The Taming of the Shrew
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Grumio reports to Curtis of the household staff about the miserable journey, during which Katherine has had a particularly difficult time. Regarding her wading through mud, Curtis remarks, “By this reck’ning he is more shrew than she” (IV.i.85-86). Petruchio and Kate arrive, and Petruchio treats his servants abominably. Even Kate tries to reason with him when he strikes a servant: “Patience, I pray you, ’twas a fault unwilling” (IV.i.156). Although Kate is famished, Petruchio rants that the meat is unsatisfactory and throws everything about. She responds, “I pray you, husband, be not so disquiet. / The meat was well, if you were so contented” (IV.i.168-169).
He mentions his dog Troilus (IV.i.150) — a great name for a dog. The reference to a cousin Ferdinand (IV.i.151) seems to be a lingering shred of a previous draft or version of the play, since we never hear of this guy again.
The standard interpretation is that marriage is primarily a social relation, with addresses as “my lord,” “husband,” “goodman,” “Madam.” This underlies Petruchio’s central “chattel” speech. One needs audience assent for this comedy to work, audience sympathy for him and his condition, then his treatment of her is humane and restrained — he doesn’t beat her. Otherwise it’s a frightening, tortuous brainwashing. As Marilyn French points out, “Denial of food and sleep and freedom of movement is outlawed even in most prisons” (83). So he must have the legitimacy of the claim that he “owns” his wife. His aggression is calculated with good motives. He ceases this abuse of power once she accepts a volitional internalized subordination. The surrender of the female makes possible the surrender of the male. (In later comedies, females maybe evade but do not rebel; design focuses on the reeducation of males.)
But more subtly, Petruchio exploits the age-old antagonism between the sexes. He’s not out to pulverize her will. Kate sees Petruchio abuse Grumio and the servingman and is horrified, although she used to strike Bianca. Petruchio shows her a male version of her behavior — unreasonable and arbitrary — so she must see it objectively. In psychology it’s called “mirroring.” He’s teaching her self-control and caring without breaking her spirit. And it’s working, as Curtis attests: she “Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak, / And sits as one new risen from a dream” (IV.i.185-186) — another connection to Christopher Sly in the Induction.
There’s no doubt that Petruchio is acting, so sympathy is maintained. His musing, “He that knows better how to tame a shrew…?” (IV.i.189) is disarming (Wells 49). The reference to the “haggard” (IV.i.190) comes from falconry and similar use of the specialized term can be found in Othello and in the Edward de Vere poem “Women’s Changeableness” (Ogburn and Ogburn 54; cf. IV.ii.39).
It’s a quick ending for Hortensio once it’s decided that Bianca seems to favor Lucentio. Sputtering in anger (IV.ii.30-31), he crassly announces he’ll wed anyway: “I will be married to a wealthy widow, / Ere three days pass” (IV.ii.37-38).
A gullable Pedant arrives, and Tranio easily ropes him into the plot to play Lucentio’s father Vincentio.
“[R]ole is dictated by gender and station, by the requirements of the external world. It must therefore be learned, and it never permits full expression of the self” (French 84-85). So disguise alone permits an expansion of the experience of characters in such a rigid determined structure. Tranio makes a better Lucentio than the original; the Pedant a more generous father than Vincentio; Sly a more amusing lord than most. Bianca is disguised in a sweet docile role, Kate as rebellious, Petruchio as a tyrant.
Katherine gets no mercy, nor food, from Grumio, who strings her along with glimmers of hope and repeatedly dashes them. Petruchio brings in a tailor and a haberdasher for Katherine, but then he continues having tantrums. Kate is taken with a hat, but nothing is good enough for Petruchio, so because of his hissy fits, she ends up with nothing.
Petruchio proposes that they visit Kate’s father, but when he declares the time to be “seven a’ clock” (IV.iii.187) and she points out that it’s around two instead, he pitches another fit: “It shall be what a’ clock I say it is” (IV.iii.195).
The Pedant, disguised as Lucentio’s father Vincentio, is presented to Baptista. Bianca will be Lucentio’s wife, but not the Lucentio Baptista thinks.
Petruchio and Kate travel to Padua. He makes declarations, then changes his mind and expects Kate to comply:
Petruchio. I say it is the moon.
Kate. I know it is the moon.
Petruchio. Nay then you lie; it is the blessed sun.
Kate. 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.”
So Kate learns to submit to Petruchio’s arbitrary will. She is “tamed,” or at least is able to adopt a façade of civility. But the moon talk “is a spirited reply in its acknowledgement of absurdity” (Wells 50). Kate is newly articulate now, and a sly dig is involved about the moon and Petruchio’s mind since it is women’s minds that are proverbially compared with changeableness (Wells 51). In any case, Kate is allowed to visit her family in Padua. “The next episode reveals Kate not merely concurring with her husband in patent absurdity but entering with full imaginative commitment into what now seems more like a game than a display of the results of a process of brainwashing” (Wells 51). “From this moment on, Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio, a marvelous Shakespearean reversal of Petruchio’s earlier strategy of proclaiming Kate’s mildness even as she raged on” (Bloom 32). “This marks the beginning of Petruchio and Kate’s mutual collaboration” (Garber 65).
An old man, another traveller, approaches. Petruchio indicates that Kate should treat him as if he were a young beautiful maiden. He turns these tables too and then points out, “This is a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered, / And not a maiden” (IV.v.43-44). We learn that this old man is the real Vincentio, also on the way to Padua, so the plot thickens.
A reference to Bergamo as a sail-making center (IV.v.77) despite being a “provincial inland town” is another instance of Shakespeare’s “repeated ability to toss out accurate, offhand minutiae on Renaissance Italy” (Farina 75).