Historical Criticism of The Taming of the Shrew - Essay

William Shakespeare

Overviews of Taming of the Shrew

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 always been a stage success, and so far from this being a point to be apologized for it should be seen as exhibiting Shakespeare's early command of farce as the radical of comic action, a mastery temporarily lost as he struggled to absorb more rarefied material in The Two Gentlemen and only later recovered. The mode, however, of the sexual battle in The Shrew is devious and indirect and reflects a remarkably subtle psychology. Petruchio neither beats his Kate nor rapes her - two 'primitive and brutal' methods of taming termagant wives, but neither is his unusual courtship of his refractory bride simply an exhibition of cock-of-the-walk male dominance to which in the end Katherina is forced to submit. Michael West's emphasis upon wooing dances and the folklore of sexual conquest is salutory, but Petruchio's conquest of Kate is far from merely a 'kind of mating dance with appropriate struggling and biceps flexing'. Nor is she simply 'a healthy female animal who wants a male strong enough to protect her, deflower her, and sire vigorous offspring'.

Only a very clever, very discerning man could bring off a psychodrama so instructive, liberating and therapeutic as Petruchio's, on a honeymoon as sexless (as well as dinnerless) as could well be imagined. Not by sex is sex conquered, nor for that matter by the witholding of sex, though the play's tension spans these poles. Christopher Sly, one recalls, is also constrained to forgo his creature comforts, a stoic malgré lui [French: in spite of himself], and thereby a foil and foreshadower of the self-possessed Petruchio.

In the Induction, the page Bartholomew plays his part as Lady Sly to such effect that Sly pauses only to determine whether to call the lovely lady 'Al'ce madam, or Joan madam?' (Ind.ii.110) or plain 'madam wife' before demanding 'Madam, undress you, and come now to bed' (Ind.ii.117). Bartholomew must think fast, of course, and does: '[I] should yet absent me from your bed', he says, lest '[you] incur your former malady', and hopes that 'this reason stands for my excuse' (Ind.ii. 124). Sly clearly has his own problems: 'Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long. But I would be loath to fall into my dreams again. I will therefore tarry in despite of the flesh and the blood' (Ind.ii.125-8). But Christopher Sly's 'former malady' is, of course, an imposed delusion: it is not as an amnesic lord that he is himself but as drunken tinker. Katherina's, we will finally learn to perceive, was self-imposed, and requires the therapies of comedy - 'which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life' - not the tumbling tricks of a 'Christmas gambold' for its cure. This lower level functions as foil to the higher yardstick and guarantor of the latter's reality.

The play's formal telos [Greek: ultimate end] is to supply that which is manifestly lacking: a husband for the wild, intractable and shrewish daughter of Baptista. But how shall Katherina herself not perceive that this husband is sought in order to enable her younger sister to be happily married to one of her numerous suitors? The situation of inflamed and inflammatory sibling rivalry which the good signor Baptista has allowed to develop between these daughters of his is suggested with deft economy. Her very first words:

I pray you, sir, is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?
(I. i. 57-8)

speak hurt indignity, an exacerbated pride. Her response when Baptista fondles and cossets the martyred Bianca:

A pretty peat! it is best
Put finger in the eye, and she knew why.
(I. i. 78-9)

indicates her opinion that if Bianca is long suffering she is also extracting the maximum benefit and enjoyment from that state. Nothing that Baptista says or does but will be snatched up and interpreted disadvantageously by this irascible sensitivity:

Why, and I trust I may go too, may I not? What, shall I be appointed hours, as though (belike) I knew not what to take and what to leave? Ha!
(I. i. 102-4)

These first glimpses already invite us to infer some reason for the bad-tempered, headstrong, domestic tyranny Kate exercises, but when we find her beating her cowering sister, screaming at her for confidences about which of her suitors she most fancies, and turning on her father with

What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I
She is your treasure, she must have a
I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day,
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.
Talk not to me, I will go sit and weep,
Till I can find occasion of revenge.
(II. i. 31-6)

we surely do not require inordinate discernment to understand what ails Katherina Minola. It is a marvellous touch that the pious Bianca, defending herself from the wildcat elder sister (with no suitor), says:

Or what you will command me will I do
So well I know my duty to my elders.
(II. i. 6-7)

Bianca, it may be supposed, is not the only younger sister who has got her face scratched for a remark like that.

All of Padua, we are given to understand, is taken up with the problem of finding someone to take his devilish daughter off Baptista's hands, leaving the field free for the suitors of the heavenly Bianca. And this is precisely a trap in which Kate is caught. She has become nothing but an obstacle or a means to her sister's advancement. Even the husband they seek for her is in reality for the sister's sake, not hers. When she says: 'I will never marry' it is surely because she believes no 'real' husband of her own, who loves her for herself, whom she can trust, is possible. How indeed could it be otherwise since patently and manifestly no one does love her? Because (or therefore) she is not lovable. And the more unlovable she is the more she proves her point. Katherina of Acts I and II is a masterly and familiar portrait. No one about her can do right in her eyes, so great is her envy and suspicion. No one can penetrate her defences, so great her need for assurance. So determined is she to make herself invulnerable that she makes herself insufferable, and finds in insufferability her one defence. This is a 'knot of errors' of formidable proportions and will require no less than Petruchio's shock tactics for its undoing.

The undoing begins with the arrival of Petruchio, to wive it wealthily in Padua. No doubts are entertained in Padua about the benefits of marriage where money is, but it will be noted that no one is banking on a rich marriage to save him from the bankruptcy courts. All the suitors are wealthy; Lucentio, potentially at least. The contrast that Shakespeare sets up between Petruchio and Lucentio is an interesting ironic inversion of that obtaining in the Terentian tradition. In Terence the second (liaison) plot entailed tricky stratagems for acquiring money in order to buy (and keep) the slave girl. The main (marriage) plot on the other hand hinged upon the fortunate discovery of a true identity, which meant both legitimizing the affair and acquiring the dowry. Here, in the case of Bianca and Lucentio the mercenary mechanics of match-making are masked by Petrarchan ardours on Lucentio's part (or Hortensio's, until the appearance of the widow):

Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,

... let me be a slave, t' achieve that maid
Whose sudden sight hath thrall'd my wounded eye.
(I. i. 155; 219-20)

and by angelic docility on Bianca's part; while Petruchio's affairs are deromanticized by the unabashed, unmasked worldliness of his motivation:

I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
(I. ii. 75-6)

and the formidable temper of Kate.

To Petruchio's incontinent and precipitate request to draw up the 'covenant' between them, Baptista demurs:

Ay, when the special thing is well obtain'd,
That is, her love; for that is all in all.
(II. i. 128-9)

and the reply is unequivocal:

Why, that is nothing; for I tell you, father,
I am as peremptory as she proud-minded;
And where two raging fires meet together,
They do consume the thing that feeds their
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all;
So I to her, and so she yields to me,
For I am rough, and woo not like a babe.
(II. i. 130-7)

And again: 'For I will board her, though she chide as loud / As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack' (I. ii. 95-6). Final recognitions will reverse these evaluations: the nakedly mercenary relationship will prove itself productive of affection and of spirit as well as sheer animal spirits; the romantic will prove hollow, its Petrarchanism a mere mask.

In The Shrew, Shakespeare's characteristic handling of multiple levels is already to be discerned. The main protagonists are the agents of the higher recognitions, the middle groups function as screens on which are projected distorted mirror images of the main couples - images in a concave mirror; while the lower orders ridicule the middle by the parody of imitation, and act as foils for the higher by providing a measure of qualitative difference.

Though The Shrew fails to integrate Christopher Sly satisfactorily and indeed abandons him altogether after Act I, such a function for him, as I have already indicated, is adumbrated. Shakespeare, it seems, felt more comfortable with the playlet-within-the-play of Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream for his clowns, or with the parenthetic internal comment of a cunning and a foolish servant combination like Grumio/Tranio or Launce/Speed than with the clown-frame, to which he does not return. But the flurry of disguisings and contrivings, 'supposes' and role-playings in Baptista's middle-class household, resolved finally by nothing more complex than natural selection and substantial bank balances, do set off admirably the subtler, more complex and interiorized transformations of the Petruchio-Katherina relationship.

Petruchio's first speech in reply to Katherina's haughty insistence on her full name, is richly expressive:

You lie, in faith, for you are call'd plain
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation -
Hearing thy mildness prais'd in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am mov'd to woo thee for my wife.
(II. i. 185-94)

Ironic, mocking, amused and appreciative, it invites us to infer a certain relief, to say the least. Though he has stoutly affirmed his priorities:

Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrowd
As Socrates' Xantippe, or a worse . . .

I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.
(I. ii. 69-71; 75-6)

the spirited, bonny dark lass Baptista's terrible daughter turns out to be cannot but cause him a lift of the heart. She, for her part, does not of course respond immediately to his good-humoured teasing, but we may surely assume a certain vibration to be caused by this note of a tenderness which her obsessive fear of not finding has consistently put out of court. But she has built up sturdy bastions and will certainly not imitate her conciliatory sister. Combat is her chosen defence, and that these two are worthy opponents the set of wit which follows shows. Then comes the cut and thrust of the clash between her proud-mindedness and his peremptoriness. She misses no ploy, is outrageously provocative and brazenly impolite, verbally and even physically violent. He trips her up with a bawdy pun, she dares him to return a slapped face, and it is by no means certain to anyone that he will not. His strategy of mock denial:

'Twas told me you were rough and coy and
And now I find report a very liar;
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing
courteous . . .
(II. i. 243-5)

contains an infuriating sting in its tail:

But slow in speech, yet sweet as spring-time flowers.
(II. i. 246)

so that she is criticized for being what she most prides herself on not being, and consoled by being told she is what she most despises. Again:

Why does the world report that Kate doth
O sland'rous world!
Kate like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue
As hazel nuts, and sweeter than the kernels.
O, let me see thee walk.
Thou dost not halt.
(II. i. 252-6)

And poor Kate must be beholden to him for patronizing defence against the alleged detractions of a despised world, and finds herself judiciously examined for faults much as if she were a thoroughbred mare at a fair. It is no wonder that in reply to his

Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world,
That talk'd of her, have talk'd amiss of her.
If she be curst, it is for policy,
For she's not froward, but modest as the
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn;
For patience she will prove a second Grissel,
And Roman Lucrece for her chastity;
And to conclude, we have 'greed so well
That upon Sunday is the wedding-day.
(II. i. 290-8)

she can only splutter 'I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first'; a response which is immediately interpreted by Petruchio, for the benefit of the spectators, as a secret bargain between lovers:

'Tis bargain'd 'twixt us twain, being alone,
That she shall still be curst in company.
I tell you 'tis incredible to believe
How much she loves me. O, the kindest
She hung about my neck, and kiss on kiss
She vied so fast, protesting oath on oath,
That in a twink she won me to her love.
O, you are novices! 'tis a world to see
How tame, when men and women are alone,
A meacock wretch can make the curstest
(II. i. 304-13)

Round one thus ends indeed with 'we will be married a'Sunday'.

Sunday, however, brings not the marriage that has been prepared for in the Minola household, but a mummer's carnival. Petruchio arrives inordinately late, and in motley. Of the uproar he produces in the church we hear from Gremio, in a lively description containing the shape of things to come:

Tut, she's a lamb, a dove, a fool to him!
I'll tell you, Sir Lucentio: when the priest
Should ask if Katherine should be his wife,
'Ay, by gogs-wouns,' quoth he, and swore so
That all amaz'd the priest let fall the book,
And as he stoop'd again to take it up,
This mad-brain'd bridegroom took him such
a cuff
That down fell priest and book, and book
and priest.
'Now take them up,' quoth he, 'if any list.'
Tranio What said the wench when he rose
Gremio Trembled and shook; for why, he
stamp'd and swore
As if the vicar meant to cozen him.
But after many ceremonies done,
He calls for wine. 'A health!' quoth he, as if
He had been aboard, carousing to his mates
After a storm, quaff'd off the muscadel,
And threw the sops all in the sexton's face . . .

This done, he took the bride about the neck,
And kiss'd her lips with such a clamorous
That at the parting all the church did echo, (III. ii. 157-73; 177-9)

All of this is prologue to the first open clash of wills between these fiery newly-weds. He will instantly away, she 'will not be gone till I please myself':

The door is open, sir, there lies your way;
You may be jogging whiles your boots are green.
(III. ii. 210-11)

Father, be quiet, he shall stay my leisure.

Gentlemen, forward to the bridal dinner.
I see a woman may be made a fool,
If she had not a spirit to resist.
(III. ii. 217; 219-21)

This is Petruchio's cue:

They shall go forward, Kate, at thy
command. Obey the bride, you that attend on her.
But for my bonny Kate, she must with me.
Nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor
I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing;
And here she stands, touch her whoever
I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in...

(The entire section is 8951 words.)

Gender Roles in Taming of the Shrew

Since Katherina's shrewish behavior constitutes the central problem of the play, it is not surprising that most critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew deals to some extent with its vision of the relative roles of men and women. Until well into the nineteenth century, audiences and critics alike seem to have accepted at face value what appears to be the play's central assumption about gender roles: that male dominance and female submission constitute the right and natural relationship between the sexes. In this context, Petruchio's "taming" of Katherina was generally seen as innocent fun. By the end of the century, however, critics were beginning to show an element of discomfort with the relationship between Petruchio...

(The entire section is 10923 words.)

Appearance versus Reality in Taming of the Shrew

Contradictions between appearance and reality constitute a central issue in The Taming of the Shrew and figure in many discussions of the play's other themes and of the development of its characters. In 1963, Cecil C. Seronsy, in an essay excerpted below, asserted that its structural unity derives from the playwright's ingenious development of the theme of "supposes." Petruchio, the critic contended, succeeds in transforming Katherina by "supposing" that her appearance of shrewishness does not represent her "real" nature. Seronsy links this theme of transformation in the main plot to the string of deceptions in the subplot and the failure of the other bridegrooms to effect similar transformations in their brides. Four...

(The entire section is 6742 words.)

Games and Role-Playing

Critics have long noted the play's emphasis on role-playing; in 1839, for instance, Hermann Ulrici asserted that both the Induction and the main action of The Shrew dramatize the principle that people should accept the roles in life "which nature has assigned" them. More recently, Charles Brooks (1960) suggested that Katherina learns to play the role of the obedient wife not only as a way to ensure domestic harmony but also as a means by which she and Petruchio can amuse themselves at the expense of others. Richard Henze, in a 1970 article excerpted below, interpreted The Shrew as "a dramatic exploration of the nature of role playing in comedy and in life." Under Petruchio's expert direction, the critic argued,...

(The entire section is 3344 words.)

Imagery in Taming of the Shrew

The prevalence of animal imagery in The Taming of the Shrew, particularly imagery having to do with falconry and hunting, has been interpreted in various ways. Margaret Loftus Ranald examines Shakespeare's use of falconry images, while Joan Hartwig evaluates the play's many references to horses. In particular, the two critics focus on ways in which the relationship between Katherina and Petruchio is likened to that between a master and his hawk or his horse. While both writers concede that these images suggest a desire on the part of Petruchio for absolute control over his wife, they go on to argue that these images are used in the play to dramatize the desirability of partnership and cooperation in marriage....

(The entire section is 5712 words.)


Many different interpretations of Katherina's character have been put forward on stage and by the critics. An account of the various stage interpretations of her character can be found in the excerpt by Ann Thompson in the OVERVIEWS section.

One popular view sees Katherina as a miserable and maladjusted woman at the beginning of the play who by its end has been transformed into a happy wife who has learned to accept joyfully her appointed role in society. Many twentieth-century critics, including Harold Goddard> as well as Ruth Nevo and H. J. Oliver (in essays excerpted in the OVERVIEWS section), have suggested that Shakespeare provides psychological insight into the reasons for...

(The entire section is 5518 words.)


A key question in interpreting The Taming of the Shrew is whether Shakespeare presents Petruchio as an admirable character or as an offensive one. Closely related is the matter of his motives for wanting to marry Katherina and his goals in "taming" her. Productions of the play have differed widely in their answers to these questions, as have the critics.

Many writers point to Petruchio's energy, imagination, and firmness of purpose as qualities that make him an attractive character. Others, such as Cecil C. Seronsy (in the section on APPEARANCE VS. REALITY), regard him as an exceptionally perceptive man able to recognize possibilities in Katherina's character that no one else in the play suspects. Most...

(The entire section is 2111 words.)