The Taming of the Shrew

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 175-244).

Induction Scenes 1-2

The metadramatic character Christopher Sly, as the Riverside introduction points out, is connected to the general theme of transformation.  I would add that he hasn’t earned his marital happiness—his pretend-wife’s obedience is to the Lord who is playing a trick on Christopher.  Neither does this common fellow belong to the aristocratic world, as he is so easily gulled into believing thanks to his drunkenness.  But that’s a matter of birth, not earning one’s way.

Act 1, Scene 1

Lucentio of Pisa has come to Padua to cast himself into a “deeper” world than he has known thus far, and his declared intent is to look more discerningly into moral philosophy, or “virtue.”  As he enters town, we are treated to an instance of Baptista’s concern for protocol: he insists that he must find a suitable husband for his eldest unmarried daughter first, and only then can he allow the youngest, Bianca, to find a mate.  This situation is standard comic fare: eager suitors faced with an obstinate father.  In this case, the obstinate parent isn’t imperious or cruel; in fact, he’s quite affectionate and protective towards his youngest daughter in particular.  But in many comic plays we see the specter of the “terrible father” invoked or hinted at only to be dispelled as the play reaches its happy conclusion.

Of course, the pickings for Katherine and Bianca don’t look so fine here in Padua—there’s Hortensio, who seems rather a silly fellow, and then there’s Gremio, a stock pantaloon borrowed from Italian commedia dell’arte theater (a C16 phenomenon).  Gremio and Hortensio are men of substance, and their considerable property and assets make them contenders since Renaissance marriage undeniably has to do with securing dynastic wealth and status.  Still, it seems as if the field is open for any adventurous newcomer.

When Lucentio espies Bianca, his initial declarations are forgotten without further ado: in ancient and early modern lore, “the eyes have it”: vision is represented as the most powerful and transformative of the five senses, especially when it comes to love.  So it’s love at first sight for Lucentio, struck with Cupid’s invisible arrow.  His resolve now is to serve as one of the schoolmasters that Baptista wants to commission for his daughters.  Tranio will play the role of Lucentio and will directly sue for Bianca’s hand, the better to keep attention away from the real Lucentio’s efforts. 

Act 1, Scene 2

Enter the right honorable Petruchio of Verona, who has just come into his inheritance and is therefore “his own man,” as the saying goes.  He is free from parental and financial hindrances, so he’s just the one to serve as the “the tamer of the shrew.”  Petruchio’s liberated status distinguishes him from Lucentio, as we will find later on.  This man declares to his friend Hortensio that he has come to find a wife with plenty of money in rich Padua.  What’s love got to do with it?  Nothing—at least at the outset.  That insouciance regarding such an important consideration further distinguishes Petruchio from Lucentio.  In them, at least at the outset, we see two aspects of courtship and marriage: the sway of erotic passion and true love, and the imperative of money and status.

When Hortensio hears of Petruchio’s indifference to anything but wealth, he pipes up about Katherine, who is indeed the marriageable daughter of a well-to-do Paduan.  Petruchio is glad to hear of this possibility, and in return offers to present Hortensio as the schoolmaster Litio so he can woo Bianca in that guise.  At this point, Tranio enters in his disguise as Lucentio, of course with the same intent of wooing Bianca.

Act 2, Scene 1

Katherine is evidently jealous of her younger sister Bianca, and is even restraining her physically in order to extract information from her.  Kate’s horizons are quite limited if she is worried about the attentions of the likes of Gremio and Hortensio.

Petruchio begins his quest by feigning ignorance about Katherine’s true temperament, and he generously offers everything he has in pledge of faith.  Baptista, suitably impressed and no doubt relieved that he might soon be unburdened of this difficult daughter, nonetheless insists on one point: Petruchio must win Katherine’s love.  Petruchio makes light of this demand, saying that he is a “rough” man and no child when it comes to romance.  He is encouraged by Katherine’s deplorable abuse of “Litio” (Hortensio): she seems like a suitable challenge for him.

Petruchio’s opening gambit is to call Katherine what he wants her to become, even though she is at present exactly the opposite.  He parries wits with her, physically detains her just as she had done to her sister (though the stage directions don’t indicate that he knows about this), and boldly sets forth a timetable, with the marriage to be made on Sunday.  This outrageous “Kiss me, Kate” strategy only works, of course, if there’s mutual attraction between the pair.  A lot depends on the actors here, as the excellent versions starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Sarah Bader and John Cleese, respectively, show.  The play revolves around what makes a fitting couple.  Petruchio is himself a bold and outspoken man, so Katherine’s fiery quality is a draw for him, at least at first—he wants an obedient wife, but likes the challenge of “earning” that obedience and “training” his choice to suit his will.

Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) pitch their wealth when talk with Baptista turns to dowries, and Tranio does such a good job of lying that now he must find himself a fake father to “make good” on his fake promises.  The extent of patriarchal authority is a main concern in comedy, and Shakespeare here offers a fine (if temporary) overturning of that concern in that the “Child shall get a sire.”  Shakespeare isn’t by any means what we would call a feminist, but he has a lot of fun at the expense of male authority—Vincentio, an eminently sensible and respectable father-figure, is pretty much at the whim of his deceiving son Lucentio and that son’s servant Tranio, as we shall find out.

Act 3, Scene 1

Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca in the pauses between Latin lines goes well enough, and Hortensio is insulted at the rapidity with which Bianca’s attentions turn towards such a young “stale” (Katherine had earlier used this word to mean “whore,” but here it means something like “good-for-nothing fellow”).  Hortensio forswears any further interest in such an unwise girl.

Act 3, Scene 2

Now Katherine is ashamed that Petruchio hasn’t yet shown up for his own wedding.  And when he appears in the guise of a carnivalesque fool riding a broken-down horse, she is still more ashamed.  Katherine wants propriety and ceremony observed, she wants a conventional wedding that, presumably, would betoken respectability and security.  We might also infer that Katherine thinks she’s done Petruchio a tremendous favor in more or less consenting to marry him.  (One imagines that she would be an easy mark for today’s “wedding mania” that seems to demand ever-greater preparation and expense for the great event.)  But Petruchio, clever man that he is, will have nothing to do with such regard for tradition and form, and he certainly isn’t going to allow “Kate” to get the upper hand.  She’s marrying him, he says,—not his clothes.  Petruchio’s behavior is outlandish, of course, but the point of his actions is probably that marriage isn’t only about status and respectability, or security: it’s about the coming together of two people who must learn to live well together.  Shakespeare was enough of a “bourgeois gentleman” to appreciate Katherine’s need for respectability and security, but at the same time—as so often—he manages to see beyond these entry-level concerns and get to the deeper significance of an institutional act.

Meanwhile, Lucentio and Tranio continue their scheme—Tranio advises a secret marriage if that should prove possible. 

Gremio reports on the doings at Petruchio and Kate’s mad wedding—the groom even tosses wine in the priest’s face, as if he would deny the Church’s power in the whole affair.  Petruchio then proposes imperiously to make away with Kate, saying that she is “his anything” he chooses to make of her.  In essence, he tactically (and only tactically, we may hope) employs the notion that a wife is a man’s “property,” more or less like a piece of furniture of a valuable parcel of land.  Simply getting Kate to marry him is only the first stage of Petruchio’s plan, of course—he still has much “taming” to do before his bride will be genuinely “conformable,” as he had earlier called her.

Act 4, Scene 1

The trip back home is a madcap disaster.  Kate’s horse falls, and her gallant husband can’t be bothered to help her up.  He shows no regard for her, and then abuses the servants under the pretense of showing a nice regard for her tastes in food and clothing.  Alone, Petruchio lets us in on his method: he will deny her basic appetites any satisfaction—no food, sleep, or sex.  She will get no satisfaction until that satisfaction can safely be associated with him as its facilitator.  Petruchio’s terms for this operation are borrowed from falconry—he will “curb” Kate just as a keeper would a bird of prey he wanted to train to hunt for him.  The gender assumption is painfully obvious to us moderns, I suppose: a woman can’t be allowed to beat a man at his own game, at least if the man knows what he’s about, as Petruchio does.  Katherine has been violent, arbitrary, and willful, and Petruchio shows her here more than ever how much more frightening it is when a strong man behaves that way towards a woman he “owns.”  Hardly a feminist notion, but there it is.  It should also be said that there’s quite a range in the concept of masculinity in this play and elsewhere in Shakespeare—he seems to know that “being a man” isn’t simply a biological matter; it is at least partly what we would call a symbolic construct, a position one occupies in the social and sexual order of things.  Gremio, Hortensio, and Baptista are indeed “men,” but they are quite unable to deal with Katherine, while Petruchio knows exactly what to do and is willing to earn the obedience he professes to be his right as a husband.  That stance may not endear him to us, but at least he does not expect obedience as a purely formal matter.  At the broader level, England in Shakespeare’s time (and long afterwards, too) was a patriarchal culture in which men possessed most of the authority, learning, and wealth and mostly refused to share those things with women, but it’s also worth reminding ourselves that Shakespeare’s early work was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, one of the most brilliant and powerful monarchs in history.  Given the right circumstances (however rare), a woman could exercise considerable authority.  Some of Shakespeare’s female characters are vital and strong; although played by boy-actors, they are by no means mere stage props to back the stories he tells about men.

Act 4, Scene 2

Hortensio, disappointed at what he considers the loose attentions of Bianca, forswears his quest for beauty and looks instead to the kindness of a widow whom he knows will accept him.  Tranio cagily agrees, leaving the real Lucentio sole suitor to Bianca, who of course is in on Lucentio’s scheme.

The servant Biondello brings in a pedant to serve as Vincentio.  Poor Vincentio—any fool who just walked into town can serve his turn as the rich, accommodating father of a headstrong son. 

Act 4, Scene 3

As for Kate, she sees Petruchio’s method, but not its purpose, so Petruchio’s labors continue: he finds a perfectly nice cap and gown not suitable for her, roundly abuses everyone around him, and laments that she will still be “crossing” his every word and deed.

Act 4, Scene 4

While the fake Vincentio talks money with Baptista, Biondello advises Lucentio to marry Bianca on the sly.

Act 4, Scene 5

Petruchio’s claims become still more extravagant and absurd: he insists that Kate call day night, and old Vincentio (the real one, that is) a young maiden, and then needles her when she gives in to his demands.  Petruchio breaks the news to Vincentio that “Lucentio” has no doubt by now managed to win Bianca’s hand, so they’re all related!  (He “knows” this, I presume, on the basis of Tranio’s efforts as “Lucentio” back in 2.1.)  Vincentio doesn’t know what to think of it all.

Act 5, Scene 1

Things look very bad for Vincentio since, as Wordsworth would say, it seems that “the child is father to the man,” and the child (or rather his servant impersonating the child) has it in for him.  But Lucentio soon clears up the case of mistaken identity and prevents his father from being hauled off to prison as an imposter.  Vincentio obligingly promises to make a fair deal with Baptista, coming on board in spite of the bad treatment to which he has been subjected.  And nothing seems to come of those protestations about being “thoroughly revenged” against Tranio. 

Petruchio utters “Kiss me, Kate” for the second time, this time in the open street.  Kate is shocked, but doesn’t put up much of a fight by now.  (By the way, the phrase “Kiss Me, Kate” inspired a famous Broadway musical in 1949, one of the stars in which was—that’s right—my illustrious namesake of no relation, Alfred Drake.)

Act 5, Scene 2

The three happy couples get together for a feast at Lucentio’s.  Hortensio’s Wife-Widow offers the provocative statement about Petruchio, “He that is giddy thinks the world turns round,” a phrase whose significance isn’t lost on the ever-sharp Katherine.  And now, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most obedient of all?  Petruchio wagers that it’s none other than his own conformable Kate.  He makes her fetch in the “froward” wives of Lucentio and Hortensio, and then she lectures them dutifully about their duties, to the men’s great satisfaction.  What Kate sets forth is, of course, an entirely traditionalist view of gender relations in the married state: a man must hazard all he has and provide security, and the woman must be helpful and obedient; she must “stand by her man.”  Kate concludes her speech with a self-characterization of her sex that sounds almost like the words Milton will later give his narrator in Paradise Lost to describe Eve: “For contemplation he and valour formed; / For softness she and sweet attractive grace; / He for God only, she for God in him…” (Book 4).

Well, at least, as mentioned above, Petruchio acknowledges a certain need to “earn” his mastery of his Kate, and so we have in The Taming of the Shrew not so much a celebration of hollow patriarchal form but rather a rollicking “battle of the sexes” in which the man and woman together give some genuine meaning to a traditional view and to the institution based upon that view: marriage, the central concern of many a comic play.  Petruchio labors for his mastery, and demonstrates his mettle.  He wants a conformable Kate, to be sure, but he probably wouldn’t be happy with anything other than a conformable Kate.  Lucentio sees Petruchio’s act of taming a “wonder,” which suggests that he doesn’t get it.  As Petruchio says to both Lucentio and Hortensio, they are “sped.”  They are the ones who will have to live with headstrong wives, while he will go off to live in domestic bliss with Katherine. From the widest angle and aside from gender issues, the play provides a light exploration of love’s power to transform people, to alter suddenly and inexplicably their chosen path and declared intentions and to immerse them in an active, not always kind world.  This power is a constant in Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is not necessarily described the same way from play to play.  There isn’t much “idealizing of eroticism” in The Taming of the Shrew, but there’s a great deal of that valuable and yet dangerous intellectual activity in, say, Romeo and Juliet.  In the romances, the power of love seems to be surrounded with mystery, just as in those same romances, Prospero enfolds the whole of life memorably with the statement, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.155-58).

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake