The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 55)

Introduction

The Taming of the Shrew

Twentieth-century scholarship of The Taming of the Shrew has reflected the growing historiography of the Elizabethan period and an increased understanding of Elizabethan ideology and culture. Numerous scholars have compared The Taming of the Shrew to earlier, more traditional shrew-taming tales. Stephen Miller (1998), for example, compares Shakespeare's version to Peter Short's 1594 story, Taming of a Shrew. Scholars note that the ways in which Shakespeare adapted his play from the traditional shrew-taming genre reflect the changes that were occurring in Elizabethan society. Natasha Korda (1996) discusses the way in which Shakespeare's play reveals changes in the economy and the commodification of the family. Jonathan Hall (1995) discusses similar themes, stating that market changes lessened the family's role as a productive unit and created tensions regarding the nature of marriage. Hall argues that in the play Shakespeare explored the advantages and disadvantages of the emerging notion of romantic unions, and traditional, arranged unions. Karen Newman (1986) also critiques The Taming of the Shrew against the backdrop of Elizabethan society, focusing on the way in which the uneasiness of social change is reflected in the play. Katherine A. Sirluck (1991) argues that The Taming of the Shrew is a satire of the Elizabethan patriarchal order, which was in flux during Shakespeare’s time.

Much recent criticism of The Taming of the Shrew centers upon feminist ideology, conflicts in how to comprehend Shakespeare's original intent, and ways of interpreting the play in light of changing views on the roles of women and the nature of marriage. Critic Barbara Hodgdon maintains that the play has sparked remarkable consternation as a result of its Elizabethan patriarchal power structure which no longer corresponds with modern cultural gender ideology. She states, "Shrew's obsessive attempt to circumscribe woman's ‘place’ has especially fatal attractions for late-twentieth century feminist readers and spectators." Her sentiments echo other scholars who are in consensus that a modern reading of the play is fraught with interpretive difficulties. Points of contention are Petruchio's physical abuse of his servants and method for breaking Kate's spirit (through denial of food and sleep), and his reliance on psychological abuse to achieve complete domination. Most puzzling for academics, as well as theatre companies, is determining how to decode Kate's final speech in Act V, in which she states that a wife's role is to serve her husband. Critics note that many modern productions of the play emphasize an ironic tone in this final speech, as a means of creating rapport with a modern audience who rejects inequality between men and women. Dale G. Priest (1994) suggests that while the play does reaffirm the traditional patriarchal order, Kate benefits from her transformation from selfish and angry shrew to loving wife. Other scholars interpret Kate's final scene as evidence of a bond of equality and love between the couple; Kate is not subjugated, but empowered through her love and her winning of the love of Petruchio. George Walton Williams (1991) argues that Kate benefits from knowing her place within a power structure which functions for the good of all. However, Hall cautions that Kate cannot offer herself in a power structure in which she has no control over her identity. Increasingly, scholars such as Ann Thompson (1997) and Hall are praising The Taming of the Shrew for the questions which it raises about feminism and gender roles in our society.

Criticism: Feminist Criticism

Barbara Freedman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Taming Difference and The Taming of the Shrew: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Theater,” in Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 114-53.

[In the following excerpt, Freedman argues that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a challenge to critics and audiences, contending that it is a “labyrinth” that does not easily lend itself to interpretation.]

This problem of dealing with difference without constituting an opposition may just be what feminism is all about (might even be what psychoanalysis is all about). Difference produces great anxiety....

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Dale G. Priest (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Katherina's Conversion in The Taming of the Shrew: A Theological Heuristic,” in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Priest discusses the conversion of Kate, and draws parallels between Petruchio—who transforms the unworthy, thus freeing and enriching them—and Christ.]

What has happened to Katherina in Act V of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew? The most conservative possible reading of the play finds in the five words of its title the literal and formulaic answer to the question: Katherine the Kite, the wild and willful animal, has been domesticated, subdued,...

(The entire section is 4128 words.)

Stephen Bretzius (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Feminism and Theater in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare in Theory: The Postmodern Academy and the Early Modern Theater, The University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 51-62.

[In the excerpt below, Bretzius surveys the reactions of postwar feminist critics to The Taming of the Shrew.]

Whether Kate's final lord-of-creation moral in The Taming of the Shrew is tongue-in-cheek (the so-called revisionist school) or foot-in-mouth (the corresponding antirevisionist school) depends in part on the half-framed, and even half-tamed, nature of her story. For the play that Christopher Sly watches from the vantage of his unfinished Induction, The...

(The entire section is 5593 words.)

Ann Thompson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Feminist Theory and the Editing of Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew Revisited,” in The Margins of the Text, edited by D. C. Greetham, The University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 83-103.

[In the essay below, Thompson discusses recent reactions from feminist critics to The Taming of the Shrew.]

In the second half of 1992 I committed myself to two developments in my career that seemed to some of my friends incompatible. I went as visiting professor to the Center for Women's Studies at the University of Cincinnati for three months to teach a graduate course in Feminist Theory, and I signed a contract to become joint General Editor (with Richard...

(The entire section is 8635 words.)

Criticism: Power And Identity

Karen Newman (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 86-100.

[In the following essay, Newman analyzes gender and power roles in The Taming of the Shrew against the backdrop of Elizabethan culture.]

Wetherden, Suffolk. Plough Monday, 1604. A drunken tanner, Nicholas Rosyer, staggers home from the alehouse. On arriving at his door, he is greeted by his wife with “dronken dogg, pisspott and other unseemly names.” When Rosyer tried to come to bed to her, she “still raged against him and badd him out dronken dogg dronken pisspott.” She struck him...

(The entire section is 6345 words.)

Katherine A. Sirluck (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Patriarchy, Pedagogy, and the Divided Self in The Taming of the Shrew,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 417-34.

[In the following essay, Sirluck argues that The Taming of the Shrew satirizes Elizabethan patriarchal society.]

Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has been read and directed in a variety of ways. It has been seen as a rollicking comic flyting match between a resourceful suitor and a dangerous man-hater.1 Some productions have encouraged the idea that Katharina secretly longs for a man too strong for her, one who can awaken her true feminine nature. A more contemporary form...

(The entire section is 8037 words.)

George Walton Williams (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Kate and Petruchio: Strength and Love,” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 18-24.

[In the essay below, Williams examines the representation of equality in marriage in Shakespeare’s later plays and suggests a reinterpretation of the power relation between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.]

Much has been written lately, and very properly written, on the difficulty these days of reading Kate's speech of final acceptance in The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.136-79; examination of two passages in Shakespeare's canon that, I believe, have not previously been cited in this connection, may offer some useful...

(The entire section is 2482 words.)

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Ideology and Resistance in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 151-69.

[In the excerpt below, Hall discusses Petruchio's manipulation of Kate's self-identity.]

We have already considered the first of Shakespeare's comedies to make a major use of the traditional comic “wooing debate.” In the discussion of Love's Labour's Lost in Chapter 5, I was concerned to relate the euphoric pleasures of wit in that comedy with the underlying political anxieties of the culture of the court, namely its need to reaffirm a commitment to the patriarchal...

(The entire section is 8321 words.)

Criticism: Text And Sources

Natasha Korda (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 110-31.

[In the essay below, Korda examines the theme of domestic economy in The Taming of the Shrew, arguing that Elizabethan society's “cultural anxiety surrounding the housewife's new managerial role with respect to household cates … prompted Shakespeare to write a new kind of shrew-taming narrative.”]

Commentary on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has frequently noted that the play's novel taming strategy marks a departure from traditional shrew-taming tales. Unlike his predecessors,...

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Carol Rutter (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Kate, Bianca, Ruth, and Sarah: Playing the Woman's Part in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 176-215.

[In the following excerpt, Rutter provides an overview of twentieth-century performances of The Taming of the Shrew,discussing the effects of feminist theory on the interpretations.]

Mess. Your honor's players,
hearing your amendment,
Are come to play a pleasant comedy. …
Sly. Is not a comonty a Christmas
gambold, or a tumbling-trick?
Page. No, my good lord, it is more
pleasing stuff.
Sly. What, household stuff?
Page. It...

(The entire section is 13657 words.)

Stephen Miller (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew and the Theories; or, ‘Though this be badness, yet there is method in ’t,’” in Textual Formations and Reformations, edited by Laurie E. Maguire and Thomas L. Berger, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 251-63.

[In the following essay, Miller compares Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the 1594 version of Taming of a Shrew written by Peter Short. Miller argues that while Shakespeare's version is superior literature, the other version deserves study.]

Arguably the most persistent and difficult of the textual questions relating to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, first published in...

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Further Reading

CRITICISM

Andreson-Thom, Martha. “Shrew-taming and Other Rituals of Aggression: Baiting and Bonding on the Stage and in the Wild.” Women's Studies 9 (1982): 121-43.

Discusses reconciling The Taming of the Shrew with modern feminist ideology, and the context in which the play was written.

Bamber, Linda. “Sexism and the Battle of Sexes in The Taming of the Shrew.” In “The Taming of the Shrew”: With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography, pp. 163-8. Edited by Robert B. Heilman. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Argues that The Taming of the Shrewis a sexist play which...

(The entire section is 482 words.)