The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 64)

Introduction

The Taming of the Shrew

While Elizabethan audiences likely viewed The Taming of the Shrew with amusement and approval, the story of the spirited, rebellious, and sharp-witted Katherina, whose father forces her into marriage with the exuberant and clever Petruchio, can be a bit problematic for modern audiences. The tactics by which Petruchio transforms Katherina's obstinacy into obedience are perhaps more offensive to today's spectators than they were to those of Shakespeare's time. The undercurrent of violence and cruelty in Petruchio's words and deeds has been condemned by some critics, while others attempt to clear his name by contending that Petruchio's character, and the play as a whole, must be understood within its contemporary context. Equally confounding to critics is Katherina's apparent submission to her husband in the play's final act. According to the views of some commentators, this obedient stance should be taken ironically, while others suggest that it should be read “straight,” and argue that a truly loving relationship between Katherina and Petruchio, in which she willingly and rightfully submits to him, has been founded. In addition to Katherina and Petruchio’s relationship, many critical analyses study the play's implications concerning patriarchal power structures and gender roles, the role of women in Elizabethan society, as well as cultural and marital conventions.

Many modern critical analyses of The Taming of the Shrew focus on issues of genre and structure, and provide a background for understanding the major critical issues of the play. Peter Saccio (1984) discusses the negative connotations generated by labeling the play as a farce. Saccio reviews the elements of the play which are indeed farcical, and provides a positive analysis of them. George Cheatham (1985) emphasizes the way in which this early play is similar to Shakespeare's later romantic comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly in its exploration of the idea of transformation. Other critics approach the play through an analysis of its unity. Margie Burns (1986) asserts that the play's unity is established through the frame created by Sly's disappearance in the first act, and the “disappearance” of the shrew in the final act. Michele Marrapodi (1999) finds unity in the Italian aspects of the play. While the subplot is known to be derived from an Italian source, the critic also links the Induction and the main plot to Italian origins. Marrapodi contends that the Induction is similar to Italian Renaissance models, and the main plot is Italian-inspired in its thematic development of the comedy of “classical intrigue.”

Many of the character analyses of The Taming of the Shrew are centered on Petruchio and his gift of rhetoric. Tita French Baumlin (1989) characterizes Petruchio as a “sophistic rhetorician,” demonstrating the way in which he uses hyperbole, linguistic “disguises,” and lies in order to produce a positive change in Katherina. Wayne A. Rebhorn (1995) studies both Petruchio's and Katherina’s use of rhetoric, asserting that The Taming of the Shrew serves as an analysis of Renaissance rhetoric and issues—including power, politics, and the shifting notions of gender distinctions. Marrion D. Perret (1983) focuses not on Petruchio's words, but his actions, and argues that Petruchio shows Katherina by example how a proper wife should behave by taking on those chores identified (according to contemporary conduct books) as “women's work.” Carolyn E. Brown (1995) suggests that Shakespeare relied on another Renaissance literary tradition—the “patient Griselda”—in addition to his utilization of the shrew tradition. Brown identifies the ways in which Petruchio and Katherina are like the lord and wife in the Griselda genre, explaining that in the “patient Griselda” tradition the wife is repeatedly “tested” by her husband, and continually and patiently submits to her husband's abusive treatment.

Modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew are challenged by the brutish aspects of Petruchio's behavior, Kate's obedience (which modern audiences may find disappointing), and the dilemma of how to deal with Sly and the Induction. Geraldine Cousin (1986) compares two modern productions, finding that while the open-air performance of the Medieval Players offered an interesting experiment with sex reversals, it ultimately failed in its casting of Petruchio as a man, since the other major characters were played by the opposite sex (Katherina, for example, also was cast as a man). Cousin describes the Royal Shakespeare Company production as “admirable,” and praises the forthright portrayal of Petruchio's roughness. Peter J. Smith (1997) was pleased with the way Lindsay Posner's production did not attempt to avoid the play's treatment of domestic violence, but found fault with the production's failure to resolve the central difficulties of the play, and with Monica Dolan's “diminutive” portrayal of Katherina. William T. Liston (1997) discusses the uniqueness of the setting of Richard Rose's production, which takes place in New York's Little Italy in the 1960s. Characterizing the setting and other elements of the production as “gimmickry,” Liston comments that the play failed to “catch fire.” The reviewer for TCI (1998) describes Andrei Serban's production as a parable concerned with the taming of the beast that lives inside everyone. Serban succeeded, notes the critic, in creating an atmosphere in which the nature of personal identity is explored.

The play’s treatment of gender relations, marriage, and social conventions is examined in a variety of ways by modern critics. David Daniell (1984) analyzes what he sees as the very serious treatment of matrimony in The Taming of the Shrew. The play's theatricality emphasizes this treatment, Daniell explains, and demonstrates how Katherina enters further into a playworld as the play progresses, enacting a theatrical set piece at the play's end in which she describes her relationship with Petruchio in terms of an imaginary history play and civil war. In the end, Daniell states, the violence and rebellion are contained, and Katherina and Petruchio are able to be themselves, with all their contradictions intact. Many critics study the play's exploration of gender relations through the lens of Elizabethan culture and social conventions. Randall Martin (1991) urges that by understanding the contemporary context of The Taming of the Shrew we are better able to comprehend the play's handling of gender issues. Reading the play in this manner, the critic maintains, reveals that Petruchio's treatment of Kate reflects the conflicted Elizabethan views about the role of women in society. Martin explains that the play does not resolve the contradictory attitudes of its original audience, but rather documents and acknowledges them. Juliet Dusinberre (1993) examines Katherina's role in light of the fact that in Elizabethan times her part would have been played by a boy. In exploring the implications of this for Shakespeare's audiences, Dusinberre points out that as apprentices boy actors were in positions of dependency similar to that of women in Elizabethan society, yet in playing the role of an aristocratic woman, such as Katherina, or a mercantile woman, such as the Hostess, the boys would have experienced the feeling of possessing some social authority.

Unlike critics who approach the play in terms of the often conflicted relationships between men and women, Camille Wells Slights (see Further Reading) argues that the play is more fruitfully accessed through an examination of the conflict between civilized and uncivilized behavior. The critic contends that Katherina reacts to societal constraints with a self-defeating, antisocial behavior, rebelling against these constrictions by performing the stereotypical role of the shrew. However when Petruchio forces her into a new role, that of suffering victim, Katherina learns to shape her own identity instead of conforming to society's expectations. Slights stresses that Katherina's transformation and display of obedience to Petruchio is a victory, because Katherina becomes a civilized individual who understands that societal relationships are maintained through a balance of duty and privilege. In the end, Slights maintains, Katherina achieves—through public submission to Petruchio, and through a show of dominance over the Widow and Bianca—what she has wanted all along: a dominant position as a valued member of society. On the other hand, Laurie E. Maguire (1995), in analyzing the images of hunting, music, and taming, finds that the play's depiction of marriage demonstrates a broader skepticism regarding “so-called civilized behavior.”

Criticism: Overview And General Studies

Peter Saccio (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Shrewd and Kindly Farce,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 33-40.

[In the essay below, Saccio examines the farcical nature of The Taming of the Shrew. After highlighting the negative ideas generally associated with farce, Saccio provides a positive appraisal of the farcical elements in the play and goes on to show how the play blends farce with romantic character development.]

If Shakespeare's plays exemplify what humankind can achieve at its most vital, most thoughtful, and most sympathetic, not only a source of received wisdom but also a resource for those at odds with the received culture, The Taming of the Shrew remains an...

(The entire section is 5380 words.)

George Cheatham (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Imagination, Madness, and Magic: The Taming of the Shrew as Romantic Comedy,” in Iowa State Journal of Research, Vol. 59, No. 3, February, 1985, pp. 221-32.

[In the essay below, Cheatham argues that The Taming of the Shrew is similar to Shakespeare's later romantic comedies, and demonstrates the ways in which the play, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, uses the metaphor of theatrical role-playing to explore the idea of transformation in general, and the transformational power of love in particular.]

The position of The Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare's canon has been and remains uncertain. Well into the current century critics...

(The entire section is 4696 words.)

Margie Burns (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Ending of The Shrew,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 18, 1986, pp. 41-64.

[In the following essay, Burns asserts that the play's unity is established through the frame created by Sly's disappearance in the first act, and the “disappearance” of the shrew in the final act.]

The central thematic and formal principle in The Taming of the Shrew is its conversion of oppositions into dialectics, so that initially adversarial relationships or hierarchies become vehicles of reciprocal exchange. This is accomplished in the relationship between Kate and Petruchio, in the relationship between the Induction and the main play, and ultimately in the...

(The entire section is 10105 words.)

Michele Marrapodi (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Crossdressing, New Comedy, and the Italianate Unity of The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 10, 1999, pp. 333-58.

[In the following essay, Marrapodi links the Induction and the main plot to Italian origins. The critic contends that the Induction is similar to Italian Renaissance models, and the main plot is Italian-inspired in its thematic development of the comedy of “classical intrigue.”]

The three-part structure of The Taming of the Shrew—Induction, main plot and subplot—has been considered organically united by the themes of disguise and mistaken identity central to the subplot, which derives from George...

(The entire section is 10102 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Marion D. Perret (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 223-35.

[In the essay that follows, Perret is concerned with the methods by which Petruchio “tames” Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, demonstrating that Petruchio teaches by example how a wife should behave by taking on the work traditionally assigned to women.]

The focus of recent critics of The Taming of the Shrew on Kate's role-playing1 is too limiting. On the one hand, the theatrical vocabulary encourages them to speak of Kate's transformation as though it were nothing more than an act;2 on the other, the...

(The entire section is 6095 words.)

Tita French Baumlin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Petruchio the Sophist and Language as Creation in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 237-57.

[In the essay that follows, Baumlin views Petruchio as a sophistic rhetorician, and observes that Petruchio uses his rhetorical skill to engender a positive change in Katherina. This, Baumlin argues, supports the view that at this early point in Shakespeare's career, the playwright possessed an optimistic conception of language and its positive, transformational power.]

“Language most shows the man: speak, that I may see thee!”

Ben Jonson, Timber

...

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Wayne A. Rebhorn (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Petruchio's ‘Rope Tricks’: The Taming of the Shrew and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 92, No. 3, February, 1995, pp. 294-327.

[In the essay below, Rebhorn assesses both Petruchio's and Katherina’s use of rhetoric, asserting that The Taming of the Shrew serves as an analysis of Renaissance rhetoric and issues—including power, politics, and gender relations.]

Shortly after Petruchio's first appearance in The Taming of the Shrew, he vows to court Katherine despite her reputation as a shrew “renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue.”1 His servant Grumio immediately boasts on behalf...

(The entire section is 16182 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Geraldine Cousin (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “The Touring of the Shrew,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 7, August, 1986, pp. 275-81.

[In the review below, Cousin examines two productions of The Taming of the Shrew. The critic maintains that although The Medieval Players' production raised interesting questions concerning gender roles, it failed to take the sex-reversal experiment far enough, and describes the Royal Shakespeare Company production as “sombre,” praising the production’s unflinching portrayal of Petruchio's “unpleasant” side.]

During 1985, it was possible to see, as I did, two productions of The Taming of the Shrew performed in non-conventional playing...

(The entire section is 3812 words.)

William T. Liston (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Taming of the Shrew, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 52, October, 1997, pp. 122-24.

[In the review below, Liston comments on the unique setting of director Richard Rose’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, adding that the two actors playing Katherina and Petruchio, while “very good actors,” were not well suited for these roles. Liston contends that as a whole, the production failed to spark enthusiasm.]

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Richard Rose, sets and lights by Graeme Thomson, costumes by Charlotte Dean, Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, 10 June 1997, two hours fifty-five minutes.

...

(The entire section is 953 words.)

Peter J. Smith (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Taming of the Shrew, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 57, April, 1997, pp. 120-21.

[In the following review, Smith praises the way in which Lindsay Posner's production of The Taming of the Shrew was not afraid to depict the play's dark elements, such as domestic violence. Additionally, Smith notes that the play's central problem remained unresolved, and that Sly's closing of the play made the ending seem “futile” and “empty.”]

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Lindsay Posner for the RSC, The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 December 1999, front stalls.

While Lindsay Posner's Shrew...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

TCI: The Business of Entertainment, Technology, and Design (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Bring on the Shrews,” in TCI: The Business of Entertainment, Technology, and Design, Vol. 32, No. 5, May, 1998, pp. 11-13.

[In the following review, the critic characterizes Andreai Serban's production of The Taming of the Shrew as a parable concerned with taming the beast in all of us.]

Across a gray floor in front of a gray fire curtain, a mummy hobbles to Cole Porter's “I Hate Men,” and Christopher Sly falls asleep on a heart-shaped pillow that also looks like a breast with nipples.

Away with the curtain! A bright yellow 40′ truck spans the back of the thrust stage; red lettering on the trailer announces the American...

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Criticism: Themes

David Daniell (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 23-31.

[In the essay that follows, Daniell contends that The Taming of the Shrew takes marriage quite seriously, and in that sense it is a true Shakespearean marriage play. Daniell studies the play's views on marriage through an analysis of the theatricality in the play, and finds that by the play’s end the violence and rebellion are contained, and Katherina and Petruchio are able to be themselves, with all their contradictions intact.]

Nowadays, The Taming of the Shrew is taken in its entirety, without mutilation, crude business with whips (imported by...

(The entire section is 6194 words.)

Shirley Nelson Garner (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside the Joke?” in “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 105-19.

[In the essay that follows, Garner maintains that whether people view The Taming of the Shrew as a “good” or “bad” play depends on where they see themselves in terms of the play's central joke, which Garner describes as one directed against women and written to entertain a misogynist audience.]

If you had grown up hearing that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language (or at least one of the two or three greatest) and...

(The entire section is 6350 words.)

Randall Martin (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Kates for the Table and Kates of the Mind: A Social Metaphor in The Taming of the Shrew,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 1-20.

[In the essay below, Martin proposes an examination of The Taming of the Shrew based on an understanding of the play's contemporary context, arguing that such a reading reveals that Petruchio's treatment of Katherina reflects the conflicted ideas held by the Elizabethans about the “nature of women.”]

I

The vigour of recent critical debate over Petruchio's treatment of Katherine has turned The Taming of the Shrew into the first of Shakespeare's problem...

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Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting, and Power,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1993, pp. 67-84.

[In the essay below, Dusinberre reexamines Katherina's role in light of the fact that in the original performances of The Taming of the Shrew Katherina would have been played by a young male actor. Dusinberre explores the ways in which the audience's perceptions of the power relations in the play would have been affected by this knowledge, and notes that the boys, like women in Elizabethan society, were in positions of dependency.]

The opening of The Taming of the Shrew is strikingly different from that of the...

(The entire section is 8358 words.)

Laurie E. Maguire (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Cultural Control in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 26, 1995, pp. 83-104.

[In the essay below, Maguire analyzes the three forms of cultural control found in The Taming of the Shrew: the hunt, music, and marriage.]

To say that Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is a play about taming is to state the obvious: the “wooing” of Katherine by Petruccio, perhaps more than any other main plot in Shakespeare, dominates performance and criticism of the play. But taming can take many forms, and I want to argue that The Taming of the Shrew is imbued with three forms of cultural control: the hunt, music, and...

(The entire section is 7829 words.)

Further Reading

CRITICISM

Brooks, Dennis S. “‘To show scorn her own image’: The Varieties of Education in The Taming of the Shrew.Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 48, No. 1 (1994): 7-32.

Argues that the various themes, anomalies, and plots in The Taming of the Shrew are united by the play's concern with the Renaissance debate regarding education. Brooks notes that to Renaissance theorists education was a complicated socialization process.

Candido, Joseph. “The Starving of the Shrew.” Colby Quarterly 26, No. 2 (June 1990): 96-111.

Examines the play's focus on eating and drinking, observing...

(The entire section is 638 words.)