The Taming of the Shrew Essay - The Taming of the Shrew (Vol. 77)

The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 77)


The Taming of the Shrew

See also The Taming of the Shrew Criticism (Volume 55) and The Taming of the Shrew Criticism (Volume 87).

Categorized among the early Shakespearean comedies, The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-91) has become one of the playwright's most controversial works. While Elizabethan audiences may have viewed the piece with amusement and approval, the story of the spirited, rebellious, and sharp-witted Katherina (Kate), forced by her father to marry the equally exuberant and willful Petruchio, generally fails to correspond to a modern sensibility of the proper bond between husband and wife. The tactics by which Petruchio transforms Katherina's obstinacy into obedience, as well as the drama's undercurrent of violence and cruelty, are perceived by many critics as unsettling in a play principally concerned with marriage. Whereas nineteenth-century commentators dismissed the drama as a simple farce of little serious consequence, modern scholars find much in the play that merits serious study. Many critics have endeavored to explicate the troubling elements of the play, and are particularly interested in Katherina's apparent submission to her husband in the play's final act. Summarizing its enigmatic appeal, Oxford Shakespeare editor H. J. Oliver (1982) observes the ways in which Shakespeare transformed and improved upon his numerous sources for The Taming of the Shrew to fashion a piece that, despite certain limitations, fascinates with its intriguing subject: the clash of sexes.

Contemporary character-based studies of The Taming of the Shrew have almost invariably focused on the drama's central and dominating figures, Katherina and Petruchio. This volatile relationship is the subject of Ruth Nevo's (1980) appraisal, which emphasizes the dynamics of “sexual battle” that drive the play. Nevo dissects the fundamental subject of The Taming of the Shrew—locating a suitable mate for the “wild, intractable and shrewish daughter of Baptista”—and the conflict of wills that ensues. Analyzing Petruchio's verbal strategies in wooing and taming his wife, Nevo observes that Katherina largely responds to his cues, and suggests that the play steadily informs us that by its final act Kate is truly in love with her husband. Other critics have taken a wider, social view of Katherina's taming. Velvet D. Pearson (1990) sees the process of subduing Baptista's eldest daughter on stage as a barometer of changing social attitudes toward women from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, ranging from a traditional view of Katherina and Petruchio as two individuals learning to love one another to a more modern vision that champions Katherina's assertiveness and intellectual freedom. Harriet A. Deer (1991), while acknowledging that the play presents a strongly chauvinist subtext, argues that in The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare creatively undercut conventional stereotypes associated with the shrew and braggart figures, which provide the theatrical basis for Katherina's and Petruchio's characters, in order to reveal the deeply patriarchal suppositions of Elizabethan marriage.

Despite its potentially disturbing representation of gender conflict, The Taming of the Shrew continues to be one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed comedies. Charles Isherwood's evaluates the 1999 Public Theater production staged in New York City's Central Park, directed by Mel Shapiro. Isherwood finds this performance, which primarily appealed to low humor with an unyielding silliness and multitude of crude jokes, an affront to the emotional complexities of Shakespeare's characters and story. While Isherwood admires Allison Janney's outstanding Katherina, he laments Shapiro's overall disregard for the emotional subtleties of the drama in favor of eye-catching comic additions. Similarly, Ben Brantley (1999) finds Richard Rees's 1999 Williamstown Theater Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew disappointing. For Brantley, one of the saving elements of this “fast, furious, and overstuffed interpretation” was Bebe Neuwirth's convincingly performed Katherina. Elysa Gardner (2000) praises director Victoria Liberatori's musically enhanced Taming of the Shrew set in a retro, 1970s style and performed by the Princeton Repertory Theater in 2000. Gardner contends that this seemingly odd setting offered an excellent commentary on the play by evoking the sexual revolution and the women's rights movement. Lastly, D. J. R. Bruckner (2001) comments on Liz Shipman's use of the critically contentious induction scene that opens The Taming of the Shrew in her 2001 production with the King County Shakespeare Company. Bruckner finds nearly all of Shipman's directorial interpretations beneficial to the drama and approves of the ensemble performance.

Recent thematic criticism regarding The Taming of the Shrew has generally focused on two key topics: transformation and the socially dictated roles of women. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1983) explores the theme of metamorphosis in the play, beginning with its induction scene and the mock conversion of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly into a nobleman. Roberts goes on to study the pervasive imagery of transformation in the play, such as the emblematic transformation of a married couple into a single entity represented by a hermaphrodite, and the symbolic metamorphosis of humans into animals—particularly the association between woman and horse. Approaching the transformation theme from a sharply contrasting perspective, Barry Weller (1992) studies the problematic relationship between The Taming of the Shrew's induction and main plot. Noting that Christopher Sly's dream induction to the drama is rife with allusions to theatricality, Weller suggests that Katherina's ostensible metamorphosis from assertive shrew to servile wife, when viewed through this frame, should be regarded with at least a degree of skepticism. Shifting to issues of gender in The Taming of the Shrew, Erika Gottlieb (1986) considers Katherina's rebellious actions in the play as a kind of ideological assault on the Great Chain of Being, a traditional hierarchical structure that dominated early modern thinking. While Katherina rails against her social placement below man in this scheme, Gottlieb observes that Shakespeare's final statement on the matter remains ambivalent. Gary Schneider (2002) presents a feminist-materialist assessment of the social world depicted in The Taming of the Shrew. Schneider maintains that in the play, the theater becomes a site of “social control” where Katherina becomes the mouthpiece for patriarchal rhetoric. According to Schneider, Katherina's final speech is meant to act as a kind of sermon that encourages the female audience members to exhibit proper behavior.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Oliver, H. J. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: “The Taming of the Shrew,” edited by H. J. Oliver, pp. 1-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

[In the following excerpted introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, Oliver surveys the play's sources, style, themes, structure, and characterization.]


No one source for the ‘Induction’ of The Taming of the Shrew has yet been found, and none need be sought: Shakespeare may well have first heard at his mother's knee some version of the universal tale of how a sleeper or drunken man, when he awoke to find himself dressed in fine clothes, was deceived into believing that he was really a lord, or of some such high rank, and that what he thought to be his memories of his earlier life were delusions. The form of the story most widely known today is that in The Arabian Nights, where the Caliph Haroun al Raschid plays the trick on Abu Hassan (and although The Arabian Nights as such was not known in Europe until the eighteenth century, it is perhaps worth recalling that the stories in it may have been collected as early as the fourteenth and in origin may go back many centuries before that).

Discussion of Shakespeare's acquiring of this fable was put on the wrong track years ago when Thomas Warton stated in his History of English Poetry (1774-81) that Shakespeare found the story in a collection of prose tales made by Richard Edwards in 1570. Then in the papers of the Shakespeare Society in 1845, H. G. Norton, from loose printed leaves in his possession, published such a tale, calling it ‘The Waking Mans Dreame’ and assuming that it came from the book by Edwards, of which no copy had ever been seen. In 1913 A. E. Thiselton demonstrated that the tale printed by Norton supposedly from Edwards's (hypothetical) volume was in fact one of a collection of anecdotes, Admirable Events, translated by S. Du Verger from the French of J. P. Camus and not published until 1639; but this demonstration went almost unnoticed and the point had to be made again by Charles C. Mish in 1951.1 The Edwards collection is apparently a ‘ghost’—but it haunts many scholarly discussions of Shakespeare's sources written even since 1951.

It is, then, still necessary to say that no printed version of the story has been found earlier than Shakespeare's except the one in Latin by Heuterus, in De Rebus Burgundicis, 1584, which Shakespeare is not likely to have known: it was not translated into French, by Goulart, until about 1600, or into English until 1607, by Edward Grimeston. Grimeston's, the version printed by Geoffrey Bullough in his Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare,2 tells how Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, found ‘a certaine Artisan’ very drunk in the street, had him carried home to the palace, dressed in fine clothes, conducted to the Mass, waited on there, taken hunting and hawking, and entertained with ‘a pleasant Comedie’, before being carried back, drunk again, to where he was found. The tale is told in a completely different tone from Shakespeare's, to draw moral lessons about the vanity of state—but one suspects that if it were not safely dated 1607, somebody could long since have ‘proved’ by verbal parallels that Shakespeare used it. Perhaps some day an earlier translation will be found.

It may be difficult to name a source for the Sly scenes, but it is not difficult to appreciate them. From the moment of the entry of Sly and the Hostess—an opening sure to capture the attention of an audience, particularly if Sly reels on to the stage as if he has been thrown out of the alehouse—the pace does not slacken. The tinker's drunken recalcitrance is caught in just a few sentences; his intellectual limitations are well established by his references to Richard Conqueror and Saint Jeronimy and by his fondness for the catch phrases from The Spanish Tragedy. Within a few minutes the Lord and his train have come on, and their knowledgeable discussion of the hounds, in technically correct language—but in only fourteen lines—has made the necessary contrast with the peasant and has also added to the already convincing details of life in a ‘real’ countryside. The plan to deceive Sly is outlined in the firmest of language—noticeable particularly are the precise active verbs, ‘take him up’, ‘carry him’, ‘hang it round’, ‘balm his foul head’, and so on—and the audience is eager to see what will happen. Not many plays have openings as competent, theatrically, as this: it is, albeit in a completely different tone, comparable with the magnificent beginning of the much later Othello.

The entry of the players provides further variety in stage ‘action’ before plans are worked out both for their share in the tricking of Sly and for the share of the page who is to be Sly's wife. The exchange about Soto makes a private joke with the audience and so helps to maintain its feeling of complicity, in however small a way. Sly is brought forward again, ‘aloft’, and the interest now is in the psychological changes as he is faced with the new situation. The first mood, after he wakes calling ‘For God's sake, a pot of small ale’, is the surliness, the truculence that has already been seen: ‘call not me “honour” nor “lordship”. I ne'er drank sack in my life … Ne'er ask me what raiment I'll wear …’ and so on. Surliness is succeeded by plain anger, that he should be made a victim of what he naturally assumes to be their mockery of him: ‘What, would you make me mad? Am not I Christopher Sly … ?’ (and there follows the sequence of local allusions, to ‘Burton-heath’ and Marian Hacket and Wincot, which certainly builds up ‘atmosphere’, even if Shakespeare is amusing himself at the same time). Then there is a period while the others talk at Sly, and he remains silent and presumably perplexed; when he does speak, it is to announce his decision to make the best of it and enjoy both the small ale (he is still, of course, continually giving himself away) and the company of his ‘lady’. As Hazlitt delightedly—and delightfully—put it, ‘we have a great predilection’ for him.3

Detailed comment would be superfluous on Sly's guarded dialogue with the servants, or his blunder over the aristocratic way to address a wife (‘“Al'ce madam”, or “Joan madam”? … Madam wife, they say …’) or his willingness to watch the comedy to be played before him, though he is none too sure what a comedy is. There is, however, some need for comment on the search for ‘meaning’ in the Sly section, and on its dramatic function.

Whereas once there would have been general agreement with F. A. Marshall's opinion that The Taming of the Shrew ‘is the one of Shakespeare's plays most devoid of serious interest, not excepting the Comedy of Errors',4 it has become orthodoxy to claim to find in the Induction the same ‘theme’ as is to be found in both the Bianca and the Katherine-Petruchio plots of the main play and to take it for granted that identity of theme is a merit and ‘justifies’ the introduction of Sly. Such a claim is seen in its extreme form in the statement that the three segments of the play ‘are all linked in idea because all contain discussion of the relations of the sexes in marriage’.5 So do Othello, and Hamlet, and Macbeth, and even King Lear. The situation is not saved by the statements that The Shrew deals with ‘different ways of wooing and holding a wife’ and portrays ‘different kinds of wives and husbands. The Shrew becomes thereby a drama with more social and intellectual substance than The Comedy of Errors, but in presenting shrewishness and preaching morality it resembles that play.’6 What The Shrew has to say about wooing a wife can be—and in the play itself is—put in a few sentences; and if one were to read the comedy—or The Comedy of Errors or for that matter any early Shakespearian comedy—for its ‘social and intellectual substance’ or to see what it preaches, then—if Dr Johnson's famous phrase about reading the novels of Samuel Richardson for the story may be adapted—‘your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself’. If, as Meredith said in his Essay on Comedy, the test of true comedy is that it should awaken thoughtful laughter, probably The Taming of the Shrew qualifies—but only just.

It is also debatable whether discussion is much advanced by the more widely held theories that the Induction, the Bianca story, and the taming form a unified play because each deals with ‘assumptions about identity’ and ‘assumptions about personality’.7 An alternative version is that the plots are all based on ‘supposes’—the ‘counterfeit supposes’ of 5.1.106, with the implied reference to Gascoigne's Supposes, the source of the Bianca plot.8 Such theories seem to derive from D. A. Stauffer's suggestion that the play demonstrates that people can become—or, indeed, are—what others think they are or treat them as being. Sly is compared with Katherine: ‘there is something deeper than humor, however, in Petruchio's calling Katherine affable, modest, and mild: in the outcome, thinking makes it so’.9 Is it too late in the day to insist that it is not ‘thinking’ that makes it so—neither Petruchio's nor Katherine's—and that Sly does not become what others pretend him to be?

The terms used in all these interpretations are far too wide: the sense in which Sly (for the minute) ‘assumes a new personality’ is quite different from the sense in which Kate is thought to assume one. Does she in fact ever assume one? Perhaps she merely learns that in certain circumstances certain kinds of behaviour do not work. Bianca, of course, does not assume a new personality at all: Lucentio finally sees her in her true colours, as the audience, if it has any acuity or theatrical experience, will have predicted from the first scene in which she appears. Assumptions about identity and assumptions about personality may be wildly different things. And it is simply not true that ‘Sly's story is in effect “finished” when, like Kate, he has been persuaded to accept a new personality’.10 He remains in the play after that, to watch a comedy—and not only to watch it but also to comment on it: ‘'Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady: would 'twere done!’—and Sly's attitude to the play within the play is crucial to the attitude to it of the audience in the ‘real’ theatre. The Sly Induction does not so much announce the theme of the enclosed stories as establish their tone.

There are many reasons for telling a story indirectly or putting it within a framework—as, for example, a play can be enclosed within a play. Sometimes, as in Defoe, the main tale is wrapped up in discussion about the narrator, and the author's knowledge of the veracity of the narrator and so on, as a kind of camouflage, with the aim of causing a reader to quibble, if at all, about what does not matter so that the main story will remain unchallenged. It is a method of making the enclosed story more realistic, more credible. Something similar, although far more sophisticated, is seen in the novels of, say, Joseph Conrad; if Conrad tells us about Marlow who helps with others to tell us about Lord Jim (or Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness), it is, partly, that we may believe more readily in the ‘truth’ of the story and also that attention may be given to the analysis of the complex moral issues that the story raises: Marlow's opinion, among others, is accepted, rejected or modified by the reader only because he for the minute accepts the ‘reality’ of both Marlow and Jim. The moral or intellectual debate in a sense presupposes the reality of the characters. Similarly, in a less complex and indeed unsophisticated use of the technique, a film or play will start with an ‘I remember’ followed by a dramatization of what is remembered—the aim again being greater conviction.

More often, however, the ‘enclosing’ technique works in exactly the opposite way. If in a film the characters go to see a film, the film they see is quite remote: it is at one further move from the ‘reality’ of the audience in the ‘real’ cinema. Similarly if a play on a small scale is put within a play, what happens in the enclosed play is not ‘believed’ at all. Examples would be ‘The Mousetrap’ in Hamlet and ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ in A Midsummer Night's Dream—both of which, of course, are further ‘distanced’ by other methods and notably by a deliberately artificial and old fashioned style. Since, however, these are short and in some ways special, it may be better to look for a parallel to the technique of The Shrew in a play in which the enclosed story is the longer and the enclosing story apparently no more than a way of introducing it. Just such a play is George Peele's The Old Wives Tale, the exact date of which is uncertain but which undoubtedly belongs within a few years of The Shrew. In Peele's play as in Shakespeare's the audience is introduced in the Induction to realistically drawn rustics who are contrasted with more aristocratic and intellectual types; and Peele's delightfully down-to-earth Old Wife, Madge, begins to tell a typical old wife's tale which is then, as it were, acted out for her by the players, with all the inconsecutiveness and the crossed lines of the story as it would be if she told it. And, of course, we do not ‘believe’ a word of it, and have been told not to believe it—and enjoy it the more. The Taming of the Shrew is in some ways very similar: the enclosed story is not told by an uninformed and unimaginative rustic but it is put on to amuse one; we ‘believe’ in Sly but do not really believe in Lucentio, or Bianca—or Petruchio. The phenomenon of theatrical illusion is itself being laughed at; and the play within the play makes Sly drowsy and probably soon sends him to sleep. Are we to let that play ‘preach morality’ to us or look in it for ‘social and intellectual substance’? The drunken tinker may be believed in as one believes in any realistically presented character; but we cannot ‘believe’ in something that is not even mildly interesting to him. The play within the play has been presented only after all the preliminaries have encouraged us to take it as a farce (meaning by that not slapstick, but a broader kind of comedy not involving ‘engagement’ with the characters). We have been warned.

Why, then, having begun the Induction, might Shakespeare have decided not to continue with it to the end; or—what is for this purpose much the same question—if he did at first continue with it, in a form of which A Shrew gives us some idea, albeit inadequate, why might he have changed his mind and decided to cut it short?

There are, in the first place, some purely practical, theatrical, considerations that may have weighed with him. It has been suggested, for example, that there was a staging problem because the presence of Sly and the ‘presenters’ ‘aloft’ made the use of the ‘upper stage’ for another purpose difficult; and the raised acting area does seem to be needed again in 5.1 when, as F1 has it, the ‘Pedant lookes out of the window’ (l. 2397).11 There may be something in this, although not enough is certain about the ‘upper stage’ in Elizabethan theatres for the argument to carry full conviction; it was not necessarily impossible to keep Sly's party well away from the ‘window’ required for the Pedant. (Conceivably the form of the Induction in A Shrew, which has Sly on the main stage throughout, represents some intermediate, experimental version that tried to get over the problem of the differing uses of the area ‘aloft’; alternatively, … the compilers of A Shrew—if they were thinking that the text they compiled might be acted by, for example, touring companies—may have had in mind the limitations of stages and theatres other than those for which the Shakespeare play was written.)

The staging would not seem to have been so difficult as to make necessary by itself the decision not to continue the Sly story after Act I Scene I. A greater difficulty was, perhaps, casting, although again it cannot be said that an Elizabethan company could not have coped with the problems of the full framework (including in that phrase both the carrying through of Sly's comments as in A Shrew and the alternative possibility of leaving him and others, even though they remain silent, in view of the audience throughout). If the actors of Sly, the Lord, and the Page in the Induction are not available to play other roles, then The Taming of the Shrew requires a cast of sixteen to play named parts (plus a few odd servants), of whom at least four would be boys (the Page, Kate, Bianca, the Widow)—five if a boy played Biondello; and it may have been necessary—if the company could not rise to this number—to introduce some doubling, not merely by ending the Sly story when it does end in the Folio text but also by getting him and his fellow presenters off the stage altogether.12 One caveat may be entered: it has perhaps been too readily assumed that because the Lord remains on the stage with Sly in A Shrew, he must remain with Sly, if Sly remains, in The Shrew. This is not so. The Lord could leave the Induction for the last time at 2.114 and be available for Vincentio or any other role thereafter, unless he is made to be the ‘Messenger’ of Induction 2.125.1 (itself involving an almost impossibly rapid change of costume) and also the ‘1. Man.’ who is one of the ‘Presenters’ still watching the play at the end of 1.1.13 If these two very minor roles are given to a minor actor or hired man, then only Sly and the boy-Page-‘wife’ are being ‘wasted’ if they are kept on stage; but certainly if they are removed from the view of the audience, ‘Sly’ can play the Pedant later, and the boy can play the Widow in the final scene.14 (Perhaps it should be added—in view of some rather wild theorizing about Sly's ‘dream’—that the actor playing Sly cannot conceivably play Petruchio if the Folio text is adhered to; Sly must ‘sit and marke’, at least for a while, and the very first thing he is required to mark is the entrance of Petruchio.15) William Ringler's analysis of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, however, has suggested that Shakespeare as a young dramatist did not always use his actors economically, and has shown that he probably could count on twelve adult actors and four boys if he really needed them. It may therefore be wiser to look beyond the casting, as well as the stage, for explanations of the dramatist's final preference for the ‘incomplete’ framework and to consider the possibility that the final form of the play is in fact the better for aesthetic reasons.

If what has been argued earlier in this Introduction is correct, the main purpose of the Induction was to set the tone for the play-within-the-play—in particular, to present the story of Kate and her sister as a none-too-serious comedy put on to divert a drunken tinker. The artificial style of the beginning of 1.1 is perhaps further indication that we are not expected to become too involved in the Lucentio—Bianca—disguises plot; we are told that it more or less put Sly to sleep; and only then are we invited to watch also Petruchio's campaign to tame the shrew. As that tale goes on and especially when Kate is introduced, it gradually changes key and it does become, for a while, more realistic and convincing (and an attempt will be made later to justify this claim); but it never for long loses its basically farcical character, and it ends, perfectly logically for a farce, with the shrew not only tamed but also prepared to instruct the untamed wives on the social desirability of tameness. That last scene has been taken literally by, for example, G. I. Duthie, who wrote that ‘What Shakespeare emphasizes here is the foolishness of trying to destroy order’.16 He can take such a view, however, only because for him the Induction is finally irrelevant (indeed, in this discussion he does not so much as mention its existence); for him, all the hints about the nature of theatrical illusion have been in vain; because Kate is straightfaced, he believes what she has said. Others, holding that ‘the best in this kind are but shadows’, as Shakespeare was to put it later, and remembering that this particular shadow was for the amusement of a shadow, will have their doubts.

The play as it stands is, in modern jargon, ‘open-ended’—and it is made not more ‘open’ but less so by having Sly, in a final scene, convinced that he now knows how to tame a shrew and by having Sly's friend not so sure. The reintroduction of the presenters would also, as has been suggested by several modern critics, run the risk of anticlimax and, one might add, of seeming to gild the lily. One does not improve a farce by ending it with the reminder that it may have been only a farce; far better to let the audience make that judgement, if it wishes to make it.

Perhaps Shakespeare first tried the play with the full Sly framework, perhaps he did not; but at least one can say that he seems to have had very good reasons for his apparent decision to leave it ‘incomplete’ as it is now in the approved text and (probably) to get Sly out of view of the audience early in the play and let them forget him—until perhaps they have left the theatre and have time to wonder what happened to him and even, perhaps, what has happened to them.


At least there is no dispute about the main source for the part of The Taming of the Shrew that deals with Bianca and her suitors. Shakespeare even alludes to it, and paraphrases it, when he has Lucentio reveal his identity, with the words:

                                                                                                                                  Here's Lucentio,
Right son to the right Vincentio,
That have by marriage made thy daughter mine,
While counterfeit supposes bleared thine eyne.


The source was George Gascoigne's Supposes. Its title-page describes it as ‘a Comedie written in the Italian tongue by Ariosto Englished by George Gascoygne of Grayes Inne Esquire, and there presented 1566’ (and there is an apparent record of a later private performance at Oxford, in Trinity College, in January 158218). Gascoigne was translating Ariosto's I Suppositi in the original prose version in which it was acted at Ferrara in 1509 and at the Vatican in 1519 (although he may have known also Ariosto's rewriting of it in verse) and his translation is thought to be the first English drama in prose (it anticipates Lyly by nearly twenty years). Gascoigne's play was easily available to Shakespeare, particularly in the collections The Posies of G. Gascoigne (1575)19 and The Whole Woorkes of G. Gascoigne (1587).

In the Ariosto-Gascoigne story, Erostrato [Shakespeare's Lucentio], after falling in love at first sight, has enjoyed for some time a secret liaison with Polynesta [Shakespeare's Bianca], daughter of Damon [Baptista]. Erostrato is able to arrange meetings because in disguise he has been employed by Damon as a servant, Dulipo, while Erostrato's real servant Dulipo [Tranio] pretends to be the master Erostrato. The feigned Erostrato pretends to woo the girl, as a way of frustrating a rival suitor, the aged Cleander [Gremio]. These two try to outbid each other with offers of lavish dowries; and to support his claim Erostrato persuades a travelling stranger [the Pedant] to impersonate his real father Philogano [Vincentio]. Erostrato arranges this both by pretending that because of a ducal decision it is dangerous for a Sienese to be found in Ferrara and by offering protection if the stranger will impersonate the father. Matters come to a head when Polynesta is found to be pregnant (Shakespeare altered this, of course: he obviously wanted for his second female character one who to appearance had all the marks of the romantic heroine). Dulipo is put into a dungeon (too ‘serious’ a fate for Shakespeare's kind of comedy); from Sicily20 arrives ‘the right Philogano the right father of the right Erostrato’, to find both that Dulipo is impersonating Erostrato and that a stranger is impersonating Erostrato's father, namely himself; but finally all is solved, and true identities revealed, and Cleander [Gremio] even discovers that Dulipo is the son he lost long ago after the battle of Otranto (and Shakespeare chose to avoid that improbability, which adds nothing of import to the story). For one character who looms large in the source but hardly affects the action—the typical parasite of classical comedy, Pasiphilo—Shakespeare found no place at all; not did his Bianca (since she was not pregnant) need a confidant-nurse. His main addition, which perhaps he saw as an alternative to these superfluous characters, was to complicate the action by giving Bianca a third suitor, Hortensio; and then—on second thoughts, if the argument of the earlier part of this Introduction is correct—he complicated it further by having Hortensio assume the disguise of Litio to compete with Erostrato/Lucentio in disguise as Cambio. In short, he added still more ‘supposes’ to those of which Gascoigne already thought so highly that he put notes in the margin pointing them out lest the reader should miss any.21

Gascoigne, as part of a whole series of quibbles on his title, explained in his ‘Prologue or Argument’: ‘But understand, this our Suppose is nothing else but a mystaking or imagination of one thing for an other. For you shall see the master supposed for the servant, the servant for the master: the freeman for a slave, and the bondslave for a freeman: the stranger for a well knowen friend, and the familiar for a stranger.’ His audience is kept amused by the misconceptions of the characters—as in the Plautine comedies of which Supposes is a direct descendant22—and is not invited (unless it be by the strong suspicion of irony in the Prologue and the marginal notes) to wonder if it has misconceptions of its own. The interest, in short, is not in characterization but in plot, the audience watching to see what happens next and how the knots are untied.

The Bianca section of Shakespeare's play, for the most part, is no different.23 It is the kind of comedy that he attempted also in The Comedy of Errors, with its two pairs of identical twins (this time beginning from Plautus' Mostellaria); he attempted it again—albeit in a very different tone—in the parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream that follow from the anointing of the wrong lover's eyes with the juice of the magic flower, so that Demetrius and Lysander are temporarily infatuated with the wrong women. Being Shakespeare, he carried it off. A reader's head sometimes spins as he tries to remember whether Lucentio is Cambio or Litio and momentarily confuses the names of Grumio and Gremio—but in the theatre all is clear, and the pace of the action is well maintained. Indeed it is increased towards the end and particularly in 5.1, where one seeming disaster after another falls on the bewildered Vincentio: he himself is being impersonated by a complete stranger; his son Lucentio's servant Biondello claims never to have seen him before; the other servant Tranio, whom he brought up in his own house, claims to be Lucentio; and for all this he, Vincentio, is threatened with imprisonment, until the problem is solved by Biondello's unfortunate entrance (unfortunate for Biondello) with Lucentio and Bianca, and his prompt exit with Tranio and the false father ‘as fast as may be’. It is all very fast indeed.

Interestingly, it is in this scene that Shakespeare seems to have worked most closely from Gascoigne. He even borrows such a small detail as having the real father knock in vain at the door for admittance to his own son's dwelling and be greeted by a stranger looking out of the window (although in Supposes the stranger is a servant and not the feigned father). There are also verbal reminiscences, albeit of commonplace phrases. One example is Philogano's ‘What hast thou done with my son villain?’; Vincentio's ‘Tell me, thou villain, where is my son … ?’ with the same expressed fear that the son has been murdered by his former servant. Another is Gascoigne's Philogano to his own servant: ‘Do you not know me?’ ‘As farre as I remember Sir, I never saw you before’; Shakespeare's Vincentio: ‘What, have you forgot me?’ ‘Forgot you? No, sir. I could not forget you, for I never saw you before in all my life.’

This last example, with its improvement on Gascoigne in its colloquial tone and the balance of its calculated repetitions, is sufficient warning against equating Shakespeare with his sources. It is also noticeable how he avoids the traps into which others fall: he will not slow up the scene just discussed, for instance, or falsify its tone, by introducing passages of self-pity amounting to attempted pathos, such as ‘Alas, who shall relieve my miserable estate? to whom shall I complaine? … Alas, you might have some compassion of mine age …’. Nevertheless it remains true that it is the Gascoigne kind of comedy that he is writing in the Bianca scenes; and (although a few caveats to this judgement will be entered later, in the general discussion of the style) he does not attempt to alter that kind by elevating or enriching the language. It would not have been an improvement for Bianca to speak or be described in genuinely romantic terms; on the contrary, she must be seen, at first, as nothing but the conventional heroine sought by the hero of fiction, and in this capacity she will be contrasted with another type of woman, at first much less attractive, her spirited ‘real-life’ sister Kate.

Shakespeare is not content, however, to leave it at that. He does not merely contrast one sister with another: he uses the younger as part of the explanation of the acquired shrewishness of the elder, and so—for better or worse—also uses Bianca in a ‘realistic’ way. In particular there is psychological realism in the scenes in which Katherine resents not only Bianca's success with her ‘pretty’ tricks, and Baptista's treatment of his favourite, younger, daughter, so different from the way he treats the elder (‘Why, and I trust I may go too, may I not?’, 1.1.102) but also Bianca's very meekness. Words like ‘what you will command me will I do, / So well I know my duty to my elders’ (2.1.6-7), and the offer to pull off her ‘raiment’ if Katherine wants her to do so, might well, if a phrase from elsewhere in the play may be purloined, ‘vex a very saint’, let alone a girl of Katherine's ‘impatient humour’; understandably, they infuriate her. The audience, moreover, has the opportunity of seeing Bianca ‘in action’ with her suitors Lucentio and Hortensio/Litio. (The suddenness of Lucentio's infatuation with her, incidentally, on the strength of her beauty, her ‘dutiful’ behaviour, and the four lines he has heard her speak may not be mere dramatic casualness: it may be part of Shakespeare's characterizing of the kind of lover other literature asks one to admire.24) In 3.1 it is a very self-possessed young lady who manages both Lucentio and Hortensio to her own satisfaction, insists on the right to please herself about her lessons, and gives Lucentio the encouragement that she could not in all modesty give if she were what she pretended to be in the earlier scenes. His ‘reward’ proves to be a wife who is not only ‘disobedient’ (to the extent of losing him his wager) but also capable of spitting at him ‘the more fool you for laying on my duty’.

The second function of the Bianca story, then, is to help explain how Kate has become a shrew. It serves also to make us more sympathetic with Kate by contrast—and presumably that is what Shakespeare intended (although it may have landed him in difficulties of another kind, to be discussed later). And it is all done with amazing economy: has it always been realized how very few lines Bianca has in the play and how short her speeches tend to be?

On the level of mere narrative, the Bianca ‘plot’ connects with the Katherine story when Bianca's wooers support the suit of Petruchio because of their interest in having Kate married off first, that Bianca may become available; and the two groups of characters compete in the final scene. It is clear, however, that there are links of the other kinds, discussed above; and Dr Johnson may not have been exaggerating as much as is often thought, if he had those others in mind when he made his famous statement that ‘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.’


Continuation of the search for a ‘source’ of Petruchio's taming of Katherine may well be pointless. There were shrews galore in literature long before Shakespeare—tamed and untamed. Petruchio himself refers to the wife of Socrates, Xanthippe, whom literary tradition rather than any ascertainable facts had made into the very symbol of the nagging wife; and in earlier English drama, tradition again seems to have determined that Noah's wife in the religious cycles should be a termagant and almost as great a trial to her husband as was the Deluge. There are shrews in Old English verse, and in Chaucer, in medieval tales, in Persian literature, in popular Italian stories, in Danish and other folklore; and probably there were shrews in many a stage farce. It is even possible to speculate whether there may not have been a stock costume to identify the character as soon as she appeared on the stage.

Peter Alexander and others were convinced that Richard Hosley had identified the source of the taming story when he again drew attention to a ballad that had been well known to earlier scholars such as Frey, W. C. Hazlitt, Boas, and Bond but rejected by them as the probable origin.25 This is the verse tale A Merry Jest of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, Lapped in Morrelle's Skin, for Her Good Behavyour. The alleged parallels, however, can be overstated, and Hosley himself seems to have withdrawn to a more easily defensible position and is content to say in his edition of the play (in the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, 1969, p. 81) that the ballad perhaps ‘suggested the basic framework’ of Shakespeare's comedy. The verse tale has a shrew—likened to a fiend or devil—with a meek younger sister who is the father's favourite; after the wedding, the shrew returns with her husband to his house in the country; and after the taming the newly-reformed shrew's ‘good behaviour’ is a subject for surprise at a family dinner. But the verbal parallels seldom, if ever, go beyond the standard phrases that one would expect to find in such a story; and as Hosley is the first to point out, the method and spirit of Petruchio's taming of Kate is very different from that of the husband who tears off his wife's clothes, ‘beats her with birch rods till the blood runs on the floor and she faints, and then wraps her in the skin of an old lame plough-horse, Morel, killed and flayed especially for the occasion’ (p. 296).

A stronger case is made by J. H. Brunvand who argues most convincingly that Shakespeare did not need a literary source for his taming story and that he is much more likely to have drawn on oral tradition (although oral tradition may always be recorded in a printed text and perhaps one such has been lost). There is no incident in the Petruchio—Katherine story that Shakespeare needed to invent; on the contrary, the highest common factors, so to speak, of relevant folk-tales include the arrival of the groom at the wedding in poor clothes, the wife's having to learn to swear that black is white if her husband says it is, the wager on her obedience, and even the treading on her cap as proof of it.26 The further significance of this may be—how can one know?—that the Elizabethan audience came to see Shakespeare's play ‘pre-conditioned’, as we might say, to enjoy the spectacle of the taming of one on whom they would not expect to waste a moment's sympathy—just as they presumably came to see revenge-plays, not excluding Hamlet, knowing what the rough outline of the story would be, knowing that the revenger could not be allowed to survive, but still fascinated to see, inter alia, how the dramatist filled in the given outline.

Theories of minor sources that Shakespeare may have used also fall far short of proof. Of the three verbal parallels that have been found27 with Erasmus's Colloquies, for example, two are actually listed by Tilley as proverbs. What works such as this really demonstrate, as Hosley also well points out (p. 299), is that ‘the business of “training” a wife to accept a viable social relationship to her husband, as one would teach a colt to go through its paces or a hawk to fly to the lure, is a commonplace of humanist discussions of marriage’. Indeed, they probably all trace back to the Bible, from which Katherine more or less quotes in her final speech.

A reference to a suppressed ballad called ‘The taminge of a shrewe’ in the Stationers' Company's Decrees and Ordinances for 1596 is now suspected of being a forgery28 and many of the other suggested sources or analogues seem much less likely after Brunvand's demonstration of the strength and detail of the oral tradition. It is clearly more profitable on all counts to consider what Shakespeare did with the taming story.

Literary tradition perhaps prepared Shakespeare's audience, going to The Taming of the Shrew, to expect a farce; the Induction certainly did not invite them to become deeply involved with the characters of the inset play; the very costume worn by the boy playing Katherine may have identified her as nothing but a shrew: in short, there may have been as much likelihood of the audience's sympathizing with Katherine, when she first appeared on the stage, as there is of a twentieth-century music-hall audience's feeling sorry for a mother-in-law. The very first words addressed to Kate also take it for granted that she has no humanity: Gremio's reply to Baptista's invitation to court his elder daughter is ‘To cart her rather. She's too rough for me’—which virtually calls Kate to her face a prostitute; Hortensio classes her among ‘devils’; Tranio can believe only that she is ‘stark mad, or wonderful froward’; Gremio brands her a ‘fiend of hell’. Yet already a modern audience, at any rate, has made a mental reservation. Kate's own first words, to her father, ‘I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates’—with their resentment at Gremio's insult and their feeling that a father might well resent it too—seem reasonable enough and, what is more, deserving of sympathy.

That, in brief, is the main problem in understanding or interpreting the play. It is as if Shakespeare set out to write a farce about taming a shrew but had hardly begun before he asked himself what might make a woman shrewish anyway—and found his first answer in her home background. Just as, later, his portraits of Capulet, Lady Capulet, and the Nurse were to serve to arouse pity for the young Juliet, tragically thrown back on her own resources, so here the sketches of the spoilt younger daughter and of the father lacking in discernment (but perhaps not in good will—one may agree with R. B. Heilman that Baptista is not the villain of the piece29) help the audience to understand what Baptista does not—and tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. We sympathize with Katherine—and as soon as we do, farce becomes impossible. Just as Shakespeare, when he wrote The Two Gentlemen of Verona, tried to dramatize materials from prose romances which had been acceptable precisely because the characters had no character—and had made the story unacceptable as soon as he did introduce character (it is one thing for a puppet hero to offer to hand over his puppet-like beloved to his best friend but quite another for Valentine to offer Silvia to Proteus), so in The Taming of the Shrew he was dramatizing material from unrealistic literature that was perfectly acceptable on the level of the Punch and Judy show but ran the risk of embarrassing as soon as it rose above that level. We may laugh at Punch's hitting Judy on the head in the puppet play but it is not so easy to laugh at Petruchio's taming of Katherine. As M. R. Ridley put it: if it were all farce ‘our subtler feelings would lie contentedly quiescent. … But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, cannot restrain his hand from making Petruchio more of a man, and Katharine more of a woman, than from the artistic point of view was wise; and so Petruchio's bullying of Katharine, funny though it would be if they were mere marionettes, and effective and indeed salutary though it is in its results, leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in the mouth.’30 It is not necessary to agree with this in detail—for example, about Petruchio—in order to agree with it in general. In other words, Shakespeare was already too good a dramatist for the material he was dramatizing: characterization and farce are, finally, incompatible.

Finding itself in this dilemma, the average audience seems to decide to get as much enjoyment as it can from the farce—trying, as it were, to keep its sympathy with Katherine in a state of suspense (paradoxically, a suspension of belief, in the interests of enjoying what is not to be believed). And on the level of farce, The Taming of the Shrew is, generally, superb; and in so far as one can put sympathy aside and watch the taming of Kate as one might watch the taming of a falcon or wild beast (although even that presents problems to an audience more sensitive than Shakespeare's to cruelty to animals), one can ‘enjoy’ Petruchio.

He, of course, is the ‘right’ man for the task—and it is difficult to understand the objections to Peter Alexander's statement that the story is, among other things, a variation on ‘the perilous maiden theme, where the lady is death to any suitor who woos her except the hero, in whose hands her apparent vices turn to virtues’.31 As Curtis infers, hearing of Petruchio's behaviour, ‘he is more shrew than she’ (4.1.75); or as Grumio puts it, ‘an she knew him as well as I do, she would think scolding would do little good upon him’ (1.2.107-8); as Peter sums it up, ‘he kills her in her own humour’ (4.1.168) (and not, surely, as the sentimental modern orthodoxy believes, by burlesquing her behaviour, so that she sees herself as others see her, and finally ‘sees the joke’,32 but by standing over her and proving that with him shrewishness simply will not work).

For his role as tamer, he has all the necessary attributes. For example, he is mature: ‘Yet you are withered’, Kate taunts him, and he replies ‘'Tis with cares’ (2.1.238)—and although in most modern productions Kate is played by a sophisticated actress in her twenties or thirties, Shakespeare may well have thought of her as about sixteen. She is older than Bianca—but then on the evidence of other Shakespeare comedies Bianca would be thought marriageable at fourteen—and Kate's tantrums as well as Petruchio's treatment of them may seem rather more credible if she, too, in her own way is a spoilt child. However that may be, she certainly thinks of Petruchio, in the line just quoted, as older than she is. He also claims—and there is no reason to doubt the claim—a wide range of dangerous experience:

Have I not in my time heard lions roar? …
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field …
And do you tell me of a woman's tongue … ?
Tush, tush, fear boys with bugs!

—and Grumio adds ‘For he fears none’ (1.2.196-206).

In the tradition of the best tamers, he is quite without sentiment:

I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua


and insists that his prospective father-in-law come to the point:

Then tell me, if I get your daughter's love,
What dowry shall I have with her to wife?


It is apparently not even beneath his dignity to bargain with Bianca's wooers that if they want Katherine out of the way, they shall pay the expenses of his courtship of her.

If he lacks sentiment, however, he is certainly capable of appreciating strength in a woman's character, including strength of resistance, and when he hears of Kate's breaking of the lute over Hortensio's head proclaims:

Now by the world, it is a lusty wench;
I love her ten times more than e'er I did.
O how I long to have some chat with her!


Love, of course, has nothing to do with the case, and there is no place for love in a farce; but he does admire, and he welcomes the challenge of prospective strong opposition. Kate is like him in that respect: the implication of their first meeting and its prolonged and rather tedious exchange of insults is that she is at least interested in him, almost in spite of herself, and welcomes his un-Hortensio-like refusal to cower.

Petruchio has one other quality invaluable in a tamer—the ability to make a plan, and to keep to it. Just before their first meeting he announces, in soliloquy, his proposed strategy of calculated opposition:

Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale …
If she deny to wed, I'll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns, and when be marrièd


he tells her to her face what he proposes to do:

For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates


and then, again in soliloquy, when the programme is in operation, explains exactly how he is carrying out the plan ‘to man my haggard’ (4.1.175-98). Nothing is accidental, nothing unpredicted; and Hazlitt summed it up perfectly when he said that ‘There is no contending with a person on whom nothing makes any impression but his own purposes, and who is bent on his own whims just in proportion as they seem to want common sense. With him a thing's being plain and reasonable is a reason against it. … The whole of his treatment of his wife at home is in the same spirit of ironical attention and inverted gallantry.’33

Katherine learns that it is no use hitting him, as she might hit Hortensio, for ‘I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again’ (2.1.222); it is no use being shrewish when he has announced that it is their agreement that she shall be so in public; it is no use refusing to go with him after the wedding when he pretends that he is rescuing her from those who might help her to stay; it is no use claiming to be the injured party when he thanks the wedding guests who ‘have beheld me give away myself / To this most patient, sweet, and virtuous wife’ (3.2.193-4); it is no use complaining that food is denied when it is said to be bad for her health. Petruchio's campaign has already passed the point of possible failure when the assurance is given, in 4.1.68-70, that for the first time she was more concerned with somebody else—Grumio—than with herself (‘how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me’); and soon afterwards she is seen trying to defend the servants from her husband's (feigned) anger.

There is nothing to warrant an assumption that—at this stage, at any rate—Katherine and Petruchio are merely ‘playing a game’. She is being tamed, and the spectacle would be acceptable if, but only if, Katherine had no feelings and the audience had no concern for her.34 In fact, however, Shakespeare sometimes dramatizes Kate's genuine distress. No modern playgoer can fail to sympathize with her, part of the time at least, and—difficult as such questions are—it is not easy to believe that the Elizabethan audience was always on Petruchio's side.

A crucial scene is the wedding. Katherine's words when her bridegroom does not appear for the ceremony are bound to arouse compassion:

No shame but mine …
Now must the world point at poor Katherine
And say ‘Lo, there is mad Petruchio's wife,
If it would please him come and marry her.’


Tranio is embarrassed (‘Patience, good Katherine …’); and Baptista for once shows fatherly understanding:

Go, girl, I cannot blame thee now to weep,
For such an injury would vex a very saint,
Much more a shrew of thy impatient humour.

They are both further concerned—not least for Katherine—when Petruchio arrives in his disarray (‘See not your bride in these unreverent robes’). Most significantly of all: Gremio admits, in his account of the riotous marriage ceremony, that Katherine is ‘a lamb, a dove’ compared with Petruchio, and confesses ‘I seeing this came thence for very shame’. If even Gremio can be ashamed, the audience cannot fail to be so too; it will feel that this is indeed ‘a way to kill a wife’, and not ‘with kindness’. The world of farce—for all the broad humour of Petruchio's antics—has been left behind, and Katherine has long ceased to be merely the subject of an experiment.

The audience's disquiet will probably continue in the scenes at Petruchio's house, when she is not only denied food but also allowed to be the victim of mockery by the very servants; and there will not be general agreement with the attempts by some twentieth-century critics to ‘save’ her by saying that she ‘enjoys the game’ in Act 4 Scene 5 when she declines any longer to have an opinion different from her husband's. The mood is rather weary resignation:

… be it moon, or sun, or what you please;
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

(ll. 13-15)

Petruchio's victory, if it is a victory, is a very poor one indeed—and to say this is not to agree for one minute with H. C. Goddard's desperate claim that ‘the play is an early version of What Every Woman Knows—what every woman knows being, of course, that the woman can lord it over the man so long as she allows him to think he is lording it over her’.35 (As R. B. Heilman nicely put it, ‘After three centuries of relative stability, then, Petruchio has developed rather quickly, first from an animal tamer to a gentleman lover who simply brings out the best in Kate, and then at last to a laughable victim of the superior spouse who dupes him’.36) In fact, Katherine never ‘lords it’ over Petruchio; in nearly every sense that matters she loses; and Goddard admits that his main reason for interpreting the play in this way is to bring it ‘into line’ with the other comedies because otherwise it would be ‘an unaccountable exception’ and a regression. It is not a regression but a young dramatist's attempt, not repeated, to mingle two genres that cannot be combined—and it may not even be exceptional if … The Two Gentlemen of Verona had also tried to blend incompatible literary modes, albeit modes different again from those in The Taming of the Shrew.

It is the logic of the farce in the play that demands that in the final scene the tamed shrew shall be shown to be tamer than both the seemingly meek sister and the worldly-wise widow; and the tone is certainly farcical as the husbands who have made the wagers on the wives' obedience urge those wives on exactly as if they were animals: ‘To her, Kate!’ ‘To her, widow!’ The lecture by Kate on the wife's duty to submit is the only fitting climax to the farce—and for that very reason it cannot logically be taken seriously, orthodox though the views expressed may be. If one does take the finale seriously, then one experiences some such difficulty as that felt by R. W. Bond, who protested solemnly that the order to Katherine to throw her ‘cap’ away and trample on it is ‘a needless affront to her feelings, not excusable like former freaks as part of a wise purpose, but offered at the very moment when she is exhibiting a voluntary obedience’ (p. lvii). (Treading on the cap, it should be remembered, is one of the elements common to the shrew-taming folk tales.) It is the same mistake, attempting to take the last scene as a continuation of the realistic portrayal of character, that leads some modern producers to have it played as a kind of private joke between Petruchio and Kate—or even have Petruchio imply that by now he is thoroughly ashamed of himself. It does not, cannot, work. The play has changed key again: it has modulated back from something like realistic social comedy to the other, ‘broader’, kind of entertainment that was foretold by the Induction. Hazlitt was perhaps for once wrong when he said that ‘The Taming of the Shrew is almost the only one of Shakespeare's comedies that has a regular plot, and a downright moral’; the moral, if any, is light-hearted and it is the very irregularity and inconsistency—of the tone, if not exactly of the plot—that creates the problems, not only for the reader but also, if the truth be told, for the audience.

Shakespeare certainly plays with the subject of theatrical illusion, and through the Induction and elsewhere seems to warn his audience of the ambiguity of ‘belief’; he perhaps illustrates—he certainly for the moment accepts, or pretends to accept—some of the commonplaces of the thought of his time on social behaviour and the desirability of conforming; but if the play is to be enjoyed, it must be enjoyed primarily for its fun, and the paradox is that this fun is cut across and indeed reduced by that other dramatic skill that makes a character credible or ‘real’.


J. W. Mackail once said of The Taming of the Shrew that, although ‘brilliantly successful on the stage’, ‘it has no high quality as literature, and but a few touches of Shakespeare's magic or of his verbal and rhetorical felicity’.37 It is not difficult to see why the comment was made, but Mackail shows a very limited concept of ‘verbal felicity’ and is almost certainly wrong about the absence of good ‘rhetoric’.

To be sure, one will look in vain in The Shrew for the kind of ‘magic’ that often leaps from the Shakespearian page even as early as The Two Gentlemen of Verona. There are no memorable lines of the type of ‘the uncertain glory of an April day’ or verbal pictures of ‘the current that with gentle murmur glides’ and ‘makes sweet music with th' enamelled stones, / Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge / He overtaketh in his pilgrimage’. Such romantic touches are ruled out by the subject matter of this very different play. There are, however, other kinds of poetic skill.

The comedy is not lacking in images (though Caroline Spurgeon counted only 92 in the whole play, an exceptionally low number38); indeed there is even iterative imagery—notably that of training the falcon which is, as it were, basic to Petruchio's theory of taming. K. Wentersdorf has shown not only that many of the images are characteristic of Shakespeare—the noise of hell, for example, and the noise of battle39—but also that they tend to recur (and how an image, such as card playing, can often be found both in a part of the play that the disintegrators were prepared to accept as Shakespeare's—1.2.33 and 2.1.311—and in another part—4.2.57 and 2.1.387—that they wished to allot to a collaborator).40 With the possible exception of the falcons and haggards, however, there is no important pattern of imagery; and where one image is repeated in a later part of the play, the second rarely gains any added significance from the first. For example, it is difficult to see any dramatic significance in the fact that Vincentio's indignation with Tranio in 5.1.108-9—‘Where is that damned villain, Tranio, / That faced and braved me in this matter so?’—repeats the pair of words on which Grumio chose to pun in his attempt to outface the tailor in 4.3.122-5. The repetition may be deliberate but is more likely to be unconscious and in itself meaningless.

Single images are vivid enough—such as the Lord's first picture of Sly, in the Induction, ‘O monstrous beast, how like a swine he lies! / Grim death, how foul and loathsome is thine image!’ or Hortensio's picture of himself after Kate has broken the musical instrument over his head, ‘And there I stood amazèd for a while, / As on a pillory, looking through the lute’ (2.1.154-5) or—one of several that may, as B. Ifor Evans has said, ‘derive from a genuine rustic experience’41—‘Kate like the hazel-twig / Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue / As hazel-nuts and sweeter than the kernels’ (2.1.252-4). It will be noticed, however, that the images tend to take the form of the self-conscious simile rather than the direct metaphor—‘as loud / As thunder’, ‘as rough / As are the swelling Adriatic seas’, ‘gives not half so great a blow to hear / As will a chestnut in a farmer's fire’. This is characteristic of the early Shakespeare, as, too, is an occasional tendency towards the literary, seen not only in Petruchio's ‘as foul as was Florentius' love, / As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / As Socrates' Xanthippe’ but also in Tranio's ‘so devote to Aristotle's checks / As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured’, in Sly's blunders about ‘Saint Jeronimy’ and ‘Richard Conqueror’ and his ‘paucas pallabris’, and in the speeches to Sly of the Lord and attendants when he wakes in Induction 2.33-58.

The inflation in these last-mentioned speeches, however, may be deliberate—the Lord and those in league with him are playing, and even consciously over-playing, parts; and this is reminder enough that in any discussion of the style of The Taming of the Shrew one important caveat must be entered, namely that it is exceptionally difficult, when the language falls flat, or seems inflated, to be sure that the playwright is not deliberately making it so, for what may seem to him to be, and often still seem to be, excellent dramatic reasons.

The first example has already been given: the classical allusions in the second part of the Induction are probably a meaningful kind of overwriting, indicative of the pleasure taken by the intriguers in their intrigue, and their awareness of the glorious inappropriateness of references to Adonis, Cytherea, Io, and Daphne when addressing Christopher Sly. There is even the suggestion that the attendants are not fully successful in their attempts to reproduce the inflated language of the Lord.42

The style of the beginning of the play-within-the-play presents a similar problem. There can be little doubt that the exposition is blatant, that the verse sounds not much better than jog-trot, and that the line-endings ‘Lombardy’, ‘Italy’, ‘company’ add to the effect of jingle. But is this Shakespeare's relative incompetence or is he already trying by artificiality of language to mark off the play-within-the-play as less ‘real’? Is this in short the same technique as he was to use—one is tempted to say ‘more obviously’ but perhaps should say ‘more clearly’—when he began the play-within-the-play in Hamlet with the prologue ‘For us, and for our tragedy, / Here stooping to your clemency, / We beg your hearing patiently’? One would like to be sure.

It seems reasonably certain that the language of Gremio and Hortensio in 1.1.105-42 is made up largely of proverbs and clichés not because Shakespeare can do no better but because he sees the characters as having commonplace minds; and when Lucentio speaks as he does about his falling in love at first sight with Bianca:

                                        I saw sweet beauty in her face,
Such as the daughter of Agenor had,
That made great Jove to humble him to her hand,
When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strand


—the rhyme may be significant—it is perhaps not because Shakespeare thinks that this is admirably romantic but because Lucentio is being presented as the traditional lover who thinks it so, the lover found in romantic drama, poetry, and fiction. (The case would admittedly be stronger if Lucentio had not addressed Tranio a few lines earlier as the confidant “That art to me as secret and as dear / As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was’.)

Most interesting of all is the speech of the Pedant, who when he talks in his own character, on first meeting Tranio (4.2.72 ff.), uses regular blank verse but as soon as he has to play the part of Vincentio speaks to Baptista in verse that limps:

                                        and, if you please to like
No worse than I, upon some agreement
Me shall you find ready and willing
With one consent to have her so bestowed.


There may be textual corruption—or is this Shakespeare's way of indicating that the Pedant is unsure of himself and improvising?43

The passages just discussed may all belong to the process of experimentation that may be seen again and again in the play. Experiment is clear, for example, in the use of rhyme. One is not surprised by rhyme when a statement is to sound platitudinous or vaguely ridiculous, as Marlowe had used it for the speech of Mycetes in Tamburlaine and as Shakespeare perhaps uses it in the lines of Lucentio quoted above (1.1.166-7), rhyming ‘hand’ and ‘strand’, and in the speeches by Hortensio and Gremio at 1.2.225-34. One also expects it when a statement is to be given the force of an epigram or is to sound conclusive, as in Petruchio's:

My father dead, my fortune lives for me,
And I do hope good days and long to see


(where it is not very successful) and, probably, in Katherine's:

To comb your noddle with a three-legged stool,
And paint your face, and use you like a fool.


Tranio is presumably uttering a ‘home truth’ when a few lines later he comments on Kate:

Husht, master, here's some good pastime toward;
That wench is stark mad, or wonderful froward.

Lucentio's rejoinder, however, gives a subtler effect:

But in the other's silence do I see
Maid's mild behaviour and sobriety.

The rhyming of the fully stressed syllable with one stressed only lightly, if at all, allows Lucentio to sound convinced of his truth, too, but perhaps makes it sound less convincing to us; and it allows Shakespeare to modulate back to blank verse.

Rhymed doggerel also seems to be used in an attempt to obtain special effects. It is prominent, for example, on the first appearance of Petruchio and Grumio, at the beginning of 1.2, and the impression given is, appropriately, of something clownish. What is perhaps different from uses in other early drama is that the rhymed lines are not continuous but are broken up with others—complete or half-lines or even prose; and if an editor's head spins, endeavouring to decide which is which, it may be because Shakespeare is trying out occasional rhymed prose. An example would be the speech by Grumio (1.2.29-35) which begins with colloquial prose and ends ‘Whom would to God I had well knocked at first, / Then had not Grumio come by the worst’—which may be verse, or may not. The opposite process seems to occur in 2.1.74 ff., where Petruchio's ‘O pardon me, Signor Gremio, I would fain be doing’ is capped by Gremio's ‘I doubt it not, sir, but you will curse your wooing’ followed by several lines of prose. At least this avoids jingle and monotony.

A still more interesting use of rhyme is found in Petruchio's initial statement of his strategy (2.1.169-79). In the lines:

Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale …
If she do bid me pack, I'll give her thanks,
As though she bid me stay by her a week.
If she deny to wed, I'll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns, and when be marrièd

it may not at first be apparent that ‘rail’ within the first line rhymes with ‘nightingale’ at the end of the second; ‘pack’ and ‘week’ are a kind of half-rhyme; and ‘marrièd’ rhymes with ‘wed’ in the middle of the line before. This interlacing, as it were, gives the whole passage the musical effect of lyric, and continuity, and a certain emphatic quality, without risking the monotony of a sequence of rhymed couplets that might have the added disadvantage of making Petruchio sound at this stage too confident or even ridiculous.

Also fascinating is Shakespeare's choice of prose or verse for different parts of the play. Sly, for example, normally speaks prose, of the most colloquial kind; but once he accepts the argument that he is ‘a lord indeed’, he adopts the more formal blank verse of those around him:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?

(and soon adopts the royal plural!). Petruchio normally speaks in verse, but the best accounts of him are by speakers of prose.44 (One exception is Gremio's description of the wedding—but that involves Kate too.) Presumably the verse gives him a certain status, forces the listener on the stage to take him seriously, as it were, while the prose passages prevent his seeming to the audience in any way heroic. The best instances, of course, are Biondello's description of Petruchio's horse and of his dress for the wedding (3.2.43-68) and Grumio's report to Curtis of what happened on the way home from the ceremony (4.1.58-74)—the latter, incidentally, also a splendid example of the art of narrative (as is Gremio's account of the wedding itself).

One other change from prose to verse, completely unexpected, is worthy of mention. Grumio, appropriately enough, usually speaks in prose, as colloquial as Sly's, if more fluent. Why then in 4.1, in answer to Petruchio's feignedly angry question why the servants did not meet him in the park, does he speak in very formal blank verse?

Nathaniel's coat, sir, was not fully made,
And Gabriel's pumps were all unpinked i'th' heel;
There was no link to colour Peter's hat,
And Walter's dagger was not come from sheathing;
There were none fine but Adam, Ralph, and Gregory,
The rest were ragged, old, and beggarly …

The effect, surely, is of something prepared, possibly learnt off verbatim—a warning to the audience, in fact, that Grumio is in league with Petruchio throughout the taunting of Katherine in this scene and 4.3.

Perhaps enough has been said to demonstrate that The Taming of the Shrew, pace Mackail, is very rich in verbal and other technical skills; and if one looks for ‘rhetorical felicity’, that is easily found—in Petruchio's ‘Think you a little din can daunt mine ears? / Have I not in my time heard lions roar? …’, for example (1.2.195-206), or Gremio's account of the riches with which he would be prepared to endow Bianca:

My hangings all of Tyrian tapestry;
In ivory coffers I have stuffed my crowns …
I have a hundred milch-kine to the pail,
Six-score fat oxen standing in my stalls …
If whilst I live she will be only mine


or (let us not forget) in Sly's:

… if you give me any conserves, give me conserves of beef. Ne'er ask me what raiment I'll wear, for I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet …

This last passage is also sufficient reminder that there are verbal virtues other than the romantic or the rhetorical: directness, for instance, ready intelligibility, lifelikeness, sprightliness, and vigour—and all these abound in The Taming of the Shrew. It has its linguistic weaknesses, in the occasional flatness (subject to the caveats entered above) and in the over-long wit-combats of Grumio and Curtis and even of Petruchio and Kate, but for the most part it is superbly written, in both verse and prose; and the qualities it is said to lack would not necessarily be improvements. …


  1. A. E. Thiselton, The Mystery of the Waking Mans Dreame revealed, (London, 1913); Charles C. Mish, letter in The Times Literary Supplement, 28 December 1951.

  2. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957, repr. 1961), i. 109-10.

  3. William Hazlitt, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ in Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817). (Complete Works, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols., London 1930-4, iv. 345.)

  4. Introduction to the play in The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Henry Irving and F. A. Marshall (New York and London, [1888]), Vol. 2.

  5. Bullough, Sources, i. 58.

  6. Ibid.

  7. The Taming of the Shrew ed. Richard Hosley, the Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1964), p. 24. Similarly, Maynard Mack, ‘Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays’, in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in honour of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (London, 1963), pp. 279-80. Equally unacceptable is Alexander Leggatt's ‘Petruchio, Katherina and the Lord have a special vision, an awareness of life as a game …’ (Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1974), p. 62).

  8. C. C. Seronsy, ‘“Supposes” as the Unifying theme in The Shrew’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 15-30.

  9. Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 46.

  10. Hosley, Pelican edition (1964), p. 24.

  11. So, for instance, Bond, in the original (1904) Arden edition, p. 33. The New Cambridge editors were inclined to add 4.1—surely unnecessarily (p. 142). For further discussion of the staging, see the headnote on Induction 2 in the present edition and, in a wider context, Richard Hosley, ‘Shakespeare's Use of a Gallery over the Stage’, Shakespeare Survey 10 (Cambridge, 1957), 77-89.

  12. Discussions of the casting include Richard Hosley, ‘Was there a Dramatic Epilogue to The Taming of the Shrew?’, Studies in English Literature, 1 (1961), 17-34; Karl P. Wentersdorf, ‘The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew: A Reconsideration’, Studies in English Literature, 18 (1978), 201-16; and William A. Ringler, ‘The Number of Actors in Shakespeare's Early Plays’, in The Seventeenth-Century Stage, ed. G. E. Bentley (Chicago, 1968), 110-36.

  13. See the notes on Induction 2.114.1 and 125.1 and

  14. One minor textual point may be made here. The Pedant is listed as entering in 5.2 but says not one word. Is that because he originally played a speaking part there, but was removed from the scene although accidentally left in the opening stage direction?

  15. Nevertheless it has been known for one actor to double the parts—notably Oscar Asche; and Jonathan Pryce played both, in a controversial Royal Shakespeare Company production, as recently as 1978.

  16. G. I. Duthie, Shakespeare (London, 1951), p. 59.

  17. See notes on these lines.

  18. Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, iii. 321.

  19. This is the version printed by Bullough in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare i. 111-58 and quoted in the present edition.

  20. Incidentally—lest Shakespeare alone be thought guilty of ignorance of Italy—Philogano has come to Ferrara via Ancona, ‘from thence by water to Ravenna, and from Ravenna hither, continually against the tide’. (The journey has to be made to appear onerous.)

  21. Still another ‘suppose’, in a sense, is Lucentio's wooing of Bianca while pretending to teach her Latin (3.1.27-43), a scene that Furnivall (and others since) thought to be borrowed from a speech in R. W[ilson]'s Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590). The speech in question is Simplicity's to Pleasure: ‘O singulariter nominativo, wise Lord Pleasure: genitivo, bind him [Fraud] to that post; dativo, give me my torch; accusativo, for I say he's a usurer; vocativo, O give me leave to run at him; ablativo, take and blind me’ (Dodsley's Old English Plays, revised W. C. Hazlitt, London, 1874, vi. 500). Shakespeare's certainly has more point, and more humour, and may have led in turn to the Latin lesson in The Merry Wives of Windsor. See also note on 4.1.130-1.

  22. See, e.g., R. W. Bond, Early Plays from the Italian (Oxford, 1911).

  23. It should be added that W. E. Harrold's analysis of the relationship of Plautus' Mostellaria to A Shrew and The Shrew fails to give reason for altering the generally accepted opinion that Shakespeare borrowed directly from Plautus only the names of Tranio and Grumio. (‘Shakespeare's Use of Mostellaria in The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Heidelberg, 1970, 188-94.)

  24. The casualness may be elsewhere—in having Lucentio refuse to give a reason for ordering Tranio to pretend to be a suitor to Bianca (1.1.244-6)—although it turns out to be a useful arrangement.

  25. Richard Hosley, ‘Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 27 (1964), 289-308. The ballad is most easily found in W. C. Hazlitt's Shakespeare's Library (London, 1875), Vol. 4.

  26. J. H. Brunvand, “The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 17 (1966), 345-59.

  27. W. S. Walker, A Critical Examination of the Text of Shakespeare, 3 vols. (London, 1860), iii. 70; Hosley, pp. 299-300; Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1977), pp. 20-1.

  28. Chambers, William Shakespeare, i. 328; ii. 391-2.

  29. ‘The Taming Untamed, or, the Return of the Shrew’, Modern Language Quarterly, 27 (1966), 147-61.

  30. William Shakespeare. A Commentary, Introductory Volume to the New Temple Shakespeare (London, 1936), p. 24.

  31. Shakespeare's Life and Art (London, 1939), p. 71.

  32. Hardin Craig, An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), p. 90.

  33. William Hazlitt, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, in Characters of Shakespear's Plays (Complete Works, iv. 343).

  34. The problem presumably disappears for anyone who agrees with Gareth Lloyd Evans that Petruchio ‘is every woman's dream of a kind of ideal lover’ (Shakespeare I, 1564-1592, Edinburgh, 1969, p. 109).

  35. The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1951, repr. 1963), i. 68.

  36. ‘The Taming Untamed, or, the Return of the Shrew’, Modern Language Quarterly, 27 (1966), p. 151.

  37. The Approach to Shakespeare (Oxford, 1930), pp. 58-9.

  38. Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge, 1935), p. 361.

  39. See also, e.g., 1.2.199 and note, and note on 1.1.165-7.

  40. K. Wentersdorf, ‘The Authenticity of The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 5 (1954), 11-32. The caveats entered by Moody E. Prior, ‘Imagery as a Test of Authorship’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 6 (1955), 381-6, should not be disregarded; but if the ‘authenticity’ of the play is not further discussed in this Introduction, it is because there is no case to answer once the variations in style are seen to be functional.

  41. The Language of Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1952, repr. 1965), p. 29.

  42. See notes on Induction 2, ll. 15, 29, and 46.

  43. Compare note on 4.4.32-3.

  44. Both points are made by, e.g., Milton Crane, Shakespeare's Prose (Chicago, 1951, repr. 1963), pp. 78-9.

Criticism: Character Studies

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Kate of Kate Hall.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew,” edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 29-39. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo designates the principal concern of The Taming of the Shrew as the “sexual battle,” and analyzes the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio.]

A more gentlemanly age than our own was embarrassed by The Shrew. G. B. Shaw announced it “altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch of the New Shakespeare judged it

primitive, somewhat brutal stuff and tiresome, if not positively offensive to any modern civilised man or modern woman, not an antiquary. … We do not and cannot, whether for better or worse, easily think of woman and her wedlock vow to obey quite in terms of a spaniel, a wife and a walnut tree—the more you whip 'em the better they be.

It will be noticed, however, that Q's access of gallantry causes him to overlook the fact that apart from the cuffings and beatings of saucy or clumsy zanni which is canonical in Italianate comedy, no one whips anyone in The Taming of the Shrew, violence being confined to Katherina who beats her sister Bianca and slaps Petruchio's face. Anne Barton has done much to restore a sense of proportion by quoting some of the punishments for termagant wives which really were practised in Shakespeare's day. Petruchio comes across, she says,

far less as an aggressive male out to bully a refractory wife into total submission, than he does as a man who genuinely prizes Katherina, and, by exploiting an age-old and basic antagonism between the sexes, manoeuvres her into an understanding of his nature and also her own.

Ralph Berry reads the play rather as a Berneian exercise in the Games People Play, whereby Kate learns the rules of Petruchio's marriage game, which she plays hyperbolically and with ironic amusement. “This is a husband-wife team that has settled to its own satisfaction the rules of its games, and now preaches them unctuously to friends” (Shakespeare's Comedies). In our own day, the wheel, as is the way with wheels, has come full circle and the redoubtable feminist, Ms Germaine Greer, has found the relationship of Kate and Petruchio preferable to the subservient docility of that sexist projection, the goody-goody Bianca (The Female Eunuch).

With all this fighting of the good fight behind us, we may approach the play with the unencumbered enjoyment it invites. As Michael West has excellently argued, “criticism has generally misconstrued the issue of the play as women's rights, whereas what the audience delightedly responds to are sexual rites.” Nothing is more stimulating to the imagination than the tension of sexual conflict and sexual anticipation. Verbal smashing and stripping, verbal teasing and provoking and seducing are as exciting to the witnessing audience as to the characters enacting these moves. It is easy to see why The Shrew has always been a stage success, and so far from this being a point to be apologized for it should be seen as exhibiting Shakespeare's early command of farce as the radical of comic action, a mastery temporarily lost as he struggled to absorb more rarefied material in The Two Gentlemen and only later recovered. The mode, however, of the sexual battle in The Shrew is devious and indirect and reflects a remarkably subtle psychology. Petruchio neither beats his Kate nor rapes her—two “primitive and brutal” methods of taming termagant wives, but neither is his unusual courtship of his refractory bride simply an exhibition of cock-of-the-walk male dominance to which in the end Katherina is forced to submit. Michael West's emphasis upon wooing dances and the folklore of sexual conquest is salutory, but Petruchio's conquest of Kate is far from merely a “kind of mating dance with appropriate struggling and biceps flexing.” Nor is she simply “a healthy female animal who wants a male strong enough to protect her, deflower her, and sire vigorous offspring.”

Only a very clever, very discerning man could bring off a psychodrama so instructive, liberating and therapeutic as Petruchio's, on a honeymoon as sexless (as well as dinnerless) as could well be imagined. Not by sex is sex conquered, nor for that matter by the withholding of sex, though the play's tension spans these poles. Christopher Sly, one recalls, is also constrained to forgo his creature comforts, a stoic malgré lui, and thereby a foil and foreshadower of the self-possessed Petruchio.

In the induction, the page Bartholomew plays his part as Lady Sly to such effect that Sly pauses only to determine whether to call the lovely lady “Al'ce madam, or Joan madam?” (Ind.2.110) or plain “madam wife” before demanding “Madam, undress you, and come now to bed” (Ind.2.117). Bartholomew must think fast, of course, and does: “[I] should yet absent me from your bed,” he says, lest “[you] incur your former malady,” and hopes that “this reason stands for my excuse” (Ind.2.124). Sly clearly has his own problems: “Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long. But I would be loath to fall into my dreams again. I will therefore tarry in despite of the flesh and the blood” (Ind.2.125-28). But Christopher Sly's “former malady” is, of course, an imposed delusion: it is not as an amnestic lord that he is himself but as drunken tinker. Katherina's, we will finally learn to perceive, was self-imposed, and requires the therapies of comedy—“which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life”—not the tumbling tricks of a “Christmas gambold” for its cure. This lower level functions as foil to the higher yardstick and guarantor of the latter's reality.

The play's formal telos is to supply that which is manifestly lacking: a husband for the wild, intractable and shrewish daughter of Baptista. But how shall Katherina herself not perceive that this husband is sought in order to enable her younger sister to be happily married to one of her numerous suitors? The situation of inflamed and inflammatory sibling rivalry which the good signor Baptista has allowed to develop between these daughters of his is suggested with deft economy. Her very first words:

I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?


speak hurt indignity, an exacerbated pride. Her response when Baptista fondles and cossets the martyred Bianca:

A pretty peat! it is best
Put finger in the eye, and she knew why


indicates her opinion that if Bianca is long suffering she is also extracting the maximum benefit and enjoyment from that state. Nothing that Baptista says or does but will be snatched up and interpreted disadvantageously by this irascible sensitivity:

Why, and I trust I may go too, may I not?
What, shall I be appointed hours, as though (belike)
I knew not what to take and what to leave? Ha!


These first glimpses already invite us to infer some reason for the bad-tempered, headstrong, domestic tyranny Kate exercises, but when we find her beating her cowering sister, screaming at her for confidences about which of her suitors she most fancies, and turning on her father with

What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband;
I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day,
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
Talk not to me, I will go sit and weep,
Till I can find occasion of revenge


we surely do not require inordinate discernment to understand what ails Katherina Minola. It is a marvellous touch that the pious Bianca, defending herself from the wildcat elder sister (with no suitor), says:

Or what you will command me will I do
So well I know my duty to my elders


Bianca, it may be supposed, is not the only younger sister who has got her face scratched for a remark like that.

All of Padua, we are given to understand, is taken up with the problem of finding someone to take his devilish daughter off Baptista's hands, leaving the field free for the suitors of the heavenly Bianca. And this is precisely a trap in which Kate is caught. She has become nothing but an obstacle or a means to her sister's advancement. Even the husband they seek for her is in reality for the sister's sake, not hers. When she says: “I will never marry” it is surely because she believes no “real” husband of her own, who loves her for herself, whom she can trust, is possible. How indeed could it be otherwise since patently and manifestly no one does love her? Because (or therefore) she is not lovable. And the more unlovable she is the more she proves her point. Katherina of acts 1 and 2 is a masterly and familiar portrait. No one about her can do right in her eyes, so great is her envy and suspicion. No one can penetrate her defences, so great her need for assurance. So determined is she to make herself invulnerable that she makes herself insufferable, and finds in insufferability her one defence. This is a “knot of errors” of formidable proportions and will require no less than Petruchio's shock tactics for its undoing.

The undoing begins with the arrival of Petruchio, to wive it wealthily in Padua. No doubts are entertained in Padua about the benefits of marriage where money is, but it will be noted that no one is banking on a rich marriage to save him from the bankruptcy courts. All the suitors are wealthy; Lucentio, potentially at least. The contrast that Shakespeare sets up between Petruchio and Lucentio is an interesting ironic inversion of that obtaining in the Terentian tradition. In Terence the second (liaison) plot entailed tricky stratagems for acquiring money in order to buy (and keep) the slave girl. The main (marriage) plot on the other hand hinged upon the fortunate discovery of a true identity, which meant both legitimizing the affair and acquiring the dowry. Here, in the case of Bianca and Lucentio, the mercenary mechanics of matchmaking are masked by Petrarchan ardours on Lucentio's part (or Hortensio's, until the appearance of the widow):

Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrowd
As Socrates' Xantippe, or a worse
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua

(1.2.69-71; 75-76)

the spirited, bonny dark lass Baptista's terrible daughter turns out to be cannot but cause him a lift of the heart. She, for her part, does not of course respond immediately to his good-humoured teasing, but we may surely assume a certain vibration to be caused by this note of a tenderness which her obsessive fear of not finding has consistently put out of court. But she has built up sturdy bastions and will certainly not imitate her conciliatory sister. Combat is her chosen defence, and that these two are worthy opponents the set of wit which follows shows. Then comes the cut and thrust of the clash between her proud-mindedness and his peremptoriness. She misses no ploy, is outrageously provocative and brazenly impolite, verbally and even physically violent. He trips her up with a bawdy pun, she dares him to return a slapped face, and it is by no means certain to anyone that he will not. His strategy of mock denial:

'Twas told me you were rough and coy and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar;
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous


contains an infuriating sting in its tail:

But slow in speech, yet sweet as spring-time flowers


so that she is criticized for being what she most prides herself on not being, and consoled by being told she is what she most despises. Again:

Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?
O sland'rous world! Kate like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue
As hazel nuts, and sweeter than the kernels.
O, let me see thee walk. Thou dost not halt.


And poor Kate must be beholden to him for patronizing defence against the alleged detractions of a despised world, and finds herself judiciously examined for faults much as if she were a thoroughbred mare at a fair. It is no wonder that in reply to his

Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world,
That talk'd of her, have talk'd amiss of her.
If she be curst, it is for policy,
For she's not froward, but modest as the dove;
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn;
For patience she will prove a second Grissel,
And Roman Lucrece for her chastity;
And to conclude, we have 'greed so well together
That upon Sunday is the wedding-day


she can only splutter “I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first”; a response which is immediately interpreted by Petruchio, for the benefit of the spectators, as a secret bargain between lovers:

'Tis bargain'd 'twixt us twain, being alone,
That she shall still be curst in company.
I tell you 'tis incredible to believe
How much she loves me. O, the kindest Kate,
She hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss
She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath,
That in a twink she won me to her love.
O, you are novices! 'tis a world to see
How tame, when men and women are alone,
A meacock wretch can make the curstest shrew.


Round one thus ends indeed with “we will be married a Sunday.”

Sunday, however, brings not the marriage that has been prepared for in the Minola household, but a mummer's carnival. Petruchio arrives inordinately late, and in motley. Of the uproar he produces in the church we hear from Gremio, in a lively description containing the shape of things to come:

Tut, she's a lamb, a dove, a fool to him!
I'll tell you, Sir Lucentio: when the priest
Should ask if Katherine should be his wife,
“Ay, by gogs-wouns,” quoth he, and swore so loud
That all anaz'd the priest let fall the book,
And as he stoop'd again to take it up,
This mad-brain'd bridegroom took him such a cuff
That down fell priest and book, and book and priest.
“Now take them up,” quoth he, “if any list.”
What said the wench when he rose again?
Trembled and shook; for why, he stamp'd and swore
As if the vicar meant to cozen him.
But after many ceremonies done,
He calls for wine. “A health!” quoth he, as if
He had been aboard, carousing to his mates
After a storm, quaff'd off the muscadel,
And threw the sops all in the sexton's face.
This done, he took the bride about the neck,
And kiss'd her lips with such a clamorous smack
That at the parting all the church did echo.

(3.2.157-73; 177-79)

All of this is prologue to the first open clash of wills between these fiery newlyweds. He will instantly away, she “will not be gone till I please myself”:

The door is open, sir, there lies your way:
You may be jogging whiles your boots are green.


Father, be quiet, he shall stay my leisure.
Gentlemen, forward to the bridal dinner.
I see a woman may be made a fool,
If she had not a spirit to resist.

(3.2.217; 219-21)

This is Petruchio's cue:

They shall go forward, Kate, at thy command.
Obey the bride, you that attend on her.
But for my bonny Kate, she must with me.
Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret,
I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing;
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare,
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua. Grumio,
Draw forth thy weapon, we are best with thieves;
Rescue thy mistress if thou be a man.
Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate!
I'll buckler thee against a million.

(3.2.222-23; 227-39)

And he snatches her off, sublimely indifferent to anything she says, insisting upon his property rights, benignly protective, mind you, of his bonny Kate, turning all her protests to his own purposes and depriving her of any shared of self-justification by his indignant defence of her.

Stage-manager and chief actor, master of homeopathy—“He kills her in his own humour” as Peter says—Petruchio's play-acting, his comic therapy, provides the comic device. One of a long line of Shakespearean actor-protagonists, he holds the mirror up to nature, and shows scorn her own image. The tantrums that she has specialized in throwing he throws in superabundance, forcing her to see herself in the mirror he thus holds up.

Grumio's tale of the saga of the journey:

Hadst thou not cross'd me, thou shouldst have heard how her horse fell, and she under her horse; thou shouldst have heard in how miry a place, how she was bemoil'd, how he left her with the horse upon her, how he beat me because her horse stumbled, how she waded through the dirt to pluck him off me; how he swore, how she pray'd that never pray'd before; how I cried, how the horses ran way, how her bridle was burst; how I lost my crupper, with many things of worthy memory, which now shall die in oblivion, and thou return unexperienc'd to thy grave.


prepares for the continuing hubbub in the Petruchean dining-hall. That Petruchio's strategy has the additional advantage of an austerity regime as far as food and sleep and “fine array” is concerned is all to the good. Petruchio is canny and will leave no stone unturned. Also, he has tamed hawks. But it is not physical hardship which will break Kate's spirit, nor does he wish it, any more than a spirited man would wish his horse or his hound spiritless. And Petruchio, we recall, wagers twenty times as much upon his wife as he would upon his hawk or his hound. Significantly, Kate's recurrent response to his carrying on is to fly to the defence of the cuffed and chivvied servants. Crossing her will, totally and consistently, under the guise of nothing but consideration for her desires, confuses and disorients her, as she complains to Grumio:

What, did he marry me to famish me?
Beggars that come unto my father's door
Upon entreaty have a present alms,
If not, elsewhere they meet with charity;
But I, who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat,
Am starv'd for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,
With oaths kept waking, and with brawling fed;
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under the name of perfect love;


Katherine gets the point, but fails to get from Grumio even one of the mouth-watering items from a hearty English menu with which he tantalizes her. When she, listening hungrily to Petruchio's “sermon of continency,” and knowing not “which way to stand, to look, to speak,” is “as one new-risen from a dream,” she might well rub her eyes, and say, with Christopher Sly, … “do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?” (Ind.2.69).

What subtle Dr Petruchio has done is to drive a wedge into the steel plating of Kate's protective armour, so that he speaks at once to the self she has been and the self she would like to be; the self she has made of herself and the self she has hidden. The exchange of roles, with herself now at the receiving end of someone else's furies, takes her, as we say, out of herself; but she also perceives the method of his madnesses. Petruchio's remedy is an appeal to Kate's intelligence. These are not arbitrary brutalities, but the clearest of messages. And they are directed to her with undivided singleness of purpose.

In act 4 the remedy comes to fruition and Kate enunciates it:

Then God be blest, it [is] the blessed sun,
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,
And so it shall be so, for Katherine.


And then it is enacted, with considerable verve, as she addresses Vincentio, on cue from Petruchio, as “young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet” and then promptly again, on cue, undoes all. Kate has yielded to a will stronger than her own and to an intelligence which has outmanoeuvred her, but the paradoxical, energizing and enlivening effect of the scene is that the laughter is directed not against her as butt or victim, but, through her prim performance, towards the disconcerted Vincentio. The senex is made fun of, in effect, by a pair of tricksters in some subtle alliance with each other not clear to him, but clear to the audience. Partly this response is structured by New Comedy paradigms. As Grumio puts it in act 1: “Here's no knavery! See, to beguile the old folks, how the young folks lay their heads together!” (1.2.138-39). But mainly I believe it is due to our sense of liberation from deadlock. Petruchio has enlisted Kate's will and wit on his side, not broken them, and it is the function of the final festive test to confirm and exhibit this. It is also to be noted that the arrival in Padua of Vincentio “exhausts” Lucentio's wooing devices, just as Petruchio's taming device exhausts its function; and it is a dexterous turn of composition which balances the mock nonrecognition of Vincentio on the way to Padua, and his encounter with his Mantuan proxy, with the unmasking and recognition of the true Katherina, and the true Bianca, at the banquet.

That Kate is in love by act 5 is, I believe, what the play invites us to perceive. And indeed she may well be. The man she has married has humour and high spirits, intuition, patience, self-command and masterly intelligence; and there is more than merely a homily for Elizabethan wives in her famous speech:

A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty,
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to slip, or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labor, both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
While thou li'st warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience—
Too little payment for so great a debt.


She wins her husband's wager but the speech bespeaks a generosity of spirit beyond the call of two hundred crowns. We have just heard Bianca snap at Lucentio mourning his lost bet: “The more fool you for laying on my duty,” and it seems that the metamorphosis of folly into wisdom which the comic action performs makes an Erastian reversal. More fool the Paduans indeed, in their exploitative hypocrisies and meannesses, than this madcap pair.

The very up-Petrarchan Petruchio has been the initiator of remedies in The Taming of the Shrew as well as the temperamental suitor; Katherina largely a responder and a foil. These positions will be reversed in As You Like It but not without a number of intermediate moves. The Two Gentlemen of Verona which follows The Shrew allows very little scope for the presentation of independent action on the part of Julia (despite her notable independence) and no occasion for courtship at all. Nevertheless, the growth of perceptions which make later developments possible proceeds through this next play, and is positively advanced by its explorations in the ambivalent and mimetic rivalry of the gentlemen.

Velvet D. Pearson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Pearson, Velvet D. “In Search of a Liberated Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 44, no. 4 (1990): 229-42.

[In the following essay, Pearson considers stage representations of The Taming of the Shrew as they reflect the changing social perceptions of women.]

From its first performance in about 1594 to the present day, productions of The Taming of the Shrew challenge actors and directors to provide the audience with a play that supplies entertainment rather than sketches a harsh portrait of Elizabethan patriarchal society. When faced with a “problem play” such as this one, theater companies often avoid the difficulties involved by ignoring the play entirely or substituting an altered version. David Garrick's shortened three-act play, Catherine and Petruchio replaced The Taming of the Shrew for almost one hundred years. With the exception of one three-day run of an operatic version, Garrick's play was the only version produced in England and America from 1754-1844 (Haring-Smith 16-18). This version eliminates the subplot about Bianca and her suitors as well as the Induction. Garrick cut out most of the pure comedic elements to make the play more farcical so that the characters of Catherine and Petruchio become more clearly motivated. Catherine plainly marries in order to tame Petruchio, but is beaten at her own game. Garrick makes the play acceptable by indicating unmistakably that Petruchio is not a tyrannical household ruler and Cate, although tamed, is not humiliated; the couple shares a happy, compromising marriage.

In contrast, Michael Bogdanov's modern dress production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1978 emphasized the moral and physical ugliness of a male-dominated society. A review in the Guardian questioned “whether there is any reason to revive a play that seems totally offensive to our age and our society” (qtd. in Thompson 17). Admittedly, the play can easily be distasteful to the feminist awareness of the 1990s, and if a way is not found to make the text compatible to the sensibilities of a modern audience, performances of it will cease, and the text will sink into obscurity, to be read only by the most dedicated Shakespeare scholars. The Shrew has many redeeming qualities, including some hilarious scenes, that make the search for an acceptable production worthwhile. Somewhere between Garrick's revision and Bogdanov's dark commentary lies an entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theater.

One of the major obstacles to a satisfactory modern production of the play is Katherine's speech in the final scene:

I am asham'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.


At a first reading, it seems to be her final capitulation to Petruchio's taming, and a subservient reiteration of the ideal Elizabethan woman's loyalty to her husband. England, however, had Elizabeth I for a ruler at this time, a ruler who in no way could be labeled inferior or submissive to anyone. In addition, many medieval ideas about marriage were beginning to be attacked by such critics as Heinrich Bullinger, Robert Cleaver, Juan Luis Vives, and Erasmus. Some ideas under fire included sex for procreation purposes only, woman as idealized in the classic romance, wife as drudge and servant, and male autocracy in the household (Bean 69). In his “Commentary on Ovid's ‘Nut Tree,’” Erasmus writes that “in those days the object of matrimony was offspring, but nowadays most people take a wife for pleasure, and a woman who produces many children is called a sow” (139). Surely Shakespeare would have been aware of these trends in his society, which included the ancient Biblical idea that the relationship of a wife and husband is second only to the bond owed to God. Considered in this light, Kate's final speech takes on an entirely different hue. Attention to certain details throughout the text, however, must lead up to and build to her act 5 speech to create a believable transition from the unruly Kate in her first scene to the supportive and loving wife in her last.

Perhaps one of the fascinations of The Shrew is the very difficulty of enjoying it while also feeling uncomfortable with it. We are amused by many of the comic scenes, especially between Christopher Sly and his page/wife and between Bianca and her suitors in disguise, but at the same time we are horrified by the mercenary comments offered by most of the male characters. In addition, Petruchio does not choose the most gentle means to shape his wife's character. His behavior may be softened or hardened through directorial choices; however, downplaying the taming process too much eliminates the discordance between his methodology and his seeming charm and love for Katherine. Some may argue that Petruchio's love for Kate is really his love for her dowry. What could be the importance of a dowry to a man who has just inherited his father's estate and claims “Crowns in my purse I have, and goods at home, / And so am come abroad to see the world” (1.2.57-58). The added responsibility of an estate makes his need for an heir more urgent. Petruchio realizes he must marry quickly and if money comes along with a wife, then so much the better. Most marriages of the time were for necessity, not love; Petruchio, product of a society in which men took care of women and expected absolute obedience, is no different. Nor did his requirement die with Shakespeare; dominance and submissiveness in marriage continue in our own time. The perceived opposition of violence and slapstick, darkness and comedy, reflects our own changing feelings towards the roles of men and women and raises questions that can only be generated by a complex play that requires careful thought and staging.

Many modern productions choose to cut the Induction, thus eliminating the entire idea of a play within a play. To do so, however, is to lose an important dimension: the real audience watching a group of actors who are playing actors performing in front of another group of actors who are pretending to be spectators. Several productions, including those at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1954, 1962, and 1967, exaggerate the point by heralding the actors before the play proper begins and making the players clear the stage of props and pieces of the set after the play is over. Often the actors playing Hortensio and Katherine are paired, as are those who play Petruchio and Bianca, in this mimed afterword that further calls attention to the play as a piece of theater rather than a slice of real life (Sprague and Trewin 54). The Induction thus serves as a distancing device; the play within the play, a farce created for the benefit of Christopher Sly, can more easily be seen as an illusion. The traditional suspension of disbelief is eliminated, as the actual audience is reminded they are watching a play.

Many parallels between the Kate/Petruchio plot and the Christopher Sly/Lord plot are lost when the Induction is cut. The Lord tells all, “Sirs, I will practice on this drunken man” (Ind.1.36). In a similar fashion Petruchio plays games with Kate's mind. Where Sly is confused about which is his true role, beggar or lord, “Am I a Lord, and have I such a lady? / Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now? / I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak,” Katherine finds herself in a similar state, “… she, poor soul, / Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak, / And sits as one new risen from a dream” (Ind.2.68-70, 4.1.184-86). Each character goes through some sort of transformation. Although Katherine's seems to be permanent, we know Sly will be returned to his beggarly state after the lords and hunters tire of their game. Sly's new “wife,” the page, states “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband, / I am your wife in all obedience” just as Kate, in her final long speech, claims to be subservient to her so-called master, Petruchio (Ind.2.106-07). However, at the beginning of the Induction when the hostess throws Sly out of the pub, he is portrayed as inferior to women although he does not view himself that way. A parallel between Petruchio and Sly here should put a question in the audience's mind: is Petruchio really superior, or does Kate just let him think so? (Kahn 87).

Many critics complain that The Shrew is incomplete because it lacks the closure of an epilogue. An earlier, anonymous version of the play dating back to 1589, The Taming of A Shrew, has an afterword in which Sly announces to the audience that he is going to use the methods he just learned in this “dream” to go home and tame his own wife. Irving Ribner argues that there is no need for such an obvious closure because V.ii acts as an epilogue; the play proper is over with Kate's capitulation in the previous scene, and this final scene merely illuminates the true characters of the other players. Bianca and the widow are revealed as the true shrews, while Kate is the loving wife (175). It is true that the Induction is confusing; there is no indication of an exit for Sly and his group, merely: “They sit and mark” (1.1.254). It is up to the director and the actors to decide exactly when Sly and company leave the stage. In many productions, he is carried off soon after, but in some he remains on stage as a spectator throughout the performance.

The attention given to actors and role-playing in the Induction influences the rest of the play. George Cheatham claims that two criteria must be satisfied before a character can truly play a role: the role must be compatible with an original characteristic, and the parties involved must exhibit a certain amount of selflessness (225-27). Petruchio, after all, falls in the mud with Kate and refuses to eat the burnt meat with Kate. He acts as a director teaching Katherine to play roles other than the shrew: wooed maiden, wife with jealous husband, wife with tyrannous husband, wife with loving husband. Through examples of buyer, wooer, tamer, and husband, he shows her the possibilities of her personality, her ability to be any woman she chooses to be (Henze 232-33). She is defined not only as Baptista's daughter or Petruchio's wife; she is an intelligent woman who can play any role she, her husband, or any other person requires her to play. Other characters do not have this ability; they are more one-dimensional.

Before their first meeting, Kate and Petruchio do not seem to be sympathetic characters. On the one hand, we see a man who scuffles with his servant the first moment he is on stage and then announces that he comes to “wive it weathily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.75-76). No wonder Kate is shrewish; she is surrounded by men who want to buy and sell her. Baptista, like any smart merchant, wants to get rid of his unpopular goods before selling his prize, Bianca, off to the highest bidder. He even stands by and allows Gremio and Hortensio to insult Kate and doesn't deign to reply to her “I pray you sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” (1.1.57-58). Of course, Kate is not the most charming woman in the world. Breaking a lute over Hortensio's head and tying up and striking Bianca earn her her devilish reputation. Unfortunately, many modern productions cut Petruchio's lines about marrying for money, yet include Kate's behavior unaltered (Dash 45-46). In this case Petruchio becomes a more sympathetic character, and Kate is reduced to a one-dimensional shrew.

It is interesting to note that although most directors of this play have been male, their female counterparts have not presented The Shrew in a drastically different way. Margaret Anglin, who directed and played Katherine in 1914, reflected the typical twentieth-century attempt to present Kate and Petruchio as two characters who are learning from and in love with each other. Katherine is truly transformed from Kate the Curst to a Kate who learns a socially acceptable way of controlling her husband (Haring-Smith 93-94). Margaret Webster's 1951 production demonstrated a more recent tendency toward excessive farce. Although her Petruchio and Kate were also portrayed as falling in love with each other, their physical horseplay suggested a certain savagery in the characters, echoed later in Bogdanov's production (137-39). Other directors have used the play as an opportunity to ridicule modern women. Oscar Asche, in a London performance in 1904, had Kate enter dressed in a riding habit. She cracked a whip, led two dogs, and carried dead rabbits from a successful hunt. He marginalized her individuality by presenting her masculine qualities as a negative caricature of the New Woman (83-84).

In this play Shakespeare is only beginning to exhibit his talent for the word games that mature into a cutting wit in Love's Labors Lost, and some productions emphasize Petruchio as a player of games and Kate as a ready learner of his technique. When Petruchio and Kate finally meet in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1967, Trevor Nunn had Petruchio pretend to have only one arm. Kate was genuinely sympathetic for a moment, then indignant and amused when she found she had been tricked (Leggatt 55n). This mimed game can be justified by the multitude of verbal games played in the text and a specific reference to Petruchio's arms later in the scene: “So may you lose your arms. / If you strike me, you are no gentleman, / And if no gentleman, why then no arms” (2.1.221-23). Kate is already responding to the games her suitor plays. Even though she asks to be called Katherine, Petruchio calls her Kate eleven times, infuriating her. Sexual puns abound in Petruchio's lines: “Alas, good Kate, I will not burthen thee, / For knowing thee to be but young and light. … What, with my tongue in your tail? Nay, come again, / Good Kate; I am a gentleman—” (2.1.202-03, 218-19). And a gentleman he is, for when Kate strikes him, he has only a verbal threat to give her. By the end of their scene, she recognizes his words as the verbal tricks they are and asks, “Where did you study all this goodly speech?” (2.1.262). He is the master of the game, but through listening to him, she will equal, if not surpass, his ability later in the play.

Beginning to soften, Kate must feel hints of emotion for Petruchio, who is quite a different man than any she has met before. While waiting for him at the wedding, she admits, “Would Katherine had never seen him though!” The line could be interpreted as just another angry retort but the stage direction following, “Exit weeping” (3.2.26), suggests that the wedding day is important to her. Petruchio finally shows up, though late and poorly dressed. After the wedding, in a 1902 London production, Petruchio “used to carry a kicking Katherine right off on one shoulder.” This type of heavy-handed physical behavior, which seems out of keeping with the man who would not hit Kate earlier in the wooing scene, is often seen. Even more exaggerated was an 1848 production in which the “promptbook reads: ‘The Ladies give a faint scream and cling to the gentlemen. The Servants retreat’—to which is added in a later hand; ‘Hortensio and Baptista draw and attack Petruchio who defends himself and at the same time pulls Catherine up stage Business and Change Scene’” (Sprague 57). This same man, however, has the decency to respect Kate's person on the wedding night, choosing to lecture her on continence rather than enter the marriage bed. Surely this is an action from a many-faceted, sensitive character. Such kindness from a husband was not often the case in Elizabethan or later times; many women were forced to perform in the bridal bed before they were ready (Dash 54-56).

Some of the most difficult scenes to play are those in Petruchio's house. His behavior can easily be portrayed as cruel and tormenting, even as a type of brainwashing, but in such a portrayal the play loses its multiplicity and is no longer an entertaining examination of marriage and society. In the 1902 production referred to above, when Kate is denied the “burnt” meat even though terribly hungry, she “snatch[es] up a knife and raise[s] it to strike Petruchio, when the sight of his mocking face, quite unruffled by her fury, breaks down her proud spirit, and plunging the knife into the table, she sinks sobbing at his feet” (Sprague 60). If it were not for the fact that Petruchio joins her in deprivation of food, Kate would become a woman completely defeated by a tyrant. Petruchio's recognition that he is as volatile as she softens his behavior considerably: “And better 'twere that both of us did fast, / Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric, / Than feed it with such overroasted flesh” (4.1.173-75).

Kate who can later berate Petruchio obviously has plenty of spirit and spunk left in her. She is not tamed, nor does it seem her tongue will ever be:

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.


Although Petruchio denies her the new dress in this scene, he asks Hortensio to pay for it in an aside. His brawling behavior is a part of the game he's playing with Kate. In an effort to make his character more sympathetic, Maurice Daniels, in a 1962 RSC production, had Petruchio give Kate the “paltry cap” in a mime at the end of the scene (Leggatt 55). From his first entrance, he plays at visual tricks and word games with everyone; Grumio, for example, if so directed, can go along with the “knock me soundly” game he plays with his master. Then Petruchio can be developed into a gamester and master of the language rather than just a brute (1.2.5-19).

Kate finally learns the game well enough to challenge her husband's wit when they are travelling on the road to her father's house, a road that signifies a transition for her. It takes a blatant explanation from Hortensio to make her aware of Petruchio's game: “Say as he says, or we shall never go” (4.5.11). Her immediate capitulation surprises both men, and Petruchio tests her further to prove to himself that she really does understand the game.

I say it is the Moon.
I know it is the Moon.
Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.
Then god be blest, it [is] the blessed sun,
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam'd, even that it is,
And so it shall be so for Katherine.


If we see a Kate who is beginning to enjoy beating Petruchio at his own tricks, we can interpret her actions as a compromise between obedience and intellectual freedom (Kahn 96). The liberation of her imagination transforms her into a skillful partner and player who can further exaggerate and who is perfectly capable of competing with Petruchio. His challenge in reference to the old Vincentio, “Tell me, sweet Kate, and tell me truly too, / Hast thou beheld a fresher Gentlewoman,” is surpassed by her retort:

Young budding Virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet,
Whither away, or [where] is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow!

(4.5.28-29, 37-41)

And when he points out her mistake, her reply reflects the joy she feels: “… my mistaking eyes, / … have been so bedazzled with the sun, / That every thing I look on seemeth green” (4.5.45-47). She is not sad; her spirit is not broken, else Vincentio would not be able to observe that she is a “merry mistress” (4.5.53). She has discovered an intellectual freedom unavailable to many Elizabethan women, a freedom encouraged by her playful, though sometimes domineering, husband.

Katherine's assertiveness begins to shine; when they arrive in Padua it is she who suggests they follow to see what will happen to Bianca, Lucentio, Baptista, Vincentio, and all the imposters. It is the first time she is not merely responding to Petruchio's cue; she offers her own idea: “Husband, let's follow, to see the end of this ado” (5.1.141). Characteristically, Petruchio tests her sincerity to see how far she will let him go and asks for a kiss in the street. Although she is hesitant to kiss in the midst of the street, she agrees in order to avoid the consequence that they will go home again if she does not. But there is more to it than that; she calls him “love” for the first time. Has our boisterous Katherine fallen in love with her supposed tamer? Petruchio seems somewhat smitten as well: “… Come, my sweet Kate: / Better once than never, for never too late” (5.1.149). It is the beginning of a relationship based on mutual respect, as well as mutual admiration of intellect (Dash 60-61).

The test of a good production of The Shrew is Katherine's final long speech, which may appear to be a sermon on the good Elizabethan wife. If Kate has been yielding slowly throughout the play, her speech becomes the ultimate acquiescence to her husband's authority. If she has not been portrayed as the surrendering type, and the speech is delivered seriously, then Kate's character takes an unbelievable turn. However, a close look at the text reveals another option. She chooses to emphasize positive aspects of woman in the context of marriage: softness, beauty, and woman's strength as complement to her husband's. Though it can be argued that softness is merely an indication of weakness, it carries images of comfort, love, and care as well. Kate recognizes the power she has within the confines of her society and her marriage, contrasting it with the powerlessness of her role in Baptista's house (Bean 69).

The well-developed political analogy she uses illustrates the depth of her intellect.

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
.....Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

(5.2.151-52, 160-65)

Note that it is an “honest will” she serves; a people/wife are more willing to serve a benevolent king/husband than a tyrant because of the fair treatment received (Bean 69). Often the two types may be performing the same underhanded, dirty deeds, but the people are more willing to make excuses or accept the behavior as right if they are being treated well. Discomfort and dissatisfaction lead to revolution, not affluence and a content society. If most people are happy, those in power are more likely to be able to function without trouble.

Though Petruchio's way of life may not be the best or the only way, his is the better way within the context/reality of the play. He is the only husband who gains a true wife; Hortensio and Lucentio are left with disagreeable women who do nothing in the final scene that could portray them in a positive light (Henze 238). Kate also recognizes the strange changing relationship between illusion and reality: “That seeming to be most which we indeed least are” (5.2.175). She realizes that she would not have recited such a speech for anyone earlier in the play. The always sure Petruchio even hesitates to ask this performance of her; he recognizes the risk he is taking by pushing her perhaps too far, and knows that her play with him is more important here than at any other time. When he says “The fouler fortune mine, and there an end,” he acknowledges that her refusal to play will mean his defeat, and for both of them a loss of hope for happiness in the marriage (5.2.97).

Her words dominate the scene, even quieting the ebullient Petruchio. The sermon she delivers mocks and surpasses all of her husband's earlier tirades (Kahn 98). Just as Petruchio enjoys making the bet, so Kate enjoys helping him win as the length and care of her performance demonstrate (Leggatt 61). In an Ashland production in 1978, Kate was the only character who stood and moved around in the final scene, thus creating her own visual superiority. She also conveyed an alliance with Petruchio that they had been developing throughout the play. He was so moved and subdued by her final speech that when she started to kneel, he knelt too, catching her hand. They rose up together, equals, face to face, and went on to bed (Andresen-Thom 123, 139).

What a contrast with Michael Bogdanov's modern dress production of the same year. An ornate set greeted the audience, but when a “drunk” in the audience started a ruckus with an “usherette”—“I'm not having any bloody woman tell me what to do”—a riot ensued and ended up on stage, destroying the set and revealing a complex set of catwalks, iron staircases, and scaffolding. Later the audience found out the drunken man was Christopher Sly, and still later discovered that the same character was playing Petruchio. He violently kicked and slapped, threw Kate to the ground and pinned her by the wrists in the wooing scene, while Grumio covered their getaway from the wedding with a switchblade. The final scene took place in an atmosphere of cigars, brandy, and poker chips. Katherine relished her new-found servitude in a perverse, masochistic way that bothered even Petruchio. He snatched his foot away nervously before she could kiss it; the other characters were horrified and disgusted as well (Haring-Smith 120).

Bogdanov was trying to offer a feminist interpretation of the play and illustrate that the differences between the status of modern woman and Elizabethan woman are not as marked as some might believe. However, most critics, while admittedly admiring the daring of the piece, complained, along with Lorna Sage of the Times Literary Supplement that it was,

an interesting and courageous (not to say feminist) way to interpret the play, but though it works in theory, I am not so sure in practice. It is very difficult to accept an emotional curve that starts with exhilaration and ends in depressed deadlock.

(qtd. in Haring-Smith 122)

Sage goes on to observe that audience members seemed to enjoy the beginning of the play, but the implications of the world created on the stage eventually led to a certain amount of discomfort (122). The production became a satire of commercialism, romantic love, and the oppression of women, rather than a play whose sympathetic characters could make the audience think about their own lives.

Kate and Petruchio are two of only a few characters who do not rely on disguise or deception to develop their relationship (Daniell 25). Masters of the overstatement, they join in marriage while retaining their individual personalities, rather than exist as individuals concerned with their own self-gratification. Joined in battle against an unyielding society that can accept without question a Baptista who sells his daughters and a Gremio who shops for a bride, Petruchio and Kate offer new ideas and change to the established society of Padua. Their relationship, though rocky and unpredictable, is based on mutual trust and dependence (Andresen-Thom 140). They play a game in which only they know the rules (Berry 70). As a result, Petruchio can bet on his wife's willingness to perform tasks that she realizes are only a part of their play. Visually, a production in Ashland easily amplified the difference by dressing the couple in plain, buff clothes for the final scene in contrast with the rich reds, satins, and velvets of the other characters (Andresen-Thom 138). This directorial choice is justified by the text; Petruchio has much to say about clothing and its relationship to people's character:

To me she's married, not unto my clothes.
Could I repair what she will wear in me,
As I can change these poor accoutrements,
'Twere well for Kate, and better for myself.
.....Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
For 'tis the mind that makes the body rich;
.....What, is the jay more precious than the lark,
Because his feathers are more beautiful?

(3.2.117-20, 4.3.171-72, 175-76)

Productions from different eras mold Kate's character to reflect the role of contemporary women. In the nineteenth century, to tame a Kate would be to do her a favor; her final speech delivers the morality of the time, a definition of the true feminine woman (Haring-Smith 24). Many twentieth-century performances try to minimize the ugliness of the play, making Katherine a woman who can subtly control or one who capitulates to Petruchio out of her love for him (123-24). Directors attempt to distance the play from these problematic choices by making it more farcical. Unfortunately, this technique often obscures the humanity of the characters, making them flat and one-dimensional caricatures to whom the audience cannot relate (146). The play is reduced from the multidimensionality that most people associate with Shakespeare's writing to a singular circus from which the audience leaves having learned nothing. Noting the failure or semi-success of other slapstick productions, directors tend to make the play more and more farcical, rather than returning to the genre of comedy for inspiration. It is this same loss of subtlety that undercuts any chance for the audience to perceive a victory for Kate. A production in Stratford-upon-Avon presented a Petruchio who stroked Kate's calves at the end of their first scene; they gazed into each other's eyes like young lovers. Thus, the audience could too easily believe that they would live happily ever after. Interaction between a man and a woman is rarely so simple (Sprague and Trewin 182).

Although many readers regard the play as satirizing women, some also see it as ridiculing “male attitudes toward women” (Kahn 86). Considering the atmosphere Shakespeare was writing in, a world in which philosophers and scholars alike were beginning to question the traditional roles of women, it seems plausible that he intended to raise difficult questions about the roles society had assigned both men and women. That it is extremely difficult to be an individual while remaining within the acceptable confines of one's society is a concept that Petruchio helps Katherine identify as the cause of her trials. No longer must she be defined as Baptista's shrewish daughter or object of man's ridicule; she knows her own mind and has opinions she is unafraid to voice. Katherine often thinks her husband mad because of the strange statements he claims are true. He labels meat “burnt and dried away,” though she saw with her own eyes that it “was well, if you were so contented” (4.1.170, 69). Later when he insists “'tis now some seven o'clock” she points out that it is obviously “almost two” (4.3.187, 189). He serves as a mirror in the games they play; she perceives his “insane” behavior in the same manner in which men see her “insane” behavior. Yet Petruchio, unlike the other men in the play, enjoys his wife's intelligence and wit, and expends much time and effort encouraging her to use them in a challenging way.

The Taming of the Shrew's diverse and interesting stage history indicates that it is a play that requires careful consideration of the society's changing perceptions of women. The context of the original play must also be reconciled with the vastly different twentieth-century atmosphere; women do have more intellectual freedom and respect, yet they also still feel the repercussions of past subservience. Certainly a play which raises issues such as the battle of the sexes, the changing roles of women, and the constraints society places on individuals will leave its audience trying to sort out these concerns long after the curtain falls. Perhaps one day a director will be brave enough to shift the attention completely to Katherine by making the story originate from her mind, rather than a man's. Kate the career woman could enter before the Induction. She may come home from a long day at work, set down her briefcase, pour herself a glass of white wine, and proceed to fall asleep in her chair. Then the play becomes her dream about Sly dreaming about Kate and Petruchio, and the Russian doll effect goes on and on.

Works Cited

Andresen-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.

Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Neely. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980. 65-78.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Cheatham, George. “Imagination, Madness, and Magic: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ as Romantic Comedy.” Iowa State Journal of Research 59 (1985): 221-32.

Daniell, David. “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 23-31.

Dash, Irene G. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Erasmus, Desidirius. “Commentary on Ovid's ‘Nut Tree.’” Trans. A. G. Rigg. Collected Works of Erasmus. Eds. Elaine Fantham and Erika Rummel. Vol. 7. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. 125-69. 66 vols.

Haring-Smith, Tori. From Farce to Metadrama: A Stage History of “The Taming of the Shrew”: 1594-1983. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Henze, Richard. “Role Playing in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” Southern Humanities Review 4 (1970): 231-40.

Kahn, Coppélia. “‘The Taming of the Shrew’: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage.” The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism. Eds. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards. Amherst: University of Massachussetts Press, 1977. 84-100.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1978.

Ribner, Irving. “The Morality of Farce: ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” Essays in American and English Literature Presented to Bruce Robert McElderry, Jr. Eds. Max F. Schulz, William D. Templeman, and Charles R. Metzger. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1967. 165-76.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Riverside Shakespeare. Eds. G. Blackmore Evans et al. Boston: Houghton, 1974. 110-42.

Sprague, Arthur Colby. Shakespeare and the Actors: The Stage Business in His Plays (1600-1905). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945.

———, and J. C. Trewin. Shakespeare's Plays Today: Some Customs and Conventions of the Stage. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Thompson, Ann, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Harriet A. Deer (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Deer, Harriet A. “Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew.” In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 63-78. New York: Plenum Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Deer argues that through his characterization of Katherina and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare transcended the stock comic figures of shrew and braggart, and allowed an exploration of “the patriarchal assumptions that underlie Elizabethan marriage.”]

There is no question that The Taming of the Shrew incorporates spouse abuse. Its “knockabout” farce occurs chiefly at the expense of a wife who suffers verbal abuse, starvation, and material deprivation. Furthermore, the abusive husband seems to be more praised than blamed, for in the banquet scene with which the play closes, the wife appears to praise his right to control her and then to embrace dutiful obedience. Thus, the play seems to reinscribe many of the stereotypes that have been rejected by contemporary feminists. Whether one objects to the play's apparent condemnation of willful women or finds fault with its apparent praise of women who conform to men's rules for wifely conduct, The Taming of the Shrew seems to capitalize on the perception of women as marginal members of a hierarchical, masculine society. It therefore seems a potentially objectionable choice for a contemporary junior high school literature curriculum. Yet the play is taught without much protest by intelligent, sensitive people who would normally rebel against having to deal with such chauvinistic material. When one mentions that it may praise spouse abuse and the servitude of women, most teachers look puzzled and demur that since the abuse is all in fun, it should not be taken seriously.

One is therefore left with a contradiction, a play that capitalizes on spouse abuse and yet is palatable to late twentieth-century audiences. Given the uncritical reverence that Shakespeare is often accorded and the continuing prevalence of shrew stereotypes in our own time, one must first ask: Are we simply responding mindlessly to Shakespeare's name and to stereotypes so deeply seated in the grammar of farce that we accept them uncritically, or does the play elicit from us more complex responses than we recognize? Is there a possibility that the play may deftly undercut its surface chauvinism by making chauvinism itself the butt of the joke?

The play's most noticeable quality is not its chauvinism but its theatricality, and several sustained critical considerations of its theatricality have appeared. Thomas Van Laan's consideration in Role Playing in Shakespeare (1978, 21-52), J. Denis Huston's extended treatment in Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (1981, 58-94), and Sidney Homan's somewhat briefer observations in When Theatre Turns to Itself (1981, 31-54), all address the question of how a playwright uses the commonplaces of theatrical tradition to create something more than the commonplace. Their concern with theatricality springs from their postmodernist assumption that the models individuals live by—call them fictions or illusions—are creations of human beings, not facts of nature, and that one test of an artist is the extent to which he or she is aware of the act of model making and the limitations of the models used, both those inherited and those created. In other words, most postmodern criticism explores the creativity possible for the individual who knows how to play with models. If the individual is a playwright, then her or his great inherited model is the theater, and one of her or his major subjects is likely to be the significance of the theater and its conventions as ways of structuring our perceptions of the world. Even if individuals are merely participants in the dominant models of their time, their ability to play with and invent models is still analogous to the creative process of the playwright, and the problems of the dramatist are analogous to the problems of people who wish to control and invent the fictions that dominate their daily lives. Thus, the activity of the theatrical model maker and the activity of the individuals who are trying to find models for their daily conduct are not radically different in kind, and the process of model making in literature often reveals the process by which we make models in our lives.

Such an approach is particularly appropriate to Shakespeare's early comedies, since they are so openly about invention and conformity, and about the suffering that marginal people undergo when they must adapt to inappropriate conventions. In the early plays, Shakespeare is particularly concerned with women who have to conform to patriarchal marriage conventions whose implicit authoritarianism sanctions abuse in the name of conformity. Especially in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare explores from many perspectives the idea that while slavish adherence to conventional theatrical models of plot and character may be dull and destructive—not only for both playwrights and actors but for society in general—using conventions as tools for discovering the lapses, inadequacies, and new possibilities in a society may transform them from devices encouraging inhumane homogeneity into lively sources for discovering ways to break free of that conformity.

Even within the Induction concerning Christopher Sly, Shakespeare seems interested in both the nature of theatrical invention and its humane implications. As the play begins, Christopher Sly, a low drunk, is thrust out of a tavern, and passes out. He is so marginal a part of his society that even the other drunks cannot tolerate him. A passing lord and his hunting party discover Sly. Taking him at first for dead, the lord then realizes he is merely dead drunk and decides to use this clod for the amusement of his party. From his deathlike stupor, the lord will resurrect Sly, clothe him like a noble, place him in the lord's bed tended by a page disguised as his genteel “wife,” and convince him that he is a noble restored to his senses after long insanity. The lord's little masquerade is, then, primarily a source for condescending laughter about Sly, and a way of keeping Sly a clod rather than humanizing him.

The limitations of the lord's authoritarian imagination quickly become clear. Since the lord and his court have conceived a play with a central character who is almost totally passive, and since the courtiers think of themselves as observers, not participants, there is a limit to how far the play can be developed. Before the play is two scenes old, Shakespeare has suggested that the authoritarian imagination may be somewhat sterile. Fortunately, a troupe of strolling players happens by, for, without them, the lord's invention would come to an untimely end. The lord commands them to perform before Sly as if he were the lord; after the play begins, the assembled courtiers and Sly are heard from only once more, during a brief interruption early in the main play.

The Induction seems to have so little influence on the course of the central Shrew play that critics have sometimes questioned why it is there at all.1 Yet its presence is important, for it is the “frame” through which the play is viewed. It establishes connections among the treatment of marginal members of society, society's authoritarian assumptions, the creative imagination, and the problems of art. These are the same connections that Kate and Petruchio will explore during the course of the main play, and the frame play suggests the interpenetration of the fictions of art and the fictions by which human beings live. If we look at The Taming of the Shrew without taking into consideration the failure of conventional values and the abuse of marginal members of society in the Induction, then we miss the perspective that allows us to see how original Kate and Petruchio are, how Petruchio uses role-playing to educate Kate, and how Kate finally learns enough about patriarchal conventions to transform these conventions into tools by which she can control her world rather than be controlled by it.

The players have been commanded to contrive a play that is supposed to satisfy impossible requirements. First, the play is to continue the lord's weak joke by attempting to please Christopher Sly, yet Sly is totally unfamiliar with plays. When he is told he will witness a comedy, he asks, “What is this Comonty?” He hopes it will be like “Christmas gambolds and tumbling tricks” (Induction.2.141). His concept of entertainment includes only the simplest physical action and conflict. Appealing to him is difficult in itself. Yet, the players must also appeal to the nobles, for although the nobles want to watch Sly watching the play, they also expect to be entertained by the play, and the nobles expect that the play will include those ready-made, genteel, self-flattering stereotypes common to courtly theater, stereotypes that affirm the superiority of a hierarchical vision and of the authoritarian vision of the nobles. Although the two ideas of entertainment seem incompatible, their forced juxtaposition so shatters our preconceptions that it encourages us to explore both the vitality and the limitations of each idea, and to discover the necessity for broader perspectives.

The conflation of courtly and folk tastes is observable even in the sources for this play. The tale of the shrewish wife is usually associated with the use of physical farce, and it generally includes physical abuse of the shrew; in a popular English ballad, the shrew is even wrapped in a salted horsehide to induce obedience.2 Shakespeare's softening of abuse from the coarsely physical to the more verbal and psychological is one of the most immediately noticeable alterations he makes in the old tale, and this suggests that he is more concerned with the realities of abuse than with the knockabout stereotypes associated with it. The Lucentio-Bianca subplot springs from the courtly love tradition,3 and it stresses the conventions of courtly love—disguise, music, poetry, love at first sight, and true love versus materialistic marriage, to name only a few (Van Laan 1978, 21-52).

The two traditions—courtly and folk—are held together only by the particular theatrical imagination of the strolling troupe that devises the play. It is a commedia troupe, the kind of troupe whose roots stretch back in theater tradition at least as far as Plautus and forward at least as far as nineteenth-century Italy, where the still-surviving troupes serve as the inspiration for I Pagliacci. A commedia troupe is composed of actors who specialize in particular kinds of stock roles rendered familiar to their audience through long usage and prevalence in both folk and courtly literature. As the character types in The Shrew make evident, this particular troupe is composed of actors who are skilled in creating a number of stock characters prevalent in Renaissance literature: for example, it has several pantaloon actors (i.e., foolish older men), it has a very skilled coquette, a young lover type who handles witty language well, a miser type, at least one clown, a braggart type, and a shrew. Commedia players present plays, either by adapting their stock roles to already existing plots, or else by inventing plots that are appropriate for the characters that they know how to play. Thus members of a commedia troupe are part actor, part playwright, sometimes working with previously developed material but just as often “discovering” the turns of the plot as they face the problems of adapting their stock characters and commedia routines to a multitude of different plot situations.4

The troupe is an appropriate vehicle for combining farce and courtly traditions since, by Shakespeare's time, commedia actors had developed a broad range of stock characters that covered the spectrum of Renaissance social types and dramatic tastes. Some of their stock characters, the coquette and the young lover, for example, reflected the stock characters and plot expectations of courtly drama. Others, like the shrew and the braggart, reflected the demands of folk drama. And still others, like the servant types, could function in either courtly or folk drama, as do Lucentio's servant Tranio and Petruchio's servant Grumio. Since the actors in a commedia troupe are to some degree playwrights, they are inventors as well as interpreters of the dialogue and of the reactions of characters to each other within scenes. The nature of their trade makes them in some sense surrogate playwrights whose onstage struggles to create plays may mirror both the creative offstage struggles of playwrights to reconcile the stereotyped expectations of their society with their particular original visions and the problems these playwrights encounter in working with particular plots. Thus, the question for a commedia troupe is not whether but how to mix the apparently disparate traditions of folk and courtly drama. The demand placed on them to satisfy the tastes of both Sly and the courtiers challenges their inventiveness, and the varying levels of inventiveness with which they meet the challenge are connected not only with the kinds of conventions available to the various actors but also with their success in developing the social and humane implications of those conventions.

In his brilliant analysis of the play, Tom Van Laan points out three different levels of invention. The two lower levels are connected with the rather routine, aristocratic courtly love story concerning Bianca and Lucentio. The performers of this plot seem content to confirm the courtiers' assumptions concerning the superiority of nobility, the virtue of feminine dependence on and obedience to men, and the importance of maintaining the patriarchy. On the lowest level of invention are the hack actors, the minor characters who can barely stumble through their roles, let alone find fresh ways of treating them. Gremio, the pantaloon, is a good example of these. He is so stupid and inept that Lucentio can gull him almost effortlessly into permission to teach Bianca poetry, and he is so lacking in invention that when Lucentio's trick is revealed, he simply sinks into obscurity. He can neither complicate the plot nor test the validity of courtly values. He can only conform in the most unimaginative way.

Lucentio, playing the amoroso, represents a second, far more significant level, that of the virtuoso who practices his craft, not to understand and deepen the values and conventions implied in the stock characters he portrays, but rather to display his own style. He gains access to Bianca by employing a rather stale device, but he performs it with grace and wit; imitating Dante, he uses Ovid to court her, and his success seems in every way to confirm the stage audience's assumptions about the superiority of courtly conventions in the hands of a proficient performer. Although Bianca's character seems to be less developed, she is also proficient. She knows how to please her suitors, how to dissemble before her father, how to discriminate between Lucentio's love and the other suitors' interest in her dowry, and how to reap the rewards of conformity. Yet, despite their virtuosity, until the banquet scene both Bianca and Lucentio are purely conventional. Not until Bianca refuses to obey Lucentio does either of them seem anything more than a competent but uninventive courtly actor. Through Lucentio, Shakespeare gives the courtly tradition its due, allowing it virtuosity but denying it real vitality and imagination. Its demands for conformity make it the enemy of invention. His treatment of Bianca is more interesting, for during the banquet scene she violates the mindless conformity that Lucentio holds so dear. Bianca's conventional obedience may mask a capacity for rebellion about which she has remained silent throughout most of the play. Once married, she can afford to reject courtly ideals.

Kate and Petruchio represent the highest level of invention. Both theatrically and socially, they are marginal and antiromantic. The actor creating Kate is expert at shrewishness, temper tantrums, and brawling. His/her shrew character is outside the pale of polite society, marginal by definition. Petruchio is played by an actor who is an expert boor, more skilled at harangues and knockdown farce than at love. Because of his boorishness and bombast, he, too, is a somewhat marginal member of the aristocracy. Even the tale with which they are associated is only marginally romantic, for the shrewish wife is traditionally a “curst” woman who is brutalized into obedience by a husband more interested in securing peace than love. Nevertheless, however unpromising the material, these two folk characters from a crude folk tale are intended, on the one hand, to capture the interest of Christopher Sly and, on the other, to serve as the primary subjects of a romance suitable for a courtly audience. The necessity to concentrate on the Kate and Petruchio relationship becomes evident early in the play when the action is briefly interrupted by the nobles trying to waken Christopher Sly. The play has, to that point, been proceeding along routine courtly lines, far outside of Sly's experience, and he has gone to sleep. If he is to remain awake, that is, if the nobles are to have the fun of watching him watch a play, then the rough-and-tumble plot will have to be highlighted. But it must be brought into prominence in such a way that the taste of the courtiers for a love story is also satisfied.

Whereas the Lucentio-Bianca plot requires only expert handling of and conformity to predictable motives and situations, the Kate—Petruchio plot defies convention. Shrews and braggarts are not courtly lovers, and thrusting them into a romantic plot forces everyone to examine, on the one hand, the motives and assumptions that underlie shrewishness and verbal abuse and, on the other, the conventional expectations that wives should bring with them a dowry and should practice obedience and conformity. Although the conventions associated with shrews and boors seem intended to deny the possibility that either character might be able to love anyone else, the actors must use those conventions to create a love story. And although a shrew is per se an undesirable mate, this shrew must find a way to convince her audience that she will live happily ever after. The task is gargantuan, and it cannot be accomplished simply by rearranging existing rules. It requires that the actors rethink the potential of their roles and the assumptions implicit in the conventions associated with them. The task requires not only virtuosity, but the development of a highly independent creative imagination.

What I am suggesting is that the Shrew deals with more than playfulness, as Denis Huston suggests, or with levels of role-playing, as Van Laan argues. Both are important aspects of the play, but they are secondary to its exploration of the relationship between theatrical conventions and social values. The play deliberately develops an analogy between the difficulties that the skilled actor-playwright encounters when he or she tries to convert popular plots, roles, and acting techniques into new uses and wider meanings and the struggles of marginal human beings, both male and female, to convert the destructive and abusive conventions associated with Renaissance marriage and marginality into sources for new kinds of relationships. Just as the playwright must create vitality while still retaining the established conventions on which actor and audience depend for communication, so women in a patriarchal society must learn to use the conventions of conformity necessary to their survival as sources for affirming their own creativity and imagination. From one perspective, Shakespeare is talking about how players can put old dramatic conventions to new uses, and, from another, about how women (and men) performing conventional roles within a society also try to discover new possibilities for human relationships.

Kate and Petruchio make great sense if we think of them as stock actors who can perform their play only if they discover new possibilities within the routines and conventions they have always unquestioningly performed. Part of their solution is to center the plot not on routine courtship but on the search for conventions that would make courtship possible. At the beginning of the play, each actor is presenting his usual routines—Kate throwing tantrums and brawling with her sister, Petruchio boorishly announcing that he has “come to wive it wealthily in Padua.” But braggart and shrew stereotypes cannot develop the romantic relationships that the plot requires. Romance conventions require that a character be able to care for at least one other person, yet the conventions of shrew and braggart are specifically structured to prevent the characters from noticing anyone else. The actors cannot discard their stock characters; those are the only acting conventions they are any good at performing. They must improvise until they can discover in the mannerisms and interactions of their characters some possibilities that can be used to develop more complex characters capable of multiple reactions. They must, in other words, particularize the shrew and braggart so that they can find out why this particular pair exist and what other qualities their behavior may imply.

Almost immediately the shrew and braggart begin to acquire specificity, because the plot requires that their stereotypes develop some motivation. The character playing Kate develops the idea that she resents her father's oft-repeated belief that she is simply marriage material to be awarded to a high bidder. She has rejected the marriage contract, but not the idea of marriage itself. She refuses to cooperate with her father or to adopt the manners that would make her desirable merchandise. But her shrewishness is a self-defeating strategy, for her unpleasantness, intended to fend off merely mercenary suitors, guarantees that the only reason anyone would marry her is for her fortune. Petruchio, like most of his society, regards marriage as a business proposition. He wants wealth. Yet, he does want a wife as well as a dowry, although his stream of expletives makes him the most inept of suitors. If Kate's shrewishness offends courtly suitors, then Petruchio's verbal assaults offend the courtly fathers of genteel daughters. Nevertheless, within the desire for marriage the pair can find enough common ground to improvise the beginnings of a romance. But how to sustain a romance? How to reconcile Petruchio's materialism with Kate's rejection of it? How to direct the process of improvisation and invention so that some kind of interaction can take place?

At first, Petruchio seems the more inventive player. He exploits the aspects of his behavior that most resemble those of Kate—that is, the conventions of boorishness associated with his stock character—to intensify and mirror back to Kate her own outrageous behavior. If she attacks him, he will attack her. If she affects disdain for marriage, he will arrive in antic dress for the wedding. If she makes unreasonable, arbitrary demands of others, he will treat her to extremely unreasonable behavior, arbitrarily refusing her food, rest, and proper clothing. If she throws tantrums, he will harangue her to death. Petruchio's mirroring technique is not a departure from his usual bag of acting tricks or his virtuosity as a braggart; in recognizing the resemblance between the abusive language of his stock responses and those of a shrew's, he is developing a tool for discovering new perspectives on the two roles, new ways of generating action when one would normally expect only impasse. From stock tricks, a kind of creativity is emerging. His well-practiced routines are put to the new purpose of forcing on Kate an awareness of the way her violent language and actions frustrate her desires.

Unfortunately, Petruchio's mirroring tactics create more self-awareness in Kate than they create in him. Although his acts allow Kate to understand a great deal about herself, they do not create similar insight in Petruchio. He is still a “controller,” still boorish, still in danger of seeing Kate merely as an extension of his own ego, just as her father saw her merely as a tool for improving his family fortunes. Although he has found a way to be Kate's mirror, his ego and control of the plot prevent Kate from returning the favor. Yet, if Petruchio is to educate Kate, he must recognize and limit the destructive possibilities of his usual mode of acting. He must not go beyond education to sheer manipulation. Such recognition is difficult for Petruchio, since he is enjoying his lord-and-master role, and we sense that unless some new device intervenes, boorishness will overwhelm inventiveness. One device that helps Petruchio to retain some balance is his servant Grumio, who often mirrors his master's actions without his master's wit or awareness. Like Petruchio, Grumio also harangues others, particularly the tailor. But Grumio's harangues are directed toward hapless bystanders; his bamboozling of the tailor constitutes gratuitous abuse, and Petruchio, observing this, has to set matters right. Petruchio's intervention reminds him that Kate may be more like the unfortunate tailor than he had realized, and that his own abuse may go beyond education to a gratuitous exercise of power. The mirror Grumio can furnish is too simplistic and limited, however, to save Petruchio from his own ego. Grumio's actions are a form of burlesque, naive distortions of Petruchio's actions; they do not furnish the kind of sophisticated and intense mirror that Petruchio has given Kate.

One yearns to place Petruchio before such a mirror, for the performance strategies and the imaginative uses of boorishness by the actor playing Petruchio suggest that, placed before the right mirror, he might find creative alternatives to his egocentric desire to control everything and everyone around him. Yet Petruchio, the actor and the character, is so consumed with his desire to control that he seeks to impose on Kate his own vision of the world; on the road when they are returning to Padua for Bianca's wedding, he even invents tests for her to be sure she has learned his lesson; he is willing to let her walk every step of the way back to Padua unless she conforms to his demands.

Despite Petruchio's creativity in using the conventions of the boor to make Kate recognize the destructiveness of her shrewishness, he cannot see that the alternative to the shrew that he advocates is the courtly convention of the obedient and dependent wife. The character-actor improvising this courtship can imagine no relationship between man and woman that does not involve mastery and submission. He can devise no plot that does not, despite its inappropriateness, affirm the ideals implicit in the Lucentio-Bianca courtship plot. Thus, as the plot moves toward its conclusion, and despite the appreciation that he has displayed for Kate's high spirits, the Petruchio character is driven to rely on the courtly ideal of an obedient wife, and thus he seems willing to sacrifice Kate's spirit to coerce her obedience. The plot of depriving Kate of food, sleep, and clothing is far less destructive than the device of depriving her of her own vision. Whereas the first device leaves Kate with room to react and retain some kind of identity, the second device leaves the stage and the action entirely to Petruchio. Wanting to civilize Kate is one thing; wanting to displace her independence and vitality with a mere echo of himself is quite another. We are forced to ask whether Petruchio's “mirroring” technique is only a way of giving Kate new awareness, or whether it is also a way of forcing her to conform to his vision. We wonder whether controlling another person's imagination may not be the worst abuse that one spouse can inflict on another. Petruchio has pretended to mime Kate's routines as a way of freeing her from the destructive implications of the shrew character, but, in the end, we discover that he does not really want to free the character, he merely wants to substitute a compliant wife for the shrew, one who will agree to behave according to the ideal held by all Bianca's suitors. That desire is Petruchio's blind spot and the opening for which the actor playing Kate has been waiting.

During the entire play, the Kate actor-character has had difficulty converting the special tricks of the shrew to constructive ends. The logic of the plot has placed Petruchio in command, and the action has followed a pattern in which Petruchio acts, Kate reacts, and Petruchio then counteracts in such a way that she is forced to abandon one shrewish trick after another. She has been stripped of the shrew conventions that constituted her identity without being given the opportunity to find alternative conventions. In the scene on the road back to Padua, Petruchio's attacks become so outrageous that they finally reveal his desire not only to obliterate the shrew role, but to obliterate the independence and sense of self that gave the shrew role its originality and vitality. Petruchio is so determined to control the action that he commands Kate to swear that the sun is the moon, that an old man is a budding virgin; in other words, he wants her only to see the world according to the vision he allows her. He wants her to deny both the surface tricks of the shrew stereotype and the underlying sense of independence that has made her shrewishness a vital if unproductive activity.

Petruchio's demand cuts to the core of the character the shrew actor has developed during the play. Kate has been transformed into a motivated shrew; her shrewishness is presented as a defense against becoming a mere puppet, a mere reflection of the courtly values required by her entire society. Her excesses have proved to be counterproductive, and she has been auctioned off to Petruchio, but her motivation still remains. How can she turn the tables on Petruchio, and create through her actions a mirror of his expectations with such intensity and distortion that he recognizes how his expectations fundamentally rob her of the ability to act at all? If she cannot create a new awareness in Petruchio, then alternatively, how can she use his authoritarianism and egotism to create freedom for her own inventions? The question for Kate, the character, is the same as the question for Kate, the actor. The conventions for stage roles and the conventions for social roles seem to become interchangeable. The character's struggle to solve her marital problem is like that of the actor's or playwright's struggle to find a way of using conventions creatively rather than mechanically.

Kate's chance comes in the last act, when she finds a way to control Petruchio using his own illusions. The plot develops into a paradigm of a courtly “game” situation, a trial of the three new husbands based on their success in commanding their wives' absolute obedience. Petruchio, Lucentio, and Hortensio have all wagered that their wives will come when bidden. According to conventional expectations Bianca, as the courtly ideal, should immediately obey her husband's arbitrary command. But Bianca, now married, is no longer controlled by the “rules” of the coquette. She is therefore free to ignore her husband's command. Hortensio's wealthy widow is also free, and just as casual in answering his command as he was early in the play when he decided to marry her because it seemed easier than fighting for Bianca's hand.

Although the test has failed, the three husbands, instead of questioning whether their ideal of absolute obedience is either desirable or attainable, wait for Kate. She enters and in a remarkable tour-de-force performance mirrors back to Petruchio his own values and strategies. As he has often done to her, she delivers a long harangue, this time to the other two wives. As he desires, she delivers a conventional encomium on the values of obedience. Even the most uncritical viewer is amazed by Kate's “taming.” The harangue and encomium are too good to be true; they have nothing to do with the rest of the play, with Kate's attitudes or experiences, with Petruchio's actions, or, for that matter, with the realities of Elizabethan marriage implied in Petruchio's capacity to deprive Kate of food, sleep, and clothing. Coming from Kate, they are so outrageous that they throw into relief the emptiness of the cliché responses demanded of her, and the lack of inventiveness of the actor and society who would approve such a demand. Just as Petruchio, earlier in the play, performed Kate's tantrums with even greater intensity than Kate did, so Kate is now performing, with an intensity that mocks credibility, the courtly rules of marriage that Petruchio seems to demand of her. The very exaggeration of the performance calls attention to the possibility that what we are seeing is so blatantly conventional that the viewers ought to beware. We begin to conceive the possibility that Kate, who has not lost her wits, is setting a trap, that her performance is a comment on, not merely an imitation, of Petruchio's own values. Our sense of such a possibility is increased when, with a single theatrical gesture, Kate commits an act so outrageous that only someone like Petruchio, who is utterly consumed with his own success, could accept it without question. Kneeling to him as if he were her God, her object of worship, she offers to let him tread on her hand.

Lucentio and Hortensio are awestruck. Here is surely the ideal of obedience that they have dreamed of. And Petruchio? We are not sure whether he has or has not gotten the point. Does Kate's hyperbolic performance of his courtly ideal reveal to him its destructiveness and emptiness? Does her performance reveal to him her wit, imagination, and independence? Does his roar of approval, “Why there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate” (5.2.180), signal his discovery of Kate's inventiveness? Or is Kate now to play on him the kinds of mirroring tricks he played on her? Is he Kate's partner or her fool? Will she merely control him or will they join in creative inventions? Is this the end of the play or the beginning of a new one? We are not sure. What we see is that the play's conclusion, which is often treated as Kate's conversion to a simple, mechanical conformity, has become problematic. What we see is that Kate, who appears so conventionally tamed, may have found a way to tame Petruchio. We see the clear possibility that she has used Petruchio's own conventions as a way of achieving control of the plot and her destiny. Seeing the play in that way puts fresh meaning and fresh doubts into the aristocratic wifely ideal: even as Kate pretends to be blindly obedient, she springs the trap implicit in the ideal of blind obedience, to wit, that he who believes in blind obedience is likely to be blindly enslaved by it.

Shakespeare has not created a play in which a “conversion” necessarily occurs, nor one in which the female characters must choose nontraditional roles. He has done something more important. He has found modes of questioning established values, of demonstrating that the systems of family values traditionally considered to be unified and justified are merely logocentric models that can be unmade just as well as they were originally made. In so doing, he has opened for the audience a world of the imagination in which the possibility of alternative relationships between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and masters and servants can be contemplated. What Shakespeare has done in this early play is to use the process of performance as a way of exploring the unstated values embodied in the traditional stereotypes on which stock characters are based, ways of testing their limits and their validity. By focusing on the difficulties that a group of actors encounter during the improvisational process of reconciling stock commedia characters with courtly plots, he has been able to probe the difference between static, closed assumptions and flexible, open ones. Employing a shrew and a braggart, he has been able to explore the patriarchal assumptions that underlie Elizabethan marriage and to show that spouse abuse is not an aberration, but an intense expression of those values that reduce Elizabethan wives to the status of appendages. Using the process of acting and playmaking as a microcosmic test of larger social assumptions, he has expanded the patriarchal assumptions underlying stock characters as sources for creative response without at the same time affirming those assumptions or their destructive effects. The Taming of the Shrew does indeed exploit spouse abuse as a major source of action and humor. But it does not encourage such behavior; rather it reveals how destructive and widespread is its hold on society.


  1. Some critics have suggested that the Induction sets the tone for the play; it establishes that this is a play ostensibly for Sly and thus it cushions us from the inner play's brawling physicality. Van Laan (1978), Huston (1981), and Homan (1981) all suggest that the Induction calls our attention to the fact that we are witnessing a piece of theater, and thus shifts our attention from what happens to how it happens—from plot to style, performance, and invention—an observation fundamental to both their observations and mine. None of them, however, takes into account the main plot line of the Induction, which is simply that a lord invents a practical joke in the form of a courtly play. His play runs out of steam because it cannot be developed, and it cannot be developed because both the playwright and his audience are so hedged in by assumptions about Sly's inferiority and their superiority that they cannot generate action; they can only generate a static emblem of their assumptions. For them, theater is merely a static, illustrative activity which confirms the aristocratic status quo, it is not a generative, exploratory one.

  2. For a brief but very helpful discussion of sources for both the Kate-Petruchio plot and the Induction, see G. B. Harrison's (1968) introduction to the play.

  3. Probably from George Gascoigne's translation of Ariosto's Supposes.

  4. The extent to which Shakespeare is thinking in commedia terms is made clear in the Folio, where Gremio, Bianca's aged, greedy suitor, is first noted namelessly simply as “a pantaloon.”


Harrison, G. B., ed. “Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

Homan, Sidney. When the Theater Turns to Itself: The Aesthetic Metaphor in Shakespeare. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1981.

Huston, J. Denis. Shakespeare's Comedies of Play. Columbia University Press, 1981.

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. In G. B. Harrison, ed., The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

Van Laan, Thomas F. Role Playing in Shakespeare. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.