William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote the Elizabethan comedy The Taming of the Shrewin the late sixteenth century. To begin any analysis of the play, the reader must examine the plot within the context of the era in which it was written. The basic premise of the drama would be considered sexist, offensive, and unacceptable in the modern era. In Shakespeare’s day, audiences would have accepted sexist attitudes toward women in this comedic play as commonplace. Thus, in order to properly examine the ironic circumstances presented by the author, the twenty-first-century reader must view the play with sixteenth-century eyes.
The plot of The Taming of the Shrew centers on the notion that women may be manipulated by men at will. This concept is part of what is known as the “Elizabethan World Order.” Women were considered what might be called second-class citizens today and were forced to a lower place in society with respect to the status men. As such, they were expected to be subservient and obedient to their husbands so they would be happy and free as required by the natural order of things in society.
With this understanding, we might look at Katherine’s idea of freedom and happiness as the drama unfolds. Petruchio proclaims his attitude, which serves as a succinct plot summary:
Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed; / And therefore, setting all this chat aside, / Thus in plain terms: your father hath consented / That you shall be my wife your dowry 'greed on; / And will you, nill you, I will marry you. / Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn; / For, by this light, whereby I see thy beauty,-- / Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well,-- / Thou must be married to no man but me; / 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. / Here comes your father. Never make denial; / I must and will have Katherine to my wife.
Katherine has a different view of happiness and freedom. When Petruchio says, “we have 'greed so well together/That upon Sunday is the wedding-day,” she replies, “I'll see thee hang'd on Sunday first.” She envisions freedom after breaking the chains that bind her to Pertuchio’s will. To an Elizabethan audience, this is ironic. The way to true happiness in that era was obedience, so the audience knows she will eventually become Petruchio’s devoted, subservient, and happy wife. This is dramatic irony. Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience share the knowledge to which Katherine is not privy. She will become “a worthy and obedient wife.”
An example of verbal irony is demonstrated in act 4. Petruchio has a new plan. He now “knows better how to tame a shrew.” His words are ironic because their meaning implies something different from what is expressed. The speaker’s words explicitly state an attitude that is the...
opposite of what he utters: “This is a way to kill a wife with kindness.” He will attempt to tame the shrew by making her believe he is kind and gentle, not manipulative and oppressive.
To locate examples of irony in The Taming of the Shrew, the analyst must separate from modern society and become immersed in the attitudes of sixteenth-century England. Identifying verbal irony is not too difficult because it is based on finding dialogue where a character expresses something specifically, but uses words which intentionally mean the opposite. Dramatic irony is more complicated in this play because the knowledge of future circumstances, like becoming a happy, subservient wife, is not natural to the modern reader.