Posted: March 18th, 2023
Taming of the shrew is one of the most memorable and prominent Shakespearean comedies. It revolves around patriarchic themes such as taming of wild woman, a man’s domineering character, female subjugation etc. But while many critics feel that the play chronicles the domination process in a marriage where Petruchio, the male lead finally overpowers his wild and aggressive wife, Katherine Minola, closer analysis of the play reveals that this is not exactly true. The play actually deals with equality of power issue. It shows that in a successful marriage, both husband and wife must come to terms with shifting of power from one spouse to another. In this play too, Katherine successfully overpowers Petruchio on many occasions while it may seem that Petruchio was the one who had been trying to dominate Kate. Their courtship and marriage, while it may appear, as one-sided domination spree in fact characterize fluid exchange of power positions. We see both Kate and Pet trying to outsmart each other and on many occasions, while it may not appear to be the case at first reading, it is Kate and not Pet who manages to beat her husband at his own game.
In Act 2 of the play, Pet feels that wooing would calm Kate down and help in taming her “Though little fire grows great with little wind, / yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all; / so I to her, and so she yields to me” (2.1.134-36). He feels during the courtship, Kate would either become very aggressive or stay quiet but he would be able to dominate her for if she rails he would “tell her plain/She sings as sweetly as a nightingale” and if she decides to stay silent he’ll “commend her volubility” (2.1.170-71, 175). But all his plans are wasted and prove quite unproductive when we see Kate dragging Pet into a casual discussion on the role of husband and wife and prove that she is absolutely unwilling to change. Pet first gives his/her idealized version of a wife:
Hearing thy mildness prais’d in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am mov’d to woo thee for my wife.
But Kate remains unmoved and without railing, she intelligently draws him into an uncomfortable argument where she overpowers him completely:
Kath. Mov’d! In good time! Let him that mov’d you hither
Remove you hence. I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.
Pet. Why, what’s a movable?
Kath. A join’d-stool
Pet. Thou hast hit it; come sit on me.
Kath. Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
Pet. Women are made to bear, and so are you.
Kath. No such jade as you, if me you mean.
In this banter, while Pet is trying to prove his dominance by showing that he could woo Kate at will, Kate on the other hand leaves her mark when she calls him moveable them reducing her status to that of a commodity that she could reject as and when she wanted.
Kate refuses to bow down to his caustic remarks and continues with her aggressive yet extremely intelligent behavior as she stamps her authority:
Kath. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Pet. My remedy is then to pluck it out
Kath. Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
Pet. Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
In his tail.
Kath. In his tongue
Pet. Whose tongue?
Kath. Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
Pet. What, with my tongue in your tail?
Kate’s younger sister Bianca is by far the more subdued and well mannered of the two but her courtship and her marriage both lack the energy of Kate’s relationship. This shows that while conforming to patriarchic demands of the time might have helped Bianca in a certain manner, it had certainly robbed her relationship of the energy that Kate’s relationship radiated. Kate and her marriage thus appear more alive than Bianca who is a conformist as she submits to her father’s will: “Sir, humbly I subscribe to your pleasure” (1.1.175, 81) in an attempt to win his blessings. Bianca’s mild presence, it appears, was precisely meant to accentuate the aggressive and non-conformist behavior of Kate. Bianca’s submission similarly highlights Kate’s rejection of societal norms and gender-specific roles.
Kate who was very wild and rarely ever submitted to anyone was dragged into a marriage against her wishes. One wonders then, how and why did she ever let her father take this action if she was actually so outspoken. We must understand that while she didn’t have much choice in the case since it was a time when arranged marriage customs were rife her behavior earned her the right and respect that she deserved. This is very clear when we read the betrothal scenes of both Kate and Bianca and compare them to each other. In Kate’s betrothal scene, her father Baptista, makes it absolutely clear that he wants Pet to win her daughter’s love before he could hope to have her money while in Bianca’s betrothal scene, she is objectified as Baptista feels he could hand her over to anyone he found suitable enough. Pet demands to know about financial arrangements in these words:
Signior Baptista, my business asketh haste,
And every day I cannot come to woo.
Then tell me, if I get your daughter’s love,
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?
Let specialties be therefore drawn between us,
That covenants may be kept on either hand.
(2.1. 114-15, 119-20, 126-27).
Baptista shows more love and respect for his daughter Kate as he declares: “Ay, when that special thing is well obtain’d/That is, her love, for that is all in all.” (2.1.128-29). However the same respect is lacking in Bianca’s betrothal scene when Baptista says:
Faith, gentleman, now I play a merchant’s part,
And venture madly on a desperate mart.
[He] … [t]hat can assure my daughter greatest dower
Shall have my Bianca’s love.
Bianca’s love is thus not something that the suitor needs to earn but instead it is something that could be given by her father: “Now … shall Bianca/Be bride to you, if you make this assurance; / If not, to Signior Gremio” (2.1.395-97).
Even though Bianca goes on to marry someone of her own choice without her father’s consent, we notice that she is a meeker character compared to her sister Kate. This is evident from her constant concern for her father’s reaction as Lucentio comforts her: “Look not pale, Bianca, thy father will not frown” (5.1.138). But Kate has no such concerns. She doesn’t mind speaking her mind and stamping her authority over Petruchio, despite the latter’s loud declaration of his dominance: “I am he born to tame you, Kate,/and bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate/Conformable as other household Kates” (2.1.276-78).
It is through Kate that we see absurdity of wifely submission that was expected of all females at that time. While Kate is an intelligent woman with a mind of her own, Petruchio expects her to follow his commands and do as he wants her to do. She is expected to be meek and docile like her sister Bianca and that is something unacceptable to Kate. To reveal the utter absurdity of this notion, Kate starts practicing this habit in extreme- following Hortensio’s instruction of: “Say as he says, or we shall never go” [4.5.11]). Katherine responds to this direction quickly and when Petruchio tells her that the moon is indeed “the blessed sun” (4.5.18), she meekly accepts his claim and even goes on to support it vehemently:
Then God be blest, it [is] the blessed sun,
But sun it is not when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.
Katherine must been seen as the device through which the author chose to mock wifely subjection and social inequalities. One particularly interesting example of it is the scene where Petruchio calls old Vincentio a” [y]oung budding virgin” and Katherine reiterates it. Then just as casually as he mentioned this, Petruchio also goes on to term his own claim absurd: “Pardon, I pray thee for my mad mistaking” [4.5.49]) thus mocking obedience that was expected of women in those times.
But while we claim that Katherine was shown as an intelligent woman who mocked obedience and submission, critics argue that Kate’s last speech at the banquet makes mockery of this claim. It is this scene, they maintain that, “which testifies to the ‘taming of the shrew’.” (Weller: 321). But if we carefully analyze the speech, we notice that Kate has not failed to perform her role as an enlightened woman in this scene as well. She stresses the role and duties of a husband to show that if wife has some duties towards her husband, the latter must also fulfill his duties sincerely.
Petruchio first tries to make a show of his wife’s submission by announcing a contest:
Let’s 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.
Critics feel that this contest was simply a “celebration of the bridal into a masculine arena of wager and competitive husbandry” (Boose: 214) we feel that it is the same speech and venue that gave Kate the opportunity to speak her mind. Through this speech, she managed to put her views in words and explain that while a wife must submit, there is no explicit need for male dominance in a marriage. Nowhere in the speech, does Kate use or even hint at husband’s dominance.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weaknesses past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Katherine is presented as a self-aware woman who knows about power shifts in a marriage and yet chooses to speak her mind in a way that doesn’t explicitly highlight her mockery of traditional obedience/dominance binary. We must see that Katherine was using herself as the device to illustrate the utter ridiculousness of social inequalities, seen most prominently in a traditional marriage.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor, both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe.
Even though Katherine could not free herself completely from social hierarchies and power setup of the time, she tried to make a difference by giving a witty performance in the last speech. She tries to highlight the absurdity of social inequalities by exaggerating its significance. However to many critics, this method is highly frustrating: “Shakespeare reinscribes the comfortingly familiar order inside a dialogue that challenges the social distributions of power but concludes in a formula that invites us to applaud the reinstatement of the status quo.” (Boose: 1991: 194)
The end is controversial to a modern reader but he needs to see it in the context of the entire play. Katherine can be seen not as a tamed wife in the end but as a victim of cruel social hierarchies that turn even an intelligent woman into a meek character who absurdly and blindly follows her husband’s orders. In this connection, we must read what Gay (1994) writes in his book ‘She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women’ about the last speech and Kate’s transformation:
“[In the play] It ends happily, so all must be right with the world. Yet, looked at with sober late-twentieth-century eyes, this is a story in which one human being starves and brainwashes another, with the full approval of the community. Cruelty can be funny — it is the basis of the ‘practical joke’ — as long as one is on the dominant side, and no lasting damage is done to the victim. The Taming of the Shrew argues that the cruel treatment is for the victim’s good, to enable her to become a compliant member of patriarchal society. Whether we in the late twentieth century are convinced of this depends on the way the play’s world is depicted, and particularly on how Kate’s astonishing last speech is spoken and received, both by her on-stage audience and by the audience in the theatre. Ann Thompson points out in her thoughtful introduction to the New Cambridge edition of the play, ‘Of course not all modern Katherinas have been bitter, but it has often seemed the case that a straightforward and apparently sincere delivery of the final speech has provoked as much topical thoughtfulness in reviewers (and presumably audiences) as the more subversive mode …. Obviously the interpretation of this speech can lie as much in the mind of the reviewer as in the intention of the director or the performance of the actress ….'” (Gay: 86-87)
Taming of the shrew is thus in fact more a mockery of wife submission norms in English society of 17th century than an approval of the same. The last speech may confuse many but it is important to read the entire play carefully, analyze Kate’s speeches and her responses on various occasion to understand the real intent of the last part. I feel Shakespeare was not concerned with as much with depiction of social inequalities as he was in highlighting the cruelty and absurdity of the various methods that men employed to win their wife’s obedience and submission- unfortunately with the approval of the entire society. Despite this unfortunate reality, Katherine does manage to play an influential role as she refuses to submit to senseless social norms and at least gives us a chance to see the fairness and righteousness of her position.
1. Penny Gay. As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women. Routledge. New York 1994
2. Barry Weller, “Induction and Inference: Theater, Transformation, and the Construction of Identity in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Creative Imagination: New Essays on Renaissance Literature in Honor of Thomas M. Greene, ed. David Quint (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Literature Texts and Studies, 1992)
3. Lynda Boose, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 194.
4. Lynda Boose, “The Taming of the Shrew: Good Husbandry and Enclosure,” in Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, ed. Russ McDonald (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994
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