The Taming of the Shrew Analysis
Role of Marriage in a Shakespearean Comedy
Shakespearean comedies follow a similar story arc and ending. A couple is kept apart by society or the will of their parents. Through disguises, mistaken identities, or magic, the couple eventually change the minds of those who opposed their match and marry. If the audience follows Bianca’s story, they will find a traditional Shakespearean comedy. Baptista’s rule that Katherine must marry before Bianca keeps Bianca and her lovers apart. Bianca’s suitors disguise themselves as school teachers in order to get close to her. The play ends with Bianca’s marriage to Lucentio after Lucentio reveals everyone’s identities.
On the other hand, Petruchio and Katherine’s story defies many tropes of comedy. Petruchio and Katherine are not kept apart by society, but rather by Katherine’s harsh temper. Petruchio never disguises himself or his intentions. He even explicitly tells the audience his plan to break Katherine like a falcon in a soliloquy. Their marriage takes place in act III, at the turning point of the play rather than at the end of the play.
The unusual structure of Petruchio and Katherine’s story suggests that their tale has an atypical message for a comedy. It could be a tragicomedy like Romeo and Juliet, in which the marriage is in the middle of the play so that the audience can see a tragedy occur after the marriage. In The Taming of the Shrew, the tragedy would be the death of Katherine’s spirit at the end of the play. It could also mock the perception of marriage as an end point. Unlike Bianca’s marriage, which is an end in itself, Katherine’s marriage is not complete until she gives her speech at the end. In this speech, Katherine tells the other women to “vail your stomachs,” which means subdue your pride. Katherine chooses to relinquish her pride in order to be in a happy marriage with Petruchio. Then, Petruchio repeats his line from act II, scene I (“kiss me Kate”) when he describes their pending marriage to which Katherine did not consent. The first time Petruchio says the line, he is speaking for her and imposing his will on her. The second time, Petruchio frames the words with “come on, and kiss me Kate.” In using this language, he allows her to choose to kiss him and proves that they are equals in their marriage. The moral of their marriage becomes more about how to inhabit a marriage as equals rather than the “happily ever after” marriage that Bianca achieves.
The inspiration for this play came from popular, Early Modern folktales about husbands brutally taming their disobedient wives. While contemporary readers rightly view the concept of “taming” as aggressive and misogynistic, it was a very common practice in Elizabethan England. “Shrew” is a derogatory term for a woman who has a sharp tongue, bad temper, and independent mind. In other Elizabethan tales, shrews will scold, nag, tease, or badger their husbands and suitors. Because these were seen as extremely undesirable traits, men were legally allowed to beat this willfulness out of their wives. Many disobedient women were beaten and then wrapped in salted skin until they agreed to be obedient to their husbands. Other punishments included wearing a metal helmet called a “Scold’s Bridle” that used a metal tongue depressor to keep the woman from speaking, or strapping the woman to a stool and repeatedly dunking her in the river until she yielded. In light of these common and harsh bodily punishments, it is interesting that Petruchio chooses to use words as his primary means of breaking Katherine’s will. The only violent physical harm Petruchio causes is when he beats his servants for “offenses” against his mistress.
The play was originally performed without much scenery or props. The actors would have heightened the physical comedy and distinguished their characters by costumes. All parts would have been played by men and skilled boys, as Elizabethans believed...
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