Overviews of Taming of the Shrew
[In the following essay, Nevo provides an overview of the action and structure of The Taming of the Shrew, concentrating on the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio. Citing with approval Michael West's observation that Shakespeare's focus here is not "women's rights" but "sexual rites," Nevo sees the play as a rollicking depiction of the battle between the sexes. Kate, she suggests, is shown to be so fearful of not being loved, and so accustomed to being told she is unlovable, that she has come to behave as if it were true. Petruchio appears as a master psychologist whose "instructive" and "liberating" methods free Kate from her mistaken idea of her identity and enable her to find her true self. Rather than breaking Kate's spirit, Nevo argues, Petruchio uses his superior will and intelligence to convince Kate to enter into an alliance with him. For further commentary on the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio, see in particular the excerpts by H. J. Oliver in this section and in the section on Petruchio, the excerpts by George Hibbard, Coppelia Kahn, and Shirley Nelson Garner in the section on Gender, Robert Ornstem's excerpt on Katherine, and Ralph Berry's discussion in the section on Games and Role-Playing.]
A more gentlemanly age than our own was embarrassed by The Shrew. G. B. Shaw announced it 'altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility'. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch of the New...
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Gender Roles in Taming of the Shrew
Since Katherina's shrewish behavior constitutes the central problem of the play, it is not surprising that most critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew deals to some extent with its vision of the relative roles of men and women. Until well into the nineteenth century, audiences and critics alike seem to have accepted at face value what appears to be the play's central assumption about gender roles: that male dominance and female submission constitute the right and natural relationship between the sexes. In this context, Petruchio's "taming" of Katherina was generally seen as innocent fun. By the end of the century, however, critics were beginning to show an element of discomfort with the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina. The Irish playwright and critic Bernard Shaw, writing in 1897, described the last scene of the play as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility." He found the concept of male domination implicit in the wager and explicit in Katherina's final speech so offensive that no man "with any decency of feeling" could watch the scene "in the company of a woman without feeling extremely ashamed."
Subsequently, many critics have sought to defend The Taming of the Shrew against charges of sexism by contending that the play takes a tongue-in-cheek view of traditional gender roles. In the 1950s, critics such as Nevill Coghill, Harold C. Goddard [in the section on KATHERINA], and Margaret Webster argued that...
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Appearance versus Reality in Taming of the Shrew
Contradictions between appearance and reality constitute a central issue in The Taming of the Shrew and figure in many discussions of the play's other themes and of the development of its characters. In 1963, Cecil C. Seronsy, in an essay excerpted below, asserted that its structural unity derives from the playwright's ingenious development of the theme of "supposes." Petruchio, the critic contended, succeeds in transforming Katherina by "supposing" that her appearance of shrewishness does not represent her "real" nature. Seronsy links this theme of transformation in the main plot to the string of deceptions in the subplot and the failure of the other bridegrooms to effect similar transformations in their brides. Four years later, Irving Ribner examined the play's use of contrasts between appearance and reality as part of his argument that in the play Shakespeare critiques two common Elizabethan views of courtship and marriage. In this essay, also excerpted below, Ribner traced the theme of "deceptive identities" in the Induction, the subplot, and the main action of the play. In the end, he contended, both the "romantic" marriage of Lucentio and Bianca and the more traditional, male-dominated relationship of Petruchio and Katherina are shown to be illusions.
Other critics who have addressed this theme in depth include Maynard Mack and Sears Jayne. In a 1962 essay, Mack asserted that Petruchio imitates Katherina's rude and willful...
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Games and Role-Playing
Critics have long noted the play's emphasis on role-playing; in 1839, for instance, Hermann Ulrici asserted that both the Induction and the main action of The Shrew dramatize the principle that people should accept the roles in life "which nature has assigned" them. More recently, Charles Brooks (1960) suggested that Katherina learns to play the role of the obedient wife not only as a way to ensure domestic harmony but also as a means by which she and Petruchio can amuse themselves at the expense of others. Richard Henze, in a 1970 article excerpted below, interpreted The Shrew as "a dramatic exploration of the nature of role playing in comedy and in life." Under Petruchio's expert direction, the critic argued, Katherina learns to play a variety of parts so proficiently that her role in her marriage becomes indistinguishable from her role in life. Two years later, Ralph Berry proposed that while the drama may be, in essence, "a fairly brutal sex farce," it is also a subtle portrayal of two people coming to terms with the "rules of the game" played between men and women. Alexander Leggatt, in a 1974 article excerpted here in the section on Petruchio, focused on the importance of literary and social conventions in the play, especially those of education, sport, and playacting. The lesson for Katherina, as well as for the audience, he asserted, is that humans are essentially conventional creatures for whom "order and pleasure are inseparable."...
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Imagery in Taming of the Shrew
The prevalence of animal imagery in The Taming of the Shrew, particularly imagery having to do with falconry and hunting, has been interpreted in various ways. Margaret Loftus Ranald examines Shakespeare's use of falconry images, while Joan Hartwig evaluates the play's many references to horses. In particular, the two critics focus on ways in which the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio is likened to that between a master and his hawk or his horse. While both writers concede that these images suggest a desire on the part of Petruchio for absolute control over his wife, they go on to argue that these images are used in the play to dramatize the desirability of partnership and cooperation in marriage.
Many other critics refer to animal or hunting imagery in developing their interpretations of the play. George Hibbard (in the GENDER ROLES section), states that Katherina's true nature is shown to be like that usually ascribed to falcons, "bold," "meek," and "loving." Alexander Leggatt suggests that the play's many references to hunting help to render Petruchio's sometimes brutal treatment of Katherina more acceptable to an audience. Katherina's "taming," the critic argues, is made to seem part of "a game—a test of skill and a source of pleasure"—in which "cruelty and violence are acceptable, even exciting." Other commentators, however, see the play's animal imagery in a less positive light. Irving Ribner, for...
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Many different interpretations of Katherina's character have been put forward on stage and by the critics. An account of the various stage interpretations of her character can be found in the excerpt by Ann Thompson in the OVERVIEWS section.
One popular view sees Katherina as a miserable and maladjusted woman at the beginning of the play who by its end has been transformed into a happy wife who has learned to accept joyfully her appointed role in society. Many twentieth-century critics, including Harold Goddard> as well as Ruth Nevo and H. J. Oliver (in essays excerpted in the OVERVIEWS section), have suggested that Shakespeare provides psychological insight into the reasons for Katherina's shrewishness, showing her to suffer from her father's open preference for her underhanded younger sister. Goddard characterized Katherina as a "cross child . . . starved for love" who is restored by Petruchio to her "natural self," which is "lovely and sweet." A number of other critics, including George R. Hibbard (in the GENDER ROLES section), see Katherina's "true" character as loving and amenable. Others see her as a forerunner of Shakespeare's later, more attractively drawn comic heroines, such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. Like them, these critics point out, Katherina possess a keen wit, a passionate nature, and a strong will. Kenneth Muir suggested that Katherina's...
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A key question in interpreting The Taming of the Shrew is whether Shakespeare presents Petruchio as an admirable character or as an offensive one. Closely related is the matter of his motives for wanting to marry Katherina and his goals in "taming" her. Productions of the play have differed widely in their answers to these questions, as have the critics.
Many writers point to Petruchio's energy, imagination, and firmness of purpose as qualities that make him an attractive character. Others, such as Cecil C. Seronsy (in the section on APPEARANCE VS. REALITY), regard him as an exceptionally perceptive man able to recognize possibilities in Katherina's character that no one else in the play suspects. Most modern critics, like Alexander Leggatt and H. J. Oliver interpret Petruchio's outrageous behavior as a role he assumes in order to shake Katherina out of her shrewishness. Leggatt portrays Petruchio's treatment of Katherina as an attempt to make her a willing participant in his "game." Similar analyses were developed in the early 1970s by Richard Henze (in the section on GAMES AND ROLE-PLAYING) and Ralph Berry. Oliver rejects this interpretation, arguing that Petruchio's methods are often unjustifiably harsn and that while Petruchio admires Katherina's spirit he is seriously intent on dominating and controlling her. Critics such as Coppélia Kahn and Shirley Nelson Garner (in the GENDER ROLES section) point out that...
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