Musings on The Taming of the Shrew
The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic play in modern society. It is misogynistic, cruel toward women, and sinister in its characters’ deception; however, its problems invite deeper exploration of its content to find deeper meaning. Petruchio is a blowhard who “come[s] to wive it wealthily in Padua;/If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.76-77), and he delights in the challenge Katherine poses as a wife. The banter they share when first meeting is like a crueler version of the banter Beatrice and Benedick share throughout Much Ado About Nothing. Scholar Harold Bloom claims that this repartee is what evolves into a secret language or code the couple shares and that it is a critical indicator that “’true obedience’ […] is considerably less sincere than it purports to be” (35). While it is possible to read Katherine’s character reformation as a subversive, cunning, and strategic tool for survival to “rule absolutely while feigning obedience” (Bloom 34) given the time and ability to dive into Shakespeare’s text, it is extremely difficult to do so when hearing the text once. The acting and direction of the play naturally inform the audience what interpretation they are witnessing, but Katherine’s personal journey presents an inherent ambiguity. Bloom would have audiences think that as Petruchio tames Katherine with his “hyperbolic game of childish tantrums” (29), Katherine learns to tame Petruchio not through ostensible subservience but through a refined will (35). This refined will seems born of a Pascal’s wager mentality and her own cleverness rather than any true reformation. Aside from Katherine’s demonstration and lecture of a wife’s duty to her husband at the end of the play (again, it’s worth noting, for Petruchio to win a wager) audiences never have the chance to see what may be real and what may be feigned in Petruchio and Katherine’s relationship. Everything appears to be for show.
The play within a play concept is one seen in a few of Shakespeare’s plays. Reading this one brought to mind the plays performed in Hamlet and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Hamlet the play serves as part of the plot and Prince Hamlet’s method of revealing Claudius’ guilt. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream,the play is entertainment performed by the Mechanicals for the newlyweds in court. Unlike in these plays, the play of The Taming of the Shrewfirst appears at the beginning, rather than the middle or end. It seems the play being performed for Christopher Sly will be the main device for whatever story will be told regarding Sly, but in fact it becomes the entirety of Shakespeare’s play. There is only one interjection by Sly and the Presenters about the play involving Baptista and his daughters once it begins, and Shakespeare completely ignores this framework for the rest of The Taming of the Shrew. It would be interesting to see how returning to Sly’s story would or wouldn’t distract from Katherine’s, and what parallels it may share. The musical Kiss Me Kate, based on The Taming of the Shrew, is much more effective in its use of the play within a play concept, using a musical within a musical concept that does incorporate the framework story as a parallel to the story being performed.
Near the end of the play Shakespeare engages the husbands Lucentio, Hortensio, and Petruchio, in banter that is reminiscent of how the husbands Demetrius and Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream heckle the Mechanicals while they watch their play. It is quick, one-line humor frequently filled with innuendo.
Lucentio in 1.1 after he sees Bianca tells his servant, “O Tranio, till I found it to be true,/I never thought it possible or likely./But see, while idly I stood looking on,/I found the effect of love-in-idleness/[…] I burn, I pine! I perish, Tranio,/If I achieve not this young modest girl” (line 150-157). The love-in-idleness he speaks of is what Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream commands Puck bring to him. It is a where “the bolt of Cupid fell/[…] upon a little western flower,/Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound/ […] The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/Will make or man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees” (2.1.165-172). Lucentio experiences this madness of love, insisting Tranio “let [him] be a slave, t’achieve that maid/Whose sudden sight hath thrilled [his] wounded eye” (1.1.225-226). He switches roles with his servant, literally becoming a slave for and to his love, in order to spend time with and woo Bianca.
Petruchio describes the sort of cantankerous strategy he will employ against his wife as “a way to kill with kindness/And thus […] curb her mad and headstrong humor” (4.1.208-209). In the scene immediately after Hortensio vows that “kindness in women, not their beauteous looks,/Shall win [his] love” (4.2.41-42). The use of the same word used with different meanings in such close proximity to each other bears examination and, perhaps, reveals more about the characters uttering them. The physical and emotional abusive behaviors Petruchio outlines he’ll use toward Katherine are not what most people would consider kind. They are, in fact, the opposite. The contrary nature of his actions is consistent with how he determines to first greet Katherine; if “she rail, […he’ll] tell her plain/She sings as sweetly as a nightingale./Say that she frown, [he’ll] say she looks as clear/As morning roses newly washed with dew./Say she be mute and will not speak a word,/Then [he’ll] commend her volubility/And say she uttereth piecing eloquence./Is she do bid [him] pack, [he’ll] give her thanks/As though she bid [him] stay by her a week./If she deny to wed, [he’ll] crave the day/When [he] shall ask the banns, and when be married” (2.1.178-188). Out of context this seems obedient to the biblical commands in Romans 12:17-21 that say, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath […] If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirst, give him something to drink. In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” By not retaliating but offering compliments and niceties in reaction to Katherine, Petruchio makes himself a martyr of sorts, the only person brave enough and strong enough to endure insult and aggravation. It is impossible to ignore the sinister hue his motives take on when, before he decides to play a gentleman, he claims he will “woo her with some spirit when [Katherine] comes” (2.1.177). Even his servants understand Petruchio enough to know that “he kills her in her own humor” (4.1.180). Thus Petruchio’s supposed kindness in response to Katherine’s rude behavior is false. His false kindnesses utilize reverse psychology in an attempt to reform his wife’s behavior. What remains somewhat unclear is the goal of his reformation. It could be simply to have a peaceful and functional marriage. It could also be to have a submissive and obedient wife. Killing Katherine with kindness may mean killing her stubborn independence to create co-dependence. Regardless, Petruchio’s understanding of kindness is far more complex than Hortensio’s. Hortensio’s vow that he will pursue kindness in women over their looks (4.2.41-42) comes after he witnesses growing affection between Bianca and Lucentio, who is disguised as the tutor Cambio. Indignant at his treatment, Hortensio forswears Bianca. His understanding of kindness rests in is his expectation of softness and gentleness in women. Bianca’s interest in her tutor awakens Hortensio’s meaner spirit and reveals his desire for a submissive wife above all. Though she is not promised to him, Hortensio believes Bianca is untrue and disobedient to him, so he abandons his pursuit, opting for a wealthy widow who has had an interest in him (4.2.37-38). This pursuit, too, demonstrates his misunderstanding. He does not comprehend Petruchio’s strategy in full and comes to the conclusion that “if [his widow] be froward/Then hast [Petruchio] taught Hortensio to be untoward” (4.5.83-84). He decides to mimic Petruchio’s oppressive behaviors, illustrating the damaging influence that perpetuates pernicious attitudes and actions. At the end of the play his wife does not come when summoned, unlike Katherine. The froward character Katherine and Hortensio’s widow exhibit stands in juxtaposition to the kindness Petruchio demonstrates, but share similarities in how they first appear. One could argue that Petruchio’s version of kindness, is a froward one used to create what he perceives is true kindness.
Petruchio’s interest in wooing Katherine is first financial, second the challenge. He is not shy about his desires, stating from his arrival that “wealth is burden of [his]wooing dance” (1.2.69) and he “come[s] to wive it wealthily in Padua;/If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.76-77). The nature of his wife matters not, be she foul, old, curst and shrewd, or worse (1.2.69-72), so long as she is rich enough to be his wife (1.2.68). When Hortensio jokingly and then seriously describes Katherine as a potential wife, Petruchio automatically agrees, insisting that Hortensio “know’st not gold’s effect” and that he will “board her, though she chide as loud/As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack” (1.2.94-97). Katherine’s spirit does not dissuade Petruchio, but rather encourages him. With arrogance he assures Gremio and Hortensio that he will not be turned away and that he will be successful in procuring Katherine as a wife, despite her faults (1.2.189-214). Before Petruchio begins to woo Katherine, though, he insures it will be worth his trouble, asking after her dowry (2.1.126-127). Only after he receives a satisfactory answer does he commit to it. His desire to prove himself and play his game thus started requires a conclusion the audience witnesses on stage. Petruchio therefore devises a wager that “each one send unto his wife,/And he whose wife is most obedient/To come at first when he doth send for her/Shall win the wager which we will propose” (5.2.68-71) of one hundred crowns (5.2.77). Proving he could break Katherine like one breaks a wild animal appeals to his bravado while literally enriching him. Ever the showman intent on proving his masculinity, Petruchio claims he will “win [his] wager better yet,/And show more sign of her obedience/Her new-built virtue and obedience” (5.2.129-131) despite winning an additional twenty thousand crowns from Katherine’s father for the transformation (5.2.125-128). He has already won the wager, but insists on going further, telling Katherine to expound a woman’s duty to her husband (5.2.144-146). Petruchio achieves his goal of procuring wealth and overcoming a challenge when he weds Katherine.
Additional resources for this article included Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom, and the NIV Bible.