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To Meet One’s Match: Mutuality and Jest in The Taming of the Shrew

Abigail Storch

Upon cursory reading, The Taming of the Shrew appears dramatically deviant when located within the larger canon of Shakespearean comedy. In a canonical world populated by women such as Rosalind, Portia, and Viola—independent women of wit and wisdom who craft their own futures and take fate into their own hands—the content of The Taming of the Shrew seems surprising, to say the least. A superficial reading of the play will likely leave the reader taken aback by the seemingly misogynistic thematic material, the “taming” of a shrewish woman by a violent man of unjust methods. To read the play in this manner, however, is to misunderstand the layers of characterization and plot: Petruchio, the caricature of a boorish and paternalistic man, Katherina’s playful, subtle agreement to join Petruchio in his silliness, the undeniable attraction between the two that softens the harshness of both parties, and the slapstick nature of the play as a whole. In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare does not make light of abuse or misogyny; instead, he paints a broader, comically exaggerated picture of the nuanced relationships between men and women, and the mutual softening and taming of stubborn wills as two people fall in love.

The framing device of the play’s Induction hints at the broader content to come. It is important to recognize the thematic import of the Induction—The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s only play that opens with this framing device. It sets the stage and prepares the audience for a comedic exploration of the relationship between the sexes. The Induction has scarcely begun before the yelling match between Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, and the hostess of the alehouse ushers the audience into the action. The hostess demands that Sly pay for a set of broken glasses, and he refuses. As she exits to fetch the authorities, the intoxicated Sly promptly falls asleep. This opening scene features a confrontation between a man and a woman not unlike the later confrontations between Petruchio and Katherina, but the comedy is in Shakespeare’s rendering of male braggadocio. Strutting and boasting, Sly claims to be descended from “Richard Conqueror,” and orders the woman in charge of the establishment to go to bed; when she decides to bring in the authorities, he responds with “I’ll not budge an inch, boy. Let him come, and kindly,”[1] and promptly falls asleep.

The comedy heightens as a hunting party enters the ale-house and decides to play a trick on Sly, to convince him that he is a nobleman. When he wakes from his drunken stupor and hears the fable of his noble birth, the page Bartholomew is presented to him, disguised as a lady. With an exaggerated display of devotion, Bartholomew proclaims to Sly, “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband, / I am your wife in all obedience.”[2] Sly’s first order to his obedient wife is “Madam, undress you and come now to bed.”[3] Bartholomew cleverly creates an excuse to avoid such a situation, and the troupe of Players enters to commence the play. Here, the joke of the Induction scene is on Christopher Sly, the one character that is convinced of his elevated position and ignorant of the fact that he is being played the fool. The audience is meant to recognize Sly’s braggadocio as mere boorishness—he is in no position that should merit such self-importance, yet he swaggers along, unaware of the idiocy of his behavior. As a framing device for the later content of The Taming of the Shrew, the Induction scene could not be more appropriate, as it introduces the idea of the humorous pageantry of male arrogance and the absurdity of the notion that a woman is like an animal to be broken in, tamed to obedience.

However, Shakespeare’s presentation of the pageantry of male vanity does not undermine the fact that the “shrew” of the larger play, Katherina, is introduced as a notoriously difficult and volatile woman. In the opening scene, she is described as “too rough,” a “fiend of hell,” and “the devil’s dam.”[4] Lest one think that these are mere indicators of male misogyny toward outspoken women, Katherina openly taunts her sister Bianca, calling her a spoiled child. At the opening of the second act, Katherina has bound Bianca’s hands and interrogates her on her preference of suitors, not hesitating to shout insults at her and even to strike the defenseless Bianca. Ann Thompson points out that the importance of this exchange is highlighted by the fact that Shakespeare rarely depicts violence or fighting between two women.[5] By this scene, the men’s commentary on the rough behavior of Katherina is confirmed to be true as she vows that she will “find occasion of revenge” against Bianca—whose only fault is her desirability in the eyes of manifold suitors.[6] Shakespeare thus presents Katherina as an irritable and unpredictable woman.

As Katherina is pictured in the beginning of the play as a caricature of female harshness, Petruchio is introduced as the quintessential male egotist, wringing the ears of servants and agreeing to woo a woman for no other reason than her wealth. He proclaims to Hortensio, “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua.”[7] When told that the woman of wealth is “intolerable curst, / And shrewd and froward so beyond all measure,” Petruchio replies, “Hortensio, peace. Thou know’st not gold’s effect. . . . For I will board her though she chide as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack.”[8] But Petruchio is only just beginning to brag. He preens to Gremio, Grumio, and Hortensio,

Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,

And heaven’s artillery thunder in the skies?

Have I not in a pitched battle heard

Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds and trumpets’ clang?

And do you tell me of a woman’s tongue,

That gives not half so great a blow to hear

As will a chestnut in a farmer’s fire?

Boasting of his experience in battle, Petruchio is sure that Katherina will prove to be no challenge at all, and he paternalistically devotes himself to the duty of taming the “wildcat.” Cleverly, Shakespeare both introduces the characters Petruchio and Katherina separately and shows the audience their respective faults and stubborn wills. The audience eagerly anticipates the encounter between the swaggering Petruchio and the shrewish Katherina, when “the two raging fires meet together.”[9]

The slapstick drama of the meeting cannot be overstated. It is here that we are first led to understand that the foibles and faults of Katherina and Petruchio are meant to be enjoyed, that their bickering is comical. When Petruchio receives word that Katherina struck her tutor on the head with a lute, he marvels, “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench! / I love her ten times more than e’er I did.”[10] And when Petruchio announces to “Kate” that he intends to wed her, the ensuing quarrel is full of the cheekiest banter and the cleverest wordplay. The open sexual jokes from both individuals, Katherina’s well-placed slap, and Petruchio’s false report to the others that Katherina “hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss / She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath”[11] indicate to us that each character has met their match, in more ways than one. The supposed violence of the scene, like the abundant innuendo, is not meant to be taken seriously; it is farcical and ridiculous, contributing to the jesting atmosphere of the comedy as a whole. Petruchio and Katherina are male and female caricatures, engaged in a tremendously slapstick battle of the sexes.

This reading of the two as representative caricatures of men and women finds explicit support in the text. The arrogant Petruchio flouts all social propriety and fails to arrive to his own wedding in a timely manner. The moody Katherina, claiming that she does not love Petruchio, yet runs offstage weeping because he is nowhere to be found. When he finally does arrive, he is unapologetic and does not seem to notice that he has inconvenienced the entire household and wedding party. Gremio’s description of the wedding is equally shocking; he reports that Petruchio not only employed coarse language in his vows, but when the priest dropped the book in surprise, he hit the priest and proceeded to instruct him. Petruchio refuses to stay for a meal after the wedding, and Katherina obstinately refuses to leave, remarking, “I see a woman may be made a fool / If she had not a spirit to resist.”[12] Petruchio’s infuriating behavior underscores the concept that he is not a violent misogynist, but rather simply a buffoon of a man whose insensitive treatment of others is in no way confined to Katherina. “Why, he’s a devil, a devil, a very fiend!” Gremio exclaims, to Tranio’s retort, “Why she’s a devil, a devil, the devil’s dam!”[13]

In the nuanced interactions that follow, the audience is treated to an enormous game: Petruchio and Katherina use their best weapons to outwit each other. Petruchio’s determination to master Katherina is only matched by Katherina’s cleverness as she tricks him into thinking he has mastered her, all the while retaining her own independent will. In his own house, Petruchio plays up his roughness in a series of immature tantrums—he strikes servants, throws dishes, and yells in excess. After a soliloquy in which he enumerates his methods to wear down Katherina’s will, Petruchio says smugly, “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, / And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour. / He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak—‘tis charity to show.”[14]

Not surprisingly, the game that begins as a battle transforms into flirtatious playfulness. As they journey back to Baptista’s house, Petruchio continues his maddeningly childish behavior and claims that the sun is actually the moon, and that Vincentio is actually a young girl. This time, Katherina plays along, assenting to Petruchio’s momentary whims. No longer is there tension and bitterness in the air; it is replaced with good humor in the exchange between the two. It is almost as if Katherina has a good-natured twinkle in her eye throughout the scene; Petruchio is satisfied because he has “tamed” her into “obedience,” and Katherina is satisfied because she has found that in her agreement with Petruchio’s momentary whims, she can manipulate his actions to her own ends. Harold Bloom notes, “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.”[15] Katherina gives up her will or her independence to Petruchio no more than Petruchio gives up his to Katherina. Instead, the audience marks a gradual softening in both as they good-naturedly learn how to navigate the nuances of conflict and partnership and begin to love each other.

This newfound mutuality and reciprocity is evidenced after Petruchio and Katherina arrive at Baptista’s house. Petruchio orders Kate to kiss him, and she is scandalized that he would instruct her to kiss him in public. He respects her refusal, saying to Gremio, “Come, sirrah, let’s away,” to which she then redoubles, “Nay, I will give thee a kiss. / Now pray thee, love, stay.”[16] In this exchange, the two kiss for the first time, and though Petruchio made his desire known, it is Kate that initiates the kiss, addresses her husband as “love” for the first time, and completes his rhyme. The two seem to have found the rhythm of mutuality and love, with a generous dash of jest.

Petruchio’s flamboyant nature has not been done away with, as we see in his wager with the other two husbands, and neither has Katherina’s wiliness; instead, he and Katherina have tempered one another, have smoothed away the rough edges of stubbornness and rudeness. And in the case of the wager, as with Katherina’s final monologue, the tone of satire cannot be missed. As Petruchio’s claim of Katherina’s newfound obedience and virtue, Katherina’s monologue veritably drips with feigned devotion to her husband. She overemphasizes her obedient submissiveness to the point that one cannot read the lines without recognizing the irony; lines such as “I am ashamed that women are so simple,” “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign,” and “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband.”[17] If any doubt of the irony of Katherina’s final monologue remains, the final lines of the play erase it. Hortensio remarks, “Now, go thy ways; thou hast tamed a curst shrew,” to which Lucentio replies, “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.”[18] While Hortensio seems sure of Katherina’s taming, Lucentio is not convinced, and wonders, has Katherina really been tamed? The double meaning of the word “will” suggests that Katherine may have more say in the matter than Hortensio realizes; Lucentio recognizes that if Katherine will be tamed, it is by no will but her own.

The Taming of the Shrew is not at all what the title, taken literally, would have us believe. Who is tamed in this comedy? Perhaps both Katherina and Petruchio, as they learn how to love, how to jest without rudeness, how to retain their respective individualities and wills while simultaneously partnering together in marriage. Harold Bloom concludes, “Their final shared reality is a kind of conspiracy against the rest of us: Petruchio gets to swagger, and Kate will rule him and the household, perpetually acting her role as the reformed shrew.”[19] As the show unfolds and blooms, Petruchio and Kate move from brash, battling parodies of men and women to more refined, complex human beings through the taming and tempering of one another. As they simultaneously infuriate and excite one another, gradually learning to love and value each other, one must admit that this is in no way a story of the taming of one shrew; rather, it is a timeless story of what it means to resist and give into love, to explore the nuances of relationship, both to tame and to be tamed.

 

Notes:

[1]William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Ann Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), Induction.I.4,10.

[2] Ibid., Induction.II.102-3.

[3] Ibid., Induction.II.113.

[4] Ibid., I.i.65, 55, 87, 105.

[5] Ibid., note on II.i.1-36.

[6] Ibid., II.i.35

[7] Ibid., I.ii.74.

[8] Ibid., I.ii.89-91.

[9] Ibid., II.i.128.

[10] Ibid., II.i.157.

[11]Ibid., II.i.297.

[12]Ibid., III.ii.210.

[13]Ibid., III.ii.146-7.

[14]Ibid., IV.ii.179-183.

[15] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), 32.

[16] Shakespeare, Taming, V.i.122-3.

[17] Ibid., V.ii.145, 155.

[18] Ibid., V.ii.188-9.

[19] Bloom, Shakespeare, 29.