Study Guide

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew Essay - The Taming of the Shrew (Vol. 87)

The Taming of the Shrew (Vol. 87)

Introduction

The Taming of the Shrew

For further information on the critical and stage history of The Taming of the Shrew, see SC, Volumes 9, 12, 31, 55, 64, and 77.

The Taming of the Shrew was likely written in the early 1590s, although estimates have ranged from the late 1580s to 1600. No specific source has been identified for the play. Scholars once believed the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew (1594) to be the source, but most critics now regard the anonymous piece as a “bad” quarto, likely an erroneous and possibly pirated version of the play known today. The premise of The Taming of the Shrew was apparently appropriate material for comedy during Shakespeare's time, but most modern audiences find the notion of Petruchio “taming” his spirited wife Katherina (Kate) neither amusing nor acceptable. Katherina, forced by her father to marry Petruchio, is subjected to a variety of disciplinary tactics considered demeaning and cruel by most playgoers today. Commentators are particularly interested in Katherina's submission at play's end, which so offends modern beliefs on gender equality that sexual politics often become the focus of critical concern.

One of Petruchio's taming techniques involves control of Katherina's access to food. Brian Morris (1981) notes that: “Katherina is denied her bridal dinner (III.ii), starved at Petruchio's house (IV.i), mocked with the promise of food by Grumio (IV.iii), and not finally satisfied until Lucentio's banquet in V.ii.” Joseph Candido (1990) also highlights the emphasis on eating and drinking throughout the play, describing the deprivation of food as an essential part of the taming process and Petruchio's refusal to partake in his and Katherina's wedding feast as a marker of his own social iconoclasm. Another means of subduing Katherina employed by her husband involves the dispute over her wardrobe. Margaret Rose Jaster (2001) discusses Petruchio's control over Katherina's apparel, commenting that although critics and audiences often consider the dialogue in these scenes to be harmless banter, the exchanges are not as benign as they may seem, since clothing is so closely associated with identity—both personal and social. “Although Petruchio employs less physical abuse than traditional tamers, we cannot blithely disregard any attempts by one party to control another's identity through this most intimate device,” maintains Jaster.

Frances E. Dolan (see Further Reading) surveys the critical controversy surrounding the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio, contending that even “in its own time the play was one text among many in heated debates about women's status, marriage, and domesticity.” Modern critics and audiences alike are inclined to consider Petruchio's behavior harsh, domineering, and offensive rather than amusing and romantic. Some scholars, however, have attempted to recast Petruchio's behavior into more acceptable categories for contemporary audiences. Morris, for example, considers Petruchio's role as that of a teacher, rather than a tamer; he acknowledges that education “is a means of reducing the individual to social conformity through the imparting of approved knowledge and acceptable skills,” but contends that it is also “designed to liberate and bring to full fruition the innate capabilities of the pupil.” Similarly, many scholars have reinterpreted Katherina's submission as ironic and refuse to accept her final speech as a sincere expression of her willing subordination. Some critics, according to Dolan, “argue that Katharina goes so far in her insistence on women's subjugation that she offers a critique of Petruchio's goals and desires.” Others take a lighter view, arguing that her servility is a joke shared by Katherina and her husband at the expense of the other couples; such an interpretation suggests not only a happy ending for the romantic comedy, but casts the couple in the roles of romantic hero and heroine. Winfried Schleiner (1977), however, resists interpretations that posit Katherina as a romantic heroine in the same vein as Rosalind of As You Like It. According to Schleiner, the language of Katherina's submission at the end of the play is “based on a social order so natural and commonplace to the playwright and his audience that the presence of romance is ruled out.”

Modern stagings of The Taming of the Shrew reflect the problematic nature of the play's central premise, often taking unusual casting and staging approaches in an effort to recapture the play's comic elements. Ann Blake (2002) claims that although the work was frequently produced in the twentieth century, “it was rarely staged straight.” Recent unconventional productions include the Yale Repertory Theatre's use of an all-male cast in 2003. Wayne and Dorothy Cook (2003) comment on director Mark Lamos's attempt to “recapture the original vigor of the play,” an attempt that was unfortunately, according to the critics, “thwarted by a cast of mediocre players.” Similarly, in the 2003 Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production, director Barry Kyle attempted to move the audience beyond the usual preoccupation with sexual politics by featuring an all-female cast. Kyle left the company during rehearsals, however, and was replaced by Phyllida Lloyd, who put together a production “that relishes the broad comedy of the play,” according to reviewer Sarah Hemming (2003). “Rather than struggle with this troublesome piece,” claims Hemming, “the girls' strategy is to have fun with it.” In another gender-bending production, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company cast women in the men's roles (and vice versa) in an attempt to restore the comic tone of the work. Kristina Mannion (see Further Reading) reports that the result of this interpretation was “delightfully comical” as “women step in to portray the major male characters with all the swaggering gusto this often testosterone-fueled script calls for.” Laurel Graeber (2002) reviews a more conventionally cast production directed Stephen Burdman for the New York Classical Theater. Graeber notes that Garth T. Mark's tenderhearted Petruchio “makes you forget about sexism and just revel in the fun.” However, such attempts to appease the egalitarian sensibilities of modern audiences are not always successful. Toby Young (2004) criticizes Gregory Doran's politically correct 2004 production as a “touchy-feely, sentimental interpretation.” According to Young, “Doran has got round the usual objection to the play, namely that it is unabashedly misogynistic, by presenting it as a touching love story in which two social misfits, each nursing a cluster of psychological wounds, find salvation in each other's arms.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Morris, Brian, ed. Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-149. London: Methuen, 1981.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to the Arden edition, Morris provides an overview of the structure and themes of The Taming of the Shrew.]

STRUCTURES

The history of the text through its various adaptations is important because it focuses critical attention on what successive generations of actors and dramatists considered essentially dramatic in it. Garrick's Catharine and Petruchio dominated this transmission, suggesting that in the theatrical structure the taming plot makes the play's most powerful dramatic statement. It is, after all, The Taming of the Shrew, not Lucentio and Bianca, or Sly's Dream.

As we have seen, Garrick stitched together the large set pieces of the taming plot: the bargain between Petruchio and Baptista, the lute-breaking, the wooing, the wedding, the reception at Petruchio's house, the Tailor and Haberdasher scene, the sun and moon scene, and the last part of the final scene in which Petruchio displays his wife's obedience and makes his peace with her. A radical selection, made for purely theatrical purposes, it nevertheless lays bare one of the basic structures and rhythmic patterns of Shakespeare's play, and the enchaînement of the scenes isolates the process of domestication and reduction to conformity which lies at the heart of it.1 After the Induction, Shakespeare's Act I is composed of relatively short episodes with little stage action (except for Petruchio's boisterous assault on Grumio), and mostly concerned with exposition or the creation of the various intrigues. Then follows what is by far the longest scene in the play (II.i), stretching to over four hundred lines, and presenting a four times repeated pattern of contest and recuperation, rising to a climax in the parodic ‘wooing’ and descending through the ‘auction of Bianca’ to the mundanities of plotting and intrigue. Balancing this overarching structure is a subsidiary pattern which contrasts physical violence with the eloquence of persuasions and the rituals of debate. The first contest opens the scene violently. Bianca, her hands tied, is haled about and struck by Katherina in a piece of stage action which reiterates and emphasizes the previous, lesser, conflicts between the Hostess and Sly, and Petruchio and Grumio. It is an angry episode, and when Baptista parts them Katherina leaves the stage in an outburst of frustration. Tension is released by the formal presentation to Baptista of the disguised lovers, Lucentio, Hortensio and Tranio, with civilized introductions and the giving of gifts until the ‘tutors’ are sent to meet their pupils off-stage. This leaves Petruchio and Baptista to begin the second contest, a brisk bargaining about Katherina's dowry (they are like merchants chaffering over a parcel of goods), which lacks the direct violence of the episode between the sisters. When the bargain is made, Hortensio enters ‘with his head broke’ and relates Katherina's off-stage attack on him. For the audience this is not a contest, since they are watching Hortensio's recuperation, but it repeats Katherina's propensity to violence, and creates anticipation for the third contest, the wooing, which is cunningly prepared and delayed by Petruchio's soliloquy—a moment of physical rest when he daringly reveals the first stage of his taming strategy. The wooing begins with a wit-bout, or, rather, a fast exchange of fairly crude insults, until Katherina takes an advantage by striking Petruchio. This provokes his reply: ‘I swear I'll cuff you, if you strike again.’ Katherina senses the danger and resumes wit-play: ‘So may you lose your arms. …’ It is a point of climax, marking a boundary in the dispute; this will not, we appreciate, be a matter of simple strength and brutality. The verbal jesting continues, Petruchio puts his plan into action, and so bewilders Katherina that she can offer only token resistance to his outrageous claims, made when Baptista, Gremio and Tranio enter. Recuperation follows, since Petruchio's announcement of the result of his wooing and his arrangements for the wedding go virtually unopposed. When Petruchio and Katherina leave the stage we witness the last contest, between Gremio and Tranio for the hand of Bianca. Baptista conducts this as a long, deliberate auction, and sells to the highest bidder. Tranio, having topped Gremio's bid, bandies a few words with the loser, plans how to make good his boast, and the scene ends.

Structurally, it is a theme and variations, the basic motif of a contest being repeated and modulated into different keys: a physical fight, the bargaining for a marriage contract, a contentious wooing, and an auction. And, each time, the form is related more and more obliquely to the content. The fight is natural, the marriage contract less so (since Petruchio talks of money and Baptista insists on love). The wooing is most abnormal, comprising insults, anger and the clash of wills, and the auction of Bianca's hand would have seemed as inappropriate to an Elizabethan audience (however well accustomed it was to hard bargaining over marriage contracts) as a broadly similar episode did to the first readers of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. The scene moves from the normal to the fantastic through repeated contests, separated by ever briefer episodes of rest, so that its pace increases steadily. As Jones says (of a scene in Titus Andronicus):

If we look back for a moment to the scene just discussed, we can hardly fail to be struck by the bold simplicity of its shape. … Shakespeare's big scenes are usually founded on such powerfully simple devices as this.2

Even in so early a play as The Shrew [The Taming of the Shrew] Shakespeare's constructive art is displayed in his elegant manipulation of such simplicities.3

The second big scene in the taming plot (a scene given full value in Garrick's adaptation) is the wedding scene (III.ii), which might be described as a ‘displacement’ scene, since the important action takes place off-stage, and is reported by witnesses. Petruchio's progress to Padua and the wedding itself are not allowed on the stage, and the two are linked only by the comparatively brief appearance of Petruchio, fantastically dressed, to claim his bride. The scene begins with Baptista's complaints about Petruchio's lateness, and Katherina's outburst of shame and anger. Biondello's entry, with his long description of Petruchio's grotesque clothing and knackered horse, builds up his eventual appearance on stage, but also allows the audience to realize that the bridegroom is approaching his marriage disgracefully unprepared. Petruchio's point is that so is the bride. He displaces her emotional unpreparedness on to his own garments and means of transport, just as the dramaturgy of the scene displaces the simple sight of him so arrayed on to the more explicit and telling verbal description. The same is true of the wedding. Gremio reports Petruchio's antics at the ceremony, cuffing the priest, stamping and swearing ‘As if the vicar meant to cozen him’, when the action itself (or something like it) would have made a most effective stage spectacle. The displacement of the action by the description reflects Petruchio's displacement of the solemn ‘union of this man with this woman’ with a violent, disrespectful travesty of it—which is what he believes marriage to an unreformed shrew to be. It is both an image of his belief and a part of his treatment, and the displacement technique opens up a receding perspective of great dramatic depth.

The pattern of ‘taming’ scenes in Act IV (which Garrick's version excerpts into an unbroken sequence) forms the very heart of the play in the theatre. This process of taming, teaching and testing, by various and unexpected dislocations of normality, is strongly visual and comparatively direct.4 In stage terms it is the busiest part of the play, with servants bustling about, food brought, meat thrown round the stage, the Haberdasher disdained and the Tailor abused, and all the preparations for the return to Padua as well as the journey itself. The climax comes at IV.v, in the form of what Jones recognizes as a ‘transformation’ or ‘conversion’ scene.5 Either from weariness or because she at last recognizes the game her husband is playing, Katherina turns from a contradicting shrew into an utterly compliant wife, agreeing with him that the sun is the moon, or the moon the sun:

What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.

This is the turning-point of the plot and the play, suitably and tellingly marked by the metaphor in Hortensio's line: ‘Petruchio, go thy ways, the field is won.’6 But, as before and after in the play, there is one more test than seems strictly necessary, and Katherina has to agree that Vincentio is either a budding virgin or an old man, whichever Petruchio decrees. Like many other of Shakespeare's transformation scenes, this climactic scene has a compelling effect in the theatre. We recognize triumph, we sympathize with surrender; we experience satisfaction in the completion of a long pattern, and we regret that an interesting fight seems finished.

Garrick's Catharine and Petruchio makes short work of Shakespeare's final ensemble scene, V.ii. By replacing Vincentio (in IV.v) with Baptista, Garrick telescopes the closing scenes. He omits both the feast and the wager, and severely cuts Katherina's long ‘obedience’ speech, redistributing parts of it to Petruchio. The result is brisk and bright, and it entirely falsifies Shakespeare's sense of an ending. Shakespeare, in V.ii, is at pains to have as many characters as possible on stage and involved in a series of rituals. The scene opens with a banquet7 at Lucentio's house (almost the first time in the play anyone has had anything to eat). Hospitality and generosity are the keynotes, but witty conversation soon gives rise to a verbal contest between Katherina and the Widow. This, in turn, slowly moves on to the idea of a larger contest and a formal wager on the obedience of the three wives. This produces the thrice-repeated ritual of the summoned wife and her response, culminating in the dutiful appearance of Katherina and her obedient departure to bring in the other wives. Petruchio has won his wager, but again there is the superfluous, and theatrically suspenseful, test. She must take off her cap and trample on it, and she must ‘tell these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands’. She obeys. This part of the scene is complex and vitally important to any interpretation of the play, and it is fully discussed below (see pp. 143ff.). For the moment, considering only its place in the theatrical structure of the taming plot, it is sufficient to say that the play ends with a long, full, formal, developed, public statement by Katherina, and Petruchio's recognition of the significance of that statement. This final ensemble scene, then, recapitulates the contests and the testings of the earlier Acts, in a strongly ritualized action, and guarantees the truth of the transformation brought about in IV.v, which was the climax of Petruchio's taming technique based on the dislocations of normal expectance and displacements which the wedding scene (III.ii) exemplifies and enacts. Shakespeare develops these various ‘scenic patterns’ in various ways throughout his dramatic career, but as they are deployed here they create a strong theatrical structure, forming the central statement of the play.

The strength of this structure is in no way vitiated by its refusal to employ the maximum of narrative suspense. We are told what is to happen, and we watch to see if it will. The theatrical pattern of ‘the fulfilled declaration’ creates a particular kind of audience participation. Petruchio's two soliloquies (II.i. 168-81 and IV.i. 175-98) make us privy to his intent as no one else in the play is permitted to be, and we watch the working out of his proposition, in two stages, like the demonstration of a mathematical proof. This places Petruchio squarely at the centre of the plot, and he is the focus of audience attention (it is surprising how small Katherina's part is, in terms of lines spoken). In the taming plot our principal concern is with the falconer, not with the bird.

Of all the post-Shakespearean adaptations of The Shrew only Lacey's Sauny the Scott has any use for the sub-plot, with its disguises and intrigues. The verdict of the theatre seems to have been that it is inferior, detachable and dispensable. As we have seen (p. 99), it was not until the Victorian period that it was restored to performance. Yet, almost alone among the early critics, Dr Johnson recognized that it is essential to Shakespeare's purposes. He says:

Of this play the two plots are so well united, that they can hardly be called two without injury to the art with which they are interwoven. The attention is entertained with all the variety of a double plot, yet is not distracted by unconnected incidents.8

Modern critics concur, virtually with one voice, and Hibbard is typical when he says, ‘the first audience to witness a performance of the play … were seeing the most elaborately and skilfully designed comedy that had yet appeared on the English stage’.9 Agreement about Shakespeare's constructional skills, however, should not blunt our recognition that the sub-plot is in quite a different key—less direct, less robust, more conventional in its characterizations, and by turns flatter and more ornate in its language. It does not work through such large set-piece scenes as the taming plot does. The lute-breaking episode in II.i and the scene (III.i) where Lucentio and Hortensio instruct Bianca in music and Latin are theatrically important and memorable, but for the most part the plot is conducted in comparatively brief episodes of scheming and deception. Shakespeare's skill in exposition may be illustrated from his delaying and integrating technique at the opening of the play. The title creates an expectation of conflict between a man and his wife, but the Induction10 offers us immediately a dispute between the Hostess and a Beggar, followed by a long episode in which a Lord and his train plan to deceive the sleeping Beggar that he is a Lord. This is interrupted by the arrival of the actors, after which the Lord's plot is seen in operation, with Sly deceived for over a hundred lines until the actors come to play their comedy. The play-within-the-play then begins with the sub-plot, Lucentio and Tranio arriving in Padua to pursue a course of study and meeting Baptista, his daughters and suitors at I.i.47. Until this point (350 lines into a play only 2750 lines long) there is no hint of a shrew, yet all that has taken place proves, in the end, to be thematically and structurally relevant. At I.i.48, Baptista firmly links the two plots by his initial announcement:

Gentlemen, importune me no farther,
For how I firmly am resolv'd you know;
That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder.

It is from this decision that all the scheming of the sub-plot flows, with Hortensio, Lucentio and Gremio pursuing their various ways to win Bianca. As Alexander Leggatt has suggested,11 the taming plot, by coming later, may be seen as, in part, ‘a reflection of it at a deeper level’, but the contest for Bianca is also a parallel to the contest between Petruchio and Katherina. In both cases courtship is seen as a struggle, a conflict, and Shakespeare signals this by the way in which, after I.i, the plots interweave.

Shakespeare derived several advantages from his choice of Gascoigne's Supposes as his sub-plot's source (see pp. 78-84). Italian literature was fashionable, Roman comedy was academically respectable, but not many vernacular plays had been built on these bases. As Charlton remarked, ‘Not many English comedies of the sixteenth century are built directly on Italian models’,12 so that Shakespeare's work had the advantage of novelty. By a discreet ‘italianizing’ of the taming plot—giving the characters Italian names, setting the play in Padua, and so on—and by integrating it with Gascoigne's efficient translation from the popular Ariosto, Shakespeare, as M. C. Bradbrook says, adjusted ‘native popular traditional art’ to the ‘socially more esteemed classical and foreign models’.13 The title of the play, The Taming of the Shrew, would have sounded very like a contribution to the growing debate on the status of wives and the rights and duties of marriage, and the added Italian flavour provided a dash of sophistication.

The use of Supposes also adds a dimension of intrigue and indirection to The Shrew, counterpointing Petruchio's direct methods of courtship. Baptista's ban (I.i.48) on direct competition for Bianca makes subterfuge necessary, and brings about the disguises of Hortensio and Lucentio. These create both confusion and deception, prospering the action of the play, but they also imply a significant enlargement of Bianca's part. Polynesta (her original in Supposes) has been seduced two years ago, and is pregnant by Erostrato, but she rarely appears in the play. By making her a virgin, Katherina's younger sister, and by adding a third (Hortensio)14 to the list of her suitors, Shakespeare can increase the element of romance in the play (as with Lucentio's rapturous ‘love at first sight’ in I.i), and permit the younger sister to have a personality of her own, to complement the Shrew's. The development of Bianca is subtle. In I.i she appears the dutiful, submissive daughter, all ‘mild behaviour and sobriety’, though her first words, to Katherina, are beautifully barbed: ‘Sister, content you in my discontent.’ She obeys her father, suffers physical violence from her sister (II.i), and publicly accepts the appointment of her ‘tutors’. When she is alone with them, however, she is in complete, cool command:

Why, gentlemen, you do me double wrong
To strive for that which resteth in my choice.
I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
I'll not be tied to hours nor 'pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.

(III.i.16-20)

It comes as small surprise, when she is married to Lucentio, that she assumes many of the characteristics of her shrewish sister when she is sent for in the final scene. The treatment of Bianca is typical of the ‘room for development’ which Shakespeare gives himself when he integrates the two plots.

The intrigues and the romantic quality of the sub-plot also allow Shakespeare to make comparisons and contrasts which clarify and deepen the thematic development. Leggatt points out that the two plots ‘present a contrast in conventions, both social and dramatic’.15 And the contrasts are not simple. Leggatt adds: ‘The courting of Bianca follows literary convention: and this is played off against the social conventions followed by her father, the romanticism of the one contrasting with the realism of the other.’

Lucentio's rapturous passion in I.i is contrasted not only with Petruchio's realistic declaration ‘I come to wive it wealthily in Padua’ (I.ii.74) and with his brisk financial bargaining over Katherina's dowry (II.i.119-27), but also with Baptista's thoroughly commercial auction of his daughter later in the scene. Contrasts of social and dramatic convention of this kind are the staple of the play's development, and they comment ironically one on the other, refusing to allow any single attitude to love and marriage to go unchallenged.16 But the sub-plot is patient of other kinds of contrast, some superficial, some deep. From its Roman and Italian sources comes the opposition of youth and age: Baptista, Vincentio, the Pedant and Gremio are the targets of the scheming young men, Lucentio, Tranio and Hortensio, made explicit in Grumio's comment: ‘Here's no knavery. See, to beguile the old folks, how the young folks lay their heads together’ (I.ii.137-8). Then there is the direct comparison between Petruchio and Lucentio as the principal wooers in their respective actions. Petruchio is superficially direct, simple, overbearing and business-like (though, on inspection, his methods are seen to be more subtle and based on a shrewd psychological appreciation); Lucentio, on the other hand, is lovesick, devious (employing Tranio in disguise to do all his real work for him),17 and proceeds by expediency rather than plan. There is also the larger contrast between the stock, stereotyped characters, inherited from the sub-plot's sources, and the more highly-individualized personalities of the taming plot (though in this group we may include Bianca, created by Shakespeare from mere hints in his source). Lucentio, in this respect, is little more than the romantic young man of Italian comedy, and Tranio displays his origin as the resourceful slave of Roman drama. Baptista is a type of the anxious father (we know nothing more of him except that he is a rich merchant), the Pedant is not even allowed the dignity of a name, and Gremio is specified in the stage-direction at I.i.47 as ‘a pantaloon’, the stock ‘old man’ character of the commedia. Such characters are circumscribed, they act in predictable ways and within defined limits. Against them are ranged the individualized, unpredictable, developing figures of Katherina and Petruchio. The creative tension set up between the conventions and the different modes of characterization in the two plots is epitomized in the climax of the sub-plot (V.i), when the true and false Vincentios at last come face to face, and the intrigues are resolved. Shakespeare is careful to place Katherina and Petruchio (who have resolved their differences and come together in the previous scene) as eavesdropping witnesses to this action: Petruchio says, ‘Prithee, Kate, let's stand aside and see the end of this controversy’, and from a position of dramatic superiority they watch the events of the dénouement.

The two plots comment on each other at a deeper level as well. The most obvious example is in the matter of disguise. Lucentio and Hortensio are disguised as private tutors simply to gain access to their mistress; Tranio is disguised as Lucentio to further his master's designs by his own ingenuity. These are simple changes of identity. But Petruchio disguises his true nature by his assumption of the ‘tamer's role’, for it is a role, a performance, for a particular purpose, and this is made perfectly clear at the end of the play (though there have been hints before) when he is asked what his reform of Katherina implies. He answers:

Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life,
An awful rule, and right supremacy,
And, to be short, what not that's sweet and happy.

(V.ii.109-11)

Mutatis mutandis, a similar case might be made for the emergence of Katherina from her disguise as a shrew, a role forced on her by a neglectful father, a sly sister and an unsympathetic society.

It has also been argued that the plots are united by the pervasive presence of ‘supposes’, or mistakings, but since this concerns the Sly material as well it is discussed below (see p. 19). In his chapter on ‘Double plots in Shakespeare’ Salingar sums up the structural importance of the sub-plot and its integration with the story of Petruchio and Katherina:

Above all, he applies the lesson of the balanced and interconnected double plot, which he is more likely to have learned from Supposes than anywhere else. In his first act, the marriage of Kate is introduced only as a means to another end, the release of Bianca, and the rivalry over Bianca occupies most of the dialogue, although Shakespeare ensures the momentum of his double plot by interesting the audience more in Kate. He maintains the latent contrast between the two halves of his plot by devising scenes dealing with the pretended tutoring of Bianca before he comes to Petruchio's ‘schooling’ of Kate in Act IV. He then links the two plots causally together, first by making Hortensio and his real or pretended rivals join in offering Petruchio inducements to ‘break the ice’ for them [I.ii.265] by wedding the elder sister, and then by making Tranio point out to Lucentio ‘our vantage in this business’ in the midst of Kate's marriage-scene [III.ii.142], before he brings the two marriages together (with Hortensio's added) for comparison in the final scene. This is not mere imitation of New Comedy or Italian plots, but the application of Italian methods to new purposes.18

One might only add that the union of the two plots is not, in Johnson's phrase, ‘distracted by unconnected incidents’ to appreciate the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare's constructional art.

What Hosley has described as ‘the brilliant threefold structure of induction, main plot, and subplot … perhaps all the more remarkable for being without parallel in Elizabethan drama’19 is completed by the two Induction scenes and the episode which ends I.i.20 This ‘Sly framework’ is at once the most realistic and the most fantastic and bewildering structure in the play, closely related as it is to the play it encloses, in matters of theme, tone and proleptic irony.

Sly himself is a memorable creation21—earthy, addicted to ale, fond of ease, firmly rooted in the Warwickshire countryside, and garrulously eloquent either as beggar or supposed lord. Yet he is only one part of what is the widest social spectrum in the play, comprising a beggar, an innkeeper, huntsmen, actors, a page, servants and a lord (to say nothing of Stephen Sly, and old John Naps of Greece). This social group is strongly contrasted with the narrower, bourgeois-mercantile society of Padua where money is master and marriage is commerce, just as the rural English setting of the Induction guarantees a certain artificiality and sophistication to the main play's locations in Italy. We move easily from realism to romance, just as Sly assumes the role of ‘a mighty lord’ with alacrity, remembering that ‘the Slys are no rogues. Look in the Chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror.’ To explore the relationships between the Induction and the play is to skin an onion, or open a set of Chinese boxes, so interwoven are the anticipations of the one in the other. This is a vital part of The Shrew's larger strategy.

The most obvious link is between Sly's assumption of a new personality and Katherina's translation into a loving wife. In each case, the victim is ‘practised upon’, deluded, and the result is bewilderment. ‘What, would you make me mad?’ asks Sly (Ind. ii. 17), enumerating his friends by name to prove his sanity, but a little later it is ‘Am I a lord, and have I such a lady? / Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?’ and then ‘Upon my life, I am a lord indeed’. We may compare Katherina's stunned incomprehension at Petruchio's behaviour in the wooing scene (II.i), her ineffectual resistance after the wedding, and her few and feeble words before the Haberdasher and the Tailor. Once Sly is convinced that he is a lord he adopts what he feels to be an appropriate utterance (‘Well, bring our lady hither to our sight’), and Katherina, after Petruchio's ‘field is won’, learns gradually to speak the dialect of the obedient wife. Katherina's new role is anticipated by the Page's description of a wife's duties (the more ironic as the Page is not what he seems): ‘My husband and my lord, my lord and husband’. In different ways, both Sly and the Page parody what Katherina is to become.

The Induction's use of music similarly foreshadows the play's concern with it as a part of the action and a metaphor for harmony. The Lord commands his huntsmen to ‘Procure me music when he wakes, / To make a dulcet and a heavenly sound’, and in the following scene music is called for in a stage-direction, when the Lord suggests:

Wilt thou have music? Hark, Apollo plays,
And twenty caged nightingales shall sing.

Here music is a means to deception, just as in the play Hortensio is disguised as a musician to gain access to Bianca, who is described as ‘the patroness of heavenly harmony’, and there follows all the business of the lute-breaking and the music lesson, the wedding music (III.ii) and Petruchio's scraps of old songs (IV.i).

The sense of gracious living created in the Induction (with its music, its soft beds, its fine pictures, its perfumed rooms) includes hunting with hawk and hound. The Lord first enters ‘from hunting’, and the talk of Silver, Belman and Echo opens the play with an extended evocation of field sports. Sly is told that his ‘hounds shall make the welkin answer them’, and if he prefers hawking, ‘Thou hast hawks will soar / Above the morning lark’. All this gives a local habitation and a name to the hunting imagery of the main play, both in Petruchio's taming methods and all that is summed up from the sub-plot in Tranio's comment in V.ii:

O sir, Lucentio slipp'd me like his greyhound,
Which runs himself, and catches for his master.

Once again, the comparison produces a bewildering mixture of fantasy and reality, since the Lord's hounds and huntsmen are credible and real, while Sly's are imaginary, and Petruchio's and Lucentio's hunting is in the field of courtship only. Petruchio calls for his ‘spaniel Troilus’ (IV.i), but it never comes.

The Induction makes great play with actors and acting. The Players are courteously and expansively received, the Lord clearly knows something of their art, and Sly himself, although we are told he has never seen a play, garbles a phrase from The Spanish Tragedy in his opening lines. As Anne Righter points out,22 ‘The theatrical nature of the deception practised upon the sleeping beggar is constantly stressed’: the huntsman promises ‘we will play our part’, the Page will ‘well usurp the grace’ of a gentlewoman, and the Players promise to contain themselves, ‘Were he the veriest antic in the world’. This foreshadows the main play's concern with plays and the acting of parts, from Tranio's belief in I.i that Baptista and his party represent ‘some show to welcome us to town’, through the various disguises and performances of Tranio, Lucentio, Hortensio and the Pedant.

These analogies, anticipations and ironic prolepses between the Induction and the main play subserve a larger purpose—the relentless questioning of the boundaries between appearance and reality. As we shall see (pp. 133ff.), The Shrew is deeply concerned with processes of change, metamorphosis and transformation, and the movement through the Induction into the play itself deliberately dislocates our sense of what is true and what is fiction. As Stauffer puts it:23

Most of the conflicts here between appearance and reality, between shadow and substance, are generated from the outside. How can Christopher Sly be sure he is a drunken tinker when all those around him assure him that he is a lord? And is not the old father Vincentio almost justified in doubting his identity when everyone on the stage is crying away to prison with the dotard and impostor?

Tillyard sees the conflict between appearance and reality as the play's overriding theme, and says:24

There is exquisite comedy in Sly, newly awakened in his gorgeous surroundings, demanding a pot of the smallest ale; and there is the hint, through his bewilderment and his final acquiescence in the reality of the moment, that the limits of the apparent and the real are not easily charted. Such thoughts would well occur in an age of allegory, with Spenser the chief poet, to any thoughtful man.

Marjorie B. Garber argues that the formal device of the induction affects the play as a whole especially because the Induction purports to tell a dream, and the dream metaphor, like the stage metaphor, ‘presents the audience with the problem of comparative realities and juxtaposes a simple or “low” illusion with the more courtly illusions of the taming plot itself’.25 She adds:

The ‘dream’ to which the lord and his servants refer is Sly's conviction that he is a tinker named Christopher Sly. Thus, what they call his dream is actually the literal truth, while the ‘truth’ they persuade him of is fictive.26

Shakespeare's Induction sets up the problem of appearance and reality as a puzzle, a corridor of mirrors, and this conditions our experience of the whole play. Leggatt sums it up:27

it would certainly be too simple to say that each new perspective takes us one step closer to reality, or one step further away from it. … The audience remains detached from Sly's experience when he becomes a lord, but begins to share it when he watches the play. … The barriers that separated different experiences of life in the earlier plays are now less tight, and there is more traffic across them.

This has ramifications for our understanding of the play as a whole, which, in one sense, may be no more than ‘Sly's Dream’, and it is the direct result of Shakespeare's decision to preface the story of the taming of the shrew with the story of ‘the waking man's dream’ as well as undergirding it with the sub-plot of intrigue, competition in courtship, and romance. These structures are brilliantly reticulated, or interwoven, both at narrative and thematic levels, to create a seemingly seamless web of story (The Shrew is dazzling, but not difficult to follow, in the theatre). Its structural unity may well be compared to that of plays like The Merchant of Venice or Twelfth Night.

Examination of structures and sources has also revealed what is widely felt to be the feature which unifies the three plots and informs Shakespeare's whole dramatic intention. C. C. Seronsy has proposed the idea that ‘the sub-plot, with its theme of “supposes” which enters substantially into both the shrew action and the induction … will account in large measure for Shakespeare's superior handling of all three elements of the plot’.28 As Gasciogne's Prologue states, a ‘suppose’ is ‘nothing else but a mystaking or imagination of one thing for an other’ (see p. 80), and he indicates twenty-four of them in his play, marking them carefully in the margins of his text. Seronsy argues that the term need not be so confined as to mean only one character disguised as another, and if we accept a wider sense for the word—‘supposition’, ‘expectation’, ‘to believe’, ‘to imagine’, ‘to guess’, ‘to assume’—we may see how it becomes ‘a guiding principle of Petruchio's strategy in winning and taming the shrew’. He sees the Induction, too, as ‘a steady play of suggestion, of make-believe, and of metamorphosis’: Sly is to be persuaded that he has been lunatic, the Page is subtly transformed into his supposed new identity, the Players are to join in the Lord's game and imagine that they are not playing before a drunken tinker but before a lord. Sly's transformation comes when he wakes in the second scene, and though it is never complete, it forms the central action of that scene. Seronsy concludes that The Shrew's artistic success ‘lies chiefly in the union of the three strands, in their having a fundamental likeness, the game of supposes or make-believe’. This is a strong argument, and it provides insights into many areas of the play. It links and contrasts Sly's assumption of his false lordly role with Katherina's final conformity to the image Petruchio has made of her: thinking has made it so. And it connects each of these with the comedy of errors and misprisions in the sub-plot. Nevertheless, I feel it does not fully comprehend the organic unity of the play; it relates principally to the narrative and constructional conduct of the action, and pays less than full attention to the deeper and more primitive structures of the play. To these we must now turn.

The play grows from two primal images—the shrew and the hawk. These are far more than metaphors to illustrate the vagaries and varieties of human behaviour. They are the basic raw material from which story, character and poetic structure are formed. In places, the very scenic structure of the action arises from the natural characteristics of the animal and the bird. And it is not a simple matter of character-correspondences: Katherina is both shrew and haggard; Petruchio is both falconer and fool. We need to see how both images are rooted in myth and nature and folklore to appreciate how organic the play's unity is.

The play's title sounds proverbial, but, surprisingly, neither Tilley nor Smith and Wilson records it. There are many proverbs about shrews (e.g. Tilley, A9, E229, I59, M684, S412-14), but they are concerned with the habits of the animal, and ‘Every man can rule a shrew but he that has her’ (M106), the closest to Shakespeare's phrase, is not recorded before 1546. In this context ‘shrew’ clearly means ‘a woman given to railing or scolding’ (OED, sb.2 3), but the word has many earlier meanings. Originally, of course, it referred to any animal belonging to the genus Sorex (OED, sb.1 1), and occurs in Old English as early as c. 725. But by the middle of the thirteenth century it had come to mean ‘a wicked, evil-disposed, or malignant man’ (sb.2 1), and by the end of the fourteenth century it was regularly applied to the Devil.29 The earliest recorded example of its application to a woman ‘given to railing or scolding’ is in Chaucer's Epilogue to The Merchant's Tale: ‘But of hir tonge a lobbyng shrewe is she.’ By the end of the sixteenth century this had become the dominant meaning, but behind Shakespeare's use of the word lies a long sense of the shrew as evil, malign, even satanic, and this must inform our understanding of what Shakespeare meant by it.

In natural history, too, the shrew has had a uniformly bad and wholly undeserved report.30 Topsell gives a fair idea of what Shakespeare's contemporaries would have believed:31

It is a rauening beast, feygning it selfe to be gentle and tame, but being touched it biteth deepe, and poisoneth deadly. It beareth a cruell minde, desiring to hurt any thing, neither is there any creature that it loueth, or it loueth him, because it is feared of al. The cats as we haue saide do hunt it and kil it, but they eat not them, for if they do, they consume away in time. … They go very slowely, they are fraudulent, and take their prey by deceipt. Many times they gnaw the Oxes hooues in the stable. They loue the rotten flesh of Rauens. … The Shrew being cut and applyed in the manner of a plaister, doth effectually cure her owne bites. … The Shrew falling into the furrow of a Cart wheele doth presently dye: the dust thereof in the passage by which she went being taken, and sprinkled into the woundes which were made by her poysonsome teeth, is a very excellent and present remedy for the curing of the same … if horses, or any other labouring creature do feede in that pasture or grasse in which a Shrew shall put her venome or poyson in, they will presently die.

So absorbed were the natural historians with these (totally imaginary) venomous and maleficent qualities of the shrew that they failed to record what every countryman would have observed as its dominant peculiarities. Shakespeare was country-bred, and his play virtually ignores the old wives' tales, but shows striking affinities with what modern mammalogists have identified as the true characteristics and behaviour patterns of the shrew.

Corbet's standard work summarizes what is now generally believed:32

Shrews are very active, solitary, surface-dwellers. … They are very voracious and suffer from lack of food within a few hours. … Shrews are preyed upon extensively by birds, but much less so by mammalian carnivores. … Dispersion is maintained by aggressive behaviour at all times except during the brief period of oestrus and copulation. The fighting is stereotyped and involves great use of the voice, resulting in ‘squeaking matches’.33

These primary characteristics, energy, irascibility and noise, have their analogies in Shakespeare's play.

The Shrew is much concerned with the search for food. In the Induction the Lord proposes ‘a most delicious banquet’, and Sly (to whom drink is food) calls for it repeatedly; conserves are offered, and Sly smells ‘sweet savours’. Katherina is denied her bridal dinner (III.ii), starved at Petruchio's house (IV.i), mocked with the promise of food by Grumio (IV.iii), and not finally satisfied until Lucentio's banquet in V.ii, where there is nothing to do ‘but sit and sit, and eat and eat’. From Act I she is presented as vigorously active, in contrast to Bianca's ‘mild behaviour and sobriety’: she is a ‘fiend of hell’, whose ‘gifts are so good here's none will hold you’. She fights with Bianca in II.i, strikes her, ‘flies after her’, breaks a lute on Hortensio's head, strikes Petruchio, weeps on her wedding day, and opposes Petruchio on the matter of the bridal dinner because ‘a woman may be made a fool / If she had not a spirit to resist’. Her raging energy is amply demonstrated throughout the play's first three Acts.

We are left in no doubt about her fiery temperament and irascibility. Gremio (I.i.55) says at once ‘She's too rough for me’, and five lines later Hortensio rejects her, ‘Unless you were of gentler, milder mould’. She threatens ‘To comb your noddle with a three-legg'd stool’, as we have seen she attacks both Bianca and Petruchio physically, and her anger is even more emphasized in word than in action. The long verbal dispute with Petruchio in II.i has been inaccurately described as a ‘wit-bout’; it is far more of a flyting match, in which the contestants vie in vilification. As it concludes, Petruchio sums up her temperament in ironic inversions:

                                                  I find you passing gentle.
'Twas told me you were rough, and coy, and sullen. …
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip, as angry wenches will,
Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk.

(II.i.236-43)

These are, of course, precisely the qualities she has just displayed. We have already heard of her as ‘an irksome brawling scold’ (I.ii) and Petruchio describes her as ‘a wasp’ (II.i), and as late as III.ii, after the wedding, she has an outburst of anger which draws from her husband the mockingly suave request: ‘O Kate, content thee, prithee be not angry.’ She insists, even at this late stage, on her right to free expression of wrath: ‘I will be angry; what hast thou to do?’ In Acts IV and V things are different, but until then Katherina's shrewish nature is predominantly emphasized by her shrew-like irascibility. She is, as Hortensio says, ‘Renown'd in Padua for her scolding tongue’.

Although not averse to using her fists, Katherina fights principally by noise. We are told that Petruchio's ‘taming-school’ (IV.ii) exists ‘To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue’. Tranio's first comment on her (I.i) notes how she

Began to scold and raise up such a storm
That mortal ears might hardly endure the din.

She loses no opportunity for verbal contest, with Bianca, with Petruchio, or with her father, when Petruchio is late arriving on the wedding day (III.ii):

No shame but mine. I must forsooth be forc'd
To give my hand, oppos'd against my heart,
Unto a mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen,
Who woo'd in haste and means to wed at leisure. …

Her freedom of speech is almost the last liberty she surrenders, making a spirited stand for it as late as IV.iii:

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endur'd me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.

Her resistance is ignored, her angry words silenced, and her most ‘shrewish’ quality subdued to the tamer's hand.

Shakespeare's presentation of Katherina subsumes several of the available characteristics of the shrew. From the history of the word comes the sense of her as a devil: the word (and its derivatives) is applied to her no less than fifteen times. As Hortensio says (I.i.66): ‘From all such devils, good Lord deliver us!’ From the observed characteristics of the animal itself come the distinguishing features of energy, irascibility and (above all) noise. By dramatizing Katherina in this way in the first movement of the play Shakespeare puts down deep roots into social, verbal and natural history.

Shrew imagery dominates the first half of the play. Petruchio's first soliloquy (II.i.168-81), outlining his plan for dealing with his shrew, says nothing about taming her. He will ‘woo her with some spirit when she comes’ and the only bird mentioned is a nightingale. His technique will be to oppose reality with a created fiction, and make the appearance more real than the fact:

Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as the nightingale.

The plan is to confuse, to baffle, to bewilder her by presenting her with a perpetual image of what he thinks her behaviour ought to be. And it is important that Katherina should fail to understand what he is doing. Throughout the play she is presented as not particularly intelligent, and she never stops to analyse his behaviour, to plan, to counter. She simply reacts, violently, to stimuli. In this respect, too, she is like the animal: her reactions are ‘shrewish’.

The play's title, The Taming of the Shrew, is, in the literal sense, an absurdity. Men tame animals either for companionship or for use. In...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Winfried Schleiner (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Schleiner, Winfried. “Deromanticizing the Shrew: Notes on Teaching Shakespeare in a ‘Women in Literature’ Course.” In Teaching Shakespeare, edited by Walter Edens, Christopher Durer, Walter Eggers, Duncan Harris, Keith Hull, pp. 79-92. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Schleiner examines the characterization of Katherina from a feminist perspective.]

The new discipline of women's studies brings home more clearly than many others that history is part of what we are. While Renaissance literature is apparently becoming more and more remote to undergraduates—a recent poetry anthology entitled Ancients and...

(The entire section is 4428 words.)

Margaret Rose Jaster (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Jaster, Margaret Rose. “Controlling Clothes, Manipulating Mates: Petruchio's Griselda.” Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 93-108.

[In the following essay, Jaster explores Shakespeare's use of apparel in The Taming of the Shrew as a marker of personal identity, manipulated by Petruchio as a means of controlling Katherina.]

One of the most hilarious—or hideous—scenes in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew occurs in act 4, when Petruchio, with the aid of Grumio and Hortensio, symbolically addresses Katherina in apparel he chooses for her. Throughout the scene, Petruchio in effect undresses his new wife by contradicting enough of her...

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Margaret Maurer (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Maurer, Margaret. “Constering Bianca: The Taming of the Shrew and The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed.” In Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, edited by John Pitcher, pp. 186-206. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Maurer explores emendations in Shakespeare's play that substantially alter the characterization of Bianca, resulting in a less complex character than the playwright originally intended.]

Ovidius Naso was the man. And why indeed “Naso,” but for smelling out the odoriferous flowers of fancy, the jerks of invention? Imitari is nothing: so doth the...

(The entire section is 8845 words.)