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Taming of the Shrew

My thesis for us to consider is that the title of shrew becomes contested in the play, and there is a way in which we can read this as an unfulfilled desire on the part of the play’s male characters to actually control female subjectivity, to both diagnose and then corral. What I want to pose as a possibility for both of our class sessions on The Taming of the Shrew is that it is not Katherine but actually Bianca who is the shrew, and that the taming remains unenacted by the end of the play because the true shrew has a tendency to escape the strictive bounds placed upon her. But perhaps there are other shrews as well, including Petruccio or even Sly. Related to this idea is that the shrew is inherently an actor or actress, one who can manipulate her surroundings theatrically so that she performs the expected roles while maintaining her shrewish and shrewd characteristics. I might be wrong, and there are a diversity of approaches to take to the characters in Shakespeare’s comedy. I hope you’ll contest my argument by the end of our class sessions on The Taming.


Today we encounter Shakespeare for the first time in our class, and I’ve selected a radically polarizing play precisely because I want us in our class to acknowledge a diversity of interpretations available to how we understand Shakespeare. There is room, in other words, for new insights to these texts that you will contribute in our class, and perhaps beyond. So The Taming of the Shrew is an apt place to begin because it does provoke such different responses—a fun-filled comedy where the perfect pairs end up together or a brutal misogynistic fantasy in which actual and threats of violence dominate the narrative. Between these two spaces is where we have room to negotiate, to think about how historical circumstances in Shakespeare’s day, the language of the play, and our own cultural moment all inform how we interpret this difficult comedy.


In Shakespeare’s works, we rarely see happily married couples. We watch, in awe and sometimes with knowing grins, newly married couples, but we rarely see them settled into domestic life. Nor do we often glimpse, for example, two people who come together and then have children and create a home. We recall the oft-praised love between Romeo and Juliet, but we might forget that this marital bliss is shared between them for only one night. And admittedly it’s hard to imagine a different ending, one in which the two have children, a household, and less elevated, domestic concerns. Even those married couples we do glimpse have troubles, and we might think about how one of Shakespeare’s most domestic plays, Othello, is in part disturbing because it places high tragedy and passions in such an intimate, cloistered space of the home.


Home, in The Taming of the Shrew, is an interesting place to start because the notion is so radically disrupted right at the beginning of the play. In the induction with Christopher Sly, the Lord convinces the poor man that he is indeed in his own lavish home, complete with erotic paintings and a lovely wife. And we might think too about what home Katherine (I’ll return soon to names) leaves and the one she is greeted with when she marries Petruccio. We will return to this idea below, but for now I want you to think about the fact that Taming, unlike some of Shakespeare’s other comedies, is focused so entirely on the space of the household, whether it’s the doctored décor that Sly awakes to or the raucous and masculine household of Petruccio. Why home?


In part, of course, happy marriage might not make for exciting theater, though other playwrights like Ben Jonson and John Webster would explore in more detail the potentially comedic or tragic circumstances of married life. But in Shakespeare, there are fewer married couples, and certainly not many happy ones. And so right away we have to ask if we can imagine Katherine and Petruccio’s as a happy marriage, or if we can determine from their individual characteristics if they are indeed fit for each other. From just the first three acts, What do you think?   


We might think about Kate’s first insult to Petruccio, “I knew you at the first / You were a movable” (2.1.195-196) as emblematic of the play as a whole: movable here means a piece of furniture or household object that can be moved easily—it is changeable. The charge—that Petruccio is changeable—applies not only to him but to most of the characters in the play, including Kate’s sister Bianca. And perhaps the history of the play’s performances and our own interaction with the comedy are movables too, chameleon-like in how we perceive the potential “resolution” at the end of the play. Has Katherine been truly tamed? And do we want her to be? And what are the stakes of this taming for Shakespeare’s play and for us?

So marriage is judged in part on how we read the relationship among characters. I want to suggest that thinking about the potential afterlives of Shakespeare’s married couples is a fruitful endeavor, one that we can comment more knowledgeably on if we think about how that couple came together in the first place. Nowhere is the courtship between two individuals more sensational than in the play we’re discussing today, though Much Ado is a close rival. As in the other discussions on individual plays, this page is divided into two. The first, this one, covers the first three acts of The Taming of the Shrew, while the second will cover the last two acts and, hopefully, trace our conclusions about where this play falls today: should we dismiss it as a past era’s masculinist fantasy of subjugation (not only of women but of servants) or should we recuperate the comedy as one that can be read differently, as Katherine finding the place she truly belongs in and rejecting the narrative of shrew that other men ascribe to her.


Titles are, of course, significant because that’s how we usually first encounter a play, as did the audience in Shakespeare’s lifetime. So it’s worth dwelling, at first, on what the title of this play suggests both then and now, and what this information tells us about one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays about women, obedience, and the relationship between men and women. You may or may not know (I didn’t before I read this play), that a shrew is a small mouse. Edward Topsell describes the animal in his massive bestiary The History of Four-footed Beasts (1607) someone’s encounter with it, in which it is “of colour blacke, hauing a taile very short, and her snout very long and shapr, and from the venomous biting of this beast, we haue an english prouerb or imprecation, I beshrow thee, when we curse or wish harm vnto any man, that is, that some such euil as the biting of this Mouse may come vpon him” (535). As you can see from the image, the shrew is not an attractive creature for Topsell, and the idea that it is poisonous contributes to the idea that a shrewish woman is one who has a venomous tongue, a biting response to all who oppose her.


In Shakespeare’s day, too, the tangled history of the play circles on the play’s title. The Taming of the Shrew has a muddled textual history because of the unclear relationship it has to another play titled The Taming of a Shrew. The tiny difference in the article “the” or “a” is somewhat deceptive because, while the two plays share much in common, they are also significantly different to be considered two separate plays. A Taming is an anonymous play, and it’s unclear whether this is a source for Shakespeare’s version, or if Shakespeare’s play served as inspiration for this comedy.

Of course, both plays focus on the idea of the unruly woman, a stereotype that has deep roots, from Socrates’ wife Xanthippe (named by Petruccio himself at 1.2.70), to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, scolds or shrews (the terms were often interchangeable) were publicly chastised, as in the image of a “cucking” or dunking of a talkative woman by a community, as in the woodcut below. When Gremio says he’d rather “cart her” (1.1.55) he is referring to this or a similar practice that shames the shrewish woman. And we might then think about how women are consistently shamed in the period for acting outside of the proscribed Christian and social bounds. This would make for an excellent research project.

Taming of the Shrew is unusual in Shakespeare’s corpus because most of what we think of as the play is, in fact, a play-within-a-play. Although the term might seem self-explanatory, there’s much more to it than we might assume. The first figures we view on the stage are the drunken, boisterous tinker Christopher Sly and the Hostess of a local tavern, threatening him with legal action because he has broken several glasses. Already, in these first few, loud moments, we are expecting that there is conflict in this world, there are disagreements among men and women. So many scenes in this play being with loud confrontations or declarations. A woman and a man enter shouting at each other, and we’re led to the conclusion that the drama we are about to see if one rife with contradictions, of contrary desires and motivations. The Hostess leaves in a huff and Sly, who has had far too much to drink, falls asleep. Importantly, this is not the world of Italy, where the play-within-the-play will take place. Rather, this is firmly Shakespeare’s England. Indeed, the play often confuses the two boundaries—Katherine’s name is also spelled Katherina and Katerina, suggesting an Italianate name, but Petruccio insists (perhaps in a move to control her) on calling her the very English Kate. So too, Petruccio’s household has servants with English names such as Nathaniel and Joseph. Nonetheless, the play also insists on its Italian setting.


   This blurring of setting resonates with another muddling: that of identity. As Sly sleeps in a drunken stupor, a Lord and his servants come upon him and decide to play a trick—they will dress him up and present him with lavish surroundings and a wife (actually the Lord’s servant Bartholomew dressed up as a lady). They will convince the man that he has been mad for many years and is only now awakening to his true self as a rich lord. It is worth dwelling on the language the Lord uses when he first encounters Sly, a moment in which Sly is an object of both disgust and ridicule:


            O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies!

            Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image.

            Sirs, I will practise on this drunken man.

            What think you, if he were conveyed to bed,

            Wrapped in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,

            A most delicious banquet by his bed

            And brave attendants near him when he wakes,

            Would not the beggar then forget himself? (Induction. 1.33-40).


The Lord’s bravado here, to me, is off-putting. He appears to be proud of his device, and yet he is repelled by the body of Sly, who in sleeping looks like he is dead (how foul and loathsome is thine image). And the Lord’s resolution to “practise” on Sly rings a warning note. While it might mean simply to play a practical joke, the term in the period carried negative connotations, and suggests manipulation or scheming. Certainly the joke can be read as either funny or cruel, and the Lord uses this opportunity to play puppet-master over prescribed behavior. His directions to his page Bartholomew on how to act like a wife, one who will say to Sly “‘What is’t your honour will command, / Wherein your lady and your humble wife / May show her duty and make known her love?’” (Induction 1.114-116) anticipates Petruccio’s own demands on Katherine that she become such a wife. Such hints at scripting play upon The Taming’s self-referential habits, its tendency to be metatheatrical and reflective of contemporary performance conditions. To complement this scenario, players (actors) will entertain the newly revitalized lord Sly with a play.  


When the players enter, they agree to help the Lord put on a performance despite the warning that Sly himself might not be the perfect audience member. The Lord cautions that Sly “never heard a play” (Induction 1.95) and might not have the same sensibilities as, presumably, Shakespeare hoped his audience possessed. This is apparent when Sly does awaken in the second Induction, and the players are introduced. Asking what entertainment he is to be greeted with, Sly demands “Is not a comonty [a comedy] a Christmas gambol or a tumbling trick?” (Induction 2.133-134). But Bartholomew-as-Lady answers that instead he is to see “a kind of history” (Induction 2.137), a term that suggests a story, a fictional world that we, as audiences, are then treated to when the play proper begins.


  Many subsequent performances have cut the Sly Inductions altogether, but I believe they are key to the tone of the comedy that follows—strife between men and women, class distinctions, costuming and comforts (food, drink, and music), and so many more parallels exist between the frame of The Taming and the play itself. I think having Sly present throughout adds another layer to the play. Let’s imagine the staging possibilities.


   Before we meet the famous Petruccio and Katherine pairing, we discover much about Katherine’s supposed personality and her situation from other men who feature primarily in the subplot. The play is focused on gazing upon, and then controlling, the female body, as when Lucentio quickly turns away from his goal of studying to, instead, chasing Katherine’s younger sister Bianca. Lucentio is the typical lover, and his inflated language—“I burn, I pine; I perish, Tranio, / If I achieve not this young modest girl” (1.1.154-155)—hints at his superficiality. He actually knows very little about Bianca, but believes from this first encounter to have found an ideal humble, quiet woman. Abandoned are all thoughts of “[a] course of learning and ingenious studies” (1.1.9). What he witnesses are the family difficulties of Baptista Minola, whose two daughters, Katherine and Bianca, appear as polar opposites. Gremio and Hortensio, Bianca’s suitors, are aghast at Baptista’s resolve to not allow Bianca to marry until her older sister Katherine does.


When we meet Katherine, she is immediately set in contrast to her sister. And here we should pause, thinking about how difficult it might be to compete with Bianca’s modest performance. Bianca demurs to her father:


            Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe:

            My books and instruments shall be my company,

            On them to look and practise by myself. (1.1.81-83).


Conversely, Gremio and Hortensio openly insult Katherine, calling her “this fiend of hell” (1.1.88) and, once she leaves, as the place of damnation or “hell” (1.1.134). Baptista remains firm, and tells the suitors to send schoolmasters in various arts to his home to tutor Bianca. Katherine, left by her father onstage, leaves too, and Gremio and Hortensio decide upon a shared investment in finding Katherine a husband so that they can freely pursue Bianca. Although rivals, they intend to work together to land Katherine someone, anyone, so that the two can then stand the chance of winning Bianca. Overhearing this, Tranio and Lucentio determine that the servant Tranio shall pose as his master in Padua, while Lucentio will pretend to be a schoolmaster so that he can have access to Bianca.


With these ploys in place, we then meet the famous Petruccio, who has arrived in Padua from Verona, and, importantly, he is blunt about his aims. Our first encounter establishes that Petruccio is violent and rash: he beats his servant Grumio for (perhaps purposefully) misunderstanding him. Let’s dwell, however, on Petruccio’s stated aims for visiting Padua. As he explains to Hortensio, he comes to Padua via:


            Petruccio:        Such wind as scatters young men through the world

                                    To seek their fortunes farther than at home,

                                    Where small experience grows. But in a few,

                                    Signor Hortensio, thus it stands with me:

                                    Antonio my father is deceased,

                                    And I have thrust myself into this maze,

                                    Haply to wive and thrive as best I may;

                                    Crowns in my purse I have and goods at home,

                                    And so am come abroad to see the world.

            Hortensio:       Petruccio, shall I then come roundly to thee

                                    And wish thee to a shrewd, ill-favoured wife?

                                    Thou’dst thank me but a little for my counsel:

                                    And yet I’ll promise thee she shall be rich,

                                    And very rich. But thou’rt too much my friend,

                                    And I’ll not wish thee to her.

            Petruccio:        Signor Hortensio, ’twixt such friends as we

                                    Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know

                                    One rich enough to be Petruccio’s wife—

                                    As wealth is burden of my wooing dance—

                                    Be she as foul as was Florentius’ love,

                                    As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd

                                    As Socrates’ Zanthippe or a worse,

                                    She moves me not—or not removes at least

                                    Affection’s edge in me—were she as rough

                                    As are the swelling Adriatic seas.

                                    I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;

                                    If wealthily, then happily in Padua. 1.2.49-75


This is a lot of text to go through, but let’s see if we might not parse some of what Petruccio is saying here and how Hortensio cleverly uses his friend for his own aims. Not only does Hortensio direct his friend towards a woman known as “Katherine the Curst” (1.2.126), but he also, like Lucentio, intends to pose as a tutor to Bianca. What we notice with Petruccio’s language is its bombast, the way in which Petruccio tends to depict himself as an adventurer. Now that he has come into his own property through his father’s death, Petruccio aims to prove himself amid this “maze” by landing a profitable marriage. Hortensio, perhaps knowing his friend better than we do, immediately picks up on the financial registers of Petruccio’s speech, relating how Katherine is “rich, / And very rich.” Such emphasis on money has the effect of erasing Katherine as a person and making her an object—unpalatable ware that serves as the cost for the accompanying large dowry. When Petruccio responds with a list of historical examples of terrible women (a genre that was a medieval favorite, as in Jenkin’s book of terrible women in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue), his examples move from medieval romance (Florentius’ wife) to classical literature (the Sibyl was an extremely old prophetess). These extremes are characteristic of Petruccio’s swashbuckling self-presentation, although we have to continually keep in mind that his language is overwrought for the actual occasion (arriving in a nearby Italian town to find a rich wife).


            That potential rich wife we actually meet more fully in Act II. The Act opens with an intimate look at Katherine and Bianca’s relationship. Katherine has tied Bianca up, demanding that her sister relate which suitor she prefers. But does Katherine know something we don’t? She demands of Bianca, “See thou dissemble not” (2.1.9). Why would Bianca dissemble or lie? Does she have a habit of dissembling? It does seem extreme that Katherine then hits her sister, but perhaps her ire derives from the continual abuse she receives not only from other men but from her own father. As she complains to Baptista:


            What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see

            She is your treasure, she must have a husband,

            I must dance barefoot on her wedding day

            And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell.

            Talk not to me, I will go sit and weep

            Till I can find occasion of revenge. (2.1.31-36).


Perhaps Katherine does long for a husband, and the idea that she will only help celebrate Bianca’s wedding (“dance barefoot on her wedding day”) is an acknowledgment of her loneliness.


            Whatever Katherine’s motives for her “curst” behavior, she is treated as a patient in need of a contradictory cure by Petruccio. He plans to woo her on the idea of opposition: he will respond to her insults and demands with playacting as if he receives gracious answers from her:


            I’ll attend her here,

            And woo her with some spirit when she comes.

            Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain

            She sings as sweetly as a nightingale;

            Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear

            As morning roses newly washed with dew;

            Say she be mute and will not speak a word,

            Then I’ll commend her volubility

            And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.

            If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks

            As though she bid me stay by her a week;

            If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day

            When I shall ask the banns, and when be married. (2.1.167-179).


We see this strategy played out during the rapid exchange with Petruccio and Katherine, in which it appears that Katherine bests Petruccio, or at the very least holds her own. The exchange is marked by increasingly ribald sexual innuendo. At one point Katherine strikes Petruccio and his response somewhat deflates the energy and pure fun of the exchange: “I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike again” (2.1.222). The exchange once again rises, and we might notice the rhythmic ebb and flow of intensity in the insults. Petruccio, however, determines to bring this verbal fencing to a close with his bald statement to Kate that regardless of her will, she shall marry him. As Petruccio declares to her:


            And therefore, setting all this chat aside,

            Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented

            That you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on,

            And will you, nill you, I will marry you.

            Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn,

            For, by this light whereby I see thy beauty—

            Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well—

            Thou must be married to no man but me,

            For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,

            And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate

            Conformable as other household Kates. (2.1.269-280).


We should note how this speech twists the truth. Baptista had stipulated that Petruccio can only have Katherine when “the special thing is well obtained— / That is, her love, for that is all in all” (2.1.127-128). It is a comfortable idea that Katherine should love the man she is to marry, one that Baptista will seemingly backtrack on later in the play (particularly when he claims that the highest bidder shall have Bianca). But Petruccio elides this with the claim “will you, nill you” or “whether you want to or not,” and his persistent naming of her as Kate exhibits his desire to domesticate her, to make her an appropriate figure as “other household Kates.”


            Petruccio is in for the long con, and at his wedding day he puts on a performance of irreverence that exceeds what has gone before. As Katherine awaits with her father, sister, and Bianca’s suitors for Petruccio to arrive, she articulates her difficult and embarrassing position:


            No shame but mien. I must forsooth be forced

            To give my hand opposed against my heart

            Unto a mad-brain rudesby full of spleen

            Who wooed in haste and means to wed at leisure.

            I told you, I, he was a frantic fool,

            Hiding his bitter jests in blunt behaviour,

            And to be noted for a merry man,

            He’ll woo a thousand, ’point the day of marriage,

            Make feast, invite friends, and proclaim the banns,

            Yet never means to wed where he hath wooed.

            Now must the world point at poor Katherine

            And say, ‘Lo, there is mad Petruccio’s wife,

            If it would please him come and marry her.’ (3.2.8-20)


Fortunately Petruccio does arrive, albeit in a fantastic costume. He is dressed outrageously, and in BBC’s Shakespeare Retold, Rufus Sewell played the scene by dressing in women’s clothing, suggesting that Petruccio’s madness was attributable in part to his transvestism and nonconformity.


Think about this: you are an unmarried woman. Marriage represents a watershed moment in your life and in this period to remain unmarried is a source of shame. And yet the actual event is not romantic or solemn but belongs entirely in the realm of farce. Then, once you are actually married, you do not get to attend your wedding feast or to celebrate at all. Instead, that honor is giving to your younger sister while you have an arduous journey ahead of you with a virtual stranger, one who now has the right to beat you, to have sex with you, and to determine when you’ll eat or rest. And that’s where we have to leave it for today, with the threat that Katherine is under. We’ve witnessed only the first half to Petruccio’s “taming” of Katherine, and the second half will move much more quickly towards some type of transformation, though I’m looking forward to hearing from you what that transformation actually is. Who becomes the shrew? Who is no longer a shrew by the play’s close? And what are we to make of this act of taming?

[then enter two bearing of Slie in his

Owne apparel againe, and leaues him

Where they found him, and then goes out.

Then enter the Tapster.]


Tapster. Now that the darksome night is ouerpast,

And dawning day apeares in cristall sky,

Now must I hast abroad: but soft whose this?

What Slie oh wondrous hath he laine here all night,

Ile wake him, I thinke he’s starued by this,

But that his belly was so stuft with ale,

What how Slie, Awake for shame.

Slie. Sim gis some more wine: whats all the Plaiers gon: am not I a Lord?

Tapster. A Lord with a murrin: come art thou dronken still?

Slie. Whose this? Tapster, oh Lord sirra, I haue had

The brauest dreame to night, that euer thou

Hardest in all thy life.

Tapster. I marry but you had best get you home,

For your wife will course you for dreming here to night,

Slie. Will she? I know now how to tame a shrew,

I dreamt vpon it all this night till now,

And thou hast wakt me out of the best dreame

That euer I had in my life, but Ile to my

Wife presently and tame her too

And if she anger me.

Tapster. Nay tarry Slie for Ile go home with thee,

And heare the rest that thou hast dreamt to night.

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