illustration of Kate and Petruchio standing and staring at one another

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

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Barbara Freedman (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Taming Difference and The Taming of the Shrew: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Theater,” in Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 114-53.

[In the following excerpt, Freedman argues that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is a challenge to critics and audiences, contending that it is a “labyrinth” that does not easily lend itself to interpretation.]

This problem of dealing with difference without constituting an opposition may just be what feminism is all about (might even be what psychoanalysis is all about). Difference produces great anxiety. Polarization, which is a theatrical representation of difference, tames and binds that anxiety. The classic example is sexual difference which is represented as a polar opposition (active-passive, energy-matter—all polar oppositions share the trait of taming the anxiety that specific differences provoke).

—Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis


Jane Gallop correctly assesses the shared goals of feminism and psychoanalysis in the postmodernist enterprise: both are predicated upon subverting the structuration of difference as opposition.1 Structuralism and semiotics, the twin harbingers and now culprits of postmodern theory, process experiences into polarities that offer an illusion of alternatives: nature/culture, passive/active, male/female, conscious/unconscious. Postmodern theorists explore how these binarisms are ideologically coercive systems that privilege and procure one term at the expense of the other and so function to repress a larger range of differences. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet explain what is at stake: “It is false [to say that] the binary machine only exists for reasons of convenience. It is said that ‘base two’ is the easiest. But in reality the binary machine is an important piece of the apparatuses of power.”2

Yet in seeking to escape binarisms, are we not also trapped within binarisms? How to intervene in the cultural reproduction of difference without being entangled in it? Any group previously defined by exclusion from and oppression by a social order faces the question of how to redefine itself without destroying itself. Should it celebrate the scorned values with which it has been identified, adopt the values of the prevailing order, or challenge an oppressive social structure with a more inclusive sense of difference? Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous would have feminists reverse the negative value assigned to woman and would locate her specificity in a multileveled libidinal energy shaped by female bodily drives that find their way into the style of feminist writings.3 But as Ann Rosalind Jones points out, celebrations of the feminine are problematic to the extent that they assume an essential feminine to be celebrated; as a result, “theories of féminité remain fixated within the metaphysical and psychoanalytic frameworks they attempt to dislodge.”4 Monique Wittig also blames the universalizing tendencies of néofeminité for fetishizing difference and so keeping us locked in an oppositional gender structure. But Wittig demands that we “dissociate ‘women’ (the class within which we fight) and ‘woman,’ the myth. For ‘woman’ … is only an imaginary formation, while ‘women’ is the product of a social relationship,” and so a group capable of effecting change.5

Other critics employ deconstructive strategies to define feminism in terms of an opposition to oppositions. Julia Kristeva argues that “the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics.”6 In its place, she offers a model of pulsion between the semiotic (preoedipal, prelinguistic energy and desire) and the symbolic (made possible by the repression of the semiotic). To work from the semiotic is to adopt “a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning, in the existing...

(This entire section contains 15028 words.)

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state of society.” It is to work “on the side of the explosion of social codes: with revolutionary moments.”7 Like Kristeva, Shoshana Felman defines femininity as a “real otherness … [which] is uncanny in that it is not the opposite of masculinity but that which subverts the very opposition of masculinity and femininity.”8 The answer provided by avant-garde feminism, then, is that woman does not take (a) place but, rather, re-visions positionality itself.9 In what sense does a feminism so defined differ from deconstruction, which both acknowledges the symbolic and disrupts it from within, subverting positionality on a continuous basis? What is a position that denies its position?

Feminists who employ Lacanian methodology in turn find themselves framed by a discourse of castration and phallic signifiers which they may well not seek to reproduce. Whereas Lacan employs the term phallus to refer to sexual identity as fraudulent, he champions an equally implacable place for a theory of displacement couched in the terms of a phallocentric discourse. Gallop rightly acknowledges that “the penis is what men have and women do not; the phallus is the attribute of power which neither men nor women have. But as long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused … with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not. And as long as psychoanalysts maintain the separability of ‘phallus’ from ‘penis,’ they can hold on to their ‘phallus’ in the belief that their discourse has no relation to sexual inequality, no relation to politics.”10 Teresa de Lauretis identifies the frame here, complaining that “while psychoanalysis recognizes the inherent bisexuality of the subject, for whom femininity and masculinity are not qualities or attributes but positions in the symbolic processes of (self)-representation, psychoanalysis is itself caught up in ‘the ideological assignation of discourse,’ the structures of representation, narrative, vision, and meaning it seeks to analyze, reveal, or bring to light.”11

Given the extent of feminist rethinkings of narrative and cinema, an exploration of how theater figures difference would seem long overdue.12 Laura Mulvey and Teresa de Lauretis have persuasively argued that the pleasure of traditional Western cinematic narratives is predicated upon coercive identifications with a position of male antagonism toward women.13 Since the male is traditionally envisioned as the bearer of the gaze and the woman as the fetishized object of the gaze, the staging of any spectacle is always already a matter of sexual difference. Since classical theater incorporates not only spectacle but narrative—so that the male is represented as an agent of change, the female as the passive object to be actively transformed by him—its action would also appear to reveal the work of gender ideology. Not only pleasure but plot is derived from male fantasies that depend on the scopic and narrative exploitation of woman. She is the linchpin in the system: her losses propel the relay of looks and her sins move the plot forward. If traditional Western theater as well as cinema relies on the fetishized spectacle of woman and the narrative of her domination and punishment, at stake is the potential of feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and theater to reflect and effect change—to insert a difference in our construction of the subject and so to make a difference.

The question that arises when we return to Gallop's statement is why she refers to polarization as “a theatrical representation of difference.” Whereas the relationship of ideology and genre is hardly Gallop's subject, the identification of theater with a defensive, ideologically complicit ordering of difference constitutes a serious challenge to those for whom theater offers a model of epistemological inquiry. Is theater the guarantor of polarities—part and parcel of the great semiological myth of the versus—or, as Roland Barthes contends, designed to subvert this myth?14 Is deconstruction the enemy of theater or its double? Are deconstructive techniques that function to unsteady such rigid oppositions theatrical? Are feminism and psychoanalysis theatrical when they stage these oppositions or when they subvert them?


Given its overtly misogynistic subject matter, its narrative of the domination and punishment of woman, its specular fascination with the image of woman, The Taming of the Shrew would seem to confirm rather than to challenge the feminist critique of theater. Yet what fascinates me about the work is its marked resistance to enclosure; whereas the play exhibits all the major strategies of gender ideology I have described, it also problematizes feminist readings. In its concern with avoiding entrapment, in its use of theatricality to subvert a spectator consciousness, The Taming of the Shrew displaces any stable relation of the spectator to the play.

The Taming of the Shrew appears to tame the critic more than the shrew. Its ability to contain us is vividly evidenced both in its onstage containment of an audience and in its success in engaging critics in debate. Whether Kate is a shrew or merely a misunderstood young woman, whether Petruchio is a bully or a philosopher, whether the play upholds or undermines degree, is farce or philosophical comedy, should be staged with or without its Induction—all are matters of heated debate in Shakespearean scholarship. For those critics who take Kate's final speech and Petruchio's bullying at face value, the characters are rather stereotypical, the moral is clearly in favor of male supremacy, and the genre is closer to farce.15 Others read the characters as more realistic, the genre as closer to comedy, and the argument as an ironic, if veiled, attack on a doctrine of male superiority.16 Whether they write about plot, characters, argument, genre, or structure, critics routinely adopt one of two diametrically opposed positions on this play.

Perhaps the most famous critical controversy regards the argument or moral of the play. For most critics, The Taming of the Shrew upholds faith in an intrinsic hierarchical order, or great chain of being, and simply must be read historically to be read correctly. For others, the play attacks this belief in degree by exposing social roles as theatrical rather than natural. Whereas there are many sly approaches to this controversy, there is no certain way out of it. If The Taming of the Shrew upholds an inherent hierarchical order, then why does Shakespeare end the play with Tranio still a servant? In Shakespeare's source play—Ariosto's Supposes—the same character (Dulypo) discovers his aristocratic birth, which “explains” why he could mimic his master so successfully. Why would Shakespeare delete this twist unless his purpose was to question “right supremacy”? And yet if this was indeed his intent, then why did he conclude the play with a speech in favor of an intrinsic hierarchical order?

Similar contradictions abound when we try to decipher Petruchio's character. Does he really prize riches above all—“I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.75-76)—or the philosophic mind—“For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich” (4.3.172)? Is he a chauvinist—“Marry, peace it bodes, and love, and quiet life, / An aweful rule, and right supremacy” (5.2.108-9)—or is he mocking Paduan marriage rituals—“She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, / … My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing” (3.2.230-32)? Is he simply a fool—“Why, give him gold enough, and marry him to a puppet or an aglet-baby. … Why, nothing comes amiss, so money comes withal” (1.2.78-82)—or is he a trickster figure—“I say it is the moon” (4.5.4)? If he is a strong master, why can’t he once get his servant Grumio to obey him? If he is only role playing and so mimicking Kate's tantrums, then why does he throw a tantrum in the streets with Grumio before he has even met Kate? Is he from the country or the city? Rich or poor? A gentleman or a self-made man?

Not only is the basic action of the play under suspicion (has a shrew been tamed?), but the characters are as well (is there a shrew; is there a tamer?), and these suspicions result in controversies over genre that have led critics to devalue the play. E. M. W. Tillyard summarizes the problem: “A Mark Van Doren finds the play quite satisfactory as a hearty farce, a Hardin Craig as a comedy where the farcical elements are remotely vestigial and need not trouble us. For myself, I can neither ignore nor reconcile the two elements and am forced to conclude that the play fails in so far as it misses such a reconciliation.”17 M. R. Ridley suggests that if the play were farce, “our subtler feelings would lie contentedly quiescent. … But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, cannot restrain his hand from making Petruchio more of a man, and Kate more of a woman, than from the artistic point of view was wise.”18 John Bean repeats this complaint, concluding that “this uneasy mixture of romance and farce suggests that Shakespeare's own sense of purpose is unclear, that he is discovering possibilities of one kind of comic structure while working within the demands of another.”19 In the new Oxford edition of the play, H. J. Oliver concurs; the result is “a young dramatist's attempt, not repeated, to mingle two genres that cannot be combined.” He concludes: “Shakespeare was already too good a dramatist for the material he was dramatizing: characterization and farce are, finally, incompatible.”20

The structure of the play is another source of controversy.21 Most performances excise the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew because the frame plot, featuring Sly as audience to a play, is never picked up at the conclusion. Scholars have offered a variety of explanations for this oddity: some argue that Shakespeare simply forgot about the frame plot, others that this part of the play was lost; some suggest that the actors in the frame plot reappear in the main plot; and still others hypothesize that Shakespeare revived these characters in a dance (jig) that concludes the play. Yet the problem remains unsolved, raising still more. When does The Taming of the Shrew begin? When does it end? And what does this labyrinthine structure tell us about beginnings and endings?

Faced with these problems, the honest critic may admit dissatisfaction, frustration, and confusion. Some may simply agree with Tillyard that “the last scene of the play with Kate's great speech on the subordination of wives readily accommodates itself to whatever notions we have acquired in the course of reading the play.”22 But that is no reason to presume, along with Bean, that “Shakespeare's own sense of purpose is unclear”—as if we knew Shakespeare's thoughts, or lack thereof. Rather than remain trapped within these arguments over characters, moral, and genre, we might accept that we can no more resolve them conclusively than we can decide whether Bellman or Silver was faster at the hunt. Of more concern is what we make of being put in situations where we cannot choose. What does the construction of this play tell us about our construction as subjects?

The Taming of the Shrew is a trap. Even those who proclaim the unlimited semiotic pleasure of the text must agree that this is not a pleasurable text. Like Grumio's menu, The Taming of the Shrew is a tempting but ultimately depriving text that forces us to choose between impossible alternatives. It is a world of choices and no choice, of ambivalence and deprivation, bisexuality and castration. Grumio's mock offering of mustard and beef is in this regard no different from Petruchio's games with the sun and the moon. The play tantalizes us with a variety of choices and then forces us to choose a limited subject position in a way that cannot help but frustrate. And no discovery of hidden thematic harmonies can change this experience.

Again and again we are confronted with an illusion of alternatives and forced to make a choice. When the Lord plots to reconstruct Sly's class identity, for example, he asks his servant whether Sly will accept the part. “Believe me, lord, I think he cannot choose” (Ind.1.42), replies the servant, who is in a woefully similar situation. When asked by Kate which suitor she fancies, Bianca replies—with hands literally tied—“Believe me, sister, of all the men alive / I never yet beheld that special face / Which I could fancy more than any other” (2.1.10-12). Can we choose the mustard? What critic would argue for the sun? Is Gremio preferable to Hortensio? Bianca to Kate? Tranio to Lucentio? Is there a “thirdborough” who can decide whether Sly or the Hostess, Petruchio or Grumio, Bianca or Kate was at fault? Not only can we not choose the correct reading of characters, plot, theme, argument, genre, and structure, but we cannot choose who is who, because everyone is “really” someone else. Yet as soon as we take on the task of acting in, viewing, or writing about this play, we are forced to make choices all the same.

For the reader or critic who is unprepared to have his or her critical tenets equated with folly, The Taming of the Shrew offers a maddeningly intransigent and contradictory experience. Rather than docilely submit to such traditional interpretive strategies as character analysis or clarification of moral stance, The Taming of the Shrew comments on their folly. It questions the hierarchy of meanings that we would impose upon it and initiates us into a world where the logic of paradox reigns. It foregrounds the impulse to dichotomize and so impose a logic of oppositional structures upon experience. And yet it does so through a paradoxical structure that both tantalizes us with a way of getting outside of these binarisms and yet denies its possibility.

The history of critical controversy over the true nature of the characters reveals the play's success in demonstrating the coalescence of theatrical role and social reality. The more we attempt to distinguish the “real” Kate and Petruchio from the roles they assume, the more we are trapped. Petruchio's stance of paradoxical self-reference calls to mind the paradox of Epimenides the Cretan, who announced: “All Cretans are liars.” If the statement is true, then it is also false. Since the character Petruchio tells us he is always playing roles, there is no single character who we can say plays these roles. The history of controversy over the play's refusal to retrieve the frame plot at its conclusion further evinces an interest in double-binding paradoxes. Since the frame plot with Sly and the Lord as audience to a play is not picked up, since both “plays” end at once, the characters of the frame plot are no longer outside of the play that they witness; the frame is subsumed by the vision. The numerous plays within plays redefine each enclosed play as a frame as well and emphasize the problem of separating frame from vision, play from reality, and character from role. Biondello brings the “old news” that Petruchio comes but comes not, since “A horse and a man / Is more than one, / And yet not many” (3.2.84-86). Grumio informs Petruchio that “the oats have eaten the horses” (3.2.205-6), and Tranio plots that “A child shall get a sire” (2.1.411). These jests further underline the play's interest in the paradox of the enclosed enclosing its frame.

The most inclusive reading of The Taming of the Shrew describes the play as a metadrama designed to confuse and later clarify the relation between social roles and theatricality.23 The only problem with this interpretation is that it denies the contradictions we actually experience in reading and watching the play. If the moral of the play is that we cannot escape theater, any reading that would stand outside of the play denies that the play refuses any stance outside of it. If we correlate play and paradox, we are still not clear of the problem, since a reading of the play as paradox must acknowledge the play of paradox at the level of its own discourse. As soon as we seek to resolve the contradictions in character by arguing that Petruchio is a wise fool who displays the paradox of character, we betray the felt experience of the play in which he is both a cruel authoritarian and a witty philosopher who infuriates and confuses. If we resolve the controversy over genre by suggesting that the play veers toward comedy to show a freedom over the mechanical or arbitrary roles of farce, we are faced with the task of staging a production that can reflect this paradox. If we are right about The Taming of the Shrew then we are wrong, and there is no easy way out of this dilemma.

We can find a visual analogy of this frame-up in any number of works by M. C. Escher, of which The Print Gallery may serve as an example. … To read the picture we may trace a path from the bottom right-hand corner or entrance into the print gallery, past the man near the entrance, and finally on to the young man on the far left who is examining a framed print of a harbor scene. Just as the windowpane of the gallery through which we see the young man frames him, so the print the young man beholds is constructed so as to escape the boundaries of its frame. In the upper right-hand corner of the picture, the print becomes the building in which the young man stands, and so the viewer is truly “lost” in the picture he beholds. The left side of the picture emphasizes the frame; the right side emphasizes how the framed material encloses its frame. The Print Gallery contains a viewer, already framed, and a framed print; it ultimately denies the boundary between the two, contains its viewer, and so reminds us that we are part of the picture we see. The Taming of the Shrew contains an audience, already dramatized onstage, and a framed play. By denying the boundary between the two, the play reminds us that we are part of the play we see and that we cannot escape it.

In its games with both characters and spectators The Taming of the Shrew enacts the problem of getting outside of the system in which one operates. It confuses ground and figure, frame and vision; it refuses to complete its stories, to decide its debates, to resolve its contradictions, to finish what it begins. The critic who would tame and trap the play finds her attempts frustrated and her role mocked. To interpret becomes equivalent with an attempt to dominate, to transform, to tame, to fix a shifting ludic surface with a single master perspective. This play, structured like a paradox, reminds us of the way in which paradox works so as to deny a frame of reference outside of its infinite regressions. The question remains: what does The Taming of the Shrew tell us about our construction as subjects?


One answer is provided by the essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in which Louis Althusser explains how the construction of the subject and its interpellation into an ideologically constrictive symbolic order are one and the same:

Ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most common everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!” Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed.” … Naturally, for the convenience and clarity of my little theoretical theatre I have had to present things in the form of a temporal succession. … But in reality these things happen without any succession. The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.24

One of the best examples of Althusser's argument is the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, where Sly is “hailed” and made a new man. But perhaps the best example is the way in which this play repeats in its games with its audiences the games it plays with Kate; both reenact the taming of the shrew, the uncomfortable introduction to the arbitrary and divisive subject positions of the symbolic which is considered socialization.

Critics who resist teaching The Taming of the Shrew explain that literary works are ideologically complicit discourses that actively construct their audiences: “Since each invocation of a code is also its reinforcement or reinscription, literature does more than transmit ideology: it actually creates it. … To invoke the conventional narrative resolutions … [is] to sanction them … to perpetuate them as the working myths of the culture.”25 Since The Taming of the Shrew offers a virtual manual of techniques devised to persuade women of the natural basis of culturally determined differences, an exploration of the work of gender ideology provides a useful class exercise. Rather than refuse to recognize sexist texts, we can subvert the relation of frame, gaze, and pleasure in the theater of a sexist culture by identifying these sites of misrecognition.

The history of criticism reminds us that the play has served as a vehicle for engendering gender. As a text that encourages controversy and divisiveness, The Taming of the Shrew forces us to take sides, and so to take our places on either side of the gender line. Most readers are familiar with the story Lacan tells of the engendering of the subject through language: a little boy and little girl are seated in a train facing both each other and the opposing sides of the station which they are fast approaching. “‘Look,’ says the brother, ‘we’re at Ladies!’ ‘Idiot!’ replies his sister, ‘Can’t you see we’re at Gentlemen.’ For these children,” Lacan concludes, “Ladies and Gentlemen will be henceforth two countries towards which each of their souls will strive on divergent wings, and between which a truce will be the more impossible since they are actually the same country and neither can compromise on its own superiority without detracting from the glory of the other.”26 Lacan maintains that language and sexual difference are intertwined in arbitrary gender identifications that (mis)direct our libidinal energies. To illustrate his argument Lacan draws two identical doors, writes the words “Ladies” and “Gentlemen” under them, and explains that the signifier does not “stand for” the thing but only makes sense in relationship to another signifier. Similarly, male and female, regardless of biological differences, are products of a linguistic signifying system, so that male is necessarily “not female” and female “not male.” Jacqueline Rose explains: “In Lacan's account, sexual identity operates as a law—it is something enjoined on the subject. For him, the fact that individuals must line up according to an opposition (having or not having the phallus) makes that clear.”27

Lacan's work on the splitting and so procuring of the subject in language led him to correlate the instability of sexual identity with the instability of ego identity and to see both as a function of the ordering fictions by means of which the ego as supplement is set into place. For Lacan, the assumption of a sexual identity is accompanied by the sacrifice of free libidinal energy necessitated by signification, which demands that we be one thing and not another. As identity demands the fiction of closure, so sexual identity requires a fiction which, however fostered by biology or in its service, is essentially linguistic, ideological, and fetishistic. A more telling illustration of Lacan's thesis can be discovered in the painting by Larry Rivers titled Parts of the Face. … For Rivers, as for Lacan, the problem is the representation of sexuality—the way in which libidinal energy is parceled up and channeled through socially appropriate bodily zones, the way in which we are inscribed and so caught in a linguistic order. Rose observes that we have “failed to see that the concept of the phallus in Freud's account of human sexuality was part of his awareness of the problematic, if not impossible, nature of sexual identity itself,” and as a result, we have “lost sight of Freud's sense that sexual difference is constructed at a price and that it involves subjection to a law which exceeds any natural or biological division. The concept of the phallus stands for that subjection, and for the way in which women are very precisely implicated in its process.”28 And yet most suspect here is the way in which any text about the problem of oppositional structures, including Lacan's, is inevitably caught up within them.

The Taming of the Shrew records a powerful myth in our society—one so prevalent in our culture that we hardly recognize it. The myth of the transformation of nature into culture through the incest taboo was celebrated by Claude Lévi-Strauss and in turn adopted by Lacan as the truth of the symbolic order. This myth privileges men over women, sanctions the exchange between men of their daughters and wives, and equates misogyny with civilization itself. “The prime role of culture is to ensure the group's existence as a group,” writes Lévi-Strauss, “and consequently, in this domain as in all others, to replace chance by organization. The prohibition of incest is a certain form, and even highly varied forms, of intervention. But it is intervention over and above anything else; even more exactly, it is the intervention.”29 As an exogamy rule, the incest taboo functions to establish a system of social relationships by replacing the intrafamilial marriage with interfamilial marriage. Yet given such an account, we might as well make up our own myth of difference.

Consider. Once, long ago, there was a shrew, a she-demon, a woman-who-frightened-men. She refused to submit to our laws of marriage; refused to be traded as her father ordered; and threatened to undo the very system of exchange by enjoying her sexuality freely. No marriages could take place until she was controlled, for by her actions the identity-conferring status of marriage in our tribe—the very basis of our systems of exchange and assignment of subject positions—was threatened. None of the men in the village could control her; she was called demon and witch, devil and whore. The natural order suffered as a consequence; the places at table and church stood empty; the harvest was spoiled. In time, her father went to a trickster figure and struck a bargain with him. As the trickster understood the law of no-difference and of difference, he agreed to undertake the taming of this she-man and so to restore difference to the society. The trickster ushered in a period of festive nondifference, and pandemonium ensued with the advent of his misrule. Sons refused to obey their fathers, servants refused to obey their masters—everyone enjoyed a change of place. The shrew felt the entire community to be mocking her, however, and, shamefaced, soon repented. From then on the couple symbolized the triumph of difference and of the sacred role of marriage in creating systems of exchange which assure identity and order.

Is this story so different from The Taming of the Shrew? Like this play, it offers a compendium of devices of gender ideology. It universalizes its sexism as natural and inevitable and parades the instance of female submission as the basis of civilization. It not only repeats the classic separation between woman as angel and as devil, fetishized object and castrating bitch, but also repeats the classic distinctions between woman as nature/man as culture, woman as object of the gaze/man as bearer of the gaze, woman as obstacle/man as hero who by mastering the dangerous otherness of nature brings about civilization. Finally, like The Taming of the Shrew, our story employs a trickster figure who appears to subvert a particular social order, and yet does so only to strengthen it. For example, Petruchio's mad actions reveal the folly of Paduan society; his reversal of the traditional categories of mad and sane, foolish and wise suggest his affinities with the trickster, jester, or wise fool. The Paduans call him “lunatic,” “madcap ruffian,” “madbrain rudesby,” “a frantic fool,” “a devil,” “a very fiend.” Kate suggests that he wear a coxcomb, Petruchio dresses himself in a clown's costume, and the play's folk sources confirm Petruchio's roots in the rustic clown.30 The influence of a festive carnival tradition on The Taming of the Shrew is evident in the play's inversion of the roles of master and servant through disguise, its reported mockery of religious authority at the wedding, its mockery of paternal authority at the conclusion, as well as its focus on paradox.31

Since the carnival tradition subverts only to restore difference in a given social order, it is simultaneously subversive and conservative. Similarly, The Taming of the Shrew both recognizes the work of gender ideology and seeks to justify it. Such contradictions are in fact typical of the genre of Renaissance humanist defenses in favor of extending women's rights, texts that have since become more paradoxical than originally intended. In the sixteenth century, the term paradox referred not only to apparently self-contradictory yet valid statements but to statements contrary to received opinion, as in Hamlet's “This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof” (3.1.113-14). Renaissance humanist defenses of woman were therefore doubly paradoxical, since they were both unconventional and, to some readers, inherently self-contradictory. Further, as Rosalie Colie points out, “most of them were truly paradoxical in that they both defended and did not defend their subject, incorporating elements from the long tradition of misogyny into their general arguments for the relative emancipation of women.”32 A prominent example is Erasmus's famous defense of women, A Merry Dialogue Declaring the Properties of Shrewd Shrews and Honest Wives, which advises us to employ the humanist strategy of firm persuasion rather than force in dealing with shrews.

Colie reminds us that paradoxes fail when the values they question are no longer widely held: “To deliver a paradoxical encomium, the rhetorician assumed certain values on the part of his audience, values which he would then proceed to question, to undermine, or to overthrow by means of his epideixis. Whether or not he believed in his argument is not in question: but his audience, representing ‘received opinion,’ had to believe in its dialectical opposite.”33 One of many paradoxes in The Taming of the Shrew is the advice that one may humanize a shrewish wife by treating her as if she were an object or animal. Of course, misogynistic farce had always suggested this strategy, following the assumption that a husband would be happy with an object or pet. In The Taming of the Shrew, however, this tactic is paradoxical since it is employed so that the wife may reject the role of object or pet and recognize the value of social roles instead. In her conscious agreement to play an arbitrary role, she will be fully “humanized.” Critics unfamiliar with misogynistic farce miss Shakespeare's parody of it to reach very different aims. The Taming of the Shrew disturbs not simply because it is sexist, then, but because its supposed correction of misogynistic practices renders its remaining misogyny all the more disturbing. The play's efforts to put socialization on display as comic drama and to break some mirrors of misrecognition merely highlight its blatant failure to break other mirrors.

To explore sexism in The Taming of the Shrew is to recognize that the relationship between ideology and cultural reality as transmitted through literature is never easy to analyze. Yet the mere existence of propagandistic literature, as Carolyn Lougee points out, implies “the reality of prohibited behavior which alone made the prescriptions necessary.”34 Like the misogynistic farces upon which it is modeled, The Taming of the Shrew blames and punishes woman. It merely offers new tactics of punishment and domination, replacing physical violence with double-binding mind games, deprivation of food and sleep, and emotional hypnosis. The replacement of violence by propaganda may indicate no more than increased artfulness in the manipulation of the oppressed. The replacement of shrew-taming farces by shrew-taming comedies is simply a more covert form of oppression. Precisely because The Taming of the Shrew appears less overtly sexist than misogynistic farces, it is all the more dangerous. As disturbing as Kate's taming is the way in which she is portrayed as happily tamed and actively spreading the practice of her indoctrination. The play renders woman into an apologist for the phallocentric system that oppresses her. It offers as a corrective to a blatantly diseased aristocratic society the scapegoating of woman as solution; the rebellious woman becomes the cause rather than the symptom of class struggle. Since comedies about the illness of society still masquerade as comedies about the illness of women, it appears that we have not yet escaped the scene of shrew taming.35

Shakespearean comedy typically deflects class problems onto the instance of the rebellious female whose punishment and correction constitute the narrative action. The Comedy of Errors concludes with the correction of Adriana, A Midsummer Night's Dream solves its problems by punishing Titania, and The Taming of the Shrew pretends to treat a failing aristocratic order by reconciling a rebellious female critic to its ways. That Kate has become the apologist for a misogynistic society that she vows to hold to certain standards of truth and decency cannot help but strike us as ridiculous. Petruchio has taught Kate sublimation: she exchanges one halter for another. She hates not men but less “masculine” men than Petruchio; hates not women but less “feminine” women than herself; hates not rules but those that contradict Petruchio's. She is still the naive opponent of hypocrisy, the unwitting pawn in a much larger game, the scapegoat for a failing social order. Petruchio will never “watch the night in storms, the day in cold” (5.2.150); Kate will never lift a finger except to wag it at her disobedient house servants—the future audiences to even lengthier speeches on duty. Petruchio will continue to show men how unmanly they are, Kate will reveal the women as unfeminine; both will continue to perform in games of one-upmanship. The two have become principles of differentiation—yet only in a theater. And as we watch their triumphant exit off to bed, we remember what a sterile gesture this is. We look back at the male actor playing Sly's wife. We remember that Kate is a character played by a man. We remember that we are in a theater, multiple theaters. And we begin to hope for another kind of theater, one that accepts difference without making it the obstacle to be defeated, tamed, or raped.


That we have to pay a price in entering any social order is not in question; that we must go back and repay the price that Kate pays, however, is. Like Shakespeare, Lacan recognizes gender roles as arbitrary but necessary and parades the specific price that women have paid under a patriarchal order as a symbol of that cost. What disturbs is not cost itself but the mistaken identification of a culturally specific cost with its universality and inevitability. Like Petruchio, Lacan is a trickster figure who undermines and yet proclaims his mastery. Like Petruchio, Lacan articulates the dilemma of breaking the mirror of ideology and yet exemplifies in his “corrected” misogyny his inability to stand outside of the system he would change. Both argue that woman does not exist except as a fantasy or theatrical construct and yet both seek to reify a cultural myth of the exchange of women as the basis of civilization.

Lacan's theory of the symbolic order is limited by the structural anthropology upon which it depends and by the early forms of object-relations theory that it was designed to subvert. Lacan equates a particular configuration of social power with the symbolic order, universalizes the oedipal law, and identifies the paternal metaphor as the privileged level of representation that must intervene between mother and child to bring “nature” to a state of “culture.” Lacanians respond to such complaints by explaining that the specific configurations of the symbolic are indeed open to change: “We must remember that the Symbolic here does not mean anything representative of a second hidden thing or essence,” Ellie Ragland-Sullivan cautions. “Rather, it refers to that order whose principal function is to mediate between the Imaginary order and the Real. The Symbolic order interprets, symbolizes, articulates, and universalizes both the experiential and the concrete which, paradoxically, it has already shaped contextually.”36 Yet Lacan's theory of the symbolic order was developed in the context of a specific historical period of intellectual thought, one heavily influenced by a highly sexist form of structural anthropology. After studying Lacan's reliance on Lévi-Strauss, Rose concludes that “Lacan's use of the symbolic” “is open to the same objections as Lévi-Strauss's account” since “these remarks … most critical of the order described … are in another sense complicit with that order and any argument constructed on their basis is likely to be circular.”37

Lacanian theorists answer that Lacan's phallocentric discourse intentionally reflects the problems he sought to portray. But the tricky question of intentionality is further complicated by Lacan's fondness for paradox. “In the psyche, there is nothing by which the subject may situate himself as a male or female being” asserts Lacan valiantly.38 The sentence is a marvelous example of the problems here: whereas it suggests the ways in which language directs biology and subverts the sexual drive into an identificatory one, it also repeats this strategy by interpellating the female reader as “he,” “him,” and “men.” At what level Lacan's awareness of such problems operates is impossible to discover. Juliet Flower MacCannell rightly warns us against the “tendency … to over-identify Lacan's analysis of the culture of the signifier … with his own stance on that culture.” She maintains that “just as the physician may be said to be apart from the disease s/he discovers, even if s/he has been constrained by it, Lacan's analysis of the systems formed by the signifier, metaphor, the phallus, stand apart from his own ‘system.’”39 But can it? Since the popular return to Freud owes as much to deconstruction as to Lacan, the acknowledgment that Lacan is implicated in that which he attacks need not detract from his insights. We now acknowledge, for example, that Freud repressed the idea of repression, and wished away threats to his theory of wish fulfillment. We admit that Freud refused to abandon the search for primal scenes which he elsewhere acknowledged exist only at the level of fantasied reconstruction. And we accept that Freud denied the bisexuality and gender instability he elsewhere theorizes with conviction. Why deny that Lacan is framed by what he describes?

“Taking the experience of psychoanalysis in its development over sixty years,” Lacan observes expansively, “it comes as no surprise to note that, whereas the first outcome of its origins was a conception of the castration complex based on paternal repression, it has progressively directed its interests towards the frustrations coming from the mother, not that such a distortion has shed any light on the complex.”40 Lacan charged early object-relations theory with denying the fundamental role of the unconscious, sexuality, and representation in psychoanalysis in favor of a new emphasis on the study of the quality of actual maternal care.41 To stress the importance of his intervention, Lacan introduced the name of the father as the third term that interrupts the asocial mother-infant dyad and brings to bear upon it the law of language and symbolic positions. And that intervention is indeed designed to reframe mother-infant relations as always already outside of language and representation. In Lacan's dramatization of psychoanalytic history, the son figure (Lacan) intervenes and rescues the dead father's authority (Freud) from the mother's tyranny (object-relations theory). Since gender ideology is obviously at work in Lacan's portrayal of the mothering function as asocial, we may conclude with Rose that “there is, therefore, no question of denying here that Lacan was implicated in the phallocentrism he described, just as his own utterance constantly rejoins the mastery which he sought to undermine.”42

Teresa de Lauretis rightly critiques Lacanian theory for the way in which its descriptive features all too easily become prescriptive. She complains that “in opposing the truth of the unconscious to the illusion of an always-already false consciousness, the general critical discourse based on Lacanian psychoanalysis subscribes too easily … to the territorial distinction between subjective and social modes of signification and the cold war that is its issue.” More concerned with misrecognition as sites for change, de Lauretis suggests we redirect attention to the dialectical relationship between the means by which signs are produced and the codes themselves, and so explore meaning as a cultural production “not only susceptible of ideological transformation, but materially based in historical change.”43 Insofar as Lacan's writings ignore the material and historical nature of social organization and social change, they betray a disturbing complacency toward structuralist and phallocentric versions of a transcendent law—whether in the form of the phallic signifier, the law of the father, or the law of the symbolic order.


In question here are the role theater has played in the development of psychoanalytic narratives and the role it can play in rethinking them. As a psychoanalyst and teacher of Freudian theory, Lacan reads human psychic development in terms of narratives that he discovered in Freud. Not surprisingly, the locus for Freud's theories of childhood sexuality and male castration anxieties is the Greek tragedy Oedipus, which places incestuous desire in the context of a communal law that condemns it. According to Freud's myth of difference, the male child's sexual fantasies in relation to his mother are accompanied by fears of punishment in the form of castration. The result is the internalization of social taboos and the acceptance of the law of place, achieved simultaneously through superego development and the ordering and repression of sexuality.

Traditional Western narratives of tragedy and comedy alike champion a view of civilization as castration—a phallocentric concept that equates the organization of human sexuality and gender with the birth of language and repression, and so with a psychic displacing-as-ordering that alienates the subject even as it guarantees it a place in the symbolic order. Theater enacts the costs of assuming the displacing image returned back by society—the mask that alienates as it procures entry into society. Traditional narratives of comedy and tragedy therefore typically promote a culturally determined form of the socialization process, juxtaposing the deconstruction of the gaze against the inevitability of a theater of representation, the imaginary as alterity against the symbolic of oedipally inscribed inevitability.

But the key word here is narrative, not theater. We may agree with Gallop that theater stages and so reinforces polar oppositions—but only if we equate the word theater with the term Western narrative drama. The term theater, as Keir Elam reminds us, customarily refers to the performance aspects of a work, whereas the term drama is traditionally reserved for its narrative forms.44 Since theater is always performative but not necessarily narrative, we cannot equate a theatrical ordering of difference with strict polarities. We can, however, acknowledge that traditional Western narrative theater has been obsessed with repeating Freud's version of the Oedipus myth—the scene of a founding crime of sexuality and a payment that decisively orders sexuality and gender. And we cannot help but observe that The Taming of the Shrew rehearses and preserves that myth today, insofar as it identifies the achievement of civilization itself with the domination of women through patriarchal exogamy rites, physical violence, and double-binding mind games. If we compare the complementary narratives of Oedipus and The Taming of the Shrew, we have the tragedy of the man who discovers his sexuality and the comedy of a woman who learns to disavow her own in submission to a repressive patriarchal law. One scenario identifies civilization with male payment for his own sexuality, the other identifies civilization with male control over disordered female sexuality. Both not only record but promulgate the values of a repressive patriarchal culture.

Traditional Western theater thus offers us two stages, comic and tragic, upon which are always playing some version of Oedipus or its sister play, The Taming of the Shrew. A setup is therefore always being staged as well—one that places its spectators in the positions of Kate, Oedipus, and Christopher Sly, all of whom “cannot choose” but accept the interpellation, or hailing, that indoctrinates the subject into a confusing and limiting identity. Whereas cinema can challenge or deconstruct the symbolic by dissolving or dispersing the image, traditional theater would appear to be more tied to the symbolic, to the ego, and to the mask of the unitary individual. Whereas theater questions the validity of masks by virtue of their ability to be exchanged, it cannot dissolve or otherwise destroy them. Master and servant, husband and wife may exchange roles in a comedy, but they never escape the tyranny of social roles; in short, they can never escape being seen, caught in a scene, and so interpellated by a social order. Given traditional theater's superimposition of narrative inevitability, given its scopic regime of voyeurism and exhibitionism, and given its narrative regime of domination and mastery—a feminist theater would indeed appear to require an Oedipus wrecked. Accordingly, feminist theater requires a performance that exposes and stages this taming of the gaze by the symbolic order.

Josette Féral points the way. While arguing that theater is on the side of inscription in the symbolic, Féral maintains that performance is on the side of deconstruction in the semiotic. She suggests that feminist theater is possible—but only when theater is not theater per se. Féral's use of the term theater would seem to correspond to Keir Elam's definition of drama, and her use of the term performance corresponds to Elam's description of theater. “In contrast to performance, theatre cannot keep from setting up, stating, constructing, and giving points of view,” Féral explains, for it requires a unified subject that performance deconstructs into drives and energies and since it assumes representational models that performance rejects in favor of discontinuity and spillage. If performance highlights the “realities of the imaginary,” “originates within the subject and allows his flows of desire to speak,” she concludes, theater “inscribes the subject in the law and in theatrical codes, which is to say, in the symbolic.”45

Féral finds theater and performance “mutually exclusive” “when it comes to the position of the subject.” Yet finally she is describing a dialectic essential to both subjectivity and to theater, which she acknowledges by arguing that “theatricality arises from the play between these two realities” and by describing performance as that within theater which deconstructs it. Féral notes: “In its very stripped-down workings, its exploration of the body, and its joining of time and space, performance gives us a kind of theatricality in slow motion: the kind we find at work in today's theatre. Performance explores the under-side of that theatre.” Criticized for assuming that performance reaches a presence outside of representation, Féral merely observes that “performance seems to be attempting to reveal and to stage something that took place before the representation of the subject (even if it does so by using an already constituted subject).”46

Like much theater theory and practice, Féral's thesis is symptomatic of the battle within theater to differentiate presence from representation. Insofar as theater stages presence, it enacts the contest between being and representation and so renews itself by continually re-posing that relationship. If theater presents a funhouse of mirrors we never escape, it also rehearses the quest for presence by shifting its point of view. If theater suggests Jean Baudrillard's “generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal,”47 it also grounds this paradox in the physical realities of time, space, and society and keeps posing the question of the performance present. As a displacing of the object by its display, theater stages the way it can never get to itself, the way in which the scene always displaces what is shown. Similarly, the actor presents herself to us as always already displaced by a look and seeks, in the process of exhibitionism, the nature of exhibitionism. Theatrical showing is a framing that, by putting frames on stage, necessarily displaces itself. If theater reveals that objects exist only insofar as they are displaced by a look, it also offers various reactive and interactive means of displacing and renewing the act of seeing.

The relation between performance art and traditional theater is therefore not a polar opposition but a dialectic. We seek in theater that moment when our looking is no longer a looking (as in film) but a being seen, a return of the look by the mirror image. Theater provides a way of interrupting the frame from a point of view both within and outside it, much as the unconscious is the blind spot in our vision which in turn is constructed through and reflected by the look of the other. Feminist performance art thus poses a challenge to traditional dramatic theater by foregrounding a subversive force always already within it. In Swan Lake, Minnesota a stripper performs to a fascinated crowd of men by throwing down cardboard cutouts of her body in various states of undress; the last cutout is a mirror that reflects their gaze. In the performance piece Waiting, the author holds up sheets upon which are projected images of waitresses, and then inserts her body and voice in filmed images and narratives of restaurant life, simultaneously positioning herself as author, actor, screen, and the source of their mutual confusion and deconstruction. Thus the paradox of avant-garde theater: in seeking to stage a moment outside of representation it cannot avoid the play of looks that constitutes representation, and yet in speaking of the costs of representation it evokes a sense of rebellion against symbolic form.

Since theater is always placing the living body's energies in tension with a constraining form, it is always recording the cost of entry into the symbolic. But by staging that form we displace it; we view from another angle the looks that inscribe us, and so look back. Neither ideologically conservative nor anarchic, theater is always about the relationship of what is seen and the fact that it is seen, and always renewing the relation of what is seen to the social gaze in which it is inscribed. Rather than deny the look by means of which we are seen and socialized, theater creates energy from the resistance and tension generated by the reversal of that look in the moment of exhibitionism. Since theater is always replaying the battle of presence and representation which occasions it, even classical drama can return us to the theatrical body and to the disruptive gaze by which it is constituted.

For example, The Taming of the Shrew not only stages theatricality but can be said to be “about” the very problem of theater's degenerating into mere show, insofar as it explicitly calls out for a performative mode capable of interrupting and revisioning social roles. Paduan society threatens to degenerate into the merely theatrical, which we may define as a stale crystallization of dramatic roles and narratives. Yet the term theater also refers to a subversive tension that threatens to displace traditional roles and narratives. Similarly, whereas the term drama refers to the conventional narrative aspect of theater, the term dramatic implies a breaking of containers by their contents.

Paduan society is given over to mere show without substance, and on that basis may be condemned as bad theater. Controlled by reified roles and stale narratives, this society resists the energy and tension generated by an awareness of the relation of appearance and reality, container and contained. Padua operates according to an aristocratic code; order is maintained by an elaborate fiction that requires allegiance to the sanctity and prerogative of theatrical roles. Human identity need never be discovered in such a world; will, reason, and justice are exchanged for a smoothly oiled social system in which perspective is arbitrarily determined with mechanical efficiency. With its superficial equation of appearance and reality, social codes and justice, Padua might as well be operated by costumed dummies or robots. The various reactions to Petruchio's costume suggest how the means we use to express what is within have come instead to define it. If clothes don’t “make the man,” speech may similarly be “goodly talk” of which we should be suspicious. Insofar as appearance, lineage, and role work as a veneer to disguise our needs, the frame of show has falsely come to define its contents. As the home of the arts, Padua boasts of its culture but ceremoniously contains the materialism, sexuality, and aggression upon which it is based; Petruchio therefore endorses each openly. Its order depends upon servitude; Petruchio bullies his servant. Its continuance depends upon the sexuality that Petruchio openly celebrates in his antiromantic courting. Its maintenance depends upon wealth; Petruchio praises riches as the highest good. The peace, perspective, and culture are dependent upon taming; the civilizing is dependent upon trapping; the order has been achieved through a form of brutality.

Petruchio's paradoxical actions function both to teach Paduan society the value of the living and the animal, the mercenary and the violent, and to teach Kate the opposing value of the arbitrary social roles she disdains. In this sense his actions serve to emphasize the necessity of keeping the relationship between human being and social role, contained and container, in lively tension. Petruchio's actions function to reverse and so reframe the relationship of performance and theatricality, human beings and their social roles, through subversive action that reverses the categories of civilized and crude, rational and animal. When he champions that which is considered low or denigrates whatever is considered high, he is not simply playing games but exposing the arbitrary game of making such distinctions. Petruchio's behavior reminds us that the low can also be reframed as the elemental and so essential; his mockery of Paduan conventions suggests what happens when social conventions are divorced from use. When Petruchio pronounces materialism to be the chief good, we are shocked—until we find ourselves questioning the dependency of Paduan society's peace, idealism, and culture upon the very materialism he champions. Bianca's love, representative of Padua's highest value, goes to the “lowest” value—riches. When Petruchio demands money or sexual attractiveness in a wife, he reasserts priorities hypocritically denied in Lucentio's idealized wooing. Only a society that recognizes and preserves its connection with the material and the animal will survive, he suggests, and Paduan society deceives itself of this truth at its peril.

Even in the most misogynistic of dramatic narratives, then, we may discover a subversive strain characterized by a disruptive gaze that never rests secure. At the level of narrative, The Taming of the Shrew is not appreciably different from a medieval farce of shrew taming. Yet at the level of performance, The Taming of the Shrew conveys the sense of being maddened by such oppositions and turns it against the audience in a way that alone suggests why this play continues to fascinate. The Taming of the Shrew repeats with the audience or critic what it does to Kate: it maddens us with contradictory experiences until we agree to find resolution in either reductive readings or ideologically suspect resolutions. This activity doesn’t make it a less sexist text, but it does make it a more productive one, as well as a more complicated one for feminist inquiry.

To be sure, The Taming of the Shrew not only resists but succumbs to a feminist analysis. The farcical confusions suggest that relations between master and servant or husband and wife need not be dictated by external show but must be determined by mutual dependencies and their acknowledgment. And yet the discrepancy between the play's lesson of mutual dependency and service and its enforcement of a sexist and aristocratic order cannot fail to disturb. The message that a plumed hat cannot make a master, nor a ceremony a marriage, like the argument that these roles are defined by active service, may continue to make sense today. But when Petruchio seeks to impose upon Kate the values of the formal, the ritual, and the conventional by recourse to physical force and patriarchal custom, we are less inclined to rediscover the “natural” basis of social roles in mutual dependency than a form of sex and class struggle that must be reframed.

Reframing can be an important strategy of change, depending upon how and why it is employed. Reframing emphasizes the arbitrariness of class assignments, acknowledges and enforces alternative class memberships, and so changes one's perspective on a problematic situation.48 Whenever Kate disagrees with patriarchal law, she is forcefully reminded that her protest against theatrical roles is in itself a role. When Kate refuses to accept Petruchio's will and contradicts him, he recasts her disagreements as a form of playful agreement. His double-binding games of reframing the opposition as agreement make it impossible for Kate to negate or to differ, and so have the effect of returning her again to the same position. By reversing traditional categories of value, by calling angry words or behavior mild, Petruchio calls attention to the ways in which equation of appearance and reality in Padua has led to confusing and false appraisals of character and value.

All this behavior takes place within the context of another game of reframing called punning, a game which unexpectedly reveals that words have membership in two different semantic classes. When Kate refuses to sit on Petruchio's lap by noting, “Asses are made to bear, and so are you” (2.1.199), Petruchio counters with the observation that “women are made to bear, and so are you” (2.1.200). This subtle reframing of insults leads to more explicit reframing when Petruchio announces to Kate's family that Kate has agreed to marry him. Confronted with her angry denial—“I’ll see thee hang’d on Sunday first” (2.1.299)—Petruchio reframes the scene: “’Tis bargain’d ’twixt us twain, being alone, / That she shall still be curst in company” (2.1.304-5). By reframing Kate's behavior as a temporary role, Petruchio implies that her behavior is a game over which she has control. By playing the game “Let’s be shrews,” by putting shrewishness into the category of acceptable behavior instead of in the category of a problem that must be solved, Petruchio forces Kate into a position from which her rebellion has no meaning, and so no power.

As a strategy for rethinking the relation between container and contained, between the energies of the living body and the constraints of social roles, reframing can be employed just as easily to disenfranchise as to empower another. For example, reframing strategies are often employed to tame and so control feminist and cultural-materialist approaches today. Psychoanalytic and deconstructive approaches that demonstrate that we cannot escape the text, the symbolic, or ideology remind us of the means by which Kate is encouraged to believe that she can never escape the theater of difference in which she exists. The means by which critical theory contains difference are therefore not that different from the techniques employed by Petruchio to tame Kate, insofar as both seek to prove that we are trapped by the terms that we use and so can never escape or revise them.


The use of reframing to control and prevent women from differing is an all too familiar strategy, still in practice in film and theater criticism today. Consider the interaction between Constance Penley and Peter Gidal on feminism and film theory as perceived by Stephen Heath. First Penley: “If filmic practice, like the fetishistic ritual, is an inscription of the look on the body of the mother, we must now begin to consider the possibilities and consequences of the mother returning the look.” Gidal replies: “The last words of your piece say it all. You search for the simple inversion, the mother looking back. I consider the possibilities of the not-mother, not-father (looking or not).” Heath joins Gidal: “To invert, the mother returning the look, is not radically to transform, is to return as well the same economy … (and cinema in the fiction film has always and exactly been concerned to consider the possibilities and consequences within the fetishistic ritual, including the constitutive threat of its endangerment, the play of eye and look, vision and lack); the difference inverted is also the difference maintained.”49

Like Kate, Penley differs and is told that she has made no difference; she is told that her reframing of traditional narrative cinema is merely a reversal that cannot effect change. The difference inverted, however, is not always the difference maintained. Gidal's impulse is cinematic; he wants to dissolve images of women. Penley's impulse is theatrical; her response is a looking back that looks forward. Why should it be more effective to delete women from films than to present their responses to their reflections? Responding to this tactic in contemporary film practice, Rose protests that any such dissolution of the image, any equation of women with a beyond or before language is actually more regressive than progressive:

The impetus is clear: the attempt to place woman somewhere else, outside the forms of representation through which she is endlessly constituted as image. The problem is that this sets up notions of drive, rhythmic pulsing, eroticisation of energy pre-representation, a space of “open viewing,” which then makes film process itself socially—and sexually—innocent. Film process is then conceived as something archaic, a lost or repressed content (“continent”), terms to which the feminine can so easily be assimilated, as it has been in classical forms of discourse on the feminine as outside language, rationality, and so on; arguments which are now being revived as part of the discussion of psychoanalysis and feminism, the search for a feminine discourse, specific, outside. The dangers are obvious. That such arguments overlook the archaic connotations of these notions of energy and rhythm for women, at the same time that they render innocent the objects and processes of representation which they introject onto the screen, seems again to be not by chance.

In a critique of Lyotard's exploration of a nontheatrical representational space, Rose pointedly remarks: “We have to ask what, if the object itself is removed (the body or victim), is or could be such a space of open viewing (fetishisation of the look itself or of its panic and confusion)? And what does this do for feminism? Other than strictly nothing, dropping all images of women; or else an archaising of the feminine as panic and confusion, which is equally problematic, simply a re-introjection as feminine—the pre-mirror girl—of the visual disturbance against which the image of woman classically acts as guarantee.”50

Penley wants to reverse the look by rethinking the limits of the cinematic apparatus. She cites the films of Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Ackerman, and Marguerite Duras, all of which do indeed “run counter to the Oedipal structuring of Western narrative form and the imaginary and fetishistic imperatives of the cinematic apparatus,” effect changes in “narrative organization, point of view and identification,” and designate “both the spectator and the narrator as ‘outside’ the scene … not caught up in or radically circumscribed by a masculine gaze or logic of desire.”51 Yet none of these films deletes or dissolves the image of woman; none of them suggests a feminist style that has so succumbed to its manipulation by an avant-garde as to be virtually indistinguishable from it.

The subtext in this game of two against one is a doubling of its content—the problem of woman. Since the cinematic look is read by these male theorists as constituted by the threat of woman's lack (that is, her castration), she had better not look back, nor, by implication, should Penley. Especially disturbing here is the argument that the cinematic look is constituted by the threat of its endangerment—which in turn is associated with woman's castration (“the play of eye and look, vision and lack”). However successful the application of a phallocentric theory for a reading of phallocentric films, this model stymies the development of film theory and practice in new directions. It encourages us to simplify the complex series of identifications actually at work when gendered subjects view a film, and it results in such peculiar avant-garde stances as Gidal's refusal to portray women in his films since woman is always already the castrated fetishized object.

According to Freudian theory, in a deferred reading of his “first” sight of his mother's genitalia the subject-as-little-boy interprets the mother's “lack” in terms of the threat of the father's punitive, castrating “no” made good. In other words, he associates his mother's “actual” castration with his potential castration. That Lacan rereads this scenario symbolically does not, finally, save it for feminist theory. The castration theory is made no more palatable by the argument that, insofar as we are all lacking, woman is even more aware of her incomplete status. Instead, this rereading keeps a sexist account of the construction of the subject alive and maintains an association of the look with a negative view of female sexuality.

A more theatrical paradigm empowers women to look back and forward, to see how their looking back is interpreted and disrupted by another gaze in a continuing theater of interactive reflections. Accordingly, it may be useful to reformulate the implications of the Lacanian gaze for feminist theory and practice. To reframe this schema we might rethink the development of gender as identificatory and rooted in the problem of the gaze. Feminist applications of object-relations theory, such as the work of Robert Stoller and Nancy Chodorow on gender roles, for example, explore how certain so-called male behavior in our society results from a denial of identification with the maternal figure.52 The male infant's primary identification with the female as mothering person is disrupted in a way that the female infant's is not. Whereas the female subject resolves maternal prohibitions by moving from being the mother's desire to imitating the mother's desire, the male subject is not free to resolve the problem in this way. Deprived of the shift toward mimetic desire open to the female subject, the route offered to the male is typically one of rapid disidentification, which in turn results in ambivalence toward the nurturing object.

As object-relations theory further reminds us, a main task of mothering is to enable the child to accept separation and disillusionment.53 The disruptive maternal look reflects back to the child something other than what it wants to see, but which alone makes identity possible. Ironically, the greater repression is not the mother's castration (what the child doesn’t want to see) but the subject's loss-of-face (what the mother doesn’t want to see or can’t see in the child). Consider Hamlet's “Do you see nothing there?” and his mother's shocked reply: “Nothing at all, yet all that is I see” (Hamlet: 3.4.131-32). What assures entry into the symbolic is not the father's intervention but the disillusionment offered by the real mother. Lacanians might argue that this disillusionment is the intervention itself, and so repeats the move from the real mother to the symbolic mother, but Lacan's early writings on object-relations theory repudiate any such interpretation. If we cannot ascribe the maternal gaze to a period prior to or outside of representation, we can inscribe it as recording the tension of representation, insofar as the maternal gaze both introduces the infant into the social order and questions that identification. Since the maternal gaze offers the infant not a stable, cohesive image but one that by definition changes, the disruptive maternal look reacts to the infant's look and reflects it differently. The paradox of the contained breaking out of its contents, of a deferred disruption always already contained within the mother-infant dyad, yields a maternal disruptive gaze characteristic of theater. We can therefore theorize the mother's look as that which functions to displace in advance the father as the privileged level of representation—without identifying the woman with panic, confusion, or a space before language and representation.

The difference inverted is not always the difference maintained. Since neither Heath nor Gidal proves capable of considering the “possibilities and consequences” of the mother's returning the look—except as a reversal of the terms of the male look, which in itself is castrating—they project that threat onto Penley. Asks Heath: “What then of the look for the woman, of woman subjects in seeing? The reply given by psychoanalysis is from the phallus. If the woman looks, the spectacle provokes, castration is in the air, the Medusa's head is not far off; thus, she must not look, is absorbed herself on the side of the seen, seeing herself seeing herself, Lacan's femininity.”54 Castration is indeed in the air—insofar as male fears of a reversal of their fantasies are projected onto a rethinking of representation which begins on the other side of the screen.

The difference inverted is not always the difference maintained. The reply given by psychoanalysis is not always from the phallus. Penley realizes that no reversal of the look in the same terms is possible—except when Woman as a homogenized construct of the male imaginary is doing the looking, in which case she does not look from the point of view of women. Following Laura Mulvey's critique of traditional cinematic practice as voyeuristic and fetishistic, Penley is calling for the development of new ways of looking—for a rethinking of what it means to be a spectator. To return the look in this context is to break up performance space, deconstruct the gaze, subvert the classic organization of showing and seeing, and rethink the very notion of spectatorship.

Heath summarizes one of the arguments that stalls this movement when he asks if it is “possible for a woman to take place in a film without representing a male desire,” since “any image of a woman in a film, by the fact of its engagement in a process of representation … inevitably re-encloses women in a structure of cultural oppression that functions precisely by the currency of ‘images of women.’”55 He quotes Hélène Cixous, who complains that “one is always in representation, and when a woman is asked to take place in this representation, she is, of course, asked to represent man's desire.”56 But Heath ignores the key word “asked.” When women are not asked to take place in a representation created by and for men but occupy and share the sites of production and consumption, a different economy obtains. Women take place, and refigure that taking place, in ways that challenge traditional forms of representation.

The associations I have drawn here suggest that theatricality offers a constructive path for both psychoanalytic theory and feminist theory to accept the implications of their own displacing looks. Theatrical reading is ambivalent reading, dedicated not to varying the look (which simply amounts to critical pluralism) but to disrupting it, (up)staging theories through one another. It requires that psychoanalysis read cinema and theater read psychoanalysis and—following the motto each proclaims—that none of these disciplines ever rests secure in itself. Why is it that theater alone has always staged identity as unstable, exposing gender and class as a masquerade? Insofar as theater cannot rest in the abyme but stages the displacing gaze, the bursting of the container by its contents, theater offers a way of dislodging the current critical standstill whereby we must use language to describe an experience of being outside of it.

The performative aspect of theater emerges here as a process of staging the disturbance and reversal of the gaze. Theater's techniques for reframing offer a model for feminist theory insofar as they move beyond both the quest for the mysterious essence of the feminine, beyond the acknowledgment of woman as an object of a male gaze, and on to an exploration of the potential of women to break that gaze by reframing it. Feminism poses the problem of reframing in the Kristevan paradox of the semiotic and the symbolic; psychoanalysis confronts this problem in the relationship of the imaginary and the symbolic; but theater alone is capable of staging the paradox of the frame in a way that subverts it. Unlike feminism and psychoanalysis, theater has no allegiance but to ambivalence, to a compulsion to subvert its own look, to split itself through a reflected image. Theater comfortably allies with feminism against psychoanalysis, with psychoanalysis against cinema, and with cinema against itself, without ever finding a resting point except as provisional and always already undermined. Whereas feminism and psychoanalysis seek to reflect the subject from a place where it can never see itself, be it gender, ideology, or the unconscious, theater provides the tools—the stages, the mirrors, or reflecting gazes—through which perspectives are fragmented, shattered, and set into play against one another. A methodology necessarily tied to no master, theater poses a methodological challenge to feminism and psychoanalysis to escape its terms, its goals, its identity.

Against the mise en abyme paradoxes of cinema and deconstructive philosophy we may posit the disruptive potential of the theatrical gaze, which is always ambivalent, always displacing one view and threatened in turn by another. Hélène Cixous complains that “men and women are caught up in a network of millennial cultural determinations of a complexity that is practically unanalyzable: we can no more talk about ‘women’ than about ‘man’ without getting caught up in an ideological theater where the multiplication of representations, images, reflections, myths, identifications constantly transforms, deforms, alters each person's imaginary order and in advance, renders all conceptualization null and void.”57 Yet given these terms, is theater a mere showing or a radical staging of the gaze? Is Peggy Kamuf's “a woman writing as a woman writing as a [woman]”58 a means of breaking out of the label “woman” or of showing how we can never hope to do so? The question is not whether a feminist or a deconstructive theater is possible but whether feminism and deconstruction can recognize and utilize theatrical strategies. Can either feminism or deconstruction stand outside of theater as techniques to be used upon it, or are they always already within it? To theatricalize one must deconstruct, insert a difference in a term which splits it, mimics it, then displaces or usurps it. A woman writing like a woman writing like a woman is never the same woman. If feminism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction can never frame theater, but only mine or mime it, this may be because their techniques have long been trapped inside it. The cost of exit may be denial or repression—or perhaps another frame-up.


  1. Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 93.

  2. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues (Paris: Flammarion, 1977), 29.

  3. See, for example, Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 245-64; and Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), and This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

  4. Ann Rosalind Jones, “Inscribing Femininity: French Theories of the Feminine,” in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn (London: Methuen, 1985), 106. See also Jones, “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l’Ecriture Féminine,Feminist Studies 7 (1981), 247-63; and Jones, “Julia Kristeva on Femininity: The Limits of a Semiotic Politics,” Feminist Review 18 (1984), 56-73.

  5. Monique Wittig, “One Is Not Born a Woman,” Feminist Issues 1 (1981), 50-51.

  6. Julia Kristeva, “Women's Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, Signs 7 (1981), 33.

  7. Julia Kristeva, “Oscillation between Power and Denial,” in New French Feminisms, 166.

  8. Shoshana Felman, “Rereading Femininity,” Yale French Studies 62 (1981), 42.

  9. See Kristeva's “Modern Theater Does not Take (a) Place,” trans. Alice Jardine and Thomas Gora, Sub-stance 18/19 (1977), 131-34, and “Oscillation between Power and Denial,” where she identifies “the moment of rupture and negativity which conditions and underlies the novelty of any praxis ‘feminine,’” and adds: “No ‘I’ is there to assume this ‘femininity,’ but it is no less operative, rejecting all that is finite and assuring in (sexual) pleasure the life of the concept” (167).

  10. Gallop, Daughter's Seduction, 97.

  11. Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 164; her quotation is from Ben Brewster, Stephen Heath, and Colin MacCabe, “Comment,” Screen 16 (1975), 83-90.

  12. See, for example, Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975), 6-18; Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Methuen, 1983); Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (Los Angeles: American Film Institute, 1984); de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t; de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); and Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986). Sue-Ellen Case's groundbreaking Feminism and Theater (New York: Methuen, 1988) is the first full-length study to treat this topic.

  13. See Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”; and de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t; de Lauretis is far more critical of the dichotomies Mulvey sets up in this classic essay, as is Mulvey in her later work.

  14. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 68-71, 177.

  15. See, for example, George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (London: Arno, 1961); E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (1925; rpt. New York: Hill and Wang, 1958); H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen, 1938); Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (1939; rpt. New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1953); Donald Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (1949; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966); Robert B. Heilman, Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, in the Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: New American Library, 1966); and Larry S. Champion, The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).

  16. See, for example, Nevill Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearian Comedy,” Essays and Studies 3 (1950), 1-28; Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); and Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). These critics differ on the extent to which Kate and Petruchio take part in this attack; some view Petruchio's bullying behavior as a crude exaggeration of patriarchal values, and others do not.

  17. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies, ed. Stephen Tillyard (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), 214.

  18. M. R. Ridley, William Shakespeare: A Commentary, Introductory Volume to the New Temple Shakespeare (London: Dent, 1936), 24.

  19. John C. Bean, “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 74.

  20. H. J. Oliver, Introduction to the Oxford edition of The Taming of the Shrew (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 56, 52.

  21. See Thelma N. Greenfield, “The Transformation of Christopher Sly,” Philological Quarterly 33 (1954), 34-42; Richard Hosley, “Was There a ‘Dramatic Epilogue’ to The Taming of the Shrew?” Studies in English Literature 1 (Spring 1961), 17-34; Peter Alexander, “The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (Spring 1969), 111-16; and Arthur Colby Sprague and J. C. Trewin, Shakespeare's Plays Today (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 54.

  22. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies, 84.

  23. Richard Henze, “Role Playing in The Taming of the Shrew,Southern Humanities Review 4 (1970), 231-40, is the first extensive treatment of this argument. According to Henze, Petruchio “trains Kate to play roles so expertly that one cannot separate Kate's part in the pageant from Kate's function in life” (231); “Petruchio plays contradictory roles with equal effectiveness” (235) that we cannot determine his true nature; and “the final pageant of incredibly obedient shrew reflects most nearly the comedy of life where irony and multiple role-playing obscure reality exactly because irony and multiple role-playing are reality” (239). See also J. Dennis Huston, Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), for an even fuller study of play here; as well as Marianne Novy, “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew,English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979), 264-80, and the extension of that essay in her later Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  24. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 174-75.

  25. Gayle Greene and Coppélia Kahn, “Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman,” in Making a Difference, 4-5.

  26. Jacques Lacan, “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 152.

  27. Jacqueline Rose, Introduction—2, to Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Rose (New York: Norton, 1985), 29.

  28. Ibid., 28.

  29. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 32. On the role of women as objects of exchange in the work of Lévi-Strauss, see Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 157-210.

  30. Petruchio is treated as a type of clown or fool by Marianne Novy as well as by Charles Baskervill and W. B. Thorne; his character seems to be based on both the rustic clown and the witty fool. For the folk tradition in Shrew, see Charles Baskervill, The Elizabethan Jig and Related Song Drama (1929; rpt. New York: Dover, 1965); Jan Brunvand, “The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966), 345-59; W. B. Thorne, “Folk Elements in The Taming of the Shrew,Queen's Quarterly 75 (1968), 482-96; Michael West, “The Folk Background of Petruchio's Wooing Dance: Male Supremacy in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies 7 (1973), 65-74. See also Barbara Swain, Fools and Folly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932); Enid Welsford, The Fool: His Social and Literary History (London: Faber and Faber, 1935); and William Willeford, The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969). In “Shakespearean Comedy and the Uses of Reason,” South Atlantic Quarterly 63 (1964), 1-9, Ronald Berman all too briefly reads Petruchio as “a wise fool in a world of the foolish wise, and in this he brings to life the great comic document of his day, Erasmus' Praise of Folly” (7). One might also consider the possibility that Shakespeare was playing Praise of Folly against Eramsus's humanist treatise on women.

  31. For studies that relate Shakespearean comedy to folk traditions of carnival, inversion, and dramatized paradox, see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959); Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968); Ian Donaldson, The World Upside-Down: Comedy from Jonson to Fielding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Michael Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985); and Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

  32. Rosalie L. Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 58.

  33. Ibid., 8-9.

  34. Carolyn Lougee, “Review Essay: Modern European History,” Signs 2 (Spring 1977), 635.

  35. See Mary Ann Doane, “The ‘Woman's Film’: Possession and Address,” in Re-Vision, ed. Doane et al., 67-82.

  36. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 268.

  37. Rose, Introduction—2, 45.

  38. Lacan, “Alienation,” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), 204.

  39. Juliet Flower MacCannell, Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Cultural Unconscious (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 19.

  40. Lacan, “Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality,” in Feminine Sexuality, ed. Mitchell and Rose, 87.

  41. Ironically, early object-relations theory is also charged with failing to explore actual child care rigorously enough. D. W. Winnicott points out that “Melanie Klein represents the most vigorous attempt to study the earliest processes of the developing human infant apart from the study of child-care. She has always admitted that child-care is important but has not made a special study of it,” in “Classification: Is There a Psycho-Analytic Contribution to Psychiatric Classification?” (1959), in his collected papers, The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), 126.

  42. Rose, Introduction—2, 56.

  43. De Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t, 180-81, 172.

  44. Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen, 1980), 2.

  45. Josette Féral, “Performance and Theatricality,” trans. Terese Lyons, Modern Drama 25 (1982), 178.

  46. Ibid., 177, 178, 176.

  47. Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 253.

  48. See Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland, and Richard Fisch, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (New York: Norton, 1974); and Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication (New York: Norton, 1967).

  49. Constance Penley, “The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary,” Camera Obscura (1978), 26, and Peter Gidal, as quoted by Stephen Heath with his comments in “Difference,” Screen 19 (1978), 97-98.

  50. Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, 209, 210.

  51. Constance Penley, “‘A Certain Refusal of Difference’: Feminist Film Theory,” in Art after Modernism, ed. Wallis, 386, 387.

  52. Robert Stoller, “The Sense of Femaleness,” and “The ‘Bedrock’ of Masculinity and Femininity: Bisexuality,” in Psychoanalysis and Women, ed. Jean Baker Miller (Baltimore: Penguin, 1973), 231-43, 245-68; Stoller, “Fact and Fancies: An Examination of Freud's Concept of Bisexuality,” in Women and Analysis, ed. Jean Strouse (New York: Grossman, 1974); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

  53. See Jay R. Greenberg and Stephen A. Mitchell, Object Relations in Psychoanalytic Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Margaret Mahler, On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation (London: Hogarth Press, 1969); and D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London: Tavistock, 1971).

  54. Heath, “Difference,” 92.

  55. Ibid., 96-97.

  56. Ibid., 96; this comment first appeared in “Entretien avec Françoise van Rossum-Guyon,” Revue des sciences humaines (1977), 487.

  57. Cixous, “Sorties,” in New French Feminisms, ed. Marks and Courtivron, 96.

  58. Peggy Kamuf, “Writing like a Woman,” in Women and Language in Literature and Society, ed. S. McConnell-Ginet et al. (New York: Praeger, 1980), 298.

Natasha Korda (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 110-31.

[In the essay below, Korda examines the theme of domestic economy in The Taming of the Shrew, arguing that Elizabethan society's “cultural anxiety surrounding the housewife's new managerial role with respect to household cates … prompted Shakespeare to write a new kind of shrew-taming narrative.”]

Commentary on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has frequently noted that the play's novel taming strategy marks a departure from traditional shrew-taming tales. Unlike his predecessors, Petruchio does not use force to tame Kate; he does not simply beat his wife into submission.1 Little attention has been paid, however, to the historical implications of the play's unorthodox methodology, which is conceived in specifically economic terms: “I am he am born to tame you, Kate,” Petruchio summarily declares, “And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate / Conformable as other household Kates” (2.1.269-71).2 Petruchio likens Kate's planned domestication to a domestication of the emergent commodity form itself, whose name parallels the naming of the shrew. The Oxford English Dictionary defines cates as “provisions or victuals bought (as distinguished from, and usually more delicate or dainty than, those of home production).” The term is an aphetic form of acate, which derives from the Old French achat, meaning “purchase.”3 Cates are thus by definition exchange-values—commodities, properly speaking—as opposed to use-values, or objects of home production.4 In order to grasp the historical implications of Shrew's unorthodox methodology and of the economic terms Shakespeare employs to shape its taming strategy, I would like first to situate precisely the form of its departure from previous shrew-taming tales. What differentiates The Taming of the Shrew from its precursors is not so much a concern with domestic economy—which has always been a central preoccupation of shrew-taming literature—but rather a shift in modes of production and thus in the very terms through which domestic economy is conceived. The coordinates of this shift are contained within the term cates itself, which, in distinguishing goods that are purchased from those that are produced within and for the home, may be said to map the historical shift from domestic use-value production to production for the market.

Prior to Shakespeare's play, shrews were typically portrayed as reluctant producers within the household economy, high-born wives who refused to engage in the forms of domestic labor expected of them by their humble tradesman husbands. In the ballad “The Wife Wrapped in a Wether's Skin,” for example, the shrew refuses to brew, bake, wash, card, or spin on account of her “gentle kin” and delicate complexion:

There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife,
Nickety, nackity, noo, noo, noo
And he has gotten a gentle wife. …
Alane, quo Rushety, roue, roue, roue
She wadna bake, nor she wadna brew,
For the spoiling o her comely hue.
She wadna card, nor she wadna spin,
For the shaming o her gentle kin.
She wadna wash, nor she wadna wring,
For the spoiling o her gouden ring.(5)

The object of the tale was simply to put the shrew to work, to restore her (frequently through some gruesome form of punishment6) to her proper productive place within the household economy. When the cooper from Fife, who cannot beat his ungentle wife due to her gentle kin, cleverly wraps her in a wether's skin and tames her by beating the hide instead, the shrew promises: “Oh, I will bake, and I will brew, / And never mair think on my comely hue. / Oh, I will card, and I will, spin, / And never mair think on my gentle kin,” etc.7 Within the tradition of shrew-taming literature prior to Shakespeare's play, the housewife's domestic responsibilities were broadly defined by a feudal economy based on household production, on the production of use-values for domestic consumption.8

With the decline of the family as an economic unit of production, however, the role of the housewife in late-sixteenth-century England was beginning to shift from that of skilled producer to savvy consumer. In this period household production was gradually being replaced by nascent capitalist industry, making it more economical for the housewife to purchase what she had once produced. Brewing and baking, for example, once a routine part of the housewife's activity, had begun to move from the home to the market, becoming the province of skilled (male) professionals.9 Washing and spinning, while still considered “women's work,” were becoming unsuitable activities for middle-class housewives and were increasingly delegated to servants, paid laundresses, or spinsters.10 The housewife's duties were thus gradually moving away from the production of use-values within and for the home and toward the consumption of market goods, or cates, commodities produced outside the home. The available range of commodities was also greatly increased in the period, so that goods once considered luxuries, available only to the wealthiest elites, were now being found in households at every level of society.11 Even “inferior artificers and many farmers,” as William Harrison notes in his Description of England, had “learned … to garnish their cupboards with plate, their joint beds with tapestry and silk hangings, and their tables with carpets and fine napery.”12The Taming of the Shrew may be said both to reflect and to participate in this cultural redefinition by portraying Kate not as a reluctant producer but rather as an avid and sophisticated consumer of market goods. When she is shown shopping in 4.3 (a scene I will discuss at greater length below), she displays both her knowledge of and preference for the latest fashions in apparel. Petruchio's taming strategy is accordingly aimed not at his wife's productive capacity—he never asks Kate to brew, bake, wash, card, or spin—but at her consumption. He seeks to educate Kate in her new role as a consumer of household cates.

Before examining in precisely what way Petruchio seeks to tame Kate's consumption of cates, I would like to introduce a further complication into this rather schematic account of the shift from household production to consumption, being careful not to conflate material change with ideological change. The ideological redefinition of the home as a sphere of consumption rather than production in sixteenth-century England did not, of course, correspond to the lived reality of every early modern English housewife. Many women continued to work productively, both within and outside the home.13 Yet the acceptance of this ideology, as Susan Cahn points out, became the “price of upward social mobility” in the period and, as such, exerted a powerful influence on all social classes.14 The early modern period marked a crucial change in the cultural valuation of housework, a change that is historically linked—as the body of feminist-materialist scholarship which Christine Delphy has termed “housework theory”15 reminds us—to the rise of capitalism and development of the commodity form.16

According to housework theory, domestic work under capitalism is not considered “real” work because “women's productive labor is confined to use-values while men produce for exchange.”17 It is not that housework disappears with the rise of capitalism; rather, it becomes economically devalued. Because the housewife's labor has no exchange-value, it remains unremunerated and thus economically “invisible.”18 Read within this paradigm, Shrew seems to participate in the ideological erasure of housework by not representing it on the stage, by rendering it, quite literally, invisible. The weakness of this analysis of the play, however, is that it explains only what Kate does not do onstage and provides no explanation for what she actually does.

In continuing to define the housewife's domestic activity solely within a matrix of use-value production, housework theory—despite its claim to offer an historicized account of women's subjection under capitalism—treats housework as if it were itself, materially speaking, an unchanging, transhistorical entity, which is not, as we have seen, the historical case. For though the market commodity's infiltration of the home did not suddenly and magically absolve the housewife of the duty of housework, it did profoundly after both the material form and the cultural function of such work insofar as it became an activity increasingly centered around the proper order, maintenance, and display of household cates—objects having, by definition, little or no use-value.

Privileging delicacy of form over domestic function, cates threaten to sever completely the bond linking exchange-value to any utilitarian end; they are commodities that unabashedly assert their own superfluousness. It is not simply that cates, as objects of exchange, are to be “distinguished from” objects of home production, however, as the OED asserts. Rather, their very purpose is to signify this distinction, to signify their own distance from utility and economic necessity. What replaces the utilitarian value of cates is a symbolic or cultural value: cates are, above all, signifiers of social distinction or differentiation.19 Housework theory cannot explain Shrew's recasting of the traditional shrew-taming narrative because it can find no place in its strictly economic analysis for the housewife's role within a symbolic economy based on the circulation, accumulation, and display of status objects, or what Pierre Bourdieu terms “symbolic” (as distinct from “economic”) capital.20 How did the presence of status objects, or cates, within the nonaristocratic household transform, both materially and ideologically, the “domesticall duties” of the housewife? To what degree was her new role as a consumer and caretaker of household cates perceived as threatening? What new mechanisms of ideological defense were invented to assuage such perceived threats? I shall argue that it is precisely the cultural anxiety surrounding the housewife's new managerial role with respect to household cates which prompted Shakespeare to write a new kind of shrew-taming narrative.

To provide the framework for my analysis of Shakespeare's rewriting of the shrew-taming tradition, I would like to turn from housework theory to the theorization of domestic leisure and consumption, beginning with Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Like the housework theorists, Veblen maintains that the housewife's transformation from “the drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory,—the producer of goods for him to consume”—into “the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces” leaves her no less his drudge and chattel (if only “in theory”) than her predecessor.21 For Veblen, however, the housewife's new form of drudgery is defined not by her unremunerated (and thus economically invisible) productivity but rather by her subsidized (and culturally conspicuous) nonproductivity itself. The housewife's obligatory “performance of leisure,” Veblen maintains, is itself a form of labor or drudgery: “the leisure of the lady … is an occupation of an ostensibly laborious kind … it is leisure only in the sense that little or no productive work is performed.”22 Just as the housewife's leisure renders her no less a drudge of her husband, according to Veblen, her consumption of commodities likewise renders her no less his commodity, or chattel, insofar as she consumes for her husband's benefit and not her own.23 The housewife's “vicarious consumption” positions her as a status object, the value of which derives precisely from its lack of utility: “She is useless and expensive,” as Veblen puts it, “and she is consequently valuable.”24

When it comes to describing what constitutes the housewife's nonproductive activity, however, Veblen becomes rather vague, remarking only in passing that it centers on “the maintenance and elaboration of the household paraphernalia.”25 Jean Baudrillard offers a somewhat more elaborated account in his Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, a text strongly influenced by Veblen. With the advent of consumer culture, he asserts, the “cultural status of the [household] object enters into direct contradiction with its practical status,” and “housekeeping has only secondarily a practical objective (keeping objects ready for use)”; rather, “it is a manipulation of another order—symbolic—that sometimes totally eclipses practical use.”26 Like Veblen, Baudrillard views the housewife's conspicuous leisure and consumption as themselves laborious, though for the latter this new form of housework is more specifically described as the locus of a “symbolic labor,” defined as the “active manipulation of signs” or status objects.27 The value of the housewife's manipulation of the “cultural status of the object,” Baudrillard maintains, emerges not from an “economic calculus” but from a “symbolic and statutory calculus” dictated by “relative social class configurations.”28 For both Veblen and Baudrillard, then, the housewife plays a crucial role in the production of cultural value in a consumer society.

It is in the early modern period that the housewife first assumes this vital new role within what I shall term the symbolic order of things.29 The figure of “Kate” represents a threat to this order, a threat that Petruchio seeks to tame by educating her for her role as a manipulator of status objects. To say that Kate poses a threat to the symbolic order of things, however, is to signal yet another departure from the traditional shrew-taming narrative, in which the shrew is characteristically represented as a threat to the symbolic order of language. This linguistic threat is not absent from Shakespeare's version of the narrative and has received substantial critical commentary. In order to compare this threat with that posed by her relationship to things, I will briefly consider two compelling accounts of the threat posed by Kate's words.

In Shakespeare's rendering of the traditional topos, Joel Fineman points out, the shrew's linguistic excess becomes a threat not of too many words but rather of too much meaning. Kate's speech underscores the way in which language always “carries with it a kind of surplus semiotic baggage, an excess of significance, whose looming, even if unspoken, presence cannot be kept quiet.”30 The semantic superfluity of Kate's speech leads to a series of “‘fretful’ verbal confusions” in which the “rhetoricity of language is made to seem the explanation of [her] ongoing quarrel with the men who are her master.”31 The example Fineman cites is Kate's unhappy lute lesson, recounted by her hapless music master, Hortensio:

baptista Why then, thou
canst not break her to the lute?
hortensio Why no, for she hath
broke the lute to me.
I did but tell her she mistook her frets, …
“Frets, call you these?” quoth she, “I’ll fume
with them.”
And with that word she struck me on the head.


Fineman sees Kate's shrewish “fretting” as a direct result of the rhetorical excess of her speech—in this case, her pun on frets. Karen Newman adds that Kate's “linguistic protest” is directed against “the role in patriarchal culture to which women are assigned, that of wife and object of exchange in the circulation of male desire.”32 Kate's excessive verbal fretting turns her into an unvendible commodity. Yet while Newman emphasizes Kate's own position as an “object of exchange” between men, she specifically discounts the importance of material objects elsewhere in the play. The role of things in Petruchio's taming lesson is subordinated in Newman's argument to the more “significant” role of words: “Kate is figuratively killed with kindness, by her husband's rule over her not so much in material terms—the withholding of food, clothing and sleep—but in the withholding of linguistic understanding.”33

In contrast to Newman, Lena Cowen Orlin, in a recent article on “material culture theatrically represented,” foregrounds the play's many “references to and displays of objects, and especially household furnishings.” Orlin does not simply insist on the importance of res within the play at the expense of verba. She maintains that both material and linguistic forms of exchange, far from being opposed within the play, are repeatedly identified. Drawing on Levi-Strauss, Orlin argues that the play “synthesizes” the three “forms of exchange that constitute social life,” namely, the exchange of wives, of goods, and of words.34 While I agree with Orlin's claim that the play draws very explicit connections between its material and symbolic economies—particularly as these economies converge on what I have called the symbolic order of things—I resist the notion that Kate's position with respect to this order is simply that of a passive object of exchange. Kate is not figured as one more cate exchanged between men within the play; rather, it is precisely her unvendibility as a commodity on the marriage market that creates the dramatic dilemma to be solved by the taming narrative. The question concerns the relation between Kate's own position as a cate and her role as a consumer of cates. For Kate's unvendibility is specifically attributed within the play to her untamed consumption of cates.

At the start of the play, Kate's consumption is represented as a threat that Petruchio, in his novel way, will seek to tame. Both Newman and Fineman take Petruchio's first encounter with Kate, perhaps the most “fretful” instance of verbal sparring in the play, to demonstrate that the shrew-tamer chooses to fight his battle with the shrew “in verbal kind.”35 “O, how I long to have some chat with her” (2.1.162), he utters, in anticipation of their meeting. The content of Petruchio's punning “chat” with Kate, however, is principally preoccupied with determining her place within the symbolic order of things. The encounter begins with Petruchio stubbornly insisting on calling Katherina “Kate”:

petruchio Good morrow, Kate,
for that’s your name, I hear.
katherina Well have you heard,
but something hard of hearing;
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.
petruchio You lie, in faith, for
you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates. …

(ll. 182-89)

If Petruchio's punning appellation of Kate as a “super-dainty” cate seems an obvious misnomer in one sense—she can hardly be called “delicate”—in another it is quite apt, as his gloss makes clear. The substantive dainty, deriving from the Latin dignitatem (worthiness, worth, value), designates something that is “estimable, sumptuous, or rare.”36 In describing her as a “dainty,” Petruchio appears to be referring to her value as a commodity, or cate, on the marriage market (he has just discovered that her dowry is worth “twenty thousand crowns” [l. 122]).

Yet Petruchio's reference to Kate as “super-dainty” refers to her not as a commodity or object of exchange between men but rather as a consumer of commodities. According to the OED, in its adjectival form the term dainty refers to someone who is “nice, fastidious, particular; sometimes, over-nice” as to “the quality of food, comforts, etc.” In describing Kate as “super-dainty,” Petruchio implies that she belongs to the latter category; she is “over-nice,” not so much discriminating as blindly obedient to the dictates of fashion. Sliding almost imperceptibly from Kate as a consumer of cates to her status as a cate, Petruchio's gloss (“For dainties are all Kates”) elides the potential threat posed by the former by subsuming it under the aegis of the latter. His pun on Kates/cates dismisses the significance of Kate's role as a consumer (as does Newman's reading) by effectively reducing her to an object of exchange between men.

The pun on Kates/cates is repeated at the conclusion of Petruchio's “chat” with Kate (in the pronouncement quoted at the beginning of this essay) and effects a similar reduction: “And therefore, setting all this chat aside, / Thus in plain terms,” Petruchio proclaims, summing up his unorthodox marriage proposal, “I am he am born to tame you, Kate, / And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate / Conformable as other household Kates” (ll. 261-62, 269-71). And yet, in spite of his desire to speak “in plain terms,” Petruchio cannot easily restrict or “tame” the signifying potential of his own pun. For once it is articulated, the final pun on Kates/cates refuses to remain tied to its modifier, “household,” and insists instead upon voicing itself, shrewishly, where it shouldn’t (i.e., each time Kate is named). In so doing, it retrospectively raises the possibility that cates themselves may be “wild,” that there is something unruly, something that must be made to conform, in the commodity form itself. This possibility in turn discovers an ambiguity in Petruchio's “as,” which may mean either “as other household cates are conformable” or “as I have brought other household cates into conformity.” The conformity of household cates cannot be taken for granted within the play because cates, unlike use-values, are not proper to or born of the domestic sphere but are produced outside the home by the market. They are by definition extra-domestic or to-be-domesticated. Yet insofar as cates obey the logic of exchange and of the market, they may be said to resist such domestication. Petruchio cannot restrict the movement of cates in his utterance, cannot set all “chat” aside and speak “in plain terms,” because commodities, like words, tend to resist all attempts to restrict their circulation and exchange.

The latter assertion finds support—quite literally—in Petruchio's own chat. The term chat, as Brian Morris points out in a note to his Arden edition, was itself a variant spelling of cate in the early modern period (both forms descend from achat). The term chat thus instantiates, literally performs, the impossibility of restricting the semantic excess proper to language in general and epitomized by Kate's speech in particular. In so doing, however, it also links linguistic excess—via its etymological link with the signifier cate—to the economic excess associated with the commodity form in general and with cates, or luxury goods, in particular. Within the play, the term chat may thus be said to name both material and linguistic forms of excess as they converge on the figure of the shrew. It refers at once to Kate's “chattering tongue” (4.2.58) and to her untamed consumption of cates.

Kate's verbal frettings are repeatedly linked within the play to her refusal to assume her proper place within the symbolic order of things: she cannot be broken to the lute but breaks it instead. It is not clear, however, that her place is simply that of passive exchange object. For to be broken to the frets of a lute is to become a skilled and “active manipulator” (to recall Baudrillard's term) of a status object.37 My argument thus departs from traditional accounts of the commodification of or traffic in women which maintain that women “throughout history” have been passive objects of exchange circulating between men. Such accounts do little to explain the specific historical forms the domination of woman assume with the rise of capitalism and development of the commodity form. They do not, for example, explain the housewife's emerging role as a manipulator of status objects, or household cates.

I would like to question as well the viability, in the present context, of Veblen's assertion that the housewife's “manipulation of the household paraphernalia” does not render her any less a commodity, “chattel,” of her husband. The housewife's consumption of cates, which Veblen views as thoroughly domesticated, was in the early modern period thought to be something wild, unruly, and in urgent need of taming.38 If Shrew's taming narrative positions Kate as a “vicarious consumer” to ensure that her consumption and manipulation of household cates conforms to her husband's economic interests, it nevertheless points to a historical moment when the housewife's management of household property becomes potentially threatening to the symbolic order of things. Before attending to the ways in which the shrew-taming comedy seeks to elide this threat, we should take the threat itself seriously; only then will we be able to chart with any clarity Kate's passage from “chat” (i.e., from the material and linguistic forms of excess characteristic of the shrew) to “chattel.”

At the start of the play, as Newman asserts, Kate's fretting is represented as an obstacle to her successful commodification on the marriage market. When Baptista finally arranges Kate's match to the madcap Petruchio, Tranio remarks: “ ’Twas a commodity lay fretting by you, / ’Twill bring you gain, or perish on the seas” (2.1.321-22). Baptista's response, “The gain I seek is quiet in the match” (l. 323), underscores the economic dilemma posed by Kate's speech: her linguistic surplus translates into his financial lack and, consequently, her “quiet” into his “gain.” Yet Kate's fretting refers not only to what comes out of her mouth (to her excessive verbal fretting) but to what goes into it as well (to her excessive consumption). The verb to fret, which derives from the same root as the modern German fressen, means “to eat, devour [of animals]; … to gnaw, to consume, … or wear away by gnawing” or, reflexively, “to waste or wear away; to decay.”39 Kate's untamed, animal-like consumption, Tranio's remark implies, wears away both at her father's resources and at her own value as well. In describing Kate as a “fretting commodity,” as a commodity that not only consumes but consumes itself, Tranio emphasizes the tension between her position as a cate, or object of exchange, between men and her role as a consumer of cates.

To grasp the threat posed by the early modern housewife's consumption of cates, as this threat is embodied by Kate, however, we must first consider more closely what Baudrillard terms the “relative social class configurations” at work within the play. For the discourse of objects in The Taming of the Shrew becomes intelligible only if read in the context of its “class grammar”—that is to say, as it is inflected by the contradictions inherent in its appropriation by a particular social class or group.40 In general terms The Taming of the Shrew represents an embourgeoisement of the traditional shrew-taming narrative: Petruchio is not a humble tradesman but an upwardly mobile landowner. Unlike the cooper's wife, Kate is not of “gentle kin”; she is a wealthy merchant's daughter. The play casts the marriage of Petruchio and Kate as an alliance between the gentry and mercantile classes and thus between land and money, status and wealth, or what Bourdieu identifies as symbolic and economic capital.

Petruchio is straightforward about his mercenary motives for marrying Kate: “Left solely heir to all his [father's] lands and goods,” which he boastfully claims to “have better’d rather than decreas’d” (2.1.117-18), Petruchio ventures into the “maze” of mercantile Padua hoping to “wive it wealthily … / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” (1.2.74-75). Likening his mission to a merchant voyage, he claims to have been blown in by “such wind as scatters young men through the world / To seek their fortunes farther than at home” (ll. 49-50). Petruchio's fortune-hunting bombast, together with his claim to have “better’d” his inheritance, marks him as one of the new gentry, who continually sought to improve their estates through commerce, forays into business or overseas trade, or by contracting wealthy marriages.41 If Petruchio seeks to obtain from his marriage to Baptista's mercantile household what is lacking in his own domestic economy, however, the same can be said of Baptista, who seeks to marry off his daughter to a member of the landed gentry. The nuptial bond between the two families promises a mutually beneficial exchange of values for the domestic economies of each: Petruchio hopes to obtain surplus capital (a dowry of “twenty thousand crowns”), and Baptista the status or symbolic capital that comes with land (the jointure Petruchio offers in return [2.1.125]).42

Kate's commodification as a marriage-market cate thus proves beneficial to both her father's and her future husband's households. But it is also the case that her consumption of cates is represented, at least initially, as mutually detrimental. At the start of the play, as we have seen, Kate's excessive consumption renders her an unvendible commodity. Baptista is unable to “rid the house” (1.1.145) of Kate and is consequently unwilling to wed his younger daughter, Bianca, to any of her many suitors. Kate's fretting represents perhaps an even greater threat to Petruchio's household, however, although one of a different order. To comprehend this difference, one must comprehend the place occupied by cates within the two domestic economies. Petruchio's parsimonious attitude toward cates, evidenced by the disrepair of his country house and the “ragged, old, and beggarly” condition of his servants (4.1.124), stands in stark contrast to the conspicuous consumption that characterizes Padua's mercantile class.43 Gremio, a wealthy Paduan merchant and suitor to Bianca, for example, describes his “house within the city” as “richly furnished with plate and gold” (2.1.339-40):

My hangings all of Tyrian tapestry.
In ivory coffers I have stuff’d my crowns,
In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl,
Valance of Venice gold in needlework,
Pewter and brass, and all things that belongs
To house or housekeeping.

(ll. 342-49)

If housekeeping at Petruchio's country estate involves little more than keeping the “rushes strewed” and the “cobwebs swept” (4.1.41), in Gremio's description of his city dwelling, it is an enterprise that centers on the elaborate arrangement and display of cates. Each of Gremio's “things” bears testimony to his ability to afford superfluous expenditure and to his taste for imported luxuries: his tapestries are from Tyre (famous for its scarlet and purple dyes), his apparel “costly,” his linen “fine,” his “Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl.” His household is invested, literally “stuff’d,” with capital.

The marked difference between the two men's respective notions of the “things that belongs/To house or housekeeping” underscores the differing attitudes held by the minor gentry and mercantile classes in the period toward “household cates.” For the mercantile classes conspicuous consumption served to compensate for what, borrowing Baudrillard's terminology, we might call a “true social recognition” that otherwise evaded them; the accumulation of status objects served to supplement their “thwarted legitimacy” in the social domain.44 As Lawrence and Jeanne Fawtier Stone observe, however, for the upwardly mobile gentry “the obligation to spend generously, even lavishly,” as part of their newly acquired social status “implied a radical break with the habits of frugality which had played an essential part in the[ir] … upward climb.”45 The lesser gentry could make it into the ranks of the elite only by being “cautious, thrifty, canny, and grasping, creeping slowly, generation after generation, up the ladder of social and economic progress, and even at the end only barely indulging in a life-style and housing suitable to their dignity and income.”46 For the mercantile classes conspicuous consumption functioned as a necessary (though not always sufficient) means to elite status; for the lesser gentry it was an unwished-for consequence of it.

Arriving at their wedding in tattered apparel and astride an old, diseased horse, Petruchio proclaims: “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes. / Could I repair what she will wear in me / As I can change these poor accoutrements, / ’Twere well for Kate and better for myself” (3.2.115-18). As if to prove his point that Kate's extravagance will leave him a pauper, his self-consuming costume seems to wear itself out before our eyes: his “old breeches” are “thrice turned” (l. 42); his boots have been used as “candle-cases” (l. 43); his “old rusty sword” has a “broken hilt” (ll. 44-45). As for his horse: it is “begnawn with the bots [parasitical worms or maggots]” (ll. 52-53) and, even more appropriately, “infected”—as, he insinuates, is his future wife—“with the fashions” (l. 50). The term fashions (or farcin, as it was more commonly spelled), which derives from the Latin farcire, meaning “to stuff,” denotes a contagious equine disease characterized by a swelling of the jaw. Kate's taste for fashionable cates is likened to this disease of excessive consumption, which threatens to gnaw away at her husband's estate.

Following the wedding ceremony, Kate's excessive consumption seems to result in her swift reduction to the status of “chattel.” Petruchio whisks his bride away after announcing to the stunned onlookers:

I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing,
And here she stands.

(ll. 227-31)

Petruchio's blunt assertion of property rights over Kate performs the very act of domestication it declares; reduced to an object of exchange (“goods” and “chattels”), Kate is abruptly yanked out of circulation and sequestered within the home, literally turned into a piece of furniture or “household stuff.” The speech follows a domesticating trajectory not unlike that outlined by housework theory: it circumscribes Kate within a matrix of use-value production. The relationship between household stuff and household cates may be described as that between mere use-values and exchange-values, or commodities, properly speaking. The OED defines stuff as “the substance or ‘material’ … of which a thing is formed or consists, or out of which a thing may be fashioned.”47 As such, it may be identified with the use-value of the object.48 Entering into the process of exchange, commodities, “ungilded and unsweetened, retaining their original home-grown shape,” are split into the twofold form of use-value and value proper, a process Marx calls “Stoffwechsel”—literally, the act of (ex)change (Wechsel) that transforms mere stuff (Stoff) into values, or cates.49 In transforming Kate from an object of exchange into the home-grown materiality of mere stuff, into a thing defined by its sheer utility, a beast of burden (“my horse, my ox, my ass”), Petruchio's speech reverses the processes of commodification. Reducing Kate to a series of increasingly homely things, it finally strips her down to a seemingly irreducible substance whose static immobility (“here she stands”) puts a stop to the slippage of exchange evoked by his list of goods. Her deictic presence seems to stand as the guarantee of an underlying, enduring use-value.

As a member of the gentry, Petruchio stands for the residual, land-based values of a domestic economy that purports to be “all in all sufficient” (Othello, 4.1.265). The trajectory traced by his index of goods moves not only from exchange-value to use-value but from liquid capital, or “movables,”50 to the more secure form of landed property (“house … field … barn”). Yet Petruchio's portrait of an ideally self-sufficient household economy, in which the value of things is taken to be self-evident and not subject to (ex)change, is belied by the straightforwardly mercenary motives he avows for marrying Kate. Paradoxically, in order to maintain his land-based values, Petruchio must embrace those of the marketplace.51 In seeking to arrest the slippage of exchange, his speech implicates its speaker in an expanding network or maze of equivalent value-forms (“goods … any thing”) whose slide threatens to destabilize the hierarchy of values he would uphold. If Petruchio succeeds in mastering Kate, his position as master is nevertheless qualified by his own subjection to the exigencies and uncertainties of the new market economy. In his endeavor to domesticate the commodity form, one might say, Petruchio is himself commodified, himself subjected to the logic of commodity exchange. As Gremio so eloquently puts it: in taming Kate, Petruchio is himself “Kated” (3.2.243).

The contradictions inherent in Petruchio's class status make his task as shrew-tamer a complex one: he must restrict his wife's consumption without abolishing it entirely, must ensure that it adequately bears testimony to his own elite status without simultaneously leading him to financial ruin. The urgent requirement to maintain a proper balance between expenditure and thrift in the elite (or would-be elite) household and the perceived danger of delegating this task to the housewife are described in the following mid-seventeenth-century letter of advice, written by the Marquis of Halifax to his daughter:

The Art of laying out Money wisely, is not attained to without a great deal of thought; and it is yet more difficult in the Case of a Wife, who is accountable to her Husband for her mistakes in it: It is not only his Money, his Credit too is at Stake, if what lyeth under the Wife's Care is managed, either with undecent Thrift, or too loose Profusion; you are therefore to keep the Mean between these two Extreams, … when you once break through those bounds, you launch into a wide Sea of Extravagance.52

At stake in the housewife's proper management of money or economic capital, Halifax suggests, is her husband's credit, or symbolic capital. “Symbolic capital,” Bourdieu maintains, “is always credit, in the widest sense of the word, i.e. a sort of advance which the group alone can grant those who give it the best material and symbolic guarantees.53 It is not simply that economic capital serves to buttress symbolic capital when it is spent on “material and symbolic guarantees” such as status objects. Symbolic capital in turn attracts economic capital: “the exhibition of symbolic capital (which is always very expensive in economic terms) is one of the mechanisms which (no doubt universally) make capital go to capital.”54 Yet symbolic and economic capital are not always mutually reinforcing. Indeed, insofar as “symbolic capital can only be accumulated at the expense of the accumulation of economic capital,” the two are often at odds.55 In the case of the upwardly mobile gentry in early modern England, as the Stones make clear, the effort to balance the two was an ongoing struggle.

In this context the early modern housewife's new role in the symbolic ordering of household cates takes on its full importance. She was made responsible for maintaining the proper balance of economic and symbolic capital within the household economy. The early modern housewife had to learn to spend enough to ensure her husband's status or cultural credit without overspending his income or economic credit. Domestic manuals of the period repeatedly express anxiety over the housewife's ability to strike this balance and are intent on circumscribing her management of household expenditure within the bounds of her husband's authority. For example, in Of Domesticall Dvties William Gouge writes,

Wives cannot alwaies know their husbands ability: for their husbands may be much indebted, and yet to maintaine his credit, whereby he hopeth to raise his estate, may allow liberall maintenance for his house, if thereupon his wife shall gather that he is very rich, and accordingly be very bountifull in her gifts, she may soone goe beyond his ability, and so increase his debt, as he shall neuer be able to recouer himselfe.56

Gouge's warning is specifically concerned with the housewife's ability to distinguish symbolic from economic capital. Wives, he warns, are likely to be lured by symbolic capital, to believe that their husbands, because they spend freely on status objects, must be “very rich.” The trick of good housewifery in this period, then, is knowing how to manipulate status objects for others and knowing how not to be taken in by them. It is precisely this trick, I maintain, that Petruchio teaches Kate. He seeks to unmask the lure of status objects for Kate while teaching her to deploy this lure skillfully for others.

Culminating in the play's final scene, in which Kate obeys Petruchio's command to take off her “dainty” cap and throw it underfoot, Petruchio's strategy aims to tame Kate's consumption of cates. “My falcon now is sharp [i.e., hungry] and passing empty,” he explains, “and till she stoop she must not be full-gorg’d, / For then she never looks upon her lure” (4.1.177-79). Far from simply withholding cates from her, however, he continually offers them to her, only to find “some undeserved fault” in their appearance (l. 186), which, he claims, will make them unworthy of her refined tastes. His taming thus succeeds not by destroying the lure of the commodity but rather by exploiting it, by combatting Kate's daintiness with his own super-daintiness.

Arriving at his country estate at the beginning of Act 4, famished from their journey, Kate sits down to sup; but her dinner is sent back to the kitchen by Petruchio, who refuses it as “burnt and dried away” (l. 157). “Better ’twere that both of us did fast,” he assures her, than to eat “such over-roasted flesh” (ll. 160-62). By the third scene Kate is ravenous and begs Petruchio's servant for something to eat: “I prithee go and get me some repast, / I care not what, so it be wholesome food” (ll. 15-16). Momentarily forgetting the discriminations of taste, Kate is eager to fill her stomach with any wholesome stuff that will satisfy her appetite. Grumio does not simply ignore her request but perversely teases her with edible cates, offering her a “neat's foot” (l. 17), a “fat tripe finely broil’d” (l. 20), and a “piece of beef and mustard” (l. 23)—“a dish,” Kate acknowledges, “that I do love to feed upon” (l. 24).57 After listing all of the delicacies on the menu, however, Grumio objects to each as being “unwholesome”; like Kate, he gibes, they are “too hot” and “choleric” (ll. 19, 25, 22). Her temper flaring at this, Kate begins to fret and accuses Grumio of feeding her “with the very name of meat” (l. 32). Here Kate hits on the foundation of her husband's strategy: Petruchio's object lesson in consumption centers on the symbolic dimension of cates. By feeding her with nothing but the “name of meat,” with cates in their pure form as signifiers of taste and social distinction, Petruchio aims to bring home to her their lack of substance, or stuff.

Following their abortive supper, Petruchio summons in the haberdasher, commanding him to display his “ruffling treasure” and “ornaments” (ll. 60-61). When the latter produces the cap he has made for Kate, Petruchio ridicules it, comparing it to an edible cate, or “velvet dish” (an analogy that enables him to extend his lesson in consumption from comestibles to other commodities):

Why, this was moulded on a porringer!
A velvet dish! Fie, fie! ’Tis lewd and filthy.
Why, ’tis a cockle or a walnut-shell,
A knack, a toy, a trick, a baby's cap.
Away with it! Come, let me have a bigger.

(ll. 64-68)

Petruchio objects to the cap on the grounds that it is unwholesome and insubstantial—a cap, one might say, in name only. “I’ll have no bigger,” Kate responds. “This doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these” (ll. 69-70), revealing that she has indeed been seduced by the lure of the status object. Petruchio continues to expand his list of edible trifles, insisting: “It is a paltry cap, / A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie” (ll. 81-82). In likening the commodities that are brought in after supper to banqueting conceits, commonly known as “voids” or “empty dishes,” Petruchio again emphasizes the commodity's lack of substance. To consume such cates is to consume a void. It brings not satiety but only renewed want.

Banqueting conceits, Patricia Fumerton maintains, were made not to satisfy the appetite (indeed, they were often made out of nothing but paper) but rather to serve as signifiers of status and superfluous expenditure.58 This function was quite explicit in the case of certain “conceited dishes” that were actually made in the likeness of expensive but “trifling” luxury commodities, such as “Buttons, Beades, Chaines … Slippers … [and] Gloues.”59 As if to secure their purely superfluous status, the consumption of these “empty dishes” took the form of conspicuous waste; at the banquet's end they were ceremonially smashed to pieces.60 Through his taming lesson, Petruchio aims to separate the stuff of the commodity from its value as a cate. Status objects, he teaches, are not so much things as no-things.61

Petruchio continues the analogy, comparing the tailor's latest creation to a dainty dessert:

What’s this? A sleeve? ’Tis like a demi-cannon.
What, up and down, carv’d like an apple-tart?
Here's snip and nip and cut and slish and slash,
Like to a censer in a barber's shop.
Why, what a devil's name, tailor, call’st thou this?

(ll. 88-92)

The dress is refused on account of its “curiously cut” sleeves (l. 141), which are likened to the design of a dainty apple-tart, one that is “carv’d” full of holes. When the tailor objects that the dress was designed “according to the fashion and the time” (l. 95) and in accordance with Grumio's orders, the latter responds: “I gave him no order, I gave him the stuff” (l. 119). Grumio follows his master in distinguishing between the “stuff” of the dress in its “ungilded and unsweetened” form and the labor that transforms it into a cate, a thing of value. “I bid thy master cut out the gown,” he says, “but I did not bid him cut it to pieces” (ll. 127-28), further differentiating the utilitarian act of “cut[ting] out” from the stylish “cut[ting] … to pieces”—the snipping, nipping, slishing, and slashing that creates its cultural value as an object of fashionable taste.

When the tailor reads out the “note of the fashion” to show that it indeed specifies “‘The sleeves curiously cut,’” Grumio replies: “Error i’ th’ bill, sir, error i’ th’ bill! I commanded the sleeves should be cut out, and sewed up again” (ll. 129, 141, 143-44). Grumio's remark suggests that, if Petruchio's taming strategy reveals the “cut” that divides the commodity into its twofold form as use-value and status value,62 it does so only in order to sew it up again, to reduce the status value, make it conform to the use value. In a commodified world, however, to suture the cut of the commodity and thereby create the ruse that its value is inherent in its substance is to turn the commodity into a fetish. Baudrillard's definition of commodity fetishism is particularly apt in this context. For what is fetishized, he maintains, is specifically “the sign object, the object eviscerated of its substance … and reduced to the state of marking a difference.”63 Petruchio's taming lesson unmasks both the cut of the commodity, its function as a differentiating signifier of social distinction, and the lure that sutures this cut by dissimulating the lack of substance, or stuff, it conceals. It does so, however, in order to teach Kate both how better to distinguish and how to deploy them.

The success of this lesson is borne out by Kate's final gestures of obedience, the destruction of her dainty cap and her last speech, gestures that are performed as the final, sweet conceits of the play's concluding scene, which is, not coincidentally, set at a banquet. “My banquet is to close our stomachs up,” announces Lucentio, its host, to the play's three newlywed couples, “For now we sit to chat as well as eat” (5.2.9, 11). The ensuing chat is an intricate verbal performance in which the bridegrooms argue over whose wife is the “veriest shrew of all” (l. 64). To decide the matter, Petruchio proposes the test of obedience, which Kate wins when she unhesitatingly obeys his command to come. Although Kate's arrival wins the bet, Petruchio insists on “show[ing] more sign” of his wife's “new-built virtue and obedience” (ll. 118-19) by commanding her to destroy her dainty cap. That Kate should appear at the end of the play sporting a fashionable cap, much like (or, depending on the production, identical to) the one taken away when she was less obedient, confirms that Petruchio's taming strategy is aimed not at closing her stomach up, at abolishing her appetite for cates, but rather at harnessing that appetite, at making it conform to his own economic interests.

The destruction of Kate's confectionary cap, like that of a banqueting void, represents not a renunciation of the commodity but rather an affirmation of its power, of its new hold over the early modern household economy. “Economic power,” Bourdieu maintains, “is first and foremost a power to keep economic necessity at arm's length. This is why it universally asserts itself by the destruction of riches.”64 It is a gesture of conspicuous yet carefully controlled waste, demonstrating both Petruchio's ability to afford superfluous expenditure and his control over his wife's consumption. Unlike her earlier breaking of the lute, this destruction of riches demonstrates that Kate has been successfully broken to her proper place within the symbolic order of things.

While Kate's final gesture of obedience signals her readiness to assume an active managerial role in domestic affairs, we never in fact see her preside over the household economy or its property. This gesture itself, moreover, is peculiarly self-effacing. It seems that Kate can prove her readiness for this role only through a wholly passive gesture that displays her subordination to her husband's authority. She can prove herself a worthy caretaker of commodities only by destroying her own most cherished commodity, her fashionable cap. The self-consuming nature of the gesture reflects the contradictions inherent in the role of the “vicarious consumer”: it must appear wholly idle (efface its status as work); be ostensibly unproductive or superfluous (ideally, an act of conspicuous waste); and, most importantly, be executed vicariously (i.e., for another). The vicarious consumer consumes not for herself, in her own interest, but for that of her husband.

What distinguishes Kate from the other wives at the end of the play is not that she has learned how not to consume but that she has learned how to consume nothings (voids, empty dishes, insubstantial cates) for her husband's benefit. Failing to comprehend this novel form of duty, Bianca and the Widow express their abhorrence at the apparently useless waste of such a fine cap. Baptista, however, is won over by the signs of Kate's “new-built” virtue and obedience, so much so that he awards Petruchio another twenty thousand crowns: “Another dowry to another daughter,” he announces, “for she is chang’d, as she had never been” (ll. 115-16). By the end of the play, Kate has successfully learned to manipulate status objects and, in so doing, to bolster her husband's credit in a way that “makes capital go to capital.”

If, as Baptista's act demonstrates, symbolic capital is but “a transformed and thereby disguised form” of economic capital, it nevertheless produces its “proper effect,” according to Bourdieu, “only inasmuch, as it conceals the fact that it originates in ‘material’ forms of capital which are also, in the last analysis, the source of its effects.”65 It becomes the ideological burden of Kate's final speech to conceal the economic underpinnings of her symbolic labor, to render them culturally invisible. The speech accomplishes this task by defining the housewife's (nonproductive) activity as a form of leisure rather than labor:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance; commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.

(ll. 147-55)

Kate's speech inaugurates a new gendered division of labor, according to which husbands “labour both by sea and land” while their wives luxuriate at home, their “soft,” “weak” bodies being “unapt to toil and trouble in the world” (ll. 166-67). It is this new division of labor that produces the economic invisibility and unremunerated status of housework described by housework theory. In erasing the status of housework as work, separate-sphere ideology renders the housewife perpetually indebted to her husband insofar as her “love, fair looks, and true obedience” are insufficient “payment” for the material comfort in which she is “kept.”

Within the terms of the play, however, the unremunerated status of housework derives not from its circumscription within a matrix of use-value production but from the cultural necessity of concealing the economic origins of the housewife's symbolic labor. If The Taming of the Shrew may be said to map the market's infiltration of the household through the commodity form in late-sixteenth-century England, it also marks the emergence of the ideological separation of feminine and masculine spheres of labor (and with it the separation of home/market and housework/work), which masked this infiltration by constructing the household as a refuge from the market. Ironically, Kate's final speech renders invisible the housewife's managerial role as a consumer and caretaker of household cates—the very role for which Petruchio's “taming-school” (4.2.54) seeks to prepare her. At the end of the play, she herself appears to stand idle, frozen within the domestic sphere, like a use-less household cate.

As Lena Cowen Orlin points out, “the husband's political roles of lord, head, and sovereign are grounded economically” in Kate's speech in his role as her “keeper.”66 The speech ingeniously deploys the language of economic debt and indebtedness to secure a political analogy in which the household is figured as a microcosm of the state and the husband its sovereign or prince. Its aim is to restore the husband's “rule, supremacy, and sway” (5.2.164) within a domestic hierarchy that has been threatened by the housewife's managerial role in the household economy. The speech, as Orlin notes, shifts back and forth between political and economic forms of obligation; the husband's political sovereignty over his wife is immediately anchored in his role as her keeper. Once the marital relation is defined in economic terms (“one that cares for thee, / And for thy maintenance”) and the wife's position within this relation defined as one of lack (“Too little payment for so great a debt”), the speech returns again to the political analogy, to what “the subject owes the prince,” as if the housewife's deficit in the former domain (her economic debt) entails her subjection in the latter (her political duty):

Such duty as the subject owes the prince
Even such a woman oweth to her husband.
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

(ll. 156-65)

The political analogy between “the structure of authority in the family and the state” was not, of course, invented by Shakespeare. It was, as Susan Amussen points out, commonplace in both domestic manuals and political treatises of the period.67 Yet there was, as Amussen also notes, a marked disparity between patriarchal theory and quotidian practice in the early modern household. Though “theoretically, the husband ruled his wife, and she obeyed him in all things,” Amussen asserts, in practice the wife “was joined with him in the government of the household.”68 The political analogy restores the husband's sovereignty or mastery over his wife by devaluing her role in the household economy. Moreover, insofar as it succeeds in domesticating the housewife's relation to household cates by subordinating it to her husband's authority, the speech may be said to circumscribe this relation within the safe boundaries of vicarious consumption. Kate's role as a consumer has by the end of the play been successfully adjusted, made to conform, to her position as chattel (perpetually indebted to her husband for the things he provides her with, she may be said to belong to him). As Orlin argues, the role of things in the final “accommodation” that Petruchio and Kate reach is simply to “purchase the consent that perpetuates the gendered social contract”; they serve merely to “legitimate the social order.”69

In the commodious conclusion of the comedy, all “jarring notes agree” (5.2.1) and the cut of the commodity has been sutured, or sewn up again. What commodity fetishism seeks, according to Baudrillard, is “the closed perfection of a system,” a system that appears to know no lack.70 Comedy is precisely such a system: “suturing all contradictions and divisions,” it “gives ideology its power of fascination.”71 The effect that Kate's final signs of obedience produce in her audience is indeed one of fascination: “Here is a wonder, if you talk of a wonder,” Lucentio utters. “And so it is,” Hortensio responds; “I wonder what it bodes” (ll. 107-8). The “wonder” produced by Kate's symbolic labor, I would argue, is nothing other than a fascination with a “perfect closure effected by signs.”72 Kate's final chat is fetishized as a “labor of appearances and signs,” as a symbolic labor that conceals its own economic motivation and erases all traces of the labor necessary to produce it.

I do not mean to suggest (following the play's so-called revisionist readers) that Kate's speech should be read ironically, as evidence of her deceit, any more than (with its antirevisionist readers) as evidence of her “true” submission.73 Both readings, it seems to me, leave Kate squarely within the framework of the medieval shrew tradition. In the former she remains a duplicitous shrew, while in the latter she becomes “a second Grissel” (2.1.288).74 I maintain, rather, that The Taming of the Shrew recasts this tradition in entirely new terms, terms that map, through the commodity form itself, the market's infiltration and reorganization of the household economy during the early modern period. From this perspective Kate's “labor of signs” is of interest not because it marks her as a deep or complex subject but rather because it demonstrates the ways in which the housewife's subjectivity was constituted through its relation to status objects, or household cates.75

In the terms of this reading, it becomes less important to decide whether Petruchio succeeds in taming Kate than to point out, with Grumio, that in so doing, he is himself “Kated.” Petruchio, no less than Kate, is subject to the logic of exchange, to the perpetuum mobile of commodity circulation. Grumio's insight also accounts for an ambiguity in my title: Are commodities in this play the subject or object of domestication? Slightly adapting Marx, we may answer this question as follows: The movement of subjects within the play takes the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them.76 Or we might choose to let Kate have the last word, recalling her answer to Petruchio's pronouncement that he has been “mov’d” to make her his wife: “Mov’d, in good time! Let him that mov’d you hither / Remove you hence. I knew you at the first / You were a movable” (2.1.195-97).


  1. See The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris (London and New York: Methuen, 1981), 1-149, esp. 70; Richard Hosley, “Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew,Huntington Library Quarterly 27 (1963-64): 289-308; and John C. Bean, “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. (Urbana, Chicago, and London: U of Illinois P, 1980), 65-78. See also note 6, below.

  2. Quotations from The Taming of the Shrew follow the Arden Shakespeare text, edited by Brian Morris.

  3. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2:978 and 1:66; hereafter cited simply as OED.

  4. “He who satisfies his own need with the product of his own labour admittedly creates use-values, but not commodities. … In order to become a commodity, the product must be transferred to the other person … through the medium of exchange” (Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes [New York: Vintage Books, 1977], 131).

  5. Muriel Bradbrook cites this ballad as a possible source for Shrew in “Dramatic Role as Social Image: a Study of The Taming of the Shrew,Muriel Bradbrook on Shakespeare (Sussex, UK: Harvester Press; Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 1984), 57-71, esp. 60. Brian Morris discusses the ballad in his introduction to the Arden edition and in Appendix III, where he reprints several versions of it (75 and 310-16).

  6. The prescribed method of shrew-taming prior to Shakespeare's play was typically violent. The more severe the punishment inflicted, the more complete the shrew's “recovery” to the world of work seemed to be. In John Heywood's interlude Johan Johan the Husband (1533-34), cited by Bradbrook as an early Tudor source for Shrew, the eponymous Johan spends the first one hundred lines of the play elaborating how he will beat his wife. See Heywood, Johan Johan the Husband, The Malone Society Reprints (Oxford: University Press, 1972), sig. A1v; and Bradbrook, 59-61. In the anonymous verse tale “Here begynneth a merry Ieste of a shrewde and curste Wyfe, lapped in Morrelles Skin, for her good behauyour” (1550), the shrew is forced into a cellar by her husband, beaten mercilessly with birch rods until she faints, at which point he wraps her naked, bloody body in a salted hide, threatening to keep her there for the rest of her life. Thereafter she performs his commands humbly and meekly. See Morris, ed., 70.

  7. In the Scottish tale titled “The Handsome Lazy Lass,” cited as a folktale source for Shrew, a farmer likewise tricks his wife, who “will not do a hand's turn, she is so lazy,” into offering to do “the hardest and most exhausting work” on the farm; see Morris, ed., 73-74. In Heywood's Johan Johan the Husband the protagonist points to his wife's reluctance to do housework as the reason for beating her: “Whan she offendeth and doth a mys / And kepeth not her house / as her duetie is / Shall I not bete her if she do so / Yes by cokke blood that shall I do” (sig. A1v).

  8. An interesting exception to this norm is the fifteenth-century cycle of mystery plays (in particular, the Towneley version) in which Noah's wife is portrayed as an overly zealous producer. She refuses to put aside her spinning and board the ark even as the flood waters reach her feet: “Full sharp ar thise showers / That renys aboute. / Therefor, wife, haue done; / Com into ship fast,” Noah pleads. “In fayth, yit will I spyn; / All in vayn ye carp,” replies this industrious shrew (The Towneley Plays, ed. Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994], ll. 506-9 and 519-20). Martha C. Howell speculates that Mistress Noah is spinning not solely for her own household but for the market, and that the play stigmatizes the vital role many women played in late-medieval market production (Women, Production, and Patriarchy in Late Medieval Cities [Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1986], 182, n. 19). See also note 13, below.

  9. See Susan Cahn, Industry of Devotion: The Transformation of Women's Work in England, 1500-1660 (New York: Columbia UP, 1987), esp. 42-46. Cf. Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1919); and Roberta Hamilton, The Liberation of Women: A Study of Patriarchy and Capitalism (London and Boston: George Allen and Unwin, 1978).

  10. See Cahn, 53-56.

  11. On conspicuous consumption in early modern England, see F. J. Fisher, London and the English Economy, 1500-1700 (London and Ronceverte: The Hambledon Press, 1990), 105-18; Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978); Chandra Mukerji, From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism (New York: Columbia UP, 1983); and Consumption and the World of Goods, John Brewer and Roy Porter, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

  12. William Harrison, The Description of England: The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life, ed. Georges Edelen (New York: The Folger Shakespeare Library and Dover Publications, 1994), 200.

  13. See Martha C. Howell's rich and complex account of the types of female labor that took place, both within and outside the home, in late-medieval and early modern northern European cities. Howell's book resists the nostalgic overvaluation of female production in precapitalist society which has informed much of the earlier work on this subject and, in particular, that of the housework theorists.

  14. See Cahn, 7 and 156.

  15. In an article first published in 1978, Christine Delphy maintained: “We owe to the new feminists … the posing, for the first time in history, of the question of housework as a theoretical problem.” She asserted that no coherent “theory of housework” had thus far been produced and offered her own preliminary attempt at such a systematic theorization (“Housework or domestic work” in Close to Home: A materialist analysis of women's oppression, ed. and trans. Diana Leonard [Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1984], 78-92, esp. 78).

  16. As Annette Kuhn observes, feminist materialists of the 1970s “seized upon [housework] as the key to an historically concrete understanding of women's oppression, … as the central point at which women's specific subordination in capitalism is articulated” (Feminism and Materialism: Women and Modes of Production, Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe, eds. [London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978], 198).

  17. See Karen Sachs, “Engels Revisited” in Women, Culture, and Society, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds. (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974), 221-22; and Kuhn, “Structures of Patriarchy and Capital in the Family” in Kuhn and Wolpe, eds., 42-67, esp. 54. Housework theory is not so much a unified theory as a debate. Not all housework theorists view the unremunerated status of housework as resulting from its circumscription within a matrix of use-value production. Another, more radical strain of housework theory argues that the housewife does produce through her housework a commodity that is recognized and exchanged on the market—namely, the labor power of her husband and family—and that this work should therefore be paid or remunerated; see Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1972). For critiques of this notion, see Delphy, 88-89; and Paul Smith, “Domestic Labor and Marx's Theory of Value” in Kuhn and Wolpe, eds., 198-219, esp. 212.

  18. On the economic invisibility of housework, see Delphy, 84.

  19. On commodities as signs of distinction, see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984); and Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1981).

  20. Bourdieu, “Symbolic capital” in Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977), 171-83.

  21. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899; rpt. New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 83.

  22. Veblen, 57-58.

  23. “She still quite unmistakably remains his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant” (Veblen, 83).

  24. Veblen, 149 (my emphasis).

  25. Veblen, 57-58.

  26. Baudrillard, 45-46.

  27. Baudrillard, 33 and 5 (my emphasis).

  28. Baudrillard, 46.

  29. While it is conceptually closer to the work of Jean Baudrillard and Pierre Bourdieu, my phrase carries resonances of Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault; see Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1977), ix and 30-113; and Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon, 1970).

  30. Joel Fineman, “The Turn of the Shrew” in The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 120-42, esp. 128.

  31. Fineman, 127.

  32. Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991), 39-40.

  33. Newman, 44 (my emphasis). In a book so strongly concerned with the relation of women to commodities in the early modern period, it is curious that Newman so emphatically denies the significance of the commodity's conspicuousness in The Taming of the Shrew. My reading of Kate's role with respect to household cates is greatly indebted to several chapters in this volume, in particular “Dressing Up: Sartorial Extravagance in Early Modern London” and “City Talk: Femininity and Commodification in Jonson's Epicoene” (109-27 and 129-43).

  34. Lena Cowen Orlin, “The Performance of Things in The Taming of the Shrew,The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 167-88, esp. 167 and 183-85.

  35. Fineman, 125.

  36. OED, 4:218.

  37. In “‘Sing Againe Syren’: The Female Musician and Sexual Enchantment in Elizabethan Life and Literature” (Renaissance Quarterly 42 [1989]: 420-48), Linda Phyllis Austern notes that formal musical training was considered “a mark of gentility” in the period insofar as it was both “costly and time-consuming” (430). It thus became “a functional artifice” used by young women “to attract socially desirable husbands” (431). (Perhaps this is why Baptista seeks to have his daughter learn the lute.) In a contemporary treatise entitled The Praise of Musicke (1586), the art of music is specifically compared to other luxury commodities: “so Musicke is as the most delicate meates, and as the finer apparell: not indeede necessary simply, but profitablie necessary for the comlinesse of life. And therefore Socrates and Plato, and all the Pythagoreans instructed their yong men and maydes in the knowledge of Musicke, not to the provocation of wantonnesse, but to the restraining and bridling their affections under the rule and moderation of reason” (quoted in Austern, 428). The threat of “wantonnesse,” of excess, posed by the maids’ consumption of musical cates is immediately tamed by the author of this treatise, who quickly shifts from a model of superfluous consumption to one of restraint or discipline. The defensive rhetoric of the treatise, as Austern argues, came in response to contemporary attacks on the playing of musical instruments by women as a form of untamed, “Syrenesque” seduction.

  38. Domestic manuals of the period manifest anxiety over the limits of a woman's right to dispose of household property. William Gouge's Of Domesticall Duties (London, 1622), for example, devotes some fifteen chapters to defining the precise limits of the housewife's managerial role with respect to household goods. While it is the responsibility of the “godly, wise, faithfull, and industrious woman,” he maintains, to “ordereth all the things of the house,” he goes on to specify that this power must never exceed the scope of her husband's authority. In the dedicatory epistle of Gouge's treatise, however, we find that his attempt to limit the housewife's governance of household property was not overly popular with his parishioners: “I remember that when these Domesticall Duties were first uttered out of the pulpit, much exception was taken against the application of a wiues subiection to the restraining of her from disposing the common goods of the family without, or against her husbands consent.” Gouge defends himself as follows:

    But surely they that made those exceptions did not well thinke of the Cautions and Limitations which were then deliuered, and are now againe expresly noted: which are, that the foresaid restraint be not extended to the proper goods of a wife, no nor overstrictly to such goods as are set apart for the use of the family, nor to extraordinary cases, nor alwaies to an expresse consent, nor to the consent of such husbands as are impotent, or farre and long absent. If any other warrantable caution shall be shewed me, I will be as willing to admit it, as any of these. Now that my meaning may not still be peruerted, I pray you, in reading the restraint of wiues power in disposing the goods of the family, euer beare in minde those Cautions.

    Gouge proffers so many mitigating exceptions to his own rule that perhaps it was more often honored in the breach than in the observance.

  39. OED, 6:185.

  40. Baudrillard, 37.

  41. Carol F. Heffernan, “The Taming of the Shrew: The Bourgeoisie in Love,” Essays in Literature 12 (1985): 3-14, esp. 5. On the gentry's increasing reliance on commerce in the period, see Lawrence Stone and Jeanne C. Fawtier Stone, An Open Elite? England 1540-1880 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

  42. On the “economic and cultural symbiosis of land and money” in the period, see Stone and Stone, 26. The Stones conclude that the perceived symbiotic relation between the landed and merchant classes was more a “question of values and attitudes” than of “the facts of social mobility” (211).

  43. Cf. William Harrison's description of the “great provision of tapestry, Turkey work, pewter, brass, fine linen, and thereto costly cupboards of plate” found in the houses of “gentlemen, merchantmen, and some other wealthy citizens” (200).

  44. Baudrillard, 40.

  45. Stone and Stone, 185. On taste as a category of social distinction, see Bourdieu, Distinction, passim.

  46. Stone and Stone, 187.

  47. OED, 16:983. Note that this definition dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century.

  48. According to Marx, it is “the physical body of the commodity which is the use-value or useful thing” (126).

  49. “Commodities first enter into the process of exchange ungilded and unsweetened, retaining their original home-grown shape. Exchange, however, produces a differentiation of the commodity into two elements, commodity and money, an external opposition which expresses the opposition between use-value and value which is inherent in it” (Marx, 198-99).

  50. The term chattel derives from the Latin capitale and in the sixteenth century meant either “capital, principal,” or, more commonly, “a movable possession; any possession or piece of property other than real estate or a freehold” (OED, 3:59).

  51. By the late sixteenth century the landed gentry had to a large extent adopted an emergent-market view of land and labor, though their view of their own society was still governed by residual concepts of feudal entitlement; see Stone and Stone, 181-210.

  52. [George Savile, Marquis of Halifax], The Lady's New-years Gift: or, Advice to a Daughter, 3d ed. (London: M. Gillyflower and J. Partridge, 1688), 86-90.

  53. Bourdieu, Outline, 181.

  54. Bourdieu, Outline, 181.

  55. Bourdieu, Outline, 180.

  56. Gouge, 297.

  57. The early modern break with medieval cookery was marked by a shift from quantitative display to the qualitative refinement of “conceited” dishes. For the first time, as Stephen Mennell notes in All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), “knowledgeability and a sense of delicacy in matters of food” had come to function as markers of elite status—there was now “food to be emulated and food to be disdained.” Differences in social standing were expressed not so much through the quantity or kind of food consumed by different social classes but “more subtly through styles of cooking and serving” (75). When it came to meat, the elite were no longer distinguished as those who ate game and fowl as opposed to “gross meats” but as those who ate good cuts of meat as opposed to low-grade cuts. The “cut” of one's meat, as Jean-Louis Flandrin puts it, literally took on a social function, that of “dividing the vulgar from the distinguished”; see Jean-Louis Flandrin, “Distinction through Taste” in Passions of the Renaissance, Roger Chartier, ed., Vol. 3 of A History of Private Life, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, gen. eds., trans. Arthur Goldhammer, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1987-91), 265-307, esp. 273. Cf. Fernand Braudel, “Superfluity and Sufficiency: Food and Drink,” The Structures of Everyday Life, trans. Siân Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1981). On the refinement of table manners, cf. Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, Vol. 1 of The Civilizing Process, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 2 vols. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

  58. According to Patricia Fumerton, the “essential food value of banqueting stuffs … was nothing … the culinary referent of the void was zero” (Cultural Aesthetics: Renaissance Literature and the Practice of Social Ornament [Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991], 133).

  59. John Murrell, A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen … (1617), quoted here from Fumerton, 130.

  60. Fumerton, 130-32.

  61. In Marx's terms, Petruchio distinguishes a thing's “stiff and starchy existence as a body” from “its sublime objectivity as a value” (144). “Not an atom of matter,” Marx writes, “enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects” (138).

  62. “Commodities come into the world in the form of use-values or material goods. … This is their plain, homely, natural form. However, they are only commodities because they have a dual nature, because they are at the same time objects of utility and bearers of value” (Marx, 138).

  63. Baudrillard, 93.

  64. Bourdieu, Distinction, 55.

  65. Bourdieu, Outline, 183.

  66. Orlin, 185.

  67. S. D. Amussen, “Gender, Family and the Social Order, 1560-1725” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), 196-217, esp. 196.

  68. Amussen, 201. Amussen cites the housewife's supervision of children and servants and her role in the household economy as instances of her joint governorship (203).

  69. Orlin, 185.

  70. Baudrillard, 93.

  71. Baudrillard, 101.

  72. Baudrillard, 96.

  73. Robert B. Heilman was the first to speak of “revisionist” readings of Shrew in his “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew,” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 147-61. John C. Bean then divided Shrew criticism into both revisionist and antirevisionist camps in his “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.

  74. The duplicitous shrew was a common topos in medieval literature. In William Dunbar's “Tretis of the tua mariit Wemen and the Wedo,” for example, the shrewd widow gets her way with her husband by feigning submission: “… I wes a schrew evir,” she confides to her gossips, “Bot I wes schene [bright] in my schrowd [clothing] and schew me innocent; / And thought I dour wes and dane, dispitous and bald, / I wes dissymblit suttelly in a sanctis liknes: / I semyt sober and sueit, and sempill without fraud, / Bot I couth sexty dissaif [deceive] that suttillar wer haldin.” The widow offers the following lesson to future shrews: “Be constant in your governance and counterfeit gud maneris, / […] dowis ay in double forme, / […] Be amyable with humble face, as angellis apperand, / […] Be of your luke like innocentis, thought ye haif evill myndis” (William Dunbar, Poems, ed. James Kinsley [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958], ll. 108-13 and 116-24).

    Antirevisionist readings of the play remain equally within the medieval shrew tradition when reading Kate's final speech as evidence of her “true” submission, giving credit to Petruchio's assertion that he will turn Katherina into “a second Grissel.” In Chaucer's version of the story, Griselde's humble origins and predilection for hard labor position her as the very antithesis of the high-born, slothful, duplicitous shrew and lead her to suffer gladly her aristocratic husband's cruel tests. In contrast to the shrew's proverbial duplicity, Chaucer stresses Griselde's unfeigned satisfaction with her degree; see Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ed. N. F. Blake (London: Edward Arnold, 1980).

  75. Orlin similarly proposes an alternative to traditional characterologic readings of the play, one that focuses on the “performance of things” (186).

  76. Cf. Marx's assertion that “[exchangers'] own movement … within society has for them the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them” (167-68).

I would like to thank Karen Bock, Krystian Czerniecki, John Guillory, Jonathan Gil Harris, and Jean Howard for their valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Heather Findlay for inviting me to present an abbreviated version of it for her panel, “Shakespeare's Erotic Economies,” at the 1994 meeting of the North East Modern Language Association in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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The Taming of the Shrew

Twentieth-century scholarship of The Taming of the Shrew has reflected the growing historiography of the Elizabethan period and an increased understanding of Elizabethan ideology and culture. Numerous scholars have compared The Taming of the Shrew to earlier, more traditional shrew-taming tales. Stephen Miller (1998), for example, compares Shakespeare's version to Peter Short's 1594 story, Taming of a Shrew. Scholars note that the ways in which Shakespeare adapted his play from the traditional shrew-taming genre reflect the changes that were occurring in Elizabethan society. Natasha Korda (1996) discusses the way in which Shakespeare's play reveals changes in the economy and the commodification of the family. Jonathan Hall (1995) discusses similar themes, stating that market changes lessened the family's role as a productive unit and created tensions regarding the nature of marriage. Hall argues that in the play Shakespeare explored the advantages and disadvantages of the emerging notion of romantic unions, and traditional, arranged unions. Karen Newman (1986) also critiques The Taming of the Shrew against the backdrop of Elizabethan society, focusing on the way in which the uneasiness of social change is reflected in the play. Katherine A. Sirluck (1991) argues that The Taming of the Shrew is a satire of the Elizabethan patriarchal order, which was in flux during Shakespeare’s time.

Much recent criticism of The Taming of the Shrew centers upon feminist ideology, conflicts in how to comprehend Shakespeare's original intent, and ways of interpreting the play in light of changing views on the roles of women and the nature of marriage. Critic Barbara Hodgdon maintains that the play has sparked remarkable consternation as a result of its Elizabethan patriarchal power structure which no longer corresponds with modern cultural gender ideology. She states, "Shrew's obsessive attempt to circumscribe woman's ‘place’ has especially fatal attractions for late-twentieth century feminist readers and spectators." Her sentiments echo other scholars who are in consensus that a modern reading of the play is fraught with interpretive difficulties. Points of contention are Petruchio's physical abuse of his servants and method for breaking Kate's spirit (through denial of food and sleep), and his reliance on psychological abuse to achieve complete domination. Most puzzling for academics, as well as theatre companies, is determining how to decode Kate's final speech in Act V, in which she states that a wife's role is to serve her husband. Critics note that many modern productions of the play emphasize an ironic tone in this final speech, as a means of creating rapport with a modern audience who rejects inequality between men and women. Dale G. Priest (1994) suggests that while the play does reaffirm the traditional patriarchal order, Kate benefits from her transformation from selfish and angry shrew to loving wife. Other scholars interpret Kate's final scene as evidence of a bond of equality and love between the couple; Kate is not subjugated, but empowered through her love and her winning of the love of Petruchio. George Walton Williams (1991) argues that Kate benefits from knowing her place within a power structure which functions for the good of all. However, Hall cautions that Kate cannot offer herself in a power structure in which she has no control over her identity. Increasingly, scholars such as Ann Thompson (1997) and Hall are praising The Taming of the Shrew for the questions which it raises about feminism and gender roles in our society.

Karen Newman (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 86-100.

[In the following essay, Newman analyzes gender and power roles in The Taming of the Shrew against the backdrop of Elizabethan culture.]

Wetherden, Suffolk. Plough Monday, 1604. A drunken tanner, Nicholas Rosyer, staggers home from the alehouse. On arriving at his door, he is greeted by his wife with “dronken dogg, pisspott and other unseemly names.” When Rosyer tried to come to bed to her, she “still raged against him and badd him out dronken dogg dronken pisspott.” She struck him several times, clawed his face and arms, spit at him and beat him out of bed. Rosyer retreated, returned to the alehouse, and drank until he could hardly stand up. Shortly thereafter, Thomas Quarry and others met and “agreed amongest themselfs that the said Thomas Quarry who dwelt at the next howse … should … ryde abowt the towne upon a cowlestaff whereby not onley the woman which had offended might be shunned for her misdemeanors towards her husband but other women also by her shame might be admonished to offence in like sort.”1 Domestic violence, far from being contained in the family, spills out into the neighborhood, and the response of the community is an “old country ceremony used in merriment upon such accidents.”

Quarry, wearing a kirtle or gown and apron, “was carryed to diverse places and as he rode did admonishe all wiefs to take heede how they did beate their husbands.” The Rosyers' neighbors re-enacted their troubled gender relations: the beating was repeated with Quarry in woman's clothes playing Rosyer's wife, the neighbors standing in for the “abused” husband, and a rough music procession to the house of the transgressors. The result of this “merriment” suggests its darker purpose and the anxiety about gender relations it displays: the offending couple left the village in shame. The skimmington, as it was sometimes called, served its purpose by its ritual scapegoating of the tanner, and more particularly, his wife. Rosyer vented his anger by bringing charges against his neighbors in which he complained not only of scandal and disgrace to himself, “his wief and kyndred,” but also of seditious “tumult and discention in the said towne.”2

The entire incident figures the social anxiety about gender and power which characterizes Elizabethan culture. Like Simon Forman's dream of wish-fulfillment with Queen Elizabeth, this incident, in Louis Montrose's words, “epitomizes the indissoluably political and sexual character of the cultural forms in which [such] tensions might be represented and addressed.”3 The community's ritual action against the couple who transgress prevailing codes of gender behavior seeks to re-establish those conventional modes of behavior—it seeks to sanction patriarchal order. But at the same time, this “old country ceremony” subverts, by its re-presentation, its masquerade of the very events it criticizes by forcing the offending couple to recognize their transgression through its dramatic enactment. The skimmington seeks “in merriment” to reassert traditional gender behaviors which are naturalized in Elizabethan culture as divinely ordained; but it also deconstructs that “naturalization” by its foregrounding of what is a humanly constructed cultural product—the displacement of gender roles in a dramatic representation.4


The events of Plough Monday 1604 have an uncanny relation to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew which might well be read as a theatrical realization of such a community fantasy, the shaming and subjection of a shrewish wife. The so-called induction opens with the hostess railing at the drunken tinker Sly, and their interchange figures him as the inebriated tanner from Wetherden.5 Sly is presented with two “dreams,” the dream he is a lord, a fantasy which enacts traditional Elizabethan hierarchical and gender relations, and the “dream” of Petruchio taming Kate. The first fantasy is a series of artificially constructed power relationships figured first in class relations, then in terms of gender. The lord exhorts his servingmen to offer Sly “low submissive reverence” and traditional lordly prerogatives and pursuits—music, painting, handwashing, rich apparel, hunting, and finally a theatrical entertainment. In the longer, more detailed speech which follows at Ind., 1. 100 ff., he exhorts his page to “bear himself with honourable action/Such as he hath observ’d in noble ladies/Unto their lords.” Significantly, Sly is only convinced of his lordly identity when he is told of his “wife.” His realization of this newly discovered self involves calling for the lady, demanding from her submission to his authority, and finally seeking to exert his new power through his husbandly sexual prerogative: “Madam, undress you and come now to bed” (Ind., 2.118). By enacting Sly's identity as a lord through his wife's social and sexual, if deferred, submission, the Induction suggests ironically how in this androcentric culture men depended on women to authorize their sexual and social masculine identities.6 The Lord's fantasy takes the drunken Sly who brawls with the hostess, and by means of a “play” brings him into line with traditional conceptions of gender relations. But in the Induction, these relationships of power and gender, which in Elizabethan treatises, sermons and homilies, and behavioral handbooks and the like were figured as natural and divinely ordained, are subverted by the metatheatrical foregrounding of such roles and relations as culturally constructed.

The analogy between the events at Wetherden and Shakespeare's play suggests a tempting homology between history and cultural artifacts. It figures patriarchy as a master narrative, the key to understanding certain historic events and dramatic plots. But as Louis Althusser's critique of historicism epigrammatically has it, “history is a process without a telos or a subject.”7 This Althusserian dictum repudiates such master narratives, but as Frederic Jameson points out, “What Althusser's own insistence on history as an absent cause makes clear, but what is missing from the formula as it is canonically worded, is that he does not at all draw the fashionable conclusion that because history is a text, the ‘referent’ does not exist … history is not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.”8 If we return to Nicholas Rosyer's complaint against his neighbors and consider its textualization, how it is made accessible to us through narrative, we can make several observations. We notice immediately that Rosyer's wife, the subject of the complaint, lacks the status of a subject. She is unnamed and referred to only as the “wief.” Rosyer's testimony, in fact, begins with a defense not of his wife, but of his patrimony, an account of his background and history in the village in terms of male lineage. His wife has no voice; she never speaks in the complaint at all. Her husband brings charges against his neighbors presumably to clear his name and to affirm his identity as patriarch which the incident itself, from his wife's “abuse” to the transvestite skimmington, endangers.

From the account of this case, we also get a powerful sense of life in early modern England, the close proximity of neighbors and the way in which intimate sexual relations present a scene before an audience. Quarry and the neighbors recount Rosyer's attempted assertion of his sexual “prerogatives” over his wife, and her vehement refusal: “she struck him several times, clawed his face and arms, spit at him and beat him out of bed.” There is evidently no place in the later Elizabethan “sex/gender system”9 for Rosyer's wife to complain of her husband's mistreatment, drunkenness and abuse, or even give voice to her point of view, her side of the story. The binary opposition between male and female in the Wetherden case and its figuration of patriarchy in early modern England generates the possible contradictions logically available to both terms: Rosyer speaks, his wife is silent; Rosyer is recognized as a subject before the law, his wife is solely its object; Rosyer's family must be defended against the insults of his neighbors, his wife has no family, but has become merely a part of his. In turning to The Taming of the Shrew, our task is to articulate the particular sexual/political fantasy or, in Jameson's Althusserian formulation, the “libidinal apparatus” that the play projects as an imaginary resolution of contradictions which are never resolved in the Wetherden case, but which the formal structures of dramatic plot and character in Shakespeare's play present as seemingly reconciled.


Many readers of Shakespeare's Shrew have noted that both in the induction and the play language is an index of identity. Sly is convinced of his lordly identity by language, by the lord's obsequious words and recital of his false history. Significantly, when he believes himself a lord, his language changes and he begins to speak the blank verse of his retainers. But in the opening scene of the play proper, Shakespeare emphasizes not just the relationship between language and identity, but between women and language, and between control over language and patriarchal power. Kate's linguistic protest is against the role in patriarchal culture to which women are assigned, that of wife and object of exchange in the circulation of male desire. Her very first words make this point aggressively: she asks of her father “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?”10 Punning on the meaning of stale as laughing stock and prostitute, on “stalemate,” and on mate as husband, Kate refuses her erotic destiny by exercising her linguistic willfulness. Her shrewishness, always associated with women's revolt in words, testifies to her exclusion from social and political power. Bianca, by contrast, is throughout the play associated with silence (1.1.70-71).11

Kate's prayer to her father is motivated by Gremio's threat “To cart her rather. She’s too rough for me” (1.1.55). Although this line is usually glossed as “drive around in an open cart (a punishment for prostitutes),” the case of Nicholas Rosyer and his unnamed wife provides a more complex commentary. During the period from 1560 until the English Civil War, in which many historians have recognized a “crisis of order,” the fear that women were rebelling against their traditional subservient role in patriarchal culture was widespread.12 Popular works such as The Two Angry Women of Abington (1598), Middleton's The Roaring Girl (1611), Hic Mulier, or The Man-Woman (1620), and Joseph Swetnam's Arraignment of lewd, idle, froward and inconstant women, which went through ten editions between 1616 and 1634, all testify to a preoccupation with rebellious women.13

What literary historians have recognized in late Elizabethan and Jacobean writers as a preoccupation with female rebellion and independence, social historians have also observed in historical records. The period was fraught with anxiety about rebellious women. David Underdown observes that “Women scolding and brawling with their neighbours, single women refusing to enter service, wives dominating or even beating their husbands: all seem to surface more frequently than in the periods immediately before or afterwards. It will not go unnoticed that this is also the period during which witchcraft accusations reach their peak.”14 Underdown's account points out a preoccupation with women's rebellion through language. Although men were occasionally charged with scolding, it was predominantly a female offence usually associated with class as well as gender issues and revolt: “women who were poor, social outcasts, widows or otherwise lacking in the protection of a family … were the most common offenders.”15 Underdown points out that in the few examples after the restoration, social disapproval shifts to “mismatched couples, sexual offenders, and eventually … husbands who beat their wives.”16 Punishment for such offences and related ones involving “domineering” wives who “beat” or “abused” their husbands often involved public shaming or charivari of the sort employed at Wetherden. The accused woman or her surrogate was put in a scold's collar or ridden in a cart accompanied by a rough musical procession of villagers banging pots and pans.

Louis Montrose attributes the incidence of troubled gender relations to female rule since “all forms of public and domestic authority in Elizabethan England were vested in men: in fathers, husbands, masters, teachers, magistrates, lords. It was inevitable that the rule of a woman would generate peculiar tensions within such a ‘patriarchal’ society.”17 Instead of assigning the causes of such rebellion to the “pervasive cultural presence” of the Queen, historians point to the social and economic factors which contributed to these troubled gender relations. Underdown observes a breakdown of community in fast-growing urban centers and scattered pasture/dairy parishes where effective means of social control such as compact nucleated village centers, resident squires, and strong manorial institutions were weak or non-existent. He observes the higher incidence of troubled gender relations in such communities as opposed to the arable parishes which “tended to retain strong habits of neighborhood and cooperation.” Both Montrose's reading of the Elizabethan sex-gender system in terms of “female rule” and Underdown's explanation for this proliferation of accusations of witchcraft, shrewishness and husband domination are less important here than the clear connection between women's independent appropriation of discourse and a conceived threat to patriarchal authority contained through public shaming or spectacle—the ducking stool, usually called the cucking stool, or carting.18

From the outset of Shakespeare's play, Katherine's threat to male authority is posed through language; it is perceived as such by others and is linked to a claim larger than shrewishness—witchcraft—through the constant allusions to Katherine's kinship with the devil.19 Control of women and particularly of Kate's revolt is from the outset attempted by inscribing women in a scopic economy.20 Woman is represented as spectacle (Kate) or object to be desired and admired, a vision of beauty (Bianca). She is the site of visual pleasure, whether on the public stage, the village green, or the fantasy “cart” with which Hortensio threatens Kate. The threat of being made a spectacle, here by carting, or later in the wedding scene by Petruchio's “mad-brain rudesby,” is an important aspect of shrew-taming.21 Given the evidence of social history and of the play itself, discourse is power, both in Elizabethan and Jacobean England and in the fictional space of the Shrew.

The Shrew both demonstrated and produced the social facts of the patriarchal ideology which characterized Elizabethan England, but representation gives us a perspective on that patriarchal system which subverts its status as natural. The theatrically constructed frame in which Sly exercises patriarchal power and the dream in which Kate is tamed undermine the seemingly eternal nature of those structures by calling attention to the constructed character of the representation rather than veiling it through mimesis. The foregrounded female protagonist of the action and her powerful annexation of the traditionally male domain of discourse distances us from that system by exposing and displaying its contradictions. Representation undermines the ideology about women which the play presents and produces, both in the Induction and in the Kate/Petruchio plot: Sly disappears as lord, but Kate keeps talking.


At 2.1, in the spat between Bianca and Kate, the relationship between silence and women's place in the marriage market is made clear. Kate questions Bianca about her suitors, inquiring as to her preferences. Some critics have read her questions and her abuse of Bianca (in less than thirty lines, Kate binds her sister's hands behind her back, strikes her and chases after her calling for revenge) as revealing her secret desire for marriage and for the praise and recognition afforded her sister. Kate's behavior may invite such an interpretation, but another view persistently presents itself as well. In her questions and badgering, Kate makes clear the relationship between Bianca's sweet sobriety and her success with men. Kate's abuse may begin as a jest, but her feelings are aroused to a different and more serious pitch when her father enters, taking as usual Bianca's part against her sister.22 Baptista emphasizes both Bianca's silence, “When did she cross thee with a bitter word?” and Katherine's link with the devil, “thou hilding of a devilish spirit” (2.1.28, 26). We should bear in mind here Underdown's observation that shrewishness is a class as well as gender issue—that women “lacking in the protection of a family … were the most common offenders.”23 Kate is motherless, and to some degree fatherless as well, for Baptista consistently rejects her and favors her obedient sister. Kate's threat which follows, “Her silence flouts me, and I’ll be reveng’d” (2.1.29) is truer than we have heretofore recognized, for it is that silence which has insured Bianca's place in the male economy of desire and exchange to which Kate pointedly refers in her last lines:

What, will you not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
I must dance barefoot on her wedding day,
And, for your love to her lead apes in hell.


Here we recognize the relationship between father and husband, in which woman is the mediating third term, a treasure the exchange of which assures patriarchal hegemony. Throughout the play Bianca is a treasure, a jewel, an object of desire and possession. Although much has been made of the animal analogies between Kate and beasts, the metaphorical death of the courtly imagery associated with Bianca has been ignored as too conventional, if not natural, to warrant comment.24 What seems at issue here is not so much Kate's lack of a husband, or indeed her desire for a marriage partner, but rather her distaste as those folk customs which make her otherness, her place outside that patriarchal system, a public fact, a spectacle for all to see and mock.

In the battle of words between Kate and Petruchio at 2.1.182ff., it is Kate who gets the best of her suitor. She takes the lead through puns which allow her to criticize Petruchio and the patriarchal system of wooing and marriage. Her sexual puns make explicit to the audience not so much her secret preoccupation with sex and marriage, but what is implicit in Petruchio's wooing—that marriage is a sexual exchange in which women are exploited for their use-value as producers. Significantly, Petruchio's language is linguistically similar to Kate's in its puns and wordplay. He also presents her, as many commentators have noted, with an imagined vision which makes her conform to the very order against which she rebels—he makes her a Bianca with words, shaping an identity for her which confirms the social expectations of the sex/gender system which informs the play. Their wooing can be interestingly compared with the next scene, also a wooing, between Bianca and her two suitors. Far from the imaginative use of language and linguistic play we find in Kate, Bianca repeats verbatim the Latin words Lucentio “construes” to reveal his identity and his love. Her revelation of her feelings through a repetition of the Latin lines he quotes from Ovid are as close as possible to the silence we have come to expect from her.

In the altercation over staying for the wedding feast after their marriage, Kate again claims the importance of language and her use of it to women's place and independence in the world. But here it is Petruchio who controls language, who has the final word, for he creates through words a situation to justify his actions—he claims to be rescuing Kate from thieves. More precisely, he claims she asks for that rescue. Kate's annexation of language does not work unless her audience, and particularly her husband, accepts what she says as independent rebellion. By deliberately misunderstanding and reinterpreting her words to suit his own ends, Petruchio effectively refuses her the freedom of speech identified in the play with women's independence. Such is his strategy throughout this central portion of the action, in their arrival at his house and in the interchange with the tailor. Kate is figuratively killed with kin-dness, by her husband's rule over her not so much in material terms—the withholding of food, clothing and sleep—but the withholding of linguistic understanding. As the receiver of her messages, he simply refuses their meaning; since he also has material power to enforce his interpretations, it is his power over language that wins.

In the exchange between Petruchio and Kate with the tailor, Kate makes her strongest bid yet for linguistic freedom:

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endur’d me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.


When we next encounter Kate, however, on the journey to Padua, she finally admits to Petruchio: “What you will have it nam’d, even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherine” (4.5.21-22). On this journey Kate calls the sun the moon, an old man a budding virgin, and makes the world conform to the topsy-turvy of Petruchio's patriarchal whimsy. But we should look carefully at this scene before acquiescing in too easy a view of Kate's submission. Certainly she gives in to Petruchio's demands literally; but her playfulness and irony here are indisputable. As she says at 4.5.44-48:

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes,
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on seemeth green.
Now I perceive thou art a reverend father.
Pardon, I pray thee, for my mad mistaking.

Given Kate's talent for puns, we must understand her line, “bedazzled with the sun,” as a pun on son and play with Petruchio's line earlier in the scene “Now by my mother's son, and that's myself, / It shall be moon, or star, or what I list” (4.5.6-7). “Petruchio's bedazzlement” is exactly that, and Kate here makes clear the playfulness of their linguistic games.

In his paper “Hysterical Phantasies and their Relation to Bi-Sexuality” (1908), Sigmund Freud observes that neurotic symptoms, particularly the hysterical symptom, have their origins in the daydreams of adolescence.25 “In girls and women,” Freud claims, “they are invariably of an erotic nature, in men they may be either erotic or ambitious.”26 A feminist characterological re-reading of Freud might suggest that Kate's ambitious fantasies, which her culture allows her to express only in erotic directions, motivate her shrewishness.27 Such behavior, which in a man would not be problematic, her family and peers interpret as “hysterical” and/or diabolic. Her “masculine” behavior saves her, at least for a time, from her feminine erotic destiny.

Freud goes on to claim that hysterical symptoms are always bi-sexual, “the expression of both a masculine and a feminine unconscious sexual phantasy.”28 The example he gives is a patient who “pressed her dress to her body with one hand (as the woman) while trying to tear it off with the other (as the man).”29 To continue our “analysis” in the scene we are considering, we might claim that Kate's female masquerade obscures her continuing ambitious fantasies, now only manifest in her puns and ironic wordplay which suggest the distance between her character and the role she plays.30 Even though she gives up her shrewishness and acquiesces to Petruchio's whims, she persists in her characteristic “masculine” linguistic exuberance while masquerading as an obedient wife.31

Instead of using Freud to analyze Kate's character, a critical move of debatable interpretive power, we might consider the Freudian text instead as a reading of ideological or cultural patterns. The process Freud describes is suggestive for analyzing the workings not of character, but of Shakespeare's text itself. No speech in the play has been more variously interpreted than Kate's final speech of women's submission. In a recent essay on the Shrew, John Bean has conveniently assigned to the two prevailing views the terms “revisionist” for those who would take Kate's speech as ironic and her subservience as pretense, a way of living peaceably in patriarchal culture but with an unregenerate spirit, and the “anti-revisionists” who argue that farce is the play's governing genre and that Kate's response to Petruchio's taming is that of an animal responding to “the devices of a skilled trainer.”32 Bean himself argues convincingly for a compromise position which admits the “background of depersonalizing farce unassimilated from the play's fabliau sources,” but suggests that Kate's taming needs to be seen in terms of romantic comedy, as a spontaneous change of heart such as those of the later romantic comedies “where characters lose themselves in chaos and emerge, as if from a dream, liberated into the bonds of love.”33 Bean rightly points out the liberal elements of the final speech in which marriage is seen as a partnership as well as a hierarchy, citing the humanist writers on marriage and juxtaposing Kate's speech with the corresponding, and remarkably more mysogynist, lines in The Taming of a Shrew and other taming tales.34

Keeping in mind Bean's arguments for the content of the speech and its place in the intersection of farce and romantic love plot, I would like to turn instead to its significance as representation. What we find is Katherine as a strong, energetic female protagonist represented before us addressing not the onstage male audience, only too aware of its articulation of patriarchal power, but Bianca and the Widow, associated with silence throughout the play and finally arriving by means, as Petruchio calls it, of Kate's “womanly persuasion” (5.2.120).

Unlike any other of Shakespeare's comedies, we have here represented not simply marriage, with the final curtain a veiled mystification of the sexual and social results of that ritual, but a view, however brief and condensed, of that marriage over time.35 And what we see is not a quiet and submissive Kate, but the same energetic and linguistically powerful Kate with which the play began. We know, then, in a way we never know about the other comedies, except perhaps The Merchant of Venice, and there our knowledge is complicated by Portia's male disguise, that Kate has continued to speak. She has not, of course, continued to speak her earlier language of revolt and anger. Instead she has adopted another strategy, a strategy which the French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray calls mimeticism.36 Irigaray argues that women are cut off from language by the patriarchal order in which they live, by their entry into the Symbolic which the Father represents in a Freudian/Lacanian model.37 Women's only possible relation to the dominant discourse is mimetic:

To play with mimesis is … for a woman to try to recover the place of her exploitation by language, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it. It is to resubmit herself … to ideas—notably about her—elaborated in and through a masculine logic, but to “bring out” by an effect of playful repetition what was to remain hidden: the recovery of a possible operation of the feminine in language. It is also to unveil the fact that if women mime so well they are not simply reabsorbed in this function. They also remain elsewhere.38

Whereas Irigaray goes on to locate this “elsewhere” in sexual pleasure (jouissance), Nancy Miller has elaborated on this notion of “mimeticism,” describing it as a “form of emphasis: an italicized version of what passes for the neutral. … Spoken or written, italics are a modality of intensity and stress; a way of marking what has already been said, of making a common text one's own.”39

Joel Fineman has recently observed the difficulty in distinguishing between man's and woman's speech in the Shrew by demonstrating how the rhetorical strategies Kate deploys are like Petruchio's.40 But Kate's self-consciousness about the power of discourse, her punning and irony, and her techniques of linguistic masquerade, are strategies of italics, mimetic strategies, in Irigaray's sense of mimeticism. Instead of figuring a gender-marked woman's speech, they deform language by sub-verting it, that is, by turning it inside out so that metaphors, puns and other forms of wordplay manifest their veiled equivalences: the meaning of woman as treasure, of wooing as a civilized and acceptable disguise for sexual exploitation, of the objectification and exchange of women. Kate's having the last word contradicts the very sentiments she speaks; rather than resolve the play's action, her monologue simply displays the fundamental contradiction presented by a female dramatic protagonist, between woman as a sexually desirable, silent object and women of words, women with power over language who disrupt, or at least italicize, women's place and part in culture.

To dramatize action involving linguistically powerful women characters militates against patriarchal structures and evaluations of women in which their silence is most highly prized—which is why so many of Shakespeare's heroines, in order to maintain their status as desirable, must don male attire in order to speak: Rosalind, Portia, even the passive Viola. The conflict between the explicitly repressive content of Kate's speech and the implicit message of independence communicated by representing a powerful female protagonist speaking the play's longest speech at a moment of emphatic suspense is not unlike Freud's female patient who “pressed her dress to her body with one hand (as the woman) while trying to tear it off with the other (as the man).” We might even say that this conflict shares the bi-sexuality Freud claims for the hysterical symptom, that the text itself is sexually ambivalent, a view in keeping with the opposed readings of the play in which it is either conservative farce or subversive irony. Such a representation of gender, what I will call the “female dramatizable,”41 is always at once patriarchally suspect and sexually ambivalent, clinging to Elizabethan patriarchal ideology and at the same time tearing it away by foregrounding or italicizing its constructed character.


Kate's final speech is “an imaginary or formal solution to unresolvable social contradictions,” but that appearance of resolution is an “ideological mirage.”42 On the level of plot, as many readers have noted, if one shrew is tamed two more reveal themselves. Bianca and the widow refuse to do their husbands' bidding, thereby undoing the sense of closure Kate's “acquiescence” produces. By articulating the contradiction manifested in the scene's formal organization and its social “content”—between the “headstrong women,” now Bianca and the widow who refuse their duty, and Kate and her praise of women's submission—the seeming resolution of the play's ending is exploded and its heterogeneity rather than its unity is foregrounded. But can transgression of the law of women's silence be subversive? It has become a theoretical commonplace to argue that transgression presupposes norms or taboos. Therefore, the “female dramatizable” is perhaps no more than a release mechanism, a means of managing troubled gender relations. By transgressing the law of women's silence, but far from subverting it, the Shrew reconfirms the law, if we remember that Kate, Bianca and the widow remain the object of the audience's gaze, specular images, represented female bodies on display, as on the cucking stool or in the cart, the traditional punishments for prostitutes and scolds. Representation contains female rebellion. And because the play has no final framing scene, no return to Sly, it could be argued that its artifice is relaxed, that the final scene is experienced naturalistically. The missing frame allows the audience to forget that Petruchio's taming of Kate is presented as a fiction.

Yet even with its missing frame and containment of woman through spectacle, the Shrew finally deconstructs its own mimetic effect if we remember the bisexual aspect of the representation of women on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Kate would have been played by a boy whose transvestism, like Thomas Quarry's in the Wetherden skimmington, emblematically embodied the sexual contradictions manifest both in the play and Elizabethan culture. The very indeterminateness of the actor's sexuality, of the woman/man's body, the supplementarity of its titillating homoerotic play (Sly's desire for the page boy disguised as a woman, Petruchio's “Come Kate, we’ll to bed”), foregrounds its artifice and therefore subverts the play's patriarchal master narrative by exposing it as neither natural nor divinely ordained, but culturally constructed.


  1. This would seem to be Rosyer's neighbor's duty. The OED cites Lupton's Sivgila, p. 50 (1580) as an early use of cowlstaff: “If a woman beat hir husbande, the man that dwelleth next unto hir sha ride on a cowlstaffe.”

  2. PRO STAC8,249/19. I am grateful to Susan Amussen for sharing her transcription of this case, and to David Underdown for the original reference. We do not know the result of Rosyer's complaint since only the testimony, not the judgment, is preserved.

  3. Louis Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 1 (1983), 61-94.

  4. See Natalie Z. Davis, “Women on Top” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, Cal., 1975); E. P. Thompson, “Rough Music: ‘le Charivari Anglais’” Annales ESC 27 (1972), 285-312.

  5. In The Taming of a Shrew, the frame tale closes the action; Sly must return home after his “bravest dreame” to a wife who “will course you for dreaming here tonight,” but he claims: “Ile to my/Wife presently and tame her too.” See Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1957), I, 108.

  6. See Montrose's discussion of the Amazonian myth, “‘Shaping Fantasies,’” pp. 66-67.

  7. Reponse à John Lewis (Paris, 1973), pp. 91-98.

  8. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), p. 35.

  9. Montrose, p. 62, after Gayle Rubin.

  10. (1.1.57-58); all references are to the New Arden edition, ed. Brian Morris (London, 1981).

  11. See, for example, Robert Greene's Penelope's Web (1587) which presents the Renaissance ideal of womanhood—chastity, obedience and silence—through a series of exemplary tales; see also Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, 1956); Linda T. Fitz, “‘What says the Married Woman?’: Marriage Theory and Feminism in the English Renaissance,” Mosaic 13 (1980), 1-22; the books Suzanne Hull examines in her Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino, 1982); and most recently Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex, Eng., 1983), 103-140.

  12. See, among others, Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford, 1965) and Keith Wrightson's English Society 1580-1680 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1982), esp. chs. 5 and 6. I am grateful to David Underdown for referring me to Wrightson.

  13. Stone cites Swetnam, Family, p. 137; for references to Hic Mulier, see David Underdown, “The Taming of the Scold: the enforcement of patriarchal authority in Early Modern England,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. by Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge, 1985), 116-36.

  14. Underdown, p. 119.

  15. Underdown, p. 120.

  16. Underdown, p. 121, citing E. P. Thompson.

  17. Montrose, pp. 64-65.

  18. Montrose, pp. 64-65. See also Davis and Thompson, cited above.

  19. See, for example, 1.1.65, 105, 121, 123; 2.1, 26, 151; for the social context of witchcraft in England, see Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (New York, 1970) and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971).

  20. On the importance of the gaze in managing human behavior, see Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir (Paris, 1975); see also Laura Mulvey's discussion of scopophilia in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975), 6-18, and Luce Irigaray's more philosophical Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris, 1974).

  21. Kate's speech at 3.2.8, 18-20 makes clear this function of his lateness and his “mad-brain rudesby.” She recognizes that this shame falls not on her family, but on her alone: “No shame but mine. … Now must the world point at poor Katherine/‘Lo, there is made Petruchio's wife, If it would please him come and marry her’” (3.2.8,18-20). Although Katherine to herself, she recognizes that for others she will be “Petruchio's wife.”

  22. See Marianne Novy's discussion of the importance of the father and paternity in her essay “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew,English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979), 273-74.

  23. Underdown, p. 120.

  24. See Novy's detailed discussion of Kate's puns, animal imagery and sexual innuendoes in this scene, p. 264, and Martha Andreson-Thom's “Shrew-taming and other rituals of aggression: Baiting and bonding on the stage and in the wild,” Women's Studies 9 (1982), 121-43.

  25. Collected Papers, tr. Joan Riviere (London, 1948), II, pp. 51-59.

  26. Collected Papers, II, p. 51.

  27. For a discussion of female fantasy, see Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women's Fiction,” PMLA 97 (1981), 36-48.

  28. Collected Papers, p. 57.

  29. Collected Papers, p. 58.

  30. See Joan Riviere's essay on female masquerade in Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality, ed. H. Ruitenbeek (New Haven, 1966); also of interest is Sir Thomas Elyot's Defense of Good Women in which Zenobia is allowed autonomy in relation to her husband, but exhorted to dissemble her disobedience. See Constance Jordan, “Feminism and the Humanists: The Case of Thomas Elyot's Defense of Good Women,Renaissance Quarterly 36 (1983), 195.

  31. Freud describes a similar strategy of evasion in his essay, Collected Papers, II, p. 58.

  32. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,The Woman's Part, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, Ill., 1980). Bean quotes the “anti-revisionist” Robert Heilbrun, “The Taming Untamed, or, the Return of the Shrew,” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966), 147-61. For the revisionist view, see Coppelia Kahn's The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage,” Modern Language Studies 5 (1975), 88-102.

  33. Bean, p. 66.

  34. Bean, pp. 67-70.

  35. See Nancy K. Miller's discussion of the mystification of defloration and marriage in “Writing (from) the Feminine: George Sand and the Novel of Female Pastoral,” The Representation of Women, English Institute Essays (Cambridge, 1983).

  36. Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un (Paris, 1977), pp. 134ff.

  37. Speculum de L’autre femme, particularly pp. 282-98. Contemporary handbooks often seem an uncanny description of woman as Other: the popular preacher Henry Smith, whose Preparative to Marriage was published in 1591, suggests that marriage is an equal partnership, but goes on to declare that “the ornament of women is silence; and therefore the Law was given to the man rather than to the woman, to shewe that he shoulde be the teacher, and she the hearer” (quoted in Novy, p. 278).

  38. Irigaray, p. 74, quoted and translated by Nancy Miller, “Emphasis Added:” cited above, p. 38.

  39. Miller, p. 38.

  40. Joel Fineman, “The Turn of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London, 1985), pp. 141-144.

  41. See D. A. Miller's discussion of the “narratable” in Narrative and its Discontents (Princeton, 1981), especially the chapter on Austen.

  42. Jameson, pp. 79, 56.

Dale G. Priest (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Katherina's Conversion in The Taming of the Shrew: A Theological Heuristic,” in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Priest discusses the conversion of Kate, and draws parallels between Petruchio—who transforms the unworthy, thus freeing and enriching them—and Christ.]

What has happened to Katherina in Act V of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew? The most conservative possible reading of the play finds in the five words of its title the literal and formulaic answer to the question: Katherine the Kite, the wild and willful animal, has been domesticated, subdued, tamed. Even revisionist and deconstructionist critics have trouble refashioning the conclusion into a version that does not, finally, reassert the patriarchal order made explicit in Kate's final speech.1 “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,” she says to the disobedient wives; “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband” (V.ii.146, 155-56). Her lecture clearly reflects and reinforces not only the chain of authority at the center of the Elizabethan world picture, but the Pauline theology so often cited to sustain it as well. In this essay I wish to argue, however, for an ambivalent and parallel reading of Kate's experience, a reading that illustrates a paradox found elsewhere in the teachings of St. Paul. If Kate's conversion is the subjugation found in a conservative reading of Colossians 3.18, it is also the liberation implicit in I Corinthians 7.22: “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord.” Petruchio's lordship over Katherine has released her from the prison of her miserable self and given her the freedom to play.

As one might expect, the critics are divided about the “proper” reading of The Shrew. It can be said, in general, that the rigorous or conservative reading of the play is associated with the generic critics, specifically those who see the play as farce.2 According to this view, most persuasively argued by H. J. Oliver in his introductory essay to the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the play, the Induction and the early, hyperbolic references to Kate as animal or demon prepare an audience to expect a rough-and-tumble shrew-taming as in a Punch and Judy show (50-51). This interpretation is countered, however, by readings that variously argue for the benign or potentially benign effects on Kate of Petruchio's so-called “taming” of her.3 The post-formalist criticism of the last fifteen years or so has spawned a number of such interpretations, including John C. Bean's feminist argument that Kate is humanized by her husband and “discovers love through the discovery of her own identity” (66). From the “language as power” school comes Tita Baumlin's essay demonstrating that Petruchio “creates through words a ‘brave new world’ of marital harmony” for him and Kate (237). Bridging the gap between these views is Marianne Novy's nicely balanced argument that Kate's final speech is both theatrical performance and evidence of her new command of proper convention and socially approved language, suggesting an ambivalent relation in the drama between play and hierarchical social reality (277-79). Finally, although Sybil Trouchet compares Petruchio's mastery of Kate to the reclaiming of a soul through baptism, her argument remains centered in a conservative reading of Petruchio's “awful rule” (1-10).

The Induction to the play, often cut in theatrical productions, forecasts Kate's conversion experience by way of theological analogy, albeit farcical. In the Induction, a lord and his attendants find an unconscious drunkard, Christopher Sly, and decide to take him home and practice on him by trying to convince him that he is a nobleman just now returning to himself after fifteen years of insanity. When he sees the sleeping Sly, there is an unmistakable sense of power in the lord's language as his scheme takes shape in his mind. It is the god-like power of creation itself. “What’s here? One dead … ?” he asks. “See, doth he breathe?” Through the power of will and the imagination, the lord is about to create, theatrically, a new creature. To the lord, the unconscious Sly is an inanimate lump, an image of death. No actor animates, no lines enliven his inert form. The lord, however, will resurrect him and create a role for him, inspire him, breathe into him new life on a theatrical level. We note the theological implications of the lord's title. He is simply “the lord,” and like the God of Genesis, he will create a man “in his own image”; Sly will awake also a “lord,” but obviously a little lower than his creator. The attempt, in fact, is hopelessly doomed because of Sly's intransigence. Like Kate to come, Sly is firmly committed to his own closed identity and apparently impervious to change. Petruchio's lordship over Kate, however, will be motivated by compelling purpose, and executed with more effective resolve than the lord of the Induction can summon for his practical joke. Petruchio's power and persistence will produce a new creature.

To argue for a thoroughgoing parallel between Petruchio and Christ would be a bit reckless. The former makes it fairly clear that his initial motive for converting Kate is mercantile, and he does not show humility very often. Nevertheless, his misunderstood identity and mission, his messianic zeal, and his penchant for paradox in his methodology and his teaching—all recommend Petruchio as the lord of the main play. He is a stranger who appears on the scene with an unclear purpose, and the community does not know quite what to make of him. When asked who people thought Jesus was, the apostle Peter gave three different answers (Mt. 16.13-14). Likewise, when trying to explain the meaning of Petruchio's tardiness for his own wedding, the community gives three different answers, each dependent upon what the speaker believes he or she knows about the bridegroom: Baptista calls him shamefully undependable; Tranio calls him honest and well meaning, but detained by fortune; Katherine calls him crazy (III.ii.1-25). Kate says more than she knows, for it is precisely Petruchio's madcap but purposeful vision—couched in paradox and energized by his power to refashion reality—that informs his pedagogical pronouncement and his modus operandi in working the miracle of Kate's conversion.

Petruchio announces his readiness, his vision, and his strategy in a key soliloquy delivered just before he meets the notorious shrew:

… I will attend her here
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why, then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly washed with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.


At the philological level, the speech reflects the sophist's power to manipulate language and transvalue semantics to suit the needs of the rhetorician. Such power over language creates “new versions of the world by eradicating static, preconceived notions and offering the listener the freedom to choose a new mode of thinking. … The sophist accomplishes his persuasions through a verbal creation of potential situations, rather than a mimesis or mirroring of present conditions” (Baumlin 244). As rhetorician, Petruchio posits a linguistic “otherness” to challenge or convert the expectations derived from traditional usage. Kate's “railing” becomes “sweet singing” at Petruchio's bidding and for his purpose.

On a deeper, philosophical level, the passage points to the paradoxical epistemology at the heart of Biblical truth and Christian theology. Petruchio, the lord of paradox in the play, describes “Katherine the curst” in terms of the reality she represents by communal or worldly definition, and simultaneously renames her in terms of the “conformable household Kate” she “really” is by his definition. Her reality, already converted to its opposite in his paradoxical mode of perceiving truth, will be her actual or communal reality when she learns this truth and accepts its liberating power for herself. Until then, the real Kate is the identity imposed upon her by community and habitual self. She is a “last” figure whom Petruchio has and will transvalue or convert into a “first” figure, recalling Jesus' power to elevate, in his kingdom, the lowly and despised (Mt. 23.12; Lk. 18.14). From last in her family, subject to Baptista's authority and enslaved by his favoritism for Bianca, she will be raised to first in Petruchio's family. Just as Jesus exalted and lifted to equality and companionship the most uncouth and vulgar (Peter the fisherman), the most despised (Matthew the tax collector), and the most dreaded and feared (Saul the persecutor), Petruchio chooses and exalts the cursed and outcast Katherine unto equality with himself as his true wife upon her conversion at the end. “Kiss me, Kate” will then signify the union of true minds and like spirit.

Immediately following his soliloquy, Petruchio meets the shrew for the first time and proceeds, according to his stated purpose, to “woo her with some spirit when she comes.” The word “spirit” is especially appropriate in regard to his vision and strategy, suggesting not only zeal and commitment but also his power to “suppose,” to create alternative realities that are the simultaneous inverse of literal or apparent circumstance—i.e., the spiritual power outlined in the soliloquy. The new spirit starts with her new name, Kate, suggesting that to him she is already a converted creature, at least in potentia. When she protests that her name is not Kate, but Katherine, Petruchio responds with a barrage of paradoxical inversions making manifest the vision of the soliloquy: “You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate / … the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate / … Hearing thy mildness praised in every town, / … Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife” (II.i.185-94). When she begins then to rail and strike him and call him “witless,” he confronts her firmly with this remarkable profession:

Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn,
For by this light whereby I see thy beauty,
Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well,
Thou must be married to no man but me;
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.


The degree to which the speech represents literal truth is offset by the power of the truth in spirit pronounced here. Is Kate really beautiful? The answer is yes, for Petruchio “intends” her beautiful, just as he “intends” that “all is done in reverent care for her” at his country house later, when he deprives her of food and sleep (IV.ii.191). According to his vision, she is beautiful and she is his, as he already anticipates his victory of “peace, love and quiet life” (V.ii.108). There is a lesson here about the joyful value of relativistic vision and paradoxical perception that Kate is not yet ready to assimilate, a power firmly in Petruchio's possession: “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Sam. 16.7). Petruchio will teach Kate to see “by this light.”

All good teachers use metaphor to make truth more vivid to their students; this is especially true of spirit-led teachers who habitually see beneath the surface of experience. Petruchio is no exception. The allusive, metaphorical quality of “this light” that illuminates both Kate's appearance and Petruchio's vision anticipates a more accessible metaphor that he will use throughout the rest of the play in his mission to educate or convert Kate. I refer to his use of clothing as a teaching device. His first use of this metaphor occurs at the wedding ceremony, when he shows up, late, dressed as inappropriately as could possibly be conceived. As usual, there is method in his apparent madness. To Baptista's protest that his attire is “shame to your estate, / An eyesore to our solemn festival” (III.ii.99-100), Petruchio replies, “Therefore have done with words; / To me she’s married, not unto my clothes” (III.ii.115-16). This unfeigned reprimand clearly echoes Jesus' chiding of his audience in the Sermon on the Mount for their anxiety about what they will eat and wear: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … Why are you anxious about clothing?” (Mt. 6.25-27). Both Petruchio and Jesus are calling attention to the difference between outside and inside, appearances and reality, superficial trappings and the interior person. Interestingly, Petruchio follows this pronouncement with a rare, public revelation of his own interior self—his most humble and sincere moment except for the soliloquies: “Could I repair what she will wear in me / As I can change these poor accoutrements, / ’Twere well for Kate and better for myself” (117-20). His use of the clothing metaphor has reminded him of his own faults, which he will try to repair after Kate has changed her superficial wardrobe, as it were, so that the “real” couple can live together happily. As if suddenly aware that he is “casting pearls before swine,” however, he collects himself and resumes his mission: “But what a fool am I to chat with you, / When I should bid good morrow to my bride / And seal the title with a lovely kiss!” (120-22).

At Petruchio's country house, Kate endures an extended, agonizing ordeal to prepare her for subsequent enlightenment and the assimilation of her husband's liberating vision. Her painful experience recalls the instructive admonitions of Jesus' brother James, who, at the beginning of his epistle, says that trials are to be counted a blessing because they lead to steadfastness and wisdom (James 1.2-5). Indeed, Kate's great trial emerges as a kind of purgatorial experience whereby she is cleansed of all superficial or worldly concerns. Petruchio's depriving her of food, drink, and sleep is an analogue to fasting in secret, the New Testament prelude to spiritual regeneration (Mt. 6.17-18). When he sees that the time is right, Petruchio begins his final lesson to prepare her for conversion, and again he uses the clothing metaphor as his primary teaching device. Exercising his antic disposition to the fullest, he flies into a fit of mock rage when the tailor delivers the cap and gown Petruchio had ordered for his wife. Kate likes the articles and wants very much to keep them, but her husband raves that they are incorrectly made and must be taken back. Our key to the theatrical nature of the outburst is the poor, unwitting tailor's protest that the garments have been sewn exactly to Petruchio's specifications. We can be sure that they are, indeed, correct; Petruchio is again staging an instructive performance. He understands that to a person like Kate, clothes represent reality, an extension of the self. She sees them, wants them, and feels they must be hers—a childish urge to enhance and gratify her self, her essence. Thus Petruchio will not let her have them—again, to shock her into recognizing her own immaturity portrayed before her. He wants her to realize that clothing, like the fixed and rigid identity she wears and clings to with such fervor, are mere appearance; neither must be mistaken for reality or happiness.

Her purgatory at the country house almost over, Kate and her husband make ready to return to her father's house, but there is time for one last lesson and one last use of the clothing figure. He tells her gently, I suggest:

Well, come, my Kate. We will unto your father's,
Even in these honest mean habiliments.
Our purses shall be proud, our garments poor,
For ’tis the mind that makes the body rich;
… Neither art thou the worse
For this poor furniture and mean array.
If thou account’st it shame, lay it on me,
And therefore frolic.


Like Jesus at the end of his parables, Petruchio makes clear the meaning of his metaphor in explicit terms. Humble clothing, paradoxically, indicates richness of spirit. It is her mind that can make her wealthy, not her garments. So they will travel home in “mean array.” If Kate does not quite yet accept the apparent shame, she can “lay it on” Petruchio, suggesting Jesus' voluntary bearing of his disciples' burdens, including their failure to understand him completely (Mt. 11.28-30). When she consents to go with him, the final journey to conversion is underway. Their destination is “your father's,” or “our father's,” as he says when they are out on the road (IV.v.1). The “return unto the father” motif here resonates with obvious theological overtones that include the poverty-stricken, poorly dressed prodigal son returning home (Lk. 15.11-32), and Jesus' ascension to his father's right hand following his resurrection (Mk. 16.19). Kate's resurrection, as it were, is itself now at hand, whereupon she may “frolic” for the first time in her life.

The final step, then, in the transformation of Katherine the curs’t into frolicking Kate occurs on the trip back to Padua when she sees the light, both literally and figuratively, in a scene that recalls St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus in the ninth chapter of Acts. Both scenes are epiphanies, moments of discovery signified by the oxymoronic interplay of dazzling light and blindness, and both result in a convert with a new name. Let us look at the exchange in detail:

Pet: Come on i’ God's
name, once more toward our father's.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
Kath: The moon! The sun. It is not
moonlight now.
Pet: I say it is the moon that shines
so bright.
Kath: I know it is the sun that shines
so bright.
Pet: Now, by my mother's son,
and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list, …
Kath: Forward, I pray, since we have
come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please.
An if you please to call it a rush candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
Pet: I say it is the moon.
Kath: I know it is the moon.
Pet: Nay, then you lie. It is the
blessed sun.
Kath: Then, God be blessed, it is
the blessed sun. …
What you will have it nam’d, even that it is,
And so it shall be for Katherine. …
Pet: Why, how now, Kate, I hope thou
art not mad.


What Petruchio means, in his usual paradoxical mode here, is, “I am pleased, Kate, that thou art mad at last.” In the exchange we note the frequency of the words “God” and “blessed,” and the reference to “our father's.” Petruchio's “now by my mother's son, and that’s myself,” perhaps recalls Christ's announcement of his divine origin and powers. Kate's statement of submission, furthermore, seems to have the ring of a religious confession (“Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me”). With this confession she is converted to her lord's subjunctive “doctrine,” released from the prison of her old, fixed identity to enjoy the freedom and spontaneity that animate Petruchio himself. She has learned (recalling Biblical paradox) that to find herself she must lose herself and has forsworn her oath to resist Petruchio's efforts to convert her. Thus when they meet Vincentio on the road, she playfully participates with her husband in the transformation game of pretending the old man is a “young budding virgin”; and when Petruchio returns him into old Vincentio, Kate responds:

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on seemeth green.
Now I perceive thou art a reverend father;
Pardon, I pray thee, for my mad mistaking.


The conservative proponents of farce will read Kate's acquiescence here as “weary resignation” (Oliver 56). Surely Kate's deliverance into something finer and happier than she has known is a better reading, however, especially since Shakespeare has cultivated our interest in these people as human beings rather than as the mechanical puppets of a typical Renaissance farce. Furthermore, the text encourages us to find metaphorical meaning in Kate's blindness and subsequent vision. Petruchio's miracle reminds us of Jesus' giving sight to the blind man in St. John's gospel: “I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (Jn. 9.39). The result, for Katherine, is that all is now “green,” signifying regeneration. She is free to enjoy her husband's happy madness at last.

We return, in closing, to where we began—Kate's chiding speech to Bianca and Hortensio's widow in the final scene. The banquet scenario recalls the famous banquet parable in Luke 14, where the host invites upstanding guests who all make excuses, whereupon he invites the “poor and the blind” to the feast instead. In the play, the respectable ladies are instructed by their husbands to come forth, but they both make excuses. Biondello tells Lucentio that Bianca “is busy, and cannot come” (V.ii.81); and he reports to Hortensio that his wife “will not come, (for) she bids you come to her” (92). Then the call goes out for the supposed shrew—the poor outcast and least likely invitee—and she, of course, accepts the invitation without excuse, to the wonderment of all. As in the parable, the two respectable invitees “will not taste the banquet,” whereas the poor Katherine wins the reward—the one hundred crowns wagered by the husbands. Kate has won the victory. Ultimately, the degree to which she is serious about the particulars of her closing speech to the disobedient wives is impossible to determine. But I feel that the proponents of thoroughgoing farce, as well as G. B. Shaw and those who find the speech “disgusting to modern sensibility” (Wilson 180) both overlook the possibility—strongly encouraged by the theological implications of her conversion—that she is playing the role designed to win the game. In any case, she is behaving in a manner that would have been impossible before her conversion. I sense the liberation of her mind and spirit here. Kate is now able to experience the joys of responsible freedom rather than the misery and bondage of the self-centered will.


  1. Fineman, for instance, observes that the discursive modes of Katherine and Petruchio are subversive inversions of traditional patterns endorsed by patriarchal society; yet the subversive patterns manage to resecure, at the end, the very order to which they seem to be opposed. He wonders, in fact, if it is possible for canonical literature to voice a language that does not speak, sooner or later, for the order and authority of man (138 ff.).

  2. See Alexander; Brunvand; Heilman; Weiss.

  3. In addition to those studies cited in the text, see Berry; Bradbrook; Dusinberre; Gottlieb; Huston; Seronsy.

Works Cited

Alexander, Peter. Shakespeare's Life and Art. New York: NYUP, 1961.

Baumlin, Tita French. “Petruchio the Sophist and Language as Creation in The Taming of the Shrew.Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 29 (1989): 237-57.

Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Eds. Carolyn Lenz, et al. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 65-78.

Berry, Ralph. Shakespeare's Comedies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

Bradbrook, Muriel. “Dramatic Role as Social Image: A Study of The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Jahrbuch 94 (1958): 132-50.

Brunvand, J. H. “The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966): 345-59.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Fineman, Joel. “The Turn of the Shrew.” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. New York: Methuen, 1985. 138-60.

Gottlieb, Erika. “‘I Will Be Free’: Shakespeare's Ambivalence to Katherine's Challenge of the Great Chain of Being.” Essays on Shakespeare in Honour of A. A. Ansari. Ed. T. R. Sharma. Meerut: Shalabh Book House, 1986. 88-116.

Heilman, Robert. “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew.” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 147-61.

Huston, J. Dennis. Shakespeare's Comedies of Play. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.

Novy, Marianne. “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew.English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 264-80.

Oliver, H. J., ed. Introduction. The Taming of the Shrew. The Oxford Shakespeare. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. 1-84.

Seronsy, Cecil. “‘Supposes’ as the Unifying Theme of The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 15-30.

Shakespeare, William, The Taming of the Shrew. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 110-39.

Trouchet, Sybil. “A Sacramental Reading of The Taming of the Shrew.Aspects du Theatre Anglais: 1594-1730. Ed. Nadia Rigaud. Aix-en-Provence: U de Provence, 1987. 1-10.

Weiss, Theodore. The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories. London: Chatto and Windus, 1971.

Wilson, Edwin, ed. Shaw on Shakespeare. London: Cassell, 1961.

Carol Rutter (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Kate, Bianca, Ruth, and Sarah: Playing the Woman's Part in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare's Sweet Thunder: Essays on the Early Comedies, edited by Michael J. Collins, University of Delaware Press, 1997, pp. 176-215.

[In the following excerpt, Rutter provides an overview of twentieth-century performances of The Taming of the Shrew,discussing the effects of feminist theory on the interpretations.]

Mess. Your honor's players,
hearing your amendment,
Are come to play a pleasant comedy. …
Sly. Is not a comonty a Christmas
gambold, or a tumbling-trick?
Page. No, my good lord, it is more
pleasing stuff.
Sly. What, household stuff?
Page. It is a kind of history.

(Ind. 2.129-30 and 137-41)

Like Polonius trying to pin down the play at Elsinore, The Taming of the Shrew makes several stabs at fixing its own genre. But while the self-appointed master of the Danish revels has a clear political interest in mastering those revels (since to contain a play inside a genre is in some way to authorize its reception and to limit the audience's options for interpreting it), Shrew's indecisiveness seems innocent of politics. Maybe the play doesn’t know what to make of itself. Maybe it needs to wait and see what the audience will make of it.

Now, The Murder of Gonzago plays a joke on the censor (“Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in’t?”—3.2.232-33): it evades his authorization. Not even “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral” (2.2.398-99) covers the subversive farce Gonzago turns into as The Mousetrap. The play resists establishment attempts to license it, to make it safe for royal consumption as comedy or tragedy or history or even as fiction. And this is instructive. Always, everywhere, Shakespeare's play resists containment. His play is never safe. As Louis Montrose has argued, the purpose of playing in a theater that occupied the margins of Elizabethan culture (its site the suburbs, the licentious liberties, but its site, too, a magic circle, a wooden O) was reflexive and conservative, but certainly also revolutionary. A “plaything” reproduces culture but likewise generates culture. It plays out marginal experiences that invert or interrogate structural norms and so provokes thought, but more than that, through the process of enactment, it offers patterns for action—alternative options—that can be projected and tested in the ‘safe’ space the theater encloses. The play liberates audiences from their usual constraints. It makes cultural innovation possible. And the tension it explores between the conservative and the innovative, the reactionary and the revolutionary, the orthodox and the dissident are not just fundamental to the theater, but to Elizabethan society as well. For Montrose, “the Elizabethan playhouse, play-wright, and player exemplify the contradictions of Elizabethan society and make those contradictions their subject.”1

It is just this contradiction-at-the-core that John Arden was beginning to detect when he “wrote that there were so many corrections to the view of Agincourt as a lovely war within the structure of Henry V that ‘one is forced to wonder if the author had not written a secret play inside the official one.’”2 Arden might have gone further. Given the material conditions of their original production, every authorized play by Shakespeare conceals an anti-play, a Mousetrap to interrogate, subvert, and finally perhaps erase Gonzago. And since Shakespeare's plays continue to intervene in culture, to make new meanings impacting upon new audiences in subsequent performances, the challenge for subsequent performers is to be alert not just to Shakespeare's original “secret” play, but to discover ways of disclosing its subsequent secret alternatives.

I want to relate these ideas to The Taming of the Shrew first by looking at Shakespeare's original play and performance texts to decipher the “secret” Shrew I think is encoded in his ambitious, dissident script of 1592 and then by considering how, four hundred years later, a handful of today's actors, working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, have interpreted its women's roles. How does Kate negotiate her final speech when 1592 speaks in 1992? If Shakespeare's original subversions are lost to us because we no longer recognize the play's interrogation of contemporary cultural practice, does our remake of Shrew still have power to provoke new interrogations born out of the agitated, not to say abrasive, relationship between modern female consciousness and Elizabethan text? Is this play in our time one that knows more than it speaks: is it, as Fiona Shaw, who played Kate in 1987, thought “underwritten and overendowed”?3

I shall claim that it is the Induction that gives access both to Shakespeare's Shrew and to ours. The Induction invites the audience of 1592 to decipher an anti-play that is an Elizabethan subversion of the conventional shrew-taming story. But the Induction likewise cannily predicts the play's reproduction and reception four hundred years after its original performance: in our own time, under feminist scrutiny, the “pleasant comedy” announced by the Messenger in the Induction (authorized to call it a comedy, one supposes, by the players themselves) has increasingly been seen as a “kind of history,” an intervention in and interrogation of women's history, and not at all innocent of politics. Indeed, I want to suggest that a modern actor—and I will focus this suggestion on Shaw's performance—may only survive the ideological consequences of Shakespeare's original text for Kate by finding a way of deconstructing her own performance by simultaneously playing a critique of it. For Kate and her sisters in 1992—Bianca, Ruth, and Sarah (of whom more anon)—Shrew has become a very serious play indeed.

This, of course, has not always been the case, and so, to set up my double project of putting our Shrew against Shakespeare's, I will survey some recent performance history that makes my radical claims for anti-plays and secret Shrews sound about as serious as Dormouse's chat at the Mad Hatter's tea party because for thirty years the postwar Royal Shakespeare Theatre (or Shakespeare Memorial Theatre as it was known until 1961) played the “official” Shrew as “a gambold.” In 1948, directed by Michael Benthall with Anthony Quayle and Diana Wynward, it was “a farce,” “a boisterous romp”: the traveling players were a Crazy Gang dressed in costumes grabbed indiscriminately from their touring skips so that scenes from Trelawney of the Wells intercut with Supper with the Borgias, and Kate looked like a cowgirl. (This Wild West image, with the cultural license or apology it seems to have stereotyped in postwar Britain, would reappear in two subsequent productions of the play, twenty years later.) An aspidistra pot cracked over Petruchio's head, custard pies flew, the Pedant unwrapped fish and chips.4 In 1953, George Devine's Shrew was a “rowdy, knockabout piece of puppet fun, fast and coarse and common.” And Stratford-upon-Avon, “filled with American and Empire tourists” (certain cultural assumptions, with implications for theater production, evidently load that parenthetical remark) was “delighted to find such simple fun … slapstick in a gilded frame.”5 A year later, Devine's production was revived, “broader, racier, more rumbustious than ever,” with a “vigorous Petruchio” (Keith Michell) and a “spitfirish and louring” Kate (Barbara Jefford) who, “truly tamed” at the end, spoke “her one lovely speech with splendid assurance.”6 Publicity photographs showed her biting Petruchio's arm in the wooing scene and flung surprised and perhaps delighted over his shoulder, making her exit from the wedding. “Love is the Winner” proclaimed one review headline. But another disagreed: “the play itself is certainly not Shakespeare's funniest. In fact, it is a rather unedifying farce showing how a spirited young woman may be beaten and starved into submission.” Two sentences into what sounds like a commitment to a serious Shrew and to a realignment of its sexual politics, though, and this review collapses into facetiousness: “it is also a little out of date. Nowadays we do not tame our shrews; we make them waitresses or elect them to Parliament.” The unexamined, indeed unconscious, class and gender assumptions embedded in that universalized, masculine ‘we’ betray the reviewer's politics. He is not, after all, so very different in his requirements for the play than his fellow critic who approved of the production's “sweet Bianca … full of melting ruth and maidenly wile … like a rose in June sun.”7

Even when Peggy Ashcroft played Kate in 1960, Shrew was comically romanticized. (She was fifty-three, at the peak of her power with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and with a near-complete string of leading roles behind her from Juliet and Rosalind to Desdemona. Her twenty-eight-year-old Petruchio was a newcomer to the company, Peter O’Toole.) “Giving the impression that she is not minding her rough usage so very much,” this “scold reluctantly in love” came, in the wooing scene, “within an inch of a kiss that would make the play's second part unnecessary.”8 John Barton, like directors before him, fictionalized the taming play, emphasizing its status as “merely” play-within-a-play. But where Benthall and Devine had made the traveling players farceurs and their taming gags remote from real matrimonial lives anywhere, Barton employed a different distancing strategy. His players, and so inevitably their play, belonged to a former time: “a great deal is made of the fact that we are witnessing strolling players.” What they performed, “in lavishly comic detail,” was “a gently amusing antiquarian spectacle.”9

Still, whatever comic delicacy Barton's production may have achieved for the play was abandoned a year later. His production was revived, redirected, recast: Vanessa Redgrave played Kate, but reviewers found her too English a shrew. One critic wanted someone “outrageous” in the role and longed for Maria Callas, “a shrew worth taming,” a shrew whose shoe, aimed at Petruchio's head, would be lethal, not caught. Here was another Shrew placed “firmly in the tradition of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company's policy of all laughing, all falling down, all slapstick, all good clean fun for the kiddies.”10

Was there then a company production policy on Shrew? Never officially. But in practice? In 1967, Trevor Nunn, who the following year would be named Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed the play. He set it “in Padua, Arizona.” A “horse opera,” “a lark gone whole hog,” it had a “superbly virile [sic] Kate,” Janet Suzman, whose shrewishness was “but a cloak to waiting love” and a Petruchio in a ten-gallon hat (the rather diminutive Michael Williams) whose ripe-as-an-apple face exuded “friendly mischievousness” and whose speech had a “happiness which makes Petruchio into a chastising angel.” Clearly, this “most outrageously knockabout production ever staged” was doing nothing to unsettle the play's production history as “gambold.”11

By the time the next Royal Shakespeare Company Shrew came along, in 1973, the world had clearly shifted one or two degrees: one headline noted (with incredulity? relief? sarcasm?) “And Never a Whisper of Women's Lib.” Whether in support or in reaction, reviewers had in place a new set of assumptions, a new vocabulary to discuss a play whose meaning was in the process of being reconstructed. Eric Shorter in The Daily Telegraph referred to a performance history that had been written in theaters other than the one in Stratford over the previous five years when he began, “Most revivals of The Taming of the Shrew suppose that it is all about the vexed old question of the place of women in society.” That “Clifford Williams' production … supposes nothing of the sort” showed the director ducking the new agenda.12

By making Shrew yet again into “an anthology of funny business,” Williams was suspected of trying “to take the offensiveness out of the play.” “The trouble is,” said Michael Billington in The Guardian, “he has removed much of its point at the same time.”13 In The Times, Irving Wardle reviewed some of the well-worn strategies that had always served to contain what was now being seen as the issue of the play—its disruptive sexual politics: “by directors and reviewers alike, some apology always has to be made for this play. An unshakable popular favourite, it carries a moral repugnant to all except wife-beaters. There are several ways of getting around this. One old ruse was to pretend that Kate and Petruchio are in love from the start and that their fight is only a game. Then there was Jonathan Miller's interesting conversion of the comedy into a Puritan polemic; and the Wild West treatment it had last time round at Stratford.” Williams' innovation was evidently to pretend that the past decade hadn't happened: his “approach is to brush the sexual politics aside. Whether you agree with male domination or not, the wife-taming scenes are fun to watch; so play those for all they are worth, and treat the whole thing as a joke unconnected with life outside.”14 Wardle's contempt is unconcealed.

“Life outside” was impinging ever more clamorously on Stratford's theater. Miller's reading of Puritan history, a past life outside, had informed his direction of Shrew (at Chichester in 1972, with Anthony Hopkins as Petruchio). By historicizing the Calvinist ideology of “sovereign authority” ordained to manage an earth made unruly by the fall of man, Miller was able to “represent Petruchio as a serious man,” to “develop the implications of lines such as ‘To me she’s married, not unto my clothes,’” and to render the taming not as “the bullying and subordination of an otherwise high-spirited girl, but [as] a course of tuition as a result of which Kate learns the necessity of obedience.”15

A more calculatedly shocking version of “life outside” came up against the play when Charles Marowitz opened his version of Shrew at the Open Space, one of the first London fringe theaters, barely a month after Williams' fatuous production opened in Stratford. Reviewing it, Nicholas de Jongh saw Shakespeare's version as “in some sense … [his] cruellest play; a Tudor vision of women as property and reduced to attitudes of submission and humiliation.” Marowitz's remake “totally subverted and changed the tone of the original.” Marowitz hijacked the Bianca plot, reworking it into a series of counterpointed scenes between a stereotypical ’70s couple, a middle-class girl and her working-class bloke. Kate and Petruchio's story was played out on “a bare grey stage” in “quiet menace and uneasy silence.” At first “sour and rigid,” Kate “achieves a shuddering sexual tension, giving the idea of a woman who understands the game played and her attraction to him; scorn giving way to anxiety.” This Kate's final submission was to rape. The sun and moon scene had brought her to mental meltdown: “a high-pitched crescendo whistle is heard inside her head which the audience also hears,” says the stage direction. “It builds to an impossible pitch and then something snaps. All lights go red.”16 The text reverts to Sly's Induction. When Kate, speaking Bartholomew, the Page's, lines, excuses herself from the order to undress and come to bed, her father exclaims, “O monstrous arrogance!” and, as Marowitz's stage directions have it, “Kate is backed over to the table and then thrown down over it. Her servants and BAPTISTA hold her wrists to keep her secure. PETRUCHIO looms up behind and whips up her skirts ready to do buggery. As he inserts, an earpiercing, electronic whistle rises to a crescendo pitch. KATE's mouth is wild and open, and it appears as if the impossible sound is issuing from her lungs. Black out.” As de Jongh observed, this “climax” was “more legitimate than the original's uneasy reconciling mood.” When the lights came up, Kate's final speech of “supposed joy [was] here a masterpiece of dramatic irony. She delivers it haggard and handcuffed in chains before an inquisitorial Petruchio, who prompts her words when grief and pain intermit. As she does this, the contemporary young couple who have played their seduction games emerge before us, smiling at the altar.” Thelma Holt's Kate was “a major performance of astounding, tragic dimensions,” and Marowitz's “gothic tragedy” adaptation made the shocking suggestion, by contemporary parallels, that violation, violence, power play, and class oppression were secretly situated in Shakespeare's original text.17


From opposite ends of a time-line, Miller and Marowitz were requiring audiences to look at what had until then been a “secret” play, The Taming of the Shrew as “a kind of history.” Coincidentally, a first wave of feminist academic writers were crashing the gates of the university's ivory tower, most clamorously in the United States, and part of their project in historicizing a patriarchal bard was to recuperate a historicized Shrew.18 Subsequent Shrews were not unaffected. They imitated or reacted. In 1978, like Marowitz, Michael Bogdanov superimposed contemporary images upon the taming play; in 1982, Barry Kyle directed an amnesiac, not to say mindless, romp; in 1987, invited for the first time to direct for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Miller revived from 1973 (and from 1980) yet another Puritan-informed Shrew.19 But neither Miller, who in three attempts with the play always cut the Induction as tedious and unplayable, nor Marowitz, whose declared project was to deconstruct Shakespeare's play, took on the implications of the full playtext or the performance text it directs. By cutting, they isolated Kate from the very performance strategies that make the taming play subversive in the original.

I want to argue that that original contained its own subversions. Their abstract stands in the title, The Taming of the Shrew, which, like Shakespeare's other comic titles, begins by authorizing a view of the play that develops fault lines as things proceed, fissures for interpretation to pry into and maybe prize open the meaning of the play. A Midsummer's Night's Dream isn’t a dream at all, unless, as Puck suggests, the audience reinvent it as their dream. The Tempest's tempest doesn’t happen: it’s only a conjuror's trick. But then so too is Prospero's wedding masque (and the wedding?) and the theater, the great Globe itself. The tale of The Winter's Tale is suppressed, whispered into Hermione's ear. Twelfth Night plays metaphorically with itself as does The Two ‘Gentle Men’ of Verona.

Equally, The Taming of the Shrew turns more and more inquisitively on its own terms. In the shrew-taming literature, and in the private domestic histories that are the sources of this play, the shrew is gendered female. Shakespeare's play supposes Kate to be the shrew (Gascoigne's Supposes is another of Shakespeare's sources). Then, in an astonishing displacement, the shrew is re-gendered. Petruchio is “more shrew than she”: he “kills her in her own humour” (4.1.85, 180).

The scold is by definition a noisy woman. Her distinguishing attribute is “a chattering tongue,” which, “headstrong,” she refuses to “curb” (two equestrian images). To silence her, to manage (menage) her, the curb or bit is put into her mouth as into a horse's mouth. It sits upon her tongue (figuratively, but literally when a woman is punished by imposition of a scold's bridle20). But here again Shakespeare's scenario subverts convention. If “shrew” = “noisy one,” Kate is an odd shrew, indeed an impossible shrew. She has almost nothing to say. And Shakespeare, making a theatrical point of her silence, turns the contour of her play back to front: a shrew is tamed when the scolding woman is beaten, starved, humiliated, brutalized into silence, as the contemporary Geste of a Shrewd and Curst Wife lapp’d in Morrell's Skin documents with relish.21 But Shakespeare's play brings the silent shrew to speech. At the end, Kate’ performance text places her at the focal center of the scene as her playtext has her talk and talk and talk and talk. It is her last speech in the play, and it is the longest speech in the play.22 Moreover, she has been invited to speak it by the actual “noisy one,” the shrew Petruchio, who has spoken nonstop throughout, but who here falls silent, himself speechless—the taming of the shrew? In short, the performance of Kate's submission speech challenges the orthodoxy of its content while occupying a theater space that allows both the conservative and the revolutionary to resonate simultaneously. Reading the theater, the scene becomes an anamorph: it confirms the patriarchal status quo if eyed head-on; eyed awry, it distinguishes a new form, a cultural innovation.

The “taming” of The Taming of the Shrew experiences the same renegotiation. Shakespeare puts violence into the play: violence is the language the tamer in the ballads speaks to silence the woman's tongue. It is a language Petruchio has at his disposal. He cuffs Grumio, biffs his servants, turns the meat plate into a discus, disembowels (off stage) bolsters, and dismembers (on stage) a dress. The violence is contrived but also real: the tailor, beaten, does not know he is playing a walk-on part in Petruchio's impromptu. But the violence is also displaced: Kate observes it, but unlike her sisters in the ballads, she never experiences it. It is almost as if the violence is introduced to whet then disappoint the original audience's expectations.23 For the tamer is going to tame his shrew not by fighting her but by playing her, by appropriating her tongue. Petruchio doesn’t use his fists. He uses words.

In the plays Shakespeare was watching while he was writing Shrew—Tamburlaine, Dr Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy—Marlowe and Kyd were inventing a theater language of “working words,” a language of omnipotence, of magical self-creation, of imagination, of power, that could, in the playhouse, literally get things done. But they were also exploring the futility of words, the ways words don’t work, the way the word is merely the articulation of Babel, as in the final apocalypse of The Spanish Tragedy, spoken “in sundry languages,” which plays out the defeat of words, but the triumph of theater. In Shrew Shakespeare is exploring both the effectiveness and theatricality of speech by way of the cultural icon whose distinguishing attribute is her abuse of speech. He takes the shrew's tongue and puts it in the tamer's mouth (“my tongue in your tail/[tale]”) while demoting the tamer's violence to “play” (2.1.218).

Petruchio turns language upside down:

          Pray, have you not a daughter
Call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?


Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.


’Twas told me you were rough and coy and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar;
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous.


’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.


Unfixing signifier from signified, Petruchio invents new selves, new realities. He rewrites the past and proleptically constructs the future; he generates fictions that stand as truths; through assertion he achieves the omnipotence of a Tamburlaine. And through subversion he subverts her subversion: “Say that she rail, why then I’ll tell her. …” The anarchic shrew is contained by one more anarchically shrewd than she, and the taming is redevised as disorientation. Petruchio's opening gambit (“Good morrow, Kate”) commits an act of violence upon her name (“They call me Katherine that do talk of me”) by chopping it in half to construct first a dainty “Kate” and then, with a pun on wildcat, “a wild Kate” (2.1.181, 184, 277). But Petruchio's opening gambit may also initiate a process of linguistic realignment that will erase labels like “shrew.” In the taming play, Petruchio tests the patriarchal privilege, assigned to Adam in Eden, of naming all the animals and so controlling them because he controls the words that fix them. His deconstructions look backward, to test the Lord's power, in the Induction, of making Sly a Lord because he calls him one. In the sun and moon scene, that test will grow extreme.

Disorientation is the methodology of Petruchio's taming play, and the scenario it plays out over and over is a scenario of subversions of patriarchal structures, wrecking the very rituals the culture conventionalizes to legitimate itself. There are many Petruchios in Shrew—the “madcap ruffian” wooer; the “grumbling groom” who appears in “monster” apparel; the “master of what is mine own,” who declares his wife “my goods, my chattels” (3.2.230) and then draws a weapon not to remove her at sword point, but to defend her from “thieves”; the irascible head of the household, who literally breaks meat; and the “careful” husband who will “deck” the beloved's body, replacing her wedding dress, that was wrecked by her fall from her horse into the mud, with a gorgeous new wedding dress, to wear to her sister's wedding, that is then wrecked in his argument with the tailor. All these Petruchios are playing out violent scenarios that challenge not Kate but cultural practices—wooing, wedding, bedding—that contain Kate and that incidentally write her down as “shrew.”

In the taming play, such scenarios are played out comparatively in the double-plot structure. There are two wooings, two husbands, two futures. One sister is desired, the other disdained. One is conformist: her silence registers her exemplary “mild behaviour and sobriety.” The other is “froward,” “mad,” a “fiend of hell.” The monstrous sister gets a monstrous wooing from that “madcap ruffian” who shows up for the wedding in “monster apparel.” The approved sister gets an approved courtship. But in playing the monstrous against the normative in scenes that stand back to back and that require the audience to observe alternatively, comparatively, Shakespeare's theater takes these ideas and stands them on their heads. Which is monstrous? Kate's scenario, or Bianca's?

The trajectory of Kate's wooing is from the fait accompli, the clap-hands-it’s-a-bargain settlement, in only seven lines, of her dowry and her future, to the witty, lewd, disorientating “chat” with Petruchio, to the statement of his prerogative that leaves her speechless: “will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1.271). Petruchio barely observes the frame of custom—and that so scantly that Gremio mutters, “You are too blunt, go to it orderly” (2.1.45)—even as, astonishingly, he seems subversively to be rewriting the content of that wooing custom. By contrast, the negotiations that immediately ensue over Bianca's settlement play out normative social practice. She is not on stage when her father opens the bidding in a marriage auction that makes her the “prize,” and “deeds” (as in “title deeds”) the mechanism of exchange. Where Petruchio's blunt wooing worked iconoclastically in that earlier scene to unsettle, invert, and possibly open up some options, in this wooing, no one interrogates social practice. But the stage picture does. Its bizarre composition critiques the performance. Not only is Bianca physically displaced—her father is the theatrical object of the scene—but the ritual's conventional materialism is made ironic by spiraling inflation. Anyway, the whole thing is a fraud. Lucentio is Tranio in disguise. What he promises is a lie. Isn’t this monstrous?

Ironically, Bianca will be achieved neither by the decrepit nor the fraudulent: she will shortly kick over the traces of social practice by improvising her own wooing games with a series of “monster” suitors, all in disguise. And then she will elope. With her “tutor.” The sisters are of course opposites, but also doubles: when Kate is “rescued” from her wedding, leaving a gap in the feast, Bianca stands in, playing bride with a play groom, the fake Lucentio. Later, Kate will displace then upstage Bianca at her wedding feast. Bianca watched the fiasco of Kate's opening scene; Kate watches the delicious disaster played out around her sister's indiscretions in 5.1. Kate is schooled in gentleness; Bianca is schooled in “the Art of Love,” ventriloquized as Latin grammar and the musician's gamut. (But Bianca masters her tutors. She rips up her gamut and conjugates verbs only in the imperative.) Kate is made a “falcon,” a “haggard.” So is Bianca. But Petruchio's metaphor registers mutuality, Hortensio's registers disgust.24 Finally, one sister exits to bed; the other lingers, “sped,” a new shrew whose resistance writes the labours of “great Hercules” (so Gremio titled Petruchio in 2.1.255) as no less illusory than the triumphs of “Richard Conqueror,” recalled by Sly in the Induction (1.5). Kate leaves. Bianca remains. The shrew is never tamed.

This theatrical fact is almost as shocking as the way Shakespeare's play and performance texts repeatedly travesty wedding as a “monster” ritual. First there is Petruchio's arrival at the wedding with Grumio, “a monster, a very monster in apparel” (3.2.69-70). “Methinks you frown,” observes Petruchio of the assembled guests. “Wherefore gaze this goodly company, / As if they saw some wondrous monument / … comet … prodigy?” (93-96). Baptista calls his “habit” “shame to your estate, / An eyesore to our solemn festival!” (100-101). Tranio, in Lucentio's clothes, scandalized by Petruchio's “unreverent robes,” invites him to “put on clothes of mine” (112-13). Petruchio is a wreck. “But thus, I trust, you will not marry her,” exclaims Baptista (115). But he does—and wrecks the ceremony too, as Gremio reports:

                                                            when the priest
Should ask if Katherine should be his wife,
“Ay, by gog-wouns,” quoth he, and swore so loud,
That all amaz’d the priest let fall the book,
And as he stoop’d again to take it up,
The 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.” …
                                                            he stamp’d and swore …
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 smack
That at the parting all the church did echo.
And I, seeing this, came thence for very shame …
Such a mad marriage never was before.


Then he wrecks the feast—“I mean to take my leave” (188)—and travesties the biblical formulation of the ordained relationship between man and wife—“She is my goods, my chattels” (230)—by reinventing the moment not as Kate's defiance but as an imagined assault upon her: “Grumio, / Draw forth thy weapon, we are beset with thieves” (235-36). As we the audience inspect the wreckage that leaves Padua's pretensions so cruelly exposed (“To me she’s married, not unto my clothes” [117]), we are required to decide: is it Kate who is mocked, or is it custom?

Inviting Kate to speak at the end, Petruchio may be re-presenting, recuperating the disrupted wedding ritual. Lynda Boose has found in Kate's prostration imagery (“place your hands below your husband's foot” [1.2.177]), an allusion to standard practice in the (obsolete) pre-Reformation marriage ceremony.25 But the wager Petruchio plays out with the other husbands on the obedience of their wives is itself another theatrical re-presentation of ritual practice. “Wed” began its etymological history meaning “to wager, stake (e.g., money, one's life, one's head).”26 To wed is to wager. So Petruchio's wager is another wedding. This wedding, like the Ganymede-Orlando wedding in As You Like It, takes place “on the fragile boundary between carnival and blasphemy.”27The Taming of the Shrew works to unsettle male authority in ordaining such practices by reproducing patriarchal ritual as game.

And that idea—of game—has been with this play from its opening moments: the rules of Shrew's performance-game are taught by the Induction when the Lord enters from hunting, proposes a wager on his dogs, replaces that with a jest upon a drunkard, engages his servants “to play our part” in a “pastime,” a “sport,” and then employs the players, who arrive coincidentally upon the scene, to make his game a play (70, 67, 91). The play takes over, so assertively indeed, that it eventually erases the Lord. Notoriously, in Shakespeare's Folio playtext, the frame never closes: the Lord's Gonzago is Mousetrapped. But before that happens, the Induction introduces performance as a complex signifier. Performance is a metaphor for cultural practice: it is what we do. But theatrically, performance is enactment, one of whose consequences might be the interrogation of that cultural practice.

When Christopher Sly comes reeling from the alehouse threatening violence upon the Hostess (“I’ll pheeze you, in faith”) and throwing himself upon history to legitimate himself (“the Slys are no rogues. Look in the chronicles; we came in with Richard Conqueror”), the audience is hearing the beginnings of ideas that will culminate in the taming play. Here, a woman is on top: “A pair of stocks, you rogue” (Ind. 1.1-5). The legitimating context of male power is a fiction: there was no Richard Conqueror. Sly falls down drunk. Such a stage picture of prostration may be replayed at the very end, when Kate volunteers the wife's hand beneath her husband's foot. Here, it suggests the repulsive metamorphosis that inspires the play of transformations to ensue. “O monstrous beast,” observes the Lord. “How like a swine he lies!” (Ind. 1.34-35). He sets in motion a reverse metamorphosis, not man to beast but beast to Lord, as the taming play makes the woman a shrew, then a wife.

Carried home and dressed in rich, if borrowed, robes, transvestite Sly stops being Sly: “I’m a lord indeed / And not a tinker” (Ind. 2.72-73). He has been tutored in persuasive new realities by those who themselves were tutored by the Lord (Ind. 1.44-68) in the details of a command performance: the tutorial, as we shall see, will emerge as a major strategy in the taming play.

Another transvestite is summoned to play the woman's part to Sly's Lord:

Sirrah, go you to Barthol’mew my page,
And see him dress’d in all suits like a lady.

(Ind. 1.105-6)

The performance required of Bartholomew contains both the cultural and theatrical significations I referred to earlier. Like a boy player, he must put on a costume to enact a role. But this role is devised in imitation of cultural role-play, a part, as the Lord's instructions make clear, constructed and deliberately played as a strategy for enacting the public roles of lord and lady. The woman's part is one that can be observed, learned, imitated, played:

Tell him from me, as he will win my love,
He bear himself with honourable action,
Such as he hath observ’d in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished;
Such duty to the drunkard let him do.

(Ind. 1.109-13)

It is that word “action” that connects my two senses of performance, for action is what soldiers and politicians and men of action do. And action is what actors do too. The “honourable action” the Lord orders is called “duty” and can be “accomplished” that is, performed, by particular choreographed rituals in “real” life. But it can also be simulated by a boy player performing it as a role. Subversively then, the status of “duty” in the real world may be undercut by this association with fraudulence, an “action” that is, after all, only actorly. This understanding of cultural practice as performance has proleptic implications for the taming play. Kate and Bianca, actors themselves, may act cultural conformity in the fiction while the acting itself writes the action as dissidence, an act.

In the Lord's speech, approval and love are linked not just to obedience and commandment, but to integrity of the deception. The role-play must persuade. The plot against Christopher Sly depends upon it. But the plot demonstrates how entirely persuasive play is, how play may appropriate or displace real life. The Lord's hall is transformed into a playhouse. True things are commissioned by the fiction. The silver basin full of rose water becomes a stage prop. Clothes become costumes. The Lord plays a servant and casts his servants as impostors. (Such fictionalizing is reproduced in the taming play when a hat is made into a porridge bowl and Petruchio becomes the shrew.) In this deception, identity is presented as an aspect of theatricality: what you play is what you are, an unstable view of the self that is immediately literalized. The Sly plot is hardly out of the Lord's mouth when noises offstage announce the arrival of a cry of players. They offer duty, a play. But then also realize what might, confined to Sly, remain a marginal idea. The players' identities are theatrical, their truest selves are fictions, and their persuasiveness is a play of lies. Pointing to one of the company, the Lord says:

                    This fellow I remember
Since once he play’d the farmer's eldest son.
’Twas where you woo’d the gentlewoman so well.
I have forgot your name; but sure that part
Was aptly fitted and naturally perform’d.

(Ind. 1.83-87)

“I have forgot your name” might invite the player to supply it; significantly, when he does, he gives not his own name, but the role's: “I think ’twas Soto that your honour means” (Ind. 1.88). The reticent player has no name. He is what he plays. And this offers him an enormous freedom of comic self-invention. But to be what you play is likewise potentially tragic if the self is a blank for others to write a name upon, like shrew, or is crushed inside a role, like shrew, whose performance is a playing out of cultural inevitabilities with no space for the improvisations that would renegotiate the role.

The Induction, then, is something of a bizarre hall of mirrors. The Lord is like Petruchio, but so is Sly, while Sly mirrors Kate, as Bartholomew does too. The issues of gender, class, privilege, hierarchy, and power that modern viewers of the play see so prominently here can be located in Shakespeare's original play and performance texts. But the idea Shakespeare's theater advances most insistently in the Induction is the idea of theatrical performance. Visibly, to perpetuate the fiction of the lording of Sly involves perpetrating the fiction of the taming of the shrew. These fictions mirror and inform each other. They play out each other's metaphors. They fix and then unfix each other's contexts. They are meaningful because they question each other, and they can go to dangerous extremes because role-play is their methodology. On this stage the players are all men. The traveling comedians enter as an all-male company; engaged by the Lord to play to Sly, they leave the stage to change into their costumes. When they return, the stage is wholly transvestite: Sly watches as Lord, Bartholomew as Lady, the Lord as servant. The player-Lucentio enters as commedia juvenile lead; the virile player, whom the Lord approved as Soto, perhaps comes on to play Kate. This Kate, like Sly, will be denied a return to his real life in Shakespeare's playtext as itinerant player. As Gonzago is Mousetrapped, so the Sly play is Kated. “Her” last exit will be in role, as Kate leaving the taming play, not as the professional player who impersonates her leaving the Lord's play. Still, like Bartholomew, who never gets completely enclosed in “her” role-play, Kate never fully erases the player, the man in the role-play beneath the woman's part. All the men and women here are men. And because that is so, the gendered actions they role-play in The Taming of the Shrew can be all the more acutely inspected as cultural performance.28


To play Kate four hundred years later in a (however uncertain) feminist age is to throw oneself onto the horns of a dilemma. The role has been reckoned a lead: to be invited to play it for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the authorized producer of Shakespeare in Britain today, is perhaps a first step up some hierarchy of roles toward Rosalind and Cleopatra. And despite a whispered consensus among such theater critics as Michael Billington and Irving Wardle that Shrew, as Billington put it, is the one play by Shakespeare that “should be placed firmly and squarely on the shelf” because, in Wardle's words, “it carries a moral repugnant to all except wife beaters,” audiences still love it.29 How, then, does a modern actor square her politics to the taming play? What sense can the actor make of Kate's final speech?

In 1987, Fiona Shaw found one solution and found it in a genre unimagined by Christopher Sly's Induction. She played The Taming of the Shrew as a problem play. Three weeks into rehearsal she had already struck the ambivalent tone of emotional assent and intellectual dissent that would characterize her performance. The play, she had concluded, was “glorious and perhaps irredeemable.”30 She wanted it to be glorious, perhaps, in the performance opportunities she rather hoped it would offer her as an actor. She feared it was irredeemable in belonging irrecoverably to an ideological past that could neither be represented accurately on the modern stage nor updated by discovering a transhistorical analogue: the play “resists being dragged into the late twentieth century and yet, left in its own time, it looks murky and bleak, as if the intervening centuries have placed a grid between them and us.”

It was also, she felt, “over-endowed” with ideas, ideas that pressed on its own culture's nerve endings and certainly on our culture's nerve endings as well. But as far as Shaw could see, the big ideas in Shrew were ones that never got written. Instead, the model of its discourse might be extrapolated from that exchange in 4.3 when Kate claims language:

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe; …
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free,
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.

(73-74, 77-80)

Petruchio responds, “Why, thou say’st true, it is [a] paltry cap” (81). The scene moves on.

In rehearsal Shaw became a shrewd analyst of Shrew, discovering that the play didn’t “survive the analytical scrutiny of the later plays.” Its problem was that “its subject is the relationship of the characters on stage and not an ideal world; its morality is historical rather than philosophical.” Other comedies have a forest of Arden or a Belmont or a wood near Athens to site “wonder,” and physical or verbal transformations work to idealize what, in those plays, begins, merely begins, as gritty urban realism. So fairy-speak hijacks Athenian literalism; Belmont transmutes the Rialto. A weaver, translated into an ass, translates experience into dream mystery; transvestite Portia rewrites law; transvestite Rosalind rewrites myth. The pull of the wonderful against the real in those plays prevents the audiences from over-historicizing their fictions: we would be ill-advised to work out normative Elizabethan marriage practices or laws of inheritance from these plays. But Shrew seems to invite a different level of engagement. The only wonder it has to offer is the duping of Sly. In Kate's play, fictions of bourgeois urban life are unperturbed by encounters with exotics or immortals. Merchant meets pedant meets fortune hunter; sister meets sister meets suitor. Shrew's scenarios almost dare us to take it for documentary. Not until the play's closing couplet is the issue of wonder raised again, and this time it is attached to Kate and her submission. Closure gooses this play in the backside. Kate's act of conformity has just validated the patriarchy's claim to legitimacy. Her final speech realizes those claims, authorizing male supremacy as, after all, the status quo, the natural law. But for two of the newly married men listening to that speech, male supremacy is no more real than Sly's dream. So while Kate makes her submission into “natural” conformity, Hortensio and Lucentio simultaneously unmake it, rewriting it as “a wonder”:

Hor. Now go thy ways, thou
hast tam’d a curst shrew.
Luc. ’Tis a wonder, by your
leave, she will be tam’d so.


Is the play, then, making realism, ironically, a wonder?

Shaw devised strategies for constructing her own performance by deconstructing the play's discourse. She contested her director's “unwavering, unthreatened view” (raided from L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between) of the “past as a foreign country” where “they do things differently,” a view that imposed upon the production the need “to re-establish certain late-sixteenth-century ‘givens’ now lost to us.” What were those givens? “The notion of sovereignty” was “crucial.” So was the idea of “a hierarchical society where the superior has duties to those beneath him as much as vice versa.”

Shaw's director was Jonathan Miller, then having a third go at Shrew. She was only partly aware that he was (yet again) recycling both a settled attitude toward the playtext and a settled reading of it, which caused him to make (as always) his first interpretative decision: the cutting of Christopher Sly's frame play. But the “certain givens” Miller felt bound to represent as recuperating the authorized Shakespearean Shrew were the same “certain givens” Shaw, the actor outside the role, felt bound to interrogate:

What the play doesn’t seem to deal with is if the very structure [of hierarchical society] is questionable. It stands as the Elizabethan model; that is how they functioned and organised themselves. So women—reactive or not—are not seeking a change in that structure, only a redefinition of their place within it. Kate's journey is one which moves, albeit unorthodoxly, from a position of such violent reaction as to be dangerously near finding no place in this immutable structure to a final reconciliation with it.

But since her own consciousness was “irrevocably suspicious of that structure,” Shaw found it hard to believe

that some Elizabethan women didn’t balk at the square circle theology of Eve as a rib of Adam and its resonance through to husbands as mini gods in the microcosm of the family. I say this only because women no matter what century experience themselves as fully human and any kind of developed intelligence can observe intelligence or its absence in another. So the success of this system must have needed women to collude with the notion of their own inferiority aided by various deprivations in rights while surviving by manipulating men-folk based on their own sense of superiority—a bleak view of the sixteenth century. …

Like Kate facing a Petruchio in the wooing scene who would invent her future by rewriting her speech, Shaw in rehearsal faced a director who would invent her Kate by rewriting her (and her) history: Miller countered Shaw's objections with “rich illustrations of happiness between men and women in that time—sixteenth-century portraits showing mercantile wives contented, steady, and secure: carvings on the graves of Cotswold churches of united husbands and wives; [and] general optimism … about the possibilities of companionship and mutuality in marriage.”

Only Miller then evoked the pastness of this past promiscuously.31 Having cut Christopher Sly, he denied the shrew-taming play its metatheatrical brush with that ontologically superior “kind of history.” Setting the production in Elizabethan costume, around Elizabethan images, as if the play were a sixteenth-century domestic portrait, he declined to see that while the female face that stares out of the portrait is a woman's, the female face gazing out of the Elizabethan play is not. The boy player who first played Kate had a double layer of role-play (playing a player playing Kate to Sly) standing between himself and his performance. Fiona Shaw playing Kate did not. The role became personalized; Shaw began to see herself and Kate as inscriptions of each other as the actor's journey in rehearsal mapped itself onto the character's journey in the fiction. Shaw and Kate became alter egos:

I found myself feeling very protective of womankind in relation to the play, and in rehearsal, being watchful. Women have a regular crisis in rehearsal rooms because you’re often the only woman there. The Kate I played saw things in monochrome. And my performance was partly due to the rehearsal period. I was conscious of wanting to radiate that terribly clouded confusion that overwhelms you when you’re the only woman around. That was Kate's position. And it was mine. Men together sometimes speak a funny language. You don’t know what’s happening, and you become one frown because you can’t see. Kate can barely see in front of her.

Shaw's Kate became, in performance, a master study in watching. From her first entrance, lagging behind her father, her sister, and those clamorous suitors, tightrope walking down the steeply raked, sheer-drop precipice into High Street, Padua, this Kate roamed the back boundary of the scene, eyes fixed on it, flashing a pair of embroidery scissors like a switchblade. The audience watched the suitors wrangling with Baptista over Bianca; but more, they watched Kate's face watching from behind, registering disdain, humiliation, alienation, and rage. Hers was a performance that contested the conventional spectatorly pleasure in Shrew, a perhaps specifically male pleasure in watching Kate subjected, mastered, and tamed by a Petruchio who, privileged with soliloquy (unlike Kate), equips the audience to see things with his own eyes. In this production, the audience looked on. But Shaw's Kate looked back. The play was locked between opposing gazes, an interplay that played one gaze off the other. Kate's looking back claimed the look back for women's roles in this play.32 It also registered a continuous critique of those “certain givens” her scrutiny made uncertain. So it was in the tailor scene (4.3). Having been thrust (as a stand-in tailor's dummy) into the gown and hoisted onto the soap box (that might as well have been a scaffold as a pedestal) only to be dismembered (“What’s this?” Petruchio bellows. “A sleeve?” as it comes away in his hand) and discarded, Shaw's Kate was stripped once more to her smock. It now looked like a grubby gown of humility. The scene had passed into male uproar: Petruchio's fake fury, Grumio's noise, and the tailor's loud indignation. Kate sat behind, silently watching. She pulled off her wedding ring and peered through the circle of its emptiness, momentarily extending her imaginary telescope to lock it onto the eyeball of the audience. Like her, they saw the wedding band encircling nothing.

The sun-and-moon scene (4.5) literally repositioned Kate. Shaw collapsed downstage as the men trudged up the hill and off behind her. Nothing stood between her wild-eyed face and the audience when Petruchio played his outrageous line: “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list, / Or ere I journey to your father's house” (7-8). She had been peering straight out front—a visual echo of that staring through the ring in the tailor scene—but now she turned upstage in alarm, trapped between Petruchio and the audience—his lunatic obduracy behind, their laughter out front.33 Hortensio ventured advice: “Say as he says, or we shall never go” (11). Shaw's Kate swung herself back to stare at the sun. A look of astonishment shared only with the audience passed across her face. Silently she tried out “sun, sun!” as she twisted her fingers into a cat's cradle. Nothing stood between her and her choice. She turned her look back to Petruchio, who was looking away, then moved to him and clapped him on the back. They stood face to face looking at each other to play out the final exchanges in their comic bonding ritual, finally in the same frame of perspective. It was a move into visual alignment that Shaw would reproduce in her final speech.

Shaw's watchfulness interrogated the taming of the shrew: it allowed her space to deconstruct her performance in the act. But it achieved more than that. For as an acting strategy, it effectively appropriated the production to Kate's point of view by writing a performance text out of her silence that shouted down Petruchio's lines. Shaw had been disconcerted to discover in rehearsal that Kate was no roaring girl. Generically, “shrew equals noisy one, but we never hear Kate speak. Along comes a man to tame the noisy one, and he speaks through the whole play. But the noisy one doesn’t speak.” Her Kate was driven to carving her name on Padua's city walls with her switchblade scissors because “she doesn’t get to speak. Making her mark is trying to say who she is—‘Kate woz here.’” But such inscription had also the subversive effect of claiming authorship for Kate: Shaw wrote onto the surface of her performance text the lines Shakespeare had failed to give her role. This series of maneuvers—claiming spectatorship, interpreting silence, inscribing authored copy with graffitti—dismantled male authority in this Shrew. Her playing of Kate's final speech finished the job. Her record of rehearsal comes close to the effect her performance had in the theater:

In the run today, I made a hefty attempt at allowing the haltingness and choice of every word dribbling out while she constructs a new synthesis as yet unuttered. The room was deadly silent. The feast table of men looking hangdog and inadequate, clearly not the sovereigns worthy of the ‘love, fair looks and true obedience’ that the speech describes. The play ends unresolved and out of joint, even for its own time.


The Taming of the Shrew does not end on Kate's speech. It ends on men's self-congratulation: “I won the wager, though you hit the white”; “thou hast tam’d a curst shrew” (5.2.186, 188). But it also ends on a quibble (the “white”), a taunt (“We three are married, but you two are sped”), and a measure of bemused or bitter skepticism (“Tis a wonder”) (185, 189). The final stage picture is of misalliance, of comic couples uncoupled. As the tamed shrew is put to bed, new shrews spring up like dragon's teeth, and men, laughing-stock Richard Conquerors, shift and sidle away. Bianca's last word is to call her husband “fool,” and when Kate exits, Bianca remains, standing in for her sister one last time, “more shrew than she.”

It is a nice irony. In the theater, Kate makes the noise and grabs the notices, but all along Bianca is the play's closet subversive. Her big sister contests patriarchal stereotypes as a dissident; Bianca, as an exemplary conformist. She is the very embodiment of the patriarchal model of female excellence. “In [her] silence do I see / Maid's mild behaviour and sobriety” (1.1.70-71), says Lucentio, falling in love with that same silence that can be recruited to misogyny—women beware women!—in the reproof of Katherine: “her very silence flouts me” (2.1.29). But what Bianca's continuous play of conformity achieves is to isolate, without the complication of contradiction, the normative wooing practices this culture conventionalizes and to turn them over to detailed, increasingly ironic inspection. The taming play has its monstrous woman; the wooing play, its monstrous men, its unsuitable suitors.34 Playing by the rules, Bianca might get Gremio. Or Hortensio. Or even Tranio. Her prospects are appalling.

The history of this role in performance is, in the 1950s and 1960s, of trivialization and marginalization; in the 1970s and 1980s, in parallel with the problematizing of Kate, it is of a gradual hardening of “sweet Bianca … delectable Bianca … pertly fey … charming … like a rose in June” Bianca, into something thornier, tougher.35 In 1978, Zoe Wanamaker's Bianca was stylish and devious, a smart cookie whose brittle-looking platinum wig over big doe eyes and wide comic mouth parodied the theater tradition that has this role played blonde, dumb, and harmless. At her sister's wedding, she enjoyed Kate's humiliation: she couldn’t wait for Kate to clear off and leave the social whirl for her to bustle in. At her own wedding, working off the mafiosi imagery this production invented, the newly married Bianca would finally discard all those premarital games: the wife holds the whip at her own threshold, and Bianca would from now on.36 In 1987, Felicity Dean played a Bianca one imagined ultimately winding up on Falstaff's knee at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, fumbling with his codpiece. She moved on ball bearings, but her slack voice could suddenly harden into Maggie Thatcher at the dispatch box. She was overripe, vulgar, genuinely put out that Tranio's Lucentio and Hortensio's music master could agree to jilt her. Her secret tippling, which Lucentio had found titillating over their Ovid, had settled into cheerless habit by the time she reached their wedding scene: hatched-faced, Bianca knocked back the dregs of the toast, glanced contempt at her twittish husband, then strode off unsteadily without him, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.37

Wanamaker and Dean were able to claim some space for Bianca, but given the productions they were in, neither of their performances could do much to reverse an earlier reviewer's dismissive verdict on the theatrical irrelevancy of Bianca: “no one cares who marries Bianca.”38 Their directors evidently agreed. In both productions, rehearsal time was spent on Kate and Petruchio. The funny business surrounding Bianca was understood to be there to generate hilarious gags for the boys—and it did—but really all that was to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible, for it only distracted from the main business of the taming play.

So without further thought to Shakespeare's structural design or to his comic strategies, they directed a Bianca who was a theatrical irrelevance.39

Then in 1992, along came Rebecca Saire's Bianca to re-invent the role.40 Saire looks like Dresden porcelain but acts like carbon steel. In collaboration with a Tranio (Richard McCabe) whose innovation was to play the impostor playing the wooing scam for keeps, she discovered a Bianca whose marriage projects might seriously disrupt society, might, indeed, bring down the whole patriarchal house of cards.

As Saire saw the role, “Bianca doesn’t become Kate at the end. She becomes more and more Bianca. Bianca's potential is all there in her opening speech”:

Sister, content you in my discontent.
Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe;
My books and instruments shall be my company,
On them to look and practice by myself.


Saire points to the precision of “content/discontent” as revealing “Bianca the performer,” her utterance constructed and maddeningly opaque. It might be anodyne. It might be caustic. While offering a humble subscription to her father's pleasure, Bianca is imperious and imperative: she constantly speaks in imperative verbs. “But what reveals Bianca is that the speech moves to ‘myself’: Bianca is going to please ‘myself’; in the tutor scene she will ‘learn my lessons as I please myself.’”

“Performance” was Saire's master metaphor to the role. Her Bianca got by by playing by the rules. But in this production, the metaphor had a double extension, for the taming play was performed by modern actors, a troupe that might have been the Royal Shakespeare Company on a small-scale tour, so Saire's first entrance established her as a professional player. Her role thereafter played upon playing.

In 2.1, with Kate, she played at childhood games, circuses perhaps, or dress-up, that showed the sisters they might have been. Bianca entered like a prancing pony, waving ribbons; Kate, like a lion tamer, carrying a chair and, in her mouth, a decapitated doll (she was lion, too). The ribbons for Bianca's hair got tied around her wrists instead: the new game was interrogation, and the sexual anxiety betrayed in the questions sat bizarrely against the imagery of play. Bianca was unperturbed by Kate's envy. But she thrashed in terror when Kate pulled a pair of shears big enough to scalp a sheep and menaced her hair. Saire saw Kate “threatening my external show: Bianca is a decorated woman, a woman on display, like some exotic bird in the animal kingdom.” Her meticulous clothes, her jewels, her hair were all part of that display, props to a performance. This Bianca found her sister physically distasteful. It wasn’t just that Kate was unruly but that, unruly, she was unkempt. Her hair fell about her face; her performance got out of control: she bit her fingernails; she sucked her thumb. Bianca was perfect, every feather in place: chopped-off hair would have spoiled the show and depreciated the merchandise. “Her suitors want her as a decorative fixture: she wants them in order to maintain her status. Like a prostitute she’ll give herself away to the highest bidder.”

This production showed a Bianca actively playing out that scenario: it put her onstage, center stage, for the contract bartering between Gremio and supposed Lucentio (2.1). But it likewise showed a Bianca literally seeing possibilities for unimagined improvizations. Moments earlier, the brawling scene of Kate's enforced betrothal got off to a start with a coyly adenoidal love-birds-at-first-sight look between Kate and Petruchio. Now that exchange of looks was echoed: Tranio-as-Lucentio began the line, “I am one that love Bianca …” (2.1.335), but Tranio-as-Tranio finished it, locking eyes with Bianca, who did not turn away. This look was bold, brazen; it made it clear that Bianca and Tranio would be birds of a far different feather, like Marvell's sexual carnivores, perhaps, his “amorous birds of prey.” Meanwhile, still beaming at the realization that the “commodity” that lay fretting by him was finally disposed of, Baptista seated his saleable daughter between her two suitors. He put her hand into Gremio's. Gremio pawed it. He paddled it. Then, as his inventory of his wealth grew more excited, he groped his money bags with it. They hung from his waist, conspicuously stuffed, while the bags hanging next to them were just as conspicuously limp in his gold-embroidered codpiece. The massage climaxed. Disgust passed across Bianca's face, then a quick sweet smile of recovery. She did not remove her hand. Kate would have. Not Bianca. Bianca's detachment showed the woman's body to be an impersonal playground, a site this time to play out a commercial transaction. When she rose, though, and turned upstage to follow Baptista out of the scene, the auction over, she stopped. Tranio looked at her expressionless back. An arm extended. The fingers held out a lace handkerchief. Tranio moved to clutch it. Bianca's head turned. Her smile was dazzling.

Here was a Bianca capable of initiating her own secret play, a Bianca capable of walking out the stage door of the legitimate theater straight into a role on the fringe. She knew exactly who Tranio was. And she wanted him. Moreover, the kiss she gave him, stand-in bride to stand-in groom, as they exited to Kate and Petruchio's wedding feast, suggested that somewhere offstage she had been getting plenty of him. Watching the kiss, Lucentio stared in dismay. Instinctively he had stepped forward at Baptista's invitation: “Lucentio, you shall supply the bridegroom's place” (3.2.249). But a savage dig in the ribs from Tranio reminded him he had been replaced. He cast the beseeching look of the betrayed at Bianca. She gave him that sweet smile but turned into her role: nothing was going to disturb this performance.

This Bianca and this Tranio were natural allies, both performers authorized to play by a culture that licensed their performance: “I am tied to be obedient” (Tranio, 1.1.212); “To your pleasure humbly I subscribe” (Bianca, 1.1.81). They were like Bartholomew, the page, in the Induction. But they used their performance space to play out fantasies of subversion. Tranio, handed first Lucentio's trousers then his heraldic ring—the ring that authorized him master—was fascinated by it. He held it up to the light; his eyes narrowed. He was Tamburlaine considering Persepolis. Much later, in almost her final scene, Bianca would echo this gesture, but invert it. She, too, had considered Tamburlaine of the high-astounding line, but had settled instead for the mere translator of other men's daring (“Hic steterat Priami”) into the prosaic (“I am Lucentio”). The stolen marriage with the unexceptionable Lucentio was the lesser, safer transgression. And there had been inklings of the collapse of fantasy as far back as 4.2, when Tranio had to watch what he genuinely found “despiteful,” “beastly”: Bianca in the role of “unconstant womankind” making love by the book to the real Lucentio (14, 34, 14). Tranio's sudden emergence from behind shocked her. “I have ta’en you napping, gentle love” (46) was blackly sarcastic. He snatched at her placket, then bent her hand back until she winced: the obscenity hurt more than her wrist did but this time Bianca was trapped inside her performance with Lucentio. She could not let that mask slip even long enough to explain. When the whole messy business of the “counterfeit supposes” was discovered to the fathers and the “marriage … [that has] made thy daughter mine” (5.1.117, 116), Bianca held out her hand appealingly, showing the wedding ring. Lucentio's family ring was back on his own finger: he had demanded it from Tranio in a gesture that the upstart, still insolent, had yet to obey. The transfer of rings was trebly significant: Tranio was trashed; Lucentio, restored; and Bianca, mastered, not manned. She held up the ring hand to the light. She had made the safe choice. And it was the wrong choice.

Here was a Bianca who had made “a god of … a cullion” (4.2.20). She played in earnest that fiction Hortensio supposes to be true in the “beastly” wooing scene when he watches Bianca kiss and court the Latin tutor—the cullion—whom he doesn’t know is really a gentleman in disguise. Tranio was a cullion indeed. Making him a god, Saire's Bianca reanimated the visual and social subversiveness of Shakespeare's original disguised wooings. Making him a god, she reproduced sexually the class violations that had already occurred. (Baptista had fallen for Tranio too; the clothes were enough.) Making him a god, playing into his class fantasies, Bianca very nearly let this cullion get a leg over (and a leg up into) the gentry. But making him once again a cullion, she showed that since the patriarchal bastion is surrounded by walls that any spring-heeled jack can leap, the defense of the patriarchy must depend on the willing collusion of its exemplary conformists. But poor Bianca. She discarded the cullion who only, among all those unsuitable suitors, had hit her white. …


  1. Louis Montrose, “The Purpose of Playing: Reflections on a Shakespearean Anthropology,” Helios 7 (1980): 57, 64, 66, 68.

  2. Benedict Nightingale, New Statesman, 12 May 1979. I am, of course, adopting the idea of the “subsequent performance” at the end of the paragraph from Jonathan Miller's Subsequent Performances (London: Faber and Faber, 1986).

  3. Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today (London: The Women's Press, 1988), 1.

  4. Theatre Records 36 (7 May 1948) Shakespeare Centre Library, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  5. Theatre Records 40 (9 June 1953).

  6. Theatre Records 42 (1 June 1954).

  7. Theatre Records 42 (1 & 2 June 1954).

  8. Theatre Records 50 (21 June 1960).

  9. Theatre Records 50 (21 June 1960).

  10. Theatre Records 54 (13 September 1961).

  11. Theatre Records 69 (5 April 1963).

  12. Eric Shorter, Daily Telegraph, 26 September 1973.

  13. Michael Billington, The Guardian, 27 September 1973.

  14. Irving Wardle, The Times, 26 September 1973.

  15. Miller, 122, 121.

  16. Charles Marowitz, The Marowitz Shakespeare (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 176, 178.

  17. Nicholas de Jongh, The Guardian, 3 November 1973.

  18. For an account of this storming of the citadel, see Lynda Boose, “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 707-42.

  19. These three Shrews are documented in Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices.

  20. Lynda E. Boose, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213. It should be observed, to balance Boose's argument, that if women were bridled, men were harnessed: “harness” referred equally to armor or tackle worn by man or horse. Macbeth dies with harness on his back; Cleopatra must leap through “proof of harness” to embrace Antony's heart. As far as I can see there is not much to choose between the bridle and the harness as metaphors of human expressiveness.

  21. In his Introduction to the Arden Shrew, Brian Morris summarizes this ballad. Once the shrew is married, she “starts to misuse the servants, and she abuses her husband when he admonishes her. She strikes him in her anger, and he rides off to give her time to cool down. When he returns she berates him and refuses him food. He orders his old horse, Morrel, to be killed and flayed, and his hide salted. He forces his railing wife into a cellar, beats her mercilessly with birch rods until she bleeds and faints, then fastens her naked body into the salted hide. The pain revives her, and he threatens to keep her tied up in the horse's hide for the rest of her life. With that, ‘her moode began to sinke,’ and when he releases her she becomes meek and obedient” (London: Methuen, 1981), 71.

  22. When Barbara Hodgdon observes (in “Katherina Bound; or, Play(K)ating the Strictures of Everyday Life”) that “once Kate ventriloquizes the voice of Shakespeare's culture and lets it colonize her body, she never speaks again,” she is, implicitly, directing one politicized version of Kate's final speech, the key elements of which are “ventriloquizes,” “lets,” and “colonize,” all of which inform the further observation that she “never speaks again.” My observations point to different, but no less politicized, performance opportunities. Hodgdon is cuing her direction of the speech mainly from its content, its playtext; I am cuing mine mainly from its performance text, its theatrical site and strategies. I see a Kate whose performance text puts her at the center of the scene, focuses on her, and empowers her with speech. It is of course true that Kate never speaks again. But then nobody else does much either: there are only ten more lines of the Folio playtext. But it is also true that, except for Rosalind in her epilogue (where she is ambiguously gendered, sometimes as female role, sometimes as male actor), Portia in her five-line promise to answer “inter’gatories,” and Mistress Page in her four-line accommodation to Anne's stolen marriage, Kate comes closest to the male privilege of speaking the speech that silences the play, the last speech. Hodgdon, perhaps, would like Kate to say more, to recant, or, Emilia-like, to situate this representation of patriarchal supremacy inside an interrogation of it (Othello, 4.3). But Hodgdon knows very well (because she is teaching us all to read Shakespeare's theater as well as his words) that even where Shakespeare's playtext may be constructing some orthodoxy, his performance text may be busily dismantling it. We do not have to depend on the famous Pickford wink (‘Play(K)ating, 544) to make the ending ironic when so evidently the stage picture is doing just that. The ventriloquized voice of the patriarchy is clearly falling on deaf ears. And the patriarchs themselves—Lucentio and Hortensio—have just demonstrated publicly their spectacular failure as “lord … king … governor” to extract “love, fair looks [or] true obedience.” The ending of Shrew is the most desultory of Shakespeare's comic endings. Astonishingly, the comic couple around whom the “new order” should crystallize, especially given the “authority” evidently inscribed in Kate's last speech to formalize that order, abandons the play. Kate and Petruchio simply walk out. What they leave behind deconstructs Kate's speech. Not only does their exit leave a gap in the feast, but twelve other characters must subsequently make their exits. How do they go? What does their going say about the culture Kate's speech has invented? Is it, on the emptying stage, literally a utopia? The ending of Shrew is much more subversive to an audience who reads the scene than to the critic who reads only Kate. See Barbara Hodgdon, “Katherina Bound,” PMLA 107 (1992), 538-553.

  23. For a different reading of violence in Shrew, see Lynda Boose, “Scolding Brides.” By invoking absence—“the scold's bridle that Shakespeare did not literally include in his play … the fist-in-the-face that Petruchio does not use and the rape he does not enact in the offstage bedroom we do not see” (200)—Boose contrives to make that absent violence present.

  24. In Elizabethan England there was only one method for taming the haggard (the full grown falcon captured in the wild as against the eyas, the unfledged nestling, removed from the nest and hand-reared). The procedure was known as “waking.” The bird was tied to the falconer's wrist. She would not sleep until she trusted the keeper. He could not sleep until she was “broken” to his trust: a falcon is powerful enough to kill a man. By this (mutual) process of sleep and food deprivation (hence the extension of “haggard” to mean a wild, wasted, worn look as from sleeplessness) man and bird were broken to each other. Implicit in this process is the Elizabethan opinion that the schooled bird is the better bird. Petruchio is suggesting Kate's aptitude to such schooling; Hortensio, Bianca's reversion to the wild. As a metaphor for the woman, “haggard” carries a double cultural valence that “shrew” does not.

  25. “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds,” 182.

  26. O.E.D. v.2 trans. To wager, stake (e.g. money, one's life, one's head). Quotation ref. 1560: “Stene Robesone weddit ten markis of money aganes the said tar barrell that scho suld nocht marry the saide King of Swane.”

  27. The phrase is Jan Kott's in “The Gender of Rosalind: Androgyny in Shakespeare's England—and in Gautier's France,” New Theatre Quarterly 7 (1991): 118.

  28. I come to these observations about dangerous extremes, erasure, and role-play after seeing the 1991/92 Cheek by Jowl As You Like It, an all-male production that, by self-consciously displaying the gap between (male) actors and (female) characters, reanimated the Elizabethan notion of performance as role-play and released in the audience the pleasurable freedom of watching Rosalind as a role, as a collection of performance strategies, not as a woman, a representative of universalized or psychologized femininity. An all-male company meant, stylistically, that performances were alienated, not personalized. It meant, politically, that women in the audience were permitted to laugh without defensiveness at a play-thing that was itself laughing at “women's” postures and posturing. A reversal of what I am suggesting may have been the 1592 audience's experience of watching Shrew—that the play interrogated male cultural practices and male spectator positions by demonstrating the constructedness of gender roles through role-play as the Cheek by Jowl As You Like It, levying upon the same understanding of the constructedness of role, permitted the 1992 audience to interrogate female cultural practices and female spectator positions that in our contemporary theater require the (female) actor, even in an Elizabethan play, somehow to represent modern feminism. Sarah Lyon, one of the new generation of highly politicized feminist academics, explained it to me while we were trying to analyze our (unexpected) deep delight in the production: “Women have a problem in the audience these days. We want, we need, women on stage to be strong. If we had seen any woman playing Phebe like that, we would have been furious. But because it was a man playing Phebe, we didn’t have to be defensive.” This As You Like It was clearly a game, a “play,” and the magic free territory marked out by play allowed this role-play to go to dangerous extremes to permit women in the audience to laugh at women.

  29. Michael Billington, The Guardian, 5 May 1978; Irving Wardle, The Times, 26 September 1973.

  30. All of my quotation of Fiona Shaw comes either from conversations with her in February and March 1988 or from Drama, September 1987.

  31. When it suited his purposes, Miller put a contemporary spin on his evocation of Elizabethan imagery or abandoned the decorum of that culture entirely: Kate's white smock in 4.3 looked like a hospital gown; Petruchio (fully dressed) offering her food then depriving her of it (while Grumio and Hortensio, likewise fully dressed, looked on) stood in the role of analyst. Fiona Shaw, in conversation with me, observed that Miller in rehearsal talked of Kate as a damaged child: “He thought that she behaves like many children do who are unloved: badly, really younger than she is, under-developed. Until this man comes. And without beating her up he very unviolently disorientates her by not accepting anything she says. Miller says that’s what doctors do with badly behaved children who spew vulgarities—they turn the desk over and the children get a fright. I think he was translating the ‘taming’ of the shrew into ‘therapy,’ the realignment of the delinquent. It’s just one step further to putting Petruchio in a white coat.” Shaw's representation of Miller squares with his own comments on Kate in Subsequent Performances where he uses a psychiatrist's vocabulary—“self-image,” “unloved,” “rejected”—to diagnose “symptoms of unhappiness” (121-22). Reviewing Miller's production in the TLS (September 18-24 1987), Katherine Duncan-Jones remarked on program notes that quoted Lawrence Stone on Elizabethan psychology: she saw Miller enlisting “deprivation syndrome” as “an almost invisible underpinning to [his] adjustment of Shakespeare's savagely patriarchal fable of wife-taming to the responses of a contemporary, postfeminist audience.” For a critique of Miller's dubious historicizing in his 1980 BBC (video) and in his 1987 Royal Shakespeare Company Shrew, see Graham Holderness, Shakespeare in Performance: The Taming of the Shrew (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 111-20.

  32. My thinking on looking relationships in the theater is indebted to Laura Mulvey's influential essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975), 6-18; rpt. in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley (New York: Routledge, 1988), 57-68. Woman as object-of-the-gaze is now almost a cliché of feminist materialist criticism: see, for example, Jean Howard's “Scripts and/Versus Playhouses,” Renaissance Drama 20 (1990): 31-49. Katharine Eisaman Maus is much more acute and accessible in “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama,” English Literary History 54 (1987): 561-83. For a brilliant analysis of spectatorly pleasure in Shrew, see Barbara Hodgdon, “Katherina Bound.” Zeffirelli's film Shrew (1966) reverses spectatorship in the way I am suggesting Shaw's performance did. Kate (Elizabeth Taylor) is first an eye, in close-up, framed in the camera frame but also in the narrow aperture of the window shutter she has cracked open. The eye looks at the audience. But as the camera moves, Kate is looking down at Bianca, summoned home at a run into her sister's surveillance from the carnival marketplace where she has been the object of a different gaze: the focus of all male attention, her veiled face was held in close-up to male view and to (licentious) male serenade, the veil finally lifted (and the face exposed naked) by a fish hook “catching” her. The looking back that Fiona Shaw claimed for Kate in 1987, Amanda Harris, the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest Kate, simply handed back in 1992: her Kate looked not at the audience, but at herself. Picking up the pewter plate Petruchio had thrown down, she licked it, then caught her reflection in the mirror surface and gazed at it silently. The critique registered was of herself. She tried to fix her hair.

  33. Reviewing the archival video of Miller's production at the Shakespeare Centre Library, I was reminded of what I always know in the theater but forget in the study, that, in defiance of academic reading of whatever ideological persuasion, audiences claim this scene for comedy. They laugh at Petruchio, at, literally, the lunacy of the sun/moon rigmarole, at their own discomfiture in recognizing a comic routine that entraps them in another replay of here we go again. Petruchio's first remark passes off neutrally, for, in a presentational theater, “Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!” has the same status as “Well, this is the forest of Arden” or “The moon is down.” It is only when Kate contradicts him and Petruchio begins again “I say …” that the audience understands the time (as in the tailor scene) but, one step ahead of Kate, understands that that’s not the real issue. Like all the onstage audiences of Shrew who spectate on the spectacles Petruchio devises, the audience in the theater is just as disconcerted as Kate: indeed, the playing of the play positions the audience to read the play as Kate does, for Petruchio's lunacy contradicts our sense too. The audience is Kated, is shrewed. And the audience's laughter in this scene is directed as much at itself as at Petruchio; it recognizes that the audience, too, once again has been caught out by Petruchio's anarchy. “I say …” is a laugh line in the theater. And the laugher of the audience constructs a meaning for the scene that appropriates the playtext to the business of comedy. Laughter does not make the scene “safe” or “normal,” but it does make Kate's predicament the audience's predicament. And it makes Lynda Boose's serious observations about women and a shame culture in “Scolding Brides” incommensurate to the playing of this play.

  34. If the exercise, surveillance, and management of female speech and silence is one master topic of early modern drama, so the presentation, inspection, and interrogation of the unsuitable male suitor is another. Early on in A Midsummer Night's Dream (and in Shakespeare's career), Lysander (1.1.135-40) itemizes the standard catalog of misalliance that turns the course of true love awry, and comedy after comedy plays out progressively grotesque versions of the parade of Portia's suitors, presenting to prospective brides prospective grooms who are twits, louts, drunkards, monsters, bankrupts, geriatrics, and foreigners. The misalliances of tragedy pick up the same tropes but render them increasingly extreme. From Kyd to Marlowe, Shakespeare to Jonson, Webster to Middleton and Tourneur, the unsuitable suitor of tragedy is the savage, the black, the imbecile, the rapist, the incestuous brother, the psychotic, and the deformed. If As You Like It dramatizes the process by which the unsuitable suitor is made suitable—the education of mad Orlando by that unsuitable suitor par excellence, Ganymede—Othello dramatizes the process in reverse: the marriage of true minds is wrecked by the unsuitable suitor who woos Othello into unholy matrimony, sealed, like that other proxy marriage in the forest of Arden, when the couple kneels to “engage” their words “in the due reverence of a sacred vow.” The blasphemous ceremony ends with Iago, bridelike, swearing “I am your own for ever” (3.3.461, 480). Such preoccupation among male playwrights with this issue must, surely, indicate some anxiety about the patriarchal prerogative of making marriages.

  35. Theatre Records, 42 (1 and 2 June 1954).

  36. Directed by Michael Bogdanov. It opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 4 May 1978; Petruchio, Jonathan Pryce; Kate, Paola Dionisotti.

  37. Directed by Jonathan Miller. It opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 8 September 1987; Petruchio, Brian Cox; Kate, Fiona Shaw.

  38. Theatre Records, 55 (23 April 1962). Indeed, most reviews across the years fail to mention Bianca at all.

  39. As I argue here, Bianca's plot, far from being an irrelevance, is the master text against which Kate's deviant text must be read. A production that loses Bianca loses the point.

  40. Directed by Bill Alexander. It opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 1 April 1992; Petruchio, Anton Lesser; Kate, Amanda Harris. All of my quotation of Rebecca Saire comes from conversations with her in September, 1992.

Katherine A. Sirluck (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Patriarchy, Pedagogy, and the Divided Self in The Taming of the Shrew,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, Summer, 1991, pp. 417-34.

[In the following essay, Sirluck argues that The Taming of the Shrew satirizes Elizabethan patriarchal society.]

Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has been read and directed in a variety of ways. It has been seen as a rollicking comic flyting match between a resourceful suitor and a dangerous man-hater.1 Some productions have encouraged the idea that Katharina secretly longs for a man too strong for her, one who can awaken her true feminine nature. A more contemporary form of this view has recently been championed by Ralph Berry, who perceives Katharina's reluctance in marrying Petruchio as merely ‘ostensible,’ and sees a romantic ‘union of hearts and minds,’ once negotiations ‘between the principals’ have been completed in a spirit of ‘robust materialism.’2 Feminists like Juliet Dusinberre are ready to accord Shakespeare a trans-patriarchal perspective.3 Others present the play as a brutally frank celebration of patriarchal power, or as a despairing recognition of the same.4 I would like to consider the play as a study in analogical power relations, wrought within the dramatic conventions of comedy, which themselves culminate in marriage, as the ideologically correct resolution of the conflict between desire and the social order, between autonomy and the demands of the community.

It is a common argument of recent scholars that Shakespeare frequently exploits generic conventions in a subversive way; that is, he employs conventional dramatic forms, which carry with them certain traditional ideological assumptions; but he introduces ingredients that undermine or work against those assumptions, and call into question the ‘verities’ attached to the generic decorum. Thus, in Antony and Cleopatra, Antony's wavering allegiance and comically clumsy suicide partly undercut the traditional dignity and solemnity associated with heroic tragedy. In the process, traditional notions of the unified coherent subject of tragedy and the elevating, cathartic, sacrificial death of the protagonist are also challenged. Equally, our dissatisfaction with some of the marriages at the conclusion of As You Like It or Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream throws a shadow of ambiguity across the festival ‘solution’ of romantic comedy. With this dissatisfaction comes a challenge to the prescription of marriage as a cure for all the lesser ills of the community: desire, the need of the individual to assert autonomy, the generational conflict.

Shakespeare's emphasis in The Taming of The Shrew on the disturbing implications of Petruchio's triumph seems to me to undercut the power of the festive comic answer to political conflicts within culture. In presenting us with an uncomfortable conclusion, in which the victory of one individual depends upon the total defeat of another, rather than the compromise or balance of claims that is implied by the comic tradition, the playwright complicates matters and makes indigestible the wedding-cake of communal sanction. Thus, the play represents the social practices and institutions of Shakespeare's time in a way that highlights their tyranny, despite foregrounding their success. Further, Shakespeare demonstrates parallels between different kinds of tyranny: husband over wife, abusive master over servant, and cruel parent over child. This mirroring structure encourages a potentially transformative experience of empathy in the audience, because it connects the experience of deprivation and abjection undergone by classes ordinarily kept separate: men (who have all been children), women, and servants.

One of the first puzzles to confront us as we approach the play is the strange metatheatrical framing device of Christopher Sly and his ‘dream.’ (Shakespeare's text as printed in the Folio has no closing reference to Sly—nothing after the Induction. The non-Shakespearean play The Taming of a Shrew, registered on 2 May 1594, has Sly awakened by the Tapster and sent home to his shrewish wife.) The play begins with an exchange between Sly and the hostess of an alehouse, reminiscent of Falstaff's swaggering with Mistress Quickly. ‘Let the world slide. Sessa!’ (Induction, i.6) he cries, announcing his affinity with Bacchus and the Saturnalia, not to mention certain Christian saints. When the hostess threatens to fetch the law, he falls asleep, clearly believing himself beyond reach of any constable.

Hunting horns sound and a nameless lord arrives with his train, to discover the clown in the lap of Comus. ‘Oh, monstrous beast!’ he cries prudishly, ‘How like a swine he lies! / Grim Death, how foul and loathsome is thy image!’ (I.i.34-5). This is a peculiar comment, suggesting that the Lord sees Sly's drunken sleep as an evocation of death, perhaps as the embodiment of those descending elements in man that weigh him to the earth with the putrefaction due to gross appetites. There is a moral disgust, or at least the pretence of one, in his language. Here, the Lord can be identified as a kind of Prospero figure, hostile to ungoverned appetite, severe in its chastisement. Like Prospero, he creates illusion in order to entrap the sinner; but unlike Prospero, he seems more interested in showing Sly what he may never inherit or enjoy than in rehabilitating him.

He announces his intention to ‘practice’ on the drunken man, to dress him up in lordly clothes, surround him with banquets and servants to obey his every command, and offer him a drunkard's dream of heaven. The purpose is to make him think himself other than he is, to make him forget himself entirely, until a rude awakening punishes him for his presumptuous folly. Drunkenness itself is presumptuous because it induces hubris, even in beggars. Hubris threatens hierarchy, so the Lord must school the rebel, as Petruchio schools Kate for thinking herself a free being, free to scold, refuse, and avow the intelligence of her own senses. The lover in wooing offers to make the woman mistress of himself and all he owns; but in wedding, he becomes her master, and she no longer mistress, even of herself. Even so, Sly is made a lord in jest, offered all sorts of dainties, but denied all satisfaction, and finally cast forth to the rough disillusionment due to such a fool.

This rather cruel jest has a peculiar resonance. Christopher Sly himself, a tinker, unmarried, poor, is half-clown, half-child. Like Bottom, he takes his place in fairy-tale with a mixture of wonder and trustful acceptance. To be cossetted by the Fairy Queen or transformed into a lord, complete with servants and lady-wife, are things to be embraced by these simpleton characters, not questioned. Christopher tries to carry off his new role with aplomb, making the audience laugh at an incongruity not apparent to himself. He has been set up for mockery, but also for a perspective glass. Like the Boy-Bishop or the Lord of Misrule, he represents topsy-turvydom: the world of Carnival, the Feast of Fools, the Saturnalian reversal both of the social hierarchy and of the prescribed microcosmic order in which reason governs passion.5

As a poor village tinker, clothed in the garb of a lord, invested with his privileges and power, Sly takes on the role of the King of Fools, often in carnival festivals an idiot or ‘natural,’ whose title ascribes to him both the role of infant (an old use of the word ‘fool,’ common in Shakespeare) and of God's innocent, the grown man with the mind of a child. Sly transformed into a lord is emblematic of the child made master, and thus evokes on the familial level a world where the baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart goes all decorum. As the child ruling with the father's authority, he also symbolizes unsocialized appetite released from parental restraint, or, on a political level, the servant usurping the master's seat.

If we compare Christopher with his descendants in The Tempest, Caliban and the shipwrecked Jester Trinculo and Butler Stephano (who symbolize the Carnival elements of monstrous animality, Folly and Drunkenness), we can see in the plan to overthrow Prospero and take the ‘kingdom’ for themselves a much more aggressive version of the comic threat embodied in Carnival revolt. Not only is Christopher the unwitting tool of the lord in his charade of Carnival reversal, but he resists the role of master until he is duped and harried into submission. But once ‘invested’ with lordship and servants, he becomes an embodiment of inverted order, of excluded and repressed social energies suddenly placed on the seat of power. In contemporary terms, he is the shadow come to the fore. He is Caliban ruling the Island—if only for a day.

Kate too, as Shrew, is emblematic of a reversed decorum, where female batters male, and overrules her social superiors.6 This is a common theme in medieval and Renaissance carnivals, charivari, mumming, and other forms of festival misrule. At this time, women were commonly considered to be emblematic of disorder in general, as they were claimed to be governed by passion, to have irrepressible appetites, unstable minds, and inadequate reason. Eve tempting Adam brought misrule into the perfect government of paradise. Noah's wife beating her patient husband, in whose hands the fate of humanity lay, Juno harrying her husband Jove, and Omphale the Amazon Queen keeping Hercules enslaved, taking his sword and giving him a distaff in exchange, were popular representatives of female disorder and of inverted hierarchy.

As Natalie Zemon Davis observes, in Society and Culture in Early Modern France, ‘at the end of the Middle Ages and in early modern Europe, the relation of the wife—of the potentially disorderly woman—to her husband was especially useful for expressing the relation of all subordinates to their superiors. … In the little world of the family, with its conspicuous tension between intimacy and power, the larger matters of political and social order could find ready symbolization.’7 Thus the ‘taming’ of Kate, like the practice put upon Sly, can be read as an affirmation of right order (true decorum). But such a reading cannot account for certain aspects of the overall dramatic construction, or for details of language and action which suggest anything but a glorification of Petruchio's victory.

The situation that is represented over and over again in the play is that of an abusive power relation disguised as a legitimate paternalism, pedagogy, or right order based on natural hierarchy. This power relation corresponds primarily to the relation between parent and child, upon which the social and political relations in the play are analogically based. As Coppelia Kahn observes in ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear,’ ‘Because the family is both the first scene of individual development and the primary agent of socialization, it functions as a link between psychic and social structures.’8

In the family, the child is assigned the role of the unsocialized, original human being, needing guidance, moulding, and strict discipline in order to meet the requirements of the community. Robert Cleaver and John Dod, in A Godly Form of Household Government (1621), give directions for proper child-rearing which are representative of the time:

The young child which lieth in the cradle is both wayward and full of affections; and though his body be but small, yet he hath a reat [wrong-doing] heart, and is altogether inclined to evil. … If this sparkle be suffered to increase, it will rage over and burn down the whole house. For we are changed and become good not by birth but by education. … Therefore parents must be wary and circumspect … they must correct and sharply reprove their children for saying or doing ill.9

The parent—and in patriarchal society, the father rather than the mother—is an absolute authority, imposing the values of the society, and teaching the child obedience, duty, and submission. On the internal level—in the microcosm of the psyche—this relationship reappears as a permanent, internalized division between opposing voices. One is appetitive, desiring, and uncivilized; the other, the voice of reason, restraint, and command or will, guides and disciplines the appetite, acting as a culturally conditioned, controlling self. This inner drama enacts the historical evolution of the individual, who, according to Freudian and post-Freudian psychology, becomes socialized through internalizing the parent's voice (his/her, but chiefly his, language and ideology) in the form of conscience or as learned behaviour.10

In Renaissance terms, this corresponds in part to the dualism of masque and anti-masque, of established order and natural energy (or desire).11 These binaries are expressed formally as the contending faculties of reason and appetite. It is helpful at this juncture if, for a moment, we view The Taming of the Shrew as if it were a morality drama, a psychomachia occurring within the microcosm of a single consciousness, but occurring simultaneously at the macrocosmic level, that of the social cosmos. In every family, and in every ‘citizen,’ appetite must be contained and repressed in accordance with reason, or mutiny in the home and in the state will return the world to its first chaos. Passion must yield to reason, servants must obey masters, children and wives must submit to fathers and husbands, and subjects must bow to their lord. Because these five levels of power relations are viewed in the Renaissance and in the play-world as analogous, each reinforces the claims of the others to legitimacy as part of a ‘natural’ order. Violation of any part of this order amounts to violation of the whole, and is punished with corresponding harshness.

From this perspective, the taming of the shrew can be seen as a representation of the taming or socializing of the child in everyman and more particularly everywoman. Kate's shrewishness stands for the dark, obdurate elements in civilized mankind, for which rods are peeled and prisons erected. The taming also suggests the means by which the father's own experience of being tamed is passed on to his children. Whatever revenges he could not take upon his father are inflicted upon his children as the fittest objects, being as weak as he once was, and as much in need of curbing.12

This allows us to see a system of analogical ‘taming’ within the action of the play: the taming of the child; the taming of servants; the restraining of appetite by reason; the maintaining of social hierarchy by force.13

The pedagogy explored by the play is a pedagogy of dominance and submission. The wife must put her hand beneath her husband's foot.14 The beggar must disavow his name and history at the insistence of a troop of servants, and in exchange for elusive gratification. The child gives up his or her authentic self, a self of direct appetites, feelings, and thoughts, in order to survive, or in exchange for the promise of intangible gratifications, that are snatched away before he or she can truly grasp them. Obedience, conformity, concurrence. In exchange, if he is male, he will one day rule others as he has been ruled. If she is female in the world of the play, no such opportunity will present itself.

There are several pedagogues in this play: the Lord, who ‘teaches’ Sly; Petruchio, who tames Kate and his servants, thus teaching other husbands how to discipline their households; and Baptista, who has successfully tamed Bianca, the model pupil, but has failed with Kate. Kate herself becomes a mock-pedagogue when she ties her sister's hands behind her back and beats her, both for planning to marry and for being more loved. Kate makes no attempt to hide the fact that revenge is the motive for this violent ‘lessoning.’ She both expresses her unsocialized impulses, making us pity Bianca, and burlesques the pedagogy she has undergone, by enacting it in reverse, from the Bad Child's perspective.

Kate, like the disguised Hortensio and Lucentio, who offer themselves as schoolmasters when they are indeed suitors, uses the trappings of pedagogy in a twisted way. All the pedagogues in the play serve their own interests, and teach the doctrine of their own desires to willing and unwilling pupils. Indeed, the purest ‘taming’ in the play requires that the victim, or pupil, renounce the evidence of his or her own senses and reason, as part of the lesson.

Sly is ensnared by a web of assertions spun by those around him, at the lord's orders:

Persuade him that he hath been lunatic,
And when he says he is, say that he dreams,
For he is nothing but a mighty lord.

(Induction, i.63-5)

Similarly, Kate is told that the moon shines at noon, and an old man is a young maid, and is forced to submit her judgment of reality, or at least her avowal of it, to her husband's will, for she cannot hope to hold out against him. As with Sly, her autonomy of perception is revoked, in order that she may be more easily controlled. This point is won through a strategy of prolonged deprivation, of sleep, food, and privacy, which reduces both her strength of resistance and her cunning. All Petruchio's servants join in the game, offering her meat only to deny it, bidding the tailor bring her clothes only to swear he had made them amiss.15 In the same fashion, Sly is deliberately aroused by the Lord's orders, shown wanton pictures, and then presented with the disguised page, who is to encourage him with ‘kind embracements’ and ‘tempting kisses’ (Induction i.118), and then refuses him.

On the level of the individual psyche, we might see Sly as the Child, whose jealous Father, the nameless Lord, his superior in power, possession, and stature, decides to punish him for wallowing in drunken pleasure. The drunkard is, in a sense, the child dropped satiate from the mother's nipple. If Sly is the Child undergoing correction by the Father, then the lie he is encouraged to believe represents the Oedipal wish: he will replace the Father, become the lord in the house, and possess the lord's lady as his own, as husband possesses wife. Sly is lured into this fantasy by the obeisance of the servants and especially by the seductive behaviour of the page, who is a pawn of the Lord, as the Mother seems to the Child to be a pawn of the Father. The infant thinks at first that his mother is his to command, that she is not separate from himself, that his wishes make her appear. What Sly experiences being lord for a day, only to be cast out to beggary again, is the original fall from Eden, conceived in infantile terms.16

To a greater or lesser degree, as children we have all been the butts of this particular jest. Certainly in the Elizabethan age the period of infancy and early childhood was a rough one, whether the mother used a wet-nurse or breast-fed. The hierarchy within the Elizabethan family resembles the Elizabethan social hierarchy in that children are the beggars, the chattels, and fathers are the lords. Similarly, women are all culturally defined as beggars and chattels, and any thought of autonomy or self-determination in them is no more than a drunkard's dream, as Kate is made to recognize.17 Thus the framing device of the Induction assists the audience in seeing the link between the plight of women as disenfranchised humans and the plight of all humanity in childhood, as the fools of nature, or perhaps of culture, who are born into a delusion of perfect lordship, and then brutally dispossessed.

If we then consider the action of the play itself, which is offered as a play within a play, we find it particularly suggestive of the emblematic, since the double-tiered representation draws our attention to ourselves as audience mirrored in Sly as audience, both audiences watching a performance that reflects themselves, and at first unaware of the mirroring.

Extending the notion of a psychological allegory, we are confronted with a constellation of doubled figures. Baptista is a father with two daughters, one a model of seemly, docile, feminine virtue, Bianca, the White, the Good Child; the other a figure from the anti-masque, a violent, manlike embodiment of revolt, the Shrew Katharina, the Black, the Bad Child. Baptista himself is the rejecting father, who offers conditional love. Bianca, as Kate observes, is his treasure; she is ‘modest,’ whereas Kate's behaviour makes her worthy to be ‘carted’ like a whore, froward speech being equated with sexual licence.

Nevertheless, there is more than a hint that Baptista has incestuous feelings for the good Bianca, the daughter he refuses to give away in marriage until the elder sister, the Shrew, be wed—an apparently impossible condition.

Supposing it a thing impossible—
For those defects I have before rehears’d—
That ever Katherina will be woo’d.
Therefore this order hath Baptista ta’en,
That none shall have access unto Bianca
Till Katherine the curst have got a husband.


Thus Kate becomes the dragon to guard this tree of Hesperides for its possessor, Baptista; and Bianca is the golden fruit that every man would pluck if he could. In parting from the suitors Baptista reveals his inclination to leave Kate with them so as to be alone with his youngest daughter: ‘Katharina, you may stay; / For I have more to commune with Bianca’ (I.i.100-1). Thus Kate is excluded from the ‘couple’ of father and daughter, an exclusion resembling that of the child from its parents’ conjugal chamber.

The Good Child reflects back to the father his own ideal conception of himself; whereas the Bad Child, like Caliban in Prospero's psychomachia, embodies whatever the father wishes to repudiate in himself, including the desire to rape Miranda. Thus, the Bad Child gives expression to the instinct of rebellion, taking up arms against an oppressive social and moral regime, a regime which imposes the tyranny of art over nature, law over energy. On another level, the social, Kate embodies the resistance of the devalued components in culture, especially women, but by analogy also children and the lower classes, to the ideologies by which they are conventionally contained and delimited.18

Kate sneers at the gross flattery of courtship, a flattery which limits and defines even as it pretends to praise, which uses praise to undermine and control. When Petruchio declares:

’Twas told me you were rough and coy and sullen,
And now I find report a very liar;
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous,
But slow in speech, yet sweet as springtime flowers.
Thou can’st not frown, thou can’st not look askance …


Katharina replies: ‘Go, fool, and whom thou keep’st command’ (II.i.259). False flattery here is command; it prescribes identity. Kate confounds it by rejecting all praise, which she perceives as a lure to catch and hood the hawk. Parents also may use approval to conciliate children, disapproval to shake them. Later, Petruchio will use rougher tactics to train his falcon. The language of pedagogy and the language of animal-training merge in this play; Petruchio is to ‘tame’ Kate, and later Hortensio goes to Petruchio to learn this pedagogy:

Faith, he is gone unto the taming school.
The taming school! What, is there such a place?
Aye, mistress, and Petruchio is the master,
That teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long
To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue.


The delight felt by Tranio at the prospect of a taming school is perhaps an indication of the enjoyment felt by a servant for the chastisement of a social better, whatever her gender. But it is more likely to be the culturally legitimized pleasure, itself a social leveller, experienced by males witnessing their dominance over women publicly displayed and confirmed. This ‘lesson’ has the character both of a pedagogical display and of a specifically eroticized act of aggression against women. Men of lower-class status can thus vicariously ‘enjoy’ the forcing or ‘breaking’ of upper-class women to whom they would otherwise have no access.

The punishment of women for pedagogical purposes celebrates the protective and guiding authority of the male—husband or father—over the wayward and irresponsible female, even as it exposes the punitive and even vengeful side of his power. The Taming of the Shrew is constructed so as to explore both the implications of benevolence predicated upon such ‘truths’ and the real meaning of punishment in such a ‘school.’

Just as there are two daughters suggestive of the father's and the culture's dual identity, the light celebrated and the dark denied, so there are two types of wooer. Lucentio is the ideal wooer drawn to the ideal wife, suggestive of the father's conditional love awarded to the obedient child, externalized in a young suitor to avoid the threat of incest. Petruchio evokes the dark side of the father, sent to chastise the Bad Child, whose rebellion has aroused the cruel, sadistic spirit lurking within the patriarchal order.19 Taken together, daughters and wooers constitute a pedagogical model: Bianca deserves to encounter a mild, adoring Lucentio, for she is Good. Kate deserves to encounter a violent, punishing Petruchio, for she is Bad.

It is interesting to compare these two couples with those in Much Ado about Nothing, for in the later play, Beatrice, being a froward, shrewish lady, gains Benedick for her lover, a far more sincere, vital, and loving husband than docile Hero's selfish Claudio. Beatrice too is compared with a hawk, and beats her lovers off with waspish words; but she is a more adult shrew—less a Bad Child than a wary Amazon. As for Benedick, it is he who is transformed, unlike Petruchio; and he is transformed from a mock-misogynist into a defender of women, because of his love for Beatrice. He is the alternative to Petruchio that Shakespeare offers us, as Beatrice is what an untamed Kate might have grown into.

One indication of the bad conscience of men in The Taming of the Shrew is their unwillingness to articulate their feelings about their women. This is understandable, since Baptista's feelings for Bianca are probably incestuous, while Petruchio's feelings for Kate are certainly sadistic. Both men cloak this darkness with the socially acceptable concern for pecuniary advantage. Just as Baptista agrees to give Bianca to the man with the largest fortune, Petruchio agrees to wed Kate for the sake of her money. Both men use the mercenary motive to conceal their emotional investment. Baptista is only willing to part with Bianca because he has given his word and cannot withdraw it. He can try to ensure, however, that she does not choose her own lover, and therefore that the match is not primarily a sexual or romantic one on her side. In seeking to control his daughter's marriage, he hopes to retain her beyond the bridal threshold.

Petruchio's interest in Kate's money thinly veils his interest in domination, in the rough ‘schooling’ at which he is so adept, and of which he is so noticeably proud. If she were not wayward, he could not punish. If she did not rail, he could not so utterly silence her, until her very speech becomes an extension of his will. The most satisfying schoolmaster-pupil, father-child, husband-wife relation, in Petruchio's eyes, is one which begins with the appearance of combat and culminates in a demonstration of entire and perfect mastery.

Hortensio abandons his pursuit of Bianca when he catches her courting with her schoolmaster. He claims to sneer at her gross appetite in stooping to such a beggarly suitor, and turns to a rich widow whom he vows to wed in three days' time, as proof that his affections were not engaged too deeply. He jilts before he can be jilted, and declares he will tame his wife as Petruchio does:

Well, Petruchio! this has put me in heart
Have to my widow! And if she be froward,
Then thou hast taught Hortensio to be untoward.


In addition to being Petruchio's pupils, Hortensio and Gremio play an important role as the unsuitable wooers who flock to Bianca, enhancing her acknowledged value, while making clear that Kate is unvendable, though both a virgin and an heiress. Bianca is the honey, Kate the wasp. The extra suitors also add the element of competition which makes necessary the further, more relevant complication of another imposture: Tranio must masquerade as Lucentio, and Lucentio as the scholar Cambio, in order to gain access to his love. This forms another parallel for the framing device, where the tinker is transformed into a lord.

Tranio plays his master with ease and evident enjoyment, but entirely in the service of his master's interests. He is a descendant of the cunning slave so familiar from Roman comedy.20 In the Roman comic tradition, when a young man needs to cozen his miserly or repressive father out of some money in order to further his amours, he relies on the wits of his knavish servant. There is then an implied carnivalesque inversion, where the slave manipulates and thus conquers his master's master, the representative of established authority, all in order to promote the aims of desire and procreation.

Thus in this play we have a framing device where a lord establishes a drunken tinker in his place, as sport for himself and punishment for the tinker. We have a subplot (that ought to be the main plot, except that it is shouldered aside by the more compelling contest between Petruchio and Kate) where the servant is established as the master in order to forward the master's design. Finally we have a main plot in which a shrew who rejects male authority and seems to drive men before her is broken by systematic deprivation, mockery and torment, until she acknowledges her own impotence. None of these reversals entails a true shift of power; each serves the interests of masters who remain in control throughout. All three designs expose the ‘transformed’ characters to frustration. Sly cannot have his ‘lady,’ despite her inviting caresses, and Tranio certainly cannot have Bianca:

Tranio is changed into Lucentio.
The better for him. Would I were so too.
So could I, faith, boy, to have the next wish after.
That Lucentio indeed had Baptista's youngest daughter.


Disguise here only torments the underlings, giving them a taste of what they will never enjoy in their own persons. Indeed, when Tranio oversteps his mandate and tries to have the real Vincentio, Lucentio's rich father, imprisoned for imposture, he comes near to ruining himself. His very desire to go to such extremes suggests a hidden thirst for some kind of social revenge, albeit a comic one.

There is a great deal of commedia-style business in the main plot. From the moment Petruchio appears with Grumio, and gives the order ‘Knock me here soundly!’ (I.ii.8), we recognize the low-comic order of things. The master commands his servant repeatedly to ‘knock him’, meaning knock at the gate, and when the servant pretends to misunderstand, wrings his ears and beats him.21 Similarly, in the taming scenes, Petruchio is a comic force, his outrages gratifying the audience's appetite for chaos even as they shock us. We hear, though we do not see, that Petruchio rides to his wedding on a pitiful nag—a true Rosinante—that he comes dressed like a scarecrow, that he knocks down the priest, throws sops in the sexton's face, kisses his wife with a resounding smack, and carries her off without staying for the wedding feast, thus shaming her and her family. His antics are both hilarious and disturbing, for while the method evokes the Feast of Fools and Processio Asinorum tradition, with a mockery of the wedding sacrament in the very church itself, Petruchio's tactics are all aimed at the humiliation and social chastisement of one woman; they are not really intended, as their carnivalesque models are, to subvert the conventional decorum of the social order, but rather to reassert it.

The travesty of courtly wooing offered earlier by Petruchio suggests not that courtly language is hypocritical or artificial, but that all reverence shown to women must be burlesque, for they are nothing but their fathers' and their husbands' property.

Thus in plain terms. Your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on.
And will you, nill you, I will marry you.


I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels …
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;
And here she stands, touch her whoever dare.
I’ll bring my action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua.


Petruchio's invocation of the law is a sobering touch, for it reminds the audience that law and custom validate his beliefs and actions, giving him the absolute right to do what he will with what he owns, his wife being his possession. She is his beast, his flesh, his ‘anything.’ The drunken ‘beast’ Sly (I.i.34) and the female ‘beast’ Kate are dehumanized verbally as a prelude to their ritual (and real) castigation. The institutions of the culture encourage the man-beast/master-slave relationship at every opportunity: between husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant. The exercise of mastery and control are essential determinants of identity for the privileged class. Virtues such as compassion, honesty, and charity are of secondary importance, since they can also be claimed by the governed classes. In allowing Petruchio to demonstrate the extremes of behaviour that are ultimately ratified by social codes, towards both women and servants, the veil of paternal care-taking and rational order is torn, and the brute reality of vindictive proprietorship is made manifest.

Petruchio's technique as tamer is to present himself as a grotesque mirror of the shrew's behaviour. He is contrary, violent, and irrational. He plays the role of one who knows no limits, who will strike a woman, enforce her to an engagement, and shame her with the fear of being jilted at the church door so that she will see how her value resides within her husband's power of acceptance or rejection. He proffers these humiliations as a natural and necessary corollary of her shrewishness. Like a parent training a child, he seems to suggest that the child itself chooses the parent's behaviour, enforces its own punishment. If it would only be good, the parent would not need to be severe. If the child would comply, the parent would love it and be kind.

Petruchio tells us, ‘This is a way to kill a wife with kindness’ (IV.i.211). Kate expresses her confusion. She is starved for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,

With oaths kept waking, and with brawling fed.
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under the name of perfect love;
As who should say, if I should sleep or eat,
’Twere deadly sickness or else present death.


This kind of manipulation was widely accepted as legitimate in child-rearing until very recently, and certainly in Shakespeare's time.22 Only when it is taken to extremes is there any hope of making an audience uneasy at it. Here, the playwright does take it to extremes.

In the course of the play, Petruchio beats Grumio, his household servants, a priest, and a tailor. He tortures Kate, and ends as the victor of the play, winning his bet on his wife's submissiveness, and shaming the milder husbands with his superior control. Petruchio beats his servants as a way of dominating his wife, as an illustration of what he will do with ‘his own.’ Kate attempts to prevent these beatings on several occasions, pleading for the abused servants, but is ignored. A pedagogical point is being made, and she is called upon to absorb its full import.

The similarity between child-rearing and wife-training is made apparent earlier in the schoolmaster scene: Kate smashes a lute over the disguised Hortensio's head, when he bends her hand to mend her playing. Bianca is more polite, but equally dismissive. Neither daughter wants to be ‘taught’ as if she were a child, but the masters, even though disguised wooers, seem to know no other method.

Kate's final speech is startling in its revelation of similarities.

I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
To seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
Where they are bound to serve, love, and obey.


Women are like children, ‘simple,’ when they fail to see the futility of revolt. They are bound to serve, as they are bound to love. The word ‘love’ here shows the falseness implicit in the whole argument, since Shakespeare everywhere demonstrates that love cannot be constrained. Therefore, it is not love that subjected wives offer to their masters, but the appearance of it, which is acceptable because docile. Relations between men and women, like those between parents and children, masters and servants, are warfare unless the weaker kneels for peace. Peace is awarded only to those who are kneeling.

Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare …


The weak are worms because they are unable to resist; the image reflects an absolute polarization of power and impotence. Those who cannot conquer must crawl. A big mind and a great heart are not valued in women or children or servants as they are in husbands, fathers, and masters; for these qualities in the abject are offensive, causing merely a futile and brief disorder. Courage is useless when lances are as straws. Kate and Sly, in allowing others to tell them who they are, countermand their primacy of selfhood. Sly, at least, is lord for a night, but Kate becomes a conformable household Kate (a cake, a cat), solely in order to survive. The play's final vision of enforced servitude ungainsayable by the powerless challenges the conventional ideology which celebrates the benevolence of family and social structures.

There remains, however, an analogical twist which reopens the play's ‘argument.’ Logically, if children are like women, chattels, and worms, then every master has begun as a chattel and worm; for every master has been a child to his parents. Every lord has been a Sly, every Petruchio a slave. What looks at first like a fixed system of rigid hierarchical divisions, granting power to a limited class, dissolves into a circular pattern of shifting power relations. It is not a fully symmetrical pattern, admittedly, for women never become masters; but the masters have all been children, and most of the servants will be fathers. Thus, there is ample opportunity for both revenge and repetition.

Lucentio has been perfectly content to dress up an old pedant as his father, perhaps in part because he sees his father as an old pedant. But when the real Vincentio arrives, Lucentio does the right thing with speedy dexterity. He kneels, and sues for peace: ‘Pardon, sweet Father’ (V.ii.116). In calling his father sweet, he defines the father he would encounter, and shows himself submissive to that end. Vincentio spares his son by turning all his ire upon the hubristic servant:

Where is that damned villain Tranio,
That faced and braved me in this matter so?


Lucentio, in his turn, is eager to command his wife, and to place a wager on her submission. Bianca's rebellion is perhaps the most optimistic sign the play affords us. Even the Good Child, in her new role as wife, calls such an exhibition of obedience ‘a foolish duty,’ and refuses to submit. We can see where Lucentio learned to require submission, and we can guess that Bianca has learned defiance from her sister. But Kate herself is a living sacrifice to the pedagogy of patriarchal rule that holds her culture in thrall.

It seems likely, given the dramatic and linguistic structure of the play, including all the stage business of beating and knocking, that Shakespeare did not intend merely to represent the institutionalized power relations in his society, let alone to celebrate them; but that instead he set out to represent them satirically, and in such a way that every member of the audience could find common cause with the victimized on one analogical level or another.


  1. Kathleen McLuskie, in Renaissance Dramatists (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press 1989), has recently argued that the representation of women on the stage was governed by stage conventions even more than by cultural actualities. She examines the stage history of the shrew and scold in her second chapter (‘Locked up and beaten and flung about the room’ [27-56]) and discovers a repeated syndrome where ‘man's mastery over women could be more sympathetically established by a combination of wit and violence than by violence alone’ (51). Apparently, ‘violence towards wives was not condoned by official accounts of proper married relations’ (50), but the comic genre provides ample opportunity for recontextualizing violence as wit, and allowing the taming of a shrew to be perceived as the righting of a topsy-turvy situation. Directors who present Shakespeare's play in this tradition are true to the manner of such Elizabethan shrew-crushing romps as The Merry Jest of a Shrewde Wife Lapped in Morelles Skin, ed W. Carew Hazlitt, Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England (London: J. R. Smith 1864-6), vol IV, which is discussed in detail by McLuskie. These directors may not, however, be doing full justice to Taming of the Shrew, which manages to create structural alliances between all oppressed members of the society, linking women, children, and servants in such a way as to extend conventional boundaries of sympathy, and to create solidarity rather than alienation between lower-status individuals.

  2. Ralph Berry, Shakespeare and Social Class (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press 1988), 25-8.

  3. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan 1975); see also Anne Barton, ‘Was Shakespeare a Chauvinist?’ New York Review of Books (11 June 1981), 20.

  4. See Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1982). See also Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in the Renaissance (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1981). The debate concerning the subversiveness of Shakespeare's plays has frequently developed into an argument concerning effect rather than intention. For a discussion of this problem of containment, see Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,’ Glyph 8 (Baltimore 1981), 40-61; Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1985); and the Introduction to The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books 1982). My own position is that the manipulation of generic forms by Shakespeare is a complex and effective strategy for subverting the ideologies associated with specific generic structures and conventions, both comic and tragic, and that Shakespeare inhabits the structures of patriarchy, reinscribing them from within in such a way as to undermine them, and throw them open to interrogation by the audience.

  5. For a discussion of the carnival tradition and its social meanings in the period, see Michael D. Bristol, Carnival and Theatre: Plebeian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen 1985). Earlier discussions appear in Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London: Temple Smith 1972); and Robert Weiman, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1978).

  6. See Stuart Clark, ‘Inversion, Misrule, and the Meaning of Witchcraft,’ Past and Present no. 87 (May 1980), 98-127, for a discussion of the interrelation between socially constructed identity and the extremes of repudiation that accompany any abrogation of ‘right order.’ Lisa Jardine, in Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester Press 1983), notes: ‘The man beaten by the woman (often lewdly illustrated in woodcuts) is a familiar emblem of disorder. In sixteenth century France and England, “misrule” carnivals and mummings included symbolic humiliations for the husband whose wife beat him: in some places he was paraded through the streets riding backwards on an ass’ (109-10). This comes close to the description of Kate being dragged through mud and mire by her husband, on the journey from the church to his home. Petruchio's whole treatment of Kate is evocative of the ritual mockery and castigations included in misrule celebrations. Natalie Z. Davis explores the themes of carnival inversion, female supremacy, and male fears of disorder caused by the reversal of gender roles in Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1975), 124-51.

  7. Ibid, 127.

  8. Coppelia Kahn, ‘The Absent Mother in King Lear,’ in Rewriting the Renaissance, ed Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1986), 35.

  9. Quoted by Alice Miller in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence, trans Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum (New York, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 1983), p. xviii.

  10. See Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and Beyond the Pleasure Principle; and Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, I: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries 1855-1900 (New York: Basic Books 1953).

  11. See Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court (Berkeley: University of California Press 1973), for a discussion of the political ideology of the masque. My view is that Shakespeare's use of the anti-masque structure in Taming of the Shrew is a way of challenging the ideology supported by the masque structure and its obviously artificial triumph over disorder. For a contrasting view of Shakespeare's manner of inhabiting the theatrical mimesis of structures of power, see Jonathan Goldberg, ‘Shakespearean Inscriptions: The Voicing of Power,’ in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen 1985), 16-37.

  12. See Miller, For Your Own Good, 3-102.

  13. Catherine Belsey notes that in the Elizabethan period the family was treated as a ‘training-ground for the ready acceptance of power relations established in the social body.’ The Subject of Tragedy (New York: Methuen 1985), 145.

  14. Jardine, in Still Harping on Daughters, argues to disprove the contention that during the Renaissance social conditions were opening up avenues of advancement and equality for women through humanist education. She points out that any extension of education to women was always based on the assumption that ‘the women they address themselves to will observe due moderation’ (39), that is, that they will not attempt to redefine their subject role in society, but will simply learn to adorn it.

    Belsey, in The Subject of Tragedy, discusses the brutal treatment of shrews and scolds in Elizabethan England, and their representation on stage as part of a conventionalized satiric type.

  15. Peter Stallybrass notes of Robert Snawsel's A Looking Glasse for Married Folkes that his list of techniques for taming wives included ‘beating and deliberate changes of mood’ and ‘compared them favorably to the methods used “to tame lions, bulls, and elephants.”’ See ‘Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,’ in Rewriting the Renaissance, 126.

  16. See Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

  17. See Ian MacLean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1980).

  18. For a discussion of Shakespeare's treatment of slandered or derided women and social expectation, see Joyce Sexton, The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria 1978).

  19. See Morton Schatzman, Soul Murder: Persecution in the Family (New York, Random House 1973).

  20. This type is found in Ariosto's I Suppositi, translated by Gascoigne and published in 1573, which may have been a source for Shakespeare's play.

  21. Joel Fineman, in ‘The Turn of the Shrew,’ in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, 138-59, points out that ‘as the play develops it, this argument between the master and his servant, an argument spawned by the rhetoricity of language, is made to seem the explanation of Kate's ongoing quarrel with the men who are her master’ (145). He argues that it is language itself which, constructed and construed within the rhetorical frame of patriarchy, insists on the difference, and distance, between men and women. Thus, in his own way, he too observes the significance of pedagogy in constituting power relations, for it imposes the uses of language, and authorizes the free range of ‘meaning.’

  22. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans Robert Baldick (New York: Knopf 1962).

George Walton Williams (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Kate and Petruchio: Strength and Love,” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1991, pp. 18-24.

[In the essay below, Williams examines the representation of equality in marriage in Shakespeare’s later plays and suggests a reinterpretation of the power relation between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.]

Much has been written lately, and very properly written, on the difficulty these days of reading Kate's speech of final acceptance in The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.136-79; examination of two passages in Shakespeare's canon that, I believe, have not previously been cited in this connection, may offer some useful commentary.

Modern critics reveal their discomfort with Kate's speech, and modern productions avoid or contravert its evident hierarchical system; but there can be little doubt that the system to which Kate alludes was one that Shakespeare had absorbed into his thinking. He accepted the standard philosophy of his time, the systematic ordering of the cosmos in all aspects, including the relationships between husbands and wives. He mentions it several times.1 The domestic ordering is manifest in Comedy of Errors, II.i.16-25; and the universal scale is displayed in Merchant of Venice, V.i.58-65, in Henry V, I.ii.183-213, and most specifically in Troilus and Cressida, I.iii.78-137. That he thinks of it here also is confirmed by its appearance in the Induction (i.109-117), which prepares us for Kate's speech. As Brian Morris says: “The analogies are too close and too numerous for coincidence or accident. Shakespeare clearly intended the comic incidents of the Induction to throw a forward light on the main play's concern with the development of love in marriage.”2

The difficulty arises most acutely from Kate's concluding couplets:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot;
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

(V.ii. 176-79)3

But because the “token,” or symbolic figure, could easily be visualized,4 it is not surprising that it was so by the actors (or the reporters) of the derivative Taming of A Shrew (1594). We wives should, says Katherine in that text,

Obey [our husbands], love them, keep, and nourish them,
If they by any means do want our helps,
Laying our hands under their feet to tread,
If that by that we might procure their ease.

And the direction reads:

She lays her hand under her husband's

(Sig. G1 v, modernized)

A Shrew erroneously converts a symbolic token to a physical one and so encourages all too readily the notion of being walked over and trodden down. That response is one that modern critics should strenuously protest, for it is far from the sense of the original. Professor Peter Berek has addressed this erroneous conversion precisely: “The differences between [the two versions] show that Shakespeare's ideas about the relationships of men and women were different from those of his imitators, and perhaps were misperceived by his contemporaries. … Shakespeare's own attitudes toward gender may have been more supple and complex than those most prevalent in the early 1590s.”5

In The Shrew Kate's statement does not signify a condition of being walked over—indeed the ultimate indignity—it represents, as Kate understands and says, her recognition of the ordered system on which government and society (and so the family) depend. Professor Ann Thompson's observation is most apt: “[The wife's] position in relation to her husband is like that of the subject in relation to the ruler.”6 It is the responsibility of critics to drain from the lines all sense of deprecation or inadequacy and to place them—as Kate does—firmly in the context of the social order, degrading only in that they define different grades in the scale of perfection.

The precise origin for Shakespeare's image, Kate's symbolic offer—her token—may be, as Professor Joan Hartwig has noted,7 the literal assistance that an attendant offers his master in helping him “to his horse” (e.g., Henry V, IV.i.275). Or, as Hibbard has suggested, echoing Dover Wilson, “there may well be a reference here to some traditional act of allegiance” (242), and Brian Morris suggests in the same vein that the gesture represents some traditional act of allegiance or submission, acknowledging loyalty or fealty (297). From this gesture could easily have come a figurative statement for the social order, extending, of course, from the least grain of sand throughout all creation to God.

But what is remarkable in this image, one which normally suggests gradation, is the aspect of mutuality that can be found in it. By the only other use of the image, this time in a political context, Shakespeare makes entirely clear that the grades that define ruler and subject—congruent to those that define husband and wife—are not incompatible with equality. Henry IV describes a time when the Earl of Northumberland

          was the man nearest my soul,
Who like a brother toil’d in my affairs,
And laid his love and life under my foot.

(2 Henry IV, III.i.61-3)

To accomplish the good of the realm—an all-encompassing desideratum (at least as the usurper sees it)—the king and the subject are equals. Northumberland, the speaker's “brother,” set his life and love under the king's foot.8

The idea that a community of interest and a common dedication to the accomplishment of a high purpose—the state or marriage—can confer equality on persons of different grades seems to have existed in Shakespeare's mind concurrently with the traditional idea of the ordering of the universe. Twenty years after he first expressed this conflict of ideologies in The Taming of the Shrew, he addressed it again in his last play, The Two Noble Kinsmen in lines spoken by the Second Queen:

          Honored Hippolyta,
Most dreaded Amazonian, …
          that with thy arm, as strong
As it is white, wast near to make the male
To thy sex captive, but that this thy lord,
Born to uphold creation in that honor
First Nature styl’d it in, shrunk thee into
The bound thou wast o’erflowing, at once subduing
Thy force and thy affection.

(I.i.77-78, 79-85)9

The Queen recognizes that the entire creation has been styled, or shaped, at its origin (“First”) by Nature in a hierarchical system, a system to be seen as an honor, congruent also to the ‘honor’ in marriage which, in Prayer Book language (“Solemnization of Matrimony,” ed. 1549 et seq.), “is an honourable estate, instituted of God.” Though she had earlier demonstrated both her refusal to accept that style and shape and her wilful association with discord rather than with concord by breaking the lute over the music-master's head, Kate accepts in her concluding words the honorable structure of the universe. In the process of the play, Petruchio has explained to Kate, with the same care and patience that he might have used in training his hawk, how to take her place in the harmony of human society.10

The Mourning Queen's remarks, however, also include a recognition that the married state, though seeming to relegate by strength the wife to a position of servant to her husband, at the same time will relegate by love the husband to a position of servant to his wife, again conferring upon the different grades a cooperative mutuality and equality in achieving a proper marriage.

          soldieress …,
[Thou] now I know hast much more power on him
Than ever he had on thee, who ow’st his strength,
And his love too, who is a servant for
The tenor of thy speech.

(85, 87-90)11

Petruchio founds his hopes for “peace …, and love, and quiet life, … And to be short, what not, that’s sweet and happy” on a claim for “aweful rule, and right supremacy” (Shrew, V.ii.108-10), but the Queen's remarks explain that through love, “right supremacy” is a privilege shared by wife and husband equally. This equivalent interaction is well represented in the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, seen here as a perfectly balanced union.12 He has subdued her force and her affection (ll. 84-85); she owns his strength and his love (88-89).

It is easy to see this paradox as a semantic trick, a playing with words, but in Merchant of Venice Shakespeare shows how the transfer of power can be effected lovingly. When she is chosen by the man whom she rightly loves and who, therefore, rightly loves her (I.ii.32-3), Portia comes immediately to the very phrases to which Kate has come slowly:

          her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.


The lines bespeak an entirely “traditional” view of the relationship in which Bassanio has “power” over Portia; but how much “power” Portia now has over Bassanio, how much she owns his strength and his love, are instantly apparent as she begins to take command of the marriage (and of the play). After committing herself to be directed in line 164, in line 299 she begins to direct, commanding Bassanio in fifteen imperative verbs in seventeen lines of dialogue (299-323). Bassanio becomes, indeed, a servant for the tenor of her speech, but there is no indication that his love for Portia is in any way reduced or altered by her sudden change of manner, nor is her love altered by his sudden deference. Love is not love which alters where it alteration finds.

Another couple exhibits the same sort of paradoxical pairing that leads to “what not, that’s sweet and happy”:

Miranda. … I’ll
be your servant,
Whether you will or no.
Ferdinand.                               My
mistress, dearest,
And I thus humble ever.
Miranda.                               My husband
Ferdinand. Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e’er of freedom.

(The Tempest, III.i.85-89)

When Miranda offers service from her grade in the scale, Ferdinand counters by placing her in a grade higher than his, adopting for himself the grade of service and humility; and, in a rather curious simile, he accepts that position of service with as much alacrity as slaves in bondage rejoice in freedom. “Service” and “Freedom” are terms that ring with theological overtones. The Prayer Book affirms that Holy Matrimony is an estate signifying “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his church” (ibid.); in that mystical bondage between Christ and Christian and so between husband and wife, “service is perfect freedom” (“Matins”, ibid.).

The view of this balance in matrimony between strength and affection, force and love, and, in religious terms, between service and freedom that Shakespeare expresses in the unions of Hippolyta and Theseus and of Miranda and Ferdinand in his maturity at the end of his career and exhibits in the union of Portia and Bassanio at the middle of his career should guide our understanding of the parallel union of Kate and Petruchio at the beginning of his career.


  1. G. R. Hibbard, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. New Penguin Shakespeare (Harmondsworth, 1968), recalls the traditional bases for this gradation in Ephesians v and in the Homily of Matrimony (242-3). The edition by H. J. Oliver, ed. The Taming of the Shrew, Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), does not address this matter in detail.

  2. Brian Morris, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. New Arden Shakespeare. (London: Methuen, 1981) 138; Dorothea Kehler, in “Echoes of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew,Renaissance Papers 1986 (Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1987): 31-42, finds that the Induction introduces the theme of “the elusiveness and exorbitant price of love” and the “image of woman—as property, child, and beast” (32).

  3. Passages from Shakespeare are quoted from G. B. Evans, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974). I am obliged to my colleagues for conversations on this topic and to Professors Joan Hartwig and Ann Thompson for their interest.

  4. Some theatrical gesture is no doubt required here, but it may consist of no more than Kate's extending her hand to Petruchio, intimating how much she would do for him. Though the comments that follow do not depend on any specific gesture, they reject the gesture in A Shrew. That gesture, as Professor Ann Thompson suggests (letter to the author, 5 Oct. 1988), so “powerful … at the climatic moment of the performance,” seems to have stuck in the minds of the actors of The Shrew so vividly as to appear in A Shrew.

  5. Peter Berek, “Text, Gender, and Genre in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Maurice Charney, ed., “Bad” Shakespeare (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1988) 92, 102.

  6. Ann Thompson, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. New Cambridge Shakespeare. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 29. J. Dover Wilson, ed. The Taming of the Shrew, Cambridge New Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928, 1953), notes that the Quarto, “by omitting the words ‘in token … duty’ omitted the whole point of the passage” (179).

  7. “Horses and Women in The Taming of the Shrew,Huntington Library Quarterly 45 (1982): 293.

  8. Morris Palmer Tilley, ed., A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), lists no precise parallel or precedent, for this gesture, but see S 864, “As good holds the Stirrup as he that loups [leaps] on” (dating from 1598), citing David Fergusson, Scottish Proverbs (Glasgow[?]: R. Sanders [?], 1641), ed. Erskine Beveridge (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1924), and James Kelly, A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs (London: W. & J. Innys and J. Osborn, 1721): “That is, the Servant may be as good a Man as the Master sometimes; but often spoken when our Friend holds our Stirrup, when we mount our Horse” (17). See also 2 Henry VI, IV.i. 53-55, where the traitor Suffolk, puffed up with vanity, exhibits the worst misuse of the hierarchy.

  9. Editors agree in assigning this scene to Shakespeare in the collaboration. Shakespeare regularly depicts a disorder of nature through the image of a stream or watercourse overflowing its banks.

    Since these pages were written, my attention has been called to a provocative article by Jeanne Addison Roberts, “Crises of Male Self-Definition in The Two Noble Kinsmen,” in Charles H. Frey, ed. Shakespeare, Fletcher and The Two Noble Kinsmen (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1989), 133-44. Professor Roberts comments instructively on lines 77-85 of the Queen's remarks, emphasizing “the threat to male definition posed by Hippolyta before her subjugation to Theseus” (134-35); my own reading emphasizes rather the shared experiences of strength and love.

  10. See Hibbard (19, 221-2) for the taming of the hawk.

  11. An awkward passage: my ‘Thou’ replaces the Quarto ‘Whom’. The first ‘who’ (88) refers to Hippolyta; the second (89), to Theseus. “Servant for … thy speech” is glossed by editors as meaning one who awaits to do your bidding. “Thy”, bracketed in Riverside, is Seward's emendation of Quarto ‘the’.

  12. This union, as critics like to point out, is not without its ambiguities in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but in Kinsmen, the Queen's remarks demonstrate how in practical terms those ambiguities are resolved. Love wrought these miracles (Shrew, V.i.124).

Stephen Bretzius (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Feminism and Theater in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare in Theory: The Postmodern Academy and the Early Modern Theater, The University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 51-62.

[In the excerpt below, Bretzius surveys the reactions of postwar feminist critics to The Taming of the Shrew.]

Whether Kate's final lord-of-creation moral in The Taming of the Shrew is tongue-in-cheek (the so-called revisionist school) or foot-in-mouth (the corresponding antirevisionist school) depends in part on the half-framed, and even half-tamed, nature of her story. For the play that Christopher Sly watches from the vantage of his unfinished Induction, The Taming of the Shrew, already represents a version, a gigantic “suppose,” of the parallel play he acts both out and in, from Petruchio's triumphant “Come, Kate, we’ll to bed” (5.2.184) and Sly's benighted “Madam, undress you, and come now to bed” (Ind.2.117) to the page boy's “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband” (Ind.2.106) and Kate's “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” (5.2.146).1 Whether such echoes add to the play's patriarchal merriment or undercut that moral is less clear, even if other such parallels are drawn—for example, Sly's “do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now” (Ind.2.69) and Kate “as one new risen from a dream” (4.1.186); the horses, hawks, hounds, hunt, help, horns, and herds bestowed on Sly (Ind.2.41-96) and the “carts” (1.1.55), “kites” (4.1.195), “cats” (2.1.278), “cates” (2.1.189), “cut” (4.3.121), “chat” (2.1.268), and “chattels” (3.2.230) to which Kate is compared (Gremio's “Our cake's dough” [1.1.108-9]); the debate over which of the three hounds, Silver, Belman, or Echo, is best (Ind.1.19-27) and the final wager over which of the three wives will come first, Bianca (Silver), the Widow (Belman), or Kate (Echo); the Lord's “I would not lose the dog for twenty pound” (Ind.1.21) and Petruchio's “Twenty crowns? / I’ll venture so much of my hawk or hound” (5.2.71-72); the opening hunt generally and Tranio's “’Tis thought your deer does hold you at a bay” (5.2.26); Sly's acquaintance “Peter Turph” (Ind.2.94) and both Petruchio and his servant Peter; the Christ-bearer in “Christopher” (“score me up for the lyingest knave in Christendom” [Ind.2.24], “is not a comonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick” [138-39]) and the more elaborate conversion narrative of the larger taming story—“Then God be blest, it is the blessèd sun” (4.5.18)—that carries the Christ-bearing Lucentio, Bianca, and Petruchio to “St. Luke's church” (4.4.88); the autobiographical subtext introduced by the actor in Shakespeare's own company Will Sly (“we came in with Richard Conqueror” [Ind.1.4-5]) and Petruchio's “will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1.271); and so on.2 In each case, the play that Christopher Sly watches from the vantage of his unfinished Induction variously replays the story of his own Kate-like subjection by the Petruchio-like Lord, so that the moral is always less, and the lesson is always more, than meets the eye.

Whether, again, such echoes underscore or undermine the play's patriarchal merriment is further complicated because, however earnest the moral, the play already tells the story of its own Kate-like reception by the Petruchio-like spectator, recasting Petruchio's “taming-school” (4.2.54) as the taming, first, of “Xantippe” by “Socrates” (1.2.126) but also of “harmony” by “philosophy” (3.1.13-14), “Ovid” by “Aristotle” (1.1.32-33), “rhetoric” by “logic” (34-35), “music” by “mathematics” (36), “poesy” by “metaphysics” (37), “rhymes” by “Rheims” (2.1.80), and so on. From Sly's “by transmutation a bearherd” (Ind.2.19-20) to Petruchio's powerfully gendered “Another way I have to man my haggard” (4.1.193), the play traditionally codes the literary feminine and the rational or philosophic masculine, but it also obsessively situates its own reception within the very disruption of sexual difference that it performs, as if the university were the bankside, brothel-bound theater tamed, disembodied (alma mater) or masculinized (ivory tower)—“To suck the sweets of sweet philosophy” (1.1.28). Whereas Kate's Bianca-like taming entails the wholesale repression of sexual difference, Bianca's Kate-like subversion of pedagogy coincides with its bawdy return:

I am no breeching scholar in the schools,
I’ll not be tied to hours, and pointed times,
But learn my lessons as I please myself.
And to cut off all strife. …


So the difference between the theater and the university, from its earliest formulation in Plato to the present, is sexual difference. When falling under the power of music and meter, Socrates warns in Ion, poets are “like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus” (534b). Poems in the ideal Republic, in turn, must be strictly regulated, since “there is a danger that our guardians may be rendered too excitable and effeminate by them” (Republic 387b). Not surprisingly, then, Socrates' suggestion that “the doings of Kronos … had better be buried in silence” begins his epochal case for philosophy's difference from (and with) literature, leaving out what Hesiod's Theogony begins by leaving in—the difference, sexual difference, separating literature from philosophy.

Socrates thus tames literature into philosophy much as The Taming of the Shrew stages its own Neoplatonic untaming of the university (Petruchio) by the theater (Kate), beginning rather than ending with Lucentio's “Here let us breathe, and haply institute / A course of learning and ingenious studies” (1.1.8-9). So in Cervantes's equally representative Don Quixote, the illiterate Sancho Panza's allegiance to the over-read Quixote recapitulates, in reverse, Plato's faithful recording of the unwritten Socrates. On the one hand, Quixote's madness lives beyond the same veil of appearances as Socrates' transcendent vision, and somehow attains to a similar truth; on the other, the novel's Platonic inversion, like the play's, depends on the return or the untaming of a repressed sexual difference, as can be seen from the very first, and most famous, of Quixote's adventures, that of the windmills. Here the mock-epic backdrop explicitly recalls the Homeric literature ultimately condemned by Socrates, and the giant machines are likened to “Briareus.” The magnification, too, is oedipal, the son's struggle with the father (the windmill) for possession of the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, his lance broken by the intervening superego (the wind). For, if the difference between rational philosophy (Petruchio) and irrational rhapsody (Kate) is sexual difference (if literature, as Socrates asserts, effeminizes), then every adventure undergone by Quixote negotiates the same sexual impasse, since each entails the passage from one realm to the other. When Quixote and Sancho leave the windmills, for example, only the oedipal backdrop links this episode to the one just following, in which the knight confronts a group of travelers taking a Basque woman to her husband. Believing the woman a charmed and disguised Dulcinea, Quixote challenges the group. A Basque man appears, and he and Quixote fiercely join battle at full gallop as the first part of the first book of Don Quixote ends, colliding with a force that splits the narrative. When the dust settles, and the second part begins, Cervantes writes:

In the first part of this history we left the valiant Basque and the famous Don Quixote with naked swords aloft [con las espadas altas y desnudas], on the point of dealing two such furious downward strokes as, had they struck true, would have cleft both knights asunder from head to foot, and split them like pomegranates. At this critical point our delightful history stopped short and remained mutilated [destroncada], our author failing to inform us where to find the missing part.4

What Socrates represses in the name of an ideal Republic, Cervantes brings to the surface with all the force necessary to make a difference in, and for, the narrative, as well as the Republic; in “split them like pomegranates [abrírían como una granada],” a play on the last Arab stronghold at Granada further refigures one founding violence in the other. Like the absent frame in Shakespeare's play, the effeminizing difference suppressed by Socrates is, quite literally, “missing,” even miss-ing, as in Donalbain's “What is amiss?” and, fresh from Duncan's “unsexing,” Macbeth's “You are, and do not know it” (2.3.97). At the same time Cervantes directs his prologue to part 1 not just against “the swarm [caterva] of vain books of chivalry” (30) but, several pages earlier, against “Aristotle, Plato and the whole herd [caterva] of philosophers” (26)—one caterva, one Cervantes, reborn in the other. Ten years later, in the prologue to part 2, he answers the author of a slanderous preface to a pirated Don Quixote in similar terms, who had gone so far as to condemn Cervantes for the wound he received in the famous naval battle of Lepanto:

What I cannot help resenting is that he upbraids me for being old and crippled, as if it were in my power to stop the passage of time, or as if the loss of my hand had taken place in some tavern, and not on the greatest occasion which any age, past, present, or future, ever saw or can ever hope to see. (467)

The mutilated text is now a maimed hand, a violent style; the hyperbole, “the greatest occasion which any age, past, present, or future, ever saw or can ever hope to see,” is Quixote's.

Cervantes's novel thus subverts the language of philosophy with the language of literature through a return of this repressed sexual difference, just as, in The Taming of the Shrew, the language of the theater disrupts the language of the university. At either institutional extreme, traditional ascriptions of shrewishness to Socrates' wife, Xanthippe, correspond to equally speculative references to the shrewish behavior of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway.5 So the closely related early comedy Love's Labour's Lost begins with the king of Navarre's “Our court shall be a little academe, / Still and contemplative in living art” (1.1.13-14), emplotting Plato's suppression of the effeminizing dangers of literature (“on pain of losing her tongue” [1.1.124]) and their return as theater, in this case as Love's Labour's Lost. From the play's hyper-alliterative title to Holofernes's “Of one sore I an hundred make by adding but one more L” (4.2.61), the more “more L,” Herbert A. Ellis suggests, the more moral—“by adding but one moral” (“the king he is hunting the deer” [4.1.1]).6 For the more verbal pyrotechnics, the more signifier-works, the more the constative language of the Neoplatonic academy gives institutional rise to the radically performative discourse of the early modern theater, “in reason nothing,” as Dumaine remarks of Berowne's non sequitur “The spring is near when green geese are a-breeding” (1.1.97-99), “something then in rhyme,” as C. L. Barber draws the moral for Love's Labour's Lost and all of Shakespeare's green-world comedies: “The spring is near when green geese are a-breeding” (Navarre's “Vouchsafe to show the sunshine of your face, / That we (like savages) may worship it” [5.2.201-2]). So Armado's “l’envoy,” “The fox, the ape, and the humble-bee / Were still at odds, being but three” (2.1.88-89), points the moral (“There’s the moral” [86]) of the three sonneteers and Berowne's “Now step I forth to whip hypocrisy” (4.3.149)—Moth's “Until the goose came out of door, / Staying the odds by adding four” (90-91). For the more “more L,” Armado's l’envoy affirms, the more “elle” (Costard's “I was taken with none, sir, I was taken with a damsel” [1.1.289-90]), and the more elle, finally, the more Elizabeth, from Boyet's “Queen Guinover of Britain” (4.1.123) and Nathaniel's “a title to Phoebe, to Luna, to the moon” (4.2.38) to Petruchio's hyper-ironic “Did ever Dian so become a grove / As Kate this chamber with her princely gait? / O be thou Dian and let her be Kate” (2.1.258-60).7 Hence the opening “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,” which carries the obsessive alliteration of the title into the play, but hence, too, the closing songs of Winter and Spring ushered in by Don Armado's final “Holla! approach” (5.2.890), which points the play's moral by way of the same repeating L, and, following this medieval conflictus of the cuckoo and the owl, “the words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.”

In all four wanton instances—Holofernes's “sorel [sore elle],” Berowne's “geese” (prostitutes), Moth's “goose,” and Armado's “owl” and “cuckoo” (cuckold)—patriarchy is confirmed but from Kate's anti-rational perspective, as if Berowne's “Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile” (1.1.77) were the true moral, or “more elle” (“light in the light” [2.1.198]), of Love's Labour's Lost. For the more “more L,” more elle, and more Elizabeth, the more Will (“a sharp wit matched with too blunt a will, / Whose edge hath power to cut, whose will still wills” [2.1.49-50])—the Shakespeare/Shrew alliteration, the “Shre W.,” whose elaborate signature-effect signs off, too, on the play's own “taming” by the state apparatus (the “academe”) it ironically affirms. So Petruchio's “tailor,” who is also Petruchio's “taler”—“Saving your tale, Petruchio …, Backare, you are marvelous forward” (2.1.71-73); “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (218); “Out of their saddles and into the dirt, and thereby hangs a tale” (3.2.57-58); “My widow says, thus she conceives her tale” (5.2.24)—discomfits both genders alike with the phallic cap (“Fie, fie, ’tis lewd and filthy. / Why, ’tis a cockle or a walnut-shell … / Away with it! come let me have a bigger” [4.3.66-68]) and bawdy gown (“Take up my mistress' gown to his master's use! / O fie, fie, fie!” [162-63]) that he has fashioned for Kate (“Error i’ th’ bill, sir, error i’ th’ bill!” [145]). In Troilus and Cressida, a play whose obvious affinities with The Taming of the Shrew go far beyond Petruchio's spaniel “Troilus” (4.1.150) or Lucentio's “Hic ibat Simois; hic est Sigeia tellus” (3.1.28), the autobiographical moral is only more explicit: the play is Cressida (“This is, and is not, Cressid!” [5.2.146]), the spectator Troilus, and the playwright Pandarus, who concludes the action by bringing just this self-authoring allegory to the surface: “Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases, / And at that time bequeath you my diseases” (5.10.55-56).8 In one of these later bequests, Imogen's midnight reading of “The Rape of Philomel” in Cymbeline—“I have read three hours then” (2.2.3)—similarly figures not just her plight but her play and its own three-hour “noting” by the Jachimo-like spectator: “One, two, three, time, time!” (51). For the play not only generates plot by untaming and taming female sexuality, as in The Taming of the Shrew and Troilus and Cressida, but duly records its own effeminized status as the Imogen-like object of the very patriarchal noting it celebrates. Across a corresponding sixteen year “gap” in time (Kronos), the bawdy ballads that the wandering rogue Autolycus sells his audience in the pastoral second half of The Winter's Tale (“Pins and poking-sticks of steel, / What maids lack from head to heel” [4.4.226-27]) Shakespeare sells his, miraculously transforming the Othello-like jealousy of Leontes and Mamillius for Hermione into the shared affection of Hermione and Perdita for Leontes (“Why, this is a passing merry one and goes to the tune of ‘Two maids wooing a man’” [288-89]).

Sexual difference, in these ways, centers the plays—the difference, again, between Rome and Egypt, England and France, Montague and Capulet, Venice and Belmont, the court and the forest, the tragedies, finally, and the comedies—because it represents the difference, inside out, between the play and its audience, the stage and its reception. For it is across this difference, sexual difference, that the experience of attending the theater and returning home recapitulates the gendered movement from court to imaginary forest to court (and courtship) in comedies like The Winter's Tale (“Come on then, / And give’t me in mine ear” [2.1.31-32]), The Merchant of Venice (“I am a tainted wether of the flock” [4.1.114]), and A Midsummer Night's Dream (“Marry, if he that writ it had played Pyramus, and hanged himself in Thisby's garter, it would have been a fine tragedy” [5.1.357-60]). In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare's revisionist-antirevisionist perspective, his perpetual upping of the “anti,” closely resembles a pair of engravings reproduced in Barbara Freedman's book Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy: Albrecht Dürer's woodcut from Unterweisung der Messung (1525) and M. C. Escher's Print Gallery (1956). … In Dürer's woodcut the taming of an effeminized nature by a patriarchal gaze corresponds to a literal, antirevisionist reading of Kate's conversion. From left to right the two hills in the window above the woman unironically yield to the potted plant in the window to the artist/spectator's right. In Escher's lithograph, by contrast, the lack of a closing frame on the right side of the canvas, like the lack of a closing frame for the Induction in the play, draws the viewer squarely into the picture, even as the onlooker's head literally rises into the frame. From this revisionist perspective the woman to the left of the engraver in Dürer's etching is now the diminutive woman in the window to the observer's right.

From (ideological) right to left it is therefore not surprising that postwar feminism should find in The Taming of the Shrew, which thematically recalls Dürer's engraving but structurally resembles Escher's Print Gallery, not just the patriarchal story to end all patriarchal stories but its most concentrated and overdetermined subversion—The Shaming of the True.9 Though ironic readings of Kate's final speech reach back to comments by Constance O’Brien in 1886 and Margaret Webster in 1942, Nevill Coghill establishes the play's postwar revisionist tradition in 1950 by suggesting that the play's moral is “generously and charmingly asserted by Katerina at the end,” adding: “it is a total misconception to suppose that she has been bludgeoned into it” (O’Brien's “it is all nonsense to talk as if this bit of merry comedy expresses Shakespeare's serious ideas of the proper relations between husband and wife”).10 A year after Coghill's remarks (and sixty-five years after O’Brien's) Harold Goddard argues still more forcefully that “The Taming of the Shrew … is possibly the most striking example among [Shakespeare's] early works of his love for so contriving a play that it should mean, to those who might choose to take it so, the precise opposite of what he knew it would mean to the multitude.” According to Goddard, “why explain what is as clear, when you see it, as was Poe's Purloined Letter, which was skillfully concealed precisely because it was in such plain sight all the time” (68). Figuring the play's too obvious revisionism, “The Purloined Letter” here takes up the alliterating L of Love's Labour's Lost (the prefect's “it was all labor lost” [213]) while linking its own signifying desire to that of woman, even as Dupin's “the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out” bawdily revisits Festes' “A sentence is but a chev’ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!” (Twelfth Night [3.1.11-13]).11

Since Goddard's remarks, an increasingly vocal appeal to the play's apparent “irony” characterizes the series of so-called revisionist readings, from Richard Hosley's “Kate's speech … was probably, without denial of the basic validity of its doctrine, as susceptible to an ironic interpretation in Shakespeare's day as in our own” (1964) to Coppélia Kahn's “[the play's] greatest irony [is that it] … satisfies not woman herself in the person of the shrew, but male attitudes toward women” (1975) and Roger L. Cox's “to call Kate's final speech ‘exaggerated and ironic’ is … like calling Falstaff ‘obese,’ as if the casual observer might not have noticed that he tended to be rather plump” (1991).12 For revisionist readers Kate's final speech simply humors Petruchio, but for antirevisionist readers, by sharp contrast, Kate's final speech simply “humors” Petruchio (i.e., amuses or pleases him), as Robert B. Heilman first counters in “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew” (1966): “we have domesticated a free-swinging farce and made it into a brittlely ironic closet drama, the voice of a woman's world in which apron strings, while proclaiming themselves the gentle badge of duty, snap like an overseer's lash.”13 Following Heilman's “untaming” of Kate's controversial “mating,” antirevisionist appeals to the play's literalness (and criticism's performativity) include Richard Levin's “the many ironic readings of [Henry V] and The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice can also be explained in this way. … To remain worthy of our worship, the idol's meaning must be changed, like that of our other sacred texts, to conform with current beliefs” (1979); Peter Saccio's “I cannot agree with the common modern view that seeks to revise the plain doctrine of Kate's last speech under the all-saving name of irony. … [Such readings] ignore the difference between local verbal ironies and the massive irony of intent extending through forty-four lines” (1984); and Camille Wells Slights's “Petruchio certainly demands that Kate submit to his will, but we know, as she does, that he won’t step on her hand. Shakespeare, then, does not ironically subvert the patriarchal power structure portrayed in The Taming of the Shrew” (1993).14 From one ironic extreme (Kate) to the other (Petruchio) The Taming of the Shrew, still more ironically, serves no longer as a pretext but a prototype for the critical debate it engenders, one that alternately tames and untames, from Petruchio to Kate, the play—hence the more recent “beyond-revisionist” readings for which even the play's irony, in the final analysis, proves ironic, as in Jonathan Hall's “when I refer to [Kate's] flight from determination through ‘inward dialogism’ as ironic, I certainly do not mean the kind of stabilized irony which supports a definitely satirical kind of feminist reading” (1995) or Natasha Korda's “I do not mean to suggest (following the play's so-called revisionist readers) that Kate's speech should be read ironically, as evidence of her deceit, any more than (with its anti-revisionist readers) as evidence of her ‘true’ submission” (1996).15

Thus it is also not surprising, in connection with the return of a parallel repressed in The Taming of the Shrew, that postwar critiques of the play should ultimately move beyond the binarisms of revisionist/antirevisionist to find in Kate's final moral not just the taming story to end all taming stories but, as Kahn is among the first to propose, a surprisingly sophisticated staging ground for feminism's own elaborate cross-dressings of literature, gender, and power, as in the following remarks by Karen Newman:

The theatrically constructed frame in which Sly exercises patriarchal power and the dream in which Kate is tamed undermine the seemingly eternal nature of those structures by calling attention to the constructed character of the representation rather than veiling it through mimesis. The foregrounded female protagonist of the action and her powerful annexation of traditionally male discursive domains distances us from that system by exposing and displaying its contradictions.16

So in postwar feminism, Newman contends,

we need a different kind of textual intercourse, a promiscuous conversation of many texts, early modern elite and non-elite, historical records and ideological discourses, contemporary theory and popular culture, that puts into play the “literary,” the “historical,” “gender,” as relations and positions rather than static categories. … (146)

Shakespeare is immediately essential to this “textual intercourse” because, as Valerie Traub observes, “the homoeroticism of Shakespearean comedy transverses ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sites, challenging the binary language of identity by which we normalize erotic desire.”17 Regarding the corresponding fate of postwar feminism in the literary academy, Freedman notes in Staging the Gaze how “psychoanalytic and deconstructive approaches that demonstrate that we cannot escape the text, the symbolic, or ideology remind us of the means by which Kate is encouraged to believe that she can never escape the theater of difference in which she exists”—Gremio's “My cake is dough” (5.1.140).18 Outside the academy feminism occasions a resistance strikingly akin to the antitheatrical prejudice of the early 1580s and beyond, as Jean Howard remarks of representative tracts by Stephen Gosson (1579), Anthony Munday (1580), and Phillip Stubbes (1583): “the social change which the antitheatrical rhetoric was struggling to manage produced fear and anger and incomprehension in many quarters, not only among the powerful who felt they had something to lose if servants wore velvet or women asserted independence from masculine control of their dress and speech.”19 Within the university, as both Freedman and Newman affirm, Kate's subversion of gender initiates a “domestic and domesticating quarrel,” as Fineman remarks in “The Turn of the Shrew,” that literally refigures the university in the theater and the theater in the university (Heilman's “we have domesticated a free-swinging farce and made it into a brittlely ironic closet drama”).20 For if sexual difference is “a linchpin,” as Foucault contends, “an especially dense transfer point for relations of power … endowed with the greatest instrumentality,” feminism and theater in The Taming of the Shrew mark an equally dense “transfer point” whose corresponding eclipse of patriarchal sun by Elizabethan moon (“Now by my mother's son, and that’s myself, / It shall be moon, or sun, or what I list” [4.6.6-7]) literally transforms the early modern university of Lucentio's opening speech into social and political theater.21

In her book Feminism and Theater Sue-Ellen Case proposes that the theater itself represents the taming site upon which Western culture is significantly founded, particularly in the Oresteia, which “Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millet characterize … as the mythological rendering of a patriarchal takeover.”22 Overtaking patriarchy, Shakespeare and feminism register a similar return of this repressed, in the theater but also in the university, complicating while placating, like Cleopatra, the patriarchal desire delimited or defined by this struggle over sexual difference—the am, finally, in Petruchio's drive to “tame” (“For I am he am born to tame you, Kate” [2.1.276]). For from the theater to the university the ubiquitous comic play of feminized O and patriarchal thing in the truly self-canceling moral of The Taming of the Shrew, “O this learning, what a thing it is!” (1.2.159), makes the play itself the lesson, and the playwright the Petruchio, of Hortensio's (and the spectator's) “Then hast thou taught Hortensio to be untoward” (4.5.79)—Lucentio's “fair Padua, nursery of arts” (1.1.2). So teaching, the main part of feminist criticism of The Taming of the Shrew works to make Kate's final speech not more but less “domesticated.” For the difference between doing and saying in the theater (dramatic irony) is also the difference, sexual difference, between saying and doing in the university (Socratic irony). In Shakespeare's England the very exclusion of actresses, in sharp contrast to their presence on the Continental stage, partly reflects the powerful shaping influence of the all-male universities of Cambridge and Oxford on the emerging national theater, Petruchio “Kated.” Shakespeare's strong female characters such as Kate thus strike strong blows against the academy, admitting or accepting such women even when, especially when, “tamed.” From the frame to the play, in turn, the irony entails first an irony of form; in The Merchant of Venice the ironic (revisionist) reading of Shylock's trial scene nowhere more compellingly inheres than when, in a wholly other context and on the level of form, Bassanio rejects the gold casket because “In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt / But, being seasoned with a gracious voice, / Obscures the show of evil?” (3.2.75-77), adding: “Look on beauty, / And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight” (88-89). In The Taming of the Shrew a still more elaborate formal irony extends the play's patriarchal moral to its own Petruchio-like reception in much the way that a certain commercial self-consciousness joins Shakespeare to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, or Shakespeare to Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. Hence the final spelling of shrow for shrew in the closing couplet of The Taming of the Shrew, not for the rhyme but for the signature pun on show—as a parting remark, like Puck's “Give me your hands” or Pandarus's “And at that time bequeath you my diseases,” to an audience reaching beyond the thou, Petruchio, who has already grandly exited on “God give you good night!”:

Hortensio: Now go thy ways,
thou hast tamed a curst shrow.
Lucentio: ’Tis a wonder, by
your leave, she will be tamed so.


  1. See Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 65-68.

  2. On the Lord's “twenty pound” and Petruchio's “Twenty crowns,” see Dorothea Kehler, “Echoes of the Induction in The Taming of the Shrew,Renaissance Papers (1986): 36, 39; and Margie Burns, “The Ending of the Shrew,” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 45. According to Kehler, “The precision of this second echo makes unmistakable the significant thematic link between the Induction and the play proper, delineating the action of taming at its most crass” (40). Burns mentions the actor Will Sly and his possible relation to the character Christopher Sly in a note (63 n. 20). On the names Christopher and Katherine, see Laurie E. Maguire, “‘Household Kates’: Chez Petruchio, Percy and Plantagenet,” in Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, ed. S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1992), 131-33.

  3. As Thomas Moisan observes of Bianca's Latin lesson on old Priam turned gulled Baptista, “the translation scene epitomizes the uses, or misuses, to which education and formal ‘learning’ are put throughout the play, with educational projects and the value of learning invoked only to be genially disregarded, subordinated to other plans, or simply, and just as genially, trashed, the ridicule to which they are subjected personified in the stock figure of the hapless, and perhaps spurious, ‘Pedant’ who fecklessly wanders into the play in time to provide fodder for one of the ‘wily servant’ Tranio's schemes” (“Interlinear Trysting and ‘Household Stuff’: The Latin Lesson and the Domestication of Learning in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies 23 [1995]: 103-4).

  4. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin, 1950), 75.

  5. In Joyce's Ulysses Stephen Dedalus offers an autobiographical reading of The Taming of the Shrew that might be further supported by the Induction's various allusions to Stratford, citizens then living in Stratford, and the environs—the notorious “Ann hath-a-way,” following sonnet 145's “I hate from hate away she threw, / And saved my life saying, ‘not you,’” in “Burton Heath” (Ind.2.18) and “Marian Hacket” (21-22); James Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Random House, 1986), 157; Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets, 501.

  6. Herbert A. Ellis, Shakespeare's Lusty Punning in Love's Labour's Lost (The Hague: Mouton, 1973), 164. Ellis suggests a possible further play on more L, moral, and morall, a phallic mushroom.

  7. Both Love's Labour's Lost and The Taming of the Shrew, in this regard, are closer still to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which ends rather than begins with the problematic taming of its Amazonian Dian—Grumio's “Katherine the curst [Elizabeth the First]” (1.2.129). The seasonal difference superimposed over the play's battle of the sexes (Kate's “It blots thy beauty, as frosts do bite the meads” [5.2.139]) further underwrites Titania's “And thorough this distemperature, we see / The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts / Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose” (2.1.106-8).

  8. The moral Pandarus draws, that the play has now subsumed the sexual difference around which it is written and may therefore end, further recalls, from Full to fail, the more L of Love's Labour's Lost: “What verse for it? What instance for it? Let me see:

    Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing,
    Till he hath lost his honey and his sting;
    And being once subdued in armed tail,
    Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail.”


  9. An earlier version of this chapter was presented under the title “The Shaming of the True” as part of a seminar organized by Barbara Freedman for the 1992 Shakespeare Association of America convention. My thanks to her and other conference participants for helpful suggestions.

  10. Nevill Coghill, “The Basis of Shakespearean Comedy,” Essays and Studies (1950): 11. See Margaret Webster, Shakespeare without Tears (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942), 142. It was Webster's great-grandfather Ben Webster who in 1844 first restored Shakespeare's original Taming of the Shrew after David Garrick's shorter and simpler version had held the stage for ninety years; see Webster's “Director's Comments” in Tori Haring-Smith, From Farce to Melodrama: A Stage History of The Taming of the Shrew (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), 44-45.

  11. I consider the special place of Poe's “Purloined Letter” in the theater-theory continuum set forth here in “The Figure-Power Dialectic: Poe's ‘Purloined Letter,’” MLN 110 (September 1995): 679-91.

  12. Richard Hosley, “Introduction” to the Pelican edition of The Taming of the Shrew (Penguin: Baltimore, 1964), 16. Coppélia Kahn, “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage,” Modern Language Studies 5 (Spring 1975): 89; reprinted in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Lee Edwards and Arlyn Diamond (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976). This essay, revised as part of “Coming of Age: Marriage and Manhood in Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew,” appears in Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981): “in the last scene, Shakespeare finally allows Petruchio that lordship over Kate and superiority to other husbands for which he has striven so mightily. He just makes it clear to us, through the contextual irony of Kate's last speech, that his mastery is an illusion” (114). Roger L. Cox, Shakespeare's Comic Changes: The Time-Lapse Metaphor as Plot Device (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 61-62.

  13. Robert B. Heilman, “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew,” Modern Language Quarterly 27 (1966): 151.

  14. Richard Levin, New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 134; Peter Saccio, “Shrewd and Kindly Farce,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1984): 39; Camille Wells Slights, Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 52.

  15. Jonathan Hall, Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995), 158; Natasha Korda, “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (Summer 1996): 130-31.

  16. Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 42.

  17. Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1992), 17.

  18. Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 146.

  19. Jean E. Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 1994), 44.

  20. Fineman, Shakespeare's Will, 139.

  21. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1990), 103.

  22. Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theater (New York: Methuen, 1988), 12.

Stephen Miller (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew and the Theories; or, ‘Though this be badness, yet there is method in ’t,’” in Textual Formations and Reformations, edited by Laurie E. Maguire and Thomas L. Berger, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 251-63.

[In the following essay, Miller compares Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the 1594 version of Taming of a Shrew written by Peter Short. Miller argues that while Shakespeare's version is superior literature, the other version deserves study.]

Arguably the most persistent and difficult of the textual questions relating to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, first published in the Shakespeare folio of 1623, is the question of its relationship to The Taming of a Shrew, printed twenty-nine years earlier in 1594 by Peter Short. During the twentieth century critics have found it difficult to agree upon a theory to account for the variation between the two versions. The “bad quarto” theory, which at first seemed to offer an easy answer, in fact created a knotted debate. Perhaps rather surprisingly, given the seriousness with which critics developing the New Bibliography approached textual theory, they allowed the prejudicial overtones of their term “bad quarto” (surely influenced by the vivid adjectives of that famous sentence by Heminge and Condell: “stolne,” “surreptitious,” “maimed,” “deformed,” “injurious”) to color their understanding of the textual position of plays so categorized. This appears to be the case regarding The Taming of a Shrew. If we examine the debate over A Shrew earlier in the twentieth century with the benefit of hindsight, we can locate some of the problems associated with the “bad quarto” theory, including the odd fact that labeling the variant material “bad” tended to direct attention away from any close examination of it. This essay will look at two issues associated with A Shrew. It will examine the difficulties critics have experienced with the ambiguity of the “bad quarto” theory, which in the case of plays associated with Shakespeare has acted in the past to turn interest away from the parts of the text not found in “good” versions; and it will examine the “bad” parts of A Shrew, suggesting that its compiler may have amended the plot of Shakespeare's The Shrew deliberately and have added new material in the “romantic” style to produce what could best be called an adaptation of Shakespeare's play. By closely examining these “bad” sections we can, in fact, discover important and surprising new details in A Shrew.

Structurally, A Shrew is quite similar to The Shrew in its three plot strands: the main plot of the taming of Kate the shrew, the subplot of the wooing of her sister(s), and the separate framing plot of a trick played by a lord on the drunkard, Sly, who is made to think he is a lord being shown the taming play. However, despite the similar titles and many similarities of plot and occasionally of language, A Shrew shows many striking differences from The Shrew. A Shrew is just over half the length, about 60 percent that of The Shrew, and, except for Kate and Sly, all the characters have different names. A Shrew is set in Greece, not Italy, it has a conclusion to the Sly frame tale not found in The Shrew, and its subplot differs in many particulars from The Shrew, most notably in giving Kate two sisters instead of one. A Shrew, then, offers textual critics a dilemma: Why, when A Shrew is so similar to The Shrew, does it have such a large amount of material that is different?

In the two centuries of criticism after Pope first took notice of A Shrew, a host of theories was enlisted to account for its differences from The Shrew, with changing critical fashions offering A Shrew a new niche from time to time. Pope apparently considered it an alternative version of The Shrew filled with actors' corruptions, but preserving some lines of Shakespeare missing from the Folio.1 Though he degraded some of the Folio lines in The Shrew, he incorporated into it lines from A Shrew, especially the Sly frame material not found in The Shrew, and subsequent editors retained them for about half a century. Though many modern editors agree that the Sly scenes unique to A Shrew reflect something that Shakespeare probably wrote, they lack the textual confidence Pope displayed in incorporating them into The Shrew. When interest in source study blossomed in the eighteenth century, it is perhaps not surprising that A Shrew was declared a source play, and when scholars began to postulate lost source plays, apparently spurred by Malone's suggestion that Shakespeare began his career by revising the plays of others, Charles Knight suggested that both A and The Shrew must have derived from a lost source play.2 Surveying the textual criticism of A Shrew we discover a changing response that tends to mirror the broader critical interests of each period—good evidence of the ambiguous nature of the relationship between the two plays. Given this critical background, it was surely inevitable that a piece such as A Shrew, clearly containing material from Marlowe, and probably Shakespeare, in a mix not found elsewhere, would be labeled a “bad quarto” after the theory of memorial reconstruction was advanced by the New Bibliographers early in the twentieth century. However, the label adhered poorly.

By the early 1900s, in addition to the theoretical discussion, critical examination of the internal evidence in the two plays had turned up a few important facts: (1) it had been discovered that several quotations and paraphrases of plays by Marlowe were incorporated into the text of A Shrew in addition to lines that seemed to be imitations of Marlowe or other contemporary playwrights;3 (2) Alfred Tolman had pointed out that George Gascoigne's play, Supposes, of 1566 (and also, perhaps, Ariosto's I Suppositi from which Gascoigne translated his play) lay behind the subplot not only of The Shrew, but of A Shrew as well, although textually Supposes is closer to The Shrew than A Shrew.4 These arguments led Wilhelm Creizenach to assert that A Shrew was the work of a “plagiarist” of Shakespeare. (The more neutral term “compiler” is adopted in this paper, since it indicates the use of borrowed material in A Shrew without pinning onto the sixteenth-century writer a label conveying our modern distaste for authorial borrowing.) Creizenach's work, along with the work of W. W. Greg and other New Bibliographers who proposed “memorial reconstruction” as an origin for a class of plays called “bad quartos,” led to Peter Alexander's single-page article in the TLS in 1926 proposing that A Shrew was a “bad quarto” reliant solely upon Shakespeare's The Shrew. Alexander had previously argued that the texts of The Contention and Richard, Duke of York were “bad quartos” of 2 and 3 Henry 6; and although his opinions of the Henry 6 plays were taken up with approval by many critics, the case of A Shrew proved a different matter.5 In retrospect, it seems that Alexander's comments on A Shrew provoked a crisis for the textual criticism of A Shrew and The Shrew, a crisis possibly containing implications for the whole “bad quarto” theory.

At first Alexander's opinions seemed to find acceptance. Dover Wilson accepted them in his edition of The Shrew edited for Cambridge in 1928, and B. A. P van Dam welcomed them.6 However, the 1930s saw a strong negative reaction. When E. K. Chambers, who had accepted Alexander's arguments for 2 and 3 Henry 6, came to consider whether A Shrew was a “bad quarto,” he pronounced: “I am quite unable to believe that A Shrew had any such origin.”7 For him A Shrew remained a source play. T. W. Baldwin rejected the notion in a review of Dover Wilson's edition.8 Leo Kirschbaum delivered a setback to Alexander's theory in his influential article, “A Census of Bad Quartos,” by specifically refusing to include A Shrew in his list of more than twenty texts that he suspected of being “bad quartos.”9

The 1940s saw the appearance of arguments that varied the “bad quarto” theory by arguing that A Shrew reported a different, lost version of The Shrew, probably by Shakespeare—a theory that Alexander had rejected in his TLS article without supplying any compelling reason. This variant “bad quarto” theory was argued by Raymond Houk and more memorably by G. I. Duthie, who is most closely associated with it in the minds of critics.10 At its simplest, this theory seems to be a “revision” theory arguing that Shakespeare (or somebody) revised The Shrew and that the alternative version only survives as reported in A Shrew. Although Greg was attracted to this idea, no one after Duthie showed much interest in developing the theory or defending it from attack.11 The notion that Shakespeare revised his own work found little favor among scholars pursuing the principles of the New Bibliography. At about this time the theoretical debate begun by Alexander's TLS article seems to have turned into a struggle among three entrenched positions. It became customary to refer to the textual problem of A Shrew as a debate among three theories—the source theory, the “bad quarto” theory, and the “ur-Shrew” theory (as the Duthie theory was dubbed). This tripartite model has not entirely passed from currency. The 1930s, ’40s and ’50s provided no major editions of The Shrew that might have produced a reassessment of the critical debate; nor did any edition of A Shrew appear.

A thaw came in the 1960s when the Pelican and Penguin editions of The Shrew appeared, edited, respectively, by Richard Hosley and G. R. Hibbard. Hosley supported Alexander's original “bad quarto” theory; Hibbard supported Duthie's alternative “bad quarto” theory. Thereafter, the three important new editions of The Shrew in the early 1980s—by Brian Morris for the New Arden, H. J. Oliver for the Oxford single-volume Shakespeare, and Ann Thompson for the New Cambridge Shakespeare—followed Alexander with the exception of Oliver, who nodded in the direction of Duthie's “revision” theory. These texts provide a more detailed summary of the history of the modern textual debate than is possible here.12 But Morris, whose discussion is fullest, is not completely content with any theory, remarking:

Unless new, external evidence comes to light, the relationship between The Shrew and A Shrew can never be decided beyond a peradventure. It will always be a balance of probabilities, shifting as new arguments and opinions are added to the scales. Nevertheless, in the present century the movement has unquestionably been towards acceptance of the Bad Quarto theory, and this can now be accepted as at least the current orthodoxy.13

The “current orthodoxy” is a description most critics would give to theories that they do not entirely trust to last. Morris is probably right in his pessimism, and nothing that I have to offer, either here or in my edition, much alters the truth of his argument that the relationship between the Shrew plays is extremely complex and cannot be resolved finally without the discovery of new external evidence. I do not feel, though, that the issue of the crisis precipitated by Alexander's first article has been thoroughly analyzed. What is needed is another hard look at the implications of Alexander's applying to A Shrew the “bad quarto” theory in his first TLS article, which still serves as the basis for the “current orthodoxy.” I would argue that Alexander's treatment of the important differences between The Shrew and A Shrew is inadequate.

Many critics would now admit that “bad quarto” is an unfortunate label and it seems to me that the tale of twentieth-century criticism of A Shrew offers a prime example of why that label is unsatisfactory—particularly because labeling a text as “bad” seems to have a chilling effect upon readers of that text, including textual critics.

One problem is that the term “bad quarto” can be understood in at least two senses: one specifically Shakespearean, the other not. A. W. Pollard in 1909 had introduced the term “bad quarto” in a specifically Shakespearean context in Shakespeare Folios and Quartos to characterize the earliest quartos of Romeo, Henry V, Hamlet, and Merry Wives, which showed many verbal variants from later “good” texts by Shakespeare despite obvious similarities (he included Pericles, though no “good” version survives of the “bad” part). Pollard's aim was positive—to show that Heminge and Condell were not condemning all quartos as “stolne and surreptitious” in the Folio preface. Only a handful of the quartos were “bad.” A keen interest in how these “bad” texts came into being led to the surmise that they were “stolne” from stage performances either by memory or stenography.14 Memorial reconstruction came to be favored, and W. W. Greg's analysis of The Battle of Alcazar and Orlando Furioso in 1923 implied that memorially reconstructed plays were not confined to Shakespearean texts and could vary significantly from their originals. A non-Shakespearean “bad quarto” might reveal itself in a text found to exhibit characteristics of memorial reconstruction such as repetition and inclusion of parts of other plays. A Shrew could qualify as this sort of “bad quarto.” Certainly the compiler of A Shrew could be seen to rely upon memory (and, possibly, notes), because he quotes Dr Faustus, a play not yet in print in 1594. If The Shrew had never appeared in the Folio, it is probable that the anonymous A Shrew would have fallen under strong suspicion anyway of being a “bad quarto” of Greg's type. But The Shrew was printed and when A Shrew was compared with it, although it appeared to have many features of a memorially derived text, it showed greater variation from its “good” version than other Shakespearean “bad quartos” did from theirs. Critics who took a narrow view of what constitutes a “Shakespearean bad quarto” would not admit it to the club. This, it seems to me, is what lies behind Kirschbaum's very terse comment upon A Shrew. He does not discuss whether A Shrew might be a memorially based text as he has with the “bad quartos” he allows into his list, but says: “Despite protestations to the contrary, The Taming of a Shrew does not stand in relation to The Shrew as The True Tragedie, for example, stands in relation to 3 Henry VI.15 A “Shakespearean bad quarto” must not show a great deal of variation, then.

Underpinning the notion of a “Shakespearean bad quarto” is the assumption that the motive of whoever compiled that text was to produce, deferentially, a verbal replica of what appeared onstage. If we find lines that differ from the “good” text, they fall under suspicion of being corrupt. Hence, Alexander seems to pay little attention to the variant matter in A Shrew. Ideally it should not be where it is. According to Alexander, the compiler relied only upon The Shrew but proved unable to re-create the complex intrigue of Shakespeare, so he simplified the story line and borrowed passages from other plays to give his renamed characters some dialogue. Here I believe Alexander falls under the negative influence of the term “bad quarto.” Critics other than Alexander in the 1920s who were reading The Shrew and A Shrew and noticed the differences must have felt the need for a better explanation of variations than an incompetent compiler. This, I believe, is the prime reason for the persistence of doubt over A Shrew among twentieth-century critics. Some of the subplot variations have real substance. For instance, unlike Lucentio and Bianca in The Shrew, their parallels in A Shrew—Aurelius and Phylema—are from different social ranks, he being a prince of Sestos. What is more, when the prince's father, the duke of Sestos, appears, he explodes in haughty anger to find his noble son married to a girl of the merchant class. Vincentio, the duke's parallel in The Shrew, is of the merchant class himself and seems rather inclined to reassure Baptista of his son's worth than question Bianca's (5.1.124, New Arden). The issue of rank does not become a point of contention in The Shrew. Perhaps we can say of A Shrew, though this be badness, yet there is method in’t. Such coordination in A Shrew between the later actions of a noble father and the earlier actions of his son suggests that the compiler might be following some intelligent plan, but Alexander does not investigate further than to satisfy himself of the compiler's incompetence. In his last article on A Shrew, printed in 1969, Alexander revealed that his position on the variant matter in A Shrew had altered little in over forty years:

The compiler of A Shrew while trying to follow the sub-plot of The Shrew gave it up as too complicated to reproduce, and fell back on love scenes in which he substituted for the maneuvers of the disguised Lucentio and Hortensio extracts from Tamburlaine and Faustus, with which the lovers woo their ladies.16

Evidently the variant material is the “bad” part of “bad quarto,” and as a consequence, not of much interest.

The troubled reception of Alexander's “bad quarto” theory for A Shrew in the decades since he first presented it might have caused critics over forty years later to ponder. There are two points that throw doubt upon Alexander's hypothesis that the compiler was a bungler and simplifier only:

1. If critics found that the subplot of A Shrew were only simpler than that of The Shrew, who would protest at labeling it a “bad quarto” report? The subplot contains elements and scenes not found in The Shrew. The difficulty with the subplot is not its simplicity but its complexity and differences.

2. The more incompetent the critic paints the compiler as being, the more he strengthens the argument that the compiler would have been incapable of inventing all of the differences found in the subplot of A Shrew and developing them consistently. To argue that he is incompetent, ironically, strengthens the hands of those who argue in support of the revision theory: that there must have been another version from which this weak compiler took his new plot details.

In fact, there is evidence of coherent variation in the subplot of A Shrew that seriously undermines Alexander's hypothesis of a weak compiler. In editing A Shrew I made a close inspection of the “corrupt” parts of the subplot, and I believe that although the love story of the shrew's two sisters is simpler than the Bianca plot of The Shrew, A Shrew does contain another coherent plot strand not found in The Shrew. As hinted above, it turns upon the consequences of distinguishing as noblemen two of the characters, father and son. Since Aurelius, the young nobleman, winds up wooing and marrying one of the “shrewish” sisters of the final wager scene, the theme appears to be that marriage outside one's rank is fraught with danger. Rather than trace out the lines of the alternative plot in argument, I offer the following parallel synopses of the variant subplots. In order to make clearer the comparison, generic labels have generally been substituted for character names.

In The Shrew the subplot tells a tale of a well-to-do merchant's son who, arriving from elsewhere to study, falls in love at first sight with the younger of two daughters of a rich gentleman (the older daughter being a shrew). The woman he admires is of roughly equivalent status to himself. Because she is already pressed by two wooers—one young, one old—he divides his resources by disguising himself as a tutor of lower rank and giving his servant his identity. In his disguise, the son competes with the younger of the woman's wooers and triumphs. His servant, taking the son's name, outbids and displaces the older wooer by promising the woman's father a superior marriage settlement. It remains only to find a False Father to verify the servant's promises. This done, the young man secretly marries the woman. However, as soon as they have married, the son's True Father arrives. Though surprised at the mixed identities, he is pleased to find his son and soon assures the woman's anxious father that his son is a worthy match.

The subplot in A Shrew tells a tale of a young nobleman, prince of Sestos, who arrives from elsewhere to study. He is greeted by a friend who has already fallen in love with the youngest of the three daughters of a rich merchant (the oldest being a shrew). Upon seeing the three daughters, the prince falls in love at first sight with the middle daughter, who apparently has no other suitors. This woman the prince admires is a woman of lower status than he himself—a merchant's daughter. The prince presents himself as a merchant, someone of equal rank. He disguises his servant as prince of Sestos—his own rank. The prince (as a merchant) woos and wins the woman in the same scenes in which his friend woos and wins the youngest daughter, making two parallel couples. The prince wins over the father by finding and presenting to him a False Father, a merchant (apparently also from Sestos) who offers assurances of great wealth to his son and bride. Before their wedding, when the two parallel couples are pledging their mutual loves, the prince tests the woman he loves by asking her whether she would not rather marry the rich prince of Sestos (his servant). She says she would not, and the couples wed as planned. As soon as they have married, the son's True Father, the duke, arrives. He explodes in fury to find his son marrying beneath himself and rounds on all, particularly the woman's father, who protests ignorance. All beg the duke's forgiveness, and he at last relents, accepting the marriage.

Plot summaries are rough tools but undeniably useful in the case of these plays. The first observation is that the two subplots contain many parallels. In both A Shrew and The Shrew most of the points of intersection between the main plot and the subplot are similar in both versions—examples are the shrew's wedding, which subplot characters attend in both versions, and the encounter of the tamer and shrew with the true father on the road to Padua/Athens. These parallel structural links suggest an intimate knowledge of the original text by whoever created the alternative version. In addition to the element of a nobleman wooing in disguise, the subplot of A Shrew shows him testing the faithfulness of his bride-to-be. Plots based upon the testing of women, such as the tale of Griselda, are of venerable date, and this aspect of the subplot of A Shrew is compatible with the end of the play when the subplot and taming plot of both plays combine in the testing of three women for obedience to their husbands.

Another important observation is that the alternative subplots are different in comic type. That of The Shrew, as is well known, follows the classical style of Latin comedy with an intricate plot involving deception, often kept in motion by a clever servant such as Tranio. (Shakespeare took the names Tranio and Grumio from the Mostellaria by Plautus—just such a Latin comedy.) Supposes, from which both subplots derive, is another such play, although it derives from a Renaissance Italian imitation of Latin comedies. On the other hand, the subplot of A Shrew has many elements more associated with the romantic style of comedy popular in London in the 1590s. The theme of a nobleman falling in love with a woman of lesser rank appears in romantic comedies such as Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Fair Em, and other plays. Scenes between wooing lovers are also found in romantic comedies. Lucentio and Bianca have scarcely six lines of lovemaking “alone” in The Shrew (4.2.6-10); in fact, Hortensio and Tranio are eavesdropping even then. By contrast, the audience of A Shrew at a similar juncture is treated to a full scene of the most elaborate promises of love between the shrew's two sisters and their lovers.17 Although Shakespeare employs the convention of romantic comedy by including in The Shrew occasional passages of elaborate description and classical allusion, such passages in A Shrew seem plentiful and extravagant almost to the point of parody, with offers of

A thousand massie ingots of pure gold,
And twise as many bares [bars] of siluer plate(18)

The importation into A Shrew of extravagant language from the popular plays of about 1590—especially Marlowe's—has long been known. I suggest that the subplot of A Shrew was also indebted to the structural principles of the popular romantic comedies for the character of some of its plotting where that differs from The Shrew. To me it seems that A Shrew is an adaptation of The Shrew. Alexander's incompetent compiler should be dismissed in favor of a compiler more willing to intervene in the structure of the play.

Probably the single instance offering the clearest evidence of a process of adaptation between A Shrew and The Shrew is provided by a parallel passage between the subplots, indicated in print as early as 1886 in the margin of the Praetorius facsimile of A Shrew.19 It occurs after Kate's wedding in a scene found between her arrival at the tamer's house and the scene in which Kate is tempted with food by his servant: scene 10 in Bullough's edition of A Shrew; scene 7, lines 23-37 in my edition quoted below (parallels begin with the word “tame”):

[Valeria.] But tell me my
Lord, is Ferando married then?
Aurelius. He is: and Polidor shortly shall be wed,
And he meanes to tame his wife erelong.
Valeria. He saies so.
Aurelius. Faith he’s gon vnto
the taming schoole.
Valeria. The taming schoole: why,
is there such a place?
Aurelius. I: and Ferando is the Maister of the schoole.
Valeria. Thats rare: but what decorum dos he vse?
Aurelius. Faith I know not: but by
som odde deuise or other,

In The Shrew the equivalent passage is found at TLN 1900-1909 (4.2.50-58), the Folio scene in which Lucentio and Tranio inform Bianca that Hortensio has abandoned wooing her:

Tra. I’faith hee’l
haue a lustie Widdow now,
That shalbe woo’d, and wedded in a day.
Bian. God giue him ioy.
Tra. I, and hee’l tame her.
Bianca. He sayes so Tranio.
Tra. Faith he is gone vnto the taming
Bian. The taming schoole: what is
there such a place?
Tra. I mistris, and Petruchio is the master,
That teacheth trickes eleuen and twentie long,
To tame a shrew, and charme her chattering tongue.

The five lines, beginning with Tranio's “I, and hee’l tame her,” constitute the closest verbal parallel between the two subplots. If the characters in The Shrew followed their equivalents in A Shrew, the conversation would be between Lucentio and Tranio, with Lucentio taking the lead and Tranio playing the uninformed party, instead of the version in the Folio in which Tranio takes the lead and Bianca plays the uninformed party or “straight man.” Since the speakers in A Shrew are not their customary equivalents in The Shrew, these verbal parallels also provide strong evidence that one version is an adaptation of the other: the verbal correspondence is too close to have been arrived at independently. The writer of one version necessarily had direct knowledge of the other version, at least in this passage. The other borrowings in A Shrew suggest that the most economic explanation of indebtedness is to propose that whoever compiled A Shrew borrowed the lines from Shakespeare's The Shrew, or a version of it, and adapted them to a reorganized subplot.

It may seem heresy to suggest that a contemporary of Shakespeare's would create the sort of adaptation that we associate with the late seventeenth century. While it is difficult to know the motivation of the adapter, we can reckon that from his point of view an early staging of The Shrew might have revealed an overly wrought play with “possibilities” from a writer trying to establish himself with a play that, however, challenged too far the current ideas of popular comedy. The Shrew is long and complicated with three plots, the subplot being in the swift Latin or Italianate style with several disguises. Its language is at first stuffed with difficult Italian quotations, but its dialogue must often sound plain when compared to the mouth-filling lines and images that on other afternoons were drawing crowds to Marlowe's thunder or Greene's romance. An adapter might well have seen his role as that of a “play doctor,” improving The Shrew—while cutting it—by stuffing it with the sort of material currently in demand in popular romantic comedies, including characters from the nobility: in other words, glamorizing it.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the anomalous nature of A Shrew is related, somehow, to the date of its appearance. A Shrew was the first comedy associated with Shakespeare to be printed. It was entered on 2 May 1594, so that its printing must date from the first few months of the publication of Shakespeare's plays. The two other Shakespearean plays surviving in editions of 1594 are Titus Andronicus (entered 6 February) and The Contention (entered 12 March). This was a confused time for London acting companies suffering the long closure of the playhouses because of the plague. A large number of plays came to the presses in 1594, perhaps as many as half in texts that modern critics have singled out as possibly including material derived memorially from the stage. As far as we know, after Titus no “good” versions of a play by Shakespeare appeared until 1597. Ideally, investigating this difficult but crucial period for Shakespeare's development should be a priority for scholars. Certainly during the whole of the period the acting companies must have exerted whatever control they could over releasing plays to the press.

Shakespeare's comedies, particularly, seem to have escaped early printing. By 1600, besides A Shrew, only Love's Labour's Lost had been printed as far as we know (given our ignorance of the history of Love's Labour's Won). The three “good quarto” comedies of 1600, a notable exception, may have been released to help finance the construction of the Globe. Thereafter only the “bad” Merry Wives and Pericles (omitted by the Folio) were printed before the Folio. Of the four “good” Folio comedy texts that appeared in quarto, none was reprinted before 1623, except for the two included among the “Pavier quartos” of 1619, which were falsely dated with the years of their first editions to disguise the fact that they were reprints.

Although the argument presented here is that the variations discovered in A Shrew seem best explained as the work of an adapter of The Shrew, I do not believe that the revision theory—the notion that A Shrew is a “bad quarto” of an alternative version of The Shrew—can be dismissed out of hand, although it has long been largely ignored by critics. This was Duthie's version of events, but Duthie was a careful scholar and he seems not to have been entirely certain whether the alternative subplot was by Shakespeare or someone else. The difficult task is to find any lines in A Shrew not paralleled in The Shrew that could certainly be identified as Shakespeare's. Scholars would have to surmount this teasing difficulty in order to convince us that Shakespeare himself might have produced an alternative version of The Shrew. Certainly some of the romantic elements and themes of A Shrew, not found in The Shrew, appear in Shakespeare's other plays. However, while romantic comedy was a vein that Shakespeare exploited brilliantly in his subsequent plays, its themes were not exclusively his. Without certainty about his words, we can prove nothing.

To conclude, The Taming of a Shrew has always suffered low esteem in comparison to the more verbally brilliant text of The Shrew. Nevertheless, I believe that A Shrew contains more of interest than critics have so far discussed. We benefit greatly from accepting A Shrew as a viable comic text of its period even if it is, as it seems, memorially derived in large part from The Shrew. What the bibliography of the later twentieth century has to say to that of the early twentieth century is that the “bad quarto theory” has value, but has had the surprising and negative effect of diverting scholarly attention away from much of what is most interesting about A Shrew and ultimately from the play itself. Instead of an embarrassment, A Shrew provides fascinating testimony to the taste of its time and possibly a critical reaction to an early Shakespearean comedy by another writer expressed through adaptation. In examining the “corruption” of A Shrew, we find a mine of information about theatrical taste of 1594, a taste that Shakespeare was busily building upon and reacting against.


  1. Alexander Pope, ed., The Taming of the Shrew, in The Works of Shakespear, vol. 2 (London: Jacob Tonson, 1723-25), 351.

  2. E. A. J. Honigmann, “Shakespeare's ‘Lost Source-Plays,’” MLR 49 (1954): 293-307 (esp. 293); The Taming of the Shrew in The Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems of William Shakspere, ed. Charles Knight, 2d ed. (“Library” ed.), vol. 2 (London: Charles Knight and Co., 1842), 119-20.

  3. The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Knight, 114-19.

  4. Alfred Tolman, “Shakespeare's Part in The Taming of the Shrew,PMLA 5 (1890): 201-78; an offprint of this was issued, repaginated, as a book.

  5. Wilhelm Creizenach, Das Englische Drama im Zeitalter Shakespeares, in Geschichte des Neuern Dramas, vol. 4 (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1909), 686-98; and Peter Alexander, “The Taming of a Shrew,TLS, 16 September 1926, 614.

  6. B. A. P. van Dam, “The Taming of the Shrew,English Studies 10 (1928): 97-106.

  7. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 372.

  8. T. W. Baldwin, review of The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and J. D. Wilson, JEGP 31 (1932): 152-56.

  9. Leo Kirschbaum, “A Census of Bad Quartos,” RES 14 (1938): 20-43 (esp. 43).

  10. Raymond A. Houk, “The Evolution of The Taming of the Shrew,PMLA 57 (1942): 1009-38, and G. I. Duthie, “The Taming of a Shrew and The Taming of the Shrew,RES 19 (1943): 337-56.

  11. W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 211-12.

  12. Historical surveys are found in the editions of Brian Morris for the New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 12-50ff.; H. J. Oliver for the Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 13-57; and Ann Thompson for the New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 9-17, 160-85. My edition of A Shrew (“A Critical, Old-spelling Edition of The Taming of a Shrew, 1594” [Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1993]) includes a survey more focused upon that text.

  13. The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris, The New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), 45.

  14. For an analysis of the development of this theory see Paul Werstine's essay in this volume.

  15. Kirschbaum, “A Census,” 43.

  16. Peter Alexander, “The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew,SQ 20 (1969): 111-16 (114).

  17. See scene 14 in Geoffrey Bullough's reprint edition of The Taming of a Shrew in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 1 (London: Routledge, 1957), 97-98; in my edition of A Shrew this is scene 11.

  18. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 1:57; 9.30-31 in my edition.

  19. Pp. 30-31.

List of Abbreviations

AEB Analytical and Enumerative Bibliography

DNB Dictionary of National Biography

ELH English Literary History

ELR English Literary Renaissance

HLQ Huntington Library Quarterly

JEGP Journal of English and Germanic Philology

MaRDiE Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England

MLQ Modern Language Quarterly

MLR Modern Language Review

N&Q Notes and Queries

PBA Proceedings of the British Academy

PMLA Publications of the Modern Languages Association

RD Renaissance Drama

RES Review of English Studies

SB Studies in Bibliography

SQ Shakespeare Quarterly

TLN Through Line Numbering

TLS Times Literary Supplement

Ann Thompson (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Feminist Theory and the Editing of Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew Revisited,” in The Margins of the Text, edited by D. C. Greetham, The University of Michigan Press, 1997, pp. 83-103.

[In the essay below, Thompson discusses recent reactions from feminist critics to The Taming of the Shrew.]

In the second half of 1992 I committed myself to two developments in my career that seemed to some of my friends incompatible. I went as visiting professor to the Center for Women's Studies at the University of Cincinnati for three months to teach a graduate course in Feminist Theory, and I signed a contract to become joint General Editor (with Richard Proudfoot) of the new Arden Shakespeare series, Arden 3. Women's Studies are still, even in the United States, a marginal, controversial area, existing precariously within academic institutions and vulnerable to financial cutbacks. Shakespeare Studies are at the center of English Studies, arguably one of the more conservative disciplines.

Insofar as the academic study of “English” has begun to change, with pressure from various quarters to enlarge the canon of texts, women's writing is seen as a direct threat to Shakespeare—for example, in the debate about “political correctness” in the teaching of English that followed the publication of a survey of English degree syllabi in British Polytechnics and Colleges of Higher Education early in 1992.1 This survey was widely reported in a distorted form in the right-wing popular press, which seized on the fact that Shakespeare was compulsory in only 50 percent of the institutions covered. A. N. Wilson's article on “Shakespeare and the Tyranny of Feminism” (London Evening Standard, 4 February 92) can be taken as representative of the generally hysterical reaction with its claim that the novels of Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker are compulsory reading for more students in British higher education than the plays of William Shakespeare. This is of course a ludicrous exaggeration, and the survey itself made no assumptions about any necessary antagonism between Shakespeare and women writers, but, while the same abbreviation serves (confusingly, in my notes) for both, W.S. (women's studies) is the opposition, W. S. (William Shakespeare) the establishment.

So what can feminist theory have to do with the editing of Shakespeare? Even within women's studies the role of feminist theory is problematic. There is still considerable hostility to it for two basic reasons:

1. It is seen (in its institutionalized form) as the exploitation, appropriation, and even de-radicalization of the women's liberation movement. Through women's studies, feminism becomes co-opted into the white male establishment, and its energies are misdirected into narrow scholastic battles.

2. It is seen as elitist because it is inaccessible to most women. It is in conflict with the popular and historical feminist stress on the personal, the experiential.

The first of these objections was discussed by Mary Evans in her 1982 essay “In Praise of Theory.”2 She argued that feminist theory has not been appropriated or co-opted because women's studies cannot merely be “added on” to the existing academic agenda without challenging and changing everything else. She quoted Maurice Godelier's paraphrase of Marx:

We might say that the dominant ideas in most societies are the ideas of the dominant sex, associated and mingled with those of the dominant class. In our own societies, a struggle is now under way to abolish relations of both class and sex domination, without waiting for one to disappear first. (“The Origins of Male Domination,” New Left Review 127 (1981): 3-17)

Feminist theory challenges patriarchal ideology and questions how “ideas” themselves are produced, assessed, and distributed in our society. Given the overwhelming dominance of the male sex in the editing of Shakespeare, Evans's argument implies a prima facie case for feminist intervention.

The second of the objections was the focus of Sarah Fildes's 1983 essay “The Inevitability of Theory.”3 She traced the emphasis on the personal element in popular feminism to the absence of other discussions of women's lives: feminists have been obliged to make use of sources such as diaries, autobiographies, even novels, as the only available forms of data on the experiences of women, which were otherwise ignored by the traditional academic disciplines. (One might also mention the importance of the personal in the influential consciousness-raising movement.) But the personal can be claustrophobic, a dead end in which feeling is privileged over analysis or action. Theory opens onto a larger, more objective picture. Moreover, it is not optional but inevitable: there is no escape from theory, as there is no escape from ideology. While you accept the status quo, theory can remain unconscious, implicit, but, once you begin to resist or challenge, theory has to become conscious and explicit. In the present context it is clear that a major aspect of women's responses to Shakespeare over time has been the personal one, in particular the desire to identify with female characters and to praise or blame the author accordingly.4 Without detracting from the validity of such responses, feminist theory can facilitate an analysis of how Shakespeare has been mediated and reproduced for women readers (and audiences) through the male editorial tradition.

For, as Gary Taylor says, “Women may read Shakespeare, but men edit him.”5 Apparently, no edition of the complete works has ever been prepared entirely by a woman. Mary Cowden Clarke wrote in the preface to her 1860 edition of Shakespeare's works, “I may be allowed to take pride in the thought that I am the first of his female subjects who has been selected to edit his works,” but she did most of the work in collaboration with Charles Cowden Clarke (who was incidentally her husband, not her brother, as Taylor calls him both here [196] and in Reinventing Shakespeare).6 In fact, the first edition published in New York by Appleton was ascribed simply to “M. C. C.,” but the 1864 London edition published by Bickers was ascribed to “Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke,” as were subsequent reprints. In any case the claim was a mistaken one: the distinction of first female editor must unfortunately go to Henrietta Bowdler, whose edition of the works (far from complete, by definition) was first published anonymously in 1807 and then under the name of her brother, Thomas Bowdler, in 1818. The most important female editor in the twentieth century was undoubtedly Alice Walker, who succeeded R. B. McKerrow on the old-spelling edition sponsored by Oxford University Press in the 1930s “under the condition that her work be vetted by a board of male scholars headed by W. W. Greg”;7 she never finished it.

The situation is not much different today. A survey of current editions of single plays reveals the following statistics: in the New Arden series (henceforth to be known as Arden 2), which has published all the plays except The Two Noble Kinsmen, only one play has been edited by a woman: Agnes Latham's As You Like It (1975). In the Penguin series, which has published all the plays except Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus, only three plays have been edited by women: Anne Righter (Barton)'s The Tempest (1968), M. M. Mahood's Twelfth Night (1968), and Barbara Everett's All's Well That Ends Well (1970). In the Oxford series only one of the nineteen plays published so far has been edited by a woman: Susan Snyder's All's Well That Ends Well (1993). In the New Cambridge series only three of the twenty-five plays published so far have been edited by women: my own Taming of the Shrew (1984), Elizabeth Story Donno's Twelfth Night (1985), and M. M. Mahood's Merchant of Venice (1987). It is still the case, as Taylor says, that, “when they do edit, token women are almost always confined to the comedies, usually to plays which present few textual problems.”8 In addition, it is notable that none of these female editors, from Henrietta Bowdler in 1807 to M. M. Mahood one hundred and eighty years later, would have been publicly recognized as a feminist. (I include myself here, since I had not published anything relevant at the time my edition was commissioned.) Would it have made any difference? Would more female editors have produced editions significantly different from those produced by male editors? On the existing evidence one would probably have to answer this question in the negative, but I would want to draw a distinction between female editors and feminist editors—between what has happened in the past and what might happen in the future. Presumably no one today would dispute that more female editors are desirable (like more female judges or more female members of Parliament or Congress), but what specific contribution might feminist editors make?

It is clear that it is much more easy for a female Shakespearean scholar to identify herself as a feminist today than it was twenty or even ten years ago. Feminist criticism is widely recognized and respected. It has been a lively and quite extraordinarily prolific approach: in his 1991 annotated bibliography of Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism9 Philip C. Kolin covered four hundred and thirty-nine items from the publication of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women in 197510 to his cut-off point in 1988. I have even heard complaints that recent publications and conferences have been unduly dominated by the notion of “gender,” which as usual (but curiously) seems to be something possessed by heterosexual women, lesbian women, and homosexual men but not by heterosexual men, who consequently feel excluded. Yet it can hardly be claimed that feminism has had a comparable impact on editing.

During this same period, however, the practice of editing has been beginning, cautiously, to open up to contributions to literary theory more generally that might (potentially at least) include feminist theory. A series of recent articles in Studies in Bibliography illustrates this development as well as some of the difficulties that have been encountered. In his 1989 essay “Textual and Literary Theory: Redrawing the Matrix”11 D. C. Greetham argued that, despite the absence of an explicit debate between textual critics and literary critics, there has been some unacknowledged common ground between them. In particular, they have shared “a specific intellectual climate [that] made some critical and textual assumptions more likely or plausible at some times than at others.” Beginning with the observation that it is “no accident that the current ‘revisionist’ textual view of certain Shakespeare plays occurred during a period of poststructuralist unease with the fixed, determinate text of literary criticism” (1), Greetham went on to demonstrate that there has been greater “filiation” between the two camps than has yet been realized in their approaches to writer-based, text-based, and reader-based theories. In the following year G. Thomas Tanselle focused more on potential divisions in “Textual Criticism and Deconstruction,”12 which is essentially a belated review article on Deconstruction and Criticism, a 1979 collection of essays by Harold Bloom and others,13 in which he deplored the lack of interest in “texts” (as understood by editors) on the part of the deconstructionists and their casual equation of “textual criticism” with “literary criticism.” Greetham's reply to this essay, “[Textual] Criticism and Deconstruction,”14 cleverly read Tanselle's argument as itself a deconstruction of the text he addressed. This allowed Greetham to reread Deconstruction and Criticism in order to deconstruct Tanselle's deconstruction, looking as before for “congruence rather than difference, common cause rather than dissension, between the deconstructors and the textual critics” (14). He put special stress on the mistrust or suspicion of “authoritative” texts, long practiced by textual critics and now taken up by deconstructors, claiming “textual criticism has anticipated and domesticated the agenda of the deconstructors” (20).

Further contributions to the 1991 volume of Studies in Bibliography by Peter L. Shillingsburg (“Text as Matter, Concept and Action”) and G. Thomas Tanselle again (“Textual Criticism and Literary Sociology”)15 pursued and extended these arguments, making it apparent that at least some textual scholars are prepared to engage with theoretical debates and to attempt to articulate the thinking behind their own practice within the frameworks made available by the theorists. It is indeed impressive to me how thoroughly these scholars have acquainted themselves with the ideas, terminology, and characteristic procedures of the deconstructionists in particular, down to the level of Derridean playfulness with the signifier and jokes that cannot help being somewhat ponderous in this context: for anyone who finds both textual scholarship and literary theory hard going, Studies in Bibliography taking on Derrida has the air of a scholarly equivalent of “Godzilla Meets King Kong!”

These writers are not Shakespeare scholars; Greetham, for example, works on medieval texts, Tanselle on Herman Melville. Nor are they feminists, though Greetham does briefly raise the question of whether a feminist approach might challenge the traditional hierarchical structures of the presentation of texts in his essay “The Manifestation and Accommodation of Theory in Textual Editing.”16 They sometimes complain that their overtures are not being reciprocated: it has become obligatory for everyone in the profession to be aware of literary theory, while it is not yet obligatory to be aware of the finer (or even the cruder) points of textual editing. Nevertheless, I see this debate as an enabling one for feminist editors of Shakespeare. As feminists, we too have had to engage with theory (though our encounter has taken place in a different part of the forest from that inhabited by the deconstructionists), and we can surely take courage from the notion that textual critics as well as feminist critics are likely to be receptive to our work.

But what, in detail, is our work going to be like? I shall now attempt a brief survey of how a feminist approach to editing might make specific differences in the three main areas of an editor's responsibility: the text, the introduction, and the commentary.


Editors of Shakespearean texts have always had to choose between possible readings, and it is arguable that a feminist editor might make a different set of choices. In the case of plays that survive in two or more early printed versions, editors have to choose which version they see as more “authoritative.” This choice will depend on a number of factors including of course an argument about the provenance of each text, but an awareness of gender issues can contribute to such a choice in the present and help to explain the reasons behind editorial decisions made in the past. At the most obvious level editorial choices can strengthen or weaken the roles of female characters. As long ago as 1965, Nevill Coghill argued in “Revision after Performance”17 that, if the folio text of Othello is an authorial revision, one of the author's aims was to make the role of Emilia more important, particularly toward the end of the play. This did not have much impact at the time, but it was taken up again in 1982 by E. A. J. Honigmann, who added the observation that several of the folio-only passages are more “sexually specific” than the equivalent passages in the quarto, “that is, they add images or turns of thought that throw new light on sexual behaviour or fantasy, notably reinforcing the play's central concern with normal and abnormal sexuality.”18 D. C. Greetham would say that the intellectual climate in 1982 was more receptive to revisionism than that in 1964 partly because of the work of the literary theorists. I would add that the higher level of gender awareness was partly due to the work of feminists.

Another example of discussion of the potential for editorial choice in this area is Steven Urkowitz's essay “Five Women Eleven Ways: Changing Images of Shakespearean Characters in the Earliest Texts,”19 in which he demonstrates that the parts of Queen Margaret in 2 and 3 Henry VI, Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Juliet and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, and Gertrude in Hamlet differ significantly between the early quartos and the folio. Also relevant is Beth Goldring's essay, “Cor.'s Rescue of Kent,”20 in which she argues that Cor. as a speech prefix at a crucial point in the opening scene of King Lear could stand for Cordelia and not, as editors have assumed, for Cornwall.

Othello, King Lear, and the Henry VI plays are all textually complex, but editors of apparently straightforward, folio-only plays also have to make choices. They are sometimes confronted with passages of speech that seem at first sight meaningless and need to be reassigned, relineated, repunctuated, or more substantially emended before they can be made to yield any sense. In addition to their reliance on relatively objective criteria (such as theories about the provenance of the folio copy and the degree of likely scribal and compositorial error), editors must of course attempt to understand the context of each letter, word, sentence, or speech and to relate what is happening at the microlevel of the language to larger patterns of coherence at the macrolevels of plot, character, theme, or message. We have all learned from the literary theorists that such an understanding is bound to be limited and subjective: we cannot stand outside the ideological baggage we carry, though we can at least attempt to be aware of the preconceptions and prejudices that may affect our interpretations.

In “Textual and Sexual Criticism”21 Gary Taylor discusses a crux in The Comedy of Errors that he claims has defeated past editors, partly because they were men who accepted the double standard of sexual behavior that the speaker (Adriana in 2.1) is complaining about. Thus, a gender-conscious male editor, sympathetic to the aims of feminism, can expose the sexist assumptions of previous male editors. It seems to me highly likely that feminist editors will discover many more examples of this phenomenon, and I am personally indebted to Taylor's work, but I am less happy about the last section of his essay in which he represents the process of editing itself through sexual metaphors, claiming that male editors favor “lightning strikes of ingenuity” rather than slow, painstaking efforts. He concludes:

Editors always engage in a particular kind of intercourse with an author's discourse: they engorge the text, and simultaneously intrude themselves into it. The male editorial tradition has preferred cruxes which offer opportunities for a quick, explosive release; if an emendation does not provide such a quick fix, it leaves editors feeling dissatisfied. But a crux like this one presents us with “falshood and corruption” which can only be overcome by “often touching”: prolonged exploratory attentiveness. Neither of these methods should have a monopoly on the text. A good editor, like a good lover, should be capable of both. (221)

While this is clever in its use of phrases quoted from the passage under discussion (“falshood and corruption,” “often touching”) and, I believe, the author is at heart well-intentioned toward feminist scholarship, it leaves us, like Taylor's more famous metaphor of editors as “the pimps of discourse,” with the impression that texts are female and editors (still) male.22


Male editors who have misunderstood the nature of the problem in the passage from The Comedy of Errors discussed by Taylor have also of course failed to pay any attention in their introductions to the larger issue of the double standard of sexual behavior in the play, which is endorsed most strongly by the female characters (Luciana in 3.2, the Abbess in 5.1) and which has been highlighted by feminist critics. Male editors have solemnly assured their readers that Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays undergoes a “comprehensive” education through his visits to the Boar's Head tavern, which enable him to achieve a “universal” or “representative” knowledge of his subjects, not noticing that this has involved an extremely limited experience of women. (Hal himself remarks on this deficit when he is required to become a wooer at the end of Henry V—one instance among many of Shakespeare being less blind to women's issues than his editors.) Male editors assume that sex is Ophelia's only problem: one remarked in 1982 that “her tragedy of course is that Hamlet has left her treasure with her” and that she has nothing left to do but “bewail her virginity.”23 A successor quoted these remarks approvingly in 1987, adding complacently that as a virgin Ophelia dies “unfulfilled.”24

A feminist editor of Shakespeare will in fact usually find that in their introductions her male predecessors have neglected, distorted, and trivialized topics that are of interest to women. She must interrogate the assumptions made about gender in the text itself and in the previous transmission and elucidation of the text, drawing on feminist studies of the ways in which Shakespeare has been reproduced and appropriated by patriarchal cultures. An interesting example of this is Elaine Showalter's essay “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.”25 She sets out to “tell Ophelia's story” not so much from the text of Hamlet but from the “afterlife” of the character as represented in painting, literature, and psychiatry as well as in stage history. Ophelia has become the type, or icon, of female insanity, and her story changes independently of theories about the play insofar as it is determined by attitudes toward women and madness more generally. Hence, Showalter's focus is on “the Ophelia myth” that has accrued around the play and that affects our interpretation of it.

One could adopt a similar strategy in an edition of Cymbeline by investigating “the Imogen myth,” whereby the play's heroine became, during the Victorian period, “the most lovely and perfectly delineated of all Shakespeare's characters”26 and “the immortal godhead of womanhood.”27 What precisely was it about Imogen that brought forth these superlatives at a time when the play as a whole was not held in very high esteem? It turns out, briefly, that she is specifically praised for her total femininity, which cannot be concealed under male disguise, for the domesticity of her figurative language (she refers twice to her needle) and her actions such as cooking for her brothers and Belarius: as the actress Helen Faucit put it, “For the first time, the cave is felt to be a home.”28 She is also commended for her purity (unlike the problematic Isabella in Measure for Measure, she calls out for help as soon as she recognizes the language of seduction), her complete obedience to her husband even when he orders her death, and for the magnanimity with which she gives up her right of succession to the kingdom once her long-lost brothers are found. “Conjugal tenderness” is said to be her dominant quality, and she is often described as “matronly”: perhaps it is not surprising that three of the most celebrated performers of the role—Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, and Peggy Ashcroft—all played Imogen when they themselves were fifty or more.

This approach could also inform and enliven a stage history, often a rather dull section of an introduction consisting of a dutiful list of names, dates, and places with little to interest nonantiquarian readers. With Cymbeline, for example, one can trace how the idealization of the heroine could only have been achieved by radical cutting and expurgation of the text, beginning with David Garrick's version in 1761. Explicit sexual references and references to all but the most “innocent” parts of the human body were routinely omitted. In the wager scene (1.4), for example, it became standard for Iachimo to assert that he would “win the love” of Imogen rather than that he would enjoy her “dearest bodily part,” and in the scene in which he returns to Rome (2.4) it became standard to omit Posthumus's blunt challenge to him to prove “that you have tasted her in bed.” Posthumus's misogynistic soliloquy at the end of this scene was often cut, as were Iachimo's references to prostitutes in his scene with Imogen (1.6). The purpose of Cloten's pursuit of the heroine was altered insofar as references to his intent to rape her were omitted. After his fight with Cloten (4.2), Guiderius usually entered carrying Cloten's sword, not his head, and Imogen's speech on awakening from her drugged sleep later in this scene was shorn of its references to the body's leg, foot, thigh, and so on. She certainly did not daub her cheeks with the dead man's blood. Despite all this, Imogen's part remained central to the play, though the dynamics of it shifted according to whether the actor-manager of the time was playing Posthumus (like Garrick and John Philip Kemble) or Iachimo (like Macready and Irving). In thus attempting a gender-conscious approach to the study of stage history, a feminist editor can also build on the work of Irene Dash, whose book Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays29 considered the ways in which female roles in a number of texts have been altered and abridged in a male-dominated theatrical tradition.


Mary Cowden Clarke took a swipe at the male editorial tradition when she dismissed most footnotes as “mere vehicles for abuse, spite and arrogance.” Any editor who has plowed through the eighteenth-century commentaries will have some sympathy with the charge. As in the introduction, so in the commentary, a modern feminist editor can generate a refreshing amount of interesting new material simply by performing a critique of her male predecessors' work. The typical rhetorical stance of the male editor is aloof, patronising and overtly or covertly misogynistic. The feminist editor will again find that the editors are frequently more sexist than the text, both in what they discuss and in what they fail to discuss. I shall limit myself to two examples of each category.

To begin with sins of commission, toward the end of The Comedy of Errors the Abbess questions Adriana about the possible cause of her husband's apparent madness and establishes that it is due to “the venom clamors of a jealous woman” (5.1.69),30 Adriana having dared to complain to her husband about his relationship with a prostitute. This conclusion is reached after some very leading questioning, in which Adriana is made to convict herself of excessive and violent scolding. Her sister Luciana objects to the Abbess's verdict and defends Adriana, asserting, “She never reprehended him but mildly” (87), and she asks her, “Why bear you these reproofs and answer not?” (89), to which Adriana replies, “She did betray me to my own reproof” (90). This last line is paraphrased by a 1972 editor31 as meaning “She tricked me into recognizing my own faults”—a paraphrase that is quoted without comment (and presumably approvingly) by a 1987 editor.32 Surely this is simply incorrect? The line means, “She tricked me into criticizing myself,” and the context (not to mention the rest of the play) establishes that the criticism is not justified. Adriana is not “recognizing her own faults” but accusing herself of faults she does not possess. This misreading can, like Taylor's textual example, be attributed to the unthinking sexist assumption on the part of male editors that Adriana is indeed the one who is at fault in this context. The way they present their reading as an apparently straightforward paraphrase means it will all too easily be accepted by readers who are themselves conditioned by patriarchal attitudes and who assume the editor speaks with authority in such a matter.

My other example is from Othello. (Can one imagine anyone advising him not to criticize his wife for her infidelity but, rather, to put up with it quietly and even accept that it is all his own fault? Can one imagine male editors finding it natural to endorse such a position?) The problem here is with Desdemona's sensuality, and it was, sadly, a female editor in 1957 who, as Gary Taylor demonstrates,33 rejected the quarto reading of 1.3.251, in which Desdemona says her heart is subdued to the “utmost pleasure” of Othello, preferring the less physical folio reading “very quality.” The same editor argued in her commentary that, when Desdemona complains that if Othello goes to Cyprus without her, “The rites for why I love him are bereft me” (1.3.257), rites has nothing to do with conjugal rites. A male editor in the following year, whose textual theory committed him to following the quarto, printed “utmost pleasure” in 1.3 but explicitly expressed his approval of a later quarto reading at 2.1.80, in which Cassio prays that Othello's “tall ship” may soon arrive in Cyprus so that he can “swiftly come to Desdemona's arms.”34 This editor commented unfavorably on the more physical folio reading that Othello may “Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms” on the grounds that it is “out of character for Cassio and his usual attitude to Othello and Desdemona.” Both these editors seem to use their authority in their commentaries to take as much sex out of the play as they can.

As for sins of omission, I’ll begin with As You Like It, in which it has always struck me that the famous “seven ages of man” speech (2.7.137-66) conspicuously excludes women. After the Duke's introductory reference to “this wide and universal theatre” and Jacques's opening “All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players,” the speaker limits his focus to just one half of mankind—“each man in his time plays many parts”—and proceeds to delineate the schoolboy, the specifically male lover, the soldier, the justice, and so on. No editor remarks on this. Indeed, all eight pages of commentary on the speech in the recent New Variorum edition35 celebrate Shakespeare's ability to portray “representatives of the entire human race.” A feminist editor might note the invisibility of women here and perhaps relate it to the absence of actual women on the English Renaissance stage, a convention about which this play is notably self-conscious, especially in its epilogue.

My other example is from King Lear. At the beginning of 4.3 in editions that conflate the quarto and folio texts, a Gentleman explains that the army that has arrived from France to support Lear is being led by Cordelia, not by the king of France, whose absence is rather vaguely explained by “something he left imperfect in the state,” (3) which needs his attention. Editors do have something to say about this passage (which is in the quarto text but not in the folio), the standard explanation for the king's absence being that Shakespeare is cautious about making what is after all French military intervention look too much like a foreign invasion. This issue has been debated by recent textual critics who have disputed Shakespeare's need to “censor” his work in this way: see, for example, Gary Taylor's essay “Monopolies, Show Trials, Disaster and Invasion: King Lear and Censorship.”36 But a feminist editor might add that it is also crucial for the emotional effect of Lear's reunion with Cordelia in 4.7 and 5.3 that her husband not be present. One might even express concern at the way in which the play's ending encourages us to endorse Lear's appropriation of Cordelia regardless of her wishes or her other ties, ignoring our sense that she was right to refuse just such an appropriation in the opening scene.

Finally, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry when one comes to examine the traditional editorial procedures for dealing with obscenity in Shakespearean texts, an area that gives rise to sins of both kinds. Some editors simply try to evade the issue altogether, from Pope, who cut many of the lines Shakespeare gave to the sexually outspoken Princess in Love's Labour's Lost,37 to modern editors of As You Like It, who fail to comment on the sexual innuendo in Rosalind's speeches.38 In both cases the fact that a woman is speaking is significant: Shakespeare's heroines (including Desdemona in my earlier examples) are more frank and enthusiastic about sex than his male editors think “ladies” should be.

Frequently, editors use coy phrases such as “bawdy quibble,” “double entendre,” or the even more quaint “sexual equivoque” without spelling out what precisely is going on. They go to extraordinary lengths to avoid using “rude” words themselves, as can be illustrated from the English lesson scene in Henry V (3.4). One 1965 editor informed his readers that le foot and le count are “similar in sound to the French equivalent of English ‘four-letter’ words.”39 A 1968 editor volunteered the information that foutre means “coition” and that con means “female organ.”40 The year 1976 saw a regression from this brave outspokenness with an editor who remarked that the scene in general exhibits “some gentle humour in a number of mispronunciations” and that foot and count are “close approximations to obscene words.”41 A modern feminist editor would surely make less of a fuss about printing fuck and cunt and commenting on the kind of humor that is being generated in this scene between two women.

The sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew have always been controversial. It is the only one of Shakespeare's plays to have provoked a theatrical reply or sequel in his lifetime in the form of John Fletcher's The Woman's Prize, or The Tamer Tamed (c. 1611), in which Petruchio, now a widower, marries again and has the tables turned on him by his second wife. (The implicit homage of such a sequel may have been one of the factors in Shakespeare's decision to collaborate with Fletcher in his last three plays from around 1612-14: Cardenio, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.) While The Shrew has been a popular play in the theater for four hundred years, its stage history offers numerous examples of ambivalence on the part of adaptors and producers toward its subject matter. As early as The Taming of a Shrew, the problematic quarto text published in 1594 and generally known as A Shrew, Katherina is given an aside in the wooing scene (the equivalent to 2.1 in the traditional treatment of the folio version):

She turnes aside and speakes
But yet I will consent and marrie him,
For I methinkes have livde too long a maid,
And match him too, or else his manhood's good.

(sc. 5, 40-42)42

Thus, it is made explicit, as it never is in The Shrew, that Katherina can see some positive advantage in marrying and that she is going to enjoy competing with her partner. But later the brutality of the taming is played up when, in the equivalent of 4.3, we get the stage direction “Enter Ferando [Petruchio] with a peece of meate uppon his daggers point.

Similarly, Catherine has an aside in the midst of the exchange of insults in this scene in Garrick's version (which held the stage from 1754 to 1844 in England and to 1887 in the United States):

A Plague upon his Impudence! I’m vexed—
I’ll marry my Revenge, but I will tame him.


And at the end of the scene she confirms this hint of a reversal of roles and adds further motivation in a closing soliloquy:

                                                            Sister Bianca now shall see
The poor abandon’d Cath’rine, as she calls me,
Can hold her Head as high, and be as proud,
And make her Husband stoop unto her Lure
As she, or e’er a Wife in Padua.
As double as my Portion be my Scorn;
Look to your Seat, Petruchio, or I throw you.
Cath’rine shall tame this Haggard;—or if she fails,
Shall tye her Tongue up, and pare down her Nails.


Garrick has here transferred some of Petruchio's taming metaphors to Catherine in an attempt to redress the balance between hero and heroine, but it also seems that it was he who first made a whip an obligatory stage property for Petruchio. Thus, from the beginning the theatrical tradition has simultaneously apologized for and exaggerated the play's misogyny.44

Male editors have also felt uneasy about The Shrew. In 1904 one found Petruchio's order to Katherina in the last scene to take off her cap and tread on it particularly offensive: “Though not intended to humiliate her, but rather to convince his sceptical friends, it always strikes me as a needless affront to her feelings … offered at the very moment when she is exhibiting a voluntary obedience.”45 Another in 1928 wrote, “There have been shrews since Xantippe's time … and it is not discreet for an editor to discuss, save historically, the effective ways of dealing with them … but … one cannot help thinking a little wistfully that the Petruchian discipline had something to say for itself.” He immediately withdrew this by remarking that Petruchio's method “was undoubtedly drastic and has gone out of fashion. … Let it suffice to say that The Taming of the Shrew belongs to a period, and it is not ungallant, even so.”46 A more recent editor writing in 1981 revealed his embarrassment about the play by having a great deal to say in his introduction about shrews as little furry animals and almost nothing to say about sexual politics. Both this editor and another one in 1982 contrived to take no notice whatever of feminist critics, who had by then already produced some stimulating new readings of the play.47

It is not an exaggeration to say that being commissioned to edit The Taming of the Shrew around 1979 and the experience of working on the play over the subsequent three or four years contributed to my becoming a feminist in a public, professional sense as well as in a private capacity. (I was simultaneously beginning to develop the first courses on women writers and feminist criticism at the University of Liverpool.) I don’t want to dwell on the final product, which was published in 1984, but I did try, especially in my introduction and commentary, to consider issues neglected by other editors and in particular to treat The Shrew as a “problem play” whose darker side has been acknowledged, consciously or unconsciously, throughout its stage and critical history. Perhaps I did not, by today's standards, go far enough. I was present at a paper given by Annabel Patterson at the World Shakespeare Congress in Tokyo in August 1991 during which, after some positive remarks about my edition, she said as much. I reflected then that some of the defects could be attributed to my lack of self-assurance, both as an editor and as a feminist, while others were due to the need to compromise with the wishes of the general editors of the series and behind them the publishers. Rather than conduct a backward-looking autocritique, what I shall do in the final section of this essay is consider briefly what I would do differently if I were editing The Shrew today, ten years after it was published.

I doubt if I would want to make any changes in the text itself, though I would of course need to engage with the choices and arguments of subsequent editors, notably those of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in the Oxford Complete Works and Textual Companion.48 The 1594 quarto text of A Shrew is so different at the level of linguistic detail from The Shrew that no editor of the latter play would be likely to emend the text with readings taken from the former, but I would want to reexamine my position on A Shrew itself and on the relationship between the two versions in the light of work published recently by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey in the introduction to their reprint of A Shrew49 and by Leah Marcus in her essay “The Shakespearean Editor as Shrew-Tamer.”50 These discussions challenge the orthodox position, established by all three of the 1980s editions, that A Shrew is a later text than The Shrew and is to some extent derived from it. They also argue that A Shrew is a more “progressive” text than The Shrew in its sexual politics. Marcus contrasts the continuing use of the additional Christopher Sly episodes in the stage history of The Shrew with their suppression by editors and traces a depressing history of a virtual conspiracy to associate the greater realism and the greater commitment to patriarchy of The Shrew with the “authentic Shakespeare,” while A Shrew with its “significant ideological differences” is banished from the canon.

I think the ideological differences are less clear-cut than these authors claim, and their textual arguments for the chronological precedence of A Shrew are not immediately convincing. A substantial counter argument is advanced in Stephen Roy Miller's unpublished Ph.D. thesis, A Critical, Old-Spelling Edition of “The Taming of A Shrew, 1594,”51 which seems to me, after a very thorough analysis of the evidence, forcefully to reestablish the view that A Shrew is a deliberate (though not always totally competent) adaptation of The Shrew. Marcus misrepresents the editorial tradition when she says that editors have suppressed the additional Sly episodes when all recent editions print them, albeit in appendices. Nevertheless, her work and that of Holderness and Loughrey is interesting, perhaps especially to literary theorists, in representing a poststructuralist and postrevisionist attitude to the fundamental indeterminacy of all texts. The solution proposed by Marcus for editors—that they should print complete versions of both texts—is not likely to appeal to publishers of regular Shakespeare series (Routledge, the Arden publishers, are not prepared to contemplate two versions even of Hamlet or King Lear), but the text provided by Holderness and Loughrey will allow those interested to read the plays intertextually. In an ideal world we would also have a published version of Miller's edition, and perhaps the current interest in “not-after-all-so-bad-quartos” (textually challenged quartos?) will make that possible.

In line with what I have said here, I might wish to be even more explicit in my commentary about obscenity in the play, especially in the wooing scene (2.1) and in the final scene (5.2), though I was gratified to read in a recent essay by Thomas L. Berger that my commentary was the most explicit on these matters of the six editions of The Shrew he examined.52

But the major changes would come in the introduction. Many things would need updating, but I would want to do that along specifically feminist lines. In discussing more recent stagings, for example, I’d pay particular attention to those that have made some distinct point about the play's sexual politics. Two such productions were those at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1987 and at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1992. (The latter production transferred to the Barbican Theatre in London in 1993.) The Liverpool production, directed by a woman, Glen Walford (who incidentally used my text), gave the play a North African setting, which was apparently intended to emphasize the restrictions on the women who appeared partially veiled. While this was effective to some extent, it also allowed the overwhelmingly white British audience to feel a sense of racial and religious superiority, complacent in their assurance that the Western Christian tradition is more progressive in these matters than the Eastern Islamic tradition. The Stratford production, directed by Bill Alexander, was (I would say significantly) more interesting for its treatment of the Induction and the subplot than for its treatment of the main plot. (Leah Marcus should have seen it.) It used an extended and thoroughly modernized version of the Christopher Sly episodes featuring a group of thoughtless yuppies who remained onstage right through the play and participated by being required to play minor roles from time to time, usually as servants. In the subplot Tranio became a potentially serious rival to Lucentio in the wooing of Bianca. The main plot was disappointingly conventional (apart from the casting of a blonde Katherina and a small Petruchio), with hero and heroine falling in love fairly obviously at first sight, though the playing of the scene on the road back to Padua (4.5) as a straight love scene was novel. In general, however, this production seemed more interested in class issues than in gender issues—the first postfeminist Shrew?

Turning to the critical tradition, I would be delighted to find much more material now than ten years ago. In the early 1980s I was able to treat feminist criticism as relatively univocal, partly because the field was then dominated by the North American approach, which had developed out of psychoanalytic criticism and which was exemplified by Coppélia Kahn's essay “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage”53 and Marianne Novy's essay “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew.54 Now I would want to explore the pluralism of feminist approaches and, in particular, the extent to which they have been influenced by American New Historicism and British cultural materialism. This would involve a more historical treatment of the play itself: I’d put it in the context of actual sexual politics in the 1580s and 1590s, drawing on recent work by critics such as Karen Newman in her chapter “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew,” in Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama,55 and Lynda E. Boose in her essays “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member”56 and “The Taming of the Shrew: Good Husbandry and Enclosure.”57 At the same time I’d want to pay more attention to the history of women's responses to the play over the last four hundred years, drawing on my own recent work in this field and on books such as Women's Re-Visions of Shakespeare, edited by Marianne Novy.58

While feminist critics have been becoming more historical, they have accused New Historicist critics in particular of treating issues of sexuality almost entirely in terms of power to the exclusion of gender: see Lynda E. Boose, “The Family in Shakespeare Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics”;59 Carol Thomas Neely, “Constructing the Subject: Feminist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses”;60 and my own essay “Are There Any Women in King Lear?”61 A contemporary edition of The Shrew would need to take on these debates as they impinge upon critical discussions of the play. It would also need to engage with the ongoing debate within feminist criticism itself between what one might call “apologist” critics, who want to “save” Shakespeare or even co-opt him as a protofeminist, and the more negative, or pessimistic, critics, who see him as quite irredeemably patriarchal. (In the former camp one might put Irene Dash62 and Linda Bamber, author of Comic Women, Tragic Men;63 in the latter camp one might put Peter Erickson, author of Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama,64 and Marilyn Williamson, author of The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies.)65

There are of course anxieties that focus around this latter position: If we conclude that Shakespeare's views on gender would class him with the reactionaries were he alive today, does that mean we shall stop reading or teaching him? This brings me back to “Shakespeare and the Tyranny of Feminism”: feminism as censorship. The very fact that criticism of The Taming of the Shrew has enjoyed a positive renaissance in recent years mainly because of the contributions of feminist critics, while other early comedies such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of Errors remain relatively neglected, does not bear out the charge. (One might also cite the feminist-inspired debates that are revivifying study of more problematic misogynists such as John Milton and D. H. Lawrence.) Personally, however, I am prepared to admit I have no intention of reediting The Taming of the Shrew: having toyed with Cymbeline for a while, I’m now working on the Arden 3 edition of Hamlet.


  1. The survey was carried out by Tim Cook of Kingston University for PACE, the newsletter of SCEPCHE, the Standing Conference on English in Polytechnics and Colleges of Higher Education. SCEPCHE subsequently merged with CUE, the Council for University English, to become CCUE, the Council for College and University English, and the publication is now known as the CCUE newsletter.

  2. Feminist Review 10:61-74.

  3. Feminist Review 14:62-70.

  4. See my essay “Pre-Feminism or Proto-Feminism?: Early Women Readers of Shakespeare,” in The Elizabethan Theatre 14 (1996), 195-211.

  5. “Textual and Sexual Criticism: A Crux in The Comedy of Errors,Renaissance Drama 19 (1988): 195.

  6. Reinventing Shakespeare (New York: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1989), 206.

  7. “Sexual and Textual Criticism,” 197.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism (New York: Garland, 1991).

  10. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1995).

  11. Studies in Bibliography 42:1-24.

  12. Studies in Bibliography 43:1-33.

  13. Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979).

  14. Studies in Bibliography 44:1-30.

  15. Studies in Bibliography 44:31-82, 83-143.

  16. In Philip Cohen, ed., Devils and Angels: Textual Editing and Literary Theory (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 78-102.

  17. In his book Shakespeare's Professional Skills (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

  18. “Shakespeare's Revised Plays: King Lear and Othello,Library 4 (1982): 162.

  19. In Images of Shakespeare, ed. Werner Habicht, D. J. Palmer, and Roger Pringle (London: Associated University Presses, 1988), 292-304.

  20. In The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 143-51.

  21. As cited in note 5.

  22. Taylor uses the phrase “pimps of discourse” in the general introduction to the Oxford Textual Companion (Clarendon Press, 1987), 7. It becomes more explicitly gendered on p. 60, where he gives an analogy from Harold Pinter's The Homecoming in which Lenny the pimp talks of a woman “falling apart with the pox”: when a listener asks “How did you know she was?” Lenny replies, “I decided she was.” Taylor continues, “An editor, in emending, decides a text is diseased.”

  23. The Arden Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982), 152, 151.

  24. The Oxford Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 51.

  25. In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), 77-94.

  26. Louis Lewes, The Women of Shakespeare, trans. Helen Zimmern (London: Hodder Brothers, 1895), 340.

  27. A. C. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880), 227.

  28. On Some of Shakespeare's Women, by One Who Has Impersonated Them (London: Blackwood, 1885), 251.

  29. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

  30. Quotations and references are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  31. The New Penguin Comedy of Errors, ed. Stanley Wells (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 176.

  32. The New Cambridge Comedy of Errors, ed. T. S. Dorsch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 99.

  33. “Textual and Sexual Criticism,” 199. The edition in question is the New Shakespeare Othello, ed. Alice Walker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

  34. The Arden Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley (London: Methuen, 1958).

  35. The New Variorum As You Like It, ed. Richard Knowles (New York: Modern Language Association, 1977).

  36. In Division of the Kingdoms, 75-119.

  37. See Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power, 14-20.

  38. See Juliet Dusinberre, “As Who Liked It?” Shakespeare Survey 46 (1993): 9-21.

  39. The Signet Henry V, ed. John Russell Brown (New York: New American Library, 1965).

  40. The New Penguin Henry V, ed. A. R. Humphreys (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968).

  41. The Macmillan Henry V, ed. Brian Phythian (London: Macmillan, 1976).

  42. Quotation and reference from the text given in Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), 1:77.

  43. Catharine and Petruchio (London: Cornmarket Press Facsimile, 1969), 14.

  44. For further discussion of these and other examples, see “The Taming of the Shrew on Stage,” in the introduction to my edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 17-24.

  45. The Arden Taming of the Shrew, ed. R. Warwick Bond (London: Routledge, 1904), lviii.

  46. The New Shakespeare Taming of the Shrew, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), xxxvi-xxxvii.

  47. The 1981 editor was Brian Morris, the Arden Taming of the Shrew (London: Routledge); the 1982 editor was H. J. Oliver, the Oxford Taming of the Shrew (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  48. Complete Works and Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986 and 1987).

  49. A Shrew (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1992).

  50. English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 177-200.

  51. Miller's thesis was approved for the doctorate of the University of London (King's College) in 1993.

  52. Berger's essay “Looking for Sex in All the Wrong Places,” a contribution to the seminar on editing at the International Shakespeare Conference at Stratford-upon-Avon in August 1992, is as yet unpublished.

  53. Modern Language Studies 5 (1975): 88-102.

  54. English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 264-80.

  55. Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991): 33-50.

  56. Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213.

  57. In Shakespeare Reread, ed. Russ McDonald (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994): 193-225.

  58. For my own work, see note 4. See also Women Reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900 by Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, forthcoming from Manchester University Press (1996). Novy's book was published by the University of Illinois Press (1990).

  59. Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 707-42.

  60. English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 5-10.

  61. In The Matter of Difference, ed. Valerie Wayne (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1991), 117-28.

  62. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power.

  63. Comic Women, Tragic Men (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982).

  64. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

  65. The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986).

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “Ideology and Resistance in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 151-69.

[In the excerpt below, Hall discusses Petruchio's manipulation of Kate's self-identity.]

We have already considered the first of Shakespeare's comedies to make a major use of the traditional comic “wooing debate.” In the discussion of Love's Labour's Lost in Chapter 5, I was concerned to relate the euphoric pleasures of wit in that comedy with the underlying political anxieties of the culture of the court, namely its need to reaffirm a commitment to the patriarchal order against the proliferation of signs that it also depends upon. Wit, as a seductive power operating through language, is the site of deep anxieties over the loss of a center, of the self or of the realm.

In the two chapters of this section, I turn to the other two comedies in which sexual attraction is expressed through the traditional comic wooing debate, but intensified now into a bid for mastery on the terrain of the subjectivity of the other. The anxiety, which operates throughout the Taming of the Shrew (1584), does not enter into the representation of the dominant male character, however. It is analyzed here rather as an Althusserian “absent cause” of audience pleasure. But that pleasure is still troubled by the intensified anxiety which the dominant discourse can no longer control. …


The sexual combat which constitutes the action of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew continues in the critical conflict over the interpretation of the play. In my view this continuing conflict, beyond the frame of the stage, is truly fitting, because in Shakespeare's play interpretation itself is the principal weapon of attack and defense. Petruchio's great wooing dialogue with Katherina arises from his struggle to impose his initially fictional interpretation of her, and to get it recognized by her as the truth of herself. The action of this play concerns the production of a willing (in the contractual sense of consenting) female subject out of a “curs’t” state of rebellion. This is in marked contrast with the immediate source play, The Taming Of A Shrew, in which the heroine's desires are known unproblematically to herself, and are announced equally unproblematically to the audience in a soliloquy:

Kate. Why father, what do
you meane to do with me,
To give me thus unto this brainsick man,
That in his mood cares not to murder me?
          [She turns aside and speakes]
But yet will I consent and marrie him,
For I methinkes have livde too long a maid,
And match him too, or else his manhoods good.(1)

Her address to the audience here confirms immediately the truth of Ferando's statement a few lines earlier: “I tell thee Kate, I know thou lov’st me well.” There is no problem surrounding her desires, intentions and self-awareness. This is all simply given. The threat to “manhood” is also explicit: she wants to marry him, but in order to “match him,” i.e., to put him to a test and master him, unless he is “good” enough to master her. Here it is striking to note what Shakespeare achieves by the introduction of a dramatic silence in place of this explicit self-knowledge. His Katherina in her “curs’t” condition becomes a field of uncontrolled contradiction, and Petruchio's address to her ceases to be a combat upon a clearly defined traditional terrain. Petruchio becomes the audience's only way of “knowing” her. But at the same time, this “knowledge” appears as an interpretation potentially open to rebuttal. The interpretive thrust is an attempt at mastery always open to refutation if she should resist successfully. The audience is thus implicated in a hermeneutic desire for the delayed confession of her truth, which Shakespeare supplies, or appears to supply, at the end.

Since the issue concerns the discursive production of a female subject position and a corresponding fantasy of male dominance, it is worth looking briefly at the strategies of humanist criticism, which celebrate its achievement. Tillyard is still influential. He represents Kate's final speech, where she compares the subordination of a wife to her husband with that of a subject to a prince, as her initiation into the “game” played by Petruchio. Tillyard sees the learning to play as an end to “her stupidity” and the beginning of enlightened freedom:

To all appearances, she has been worn down and submitted her own will to a stronger. And yet, directly after, enlightenment descends and she sees that Petruchio has been playing a game in which she is free to join; and join in she does. Of this there is no doubt. [emphasis added]2

Actually, there is a fissure in Tillyard's own criticism, because elsewhere he insists on the reality of Petruchio's “direct and brutal method by which a man tames a hawk.”3 Similarly, for Theodore Weiss, the ability to “play” means that Kate is educated into a sense of humor, and humor is presumed innocent; therefore, the imposition of the alien will is merely an appearance, assumed temporarily by Petruchio, to enable the emergence of the higher freedom of Kate's selfdom from the bondage of her willful madness:

She has altogether learned the essential lesson that Petruchio is after, that of comedy and of this play itself. Petruchio has helped her to know how to act, that is how to be an ‘actor’, and so herself. She knows now how to play, how, by not taking herself too seriously and so being submerged in herself, to be free of her own fiercely limited rigors and self-concern … (emphasis added)4

As Katherina becomes an “actor” (the masculine is not insignificant either), she becomes herself. This is an aporetic moment, when power is both acknowledged and negated by the critic's rhetoric. What is asserted is that the “game” is an initiation into the truth of herself, a revelation rather than a construction by Petruchio. We might remark that when this “education” is complete, Petruchio renounces both constraint and deceit, as does that other great educator, Prospero, at the end of The Tempest.

A recent critic, following very much in the apologetics for the “game” strategy of Tillyard and Weiss, writes of “Katherina's discovery of her inward self through her discovery first of play and then of love.” In this spirit, he explains the benign quality of Petruchio's governance at the end, identifying Shakespeare's play as the representation of a state recommended by the Tudor marriage reformers influenced by Erasmus and Vives:

Subjects who would rebel against a tyrant freely serve a loving king. The concept of loving kingship allows hierarchy without tyranny, for both the subject and the ruler are bound by mutual obligations of love. Thus the model for marriage is ultimately political; the family is a miniature kingdom ruled in benevolence by the husband.5

In terms of the history of ideas, he is right in relating this marital politics to an emergent humanism within a centralizing kingdom, but his globalizing idealism (which amounts to that of the by now standard Elizabethan World Picture unified by a “concept”) glosses over the paradox in the formulation “freely serve.” For there is a fissure in the demand for subordination, implying the self as an object that is given, and at the same time the persistence of a subject presumed free not to give. This contradiction is usually resolved by the most famous mythical narrative of modern Western thought, namely the narrative of a founding contract in which the subject is said to freely alienate his/her freedom. Petruchio's plot (his “policy”) is actually a version of this grand narrative.

Legitimation strategies have a history too. The idea that the ruler requires the consent of the ruled was anathema to emergent centralism. It might even be called its paranoiac anxiety. And of course, the hateful idea of the consent of the ruled was not new in itself, but derived from ancient particular rights, which were vigorously defended by Parliament under Elizabeth and James.6 Alan Macfarlane, in his Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840, points out that in Shakespeare's time, the tendency towards monarchical centralism was accompanied by the increasing pressure of a resurgent Roman law in matters of marriage, as in other spheres, all over Western Europe. But in England, in particular, it was being more successfully resisted through a tenacious clinging to traditional laws of Germanic origin. This is where family and national politics overlap, because the policy of the Crown was to reinforce the power of the father in the family on the pattern of the same reinforcement in the state. Family policy and state policy were linked aspects of the same processes of “reterritorialization,” in Deleuze's terms, through which the Crown sought to maintain social control. (Naturally, this casts a rather different light on the humanist analogies cited above). The tendency to “Roman” codification was also regarded as an aspect of the Catholic tyranny of Spain threatening traditional English liberties.7 As far as marriage and courtship were concerned, traditional law, reinforced by canon law since the twelfth century, insisted on the contractual nature of betrothal between consenting individuals. Thus, in principle, the father did not have exclusive patriarchal property rights, to give or to withhold, over family members, although in practice coercive persuasion often did prevail. In the light of this, one can argue that Katherina's insistence on self-possession is in marked contrast with the “Roman” relationship that pertains in the case of Bianca (to be eluded in the equally Roman comic way, as I will argue later). There is even a certain English nationalism, which would identify with Petruchio's enthusiasm for her in contrast with the docile, tricky, conformist, Petrarchan, continental Bianca. Despite his Italian name, Petruchio is a champion, compelling audience identification, from within the national tradition of English farce, dismissive of timid suitors who “woo like babes” and the feminine ideal which turns them on.

According to Engels in The Origin of the Family, contractual marriage was the foundation of modern “sex-love,” just as it was also the basis of the relationships necessary to capitalism. Macfarlane argues plausibly however, that it was not so much produced by a capitalist revolution in the fifteenth century (the position taken by Marx, Engels, and Weber) as a precondition for its development, which was particularly entrenched in England. But even if one concedes that capitalism did not introduce contractuality ex nihilo, the rapid expansion of the possibilities for “free” contractuality from the fifteenth century, noted by Marx and Engels, is very important for mapping the corresponding shift of affects within the discourse of individualism.

The defense of a traditional “English” discourse against the foreign one, with its connotations of tyranny, should not be understood as a purely reactionary posture. One of the paradoxes of the epoch is that the traditional forms of contractuality had a greater future as the necessary precondition for capitalism than the codifying principles of Roman law would allow. Alan Macfarlane observes that the political space for “free” contracts between “equal” consenting individuals is only possible through the displacement of power outside the family. These conditions corresponded to

the powerful, unified, political system built up by the later Anglo-Saxon kings and consolidated by the Normans and Angevins. This stable order meant that public peace and the control of violence were in the hands of chosen officials, rather than the family's.8

The wide-scale use of money after the thirteenth century reinforced these preconditions for a market economy, and already implied the relative unimportance of the family as a unit of production. This is only a question of tendencies and not of absolute distinctions. Nonetheless it enables us to see that the Crown's attempted reinvention of a truly patriarchal family was an instrument of “reterritorialization” in Deleuze's sense. In sum, the rapid expansion of the possibilities for “free” contractuality from the fifteenth century onwards was an intensifying challenge to the nostalgic desire for a social order in which an individual would be defined in terms of family “status.”9 My argument, then, is that, in the Katherina-Petruchio plot, Shakespeare explores the inner tensions of the contemporary emergence of “romantic marriage,” which, says Macfarlane, was “a by-product of the rise of capitalistic, contractual, and individualistic societies.”10 And in the plot of Bianca and her suitors we have the Terentian-Plautine comedy, which deals with the evasion of the absolute quasi-incestuous possession of the girl by the patriarchal senex.

Now, for a social, and familial, order which seeks legitimation in contract, in place of force or deceit (represented, for example, in the pre-Shakespearian Shrew-taming plots), or in place of direct ownership and disposal by the patriarch (the conditions of possibility of the Bianca plot), overt sexual inequality is the scene of a crisis of legitimacy. For a “contractual” civilization, such power may not cease in fact, but it must become invisible. And this is what happens when Petruchio's sexual policy, with its acknowledged trickery, gives way to the internalized “free” consent by Katherina. At the same time, however, from the standpoint of patriarchy, the dependence upon the consent of the subordinate, which may therefore be purely formal or ironic, is a crisis of power, conducive to a paranoiac desire for explicit acknowledgement of its triumph (Petruchio's bet at the end). Here the contractual form of power comes up against its limits.

The often repeated idea of “play” as the basis of socialization in The Taming of the Shrew owes much to Huizinga's influential book, Homo Ludens.11 As a critical strategy for reading Katherina's passage from madness to civilization, it seems incontrovertible. But it should be added that the installation of patriarchal ideology by Petruchio closely resembles the kind of civilizing coercion theorized by Althusser as “interpellation.” Even the process of Katherina's “education” resembles the Pascalian model of recognition arising out of a simulacrum of belief which Althusser cites as the model for ideology arising from “material” practice.12 That is to say, what Tillyard and Weiss call the playful “education” of Katherina into her “true” nature, is in fact a form of constraining misrecognition imposed upon the female subject. This misrecognition would also be shared by the audience, and academic criticism, in repeating it, is complicit with the dominant ideology of the play.

However, my “Althusserian” demystification leaves something out of account. The discourse of the play does not merely assume the patriarchal myth. It represents the process of its production by a very visible and audible hero. In actual fact, Althusser himself does something similar, when he explains the impersonal and abstract power of ideology by using the metaphor of someone being “interpellated” (or hailed) by another person in the street. The one who interpellates in Althusser's little narrative, is really a metaphor for a power which properly speaking could never have visible or audible presence. As Petruchio plays a similar mythical role in this play, he is really the bearer of a male fantasy of dominance and control. It is as though he demands, and perhaps receives from the audience, recognition as the very embodiment and source of a discourse of power. As for the heroine, she does not simply (mis)recognize herself through the narrative of the play, which is constructed by Petruchio's “policy”; she also recognizes herself as produced through the discourse of another, to use Lacan's terms. This recognition of the other within the self is precisely what the narcissistic discourse of male dominance seeks to repress in its monological drive. It is striking how Kate's new recognition of herself at first appears as a fictive textual construct, in the sense that she herself comments on the origin of her own utterance in Petruchio's discourse:

Katherina. Forward, I pray,
since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please
And if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

(The Taming of the Shrew, 4.5.12ff.)

Now, throughout this scene and for the rest of the play, there is a strong possibility of resentment at her subjection, or at the very least reluctant resignation. Alternatively, the actress is free to employ various shades of irony, from self-mockery to barely contained counterattack. These are all textual possibilities, because Katherina's “vow” is not necessarily conscious of its own irony. The main point is the emergence of a new slippery potentiality, because her speech registers itself as a response to another, which it doubles internally. This is quite irrespective of her intentionality, which in any case becomes indeterminate. The confident Horatio does not attend to this indeterminate “inward dialogism,” as Bakhtin calls it, but only to the immediate issue of Petruchio's victory:

Petruchio, go thy ways, the field is won.


Some critics (and a fortiori producers, who are often the most efficient readers of textual productivity under altered historical conditions) read Kate's final lecturing to Bianca and the widow ironically. This is then denied by those who affirm that such a content is an anachronism or wishful misreading. But the real issue, I believe, is that such an ironic disruption has become a possible reading, because the drama deals precisely with the foundation of a subject position which surveys, knowingly or not, the process of its constitution through the discourse of another. This opening of a space of indeterminacy (which might allow a freedom for manoeuvre) precisely as a dialogic response to a monologic discourse of power is, I would argue, the new historical content of this comedy. When I refer to this flight from determination through “inward dialogism” as ironic, I certainly do not mean the kind of stabilized irony which supports a definitely satirical kind of feminist reading, like Coppélia Kahn's view that “this play satirizes not woman herself [sic] in the person of the shrew but the male urge to control the woman.”13 Though this commands political sympathy, it seems to me as essentialist and monologizing as the more established apologetics for Petruchio as educator. It is an inversion, and merely sets up a rival humanist interpretation of the intentions of Shakespeare as author and unified subject within the text. But it is interesting, nonetheless, because it does illustrate the irony that I am concerned with, namely the capacity of the text to generate rival unfalsifiable interpretive positions. Irony in my sense means the reversibility of the linguistic sign, so that incompatible interpretations of individual characters become possible, but remain marked by uncertainty. For that very reason, however, the characters' utterances become provocations to a desire for a stabilizing interpretation which endlessly withdraws. Far from wishing to satisfy this hermeneutic desire for certainty, I would like to stress precisely how this endless withdrawal from final knowability produces something like an effect of interiority. For the critic/spectator who wishes to know (a desire which reinforces identification with Petruchio), this withdrawal makes the characters' language assume the quality of a veil over an inner mystery. Thus Katherina is constructed as a new kind of feminine character in her evasive response to would-be dominant phallic discourse.

It is simply undecidable at the end whether Katherina's recitation of the pieties desired by Petruchio is sincere or not. Its formality, its excess, and the fact that it offers a means of mockery of Bianca and the widow, all tend to question single readings. But the major question is: exactly what is it that Katherina has learned from her engagement with Petruchio's discursive will to power? My argument is that she has indeed learned a “game,” but not necessarily in the sense intended by Petruchio and the critics who speak for the desiring fantasy of control which he represents. In the place of overt resistance, Katherina has internalized not only a “lesson” (a law), but also a discursive duplicity which eludes it.

On the other hand, we must also attend to the construction of audience investment in Petruchio's success. The comedy of the unequal wooing dialogue consists in the way that Petruchio addresses praise, loving tenderness, and other deliberate misunderstandings to an entity which may not be there. At its simplest level, this would be a comedy built upon the inappropriateness of language to situation. But, this is not how the audience must understand Petruchio's address to Katherina, because that would make him simply foolish, and undermine audience identification. When Petruchio announces his “policy,” he makes a claim to be master of the plot. The important thing here is the comic prolepsis, for it is a bet upon the power of his discourse. Petruchio is a gambler and adventurer, his weapon is language, and his bet upon his own mastery introduces a risk. The audience's pleasure arises from seeing the danger courted and defeated, however provisionally. At the end Petruchio merely repeats his gambler's throw when he bets upon Katherina's obedience, and her speech on wifely duty doubles his profit. Language engenders money, but if there were no sense of risk, there would be no pleasure.

Katherina voices the risk which Petruchio's discourse runs when she calls him mad, denying him the access to her which his interpretation claims. She calls him “mad,” but the audience sees this in context as a resistance, a denial of the effect of his utterance upon her. The comic strategy is the familiar one of a dialogue at cross-purposes, a dialogue that fails. Here it is developed in such a way as to suggest a second, Bakhtinian “inner dialogue,” but only on the terrain of her subjectivity. This can be seen in the witty exchanges between Katherina and Petruchio. Actually one cannot logically reply to a man whom one also calls mad. But to reply wittily, as Katherina does, assumes an acceptance within the combat. This in turn makes her assertion of madness in Petruchio appear as the denial of her own response even as she makes it. Thus the act of witty reply also confesses what is denied. To this extent, she is not autonomous but captured by language and constrained by Petruchio's verbal “policy.”

The fulfillment of the boastful prolepsis governing Petruchio's “policy” produces pleasure in the audience, that is to say, not firm perceptions of truth, but “truths” which negate anxieties. It is the fictionality of his pronouncements that counts here, because they are shadowed by the possibility that he will fail to prove their truth. Petruchio's early statements about Katherina are clear examples of comic prolepsis:

Petruchio. Father, ’tis
thus: yourself and all the world
That talked of her have talked amiss of her.
If she be curst it is for policy,
For she’s not froward, but modest as the dove.
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn.
For patience she will prove a second Grissel,
And Roman Lucrece for her chastity.


Even to call Baptista “Father” before obtaining Katherina is comic prolepsis. And in the rest of the speech, the comic effect depends, not on its insights but on its fictionality. He even projects his own fictional duplicity onto her, and claims that she is secretly double (“curst” for “policy”) in his own image. The boastful proleptic bet is that his language will transform the fiction into the real. The comedy arises from the contrast with the known facts of Katherina's conduct, but not from that alone. There is a desire to see Petruchio demonstrate the power of the discourse, and this is accompanied by the possibility of the failure of language and the triumph of the facts.

With regard to his strategy of “killing her in her own humor,” Petruchio makes statements of “love” in flat contradiction to his conduct. Katherina makes aggressive statements, and to complete the symmetry, these could be construed as concealing love. This is how Petruchio says that he interprets them. But there is an assymetry in the dialogue. His words contradict his acts, presenting her with a gap, which at first she refuses to see as anything but “madness.” On the other hand, her words are at first consistent with her gestures. Though she may behave contradictorily, she has no duplicity. The main achievement in Petruchio's parading of his own duplicity, coupled with the insistent (and always comic) misreading of her language and gestures, is to get her to recognize herself as similarly constituted across a gap between appearance and being, i.e., that she is not what she says she is. What is comically broken is Katherina's fierce insistence on a direct relationship between her utterance and her inner truth:

Katherina. My tongue will
tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.
Petruchio. Why, thou say’st
true. It is a paltry cap,
A custard-coffin, a bauble, a silken pie.


Petruchio cures her of this directness and freedom “in words.” But this raises the question as to what has really happened to her “curst” contradictoriness when she has undergone Petruchio's education in the nature of the linguistic sign. I would argue that it has not disappeared or been overcome, but has undergone a historic shift, corresponding to the modernity of her discourse. If we say that she has been socialized through a belated acceptance of patriarchy, we must also add that her capacity for irony throws that dominance into perpetual (liberating and/or anxious) doubt.

Insofar as an “inner dialogue” constitutes the dramatic force of the witty exchange, the audience perceives the paradoxical existence of a duet within the combat. Nonetheless, the combat is at least as real as the duet. It is not a question of Petruchio simply perceiving a preexisting split self in Katherina, merely masked by her language, as Ruth Nevo suggests:

What the subtle Dr. Petruchio has done is to drive a wedge into the steel-plating of Katherine's protective armor, so that he speaks at once to the self that she has been and the self she would like to be; the self she has made of herself and the self she has hidden.14

On the contrary, the split self is produced by Petruchio's address, rather than simply detected by him. His strategy does not reveal another, previously hidden self, but sets up an inner division in her, a space of indeterminacy where subordination may itself be a counterstrategy of resistance. But there is another aspect to this. Katherina's utterances are dialogic responses, penetrated by the discourse which they resist. This is the basis of the effect of interiority, as I have called it. On the other hand, Petruchio's strength in this play, his virtually God-like intelligence and love (for the audience, a gratifying fantasy of male power), depends on the fact that this penetration does not happen to him. Insofar as he is master of the plot, Katherina is his creation out of chaos, and the dialogue is a one-way dialogue. However, a one-way dialogue is an impossibility in fact. Petruchio's claim to power is a narcissistic fantasy, working through a rhetoric of mastery but never unequivocally achieving its goal.

When Ruth Nevo refers to the “subtle Dr. Petruchio,” she mentions Laing as a possible model in the footnotes. There is some truth in this suggestion. Petruchio's address to Katherina has the structure of a “schizophrenic communication,” as theorized by H. F. Searle, following Bateson and Laing.15 On this view, the schizophrenic communicates in a way in which context, tone of voice, phrasing, gestures, etc., are radically contradictory to the content of the message. Petruchio's words and gestural messages addressed to Katherina are, however, a fictional schizophrenia, in which protestations of concern and love contrast radically with his conduct. Katherina at first interprets the gap as “madness,” which is an attempt at rejection. But then she closes it by recognizing it as intentional, and her interpretation of Petruchio corresponds to a reinterpretation of herself along similar lines. This seems like a successful installation of a strong controlling ego, the goal of Laingian therapy, to overcome the chaotic madness of her own “curs’t” condition. But it raises the problem of the nature of irony.

The Laingian view of irony, rather like Bateson and Searle on humor, assumes an ability of the normal recipient to disambiguate signs, to separate levels of discourse, and to grasp the sender's intention. Without this recentering, irony is indistinguishable from schizophrenia. As one sympathetic commentator on the Laingian view has noted:

In a way, both irony and art are special cases of schizophrenic communication. With regard to their logical structure, and to a great extent their psychological function, each of these three forms of communication follows a pattern which one could call “playing at not playing.” That is, they deal with a type of behavior which is in itself paradoxical, a type of behavior in which level and metalevel are mutually contradictory.16

Patients diagnosed clinically as schizophrenic are characterized above all by a failure to distinguish levels of discourse, by a consequent lack of humor, and by a tendency to take metaphors literally. That is, by an inability to play. For Laingian thought, the discourse of the schizophrenic patient is not ironic precisely because it is not controlled. It is a chaotic response to an “untenable situation” into which he (or, more usually she) has been placed by the contradictory demands from a beloved authority figure, or even from a whole family group acting in bad faith. (As we will see, this is applicable to Katherina in her “curs’t” state. But the issue is whether it is really overcome by Petruchio's cure, or displaced into the inward split of the modern autonomous, “free,” contracting individual.)

For the Laingian school of thought, clinical schizophrenia is a failure of control, corresponding to an inadequately developed ego. Therapy is aimed at redressing this, by building up self-reliance and independence in various ways. There is a strong commitment to the existential self, implicit in the notion of the bad faith of the family group. Radical therapy is aimed at undoing the individual's subjection to the bad faith of the schizoid family authority, and at building up a strong ego to resist it. It is at this point that Deleuze and Guattari accuse Laing of betraying his best insights and falling back into egopsychology and the familial myth of Oedipalism. They point out that there is generally nothing abnormal in the families of schizophrenics, and that to demonize them is to fail to recognize the normality of “schizophrenic” desire.17 For them, the villain of the piece is “molar” recontainment in all its forms, i.e., the repressive structures which “reterritorialize” desires through strategies of disfigurement and misrepresentation. That is to say, such recontainment includes the illusory goal of the autonomous self which the ego psychology of the Laing and Bateson school of therapy considers the road to the cure. My purpose is not to settle the thorny clinical dispute, nor to resolve the vast issue haunting this psycho-politics: viz., to what extent should clinical practice integrate the individual into a repressive society or develop the desires that set him/her in conflict with the source of repression?18 My point is that in the field of ego psychology we encounter the same problem as in literary criticism when it attempts to deal with irony. Irony as a principle of structure and control is set against an irony that would displace all structures (for without this, irony would cease to be ironic). It is this very doubleness of discourse that Petruchio initiates in his play for mastery, and the anxious desire for control continues within critical interpretations seeking to stabilize the meanings of the play. If Petruchio has educated Katherina into an ironic play of signs in lieu of self-expressive language, he has not cured a schizophrenia through a stable ego but installed an ironic subversion of his own project. He has sought from Katherina a willing surrender and subordination of the self in the form of a verbal declaration. But, in order to arrive at this, he has instructed her in an ironic verbal play which makes the nature of the surrendered self forever problematic. Katherina's ability to joke means that the desired closure of the play, which is the goal of Petruchio's plot after all, is put into question. Indeed, as some feminist readings attest, the closure is reversible by the plausible attribution to Katherina of a capacity for ironic utterance and purely fictive self-display.

Katherina's acquisition of irony, then, is a product of socialization in response to Petruchio's address. But it is a response marked above all by a new use of language. Katherina ceases to express herself in her old “curs’t” manner, and now uses language strategically, as a series of manipulable signs. The vulnerability of a transparent and manipulable self disappears, and is replaced by a play of language signs, whose precise degree of falsity or truth is unknowable. Irony takes the form of a nonessentialist acceptance of the power of signs, and “play” becomes a form of resistance to all definition. In this sense, Katherina emerges as an early practitioner of linguistic “jouissance,” in response to the patriarchal claim to know her. Thus her utterance is irreducible either to the expression of her nature or to the version of irony as the binary opposite of that truth, by which she could also be pinned down.

This means that if Petruchio or the audience were to reflect upon his achievement, they could never know if the verbal dominance were real. As an undivided and controlling figure (a male fantasy, in fact), Petruchio expresses euphoric mastery. Anxiety is not part of his representation as a character, but it certainly is part of the discourse which produces him as gratification. In this sense he is akin to Othello and Claudio of Much Ado About Nothing. He is even closer to Benedick in the latter play, for Benedick, in his wooing combat/dialogue with Beatrice, is like a Petruchio who has lost his impervious fantasy status, and is penetrated with anxiety. … [B]ut first I want to deal with the other combat in this play, namely the conflict between Katherina and her sister, Bianca. This antagonism involves two contrasting versions of womanhood, and each young woman is at the center of a different kind of comic discourse. The “double plot” is in reality more than that; it is the articulation of a conflict of discourses.


The formal contrast of the Katherina-Petruchio plot and the Bianca plot is well-known to criticism. I would like to situate the discursive differences in a historical narrative. We can begin to historicize the contrast of the two discourses in the play by pointing to the failure of patriarchal control in the Bianca plot as a failure of tyranny. Roman comedy, after all, must be understood theoretically as a way of lifting temporarily the oppressiveness of Roman law, which gave absolute ownership to the paterfamilias. The comic discourse of the Plautine-Terentian tradition was fixed in the conventionalities of the very law which it subverted. The place of the father is also discursively fixed; he is the figure of a power which is exercized through direct possession. The comedy concerns the suitor's elusion of this virtually incestuous possession, so as to legitimately take his place. Rivalry and transgression are recontained, and this evasion of Oedipal conflict gratifies the audience even as it restores patriarchy on the basis of normality.

An audience which merely consumes the narratives of such comedies “knows” that the young woman is always guarded by the watchful father or senex figures, because she is extremely desirable. This structure, (which is that of the Bianca plot) is endlessly repeated and is still quite familiar. It seems perfectly normal even as it casts a suspicion of incest upon the father figure. According to this assumption of “normality,” a beautiful woman is, after all, naturally desirable. However, if we ask why this narrative arises again and again, the beauty of the fictive woman cannot serve as a causal explanation of the structure. It appears as an expression of something else: the suitor's desire is focused upon the woman, who is therefore beautiful because she is forbidden and owned/protected by the father. And if such a reading of Oedipal rivalry appears too strained or too universalist, I would make the point that in the context of the clannish Roman “familia,” all women deemed worthy of attention were directly owned in this way.

The happy conclusions of comedies on the Roman pattern do not normally draw attention to the collective and clannish sexual politics which underwrite them. The fact that nothing has changed at the end, that the suitor as husband now stands where the father figure did, is not noted because there is no critical position from which such an observation could be made. The comedy assures the transfer of the young woman, evading the bond of paternal incest by trickery instead of a fearful lapse into Oedipal conflict. Unchangeability of conventions is no problem for a discourse where historical change has little purchase. But here in Shakespeare's comedy, the failure of Roman comedy is explicitly registered through Petruchio and Katherina's mockery of the husbands of Bianca and the widow. What is mocked by Petruchio is the failure of a certain kind of patriarchy. In effect, Petruchio affirms through Katherina's own pronouncements the superiority of his new form of patriarchy, because it is a rule by consent. The claim is that the contractual marriage precludes rebellion, like that of Bianca and the widow, whose formal acquiescence to marriage has involved no surrender of their inner selves at all. The basis of Petruchio's claim is the declared assumption of patriarchal values by Katherina herself (cf., Portia in The Merchant of Venice). Furthermore Petruchio reinstalls an order where Baptista's abandonment of certain protective/possessive functions of the father has led to a chaos which he is powerless to control. In sum, the often noted formal contrast of the style of the Bianca plot with the Petruchio-Katherina plot mediates an important historical fault line and shift in modes of patriarchal dominance.

Bianca occupies the position of a girl defending herself within clannish patterns based on status, where the collective interests are in the hands of an actual father. Katherina, by contrast, inhabits a different universe of discourse, but not by choice. In an important sense, she has had her independence thrust upon her in the form of an abandonment by her mercantile father. He dissolves the old law of clannish possession in her case, while preserving it in Bianca's. But this is still a patriarchy. Katherina is “his,” and in freeing her, he is declaring her to be of no value. The point is that Baptista may be only one character, but he is two different father figures in his relationship to Bianca and to Katherina. In him a certain contradiction between being a merchant and being a father is played out. He is usually represented, quite rightly, as a comically weak figure, not too different from the doddering but rich Gremio.

Baptista's law, ostensibly made in favor of the older daughter, actually casts her out and declares her undesirability, in marked contrast to his possessiveness where Bianca is concerned. The insulting aspect of this law concerning Katherina is fairly clear, and gives an immediately understandable reason for her anger with her father for putting her on the market at so cheap a price:

Katherina. I pray you, sir,
is it your will
To make a stale of me amongst these mates?


The anger addressed to her father is a reproach that he has totally abandoned a father's possessive love in her case, but not in Bianca's. This does not preclude possible love rivalry with Bianca, when she questions her violently to get her to reveal her preferred suitor. The conventionally minded Bianca slyly suggests this, and Ruth Nevo repeats it as the truth: “we surely do not require inordinate discernment to understand what ails Katherina Minola.”19 The basis of such commonsense criticism is to read the outcome, where Petruchio gets this “truth” recognized, back into the preceding discourse as its only truth. But Katherina's jealousy of the younger daughter has a much more direct connection with their father's preference than with Bianca's totally undesirable suitors. Even when Katherina expresses jealous anger at the prospect of Bianca's marriage, she expresses it in terms of a loss of the higher status that she has hitherto had:

Katherina. What, will you
not suffer me? Nay, now I see
She is your treasure, she must have a husband,
I must dance barefoot on her wedding-day
And for your love to her lead apes in hell.


The dancing barefoot at a sister's wedding and the supposed leading of apes in hell were the humiliations reserved for women who remained spinsters. This jealous outburst is less concerned with a desirable sexual partner than with the father's preference for the younger daughter and the humiliating loss of status that she confronts here. (Incidentally, Macfarlane notes that even in England, marriage might give a woman a higher status than her spinster sisters, marked by a right to wear certain clothes, so the humiliation would be very public.20) Katherina's jealous rage, then, is not the simple expression of a secret desire for a husband bursting through a willful self-repression. It is a jealousy over the father's preference for Bianca, whether this is expressed in the form of witholding her from suitors or preparing to give her away for a large dowry. This means that Katherina's angry refusal to get married is not a clearcut rejection of her father. On the contrary, her jealous anger is a way of staying with him. If she is rebelling, it is against a father who has cast her out, publicly declaring her to be of no value; it is not, as in the case of Bianca's Roman comedy, a rebellion against a father who would keep her in.

Katherina's anger arises from her loss of status. It is an anger of betrayed clannish loyalty and love. Baptista's only response is to deny his responsibility: “Was ever gentleman thus griev’d as I?” (2.1.37). He has made a law, ostensibly in her favor, and is reproached for favoring Bianca. The key to the contradiction escapes him, but it arises from what his proclamation reveals. Katherina's revolt is not against her father; on the contrary it is against the law through which he has abandoned the possessive role of the patriarch. Her freedom is nothing but a mercantile dissolution of older structures. It is even possible that her fierce domination of her sister is an attempt to stand in for her father's weakened vigilance. Hortensio's explanation of Baptista's law to Petruchio, suggests an unvoiced complicity between Baptista and Katherina:

Hortensio. He hath the jewel
of my life in hold,
His youngest daughter, beautiful Bianca,
And her witholds from me and other more,
Suitors to her and rivals in my love,
Supposing it a thing impossible,
For those defects I have before rehears’d
That ever Katherina will be wooed.
Therefore this order hath Baptista ta’en,
That none shall have access unto Bianca
Till Katherina the curst have got a husband. [emphasis added]


Hortensio may be merely projecting these motives, but an audience could never know whether he is right or not. The speech indicates a possible reading of the situation. Thus Katherina would not be merely following her own inclinations in remaining unmarried. Her “curs’t” rebelliousness would be a posture of loyalty and love, through which she maintains the law of patriarchal possession against Baptista's abandonment. Seen from Katherina's position, there could scarcely be a more striking example of the “double bind” injunction. It could be rendered in this way: “1. I want to get rid of you. You are undesirable, so I will give you freedom to marry absolutely anyone. 2. Rebel against this insulting abandonment, as I know you must, because by so doing you will serve my desire to keep Bianca, and we will all stay together as a clan.” However this schizoid injunction has no conscious agent. It seems to arise from Baptista's inadequacy, i.e., from the failure of traditional paternity, rather than from conscious intention.

The point about Baptista's law is that it does assert ownership over Katherina but only in order to reject her at the same time. It drives her out of the clan structure of possession where Bianca has a clear tenable position. But the command which drives her out still claims her allegiance, as any command must. The transfer of this untenable position to the one offered by Petruchio is not a move into a pure freedom of self-possession, where in ironic “play” she would be “herself.” But nor is it a return to a timeless patriarchal structure. It is a move from a clearly defined “status” in the clan-based order into a “self-possession” which amounts only to the contractual freedom to alienate the self. Irony, which means here the ability to avoid the definition of that self (by “retaining for oneself the final word,” as Bakhtin puts it) offers a space for maneuver within the new discursive constraints.21 But the irony, which has been brought into being as both acquiescence and resistance to Petruchio's “game” strategy, continues to operate around the traces of the structure which has been left behind, namely the clannish structure of patriarchal possession where the father, tyrannical or benevolent, has not yet abandoned his direct controlling possession. He persists as the demand for control within the interiorized play of signs in the individual, modern subject.

Through this process of interiorization (entirely unknown to Bianca and the widow), the father seems to have become for Katherina the Lacanian phallus, that is, a felt need to anchor the self within and against the very play of signifiers which give her a measure of freedom. In her fierce loyalty to Baptista, transferred to Petruchio (her psychotherapist), she retreats from a greater freedom, possibly fearing it as the madness within, the “curs’t” condition which lies, according to Lacan, beyond the Symbolic Order held in place by the phallus.


  1. The Taming Of A Shrew [1594] in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, volume 1, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, and Columbia University Press, 1957), 69-108.

  2. E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965), 82-83.

  3. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies, 85.

  4. Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), 68.

  5. John C. Bean, “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate: The Taming of the Shrew” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al. (Urbana, Chicago, and London: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 69-70.

  6. This conflict was painted over, to employ a happy metaphor, by the notion of the contract. It is important to recall that the idea of the social contract was not an invention of the radical bourgeois thinkers of the late-17th and 18th century. Their specific contribution was to produce a critique of the inequality of a contract when power is vested on one side only. Under those circumstances, the formality of the contract, namely an agreement between two freely consenting parties, serves to mask the real inequality of the subordination. This rationalist critique brings to light what the discourse attempts to hide about itself.

  7. For a full discussion, see Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 120-147, and 321-344 in particular.

  8. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840, 335.

  9. “Status” and “contract” as indices of contrasting social forms are taken from Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Ancient Law [1861]. Alan Macfarlane observes: “With the arrival of capitalism the society is no longer held together by status but by contract—that is, by the market, by an impersonal law, a centralized state. This provides a framework which permits a certain disengagement from the family, enabling free-floating individuals to enter the labour market early.” Marriage and Love in England, 328. He points to the paradox that this is also the enabling condition for romantic love, the antithesis of capitalistic rationality. See also Tony Tanner's use of these terms in Adultery and the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1979), chapter 1.

  10. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England, 325.

  11. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).

  12. Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays trans. Ben Brewster (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971, 168ff.

  13. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 104.

  14. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1980, 48-49.

  15. H. F. Searle, Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Other Related Topics (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), 381-428.

  16. Rolf Breuer, “Irony, Literature, and Schizophrenia,” New Literary History 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1980): 105.

  17. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L'Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie (Paris: Minuit, 1972), 430-433.

  18. For an interesting discussion see Peter Sedgwick, Psycho Politics (London: Pluto Press, 1982).

  19. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare, 40.

  20. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England 1300-1840, 149.

  21. M. M. Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics [1929, revised 1963] explains that the relationship to the other and self-definition are intimately related, and both are held in suspense by the self's retention of a “loophole”: “A loophole is the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one's own words. If a word retains such a loophole this must inevitably be reflected in its structure. This potential other meaning, that is, the loophole left open, accompanies the word like a shadow. Judged by its meaning alone, the word with a loophole should be an ultimate word and does present itself as such, but in fact it is only the penultimate word and places after itself only a conditional, not a final, period.” M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryn Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 233.

Further Reading

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Andreson-Thom, Martha. “Shrew-taming and Other Rituals of Aggression: Baiting and Bonding on the Stage and in the Wild.” Women's Studies 9 (1982): 121-43.

Discusses reconciling The Taming of the Shrew with modern feminist ideology, and the context in which the play was written.

Bamber, Linda. “Sexism and the Battle of Sexes in The Taming of the Shrew.” In “The Taming of the Shrew”: With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography, pp. 163-8. Edited by Robert B. Heilman. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Argues that The Taming of the Shrewis a sexist play which differs from Shakespeare's other works.

Bean, John C. “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.” In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, pp. 65-78. Edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Argues that The Taming of the Shrewshifts from farce to romantic comedy, and that “Kate, in discovering love through the discovery of her own identity, becomes something more than the fabliau stereotype of the shrew turned household drudge.”

Brown, Carolyn E. “Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew: ‘A Second Grissel’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 37, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 285-313.

Asserts that The Taming of the Shrewdiffers from traditional medieval and Renaissance shrew tales because it contains aspects of the “Patient Griselda” tale. Brown states that “Shakespeare … allows for the reading that Katherine has been misjudged and is more similar to a Griselda than a shrew figure.”

Daniell, David. “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production 37 (1984): 23-31.

Studies theatrical elements of the play to explain how Petruchio and Katherine arrive at mutual understanding.

Dolan, Frances E. “The Taming of the Shrew”: Texts and Contexts, pp. 1-38. Edited by Frances E. Dolan. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Provides critical interpretations of the play, focusing on the following themes: “Alternative Endings,” “Marriage,” “The Household: Authority and Violence,” and “Shrews, Taming, and Untamed Shrews.”

Hodgdon, Barbara. “Katherina Bound; or, Play(K)ating the Strictures of Everyday Life.” PMLA 107, No. 3 (May 1992): 538-53.

Examines interpretations of the play in light of changing cultural beliefs about sexuality and feminism.

Jackson, MacDonald P. “Petruchio's Barber's Shop: The Taming of the Shrew, IV.III.91.” English Language Notes XXXVI, No. 1 (September 1998): 15-9.

Considers explanations for the meaning of the word “censer” in a speech by Petruchio in the fourth act.

Perret, Marion D. “Of Sex and the Shrew.” Ariel 13, No. 1 (January 1982): 3-20.

Examines the significance of references to sex in The Taming of the Shrew.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Horses and Hermaphrodites: Metamorphoses in The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 34, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 159-71.

Notes the play's Ovidian characteristics and examines aspects of romantic comedy.

Shaheen, Naseeb. “A Young Scholar from Rheims.” English Language Notes XXX, No. 3 (March 1993): 7-13.

Discusses the implications of Cambio's education at Rheims.


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