The Taming of the Shrew
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
The ending of the play is easy to (mis)interpret in the most superficial manner, which makes it easy for Elizabethan as well as most modern lunkheads to go home after the play and live with themselves. Even George Bernard Shaw, whose misanthropy I normally cheer, claimed about the final scene that “No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman’s own mouth” (qtd. in Wells 52).
- But what has really happened? What is Kate really saying?
- What is Shakespeare’s resolution to the traditional battle between the sexes?
- What will the various marriages be like for each of the couples? Do you agree with a recent critic who insists that Kate and Petruchio will be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare?
Before Henry V and The Merchant of Venice, “it is The Taming of the Shrew that is possibly the most striking example among his early works of his love of so contriving a play that it should mean, to those who might choose to take it so, the precise opposite of what he knew it would mean to the multitude” (Goddard, I 68).
The various disguisings reach their chaotic climax, with Vincentio being especially confused. Undisguisings follow and the Bianca/Lucentio plot is resolved in a marriage match. A high point amid all this is Lucentio declaring, “Love wrought these miracles” (V.i.124).
Kate and Petruchio look on this spectacle and Petruchio supplies another test: “kiss me, Kate” (V.i.143) — hence the atrocious musical which, notwithstanding, does include the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” Kate is reluctant, Petruchio threatens that they’ll leave town, and Kate explains that she’s just embarrassed, being in the street. She acquiesces and he says, “Is not this well?” (V.i.149). They seem to demonstrate true affection towards each other here, and some critics try to say that Kate will be the tamer vs. the tamed. The true situation will be kept under cover: women can lord it over men so long as men think they’re in charge. Maybe this makes sense; after all, the doctrine of male superiority is decidedly unshakespearean — his heroines always seem stronger than their male counterparts (Goddard, I 68).
At a feast for Lucentio and Bianca (and Hortensio and the widow), Petruchio is subtly critical of self-indulgent, complacent, Paduan life: “Nothing but sit and sit, and eat and eat!” (V.ii.12; cf. 14). The “widow” is snippy to Kate. Note that the widow has no name — in fact, she’s still called “widow” even now! Why does this make perfect sense in Paduan society?
A contest is generated regarding wifely obedience and the men place their bets — “a wager about wifely obedience entered upon by characters who believe that the risks and dangers of courtship are past, so that they may now take pleasure in their newly married condition, as masters (and mistresses) of their own lives, no longer beholden to parents or other authority figures” (Garber 65). Lucentio sends for Bianca, who refuses to come.
It is not really surprising that sweet Bianca doesn’t come. Why should she? She has spent her whole life being sweet Bianca, and simpering and exuding charm, for only one purpose — to catch a man…. Well, her catching days are over, at least for a while, and now she means to relax. Wouldn’t anyone after a lifetime of work? The same for the widow, doubly, since she has had to work a second time to catch a second husband. (Asimov 463)
Hortensio “entreats” his wife to come, but she also refuses. All present are surprised that Katherine not only comes to Petruchio’s summons, but also drags the other two women in. Kate pontificates at some length on the duties of the wife to her husband: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” (V.ii.146). Everyone is astounded, including us in the audience!
The standard interpretation is that maybe in this case, Shakespeare is of his age instead of for all time (Wells 51), and discussions of the play tend to try to apologize by insisting on its earliness in the canon. But is Shakespeare himself buying into what he has Kate saying here: “the wholly un-Shakespearean doctrine of male superiority, a view which there is not the slightest evidence elsewhere Shakespeare ever held” (Goddard, I 68)? [Shakespeare “clearly preferred his women characters to his men” (Bloom 35). “Shakespeare’s heroines are, if anything, wiser, more capable, and better than his heroes” (Asimov 458).]
Note, for example, that in the end Kate is still bullying Bianca, but now with social, male approval on her side. Meanwhile, Bianca belies the truth in a late line to husband criticizing his bet: “The more fool you for laying on my duty” (V.ii.129) — uh oh, that sounds bad. Bianca is not “white.” Bianca is the real shrew.
Furthermore, Kate is neither broken nor cowering at the end, and Petruchio is not coming off like a crude bullying caveman. Like bearbaiting, this “taming” can be a brutal spectacle. But perhaps “Kate’s journey can be seen as a process that brings her to a full realization of her potentialities as a woman rather than as a process of brainwashing, crushing her into cowed submission” (Wells 51). Consider not so much the words — who cares what Paduans want to hear by this point? — but the dramatic effect Kate is able to create now, “the confident control of language that she demonstrates” (Wells 51). She’s learned something about her potentialities and the power of being, if not heard, at least not immediately dismissed. The speech is concerned with defining the proper relationship in marriage, as in Comedy of Errors, and it all sounds dismally traditional, but really, Kate “is advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience” (Bloom 33). The speech is redundant and hyperbolically submissive. There’s “a secret language or code now fully shared by Kate and Petruchio” (Bloom 35). The relationship has gone underground and we don’t know what really goes on between them now. It concludes with harmonious synthesis, but it has celebrated defiance and rebellion. Perhaps what Petruchio does to Kate, Shakespeare does to his audience (?). “Their final shared reality is a kind of conspiracy against the rest of us” (Bloom 29).
This play omits the return of the frame. The other version of the play ends with Christopher Sly going off to apply the lessons learned to his own shrew of a wife: “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” (Q).
It might have worked: Petruchio may be persuaded that he is lord finally, as Sly was falsely persuaded. Both are a bit intoxicated with something (the old Shakespearean blur of lovers, lunatics, and drunkards).
Is it that a page was missing when the materials were collected for the First Folio? That Shakespeare “grew impatient with the outer frame as merely serving to get in his way and he dropped it” (Asimov 451)? Is it that Sly’s “disenchantment necessarily would be cruel” (Bloom 28), or just too anticlimactic “and would disturb the mutual triumph of Kate and Petruchio, who rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare” (Bloom 28)? So perhaps Shakespeare cancelled it and may have meant to cancel the opening Induction too? Or is it that finally there is no Sly at the end because “It would be altogether too much like explaining the joke” (Goddard, I 73)? (Remember: the huntsman’s lines about dogs in the Induction may have been a clue — the best dog picks out the dullest scent.)