The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew. 'A Second Grissel'

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew. 'A Second Grissel'

Carolyn E. Brown, University of San Francisco

Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew within the genre of shrew literature, popular in medieval and Renaissance times. Shrews appeared in almost every form of literature—written and oral—in these periods. And Shakespeare composes his play subtly enough that it can be read as written within the tradition, and he makes Katherine "spirited" enough that she can be read as a shrew, who finds a wise and courageous man with the skills to mold her into a peaceful, loving wife. Numerous critics have compellingly interpreted the play and the protagonists in these terms.1 But some critics contend that Shakespeare put his own special touch on the tradition, modifying it in some important ways. These critics see Katherine, for example, as not quite fitting the mold of the traditional shrew. Most traditional shrew literature panders to misogynistic portrayals of women and clearly favors the male—typically a rational husband tormented by a loquacious, scolding, railing, irrationally violent, tricky woman. Shakespeare seems to have done something different with Katherine, who does not embody these characteristics. She has been shown to be too silent, too sympathetic, too tortured, too compliant to Petruchio's "taming strategies" to be a typical shrew. Camille Wells Slights, for example, notes that "Shakespeare's Kate—probably the most famous shrew of all—seems to elude the categories of literary history." Charles Brooks calls Katherine a "romantic shrew" and claims that Shakespeare humanizes his heroine. Robert Ornstein notes that Katherine is "more sensitive and tormented" and "more sympathetic and more psychologically complex than the [patently shrewish] heroine of The Taming of a Shrew"—either a bad quarto of Shakespeare's play, a source play, or a play derived from the same source that Shakespeare used.2 Critics have argued, in fact, that Katherine is not a shrew at all and that her seeming shrewishness is only a defense mechanism against the hurt inflicted on her by a misogynistic world.3

Shakespeare has also been read as having conceived Petruchio in terms different from those of the traditional shrew tamer: a patient man who usually wants a loving, mutually nurturing relationship with his spouse but who is forced to resort to violent measures in order to counteract the uncontrollable, destructive violence of his shrewish wife. In many ways, Shakespeare makes his male protagonist more problematic. At times Petruchio behaves like a bully and a brute, and his tactics with Katherine can be read as gratuitously severe and prolonged tormenting of her. Some critics express reservations about him. For example, George Bernard Shaw condemns Petruchio for his "domineering cruelty." Mark Van Doren argues that we must "confess" that Petruchio is "torturing" Katherine during his "taming" of her. J. Dennis Huston derides Petruchio's "courtship" of Katherine as "nothing less than psychological rape" and suggests that Petruchio "touches upon the 'low,' the bestial, in man's nature." Robert Ornstein argues that "Shakespeare's version of the wife-tamer is both coarser and less attractive as a dramatic figure than his counterpart in The Taming of a Shrew." And Jeanne Addison Roberts claims that "there have been some overtones of the monster in Petruchio right from the start" of the play and that "Kate's journey with him to his country house is for her a descent into hell."4 The reading of the play that I offer argues that these differences in the portrayal of the protagonists result from Shakespeare's modifying the shrew tradition in order to merge it with another equally dominant genre of the period—the story of Patient Griselda. Certainly the image is contained within the play itself when Petruchio states that everyone has "talk'd amiss" of Katherine, for she is not a shrew but "for [her] patience she will prove a second Grissel" (II.i.284, 288).5

(The entire section is 13,311 words.)