The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Taming of the Shrew

The relationship between Katherina and Petruchio and the related themes of male domination and female submission have been a major focus of critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew in the second half of the twentieth century. Commentators on the play discuss a variety of critical issues, including its genre, its emphasis on role-playing and on the interplay of illusion and reality, and its relationship to its Elizabethan social and political context. In all of these discussions, however, the play's treatment of the conventions of male and female behavior and of the interrelated issues of gender, sexuality, and power tend to figure prominently.

Until well into the nineteenth century, audiences and critics appear to have accepted the play's shrew-taming premise at face value. In fact, during this period the play was presented primarily in heavily adapted versions that frequently accentuated the element of violence in Petruchio's treatment of Katherina. The most successful of these, David Garrick's Catherine and Petruchio (1754), enjoyed immense popularity into the mid-1800s, when it began to be supplanted by revivals of the original play. By the end of the century, however, critics were beginning to show an element of discomfort with the relationship between Petruchio and Katherina. George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1897, described the last scene of the play as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility," and found the concept of male domination implicit in the wager and in Katherina's final speech so offensive that no man "with any decency of feeling" could watch the scene "in the company of a woman without feeling extremely ashamed."

A desire to reconcile the playwright's reputation and the unacceptability of his play's central premise seems to underlie much of its subsequent criticism. In the 1950s, critics such as Nevill Coghill, Harold C. Goddard, and Margaret Webster argued that Shakespeare's rendition of the shrew-taming concept, and particularly Katherina's closing speech, should be read ironically. According to this view, Katherina's submission to Petruchio is not to be taken seriously; the audience is meant to perceive that she will dominate the marriage by allowing Petruchio an outward show of mastery. This analysis was countered by the views of critics such as George Ian Duthie (1951), who saw The Taming of the Shrew as confirming the Elizabethan view that a husband stands in relation to his wife as a king to his subjects. Several critics in the late 1950s and the 1960s emphasized the "gentleness" of Petruchio's behavior in comparison to the brutality displayed in earlier "shrew-taming" plays. Writing in 1958, Muriel Bradbrook claimed that Katherina was the first character in the tradition to be utterly transformed, rather than beaten or lectured into submission. In a highly influential reading that focused on the theme of illusion and reality, Cecil B. Seronsy (1963) suggested that Petruchio draws Katherina into enthusiastic acceptance of the role of obedient wife by "supposing" the existence in her of the qualities he desires and gradually assimilating her to the image he has willed.

Critics continue to differ in their opinions as to whether The Taming of the Shrew ultimately confirms, undermines, or merely renders more palatable the conventions of male dominance and female submission. In an article published in 1974, Margaret Loftus Ranald claimed that Shakespeare's use of imagery drawn from falconry portrays an "atypical" Elizabethan model of matrimony based on "mutuality, trust, and love." Five years later, Marianne L. Novy suggested that by presenting conventional gender roles as a game, Petruchio makes it possible for Katherina to participate with him in developing a mutually satisfying accommodation to the rules of the patriarchal order. David Farley-Hills (1981) saw Shakespeare as engaged in the play in a characteristic investigation of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in human behavior....

(The entire section is 90,647 words.)