The Taming of the Shrew (Vol. 31)
The Taming of the Shrew
For further information on the critical and stage history of The Taming of the Shrew, see SC, Volumes 9 and 12.
The relationship between Katherina and Petruchio and the related themes of male domination and female submission have been a major focus of critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew in the second half of the twentieth century. Commentators on the play discuss a variety of critical issues, including its genre, its emphasis on role-playing and on the interplay of illusion and reality, and its relationship to its Elizabethan social and political context. In all of these discussions, however, the play's treatment of the conventions of male and female behavior and of the interrelated issues of gender, sexuality, and power tend to figure prominently.
Until well into the nineteenth century, audiences and critics appear to have accepted the play's shrew-taming premise at face value. In fact, during this period the play was presented primarily in heavily adapted versions that frequently accentuated the element of violence in Petruchio's treatment of Katherina. The most successful of these, David Garrick's Catherine and Petruchio (1754), enjoyed immense popularity into the mid-1800s, when it began to be supplanted by revivals of the original play. By the end of the century, however, critics were beginning to show an element of discomfort with the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina. George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1897, described the last scene of the play as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility," and found the concept of male domination implicit in the wager and 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."
A desire to reconcile the playwright's reputation and the unacceptability of his play's central premise seems to underlie much of its subsequent criticism. In the 1950s, critics such as Nevill Coghill, Harold C. Goddard, and Margaret Webster argued that Shakespeare's rendition of the shrew-taming concept, and particularly Katherina's closing speech, should be read ironically. According to this view, Katherina's submission to Petruchio is not to be taken seriously; the audience is meant to perceive that she will dominate the marriage by allowing Petruchio an outward show of mastery. This analysis was countered by the views of critics such as George Ian Duthie (1951), who saw The Taming of the Shrew as confirming the Elizabethan view that a husband stands in relation to his wife as a king to his subjects. Several critics in the late 1950s and the 1960s emphasized the "gentleness" of Petruchio's behavior in comparison to the brutality displayed in earlier "shrew-taming" plays. Writing in 1958, Muriel Bradbrook claimed that Katherina was the first character in the tradition to be utterly transformed, rather than beaten or lectured into submission. In a highly influential reading that focused on the theme of illusion and reality, Cecil B. Seronsy (1963) suggested that Petruchio draws Katherina into enthusiastic acceptance of the role of obedient wife by "supposing" the existence in her of the qualities he desires and gradually assimilating her to the image he has willed.
Critics continue to differ in their opinions as to whether The Taming of the Shrew ultimately confirms, undermines, or merely renders more palatable the conventions of male dominance and female submission. In an article published in 1974, Margaret Loftus Ranald claimed that Shakespeare's use of imagery drawn from falconry portrays an "atypical" Elizabethan model of matrimony based on "mutuality, trust, and love." Five years later, Marianne L. Novy suggested that by presenting conventional gender roles as a game, Petruchio makes it possible for Katherina to participate with him in developing a mutually satisfying accommodation to the rules of the patriarchal order. David Farley-Hills (1981) saw Shakespeare as engaged in the play in a characteristic investigation of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in human behavior. In his view, these contradictions are never resolved: "[I]nstead we have simply a poised presentation of the contradictions which leaves the comic tensions resolved in the purely comic relief of laughter." Richard A. Burt, however, argued in 1984 that despite its exploration of the contradictions inherent in social norms, the play ultimately reinforces the conventions of male domination and female submission by showing that female rebellion can be managed and contained through a strategy of coercion disguised as romantic love.
Several commentators, on the other hand, have suggested that through its prominent metadramatic elements the play ultimately subverts conventional social and gender roles. Karen Newman (1986) argued that by continually drawing parallels between the theatrical role-playing of the stage and the real-life role-playing of social superiors and inferiors and of dominant husbands and obedient wives, the play reveals that these real-life roles are not inherent in the nature of the individuals who play them, but rather are imposed by social and cultural constraints. In making a similar argument about the impact of the play, both Michael Shapiro and Juliet Dusinberre (1993) focused on the Elizabethan practice of using boy actors in female roles. By frequently calling attention to this practice, both critics argued, the play underlines the artificiality of conventionally "feminine" behavior. Some critics, however, continue to reject an ironic reading of Petruchio's subduing of Katherina. In a 1988 article, for instance, Peter Berek maintained that The Shrew is inherently sexist in its assumptions, although he also suggested that Shakespeare's choice of farce as a genre reflects the playwright's awareness of the tensions inherent in a patriarchal system and his attempt to dissipate some of those tensions on stage.
Finally, a number of critics, particularly since 1980, have investigated the relationship between the play and its Elizabethan social, economic, and cultural context. In a 1983 essay, Marion D. Perret analyzed the actions of Katherina and Petruchio in terms of Elizabethan "conduct books" that defined the proper relationship and the respective duties of husbands and wives. In 1985, Carol Heffernan examined the play's critique of middle-class values, particularly as they are reflected in attitudes towards courtship and marriage. Margaret Downs-Gamble (1993) looked at similarities between Petruchio's "wife-taming" techniques and the educational methods endorsed by Renaissance humanism, while Linda Boose (1994) saw in the play's ambivalent portrayal of social and sexual norms a reflection of the period's preoccupation with threats to conventional order and its anxieties about socioeconomic change and class conflict.
David Farley-Hills (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: "Paradoxes and Problems: Shakespeare's Sceptical Comedy in The Taming of the Shrew," in The Comic in Renaissance Comedy, Barnes and Noble Books, 1981, pp. 160-78.
[In the following excerpt, Farley-Hills traces various sources of ambiguity in the play's treatment of the themes of male domination and female submissiveness.]
The range of Shakespearian comedy is remarkable. At one extreme there is the serenity of The Tempest, where benevolent comedy reaches out towards the divine; at the other the searing, cynical comedy of Troilus and Cressida, with its jaundiced view of two major centres of spiritual value for the Elizabethans, love and heroism, an extreme of denigratory satire. Shakespearian comedy, indeed, could by itself have been used to illustrate all the kinds of [Renaissance comedy] for between these extremes lie gradations of benevolence and satire that would serve to show almost the full variety of the comic. Even within one single play Shakespeare can make use of an astonishing variety of comic attitudes, and this indeed is the problem, for it is not always easy to decide what is the overall comic stance. One reason why less gifted dramatists, such as [Thomas] Dekker and [Richard] Brome, can show clearer examples of particular types of the comic is that their understanding of the comic is much more limited...
(The entire section is 23789 words.)
Roles And Role-Playing
Marianne L. Novy (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 264-80.
[In the following excerpt, Novy examines the relationship between game-playing and the reaffirmation of male authority in the play, suggesting that by combining these two elements, Kate and Petruchio are able to develop mutuality within the context of an outwardly traditional marriage.]
Some of Shakespeare's recent critics have seen Petruchio's behavior in The Taming of the Shrew as an attempt to teach Kate to play, to draw her into his games. Kate's final attitude, they suggest, is less a passive submission than a playful cooperation. Important as this reading is for its insight into the tone and theatrical effectiveness of The Taming of the Shrew, it should not dismiss for us the play's treatment of the social order and in particular of patriarchy—the authority of fathers over their families, husbands over wives, and men in general over women. Games, however absorbing and delightful, have some relation to the world outside them; children re-enact threatening experiences to gain a sense of greater control over them, and they try out roles that they may use in their adult life. Likewise, the games in The Taming of the Shrew, almost always initiated by Petruchio, may have some relation...
(The entire section is 33287 words.)
Language And Imagery
Margaret Loftus Ranald (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "The Manning of the Haggard: or The Taming of the Shrew," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1974, pp. 149-65.
[In the following essay, Ranald traces Shakespeare's use of imagery drawn from falconry in The Taming of the Shrew to argue that the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio provides a picture of marriage as a "compact between … two mutually inter-dependent personalities working together as they hunt through life. "]
The Taming of the Shrew is, in George Hibbard's phrase [in Tennessee Studies in Language and Literature 2, 1946], "a play about marriage in Elizabethan England," and also unique in the Shakespearean comic canon in dealing with the behavior of husband and wife after the marriage ceremony. At the same time it also offers a distinctly subversive approach to an antifeminist genre, that of the wifebeating farce. In this play Shakespeare has skilfully remolded his material to portray an atypical Elizabethan attitude towards marriage through the development of a matrimonial relationship in which mutuality, trust, and love are guiding forces.
Shakespeare's method at this early stage of his career makes use of the familiar device of contrast. He takes the three most frequent matrimonial situations of Elizabethan England, and indeed any time and...
(The entire section is 16058 words.)
The Elizabethan Context
Carol F. Heffernan (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "The Taming of the Shrew: The Bourgeoisie in Love," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 3-14.
[In the following essay, Heffernan analyzes the play's portrayal of the values of the emergent middle class critique of the materialistic nature of Elizabethan marriage arrangements.]
Besides the much discussed romantic wooing of Bianca and rough taming of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, there is a less noted but steady undercurrent of suggestion that calls attention to the fact that in the society of Padua marriage is a business and that, in general, this world is one where social position and wealth count for much. The play's concern with marrying well and with social status helps create the atmosphere of the bourgeois world of substantial citizens; The Taming of the Shrew shows Shakespeare's interest in the process of choosing mates in the middle class of his day. Comparison to the contemporary The Taming of A Shrew (possibly the source play), other related literary works, and manuals of domestic relations suggests that Shakespeare has purposely broadened the burgher aspects of the play to expose a real element of Elizabethan middle class life. There is much talk of contracts, dowries, property, clothes, and the things that money can buy. While Shakespeare does not ridicule bourgeois...
(The entire section is 16065 words.)
Berry, Ralph. "The Rules of the Game." In Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 54-71. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Examines the play's view of the "rules of the game" of marriage as worked out in the relationship between Kate and Petruchio.
Bryant, J. A., Jr. "The Taming of the Shrew." In Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy, pp. 98-113. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
Focuses on the character of Kate while examining the place of The Taming of the Shrew in the development of Shakespeare's vision of comedy.
Carroll, William C. "The Taming of the Shrew and Marriage." In The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 41-59. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Presents the play, and particularly Kate's transformation, as an early example of "comic metamorphosis" in Shakespeare's plays.
Cooper, Marilyn M. "Implicature, Convention, and The Taming of the Shrew" Poetics 10, No. 1 (February 1981): 1-14.
Analyzes the verbal behavior of characters in The Taming of the Shrew as a key to various interpretations of the play.
Garner, Shirley Nelson. "The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke?" In "Bad" Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, pp. 105-19. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh...
(The entire section is 428 words.)