One of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and published for the first time in the First Folio (1623), The Taming of the Shrew was a success with audiences when it was originally performed. Its main plot focuses on the “taming” of Katherine—a woman no one will marry because of her strong personality and sharp tongue. Petruchio, eager for a challenge and for Kate’s sizable dowry, sets out to wed Kate and make her into an obedient wife. The secondary plot concerns the love affair of Lucentio and Bianca—the latter of whom is courted by several men and controlled by a dominant father, leading Lucentio to resort to disguise and deceit in order to make Bianca his own.
Shakespeare structures The Taming of the Shrew as a play within a play. Preceding the appearance of any of the central characters, audience members watch the Induction—explanatory scenes that stand apart from the main action—in which a drunken member of the working class, Christopher Sly, is the subject of a lord’s elaborate joke: If Sly is treated as a lord and told he is a lord, will he believe it? As part of the ruse, the lord compels Sly to watch a play performed by a traveling troupe; thus the stories of Kate and Petruchio and of Lucentio and Bianca are framed through the eyes of Christopher Sly. “Induction,” therefore, takes on a double meaning, as will so many words throughout the play. Sly is being “inducted” into the aristocracy, just as the audience is introduced to the play’s action. Shakespeare also seems keen to remind his audience they are only watching a play, not real life, and they should not take anything at face value.
The Elizabethan audience who first watched The Taming of the Shrew would have expected an enormous imbalance of power in any marital relationship. Men were firmly entrenched as heads of their households, and women were subservient. By the Elizabethan period, the “shrew” had become a well-established stereotype. A comic figure in popular farces and tales, she also acted as an admonitory symbol of “unnatural” women who did not recognize their subservient place in a male-dominated society. So common was her type that among the fifteenth-century wood carvings in the choir stalls of Shakespeare’s own church (Holy Trinity in Stratford), there’s a carving of a woman known as the “bridled scold”: She has a bit in her mouth to punish her for shrewishness. Thus, Shakespeare’s audience would have laughed at Petruchio’s treatment of Kate and probably would have agreed with the other characters that any abuse she receives from Petruchio or any other man is well deserved.
It goes without saying that gender roles have changed significantly in the four centuries since The Taming of the Shrew was first performed. What is less obvious is why the play has endured despite its outdated premise. The answer may lie in Shakespeare’s original intent for the play. Did he mean for the play to be taken at face value—or is it a typical Shakespearean comedy filled with characters whose behavior the audience could learn from and laugh at? Educated Elizabethans knew that comedies, in accordance with classical theory, were supposed to mirror ridiculous human behavior that the audience should not emulate. Did he intend it as a farce, wherein behaviors are so exaggerated and ridiculous that the audience is free to laugh without taking the characters and their dilemmas seriously—or did he intentionally include elements to suggest that Kate’s “taming” could be interpreted as the death of a free spirit?
Some critics have pointed to the way the play is framed as a sign that Shakespeare was signaling to his audience that the whole play is just a play and that they shouldn’t take its message seriously. Critics also have pointed to a famous passage wherein Petruchio, during the light of day, tells Kate, “I say it is the moon that shines so bright.” Kate corrects him, “I know it is the sun that shines so bright.” Undeterred, Petruchio says, “Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself, / It shall be moon, or star, or what I list.” Petruchio’s assertion is plainly ridiculous. Does Shakespeare mean to indicate that Petruchio, too, is ridiculous?
Regardless of Shakespeare’s original intent, directors have seized many opportunities to take the language of the play and make the meaning their own, which also may contribute to its endurance. In Kate’s speech at the end of the play, she concedes to her husband’s authority, but how she delivers that speech speaks more powerfully to the efficacy of her “taming” than the words can. Is she speaking sarcastically, and thus mocking Petruchio in front of others—or is she speaking somberly, showing an awareness that she knows what she says isn’t true, but she is trapped and hopelessly dominated by her husband? Is she showing she can live in society and act with dignity now that someone values her—or is this a moment of growth and affection, wherein Kate and Petruchio are working as partners in their own ridiculous world? Directors can interpret Petruchio’s role in different ways, as well. He can be presented as a frightening man who abuses his wife or as Kate’s equal, an intelligent match for an intelligent woman. Although the dialogue never changes, their relationship, like their characters, is subject to interpretation; it can be seen as serious or humorous and presented as such on the stage, depending on how the actors physically interact with each another and in what manner they deliver their lines.
Though The Taming of the Shrew is not performed as frequently as several of Shakespeare’s plays, it has endured nonetheless; it has been produced on the modern stage and adapted in television programs and motion pictures. It inspired a popular 1948 musical by Cole Porter, Kiss Me Kate, which was subsequently made into a movie in 1953. Though Christopher Sly doesn’t appear, the plot nevertheless follows Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play structure, as a production company struggles to put on a musical production of The Taming of the Shrew. As the liberties taken in Kiss Me Kate show, The Taming of the Shrew may in fact endure because of the freedom it gives its directors, actors, and audience to make it their own. This may have been Shakespeare’s intent all along.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Determine why The Taming of the Shrew has endured throughout time.
2. Describe the play’s two central conflicts.
3. Identify the primary themes and motifs.
4. Define and describe the roles of the ideal woman, the ideal man, and the ideal couple in the play.
5. Explain Shakespeare’s possible motivation for framing the play with the Induction scenes.
6. Describe the forms of disguise and manipulation used in the play.
7. Discuss the different interpretations of Kate’s transformation.
8. Explain the role of the servant and how Tranio and Grumio embody that role differently.
9. Understand how alliteration, puns, classical allusions, metaphors, and similes contribute to the meaning of the play.