible." Garner accuses those who interpret the play as farcical of trying to find a way to keep the play in good standing, despite its depiction of women. She writes that efforts to see it as farcical or ironic are intended to "separate Shakespeare from [the play's] misogynist attitudes, to keep him as nearly unblemished as possible."

CRITICISM

Ervin Beck

In this essay, Beck examines the passage in The Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio orders Katherine to remove her cap. The critic contends that this act, far from serving as a final sign that Katherine has resigned herself to obey Petruchio, "may instead be a sign that he thereby liberates her from subordination to him"

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Katherine's encomium to wives at the end of The Taming of the Shrew is initiated by Petruchio's command:

    Katherine, that cap of yours becomes you not.
    Off with that bauble, throw it underfoot. (1)

Katherine's plucking her cap off her head, throwing it to the floor, and possibly even stomping on it make up a crucial, symbolic event, although its theological significance seems to have passed unnoticed. Traditionally seen as a final sign of Katherine's conditioned subservience, Petruchio's telling Katherine to remove her cap may instead be a sign that he thereby liberates her from subordination to him.

Critics usually see in the discarded cap merely a variation of act 4, scene 3, where Petruchio withholds from Kate the Haberdasher's cap that she covets. By logical extension, then, in act 5 Kate's obedience to Petruchio's "impossibly humiliating demand" shows that "she has learned the pointlessness of such selfish stubbornness." (2) By conflating both cap scenes in such a formalist manner, even a New Historicist like Stephen Greenblatt arrives at a similar single-minded conclusion in his discussion of Shakespeare's use of the "fetishism of costume" to communicate "what can be said, thought, felt in this culture" (57). He, too, says that Kate's discarding of her cap "demonstrates [Petruchio's] authority" over his "tamed wife" (58).

Whether or not the actual physical cap in act 5 is the one the haberdasher offered in act 3, the meaning of "cap" in Kate and Petruchio's relationship has changed or expanded since the symbol was first introduced into the discourse of the play. In act 3, the cap raises the issue of who will decide which cap Kate will wear. But in act 5, the issue is the much larger theological issue of whether Kate needs to wear any cap at all.

As a visual preface to Kate's sermon to wives, the cap in act 5 embodies St. Paul's discussion of Christian headship in 1 Corinthians 11.3-15:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of every woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head … (3-6, King James Version)

Traditionally these verses have been used to justify the tradition of women having their heads covered during worship—and even in everyday life—to show respect to Christ by showing respect to their husbands. Kate's wearing of a cap stands for submission to her husband.

That well-established association is spoken to in "A Homily of the State of Matrimony" published in 1563 for reading in Anglican churches in The Second Tome of Homilies by Archbishop Matthew Parker, Bishop James Pilkington, Rachard Taverner, and others. (3) After discussing proper wifely obedience, the homily continues:

This [obedience] let the wife have ever in mind, the rather admonished thereby by the apparel of her head, whereby is signified, that she is under coven or obedience of her husband. And … that apparel is of nature so appointed to declare her subjection [to her husband] … For if it be not lawful for the woman to have her head bare, but to bear thereon the sign of her power wheresoever she goeth, more is it required that she declare the thing that is meant thereby. And therefore these ancient women of the old world called their husbands lords, and showed them reverence in obeying them. (177)

This conventional value given to the woman's head covering raises the intriguing possibility that by telling Kate to discard her cap Petruchio is actually freeing Kate from patriarchal subservience to him and creating a relationship of mutuality rather than hierarchy. Kate is now at liberty to do and say what she wants.

Just as Kate's encomium begins with a symbolic action initiated by Petruchio, so it concludes with another equally symbolic action initiated by Kate. That is, of course, her offer to place her hands under her husband's foot as token of her full submission to him. Speaking first to the Widow and Bianca she says:

    And place your hands below your husband's foot,
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The Wedding Trousseau, Act IV, scene i "The Wedding Trousseau", Act IV, scene i (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan)

    In token of which duty, if he please,
    My hand is ready, may it do him ease. (5.2.181-83)

This speech has been used to support opposite interpretations of the play. If Kate indeed places her hands under Petruchio's foot, then patriarchal dominance is confirmed. Most critics, however, have assumed that Petruchio does not allow Kate to do so. Her speech is, after all, only an offer. And Petruchio responds to the offer, not by asking her to humiliate herself, but by asking her to kiss him—"Come on, and kiss me, Kate"(184)—which emphasizes mutual affection rather than servile devotion.

Just as Petruchio is testing Kate in this scene—by seeing what she is like when given freedom in the marital relationship—so Kate can be seen as testing Petruchio with her final offer to place her hands under his feet: Does he really mean that she now has the liberty to be what and who she wants to be? If so, then he will reject or ignore her offer, treat her as an equal—and the play concludes in a satisfactorily "romantic" manner. Meanwhile, during her speech and the final other lines, Kate's symbolic cap has lain on the floor—perhaps even kicked around a bit—as a mute reminder of the bondage from which she is now free.

The objections to so oversimplified an interpretation are, of course, obvious. It is Petruchio, after all, who has permitted—even commanded—Kate to reject this symbol of masculine authority. And her obedience to him in doffing the cap is fully in keeping with the successful conditioning of Kate that he has engineered in the preceding scenes.

Yet Kate's speech is so eloquently persuasive that it seems to come from the heart. And the symbolic actions that frame it help us believe in the freedom and sincerity with which Kate delivers it.

Relating Kate's cap to the I Corinthians text does not simplify the ending; in fact, it renders its possibilities more complex. It may show that Shakespeare is working within a conventional view of male and female relationships that is as old as the Wife of Bath's tale in Chaucer: What does a woman want most of all? Sovereignty. What does she do as soon as she obtains sovereignty? Yield to the wishes of her husband—because she loves him.

That may be merely male wish fulfillment, again, and it certainly does not match what feminist critics today regard as good gender relationships. But it helps establish a kind of mutuality in marriage that is usually present in Shakespeare's Page 847  |  Top of Articleromantic comedies and it makes a disputed comedy even more teasingly complex.

Source: Ervin Beck, "Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew," in The Explicator, Vol. 57, No. 1, Fall 1998, pp. 8-12.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts (1994) contains Linda Boose's article, "The Taming of the Shrew, Good Husbandry, and Enclosure." In her article, Boose relates the play's treatment of social and sexual hierarchy to socioeconomic changes and class conflict in early modern England.
  • In 1950's Essays and Studies, Nevil Coghill's essay "The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy" is one of the first essays to argue that Katherine, not Petruchio, is the one who succeeds in mastering the art and practice of matrimony.
  • Frances E. Dolan's 1996 "The Taming of the Shrew": Texts and Contexts considers the play from a wide range of perspectives, including feminist and cultural. Primary documents give insight into the pertinent issues of the play, and commentary helps guide the reader into a deeper understanding of Shakespeare's text.
  • Anthony Holden's 2002 William Shakespeare: An Illustrated Biography offers read ers an honest attempt to present the facts of Shakespeare's life, separate from the legends that surround the playwright. The book is brought to life by the inclusion of illustra tions and mementos related to the Bard's life.
  • Maynard Mack's "Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays" appears in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig (1962). In his essay, Mack examines the psychological process by which Petruchio tries to change Katherine's view of her own identity.
  • In Fashioning Femininity and English Ren aissance Drama (1991), Karen Newman closely examines the portrayals of women in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to see how their submission was depicted. She spends an entire chapter on family dynamics and The Taming of the Shrew.

Ann Thompson

In a review of the stage history of The Taming of the Shrew, Thompson suggests that the play has always "been disturbing as well as enjoyable" and that its "'barbaric and disgusting' quality has always been an important part of its appeal." Until the middle of the nineteenth century, she points out, the play was almost always produced with considerable modifications to Shakespeare's text. Many of the changes increased the roughness of Petruchio's behavior, while others, often in the same version, "softened" the play, making it explicit that Katherine is in love with Petruchio and that Petruchio's domineering behavior is only a ploy. More recently, as women's rights have become an issue, directors have tended to give their productions an ironic tone. Usually this is done by making it appear that Katherine's submission is not to be taken seriously, although sometimes productions go to the other extreme and imply that Katherine has been brainwashed. Thomspon concludes that contemporary social and political attitudes will continue to color productions of the play.

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Source: Ann Thompson, "Introduction," in The Taming of the Shrew, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 1-41.

H. J. Oliver

In the following excerpt, Oliver analyzes Petruchio's suitability for the task of "taming" Katherine. The critic rejects readings that see Petruchio as motivated by love as well as evaluations that suggest Katherine and Petruchio are merely "playing a game." Instead, Oliver emphasizes Petruchio's superior maturity and experience and his ability to make a plan and stick to it as the primary reasons for his success. The critic also suggests that Petruchio's treatment of Katherine is at times so harsh that it would have won sympathy for Katherine even from an Elizabethan audience hardened to plays about "shrew-taming."

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Source: H. J. Oliver, "Introduction," in The Taming of the Shrew, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 1-75.

George R. Hibbard

Hibbard suggests that The Taming of the Shrew contrasts opposing views of marriage that coexisted in Elizabethan England. He asserts that in the last decades of the sixteenth century, the tradition of parents arranging their children's marriages was being challenged, while a new ideal of mutual love between partners was taking root. The Taming of Shrew satirizes the old, mercenary order, Hibbard maintains, especially in the scene where Baptista appears to auction off Bianca to the highest bidder. But it also rejects the romantic view of marriage depicted in the Bianca-Lucentio subplot in favor of matches such as Katherine and Petruchio's, based on "real knowledge and experience." The critic calls attention to the directness and honesty of the conflict between the latter couple and contrasts it with Bianca and Lucentio's reliance on ploys and deceptions.

A case, of sorts, can be made out for the view that The Shrew is designed to bring out and contrast the two opposed attitudes to marriage that existed at the time when it was written: the idea of marriage as a purely business matter, which may be called realistic since it corresponds to the facts, and the idea of it as a union of hearts and minds, which may be called romantic. That some kind of contrast is intended is evident from the conduct of the two plots, which alternate with each other in a regular and contrapuntal fashion until the final scene, where they come together and are rounded off. In this reading of the play the realistic attitude is embodied in Petruchio who makes no secret of his mercenary intentions. To Hortensio, who asks him why he has come to Padua, he replies:

    Antonio, my father, is deceased,
    And I have thrust myself into this maze,
    Haply to wive and thrive as best I may.
    [I. ii. 54-6]

A few lines later he clinches the matter when, having said that the age and appearance of the lady are of no importance so long as she is rich, he adds:

    I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
    If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
    [I. ii. 75-6]

He plainly belongs to the old conservative school of thought, and his views on wives and their place are in keeping. In III. ii, having married Katharina, he pretends to defend her against her friends and kinsmen, ostensibly telling them but in fact telling her:

    Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret,
    I will be master of what is my own.
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    She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
    My household stuff, my field, my barn,
    My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing.
    [III. ii. 228-32]

The words are substantially a version of the tenth commandment and they serve as a forcible reminder of the weight of authority and tradition behind the attitude to woman which they express. In accordance with this same body of ideas, Petruchio feels that his wife should be in complete subjection to him; uses the appropriate means to subdue her to his will; and having achieved this purpose, explains its significance to Hortensio in V. ii by saying:

    Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life,
    An awful rule and right supremacy;
    And, to be short, what not, that's sweet and happy.
    [V. ii. 108-10]

In contrast to this story, in which the woman is treated as a chattel, enjoys none of the pleasures of court-ship and is humiliated and subdued, there runs alongside it the tale of Bianca. She enjoys the pleasures of being wooed by no fewer than four men, of making her own choice from among them, of deceiving her father, of stealing a runaway marriage, of having it approved of by both the fathers concerned, and, most important of all, of continuing to get her own way with her husband after marriage as well as before it.

Put in these terms, The Shrew looks like an argument for the romantic attitude. But this conclusion only has to be stated for it to be found unacceptable. The scenes involving Petruchio and Katharina have much more vitality than those involving Bianca. We are left at the end with the conviction that the arranged match is a far more durable and solid thing than the romantic one. The most eloquent speech in the whole play is Katharina's, extolling the principle of male dominance and female subjection as a law of nature, and it follows on Petruchio's triumph over Lucentio in the matter of the wager. The main interest of the play is in Petruchio and Katharina, not in the rest.

Does this mean, then, that Shakespeare has come down on the side of the arranged marriage and the old order? In general terms it would seem unlikely, for in his subsequent comedies love is the central value. More to the point, however, such an inference will not square with the evidence of the second half of II. i, which is a pointed and effective piece of comic satire on the marriage market. In the first half of the scene Petruchio has wooed Katharina and the match between them has been fixed. Petruchio makes his exit saying:

    Father, and wife, and gentlemen, adieu,
    I will to Venice—Sunday comes apace—
    We will have rings, and things, and fine array,
    And kiss me, Kate, we will be married o' Sunday.
    [II. i. 321-24]

The way is now open for Baptista to dispose of his younger daughter and he wastes no time in setting about it. The scene that follows, between him and Gremio and Tranio, is conducted on a blatantly commercial level. Baptista's opening words, referring to the match that has just been concluded between Katharina and Petruchio, set the tone:

    Faith, gentlemen, now I play a merchant's part,
    And venture madly on a desperate mart.
    [II. i. 326-27]

Tranio catches the allusion at once, and endorses it by saying:

    'Twas a commodity lay fretting by you,
    'Twill bring you gain, or perish on the seas.
    [II. i. 328-29]

Both of them regard Katharina as a questionable piece of goods that Baptista has done well to get off his hands. At this point Gremio puts in his claim for the hand of Bianca and Tranio promptly asserts his counterclaim. Both begin by saying that they love her, but the Page 856  |  Top of Article
Richard Burton as Petruchio and Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina from the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew Richard Burton as Petruchio and Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina from the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew (Everett Collection) statement really amounts to nothing—in any case Tranio is only standing in for Lucentio—and Baptista immediately brings the whole thing down to the only terms that matter when he stops the incipient quarrel with the words:

    Content you, gentlemen, I will compound this strife,
    'Tis deeds must win the prize, and he, of both,
    That can assure my daughter greatest dower,
    Shall have Bianca's love.
    [II. i. 341-44]

The dower involved here is the money the husband assured to his wife on marriage, in order to provide for her widowhood if he should die before her. It was an essential part of the marriage contract in Shakespeare's England. Deeds in this context mean, not the service with which the lover of romance won his lady, but property and cash. There is surely a pun on the sense of title-deeds. Bianca's fate is to be settled by an auction, not by a knightly combat. Gremio makes his bid; Tranio puts in a better; Gremio increases his offer; Tranio outbids him once more, and actually uses the word "out-vied" to describe his success. The satire is unmistakable. It is clinched by Baptista's weighing of the two offers and settling, with a careful proviso, for the higher. Turning to Tranio, he says:

    I must confess your offer is the best,
    And, let your father make her the assurance,
    She is your own—else, you must pardon me,
    If you should die before him, where's her dower?
    [II. i. 386-89]

But, being a good business man, he keeps the second customer in reserve. If Tranio's father fails to back up his son's offer, Bianca will be married to Gremio after all.

The scene leaves one in no doubt about the play's attitude to the marriage market. With it in Page 857  |  Top of Articlemind, it is now possible to go back to the two contrasted plots and to consider them afresh. The fundamental difference between them in terms of their construction has been well analyzed by Bertrand Evans, who shows that while the Bianca story is developed through an intricate series of deceptions and disguises, there is no deception whatever in the Katharina-Petruchio story. Petruchio is told in no uncertain terms about Katharina's character before he meets her, and he, in turn, tells her, at their first meeting in II. i, that he intends to tame her. To use Evans's own words:

The Taming of the Shrew, then, is unique among Shakespeare's comedies in that it has two distinct plots, one relying mainly on discrepant awarenesses, the other using them not at all.

This contrast is more than a matter of the mechanics of plotting and of exploiting two different kinds of awareness in the audience. It is functional, springing from the contrasted characters of those involved in the two actions and from the antithetical attitudes to life and marriage that are presented through them.

Viewed in relation to the characters of the sisters, the two plots develop along the same lines, each containing a complete reversal. At the opening Bianca appears to be everything that the age thought a girl ought to be, obedient to her father, submissive to her elder sister, modest, unobtrusive and quiet. Katharina is her opposite, disobedient to her father, tyrannical towards her younger sister, aggressive, rebellious and noisy. In each case, however, these initial impressions are misleading. As the play goes on the two girls change places, as it were, until, at the end of it, Katharina is revealed as the perfect wife and Bianca as the difficult and troublesome one. Each has, in fact, shown herself as she really is. Nor has the change been an arbitrary one; it has been implicit from the beginning, where there are clear indications that things are not as they seem. Baptista's initial offer in I. i to allow Gremio and Hortensio to court Katharina, if they wish, terrifies Gremio. His answer is an outraged recoil:

    To cart her rather: she's too rough for me …
    There, there, Hortensio, will you any wife?
    [I. i. 55-6]

Carting was, of course, the punishment inflicted on harlots. As well as being treated like a chattel by her father, Katharina is being grossly insulted by the old pantaloon. Her vigorous complaint to Baptista is fully justified:

    I pray you, sir, is it your will
    To make a stale of me amongst these mates?
    [I. i. 57-8]

Stale has a double meaning. Primarily in this context it signifies "a laughing-stock," but it also carries the sense of "whore." Katharina is a woman of independent spirit revolting against a society in which girls are bought and sold in marriage. Moreover, the word mates, which she uses of Gremio and Hortensio, is also carefully chosen. It means "vulgar fellows of no real worth," and its accuracy is borne out by their reactions to her contempt and her threats. "From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!" says Gremio, to which Hortensio adds, "And me too, good Lord!" [I. i. 66, 67]. They are both poor-spirited creatures, with no vigour or masculinity about them. Instead of standing up to Katharina, they are cowed by her. And she knows it. As Petruchio shrewdly remarks in II. i, "If she be curst it is for policy" [II. i. 292]. Her shrewishness is not bad temper, but the expression of her self-respect. Indeed, it even looks like a deliberately adopted form of self-defence, a means of testing the quality of the men she meets, in order to ensure that she has some say in the matter of marriage and is not sold off to a wealthy milksop. She is certainly not opposed to the prospect of marriage. The opening of II. i makes this plain enough, for in it she ill-treats Bianca for being so successful with men, and, when her father seeks to restrain her, she cries out in a jealous fury:

    What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
    She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
    I must dance bare-foot on her wedding-day
    And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
    [II. i. 31-4]

She detests the idea of being an old maid and of her younger sister preceding her in marriage. She is attached to traditional notions of order and fitness. Provided that she can find a man who will stand up to her and earn her respect, she is ready and even eager to marry. Her subsequent behaviour, including her final speech, is all of a piece with her character and attitude as revealed in these two appearances and in the analogy drawn by Petruchio at the end of IV.i between the process by which he tames her and the methods used to tame a haggard, for the Page 858  |  Top of ArticleElizabethans believed that falcons and the like were really of an affectionate nature and could be brought to love the man who trained them. Gervase Markham, for example, after listing the various kinds of hawks, adds these words: "all these Hawkes are hardy, meeke, and louing to the man" [in his Country Contentments]. Moreover, in his subsequent directions for training them, he lays great stress on kindness, writing as follows:

All Hawkes generally are manned after one manner, that is to say, by watching and keeping them from sleep, by a continuall carrying of them vpon your fist, and by a most familiar stroaking and playing with them, with the Wing of a dead Foule or such like, and by often gazing and looking of them in the face, with a louing and gentle Countenace, and so making them acquainted with the man.

"Hardy (i.e. bold), meeke, and louing to the man" is a very accurate description of Katharina's real character.

At this stage in the action it is not yet clear what Bianca's nature is. We still do not know whether Katharina's hearty dislike of her is the result of jealousy, or whether it rests on other and more creditable grounds. Her role so far has been a passive one, though it is already evident that she is her father's favourite and knows that she can rely on his support. In III. i, however, she appears in a new situation, and much that has hitherto been obscure ceases to be so. Alone with two of her suitors, Lucentio, disguised as a teacher of Latin, and Hortensio, disguised as a teacher of music, Bianca discards the submissive mask she has worn in the presence of her father and shows her true disposition. As the two lovers dispute over which of them shall give his lesson first, she asserts her authority, saying:

    Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong,
    To strive for that which resteth in my choice:
    I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
    I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
    But learn my lessons as I please myself.
    And to cut off all strife, here sit we down:
    Take you your instrument, play you the whiles—
    His lecture will be done ere you have tuned.
    [III. i. 16-23]

The kitten shows her claws. She is in complete control of the situation enforcing her will on both men, and she remains in control of it for the rest of the play. Her refusal in V. ii, after she has married Lucentio, to come at his bidding is already implicit in this scene.

The differences between the two sisters are more than differences of character, they also have a representative quality which is reflected in the way the two plots are conducted. In a society where the subjection of women is taken for granted two courses are open to the woman who does not accept this assumption: she can either resort to open revolt, or she can take the more devious, and usually more effective, line of apparent acquiescence and submission as a means to getting her own way through deception, intrigue and petticoat government. Katharina and Bianca embody these two different kinds of reaction to the existing situation; and so do the two plots, the one proceeding openly through a conflict of wills and tempers, the other moving to its end through a complicated tangle of misdirection and disguises. The Taming of the Shrew is an incisive piece of social criticism as well as an amusing play.

The scope of this criticism is widened and enriched by Shakespeare's presentation and handling of the men. Here again the main instrument is contrast. As I have pointed out, the men of Padua, with whom Lucentio may be included though he comes from Pisa, are a poor-spirited lot, content to play the marriage game along the conventional lines of dowries and intrigue. Petruchio, however, is something quite different. From the moment that he enters the play, at the opening of I. ii, his masculinity is emphasized. He is violent and aggressive, thoroughly enjoying the row with his servant, Grumio. He is always frank and honest, with himself as well as with others. He resorts to no subterfuges, but states his motive in coming to Padua so openly and unashamedly that it sounds like a challenge to instead of an acceptance of, the conventions:

    I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
    If wealthily, then happily in Padua.

He bursts in on the intrigues rather like an Elizabethan buccaneer descending on a civilized but effete Mediterranean city. He brings a breath of fresh air with him; his very language is boisterous and blustering …

Petruchio's other great asset is his confidence in himself and his sportsman's love of risk. Audacity is the keynote of his wooing. Recognizing Katharina's spirit he deliberately engages her, through his calculated familiarity Page 859  |  Top of Articleand impudence, in a battle of wits that leads on to a physical struggle and a battle of wills. She cannot resist the challenge he throws down; and the whole affair is conducted like a game within the limits supplied by certain rules which are tacitly accepted by both. She oversteps those rules when she strikes him, but the warning he gives: "I swear I'll cuff you, if you strike again,", [II. i. 220], is enough to make her realize that the rules must be kept. Neither of them must injure the other's self-respect and, once he has released her, there must be no further resort to direct physical force. The engagement—in the military as well as the marital sense of the word—that follows is really a process by which each of them comes to know and to appreciate the other fully. And it is very significant that although they are married in III. ii they do not seem to go to bed together to consummate their marriage until the very end of the play, by which time they are allies and lovers, for Katharina has kissed Petruchio in the street at the end of V. i.

It is their knowledge of, and their trust in, each other, which have grown out of experience, that give this pair such an advantage over the other two pairs at the end of the play. Hortensio and his widow do not know one another, nor do Lucentio and Bianca. How should they? Hortensio has married on the rebound, and Lucentio's wooing of Bianca has been conducted in terms that allow of no real engagement of heart or head. The stratagems that have led to his success have not been his own but Tranio's. It is Tranio who gets rid of Hortensio as a rival wooer, who instructs the Pedant in his part and who tells Lucentio when and how to steal the marriage. Lucentio is depicted throughout as a man besotted by love of a rather fanciful kind and, consequently, incapable of initiating any action. The brittle, bookish, artificial style of his language as a lover is an effective criticism of his shortcomings as a man. He has nothing of Petruchio's independence, self-reliance and grasp on essentials. His lyrical description of Bianca in V. i. when he refers to her as "the wished haven of my bliss" [V. i. 128], is a convincing proof that he has not so much as noticed the pointers to her true nature which are set out so clearly in III. i.

That The Shrew is a gay, high-spirited, rollicking play, full of broad farcical scenes and richly comic narrative passages is self-evident. What I have tried to show is that it also has a serious side to it. Underneath the comic exaggeration it is basically realistic. It portrays the marriage situation, not as it appeared in the romances of the day, but as it was in Shakespeare's England. And the criticism it brings to bear on it is constructive as well as destructive. Baptista, the foolish father who knows nothing about his daughters yet seeks to order their lives, is defeated all along the line. So is Gremio, the old pantaloon, who thinks he can buy a wife. The play's disapproval of the arranged match, in which no account is taken of the feelings of the principals, could not be plainer. Within the framework of marriage as it existed at the time, it comes out in favour of the match based on real knowledge and experience, over against the more fanciful kind of wooing that ignores facts in favour of bookishly conventional attitudes and expressions of feeling. Paradoxically enough it is Katharina and Petruchio, for each of whom it is the other, as the other really is, that matters, who embody the new revolutionary attitude to marriage, rather than Lucentio and Bianca.

Source: George R. Hibbard, "The Taming of the Shrew: A Social Comedy," in Shakespearean Essays, edited by Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, University of Tennessee Press, 1964, pp. 15-28.

Norman Sanders

In the following excerpt, Sanders focuses on the importance in the play of clothing and images related to household management. By disrupting the conventions of dining and proper attire, the critic suggests, Petruchio drives home to Katherine the social and personal implications of her disorderly behavior. In both the main action and in the subplot, the critic maintains, clothing becomes indicative of the discrepancy that can exist between a person's appearance and his or her true identity. The critic also comments briefly on the symbolic significance of music in the play and on Shakespeare's use of imagery to achieve dramatic unity.

Dining and entertainment are traditionally and theatrically symbols of concord, amity and respect; and thus it is that Kate's first lesson is given in a travesty of a feast. She is first dragged away from the wedding banquet where, as Petruchio says, the "honest company … Dine with my father, drink a health to me" (III.ii.192-95). The entertainment she experiences at her new home is rather different. Grumio enters to set the scene of the journey from which the guests are to be received: a journey of tired jades, lost cruppers, burst bridles, and foul ways, with the travellers Page 860  |  Top of Articlemere pieces of ice in a cold world. The reception is equally calamitous: there is "no man at the door" to hold a stirrup or take a horse, "no regard, no attendance, no duty," and no meeting in the park by the "loggerheaded and unpolished grooms." And, as the scene proceeds, the music accompanying the meal becomes snippets of old ballads, the washing of the hands a slapstick routine, and the dishes are used as aggressive weapons on "heedless joltheads and unmannered slaves." The food itself is burnt and dried, mere overcooked flesh that "engenders choler, and planteth anger." By Petruchio's report Kate's bed of rest after the journey is to be of a piece with her other entertainment:

    Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not:
    … some undeserved fault
    I'll find about the making of the bed
    And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
    This way the coverlet, another way the sheets.
    (III.iii.191-95)

Later, at a less "formal" level of entertainment Grumio is to drive home the lesson, only to be followed by Petruchio with the rituals of dining, and a speech which demands for its true effect that the meal he has prepared himself be either microscopic or quickly taken away from her.

But although by such inverted domestic rites Kate is shown the social implications of her disorder, it is by sartorial imagery that she is shown the personal ones. For clothes can be a measure of either the inward man or of the deception he practises on others or on himself. Kate's persecution of Bianca early in the play takes this form in Bianca's plea:

    but for these other gawds,
    Unbind my hands, I'll pull them off myself,
    Yea, all my raiment, to my petticoat.
    (II.i.3-5)

Once the wedding is planned, Petruchio (as well he might) sees his preparations in terms of garments: "I will unto Venice to buy apparel 'gainst my wedding day … I will be sure my Katherine shall be fine … We will have have rings and things and fine array" (II.i.307-16). Bianca will not dance barefoot but will help dress her sister's chamber. However, when the day arrives this normality is transgressed by means of clothes. Biondello heralds Petruchio's and Grumio's approach in a long verbal tour de force describing "a monster, a very monster in apparel." Petruchio's attire is called a shame to his estate and an "eyesore to our solemn festival." But as Tranio observes he "has some meaning in his mad attire." His dress is a parallel to Kate's equally "mad" attitude which only Petruchio sees as being something which is donned but not so easily doffed as his outlandish garb.

    To me she's married, not unto my clothes.
    Could I repair what she will wear in me
    As I can change these poor accouterments,
    'Twere well for Kate and better for myself.
    (III.ii.116-19)

The clothes imagery becomes physical comedy in the scene with the tailor and haberdasher. Petruchio states normal practice again.

    And now, my honey love,
    Will we return unto thy father's house
    And revel it as bravely as the best,
    With silken coats and caps and golden rings,
    With ruffs and cuffs and fardingales and things;
    With scarfs and fans and double change of brav'ry.
    (IV.i.52-57)

But at the end of the scene, by sheer verbal pyrotechnics, he has reduced the topic of clothes and their maker to "a rag, a remnant" and mere "masquing stuff"; and he can universalise his lesson.

    Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
    For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
    And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds
    So honor peereth in the meanest habit.
    What, is the jay more precious than the lark
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    Because his feathers are more beautiful?
    Or is the adder better than the eel
    Because his painted skin contents the eye?
    O no, good Kate.
    (IV.i.172-79)

When in the final scene it is Kate's cap that Petruchio orders her to throw as a bauble under foot, it becomes for the audience a symbol of her new realisation of what she has been but is no longer.

In the Bianca/Lucentio plot, too, clothes are used as a means of deception and the theme runs as a more conventional commentary on the more complex deceptions practised by Kate and Petruchio. Tranio takes his master's "colored hat and cloak" as a sign of his assumption of Lucentio's role, and puts on his "apparel and countenance." Vincentio is to notice first Tranio's attire when they first meet: "O fine villain! A silken doublet! a velvet hose! a scarlet cloak! and a copatain hat!" (IV.iv.63-64). Lucentio will put on a further change and go disguised "in sober robes, / To old Baptista" as a pedant. A true Pedant, in his turn, is clothed as it becomes him to pretend he is Vincentio; and Hortensio plays his part as a musician.

While the images of clothes and household management are used as a means of showing Kate's adjustment to society, it is the imagery of music which conveys the degree and implications of her maladjustment in the main sections of the play. I need not dwell on this, for Mr. T. W. Herbert and Mrs. T. R. Waldo have presented all the pertinent evidence in an interesting article on the subject [in Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959]. Although their principal aim was to prove Shakespeare's sole authorship of the play, they do make some points material to my case. They point out that man's adjustment to nature and society was frequently seen in terms of musical harmony, the cosmic expression of which was the music of the spheres; and they gather together those allusions in the play which show Kate as "anti-musical," allusions which culminate with a visual impact when she breaks the lute over Hortensio's head. However, I think we may go further and notice that while Bianca, seen by Lucentio as "the patroness of heavenly harmony," is contrasted with her sister in that she "taketh most delight / In music, instruments, and poetry," we are given a hint of her married frowardness by her rejection of music in the scene with Hortensio, and her willing association with dalliance and disguise. Thus it is ironical that whereas Kate, who at first "chides as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack," is taught to sing as sweetly as the nightingale; it is Bianca who finally causes her husband to lament of her "it is harsh hearing when women are froward."

One final point might be made about the conscious artistry and essential unity of the play. In the induction scenes all of the themes and images are mooted: from the harsh sound of hounds and hunting horns to the Lord's assurance that if Sly would have music "twenty caged nightingales do sing"; from the cold bed of rejection on which Sly sleeps so soundly to the luxurious bed of acceptance in which he wakes. The water, the conserves, the sack and costly raiment all make their appearance, and are offered to the tinker as he sits like Kate on her wedding night like one "new risen from a dream." Here we find too the wife who is no wife and absents herself from her husband's bed; but who is to all appearances a humble wife ready to show her duty and make known her love with kind embracements. And finally the Lord's whole action is like that of Petruchio an experiment in the manipulation of a human personality: for Sly, like Kate, is "monstrous"—though it is with ale rather than pride. It is for this reason too that, while admitting the final scene in The Taming of a Shrew has some attractive features, I think Shakespeare knew what he was about when he allowed Sly's "flattering dream or worthless fancy" to pass early and without note into the certainly not profound but nevertheless assured comedy of Kate's reformation.

Source: Norman Sanders, "Themes and Imagery in The Taming of the Shrew," in Renaissance Papers, April 1963, pp. 63-72.

SOURCES

Bloom, Harold, "The Taming of the Shrew," in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998, pp. 516-45.

Garner, Shirley Nelson, "The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke?," in "Bad" Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 105-19.

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Goddard, Harold C., "'The Taming of the Shrew,'" in The Meaning of Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1951, pp. 68-73.

Hibbard, George R., "'The Taming of the Shrew': A Social Comedy," in Shakespearean Essays, edited by Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, University of Tennessee Press, 1964, pp. 15-28.

Kahn, Coppélia, "'The Taming of the Shrew': Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 88-102.

Muir, Kenneth, "The Taming of the Shrew," in Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, Barnes & Noble, 1979, pp. 22-8.

Nevo, Ruth, "Kate of Kate Hall," in Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, Methuen, 1980, pp. 37-52.

Oliver, H. J., "Introduction," in The Taming of the Shrew, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 1-75.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus, "The Manning of the Haggard: or The Taming of the Shrew," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1974, pp. 149-65.

Sanders, Norman, "Themes and Imagery in The Taming of the Shrew," in Renaissance Papers, April 1963, pp. 63-72.

Shakespeare, William, The Taming of the Shrew, 2nd series, edited by Brian Morris, Arden Shakespeare, 1982.

Thompson, Ann, "Introduction," in The Taming of the Shrew, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 1-41.

FURTHER READING

Asp, Caroline, "'Be bloody, bold and resolute': Tragic Action and Sexual Stereotyping in Macbeth," in Studies in Philology, Vol. 78, No.2, Spring 1981, pp. 153-69.

Asp discusses the effect that stereotyping sexual roles has on the major characters in Macbeth.

Bradbrook, Muriel C., "Dramatic Role as Social Image: A Study of The Taming of the Shrew," in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 94, 1958, pp. 132-50.

Bradbrook examines Shakespeare's adaptation of the traditional roles associated with characters in earlier treatments of the shrew story, focusing in particular on his development of the characters of Katherine and Petruchio.

Brooks, Charles, "Shakespeare's Romantic Shrews," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1960, pp. 351-56.

Brooks compares Katherine and Bianca with other Shakespearean female characters.

Dusinberre, Juliet, "The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting, and Power," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 67-84.

Dusinberre points out ways in which the play calls attention to the Elizabethan practice of using boy actors in female roles and examines the effect of this practice on the play's portrayal of gender relations.

Heffernan, Carol F., "The Taming of the Shrew: The Bourgeoisie in Love," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1985, pp. 3-14.

Heffernan analyzes the play's portrayal of the values of the emergent middle class and its critique of the materialistic nature of Elizabethan marriage arrangements.

Heilman, Robert B., "The 'Taming' Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, June 1966, pp. 147-61.

Heilman argues against twentieth-century interpretations of The Shrew that turn this "free-swinging farce" into "a brittlely ironic comic drama."

Ranald, Margaret Loftus, "The Performance of Feminism in The Taming of the Shrew," in Theatre Research International, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 214-25.

This article provides a brief review of the play's performance history, focusing in particular on how the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio has been portrayed.

Traversi, Derek, "'The Taming of the Shrew,'" in William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies, The British Council, 1960, pp. 14-22.

Traversi maintains that The Taming of the Shrew defends the view that male domination of women is ordained by nature.

West, Michael, "The Folk Background of Petruchio's Wooing Dance: Male Supremacy in 'The Taming of the Shrew,'" in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 7, 1974, pp. 65-73.

West examines similarities between the play and folk traditions of courtship in arguing that the principal source of the play's imaginative appeal is its lusty depiction of the rites of sexual initiation.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100038