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In the late sixteenth century, Elizabethan society dictated that the perfect woman should be mild-mannered, modest, virtuous, and at all times submissive to her husband. Any woman who was not these things had little or no chance of getting a husband – which was, after all, the single aim of any lady. Katherina Minola, the unlikely heroine of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of these women. ‘Shrewd’, ‘froward’ and argumentative, she is everything a good Elizabethan woman should not be. In the play, Katherina is wooed, and seemingly, tamed by Petrucio. But the question remains as to whether the taming is merely Kate playing a role, to continue an ongoing theme of deception and mistaken identity, or if she really is tamed, and a model wife.
The beginning of the play – the ‘deception’ involving Christopher Sly does not have any real bearing on the main plot. However it does set up the running premise of deceit and role-playing that continues throughout the whole play. The idea that the Katherina/Petrucio storyline is a play that Sly watches gives immense weight to the idea that Kate is not really tamed – everyone in this storyline is just an actor playing a role.
The first time we meet Katherina, she is arguing with Hortensio and Gremio, who insult her. Kate insults them back – a thing very unbecoming for a lady of that time. It is this attitude, and her lack of deference to men that has earned Kate her reputation as a shrew, a froward, waspish spinster who is unlikely to find a husband. Kate is treated badly by almost all of the other characters, including her own father, who is willing to pay any kind of man to take her off his hands, even one so strange as Petrucio. Kate seems a very pitiful character; there is no love between her and her father or sister, she has no friends, no suitors and is seen as a figure of ridicule, an ‘irksome, brawling scold’ behind her back and insulted to her face. Bianca acts outwardly sweet or indifferent towards Kate, affecting a long-suffering air in the presence of her father. However, when you observe Kate and Bianca together, it seems as though Bianca’s comments, although on the outside innocent, are calculated to spite Katherina. Kate, although having tied Bianca up, never really seems to gain the upper hand. To her father, Kate is a burden, one that he wishes to be rid of as soon as possible. Unlike with Bianca, he shows absolutely no affection with Katherina, treating her like a disobedient child. He insults her, perhaps unintentionally, suggesting that as she will never find a husband. So, in making Bianca wait to marry until Kate gets married, he will keep his younger, favoured daughter by his side for longer – even now does any father want to let his children, particularly a favoured daughter, go? Hortensio, Gremio and Bianca’s other suitors are Kate’s adversaries, seeking any opportunities to humiliate her but often getting insulted just as violently back. They are the ones who pay Petrucio to marry her, but this is not an act of kindness – this is simply a purely selfish gesture because they want to marry her sister. When Petrucio announces that he has tamed Kate, they are sceptical; they laugh at him. Above all, these men are the ones that Kate would want to prove wrong over all, and if that meant joining forces with Petrucio, then she may even be amenable to this. If I were directing this play, I wouldn’t want the actress playing Kate to over-dramatise the role; I would want it played subtly. Katherina’s barbs should be quietly spat with contempt, not shouted, implying her impudent nature, but also suggesting a lot of pain and jealousy of her sister in Kate’s character that she disguises by being so angry and uncaring. Although Kate’s words are bold, she obviously hides a lot of inner unhappiness. After all, Bianca is the younger, prettier sister who has all the suitors and who everyone loves, especially her father. I think that, if played correctly, Kate can be seen as an effective and sympathetic character, one whom the audience could identify with – one who is more likely to fall in love with Petrucio without it feeling unnatural. Katherina’s sister Bianca appears to be the epitome of a perfect woman; she is meek, docile, modest and never outspoken. When talking to her father, she does what he asks, she never speaks out of turn and she presents the world with an image of chastity and virtue. How much of this is calculated to gain her sister’s envy? Would Kate really be so shrewish if Bianca wasn’t her sister? In the final speech Petrucio gives Katherina the chance to dominate her sister and show Bianca up as the disobedient wife; it is as if he presents Katherina with this chance in exchange for her dignity, or possibly just her love, and she gladly accepts. More than anything, besides wishing to prove Hortensio and Gremio wrong, Kate wants to humiliate Bianca. Earlier in the play, Kate gives hint of what is to come, or perhaps simply what she wishes, when she says, ‘Her silence flouts me; I’ll be avenged’. And yet Bianca is not the idyllic wife that everyone thinks she is, even towards the beginning. Although the scenes with Lucentio and Hortensio as her suitors are insignificant in the taming of Kate, they do show how easily women can play a part to suit their purposes. Bianca, so perfect and docile, is actually not as sweet and light as she seems. In the scene with the suitors as her teachers, meek little Bianca, her father’s little ‘peat’, spurns the attentions of Hortensio for the younger, more handsome Lucentio. Without her father’s presence, Bianca knows what she wants and knows how to get it. She says, ‘I am no breaching scholar…I’ll not be tied to hours nor ‘pointed times, but learn my lessons as I please myself’. Were I directing this play, I would want Bianca to sound mildly haughty and impatient; a suggestion of what might emerge as a new side of her character with her ‘disobedience’ at the end. Yet it should still surprise the audience when Kate gains the upper hand at the end, so the actress should let the words speak for themselves, but around her father maintain her aura of innocence. Bianca’s true nature, cleverly concealed by her apparent virtuousness, makes us as the audience wonder whether the more open and obvious Katherina takes a leaf out of her sister’s book at the end, hiding her shrewishness under a façade of modesty to get what she wants; the respect of Petrucio and the envy of her family.
In the play there are four prominently different couples, and each couple represents a different view on marriage. They are Sly and his wife, Bianca and Lucentio, Petrucio and Katherina and Hortensio and the widow. The marriage that Christopher Sly believes is real is nothing more than a whim of the Lord, who wishes to be amused by tricking him into believing that he is also a Lord with a beautiful wife. That this is a fake marriage perhaps leads us to believe that maybe the other marriages are also phony, with neither party knowing the other. As the play unfolds, we learn that appearances can be deceptive, both between the characters in the play and to us watching it. The marriage between Sly and Bartholemew first introduces us to the concept that a wife is her husband’s property, to do whatever he pleases. Sly’s ‘wife’ says, on meeting him, ‘I am your wife in all obedience’. An ideal wife would share this attitude entirely; and it would be the formula for a perfect marriage. However, as the marriage that this attitude is from is a fraud, then perhaps this attitude is an illusion. Bianca and Lucentio, for instance, when we first meet them, appear to be a perfect match. From the moment he sets eyes on her Lucentio is smitten by the seemingly flawless Bianca, and soon the feeling is mutual. They are married in a secret ceremony, and when they are accepted as a couple by their respective families, everything seems rosy. Their love is forbidden to start with and then they overcome all obstacles to be together. Theirs, unlike Katherina and Petrucio’s marriage, is a love match and money plays no part. However, when the men place the bet on the obedience of their wives, Bianca reveals a new, previously unseen – at least by Lucentio – side to her character and makes a fool of him. When Lucentio protests, Bianca simply replies, ‘The more fool you for laying on my duty’. It seems possible that all women change after marriage, and if Bianca’s character can change, then it is likely that Kate could also reveal a different side to herself. The other ‘unreal’ couple is Hortensio and his widow. After Hortensio forswears Bianca, he decides to marry an older widow, saying, ‘Kindness in women, not their looks, shall win my love’. However, at the feast we see that Hortensio’s widow has neither. Much like her husband, she insults Kate and Petrucio and openly calls Kate a shrew. We don’t know what the widow was like before marriage, but when she too refuses to come at her husband’s call – even to win his bet for him – it is all too evident that they will not be a happy couple. And yet, theirs, too is supposedly a love match. When Katherina and Petrucio get married, it is not for love. Petrucio is marrying for money, and Katherina has no choice – the role of women was not to question their father’s judgement in choosing their husband, and even if, like Kate, they did, their views would be ignored. They are not in love when they marry; it is doubtful that they even like each other. However, when they banter with words during their first meeting, you get the feeling that they are both somewhat enjoying it. They are both equally quick-witted and volatile and seemingly well matched. If I were directing this play, I would want the actors to give a many-layered performance, arguing but both obviously having fun with it. If the audience had already sympathised with Kate, this might indicate that there is hope for Kate and Petrucio to find love. I think that Kate, having never really found anyone as scintillating as Petrucio before, who could match her intelligence with his own, would be really quite enjoying the trading of insults. I’m sure that she would be more likely to fall in love with a man who argued with her than one who flattered her. Years of hiding her true nature because she cannot compete with Bianca would have sharpened her, and maybe Petrucio has found a way to soften her harsh tongue, to ‘pull her sting out’. From the very beginning, Kate and Petrucio didn’t hide anything from each other. Neither of them pretended to be anything that they weren’t, and so when they finally fell in love it was as a result of really getting to know each other’s true nature. In finding out a little more about themselves, they found each other, and in the end they became the perfect couple.
Some vehement feminists - both male and female - critics have called Kate’s final speech, in which she instructs the widow and Bianca in how to be the impeccable wife, ‘a vile insult to womanhood’, ‘totally offensive’, ‘utterly degrading’ and ‘a disgusting set-back in the ideals of equality in our society’. However, I believe that the play is intended to be far more complex than this rather simple and obvious interpretation. Whether or not Shakespeare intended it to be ironic, I choose to interpret it, like Germaine Greer (‘Kate is lucky to find Petrucio, a man who knows what he wants and how to get it’), that Kate does not believe what she is saying, it is not specifically designed to be insulting to women. Kate is going to act tamed, at least in public, because she loves Petrucio. From the words alone, Katherina certainly sounds tamed, however she talks for fifty lines; her spirit and conviction in everything she does has not been stifled. She begins talking to the widow and Bianca, finally getting her chance to humiliate them, I believe speaking patronisingly, mocking Bianca who was once the example of perfect womanliness, but the roles have now been reversed, and Kate is revelling in it. Everything she says appears to be completely anti-feminist; ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign’ But I think that this is a mocking speech; insulting Bianca and the widow because her speech is directed at them: ‘My mind hath been as big as one of yours, my heart as great, my reason haply more’, She implies that now, since her ‘taming’, since marriage, she is cleverer than them, she knows the way it works. And I think that what Kate has learnt is simply that if you compromise, marriage can work both ways; if she does not argue with everything Petrucio says, and acts sweetly to him, then he will be polite to her, save her from the humiliation of being a spinster and look after her. Kate’s speech is ironic because she knows that Bianca and the widow, who had little independence before they were married, are now trying to be free after marriage. Kate knows that she revelled in being independant before getting married and has learnt now that you cannot be completely selfish; you cannot take everything from your husband and give nothing in return. You have to compromise: Kate will act tamed to Petrucio, at least in front of his friends, and in return he will provide for her and restore her reputation. Kate illustrates this with the words, ‘I am ashamed that women are so simple to offer war when they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy and sway’. During this speech Kate implies that always either the man or the woman are trying to rule, to dominate, when they should be in an equal partnership. Kate has lost none of her untamed spirit; she insults the widow and Bianca, telling them ‘you forward and unable worms’, yet now she knows how to control it when it benefits her. Kate also instructs Bianca and the widow, ‘A woman moved is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty’ She is showing what she has learnt, what Petrucio has taught her, that you don’t get anywhere by shouting and losing your temper, but that a true woman, who can ‘manage’ her husband subtly without him realising, can get what she wants by staying calm and not causing trouble. At the end of the speech Kate tells Petrucio, ‘In token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease’. She is telling him that she has fallen in love, she has surrendered, and if he will accept that she is not perfect, that her untamed spirit is still a part of her, she will ‘serve’ him as a good wife should. And Petrucio, seemingly aware of the irony, accepts Kate’s offer with his line, ‘Why there’s a wench!’ If I were directing this play, I wouldn’t want Kate to sound defeated and simpering, but strong, confident and triumphant. After all, she has won; she has got a husband who will allow her to be herself because he knows and has seen every side of her. She has gained her revenge on Bianca while at the same time impressing her father, the other guests and winning Petrucio’s bet. I would want her to sound mocking while she addresses the widow and Bianca, yet subtly, so that they realised that she was insulting them but so that it appeared to everyone else that she was instructing them. The last lines, where she offers herself, exactly herself and nothing but her true self, whom she has discovered, she should sound proud, in love but not fearful; she is confident that Petrucio will accept because she has a better gift to offer than Bianca or the widow; she is offering herself and not a false façade. She loves Petrucio, she will give him anything, and she knows that he loves her too. This is her triumph; he has seen her for herself, and he still loves her.
I believe that, on balance, Kate isn’t tamed. There is some evidence to show that she is tamed, for instance using a different interpretation of the final speech, she could be construed to be a broken women bending to her vile husband’s will. Petrucio’s horrific taming methods that would subdue any woman’s spirit, and also the fact that even when Petrucio is alone speaking a soliloquy, he is still confident that his taming will work. However, although Petrucio and Kate appear to hate each other, they secretly are getting closer. From the moment they meet, and they banter with words and insults, they seem so well matched and secretly enjoying themselves, that falling in love appears inevitable. When Petrucio takes Kate home and kisses her in the street, she does so willingly, because she knows – or at least believes – that he loves her too. I think that, essentially, Petrucio is an idealistic man who has an idea in his head of the perfect woman, and all throughout the play he tests Kate whilst moulding her into his ideal. He has never shown interest in Bianca, despite the fact that she is from the same family and equally rich, because in his heart, he would prefer a woman with rare spirit, who, like Kate, will grow to love him back. At first, he was only interested in the money, but it has grown to more than that, he knows Kate, he knows her character and he accepts it. He is moulding her, not into a tamed, bland, weak character, but a strong, independent woman who knows the game and how to play it. When he calls upon her to give her speech, the speech that some people interpret as so degrading, it is the final test, the test not to see if she is tamed but to see if she loves him, and whether she loves him enough to play along with him. They recognise the irony and both now know that to get what you want out of life you have to sacrifice some things. Kate and Petrucio were two lonely outsiders who have found each other, found love, and found out a little more about themselves. The question is not to whether Kate is tamed, because she never needed to be tamed, but whether she has learnt the lesson that I believe was Shakespeare’s objective from the beginning, and I think, to that question, the answer is yes.
Sorry to write so much; feminism is very close to my heart, and, after i truely thought about it, so is this book.
you certainly put some work into that,well done,take care,pat.
jillmurphy 17.06.2003 20:36
I am so sorry for the mingeing rating - but this really is an essay and not a consumer review. I doubt your readers will have the attention span for it, and probably nor should they. It's a great essay though!