Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2019
At Baptista’s home, Katharina interrogates Bianca, whose hands are bound. The elder sister wants to know which suitor Bianca prefers, but the younger sister will not admit to favoring either Hortensio or the rich Gremio. Bianca offers to stay away from the man of Katharina’s choice, but perceives that Kate has been jesting. This idea inflames Kate, who then strikes Bianca.
Baptista enters and interposes himself between the two sisters. Bianca runs out after Kate attempts to strike her a second time. Kate once again charges her father with trying to humiliate her.
The old and new suitors arrive. Petruchio presents Hortensio as Litio, a musician. Gremio presents Lucentio, disguised as Cambio, a schoolmaster. Tranio announces himself as Lucentio, and gives Baptista books and a lute.
Petruchio hastily asks to be permitted to court Kate immediately. The father quickly settles the terms of her dowry first: Baptista offers one half of his lands upon his death and 20,000 crowns up front; Petruchio grants Kate all his lands and leases in the event that she should survive him. When Baptista suggests that wooing Kate will be a difficult affair, Petruchio reassures him that he can aptly persuade a woman of Kate’s nature.
Hortensio enters with his lute broken over his head and dangling around his neck. When asked what has happened, Hortensio claims that Katharina would prove a better soldier than wife. The report of Kate’s behavior excites Petruchio, who declares that he wishes to speak with her now more than ever. The two men leave, and Petruchio soliloquizes about the technique of courtship he will employ to woo Kate; he intends to flatter her.
Kate comes in. Petruchio greets her politely, but Kate treats him rudely and dismissively. A verbal sparring match ensues wherein Kate rejects Petruchio repeatedly while Petruchio continues to flatter and to taunt Kate using sexual innuendos. Kate strikes him, but Petruchio ends their conversation by claiming that he intends to marry her, that he will not be refused, and that the marriage has already been agreed to by her father.
Baptista, Gremio, and Tranio enter conveniently at this point and ask how Petruchio has fared. Petruchio feigns success. He must save face by claiming that Kate and he fight in the presence of others but act mildly when alone. The men quickly congratulate him on his progress.
Tranio tries to assert his claim to Bianca by needling Gremio about his old age. Gremio fires back that he probably has more material possessions to offer than Tranio. Baptista interrupts them at this sensitive moment by asking how each suitor will provide for his daughter. Gremio promises his house and all his furnishings upon his death. Tranio proffers all his lands and houses. Moreover, Tranio suggests that because of his youth, he will not leave Bianca a lonely widow, as Gremio will surely do on account of his old age. As Tranio’s offer far and away exceeds that of Gremio, Baptista decides to let Tranio court Bianca.
The reader will notice that this scene comprises the entire act. Not only is the length of the act appropriate for comedy, but the fact that there is no change of venue necessitates the action being enclosed in a single scene. The staging of one long act with no change of scenery permits the action to take place rapidly. The quick pace reflects the flimflam style behind Petruchio’s courtship of Kate.
When the act begins, Kate seems to have let paranoia get the best of her. But the audience may change its mind when Katharina reminds Bianca that Gremio is old and rich. This thought might appear callous, but Katharina would not be alone here. Her father, Baptista, for example, is interested most in the financial security of his children, though he claims, disingenuously, that Kate’s love “is all in all” (129).
Petruchio seems even more hard-hearted than Baptista, for he dismisses outright Kate’s preferences. He claims simply that he is “peremptory” (131) and will not be turned down. When questioned again how he will tame a fiery mate, Petruchio says that “where two raging fires meet together/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury” (132-33). In other words, the pair might seem incompatible because the individuals are too similar. Not so, says Petruchio. Only like-minded mates can compete with each other, and quell their fury, he says.
Petruchio accurately assesses his courtship style as peremptory. In his soliloquy, lines 169-81, he lets the audience in on the most persuasive element of his “wooing dance,” which is flattery. At this point, Petruchio assumes an identity in the play which had only been suggested heretofore by his name; he now becomes a Petrarchan lover. Renaissance audiences were attuned to sophisticated verbal play in English, French, or Italian, which came to London via traders and theater companies. So the sound of Petruchio’s name would subliminally register the famous Italian love poet, Francesco Petrarca—in English, Petrarch. It is also fair to think that Petruchio’s name would call to mind the French word perruque (wig) and the Italian verb truccare (to cheat), which in its reflexive form signifies the act of putting on make-up. All these hints are underlined by Petruchio’s behavior in this scene and elsewhere.
The importance of Petrarchan love poetry to Shakespeare’s works cannot be ignored. For our purposes here, however, we need simply be aware that Shakespeare used and alluded to Petrarch’s poetic style in three basic ways: first, in order to show how a lover might speak and act while in love; second, to make fun of that lover when his behavior is too excessive; and third, to show how an experienced lover handles his affairs. Two of Shakespeare’s sonnets, composed probably slightly later than The Taming of the Shrew, demonstrate the first and third attitudes just mentioned. The sonnets themselves document the course of one lover’s journey from a youthful to a more sophisticated, if not cynical, view of love.
Sonnet 26 captures the spirit of a simple lover who cowers before his beloved, in this case another man:
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage
To witness duty, not to show my wit;
Duty so great which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it,
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect.
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.
Here the lover obsequiously implores the beloved to accept his supposedly unrefined poetry.
Sonnet 138, in contrast, portrays an older, wiser lover, like Petruchio. He is content to flatter his beloved, here a woman, and be flattered likewise:
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust,
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.
Though this sonnet refers mostly to the technique of flattery used by the beloved on the lover, this approach is clearly the one used by Petruchio in order to woo Kate. This variety of to love is not the overly serious and unsophisticated sort practiced by young, “novice” lovers, as Petruchio calls Tranio and Hortensio (308). A perruqued and tricky Petrarchan lover, on the other hand, would masquerade in flattery.
Petruchio’s soliloquy emphasizes the idea that he must force himself to be kind to a mean-spirited Kate. Petruchio must reinterpret her puns, which paint him in a negative light, and transform them into sexually suggestive comments. Petruchio’s success in verbal combat irritates Kate to the point of striking him. Petruchio promises to bind her if she continue. He then begins to flatter Kate, but he also compares her to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. The comparison is ambivalent, for Diana was not only regarded as beautiful, she was also fiercely independent. For example, as Ovid’s story in the Metamorphoses has it, Diana turned the young man Actaeon into a stag to be torn apart by his own dogs after he observed her bathing.
When Baptista and the other suitors reappear, Petruchio changes the comparison to “Grissel/And Roman Lucrece” (292-93). The strategy again is to flatter Kate; Grisselda and Lucrece were famous for patience and chastity, respectively, these qualities being womanly virtues during the Renaissance. Boccaccio had written in Italian of Grisselda in his Decameron. Petrarch translated the story into Latin, so that it would be more accessible to other Europeans. Not long after, Chaucer wrote his own version of the Grisselda story in the Clerk’s Tale, part of his Canterbury Tales. The comparison to Lucrece foreshadows an event in the play’s final scene that concerns a bet as to a woman’s obedience. This substitutes here for a woman’s chastity, which is Lucrece’s claim to fame. The original story comes from the Roman historian Livy, but is retold time and again by writers such as Augustine, Petrarch and, not surprisingly, Shakespeare in his Rape of Lucrece, composed about the time The Taming of the Shrew appeared on stage. Petrarch, interestingly enough, was more concerned with the story of Brutus, Lucrece’s husband, in his De viris illustribus (On Famous Men). We will have occasion to unravel the full complexity of the comparison in the final scene. For now, the reader should note that the comparison of Kate to Lucrece points also to the way Petruchio resembles Brutus, who became famous for cleverly playing the part of an idiot. Thus the comparison flatters both Kate as virtuous and Petruchio himself as clever.
The well-performed acting, both by Petruchio and by Baptista, is not lost on Kate. She chastises her father for “think[ing] with oaths to face the matter out” (286) in his “tender fatherly regard” (283). Here, Katharina plays upon the sense of faces as false appearances, which may be used to smooth things over so that her father may be rid of her quietly. Once Petruchio and Kate have departed, Baptista admits that he has played “a merchant’s part” (323), as if selling his daughters. Even Tranio reveals his capitalistic spirit by objectifying Bianca as a “commodity” (325), which must be traded for profit.
The scene ends with a soliloquy from Tranio. He reminds the audience that he must have a father’s blessing before Baptista will give away his daughter. Tranio also refers to himself as the “suppos’d” Lucentio and to “his” father as the “suppos’d” Vincentio. Shakespeare alludes here to the English play, Supposes, from which he took the Lucentio-Bianca subplot. Knowing that his audience would be familiar with this play, which was performed ten years earlier in London, Shakespeare makes reference to a bastard child (408), which has nothing to do with the current plot as he has reshaped it. In the original play, however, Bianca’s analogue conceives out of wedlock and is forced to marry. With the last line, which puns on “child” in the double sense of baby and bastard, Shakespeare winks at a sophisticated Elizabethan audience which would have been familiar with the source of the play’s plot. The reference is lost on a modern audience that has not seen Gascoigne’s play.
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