How does Shakespeare want us to feel about Katharina being tamed by Petruchio?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is always difficult to determine authorial intent. We are not able to ask Shakespeare what he wants us to feel; even then, audiences might react very differently to what the author intended. Also, The Taming of the Shrew is a particularly controversial play due to this very question. Whether Petruchio’s taming of Katharina is meant to be funny, disturbing, ironic, or earnest is a widely debated topic, and directors and scholars come down on different sides of the discussion.

Some say that there is actually a great deal of respect between Petruchio and Katharina. They are both wayward individuals whom society rejects. Petruchio is the only one to stand up to Katharina, and the two of them have a fierce battle for control. When they first meet, they make suggestive jokes and seem equally matched in terms of wit:

PETRUCHIO: Come, come, you wasp; i' faith, you are too angry.

KATHARINA: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

Petruchio mistreats his servants and Katharina, showing her how unfair it is to constantly disrespect others. All the while, he swears he loves her. When Petruchio insists on calling the sun the moon, Katharina finally gives in:

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

Those who believe we are supposed to feel joy or humor at Katharina’s behavior tend to argue that the two of them finally become partners. Both remain mischievous, but now they team up together against others. Petruchio makes a bet that Katharina is a most obedient wife. She comes when he calls and chastises the other wives for being disobedient. Perhaps this is simply part of a scheme the two have devised in order to win money.

Others say Katharina needs to learn her lesson, whether she is a woman or man. The play is not as much about a man dominating a woman as it is about teaching a rude person to behave politely. Therefore Katharina’s long speech at the end about how women should be docile is more about how people in general should appreciate their partners.

Alternately, the taming of Katharina can be portrayed as disturbing. Petruchio, as a man who holds the power, breaks her will and basically brainwashes her into submission. Whatever the intention of Katharina’s “taming,” her final speech is a long one. It stops the play in its tracks. I would argue that Shakespeare wanted us to feel something, whether the speech is meant to be humorous, wise, or sad.

Read the study guide:
The Taming of the Shrew

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