Story time, friends: when I was in junior high school I was jealous because all my friends were reading Shakespeare in their English class but I wasn’t. (The nerd was strong with us.) So, I decided to do them one better and read what they were reading on my own: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A bit complex for my first Shakespeare experience, but it was fun. I liked it so much, in fact, that I went right on to read The Taming of the Shrew. Again, on my own at the tender age of fourteen.
I. Loved. It.
Perhaps it was my penchant for strong female characters (Kate was no shrinking violet), perhaps it was my love of witty banter, or perhaps it was both. Regardless, this has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
But now…I’m not certain. It grates against my modern sensibilities; strong women don’t need to be “tamed”, you need to grow up. But is this gut reaction on my part valid? Did Shakespeare write an offensively-misogynistic (by modern standards) play? More on that below.
The Taming of the Shrew is essentially a play within a play. The first two scenes open up to a man named Christopher Sly being tossed out of a pub (or some similar establishment) as drunk as the day is long. He proceeds to fall asleep outside, where a lord finds him. The lord decides to play a little game: he has his men convey the very-drunk Sly to one of the lord’s chambers and clean and dress him. The lord then instructs his men to treat Sly as if he was the lord. There’s also the plan of a cross-dressing page.
It’s during this plan that a group of players shows up. The Lord decides to use them in his game and asks them to perform for Sly (though he doesn’t reveal Sly’s true station). The band agrees and performs.
In the play, Hortensio and Gremio are suitors to Bianca, Baptista Minola’s youngest daughter. Bianca’s older sister Katharina is the shrew: she’s quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and not very pleasant. (But then, looking at the men around her I can’t blame her; again, more on that later.) Baptista decides that no one will be allowed to woo Bianca until Kate is married, keeping Bianca cooped up in his house with tutors in the meantime. Hortensio and Gremio agree to find someone to marry Kate so they may be rivals for Bianca’s love.
The plot thickens when Lucentio, who’s recently come to Padua from university, spies Bianca and falls in love with her. He hatches a plot with his servant Tranio: Tranio will take on Lucentio’s identity, which will work since no one in Padua knows either man, and Lucentio will disguise himself as a tutor to woo Bianca in secret.
Meanwhile, Petruchio and his servant Grumio (haha, get it? Grumio is Petruchio’s groom: his Groom-io) arrive in Padua from Verona. Petruchio meets up with Hortensio, an old friend, and explains that his father has died and he’s decided to wed. Hortensio tells Petruchio of Kate and doesn’t gloss over her sharp tongue, but he does insist that she comes with a lot of wealth. Petruchio decides to woo Kate.
Hortensio, for his part, disguises himself as a music tutor named Litio and has Petruchio introduce him to Baptista so that he might woo Bianca in private. They meet up with Gremio and Lucentio (disguised as a tutor named Cambio), whom Gremio is going to introduce to Baptista and who will, so Gremio thinks, woo Bianca on his behalf.
So, Petruchio attempts to woo Kate and is thoroughly rebuked (in some of the best quick-witted dialogue I’ve ever read), but somehow convinces Baptista that Kate has agreed to marry him, even though she’s spitting-mad while Petruchio announces their engagement. Baptista, in awe, agrees to the marriage. Tranio (as Lucentio) then argues his case against Gremio, stating that he can provide Bianca with more wealth (more than Lucentio actually possesses). Baptista agrees to let Tranio (as Lucentio) marry Bianca the week after Kate and Petruchio marry only if Tranio can get assurance from his (Lucentio’s) father regarding the wealth he promised; otherwise, Gremio will marry Bianca.
We then cut to both Hortensio and Lucentio, disguised as tutors, vying for Bianca’s attention. Neither trusts the other, but neither realizes that they’re both disguised as tutors and there for the same reason. Lucentio confesses his real identity to Bianca, who seems receptive; Hortensio does the same, but Bianca spurns his advances.
On Kate and Petruchio’s wedding day Baptista and Tranio (as Lucentio) worry that Petruchio will not show up (he’s late) and Kate is in a bad temper at her groom’s absence. When Petruchio finally shows up he’s wearing a ridiculous outfit, stating that Kate is marrying him and not his clothes. He proceeds to make a farce of the wedding, swearing and hitting the priest and drinking the communion wine. But they married. Petruchio then travels home with Kate (against her will) before the wedding feast, leaving the rest to enjoy themselves without the crazy couple.
We then see Petruchio and the beginning of his “taming” of Kate (which looks a lot like abuse, both to her and his servants, but again more on that later). He denies her food and sleep, saying that it’s all for her own good and comfort. He contradicts everything she says and somehow makes her agree with his own ridiculous statements; the sun is the moon, an old man is a young maid.
Meanwhile, Tranio and Hortensio spy Bianca and Lucentio kissing and both men vow to foreswear her. This takes Hortensio out of the picture. Biondello (a servant who’s been helping Lucentio and Tranio) then comes to Tranio and states that he’s found someone who can stand in for Lucentio’s father and assure Baptista of Lucentio’s dowry. Tranio convinces the pedant that his life is in danger and that the only way for him to save himself is to masquerade as his (Lucentio’s) father, Vincentio.
Back in Padua, Bianca and Lucentio run off to elope as Tranio and Baptista agree on marriage terms. Meanwhile, Petruchio and Kate arrive with Lucentio’s actual father, whom they met on the road. The real Vincentio is angered when he’s not only denied entry into his home in Padua but also told by the pedant that he, not Vincentio, is Lucentio’s father. Tranio, still masquerading as Lucentio, comes out of the house and denies knowing Vincentio. Vincentio is further angered and fears Tranio has killed Lucentio and taken on his identity. There’s much confusion, similar to The Comedy of Errors, and Vincentio is about to be arrested when the real Lucentio arrives with Bianca. Lucentio confesses what’s happened to his father and to Baptista, neither of whom is very happy but they forgive him.
Everyone enters the banquet in honor of Lucentio and Bianca’s marriage, including Hortensio and his new wife, a wealthy widow. Everyone is of the opinion that poor Petruchio has gotten the short end of the stick with Kate, including the widow who insults Kate. Petruchio decides to show everyone that he’s “tamed” Kathe and sets a wager: each of the newlyweds (Lucentio, Hortensio, and Petruchio) will call for their wives and whoever’s wife comes quickest and most obediently wins. Both Bianca and the widow refuse to come but Kate dutifully comes as summoned. Everyone is amazed. To further show the change in Kate’s temperment, Petruchio has Katharina fetch the other two women (which she does), stomp on her own cap, and then upbraid the ladies, specifically the widow, for their disobedience. She proceeds to give a famous speech about women’s duties to their husbands.
And that’s a wrap! Next week we dive into The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And in case you’re wondering, we never find out what’s happened with Christopher Sly and the lord.
Interestingly, in this play we see the economic side of marriage. One can argue that there’s love between Bianca and Lucentio prior to their actual marriage, but certainly not between the other two couples (perhaps on the widow’s part, but not on Hortensio’s). Baptista refused to marry Bianca without sufficient economic support on the part of her suitor, and Petruchio married Kate in large part for her dowry. Hortensio, too, married the widow because she was wealthy. Here we see marriage more as an institution rather than the inner emotions that lead to a romantic match (which we see in Romeo and Juliet, which that didn’t end very well for the couple).
This play also has an underlying message: everyone has a role to play based on their social station, and things won’t run smoothly until everyone plays their prescribed roles. This play really is all about people stepping outside their stations and into others: Christopher Sly is made into a lord, a page is made into a lord’s wife, Kate rankles at being a maiden-in-waiting (though it’s a bit more complicated than just that), Lucentio and Hortensio become tutors, the servant Tranio becomes his master, etc. All is well with Kate and Petruchio once Kate contents herself with her social role as wife. Moral of the story: don’t try to be something you’re not.
Oh, my initial issues upon rereading this play. I won’t go on a rant here because that won’t serve any purpose, but I will say that I found Petruchio’s (and, really, everyone’s) treatment of Kate disgusting.
But was it? First, a look into Elizabethan times.
Apparently during Shakespeare’s time it was becoming unlawful to beat one’s wife. So, Petruchio’s methods of “taming” Kate are his way of making her dealing with her without resorting to physical violence. The way Petruchio treats Kate is “civilized” domination, and it could be argued that he triggers Stockholm Syndrome in Kate. While I hope that many men who saw the play proceeded to not beat their wives because of what they learned, it still disgusted me.
I tried to look subjectively at the play and realized that we could, possibly, read between the lines and see Shakespeare championing women here by lamenting their station as objects and commodities to be bought and dealt with without their own agency. But who am I to know for certain? So, I turned to Professor Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare: The Word and Action from the Great Courses series. And now I feel much better about the play.
Saccio has two lectures on The Taming of the Shrew. In one he talks about marriage, looking into love matches (Lucentio and Bianca) and arranged marriages (Petruchio and Kate). It’s good stuff, but what really interested me was Saccio’s analysis of the play as a farce. Specifically, he looks into Kate’s temperament and the intention behind Petruchio’s methods.
To wit, it’s all about playing games.
If you remember, the lord at the very beginning of the play is playing a game with Christopher Sly. There’s also consistent language referring to gaming and wagering and hunting throughout the play. In essence, Kate doesn’t know how to play games and Petruchio is teaching her how.
Ah, but why? Why doesn’t Kate know how to play games? And why should Petruchio teach her? It’s important to remember that Kate is the eldest sister but her father and all men, from what we can see, prefer Bianca over her. They all think that Bianca is sweet and submissive with proper manners. Kate sees through this in her sister, and if you don’t believe that just realize that instead of abiding by her father’s wishes she happily takes part in Lucentio’s wooing and even runs off to elope with him. That is not the conduct of a well-behaved daughter. So, Kate sees through Bianca’s good-girl image and is angry that no one else does. Not only that, they start insulting Kate about her angry temperament. So, Kate embraces her shrew identity. She sees Bianca playing games with everyone and thus finds games distasteful, even the game of putting on a polite face and manner in public.
Petruchio’s “taming” of Kate produces three results. First, by acting like a horrible shrew himself Petruchio shows Kate just how her actions and cutting words look from the outside. He even moves Kate to defend others from his wrath (as does Grumio).
Second, he teaches her how to play games. Through the game of getting Kate to agree with his false statements (the sun is the moon), Petruchio is teaching Kate to play. We see how much she’s grown in the respect when they meet the old man (Vincentio) on the road and Kate glibly compliments the “young maiden” on her beauty and just as smoothly recants when Petruchio indicates. (I have to admit that this is the part I have the hardest time grasping.)
Third, Petruchio matches Kate’s wit. No one else has ever been able to match Kate’s wit, or at least no one seems to have tried. But Petruchio does. He quickly responds to her one-liners, keeps her on her toes, and throws her for a loop. And let’s not overlook the fact that he’s doing so with complete attention upon her. After a lifetime of her father and everyone around her preferring Bianca, Kate finally has someone who’s paying attention to her. And Petruchio’s not unkind, especially after he’s shown Kate what her shrewish behavior looks like from the outside; once that part is done and the playing part begins he seems affectionate. And Kate seems genuinely upset when she thought Petruchio wasn’t going to show up for their wedding even though she could seem relieved. It appears that Kate, while still angry over the situation, was happy with Petruchio’s attentions, and I honestly don’t think she would have been if he didn’t engage with her intellect.
So in conclusion…I’m still not certain how I feel about this play. I’m much happier with it based on the above analysis, and there are instances that I absolutely adore (specifically the verbal sparring between Kate and Petruchio). But aspects of the play (its portrayal of women, mainly) still bother me. But perhaps that’s a good thing. And besides, we can’t go around imposing modern ideals onto Elizabethan theater.