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. In his view, these contradictions are never resolved: "[I]nstead we have simply a poised presentation of the contradictions which leaves the comic tensions resolved in the purely comic relief of laughter." Richard A. Burt, however, argued in 1984 that despite its exploration of the contradictions inherent in social norms, the play ultimately reinforces the conventions of male domination and female submission by showing that female rebellion can be managed and contained through a strategy of coercion disguised as romantic love.
Several commentators, on the other hand, have suggested that through its prominent metadramatic elements the play ultimately subverts conventional social and gender roles. Karen Newman (1986) argued that by continually drawing parallels between the theatrical role-playing of the stage and the real-life role-playing of social superiors and inferiors and of dominant husbands and obedient wives, the play reveals that these real-life roles are not inherent in the nature of the individuals who play them, but rather are imposed by social and cultural constraints. In making a similar argument about the impact of the play, both Michael Shapiro and Juliet Dusinberre (1993) focused on the Elizabethan practice of using boy actors in female roles. By frequently calling attention to this practice, both critics argued, the play underlines the artificiality of conventionally "feminine" behavior. Some critics, however, continue to reject an ironic reading of Petruchio's subduing of Katherina. In a 1988 article, for instance, Peter Berek maintained that The Shrew is inherently sexist in its assumptions, although he also suggested that Shakespeare's choice of farce as a genre reflects the playwright's awareness of the tensions inherent in a patriarchal system and his attempt to dissipate some of those tensions on stage.
Finally, a number of critics, particularly since 1980, have investigated the relationship between the play and its Elizabethan social, economic, and cultural context. In a 1983 essay, Marion D. Perret analyzed the actions of Katherina and Petruchio in terms of Elizabethan "conduct books" that defined the proper relationship and the respective duties of husbands and wives. In 1985, Carol Heffernan examined the play's critique of middle-class values, particularly as they are reflected in attitudes towards courtship and marriage. Margaret Downs-Gamble (1993) looked at similarities between Petruchio's "wife-taming" techniques and the educational methods endorsed by Renaissance humanism, while Linda Boose (1994) saw in the play's ambivalent portrayal of social and sexual norms a reflection of the period's preoccupation with threats to conventional order and its anxieties about socioeconomic change and class conflict.