The Taming of the Shrew Historical Criticism of The Taming of the Shrew
by William Shakespeare

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Overviews of Taming of the Shrew

(Shakespeare for Students)

Ruth Nevo

[In the following essay, Nevo provides an overview of the action and structure of The Taming of the Shrew, concentrating on the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio. Citing with approval Michael West's observation that Shakespeare's focus here is not "women's rights" but "sexual rites," Nevo sees the play as a rollicking depiction of the battle between the sexes. Kate, she suggests, is shown to be so fearful of not being loved, and so accustomed to being told she is unlovable, that she has come to behave as if it were true. Petruchio appears as a master psychologist whose "instructive" and "liberating" methods free Kate from her mistaken idea of her identity and enable her to find her true self. Rather than breaking Kate's spirit, Nevo argues, Petruchio uses his superior will and intelligence to convince Kate to enter into an alliance with him. For further commentary on the relationship between Katherine and Petruchio, see in particular the excerpts by H. J. Oliver in this section and in the section on Petruchio, the excerpts by George Hibbard, Coppelia Kahn, and Shirley Nelson Garner in the section on Gender, Robert Ornstem's excerpt on Katherine, and Ralph Berry's discussion in the section on Games and Role-Playing.]

A more gentlemanly age than our own was embarrassed by The Shrew. G. B. Shaw announced it 'altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility'. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch of the New Shakespeare [1928], judged it

primitive, somewhat brutal stuff and tiresome, if not positively offensive to any modern civilised man or modern woman, not an antiquary. . . . We do not and cannot, whether for better or worse, easily think of woman and her wedlock vow to obey quite in terms of a spaniel, a wife and a walnut tree - the more you whip 'em the better they be.

It will be noticed, however, that Q's access of gallantry causes him to overlook the fact that apart from the cuffings and beatings of saucy or clumsy zanni which is canonical in Italianate comedy, no one whips anyone in The Taming of the Shrew, violence being confined to Katherina who beats her sister Bianca, and slaps Petruchio's face. Anne Barton [in The Riverside Shakespeare, 1974] has done much to restore a sense of proportion by quoting some of the punishments for termagent wives which really were practised in Shakespeare's day. Petruchio comes across, she says,

far less as an aggressive male out to bully a refractory wife into total submission, than he does as a man who genuinely prizes Katherina, and, by exploiting an age-old and basic antagonism between the sexes, manoeuvres her into an understanding of his nature and also her own.

Ralph Berry reads the play rather as a Berneian exercise in the Games People Play, whereby Kate learns the rules of Petruchio's marriage game, which she plays hyperbolically and with ironic amusement. 'This is a husband-wife team that has settled to its own satisfaction, the rules of its games, and now preaches them unctuously to friends.' [See Berry's excerpt in the section on Games and Role-Playing below.] In our own day, the wheel, as is the way with wheels, has come full circle and the redoubtable feminist, Ms Germaine Greer, has found the relationship of Kate and Petruchio preferable to the subservient docility of that sexist projection, the goody-goody Bianca [in The Female Eunuch, 1970].

With all this fighting of the good fight behind us, we may approach the play with the unencumbered enjoyment it invites. As Michael West has excellently argued [in an article in Shakespeare Studies, 1974], 'criticism has generally misconstrued the issue of the play as women's rights, whereas what the audience delightedly responds to are sexual rites'. Nothing is more stimulating to the imagination than the tension of sexual conflict and sexual anticipation. Verbal smashing and stripping, verbal teasing and provoking and seducing are as exciting to the witnessing audience as to the characters enacting these moves. It is easy to see why The Shrew has...

(The entire section is 43,301 words.)