illustration of Kate and Petruchio standing and staring at one another

The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Peter Saccio (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Shrewd and Kindly Farce,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 33-40.

[In the essay below, Saccio examines the farcical nature of The Taming of the Shrew. After highlighting the negative ideas generally associated with farce, Saccio provides a positive appraisal of the farcical elements in the play and goes on to show how the play blends farce with romantic character development.]

If Shakespeare's plays exemplify what humankind can achieve at its most vital, most thoughtful, and most sympathetic, not only a source of received wisdom but also a resource for those at odds with the received culture, The Taming of the Shrew remains an embarrassment to many who profess and call themselves Shakespearians.1 In our century a brisk revisionism has flourished. Two major series of scholiasts, the first generally modern and psychological, the second specifically feminist, have argued variously that the shrew never really was a shrew but a woman responding understandably to the abuse of a dreadful family, that she is not really tamed, and that her final speech on wifely obedience is a piece of extended irony that dupes perhaps Petruchio and certainly the other characters.2 Standing nearly alone in recent academic commentary, but supported by many theatrical productions, Robert Heilman has attempted to combat this taming of The Taming of the Shrew. Although he allows that Katherine and Petruchio are persons of wit and imagination rather than mere harridan and whip-wielder, Heilman insists that the play is a farce straightforwardly handling the matter named in its title, and dismisses revisionism as ‘a critical falconry that endeavors to domesticate [the play] within the confines of recent sensibility’.3 This dispute, which will surely continue, at present stands bracketed by two documents, comparison of which illuminates what it has and has not achieved.

In 1897, George Bernard Shaw praised those elements of the play he found ‘realistic’:

Petruchio is worth fifty Orlandos as a human study. The preliminary scenes in which he shews his character by pricking up his ears at the news that there is a fortune to be got by any man who will take an ugly and ill-tempered woman off her father's hands, and hurrying off to strike the bargain before somebody else picks it up, are not romantic; but they give an honest and masterly picture of a real man, whose like we have all met. The actual taming of the woman by the methods used in taming wild beasts belongs to his determination to make himself rich and comfortable, and his perfect freedom from all delicacy in using his strength and opportunities for that purpose. The process is quite bearable, because the selfishness of the man is healthily goodhumored and untainted by wanton cruelty, and it is good for the shrew to encounter a force like that and be brought to her senses. … [But] the last scene is altogether disgusting to modern sensibility. No man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman's own mouth.4

In 1980, Professor John Bean reversed the terms precisely: he defended Katherine's final speech and deplored the taming. Bean rightly points out that the obedience speech does not imply a lord-of-creation moral. That notion of male supremacy, with its analogy between the husband and the Christian God and its theological argument from the story of Adam's rib and Eve's fall, can be found in the parallel place in The Taming of A Shrew, but...

(This entire section contains 5380 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

not in the Folio play. The religious language of Shakespeare's heroine echoes the marriage service of the Book of Common Prayer, not the doctrine of Creation. She expounds marriage as a non-tyrannical political hierarchy in which the partners have distinctive roles co-operating in mutual love, a notion reflecting humanist ideas on marriage and constituting a considerable change from medieval male autocracy. Bean further admires the romantic thread of the play, ‘those elements that show Kate's discovery of her inward self through her discovery first of play and then of love’. What Bean finds hateful is the taming: the throwing about of food and bedclothes, the abuse of the tailor, and—though not the obedience speech itself—the way in which Katherine is induced to say it, responding to Petruchio's directions like ‘a trained bear’. Here, according to Bean, is ‘depersonalizing farce unassimilated from the play's fabliau sources’.5

The precision of this reversal is useful. Although male, both writers have considerable credentials as feminists. Were he still living, the creator of Vivie Warren and St Joan might well have been persuaded to contribute to the volume in which Professor Bean's essay appears, The Woman's Part. Yet Shaw, who normally detested farce and damned Garrick's revision of the script, found farce realistic and bearable in this instance, while condemning the final doctrine. Bean finds the doctrine not only historically excusable but innovative for its time—a step forward by the Life Force, one might say—and tolerates the action insofar as it is romantic, while condemning Petruchio's motives and farcical methods. Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. The villain in Padua is now not male autocracy but farce. Bean finds it so offensive that he supposes that Shakespeare was confused in intention, did not fully know what he was doing. In this dislike he joins other feminist critics of the play, Coppélia Kahn and Irene Dash, who also attack what Kahn calls ‘the mechanism of farce’.6 His view is carried to an extreme in the firm pronouncement of H. J. Oliver. In the introduction to his otherwise admirable edition of The Shrew, Oliver describes the play as ‘a young dramatist's attempt, not repeated, to mingle two genres that cannot be combined’. ‘Characterization and farce are, finally, incompatible.’7

Since a few Shakespearians have been reluctant to admit the Bard's connection with anything so low as farce, it would be well to assert firmly the view of this essay, that the play is definitely (though not exclusively) farcical. Tranio exemplifies the trickery and disguise so prominent in Roman farce; Gremio illustrates devices of characterization used in the Commedia dell'Arte; Petruchio and his servants display the physical knockabout that occurs in farce of all ages. The verbal wit is often farcical. Compared, say, to the lyrical strain and sinuous sophistication of Rosalind's speeches in As You Like It, the wit of The Shrew comes near wisecracking. The funny lines are stychomythic exchanges and sharp retorts, as in the courting scene; grotesque catalogues such as Biondello's list of the diseases of Petruchio's horse and Petruchio's abuse of the tailor; accounts of physical roughhouse such as the story of the horse in the mud and Petruchio's plan to rip apart the bedchamber. Stage productions are usually full of bustling activity. Even when this is not dictated by explicit directions in the script, it responds to the character of the script, to the brisk competitiveness of the lines. We may reasonably complain of productions in which directorial inventiveness overstresses knockabout at the severe expense of other qualities in the text, but an absence of knockabout subverts the text even more drastically.

Farce, of course, has long had a bad press. The Elizabethans did not have the word, but they had the thing, most notably in the jigs performed as afterpieces and dismissed by intellectuals like Prince Hamlet when he wanted to sneer at Polonius's taste: ‘He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry’. Dryden, who had the word, said that farce consisted of ‘unnatural events’.8 That is the keynote of the bad press: the negative description. Nearly every effort to define or describe farce since Dryden—carefully collected in Leo Hughes's A Century of English Farce—has been couched in negatives.9 These definitions met their justified rebuke when, in 1958, Eric Bentley anatomized the entry on farce offered by The Oxford Companion to the Theatre and found ‘the whole article based on the … assumption that farce consists of defects without qualities’.10 When, as in The Shrew, farce is combined with a romantic element, the farce may receive even harsher treatment because of the contrast. Thus Hughes, providing what he calls an ‘acceptable definition of farce’ for The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, remarks ‘Its object is to provoke the spectator to laughter, not the reflective kind which comedy is intended to elicit, but the uncomplicated response of simple enjoyment.’11 Freudian critics such as Bentley and Barbara Freedman argue that the enjoyment of farce is hardly that simple, but even they do not help when the farcical effects are allied with ‘the reflective laughter which comedy is intended to elicit’, as is certainly the case with The Shrew, since their analysis concerns psychoanalytic insights that (by definition) cannot be the object of our conscious reflection as long as we are attending to the literal story enacted on the stage.12 The apparent incompatibility between farce and humane attention to character appears most sharply in feminist criticism, and reasonably so. Critics explicitly devoted to the identification, examination, and exposure of stereotypes will naturally disdain a genre considered particularly dehumanizing. The editors of The Woman's Part speak flatly of ‘the rigidities of farce’.13

Farce need not be rigid, and is not rigid in The Shrew. The unattractive features of the genre have been overstated, and the overstatements have been perpetrated most devastatingly by the one prominent defender of the farcical Shrew, Robert Heilman, whose description of farce fuels the attacks of Bean and Kahn. According to Heilman, farce deals with ‘limited personality that acts and responds in a mechanical way and hence moves toward a given end with a perfection not likely if all the elements in human nature were really at work’. ‘Those who have this personality are not really hurt, do not think much, are not much troubled by scruples.’ ‘They lack, largely or totally, the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral sensitivity that we think of as “normal”.’ Farce ‘simplifie[s] life by a selective anaesthetizing of the whole person’.14 Each of these sentences, and many another in Heilman's essay, is couched in negatives or privatives: limit, without, not, lack, simplify, anaesthetize. Since no work of art can contain all the possibilities of life, since all simplify by selection and emphasis, one could describe any genre this way and thus make it unattractive to those concerned with doing justice to the full range of human character. What would happen if tragedy were subjected to such descriptive habits? Tragedy concerns persons unnaturally ready to rush to extremes; who do not pause to reflect (cf. King Lear); or who, reflecting, do so faultily (cf. Othello); who, by a selective anaesthetizing of the whole person, lack a sense of humour or balance about their problems (cf. Macbeth or Coriolanus); who will not sit down with a sympathetic friend or a good therapist or at least a valium to get to the root of the matter, but instead dash about with drawn swords; in short, a collection of paranoid hysterics who refuse to live like sensible adults. As for moving toward a given end with a perfection foreign to human nature, what real royal court has ever (short of war or armed revolution) suffered the complete and simultaneous extermination that occurs at Elsinore?

The farce presented in Petruchio's wooing of Katherine and in the efforts of Tranio and Biondello to win Bianca for Lucentio deserves a positive description. That farce arises within a relatively realistic situation. As many have noted, Bianca's popularity and Baptista's favouritism credibly motivate Katherine's shrewish behaviour. As George Hibbard has splendidly argued, the premises of the plot ‘reflect life as it was lived’, specifically the marital customs of Elizabethan England.15 A wealthy father, properly seeking husbands for his daughters, tries to even the odds between the popular girl and her unwanted elder sister by vowing that the former shall not marry before the latter, and thereby creates a frustrating and distressing stalemate for everyone concerned. Within this situation, farce celebrates the virtues of energy, ingenuity, and resilience, virtues that disrupt the static dilemma and work to resolve it. The energy is obvious in the eagerness of the male characters arriving in Padua to take on a set of problems regarded by the Paduans as hopeless, and in the demands they confidently make upon themselves in order to cope with them.16 It is verbally elaborated in Petruchio's speeches of resolution: when he boasts of his career amid roaring lions and clanging trumpets he sounds rather like Tamburlaine. Ingenuity—mental independence and resourcefulness—lies in the suitors' adoption of unconventional means to gain their ends, notably in Petruchio's behaviour at the wedding and in his pretence of being a greater shrew than Katherine, but also in the fertile inventiveness of Lucentio and his servants. By resilience I refer to a special combination of stubbornness and adaptability. This virtue is often overlooked in farcical characters. We are too ready (with or without the explicit aid of Bergson) to describe farce as mechanical or rigid, and thus condemn farcical behaviour as subhuman. The ability to initiate or endure repeated confrontations, pratfalls, and beatings can be testimony to the determination of the characters, and the determination loses its mechanical quality when it is combined with the cleverness, the ready resourcefulness displayed by Petruchio in the taming and by the variety of ‘supposes’ in the Bianca plot. In civilized life, of course, most adults avoid the physical activities of farce—the shouting and the knockabout—but the energy, ingenuity, and resilience embodied in such activities are valuable qualities. We do not honour lassitude, mental barrenness, and defeatism.

It may be objected that I have attributed these farce-displayed virtues only to male characters. That, indeed, is the heart of the current feminist case: Professor Kahn regards farce as the elaboration of a male fantasy of domination, and Professor Bean sees Katherine as the victim of farce.17 But Katherine is also an initiator. Her verbal and physical energy in resisting humiliation mark her first two appearances on stage; indeed, they make her the attractive and interesting character that she is. When she meets Petruchio in her third scene, she initiates both the wit combat and the physical brawling. At this moment, her behaviour has a strain of compulsiveness not shared by Petruchio or Tranio: she has the energy, but her resilience is more stubborn than adaptable, and her ingenuity relies heavily on the use or threat of physical violence. But that is precisely the point: her liberation from raging shrewishness, from compulsiveness and destructiveness, is marked by her growth in farcical range. Petruchio teaches her to play, as many critics have noted,18 but what she plays is the energetic, resilient, ingenious games of farce—the farcical wit of the sun/moon scene and the farcical actions of ‘swingeing’ Bianca and the Widow forth and treading on her own cap. The romantic humanization of Katherine is expressed, not in such reflective speeches as might be given to Viola, but through the resilience and energy of her co-operation with Petruchio's madcap words and actions. One verbal example is particularly revealing. Early in the play Petruchio elaborates a farcical catalogue of Katherine's supposed virtues:

'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 spring-time flowers.
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip, as angry wenches will,
Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk. …
Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?
O slanderous world! Kate like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue
As hazel-nuts and sweeter than the kernels.


The energy of Petruchio's adjective-lists, and the rural vividness and tang of his hazel imagery, contrast sharply with Lucentio's praise of Bianca, heavy as it is with bookish mythology and the conventional sonneteer's talk of coral lips and sweet breath (1.1.150-76). Late in the play Katherine splendidly adopts Petruchio's mode of farcical blazon:

Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child,
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow.


Here her striking and ludicrous invention tops Petruchio's more conventional description of eyes like stars and ‘war of white and red within her cheeks’ (4.5.30-2).

Katherine eventually becomes an expert farceur. Her initiation into the full freedoms of farce, moreover, corresponds to the developing pattern of farce in the play itself, to the larger dramatic rhythms. Dramatic rhythm is a matter largely neglected by recent commentary on the play: the feminist concern with social roles has tended to treat the play as case history, where behaviour may be investigated principally as it reveals the sociological assumptions of the playwright and the age. But dramatic events exist within a structure and rhythm of episodes, and that rhythm governs our apprehension of them. Timing is part of the nature of farcical events, in the overall pace of the play as well as in the execution of local business. In The Taming of the Shrew, broadly funny episodes are carefully rationed, with some of the most notable knockabout taking place off stage: the lute-breaking, the wedding service. With the Induction and the elaborately rendered first entrances of Lucentio and Petruchio, the opening scenes are leisurely, slowly introducing the persons and leading only gradually to their engagement with each other. By the time Petruchio woos Katherine and we feel thoroughly into the matter, fully forty per cent of the play has elapsed. Thereafter the pace quickens. The third and fourth acts give us the scenes of outrageous pretence, bizarre costume, physical violence, and disruption of household order characteristic of farce.19 I emphasize this accelerating pattern because it is not the usual rhythm of later Shakespeare, the rhythm Bernard Beckerman has taught us to recognize in Shakespeare at the Globe.20 In most of the Globe plays, as Beckerman notes, there is a mid-play plateau, a sequence of high dramatic excitement, followed by a stretch of lower-intensity story-telling. Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of this design, at least for modern audiences, is the fourth-act sag foreign to modern expectations of dramatic rhythm. Modern audiences are apt to get restless, and modern producers to cut heavily, during the scenes of Laertes's rebellion, the scenes between the blinding of Gloucester and the return of Cordelia, and the later prison scenes of Measure for Measure. But The Shrew accelerates in the later acts, rushing eagerly through hurry and confusion in both its plots, precipitating a comic catharsis through which the characters come to new recognition of their relationships. The accelerating rhythm works on a dynamic of repetition and variation: Katherine is thrice frustrated over food, twice over clothing; she is tested twice in rapid succession over the sun and the old man. The alternating scenes of the sub-plot (4.2 and 4.4) are each built as diptychs: they increase the pace by each handling two problems or two phases of the same problem, the second of which arises unexpectedly in the middle of the scene and calls for a further stretch of ingenuity from the plotters. The final scene of the sub-plot (5.1) builds an hilarious climax out of the true Vincentio's rapid, progressive confrontations with the false Vincentio, Biondello, Tranio and Baptista, and finally the young lovers. The true Vincentio, in his first appearance, is flabbergasted twice, first by being hailed as a nubile virgin and then by Petruchio's bland revelation that ‘thy son by this hath married’.21 The accelerating pace of scenes is matched on the local, verbal level, by rhetorical schemes of repetition leading to climax—anaphora, epistrophe, ploce—schemes that Katherine adopts from Petruchio and uses increasingly. Of particular importance in reinforcing this pace is the sense of improvisation. Although nothing in theatre requires more painstaking rehearsal, farce presents itself as impromptu, spontaneous. Exactly such improvisation, such invention upon unexpected demand, characterizes Petruchio from early on:

Where did you study all this goodly speech?
It is extempore, from my mother-wit.


This is the skill that Katherine learns to exercise in greeting Vincentio, and her practice of it is very carefully rendered: ‘Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet—’. She starts with fine hyperbolic inventiveness, in a vigorous six-stress line. But then her ingenuity momentarily staggers: ‘Whither away, or where is thy abode?’ That's a flat line, a dull line unworthy of its predecessor. No word adds colour to the idea, the questions are uninteresting, and the flaccid structure created by the weak ‘or’ helps the line to get nowhere. She is gagging, groping for the next bright idea. Then it comes to her, and without waiting for a reply to her dull questions she produces a sustained outburst of inventiveness, elaborating the fantasy to a wonderfully ridiculous extreme:

Happy the parents of so fair a child,
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow.

This rhythmic pattern in the play, rising to frenzy in the later scenes, creates the setting in which the quieter, more romantic moments have their telling impact. When Katherine and Petruchio kiss in the street, defiant of decorum but very much in love, ‘we recognize triumph, we sympathize with surrender; we experience satisfaction in the completion of a long pattern, and we regret that an interesting fight seems finished’.22 That fulfilment would lack its rich savour were it not preceded by the climactic confusions of the sub-plot, the vigorous confrontations of Katherine and Petruchio, and the notable off-stage kiss, the ‘clamorous smack’ that had made the church echo at the wedding (3.2.176). Even more, Katherine's obedience speech, with its elaborate appeal to political and social sanctities, would lack its sense of full-chord resolution if it punctuated something less energetic than farce.

It will be clear by now that I cannot agree with the common modern view that seeks to revise the plain doctrine of Katherine's last speech under the all-saving name of irony. Bean's enrichment of the historical context is helpful here. Discussion of the speech has been vexed by two principal confusions. The first is theatrical: an actress may undercut the sense, vulgarly with a wink at the audience, or elegantly by playing in the high Congrevean manner of Edith Evans. But that is not the point. Such subversion can be practised, according to skill, by any performer on any passage in Shakespeare. It is a familiar form of theatrical humour, delightful at cast parties. With a playwright whose liars and deceivers regularly announce their intentions, however, we must seek some textual basis for supposing that Katherine does not mean what she says. The second confusion, encountered when we seek such textual basis, lies in ignoring the difference between local verbal ironies and a massive irony of intent extending through forty-four lines. Verbal ironies certainly flicker in particular lines. To suggest that Petruchio ‘commits his body / To painful labour both by sea and land’ is to exaggerate the undoubted work of a country gentleman in managing his estate into something that sounds suspiciously like digging the ditches.23 Katherine's reference to a wife who lies ‘warm at home’ is rich in private irony for herself and her husband, but not for the guests who are ignorant of the events of her honeymoon. This verbal playfulness she has learned from her husband, and it valuably lightens what might otherwise be an intolerably long oration, but it does not contradict the doctrine she expounds or the gesture with which she concludes the speech. To argue that the sheer length of the speech contradicts its meaning24 is to cast wanton doubt on everything in the highly rhetorical Elizabethan drama, and also to ignore Katherine's energy in all undertakings, Petruchio's request for such a speech, and the dramatic value of a full statement. Furthermore, verbal irony is far less important in drama than irony of event. Long doctrinal speeches in Shakespeare—the fable of the belly in Coriolanus, the divine-right speeches of Richard II—are often subject to ironic examination by the events of the play, but Katherine's speech is the only such sermon in Shakespeare occurring so late in its play that no further event can challenge it. We do not even need to deplore, as Bean does, the means by which the speech is introduced. Petruchio does not impose it as a further test or taming. The wager has already been won, and husband and wife are playing a game whose object is to demonstrate their superiority as a couple to their scornful relatives.25

The rhythmic pattern I have described, of a leisurely opening followed by gathering farce leading to an unusually late climax and a richly toned conclusion, makes possible the blending of farce and romantic development of character that Oliver deems unworkable. Shakespeare evidently thought so: contrary to Oliver's assertion, he did repeat the blend and the pattern, in a subtler and more varied form, in Twelfth Night, a play also combining a romantic story of wooers and disguisers with a farcical effort to tame a shrewish person. Although a Globe play, Twelfth Night does not manifest the pattern of mid-play plateau and fourth-act sag that Beckerman describes. Instead, like The Shrew, its plot begins with great leisureliness; its theatrical excitement derives from a series of farcical complications that start in the cakes-and-ale scene and accelerate through the letter, yellow-stockings, and duel scenes; and its farce heightens the moments of still romantic wonder late in the love plot. Petrarchanism is set off and energized by the honest mean habiliments of farce.

The Taming of the Shrew is a farce both shrewd and kindly. It is shrewd in many senses. Both hero and heroine are turbulent people. Both, indeed, have the characteristics of real shrews—energy, irascibility, and noise.26 Katherine is also beshrewed, ‘curst’, afflicted by having a sly sister and a father whose relatively good intentions are not supported by much real intelligence about coping with his daughters. She is also shrewd in the sense of being ill-reported, of having a reputation somewhat in excess of her real behaviour.27 And the play itself, especially in acts 3 and 4, is shrewd: noisy, energetic, sharp, piercing, keen. But it is also kindly. This word (which, with its relatives, occurs twenty times in the play) is crucial to the effect. Were it more noticed, feminist critics might be less unhappy. Particularly in the Induction and the final scene, ‘kindly’ is heavily emphasized in the range of meanings that encompasses ‘natural’, ‘dutiful’, ‘compassionate’, ‘gentle’, ‘beneficent’—the range of meanings so important in King Lear. In the Induction, the Lord commands his practical joke on Christopher Sly to be done ‘kindly’, with ‘gently’ and ‘friendly’ as synonymous directions (Induction 1.44, 64, 70, 101, 116). In the final scene, both Baptista and Lucentio welcome the wedding guests with ‘kindness’ (5.2.5, 13). Petruchio responds with a compliment to everyone present. ‘Padua affords nothing but what is kind’ (l. 14). Katherine begins her great speech with. ‘Fie, fie! Unknit that threatening, unkind brow’ (l. 137; if the Elizabethans pronounced the ‘k’ of ‘unknit,’ the combination of ‘unknit’/‘unkind’ would gain prominence by virtue of the complex sound-echo). The play enacts a transformation from shrewdness into kindness, from what is turbulent, curst, keen, and noisy—natural in the sense of fallen nature—to what is generous, gentle, dutiful, and loving—natural in the sense of belonging properly to human relationships in families and communities. It is almost a transformation from Edmund's nature to Cordelia's. There is no confusion of purpose here, no failure to assimilate inherited material to the new purpose. It is of the essence of The Taming of the Shrew that it be both a shrewd and a kindly farce.


  1. An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in April 1982. Quotations from The Shrew come from the new Arden edition, ed. Brian Morris (London and New York, 1981).

  2. The twentieth-century critical fortunes of The Shrew, to the mid-sixties, have been well summarized by Robert B. Heilman in ‘The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew’, Modern Language Quarterly, 27 (1966), 147-61. Pre-World War II commentary often deplores the play's apparent doctrine; postwar commentary by Nevill Coghill, Margaret Webster, Harold Goddard and others finds Shakespeare more in sympathy with modern opinions on women. Postdating Heilman's article is the major wave of feminist commentary, well represented by Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage’, Modern Language Studies, 5 (1975), 88-102; Marianne L. Novy, ‘Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew’, English Literary Renaissance, 9 (1979), 264-80; 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 et al. (Urbana, 1980), pp. 65-78; and Irene G. Dash, Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays (New York, 1981). Kahn is unique in suggesting that, while Katherine's final speech is ironic, Petruchio is not duped but knows he is being taken in and prefers it that way.

  3. Heilman, p. 161.

  4. Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (Harmondsworth, 1969), pp. 197-8.

  5. Bean, pp. 71, 74, 66.

  6. Bean, p. 74; Kahn, as reprinted in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards (Amherst, 1977), p. 99.

  7. H. J. Oliver, ed., The Taming of the Shrew, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford, 1982), pp. 56, 52.

  8. Preface to An Evening's Love, The Works of John Dryden, ed. H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. et al., vol. 10 (Berkeley, 1970), p. 203.

  9. A Century of English Farce (Princeton, 1956), esp. chapter 1.

  10. Eric Bentley, ‘The Psychology of Farce’, in Let's Get a Divorce! and Other Plays (New York, 1958), p. viii.

  11. Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger et al., enlarged edition (Princeton, 1974), p. 271.

  12. See Barbara Freedman, ‘Errors in Comedy: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Farce’, in Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Maurice Charney (New York, 1980), pp. 233-43. This fascinating analysis ends with the remark that the errors of The Comedy of Errors are really ‘no errors at all’, an observation that indicates that the story and characters as such have dissolved completely.

  13. The Woman's Part, p. 8.

  14. Heilman, pp. 160, 154, 152.

  15. George R. Hibbard, ‘The Taming of the Shrew: A Social Comedy’, in Shakespearean Essays, ed. Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, Tennessee Studies in Literature, Special Number 2 (Knoxville, 1964), pp. 15-28.

  16. I am indebted to the ingenious variation on Northrop Frye's theory of comedy presented by Sherman Hawkins in ‘The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy’, Shakespeare Studies, 3 (1967), 62-80.

  17. Kahn, p. 85; Bean, p. 74.

  18. See Novy, ‘Patriarchy and Play’, and J. Dennis Huston, ‘“To Make a Puppet”: Play and Play-Making in The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 73-87.

  19. Brian Morris, p. 142, suggests that the wedding and country-house scenes ‘would be farcical’ if Petruchio did not have a serious purpose. The remark neatly illustrates the prejudice against farce: why should the purpose make the actions less farcical or less funny?

  20. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 (New York, 1962), chapter 2, esp. pp. 34-5.

  21. 4.5.62. No production I have seen has exploited the surprise that must occur to Vincentio here. Editors who comment on the line (e.g. Morris both in a footnote and in his Introduction, p. 19, and Hibbard in the New Penguin Shakespeare) are concerned only with Petruchio's passing on information he could not possibly have. In a play concerned with the proper arrangement of marriages, with a character who exists almost entirely to be subjected to comic shocks, surely this is a notable moment.

  22. Morris, p. 108: he is discussing 4.5, the sun/moon scene, but his fine remark is also applicable to the kiss passage the end of 5.1.

  23. Two recent Petruchios, Raúl Juliá at the New York Shakespeare Festival (1979) and Alun Armstrong of the Royal Shakespeare Company (1982-3), both responded to the line with surprise and a gesture of humorous denial.

  24. ‘It fairly shouts obedience, when a gentle murmur would suffice’ (Kahn, p. 99).

  25. See Morris, pp. 145-9, and Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, 1972), p. 70.

  26. Morris, pp. 120-2, stresses Shakespeare's presumed knowledge of the real animal.

  27. Kahn, pp. 90-1, discusses the inflation of her reputation. In defining ‘shrewd’, OED includes ‘Of reputation, opinion, meaning: Evil, bad, unfavourable’ (3b): examples cited make clear that a shrewd reputation need not be justified.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Taming of the Shrew

While Elizabethan audiences likely viewed The Taming of the Shrew with amusement and approval, the story of the spirited, rebellious, and sharp-witted Katherina, whose father forces her into marriage with the exuberant and clever Petruchio, can be a bit problematic for modern audiences. The tactics by which Petruchio transforms Katherina's obstinacy into obedience are perhaps more offensive to today's spectators than they were to those of Shakespeare's time. The undercurrent of violence and cruelty in Petruchio's words and deeds has been condemned by some critics, while others attempt to clear his name by contending that Petruchio's character, and the play as a whole, must be understood within its contemporary context. Equally confounding to critics is Katherina's apparent submission to her husband in the play's final act. According to the views of some commentators, this obedient stance should be taken ironically, while others suggest that it should be read “straight,” and argue that a truly loving relationship between Katherina and Petruchio, in which she willingly and rightfully submits to him, has been founded. In addition to Katherina and Petruchio’s relationship, many critical analyses study the play's implications concerning patriarchal power structures and gender roles, the role of women in Elizabethan society, as well as cultural and marital conventions.

Many modern critical analyses of The Taming of the Shrew focus on issues of genre and structure, and provide a background for understanding the major critical issues of the play. Peter Saccio (1984) discusses the negative connotations generated by labeling the play as a farce. Saccio reviews the elements of the play which are indeed farcical, and provides a positive analysis of them. George Cheatham (1985) emphasizes the way in which this early play is similar to Shakespeare's later romantic comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, particularly in its exploration of the idea of transformation. Other critics approach the play through an analysis of its unity. Margie Burns (1986) asserts that the play's unity is established through the frame created by Sly's disappearance in the first act, and the “disappearance” of the shrew in the final act. Michele Marrapodi (1999) finds unity in the Italian aspects of the play. While the subplot is known to be derived from an Italian source, the critic also links the Induction and the main plot to Italian origins. Marrapodi contends that the Induction is similar to Italian Renaissance models, and the main plot is Italian-inspired in its thematic development of the comedy of “classical intrigue.”

Many of the character analyses of The Taming of the Shrew are centered on Petruchio and his gift of rhetoric. Tita French Baumlin (1989) characterizes Petruchio as a “sophistic rhetorician,” demonstrating the way in which he uses hyperbole, linguistic “disguises,” and lies in order to produce a positive change in Katherina. Wayne A. Rebhorn (1995) studies both Petruchio's and Katherina’s use of rhetoric, asserting that The Taming of the Shrew serves as an analysis of Renaissance rhetoric and issues—including power, politics, and the shifting notions of gender distinctions. Marrion D. Perret (1983) focuses not on Petruchio's words, but his actions, and argues that Petruchio shows Katherina by example how a proper wife should behave by taking on those chores identified (according to contemporary conduct books) as “women's work.” Carolyn E. Brown (1995) suggests that Shakespeare relied on another Renaissance literary tradition—the “patient Griselda”—in addition to his utilization of the shrew tradition. Brown identifies the ways in which Petruchio and Katherina are like the lord and wife in the Griselda genre, explaining that in the “patient Griselda” tradition the wife is repeatedly “tested” by her husband, and continually and patiently submits to her husband's abusive treatment.

Modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew are challenged by the brutish aspects of Petruchio's behavior, Kate's obedience (which modern audiences may find disappointing), and the dilemma of how to deal with Sly and the Induction. Geraldine Cousin (1986) compares two modern productions, finding that while the open-air performance of the Medieval Players offered an interesting experiment with sex reversals, it ultimately failed in its casting of Petruchio as a man, since the other major characters were played by the opposite sex (Katherina, for example, also was cast as a man). Cousin describes the Royal Shakespeare Company production as “admirable,” and praises the forthright portrayal of Petruchio's roughness. Peter J. Smith (1997) was pleased with the way Lindsay Posner's production did not attempt to avoid the play's treatment of domestic violence, but found fault with the production's failure to resolve the central difficulties of the play, and with Monica Dolan's “diminutive” portrayal of Katherina. William T. Liston (1997) discusses the uniqueness of the setting of Richard Rose's production, which takes place in New York's Little Italy in the 1960s. Characterizing the setting and other elements of the production as “gimmickry,” Liston comments that the play failed to “catch fire.” The reviewer for TCI (1998) describes Andrei Serban's production as a parable concerned with the taming of the beast that lives inside everyone. Serban succeeded, notes the critic, in creating an atmosphere in which the nature of personal identity is explored.

The play’s treatment of gender relations, marriage, and social conventions is examined in a variety of ways by modern critics. David Daniell (1984) analyzes what he sees as the very serious treatment of matrimony in The Taming of the Shrew. The play's theatricality emphasizes this treatment, Daniell explains, and demonstrates how Katherina enters further into a playworld as the play progresses, enacting a theatrical set piece at the play's end in which she describes her relationship with Petruchio in terms of an imaginary history play and civil war. In the end, Daniell states, the violence and rebellion are contained, and Katherina and Petruchio are able to be themselves, with all their contradictions intact. Many critics study the play's exploration of gender relations through the lens of Elizabethan culture and social conventions. Randall Martin (1991) urges that by understanding the contemporary context of The Taming of the Shrew we are better able to comprehend the play's handling of gender issues. Reading the play in this manner, the critic maintains, reveals that Petruchio's treatment of Kate reflects the conflicted Elizabethan views about the role of women in society. Martin explains that the play does not resolve the contradictory attitudes of its original audience, but rather documents and acknowledges them. Juliet Dusinberre (1993) examines Katherina's role in light of the fact that in Elizabethan times her part would have been played by a boy. In exploring the implications of this for Shakespeare's audiences, Dusinberre points out that as apprentices boy actors were in positions of dependency similar to that of women in Elizabethan society, yet in playing the role of an aristocratic woman, such as Katherina, or a mercantile woman, such as the Hostess, the boys would have experienced the feeling of possessing some social authority.

Unlike critics who approach the play in terms of the often conflicted relationships between men and women, Camille Wells Slights (see Further Reading) argues that the play is more fruitfully accessed through an examination of the conflict between civilized and uncivilized behavior. The critic contends that Katherina reacts to societal constraints with a self-defeating, antisocial behavior, rebelling against these constrictions by performing the stereotypical role of the shrew. However when Petruchio forces her into a new role, that of suffering victim, Katherina learns to shape her own identity instead of conforming to society's expectations. Slights stresses that Katherina's transformation and display of obedience to Petruchio is a victory, because Katherina becomes a civilized individual who understands that societal relationships are maintained through a balance of duty and privilege. In the end, Slights maintains, Katherina achieves—through public submission to Petruchio, and through a show of dominance over the Widow and Bianca—what she has wanted all along: a dominant position as a valued member of society. On the other hand, Laurie E. Maguire (1995), in analyzing the images of hunting, music, and taming, finds that the play's depiction of marriage demonstrates a broader skepticism regarding “so-called civilized behavior.”

David Daniell (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 23-31.

[In the essay that follows, Daniell contends that The Taming of the Shrew takes marriage quite seriously, and in that sense it is a true Shakespearean marriage play. Daniell studies the play's views on marriage through an analysis of the theatricality in the play, and finds that by the play’s end the violence and rebellion are contained, and Katherina and Petruchio are able to be themselves, with all their contradictions intact.]

Nowadays, The Taming of the Shrew is taken in its entirety, without mutilation, crude business with whips (imported by Kemble) or announcements of the embarrassing incompetence of the prentice Shakespeare. It is winning increasing praise, for the structure of its interlocking parts among other things, and is becoming understood as a fast-moving play about various kinds of romance and fulfilment in marriage.1

Problems remain, of course, particularly with Katherine's final speech: modern solutions making it a statement of contemporary doctrine, or of male fantasy, or of almost unbelievably sustained irony, do not any of them seem to suggest that there is much for Katherine and Petruchio to look forward to in marriage. The speech is a disappointment after the tender moment of ‘Nay, I will give thee a kiss’ (5.1.133) which suggested that something was coming with a lot of good feeling in it, an impression later supported by her having the wit to win Petruchio's wager for him. Moreover, submission, as it is first, and strongly, presented in the play, in the Induction, scene 1, is denigration, a game played by pretended attendants; and wifely submission, shown even more strongly in the following scene, is sport by a page dressed as the sham wife of a ridiculously deceived ‘husband’. It is all a pastime, and false.

Sly, however, disappears for good, and this is surely right in view of the serious point about marriage which can be seen to be made at the end of the play by Katherine. I want to suggest that it is a truly Shakespearian marriage-play, and as such takes marriage seriously and makes as high a claim for the state of matrimony as, from experience of him elsewhere, we should expect Shakespeare to do. The way into this, I suggest, is through the play's special sense of theatricality, linked with an understanding that it is wrong to think of such a marriage-play having a firmly closed ending.

That The Taming of the Shrew is imbued with a fresh excitement about the potentials of theatre now needs little elaboration. The most modern commentators take that as understood, and indeed enlarge on the matter with some precision. G. R. Hibbard in the New Penguin edition refers to

bravura pieces, conscious displays of the rhetorical arts of grotesque description, farcical narrative, and inventive vituperation. Language is being deliberately exploited for effect; and what, in another context, might well appear cruel, outrageous, or offensive is transformed into comic exuberance by a linguistic virtuosity that delights in the exercise of its own powers.

Brian Morris in his Arden edition notes among much else a contrast of ‘physical violence with the eloquence of persuasions and the rituals of debate’. H. J. Oliver sums up a major part of the introduction to his Oxford Shakespeare edition with the words ‘Shakespeare certainly plays with the subject of theatrical illusion, and through the Induction and elsewhere seems to warn his audience of the ambiguity of “belief”.’2 Theatricality is everywhere. The Bianca plot works because people dress up as other people and assume roles. Petruchio, as is now frequently said, plays a part like an actor until he has subdued Katherine. It is universally agreed that the Induction spells out clearly that theatrical illusion can have powerful effect, and that this is important for the rest of the play. In the Lord's two long speeches which so dominate the play's first 136 lines he shows himself to be obsessed with the notion of acting, particularly with the careful creation of an illusion of a rich world for Sly to come to life in. This is even more developed in the following scene as his servants get the hang of the idea and fantasize freely about what sensual delights are in their power to offer. By the time Lucentio and Tranio enter to start the specially mounted play some quite large areas of the capability of theatre to create illusion have been coloured in.

Two things should reinforce the importance of this stress on theatricality itself for the rest of the play. The first is that the opening two scenes are not, in Folio, quite as detached as they are often assumed to be. The labels ‘Induction, scene 1’ and ‘Induction, scene 2’ used in virtually all modern editions, though in some senses technically correct (if un-Shakespearian) only go back as far as Pope.3 The Folio text begins firmly ‘Actus primus. Scoena Prima.’ (and then forgets all about divisions until ‘Actus Tertia’). Though the non-appearance of Sly in the Folio after the end of the first scene of the Bianca plot causes worry to some critics, the Folio arrangement of the scenes might prevent a general tendency to detach him too far. As I shall show, it is not true to say that Sly's concerns are later absorbed into the main action—that Katherine's arrival in a new world created for her has, as it were, consummated Sly's action. But the relentless insistence on the creation of controlled illusion from ‘Actus primus. Scoena Prima.’ does, as we shall see, have an important effect on the main actions, and particularly on the relation between Petruchio and Kate.

Secondly, it is difficult to miss the point about theatrical illusion when two early moments of transition in the first scene are so odd. It is peculiar that the hunting Lord's first thought on seeing the ‘monstrous beast’ (having apostrophized death in one line) should be to play such an elaborate trick. That is hardly an expected response. Then, to cap that, he hears a trumpet, and confidently expects ‘some noble gentleman that means, / Travelling some journey, to repose him here’. But it is no such thing. It is ‘players / That offer service to your lordship’. Their arrival, in view of the game of ‘supposes’ that he has in hand, is altogether too apt.

The two opening scenes bring together three of the play's chief concerns: hunting, acting, and the creation of an illusion of a powerfully rich world. As the second play-within-the-play begins (the first is ‘Sly as lord’) Lucentio and Tranio are caught up in a business which carries all three things forward. Lucentio has no doubt of the richness of Bianca: ‘… I saw sweet beauty in her face … I saw her coral lips to move, / And with her breath she did perfume the air’ (1.1.162, 169-70). With Tranio, he is going to hunt her down: ‘I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio, / If I achieve not this young modest girl’ (ll. 150-1). And he is soon involved in a situation which makes play-acting both essential and exciting. The direct wooing of Bianca is forbidden by her father, and there are rivals. Indeed, disguise and part-playing are positively invited, as Baptista encourages the rivals to produce ‘schoolmasters’ who will be kept ‘within my house’. The theatrical game spins merrily, with Tranio playing Lucentio, Lucentio playing ‘Cambio’, Hortensio playing ‘Licio’—and Bianca playing the adorable young girl. Presently a Pedant plays Vincentio. At the end of the play all the disguises have come off. Lucentio is himself and successfully wedded to Bianca who, married, is not quite as she appeared to be when wooed. Tranio is himself, and seems to have been forgiven, as he comports himself boldly. The Pedant and the real Vincentio have, in a good deal of wonderfully rapid business, faced each other out and the truth has triumphed.

All this, however, is more a matter of simple change of name. The Pedant does not even need a disguise. Lucentio is disguised, and Tranio puts on Lucentio's finery (‘Enter Tranio brave’, 1.2.214). Hortensio dresses up. But the deceptions that are practised lack depth, and belong to the very fast-moving world of amorous intrigue. Everyone receives the appropriate reward, and the two who are married at the end of this plot, Lucentio and Hortensio, have wives who, as G. R. Hibbard says of Bianca, have realized that ‘deception is a woman's most effective weapon’.4

Inside this action is the other, that of Katherine and Petruchio. This can also be seen in the primary colours of hunting, acting and a special richness. It is so clearly set inside, like a jewel in a mounting, that the resulting extension of the significances comes to be unmistakable. By this device, the action is moved on to another plane, as it were: almost on to another dimension. If The Taming of the Shrew is seen as a set of Chinese boxes, then the opening of the last one has some magic qualities. Katherine is most firmly inset. Consider: the audience is in a theatre watching a play about a Lord who makes a play for a tinker who watches a play about two young Italians who watch ‘some show to welcome us to town’ (1.1.47) inside which is a play about the surreptitious wooing of an amorosa by a love-sick hero and his rivals. Inside that is set another play about, by contrast, the very blatant wooing of her sister. Katherine does not say very much; compared with Rosalind, or even Beatrice, she is positively silent; but she is undoubtedly the heart of the play. She is introduced at five removes, it might be said, from street-level. At each remove the illusion increases. (We might note that Petruchio's very late entry into the action could well be said to make a sixth remove; the play has run for 524 lines at his entry, before which he is not even mentioned.)

On this interior plane, displacements are not of name or clothes, but of two entire personalities, a very different thing altogether. Indeed, Petruchio has announced himself vigorously from his first entry into the action, and he bombards Katherine, in the very first seconds of their first meeting, with her own name—eleven times in seven lines. He forbids his wife the new cap and gown the Tailor has provided, and his change of clothes for the wedding makes a mockery of dressing-up.

Nor are the displacements, like the others, temporary. Katherine, her ‘lesson’ learned, will not revert to being a shrew. Petruchio, having tamed her, will not revert to bullying. Except that I do not believe that Shakespeare's play says anything quite so obvious, or so final. If, rather than dramatic life on a different plane, there were a straight parallel here with the Bianca plot, it would have to be argued that Petruchio was ‘really’ a gentle person who put on roughness only while he was wooing Kate. To say so is to forget that he enters the play knocking his servant about and his servant calls him, twice, quarrelsome and mad (1.2.13-32). It is to argue too that Kate is ‘really’ an emotionally mature young woman ready for marriage thrown temporarily into desperation by her impossible father and sister. But within thirty-five lines of meeting someone who has come to woo her, who announces ‘Good Kate; I am a gentleman’ she is crying ‘That I'll try’ and ‘She strikes him’ (2.1.216). Both have strong violent streaks. Katherine says she will not be made a puppet (4.3.103) to be knocked about, or not, for ever after. Rather, as the further inside, the more the increase of illusion, so the illusion now is of a greater ‘reality’, not less. Unlike ‘Cambio’ and ‘Licio’, Katherine and Petruchio are ‘real’ people. Their theatrical dimension allows them to do something quite different, and much more interesting. Katherine and Petruchio can be seen to grow to share an ability to use theatrical situations to express new and broadening perspectives in a world as unlimited as art itself.

I want to come at this now from another direction. Brian Morris, in the introduction to his Arden edition, says ‘There are few points of possible comparison between Shrew and the first tetralogy of history plays.’5 I feel that this is not quite true. There may well turn out to be quite a number—certainly more than it is possible to comment on here. In the first place, there are large areas of superficial similarity in the use of verse, where so often the rhythms of the lines of the Henry VI plays are clearly from the same mind as made Shrew. Equally generally, there are similarities in certain single lines where the reader, meeting the line on its own, would be hard put to it to place the line in the right play. Thus ‘I see report is fabulous and false’ might be from either a history play or Shrew. It is 1 Henry VI, 2.3.18, where, like Shrew's ‘And now I find report a very liar’ it is in a sexually charged two-hander in the first heat of a meeting.

Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And 'tis my hope to end successfully

taken alone, would be put in the first tetralogy; it is of course Petruchio at 4.1.172-3, though it resembles 2 Henry VI, 3.1.341, and the tenor of the ‘jolly thriving wooer’ at Richard III 4.3.36-43. The 2 Henry VI line, ‘Well, nobles, well, 'tis politicly done’ also comes early in a soliloquy announcing a programme of action to win a personal triumph, and has the only other use of ‘politicly’ in Shakespeare. The game can be continued. I suppose ‘Cease, cease these jars and rest your minds in peace; / Let's to the altar’ might be mistaken for Shrew instead of 1 Henry VI, 1.1.44-5. Stamping a hat under a foot does not just belong to Kate—Gloucester does it to Winchester's hat at 1 Henry VI, 1.3.49. There are some similarities of situation. The duel of wits between Petruchio and Kate might be said to parallel the duels between Joan la Pucelle and the Dauphin, or Joan and Talbot, in 1 Henry VI, act 1, scenes 2 and 5, or more plausibly between Richard's outrageous wooing of Anne, and Elizabeth, in Richard III, act 1, scene 1, and act 4, scene 4. Eyes dazzled by the sun—in particular relation to a dramatically significant father—are the basis of special wordplay and action in both Shrew act 4, scene 5, and 3 Henry VI act 2, scene 1. The ‘martial’ quality of Joan and the bluff chivalry of Talbot suggests casting the same kind of actors as Katherine and Petruchio. Fancy can multiply parallels and echoes. It is odd that the only early plays of Shakespeare not mentioned by Francis Meres are the three parts of Henry VI and Shrew. Further analysis of what they might have in common, especially audiences, needs to be done.

Yet it is not entirely fanciful to see that from the moment of Petruchio's Richard-like soliloquy (‘Thus have I politicly begun my reign’) the Petruchio-Katherine relationship brushes against the world of the history plays, and indeed with their principal source. The other main plots, concerning Lucentio and Bianca, and the Lord and his servants, are Ovidian in tone and reference, as can be easily demonstrated. Katherina, however, suffers in a different key. Her description of herself as ‘starv'd for meat, giddy for lack of sleep; / With oaths kept waking, and with brawling fed’ (4.3.9-10) belongs more to Shakespeare's world of war than to anything remotely like the Ovid found elsewhere in the play. The ‘Beggars that come unto my father's door’ who ‘Upon entreaty have a present alms’ of the same speech suggest the same world, of displaced soldiery. She feels herself threatened with ‘deadly sickness or else present death’. Her violent reaction to Grumio's tantalizing game with beef and mustard is to beat him, with words which could be from a woman in the later plays of the tetralogy:

Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you
That triumph thus upon my misery!

Her experience of noise and violence and hunger and misery belongs to the earlier history plays.

Petruchio's courtship moves through several areas of reference. Just before he met Katherine, he saw his wooing in Petrarchan terms (2.1.169-72). He can flatter her with classical affinities—‘Dian’, ‘Grissel’, Lucrece; and carry on like any swashbuckler (3.2.229-35). It is only from the end of act 4, scene 1 that he hopes to end his ‘reign’ both ‘politicly’ and ‘successfully’, and the idea of the warlike is never far away after that. Even his violence about the gown is in battlefield terms: ‘'Tis like a demi-cannon … up and down, carv'd … snip and nip and cut and slish and slash …’ (4.3.88-90). Lucentio, indeed, presently thinks he announces the end of a civil war.

At last, though long, our jarring notes agree;
And time it is when raging war is done
To smile at scapes and perils overblown.


Petruchio won his first victory some time before that, in Katherine's apparent submission over the matter of the sun and the moon: ‘What you will have it nam'd, even that it is’ (4.5.21), and at that point Hortensio thinks all is over: ‘Petruchio, go thy ways, the field is won’ (l. 23). Petruchio, however, has not finished. Almost at once, Vincentio enters, and Petruchio greets him as ‘gentle mistress’:

Tell me, sweet Kate, and tell me truly too,
Hast thou beheld a fresher gentlewoman?
Such war of white and red within her cheeks!

(ll. 28-30)

For the moment, Kate has agreed no more than to play his game of pretence. It has cost her a good deal, no doubt, and it is a real step forward, which he acknowledges. But he himself goes ‘forward, forward’ (l. 24) from the ‘war of white and red’ to something more than one victory, more even than ‘peace … and love, and quiet life, / An awful rule, and right supremacy … what not that's sweet and happy’ (5.2.108-10) when she has won his wager for him. He does not know the full measure of his success until she has spoken her last, and famous, speech.

It is hard not to see in that ‘war of white and red’ a hint of the Wars of the Roses, however well-worn the notion of white and red cheeks was for Elizabethans. The probable dates of the writing of the first tetralogy encompass the likely dates for the writing of The Taming of the Shrew. Certainly, close to the time of writing the comedy, Shakespeare put on the stage a symbolic scene in which an imaginary origin is given for the name of the wars, an incident in the Temple Garden when English lords and others pluck red and white roses.

Meantime your cheeks do counterfeit our roses;
For pale they look with fear, as witnessing
The truth on our side.
                                                            No, Plantagenet,
'Tis not for fear but anger that thy cheeks
Blush for pure shame to counterfeit our roses,
And yet thy tongue will not confess thy error.

(1 Henry VI, 2.4.62-7)

In Shakespeare, these wars end with a marriage, a union. His principal source, Hall's Chronicle, is properly entitled The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies …, and Hall's direction is not just visible in his title. His brief preface, setting out the necessity and value of the writing of history, concludes his address to Edward VI with references to the marriage which healed the national split.

Wherefore … I have compiled and gathered (and not made) out of diverse writers, as well forayn as Englishe, this simple treatise whiche I have named the union of the noble houses of Lancaster and Yorke, conjoyned together by the godly mariage of your most noble graundfather, and your verteous grandmother. For as kyng henry the fourthe was the beginnyng and rote of the great discord and devision: so was the godly matrimony, the final ende of all discencions, titles and debates.6

These matters would be merely curious were it not for the metaphoric strain of Katherine's last speech, which is either the proper climax to a marriage-play or it is nothing. Here, indeed, she is speaking in terms which could also be lifted from Shakespeare's earlier history plays.

Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.


She refers to ‘thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign’ (ll. 146-7) who ‘craves no other tribute at thy hands / But love, fair looks, and true obedience’ (ll. 152-3). There is owed ‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince’ (l. 155): if not, the result is ‘a foul contending rebel / And graceless traitor …’ (ll. 159-60). She is ashamed that women ‘offer war where they should kneel for peace; / Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway …’ (ll. 162-3).

Why Katherine chooses such language is the heart of the problem of her last speech. Is she really saying that a disobedient woman is a ‘foul contending rebel and graceless traitor’? Partly she is, because she is specifically addressing two women, Bianca and the Widow, who have been ‘disobedient’ and who have seemed to have got the upper hand by an unpleasant kind of deception. But the dynamic of the play assuredly means that she has to be saying something private to Petruchio as well. Whatever happened between them, they have been together, and not with the others, all through the play, as a rule. They are spectators, merely, of the wild complications of the Pedant-Vincentio scene, act 5, scene 1, in which the rest of the plots of the play are resolved, and their enjoyment has included enjoyment of each other, so much that at the end Katherine can kiss Petruchio, even in public, adding ‘now pray thee, love, stay’ to which her husband replies ‘Is not this well? Come, my sweet Kate …’ (ll. 133-4).

H. J. Oliver has noticed how the matter of Katherine and Petruchio keeps becoming too well-understood for farce. ‘It is as if Shakespeare set out to write a farce about taming a shrew but had hardly begun before he asked himself what might make a woman shrewish anyway … We sympathize with Katherine—and as soon as we do, farce becomes impossible.’7 This is right, but I take it far further than Oliver would have approved. The Taming of the Shrew is a play unusually about marriages as well as courtships, and the quality of the marriage of Katherine and Petruchio might be expected to depend, as I said at the beginning of this essay, on more than a wink and a tone of irony, or a well-delivered paper on the necessity of order in the State. I am suggesting that a special quality of mutuality grew between Katherine and Petruchio as the play progressed, something invisible to all the others in the play and sealed for them both by Kate's last speech. It is surely unsatisfactory for Kate simply to flip over from one state into its opposite, or for Petruchio to have ‘really’ been gentle all along. I suggest that they have found, led by Petruchio, a way of being richly together with all their contradictions—and energies—very much alive and kicking. Beatrice and Benedick go into their marriage at the end of Much Ado About Nothing as witty and spirited as ever, but together and not apart. I believe that Katherine and Petruchio do the same, and do it through an understanding of the power of acting, of being actors.

That Petruchio sets out to play a part is now commonly understood. Theatricality, however, attaches to him rather more than has been seen. He is an actor—a man who loves acting with a full-spirited craftsmanship far ahead of the Lord's thin-blooded connoisseurship. He has a violent streak, and is impetuous: but he has an actor's power of control, as well as an actor's apparent sudden switch of mood. He arrives quarrelling with his servant and is still smouldering when Hortensio has parted them (1.2.1-45). But presented instantly with Hortensio's offer of a ‘shrewd ill-favour'd wife’ (which is only Hortensio's thirteenth line) Petruchio shows excellent manners, saying like any easy guest ‘Sure I'll go along with it’. More, he says it as if he were Pistol, in high style full of classical tags:

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

(ll. 67-9)

We then watch him move, step by step, towards Katherine. He learns that their fathers knew each other, so he is on visiting terms. He discovers that she has a wider reputation as ‘an irksome brawling scold’ (l. 184) but is loud in his claim not to be put off: indeed, he speaks like a mini-Othello:

Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?
Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea, puff'd up with winds,
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,
And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clang?


Of course he hasn't: or at least, some of it is unlikely. He has only just left home by his own confession, apparently setting off for the first time (ll. 48-56). He is using one of his voices. We soon hear another one, in the one delicious sentence from the sideline with which he sums up Tranio's posturing (as opposed to acting)—‘Hortensio, to what end are all these words?’ (l. 246). He visits Baptista to present ‘Licio’ (Hortensio) and sees for himself the peculiarities of the household. He understands the ‘little wind’ with which the father and sister increase Katherine's fire, and offers himself, in another voice, as a ‘raging fire’.

He quickly takes two big steps towards her, first when Hortensio enters ‘with his head broke’ (2.1.140) and then when he hears as it were a tape-recording of her voice in Hortensio's report (‘“Frets, call you these?” quoth she “I'll fume with them’”) and finds that she can make a theatrically appropriate strong action while saying a witty line, and that she has a liberated tongue (‘with twenty such vile terms’)—in other words, she could well turn out to have the stuff of actors too. He is eager to see her, and sets up in soliloquy a programme not based on violence (‘raging fires’) but on his actor's ability to present her with a new world for her to live in (‘I'll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly …’).

They meet, and fall in love. Both are taken aback. Petruchio is surprised to lose some rounds of the wit-contest on points. But he holds to his purpose, though she has struck him and made him forget the part he is acting (‘I swear I'll cuff you, if you strike again’, 2.1.217).

Thereafter it is possible to watch him acting his way through his relationship with her, and with everyone else. From the moment of meeting, he is hunting, and in deadly earnest. He uses all his skills to make worlds for her to try to live in, as he does, as an actor, even in what appears to be bullying.8 (She seems, pretty well from the start, to understand him as an actor. ‘Where did you study all this goodly speech?’ she asks (2.1.255).) In all his dealings with her, he acts out a character, and a set of situations, which present her with a mirror of herself, and in particular her high-spirited violence and her sense of being out in the cold and deprived. She who had tied up her sister's hands—apparently because she was dressed up (2.1.3-5)—finds her own hands tied, as it were, in the scene with the Tailor, where she can't actually get her hands on the finery that was ordered. The speed of all this action in the central scenes, in the third and fourth acts, helps by presenting not so much development of ‘character’ as a set of projected slides, almost cartoons, of the wedding, the journey, the honeymoon, and so on. Katherine is not alone in finding it all ‘unreal’: it is part of a play.

But the play has a clear direction. It is always worth asking what Shakespeare does not do. Brian Morris points out what can be learned by seeing what appealed to the young playwright looking for ideas in the old Italian comedy. Shakespeare's Lucentio is not desperate for money, and has not seduced Bianca and got her pregnant, as Erostrato, his equivalent in Supposes, has done. Instead, he is seen ‘to fall instantly, rapturously, romantically in love with her at first sight … It is this potential for romance, for love leading to marriage, which Shakespeare detected and exploited in Gascoigne's work.’9 Indeed, no one in Shrew is desperate for money. There is no seduction or rape. The horrifying violence of such folk-tales of shrews tamed as have been sometimes produced as ‘sources’, or even analogues, is removed far away, mercifully, as is any tone of cynicism.

The direction of the play, for Katherine and Petruchio, is towards marriage as a rich, shared sanity. That means asserting and sharing all the facts about one's own identity, not suppressing large areas. Sly, floundering in the Lord's trickery, tried to assert himself like that (Induction 2.17-23). But then he sinks into illusion and is never undeceived. That is important. He ‘does not become what others pretend him to be’.10 Nor does Katherine. If she is a true Shakespearian heroine, in marriage she becomes herself only more so: in her case, almost as capable of future strong, witty, over-verbalized action as Beatrice. Marriage is addition, not subtraction: it is a sad let-down if the dazzling action of the play produces only a female wimp. But at the end of the play she shows that she shares with Petruchio an understood frame for both their lives. Whatever Petruchio has done, he has given her his full attention in action; she has learned to act too, in both senses. This, with the special ability of acting to embrace and give form to violence, is the mutuality they share.

Her first clear step was when she learned that simple deception worked (something her sister had, infuriatingly, known by instinct). She privately called the sun the moon, and then publicly greeted Vincentio as a ‘Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet’ (4.5.36). Soon after this, she and Petruchio are shown not only married, but tenderly in love (the kiss). Her final step is when she shows to Petruchio that she has understood that they, the two of them, can contain violence and rebellion in their own mutual frame.

Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again—
That she may long live here, God say amen!

(Richard III, 5.5.40-1)

are the last lines of the Roses tetralogy. The ‘war of white and red’ ends in a true union of strong, almost over-strong, dynasties, and not in the impoverishment of one side. (Sly had suggested such a link in the fourth line of the play—‘Look in the chronicles’.)

Muriel Bradbrook made clear what a new thing Shakespeare was making. ‘Katherine is the first shrew to be given a father, the first to be shown as maid and bride …’

Traditionally the shrew triumphed; hers was the oldest and indeed the only native comic rôle for women. If overcome, she submitted either to high theological argument or to a taste of the stick … Petruchio does not use the stick, and Katherine in her final speech does not console herself with theology.11

Instead of the stick, or theology (which is certainly present at that point in A Shrew) Shakespeare makes Kate move herself further into, rather than out of, a play-world. Her final deed is to act a big theatrical set-piece, speaking the longest speech in the play, its length totally disrupting the rhythms presented by the other plot. ‘Women’, she says—that is, the conventionally married in front of her—are to be submissive. But she has been hunting with Petruchio as a couple for some time now, and she sends him, inside the speech, a message about themselves, Katherine and Petruchio, in the language of dramatized civil war. The play would founder—which it doesn't—if Katherine had merely surrendered to a generalization about ‘women’, and said nothing intensely personal about herself and Petruchio.12

She concludes, and starts the final run of couplets, by admitting that women are weak in such wars, and must accept it, and indeed, with a startling theatrical gesture she demonstrates it (‘place your hands below your husband's foot’). She has successfully acted a long speech with interior reference to an imaginary history play, though only Petruchio can appreciate that. Partly she is telling him that the civil war in her is over, and she will not fight her rescuer. Partly she is rejoicing in their new world.

Brian Vickers demonstrates ‘the speed and fluidity with which Shakespeare can modulate from one medium to the other as his dramatic intention requires’. He comments on the last lines of Shrew act 5, scene 1 (‘kiss me, Kate’). He also analyses the verse and prose of the Sly scenes, making an excellent point about the ‘new’ Sly's blank verse, ‘a step up to an assumed dignity and style’, which is then exploited ‘by inserting into this new frame fragments of the old Sly that we used to know … The incongruity between style and subject-matter is now so marked that it re-creates on the plane of language the visual effect of Sly sitting up in bed, newly washed and nobly attired.’13 I see a much developed and mature incongruity in the violence with which Katherine uses, in a speech about the experience of marriage, the vocabulary and rhythms of a contentious claimant to a throne from a history play. It is right that it is incongruous. The married state of Katherine and Petruchio has, from the end of the play, no connection with the married state of Lucentio and Bianca or Hortensio and his Widow. (‘If she and I be pleas'd, what's that to you?’ (2.1.295).) For them, as Lucentio fatuously said, the war was over. For Katherine and Petruchio, it has barely started. This is the play which is beginning. The Taming of the Shrew has shown us (‘So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn’ (Induction 2.58)) a conflict of very close relationship—in play terms. Petruchio, having met her, ‘thought it good’ that she should ‘hear a play’ (Induction 2.131). Now she shows that she has understood. They go back to the beginning, as it were, to watch a play that they are creating. That is the true Shakespearian touch, going back at the end of a comedy, in a spiral movement, to the same point only higher. Thus Portia and Bassanio begin, at the end of Merchant, in a Belmont modified by the play-scene of the trial in Venice. Thus Beatrice and Benedick, at the end of Much Ado, start again (‘Then you do not love me? … No, truly, but in friendly recompense’), but now together and changed by the play-scene at the church.

Together, Katherine and Petruchio have filled-in many more areas of the capability of theatre than seemed possible at the beginning. In particular they have, like Beatrice and Benedick after them, created an open world for each other; they are themselves, only more so being now together. Their mutuality is based on the power of acting. Kate's speech is rivalled in length only by those of the Lord in the Induction when he is setting up a play-world. This shared power can encompass continual challenges for sovereignty, and even violence, together. Far from such things splitting their marriage apart, they will bring them into closer union. ‘We three are married, but you two are sped.’


  1. Brian Morris concludes the Introduction to his Arden edition (1981) with a long section ‘Love and marriage’, pp. 136-49.

  2. G. R. Hibbard, The Taming of the Shrew (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 8; Brian Morris, p. 105; H. J. Oliver, The Taming of the Shrew (Oxford, 1982), p. 57.

  3. ‘His contemporaries found the implied play metaphor of the induction device extremely attractive; Shakespeare himself seems to have preferred the less artificial form of the play within the play.’ Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (1962), p. 104.

  4. Hibbard, p. 35.

  5. Morris, p. 59.

  6. Edward Hall, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies … (1548), pp. vi, vii.

  7. Oliver, p. 51.

  8. John Russell Brown, in Shakespeare and his Comedies (1957), p. 98, comes near to making this point, but then veers off to something else.

  9. Morris, pp. 82, 83.

  10. Oliver, p. 38.

  11. M. C. Bradbrook, ‘Dramatic Role as Social Image; a Study of The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, 94 (1958), pp. 139, 134-5.

  12. The play would go down even faster if she were using the forty-four lines to declaim a thesis about ‘order’, as maintained by G. I. Duthie, Shakespeare (1951), p. 58, and Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare I: Henry VI to Twelfth Night (1968), p. 89.

  13. Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London and New York, 1968), pp. 13, 14.

Marion D. Perret (essay date 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 223-35.

[In the essay that follows, Perret is concerned with the methods by which Petruchio “tames” Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, demonstrating that Petruchio teaches by example how a wife should behave by taking on the work traditionally assigned to women.]

The focus of recent critics of The Taming of the Shrew on Kate's role-playing1 is too limiting. On the one hand, the theatrical vocabulary encourages them to speak of Kate's transformation as though it were nothing more than an act;2 on the other, the narrow focus keeps them from recognizing the structural subtlety of the latter half of the play, the importance of Kate's seemingly redundant second capitulation, and the comic point of her famous lecture (V.ii.136-78),3 which is possible precisely because she takes the lecture's content seriously. We discover the complexity of this play when we shift our attention, correctively, from the playing of the shrew to the playing of the tamer and to the role he asks her to undertake. We find that Petruchio shows his imagination not only in the way he uses the time-tested persuasions of stick and carrot, but also in a daring new technique that would have been apparent to an audience familiar with the Elizabethan distribution of household duties: the shrew tamer attempts to school the shrew who assumes his privileges by assuming her responsibilities, teaching her through his own example just how a wife should behave. From the moment Petruchio brings Kate home to the moment she capitulates, almost every action he takes is, according to the conduct books, woman's work.

The relationship and duties of husband and wife are copiously discussed in Elizabethan sermons and books on domestic conduct.4 The playwright need not have had one of these works beside him as he wrote: the standards set forth in them were widely enough known that he could assume, for instance, that playgoers would understand why Desdemona should come and go at her husband's command even after he has unjustly struck her—the onstage audience shows shock at Othello's action, but no surprise at Desdemona's obedience. Whether the guidelines for behavior expounded in sermons and conduct books were actually followed in the home5 is irrelevant to whether Shakespeare could assume that theatergoers would recognize Petruchio's shifting of domestic responsibilities: the audience's awareness of conventional standards, not the audience's adherence to them, is what enables Shakespeare to play with the reversal of roles.

The basic assumption of any shrew play is that the man should rule both his wife and his home. The fact that much of the comedy springs from the shrew's mistreatment of her mate encourages us to forget that the wife is indeed supposed to govern the home, though as second in command to her husband. The prevailing view was that “the office of the husbande is, to bee Lorde of all, of the wife, to giue account of all. … The office of the husbande is, to maintayne well hys liuelyhoode, and the office of the woman is, to gouerne well the household.”6

But though managing the house was considered primarily the wife's business, because a few matters were deemed more properly the husband's concern, authors of domestic conduct books carefully specify the duties belonging to each. “There are certayne thynges in the house that onely do pertaine to the authoritie of the husbande, wherewith it were a reprofe for the wife without the consent of her husbande to medle withal: as to receyue straungers, or to marry her doughter. There are other thinges in the which the husband geueth ouer his ryght vnto the woman, as to rule & gouerne her maydens, to see to those thinges yt belong vnto ye kitchen, & to ye most part of ye houshold stuffe.”7 For a man to deal with most details of running a house seemed to the sixteenth century unnatural, if not quite unthinkable; after all, “Who wold take vpon him the office and charges of a house? or the office of a cooke? … What a torment were it for a man to do those thinges? A man wold rather leaue all & dwel in a desert, then to dwel in such misery and bondage.”8 Xenophon hints darkly that more than scorn awaits the man who meddles in huswifery: “Parauenture god … wyll punishe hym … bycause he taketh vpon hym that that belongeth to the wyfe.”9 The Elizabethans considered the man who unnecessarily takes up woman's work to be acting most unreasonably: “Those men are to be laughed at, who hauing … a sufficient Wife to doe all the worke within dores, which belongs to a Woman to doe, yet the Husband will set Hens abrood, season the Pot, & dresse the Meat, or any the like worke, which belongeth not to the Man: such husbands many times offend their Wiues greatly, and they wrong themselues.”10 Indeed, Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew observes that it “will make a man mad, to make a woman of him” (IV.v.35). But though his method may seem mad, Petruchio knows what he is doing when he takes up woman's work.


Petruchio's first words upon crossing his threshold—“Where be these knaves?” (IV.i.123)—reflect his position as the ultimate authority in his house, in accord with the accepted Elizabethan belief that the husband “without any exception, is master ouer all the house, and hath as touching his familie, more authoritie then a king in his kingdome.”11 Kate, however, almost immediately forgets that though “the wife is ruler of all other things,” she is “yet ynder her husband,”12 for to correct the male servants is the master's prerogative: the domestic conduct books all agree that a wife should “neither rebuke and correcte the men, but leaue that for her housbād to do.”13 In excusing the man who drops the water—“Patience, I pray you; 'twas a fault unwilling” (IV.i.159)—Kate rebukes her master as well as the servant's. Petruchio reacts to her violation of domestic order with an indirect reproof: “Will you give thanks, sweet Kate; or else shall I?” (IV.i.162). Since in an Elizabethan household it is the husband who is to offer “before meales, and after meales, prayers and thankes,”14 in asking whether she will say grace Petruchio ironically asks Kate if she will presume further upon her husband's authority.

Their relationship, like their meal, remains graceless, for when Kate declares that the supposed fault with the meat lies in the supposer rather than the meat, Petruchio asserts that they must not eat “burnt food,”

For it engenders choler, planteth anger;
And better 'twere that both of us did fast,
Since, of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such over-roasted flesh.


The role of dietician and physician that Petruchio adopts properly belongs to the wife, who, Tilney advises, should have the qualities of a cook, a physician, and a surgeon;15 Vives, in fact, specifies that the wife should know “what maner dyet is good or bad, what meates are holsome to take, what to eschewe, and howe longe, and of what fassion.”16 In his carefully calculated denial of food Petruchio encroaches upon his wife's authority, for it is her responsibility to “giue the portion of food vnto her family, or cause it to be giuen in due season.”17 In controlling their diet Petruchio does Kate's duty as a good wife should, “under name of perfect love” (IV.iii.12).

Perfect love—or at least spiritual rather than physical union—was doubtless one of the topics of Petruchio's “sermon on continency.” The origin of this “curtain lecture” (the husband) is as surprising as its timing (the wedding night): bedtime lectures were so commonly given by wives that women were sometimes referred to as “night-Crowes.”18 Indeed, bed was thought the one appropriate place for a woman to reprove her husband.19 Domestic conduct books, which insist that a wife be censured only in private, never even consider that the husband might reprove his wife in bed. Petruchio's “curtain lecture” is thus thoroughly unconventional.

By the end of IV.iii Petruchio has taken on several tasks usually performed by the wife. His masculinity, however, is never called into question, partly because it has been firmly established before this scene, partly because of the falcon image of his soliloquy.

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her, as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;
Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not.


That the trainers of hawks were men, not women, encourages us to view as man's work the woman's work Petruchio refers to here.

Though Petruchio's soliloquy about his method of shrew-taming explains his negative approach through denying food and sleep rather than his positive approach through giving an example of good housekeeping, Petruchio both shows and tells Kate what a wife should do.20 After their sleepless night of fasting, Petruchio, who has apparently risen to prepare Kate's food, brightly urges her to “pluck up” her spirits, reminding her that a wife's mood should match her husband's21 and that a lack of consideration for others will bring a lack of consideration from others.

Pluck up thy spirits; look cheerfully upon me.
Here, love; thou see'st how diligent I am
To dress thy meat myself and bring it thee;
I am sure, sweet Kate, this kindness merits thanks.
What, not a word? …
.....The poorest service is repaid with thanks;
And so shall mine, before you touch the meat.


In dressing Kate's meat Petruchio diligently and cheerfully performs the task that reflects a wife's intermediate position as servant to her husband and as mistress of his household, for in the kitchen the wife “in a maner doeth reygne all alone, but yet in such wise & maner, that she put to her hande to dresse her husbādes meate, and not to comaunde it to be drest being absent.”22 Though it is normally the wife's responsibility to be the example for the servants,23 Petruchio offers his wife an example upon which to model her own behavior.

Dressing Kate's meat is the last example of Petruchio's serving as a model for Kate to imitate. In the only other instance of his doing woman's work, he serves as a bad example: through an exchange with the tailor in which he plays the wife's role as well as his own, Petruchio shows Kate what not to do when dealing with those above and beneath her. The Elizabethan wife was supposed to choose clothes that her husband would approve,24 but Petruchio (in the role of the wife) has ordered through Grumio clothes that he now (in the role of the husband) does not approve.

You bid me make it orderly and well,
According to the fashion and the time.
Marry, and did; but if you be remember'd,
I did not bid you mar it to the time.


I'll none of it: hence! make your best of it.
I never saw a better-fashion'd gown,
More quaint, more pleasing, nor more commendable.


Petruchio here puts Kate in his position—a position she has previously usurped—in order that she may taste the frustration of having what is both pleasing and proper unreasonably denied, seemingly out of sheer contrariness. Though it galls Kate, this treatment is potentially more instructive than the earlier examples of “kill[ing] her in her own humour” (IV.i.183), in that it gives her the opportunity not only to understand how her husband feels when she contradicts his wishes, but also to realize that good domestic order requires a concern for others, because the wife's insistence on having her own way affects more than whoever is involved in giving her what she wants: her not being a source of general order makes her a source of general disorder in which the haberdasher and the tailor are discomfited. Petruchio's refusal to consider Kate's conflicting opinion and his shifting of responsibility for instructions wrongly given, wrongly interpreted, or wrongly followed are designed to remind Kate that her behavior effectively denies both the vow of obedience she made at marriage and the wife's duty of seeing that household matters are handled correctly. Kate, however, seems unable to recognize her ultimate responsibility for the comic confusion that results when Grumio imitates (as a servant and a wife should) the “humour” of his master, who imitates (as a husband should not) the “humour” of his wife by going back on his word and blaming another for the failure of their agreement.

Although in his “taming school” (IV.ii.54) he tries to teach by example, Petruchio finds Kate so self-centered that she can learn only from her own doing, not his, just as she can sense only her own frustration, not his. As a pupil, in fact, Kate seems to be regressing rather than progressing: in IV.i we find that she tries to keep Petruchio from unfairly beating Grumio and we hear her excuse a servant's “fault unwilling,” but in IV.iii she speaks for herself rather than for another and does not seem to care whether Petruchio, the haberdasher, or the tailor is right or wronged; her sole concern is whether she will get what she wants. Petruchio, appropriately enough,25 has not been able to bring domestic order by acting as a model wife, for that is the woman's job. He thus resumes his proper role as ultimate authority in the home, flatly insisting on the absolute obedience owed the head of the family. He now treats Kate less like a partner, who can learn from the precept and example of one who has tried her tasks, than like a puppet, who must respond to commands even if they are unreasonable (IV.iii.194-97). Only through the experience of obeying, which Petruchio forces upon her, does Kate discover that what her husband wants is not servile acquiescence, which would confine her, but co-operation, which will free them both.


The exchange of male and female duties and roles we see on the wedding night and the following morning is carefully prepared for immediately after the wedding. At marriage the Elizabethan woman moved from obedience to her father to obedience to her husband, but the newly married Kate initiates the reversal of domestic roles by asserting her dominance over both father and husband: “Father, be quiet: he [Petruchio] shall stay my leisure” (III.ii.219). Kate shows herself disobedient in deed as well as word, for though inviting guests is the man's prerogative,26 her first act as a bride is to invite guests to join her at supper in her father's house, contrary to her husband's wishes. In effect, this is a declaration of superiority to her husband, who takes it as such.

Petruchio reacts forcefully to this challenging of his authority by putting Kate firmly in her place, which may be over others but is still under him.

They shall go forward, Kate, at thy command.
Obey the bride, you that attend on her.


Saving her face by shifting the sense of “attend” from “accompany” to “wait upon,” Petruchio concurs that Kate's servants owe her obedience and reinforces her order by his. Nevertheless, he makes clear that he is master of this mistress.

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.


Such legalism is scarcely romantic, but Petruchio at once pretends to defend his bride against attack. Since protecting his wife is a man's duty,27 this exaggeratedly masculine role, uncalled for by the immediate situation, acts as a public declaration that Petruchio will do his duty as a husband.

Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate:
I'll buckler thee against a million.


This imaginative pose is a brilliant stroke: it forces Kate into the traditional feminine role and at the same time responds to her “Now, if you love me, stay” (III.ii.206) by suggesting that Petruchio denies her request precisely because he does love her.

The shrew tamer's behavior in III.ii gives us a foretaste of most of the methods he will use in Acts IV and V. When Petruchio busses his bride with “such a clamorous smack / That at the parting all the church did echo” (III.ii.180-81), he proclaims Kate's desirability as publicly as when he demands that she kiss him “in the midst of the street” (V.i.149). He shows the shrew her violent and willful unreasonableness by striking the priest. Anticipating his falconer's method of discipline by deprivation, he keeps Kate from what he will deny her until she is tamed—food, sleep, and a visit to her father's house—by summarily carrying her off supperless, although the first few weeks of marriage were usually spent with the girl's family.28 The only one of Petruchio's later methods not shown at their wedding is his providing a positive role model for Kate. This Petruchio cannot do here, for in public he must demonstrate his control over his wife. He wisely shifts domestic roles only when he and Kate are where his contradictory reaction to her negative behavior can become part of a consistent program in which not only his words but also his actions provide a positive pattern for his wife to imitate.

On the way to his house Petruchio responds to Kate's challenging of a masculine prerogative differently, though no less imaginatively, than he did at their wedding. Kate's objection to her husband's disciplining of a manservant paradoxically reflects a new, albeit temporary, humility—“she prayed, that never prayed before” (IV.i.82)—and a new concern for those beneath her—“she waded through the dirt to pluck [Petruchio] off [Grumio]” (IV.i.79-80). This shift in attitude beneath a surface of continued contrariness seems to suggest to Petruchio that a role model might help Kate learn a better way to express her solicitude, because he literally adopts the woman's position, riding behind his wife despite the fact that when an Elizabethan man and woman shared a horse, the woman, not the man, rode pillion.29 After Kate presumes to usurp his authority outdoors, Petruchio takes over hers indoors, demonstrating various feminine duties until it becomes apparent to him that Kate cannot understand what he is doing.

Though Petruchio's method proves ineffective, it has a peculiar fitness: the domestic conduct books caution the husband to “take heed, that he himselfe bee not tainted with the same vice, which hee reproueth in his wife, least shee stop his mouth, with the reproach of the same fault: but rather by giuing her example by the contrary vertue: let her be induced and led to follow him.”30 What Petruchio tries for a time is an inversion of the Renaissance adage that a good wife becomes a looking glass for her husband, reflecting his every mood.31 When Kate fails to realize that her husband acts as a model for her good conduct as well as a mirror for her bad behavior, Petruchio resumes his rightful domestic role, flatly demanding that his wife assume hers and that she demonstrate her compliance by patterning her humor upon his. In testing Kate's compliance in IV.v, Petruchio appropriately requires her to act as if a man were a woman; this forces Kate to realize how unrealistic has been her assumption that one sex can arbitrarily take on the other's role.


Awareness of the reversal of male and female domestic roles in Act IV increases our understanding, hence our enjoyment, of Kate's behavior in Act V. In V.i, in an exchange that critics have found difficult to justify, Petruchio demands a second proof of his wife's obedience. For the last time Kate crosses his will—for the first time correctly,32 since she is now thinking of what behavior is proper for her, and according to conventional morality Petruchio is wrong in demanding a kiss immodestly “in the midst of the street.” Behavior acceptable in private is not necessarily proper in public. As Gouge puts it, “Much greater liberty is granted to man and wife when they are alone, then in company.”33 Swetnam, for example, admonishes the husband that “thou must neither chide nor play with thy wife before company; those that play and dally with them before company, they doe thereby set other Mens teeth on edge and make their Wiues the lesse shamefast.”34 In short, the married Elizabethan man must take care not to show himself, in Vives' phrase, “rather to be a louer then a husbande.”35

Why should Petruchio now open himself to the charge of uxoriousness and poor household government? The answer seems to be that this shrew tamer wants his wife to grasp the spirit as well as the letter of domestic law. Petruchio's demand for an unconventional acknowledgment of the husband's traditional dominance shows Kate that obedience to him will not enslave her to dull conventionality. Putting his pride as a man into her hands, Petruchio asks his wife to show publicly her right relationship, loving obedience, by obediently showing love. In giving Kate the opportunity to refuse him before others, Petruchio offers her momentary mastery over him; here, as in the final scene, Kate by not taking it shows her mastery over her former self and her understanding of their right relationship.

When Kate in III.ii publicly asks her husband to give way to her, he refuses, disguising her disobedience with the romantic pose of rescuing her from attack; when Petruchio in V.i publicly asks his wife to give way to him, disguising her obedience as an act of love, she acquiesces. Kate's emotional growth can be seen in the difference between her “Now, if you love me, stay” of III.ii.206 and her “Now pray thee, love, stay” of V.i.153. Her intellectual growth can be seen in how she understands Petruchio's two threats to take her home if she does not obey him. In IV.v Petruchio's threat of turning back is to Kate only another denial of what she wants; in V.i, where the contest has become one of principles rather than wills, Petruchio's threat is to Kate a reminder that in good household government obedience takes precedence over decorum. That Kate gives evidence of her capitulation in V.i as well as in IV.v shows the shrew tamer's imagination rather than the dramatist's lack of it.

The change in Kate can be seen most clearly in V.ii, where she and Petruchio appear as champions of conventional domestic order yet transcend the limitations of traditional male and female propriety. At the wedding banquet Kate, in one last reversal of roles, defends her husband's honor, though usually it is the husband who protects the wife's. She does this, however, wisely, defending Petruchio as he defended her, by putting the woman in the traditionally proper feminine role: Kate proves Petruchio a shrew tamer by proving herself no shrew. Without contesting his authority over her, Kate “bucklers” Petruchio from the charge of the other wedding guests as wittily as she played with the sun and moon when she first capitulated. The exaggeration in her lecture to the other wives suggests, not the hypocrisy she explicitly condemns in insisting that women's “hearts / Should well agree with their external parts” (V.ii.167-68), but the exaggeration of Petruchio's imagined defense of her at their wedding. Where in III.ii the shrew tamer to enforce her obedience ostentatiously demonstrates the husband's duty, in V.ii the tamed shrew to offer her obedience ostentatiously demonstrates the wife's duty—and in doing so protects not only Petruchio from the accusation that he is ruled by his wife, but also the other husbands from attack by their wives. Kate shows herself as good at Petruchio's game as he; she has become sure enough of her domestic role to demonstrate, as he did, the opposite sex's duty “under name of perfect love.”36 Their techniques are now complementary, as their spirits are matched.

Kate's elaborate lecture on the basis of good domestic government wins Petruchio's enthusiastic “Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate” (V.ii.180)—a breaking of decorum that is an outwardly improper sign of delight in their relationship's inward propriety. The situation recalls that of the previous scene, where Petruchio also demands a kiss that defies convention. But in V.i he asks Kate for a sign of her love as a sign of her obedience; in V.ii he rewards a display of her obedience with a display of his love. The “madly mated” pair unconventionally express and are ruled by the spirit, if not always the letter, of domestic law.37 They have discovered that “when the husband hath obtained that his wife doth trulie and hartily loue him, there shall then need neither precepts, nor lawes: for loue shall teach her moe things, and more effectually, then all the precepts of all the Philosophers.”38

Knowledge of the domestic duties assigned the Elizabethan man and woman helps us see a new subtlety to this comedy. Where shrew plays invite us not to respect a woman who, figuratively, “wears the pants,” this play invites us to respect a man who, figuratively, “wears the skirts” for a while to teach his wife a lesson. That Petruchio attempts to tame his shrew through this unconventional method does not make him shamefully womanish; as the homily on matrimony regularly reminded Elizabethan churchgoers, who knew that dissemble can have the sense of simulate, “a man may be a man … although hee should dissemble some things in his wives manners. And this is the part of a Christian man, which both pleaseth God, and serueth also in good vse to the comfort of their mariage state.”39

Petruchio is not the first male in The Taming of the Shrew to take on a woman's role: in the Induction the page Bartholomew presents himself as a wife to induce Sly to accept his new identity and the social behavior it requires. Yet where Bartholomew wants Sly to respond to his womanly ways rather than to imitate them, Petruchio wants Kate to respond to the man he is but to imitate his ways of imitating a woman. When Kate finally understands what her husband wants of her, she naturally excels Petruchio in the role of model wife.


  1. See Richard Henze, “Role-Playing in The Taming of the Shrew,Southern Humanities Review 4 (Summer 1970):231-40; J. Dennis Huston, “‘To Make a Puppet’: Play and Play-making in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 73-88.

  2. Critics of this play need to be wary of linguistic absurdity or Procrustianism such as “One tends to forget that it is the shrew who is playing the obedient wife at the end … exactly because the part is so naturally performed that the shrew is the obedient wife” (Henze, p. 233). If a shrew is, by definition, one who behaves shrewishly, then one who does not behave shrewishly is not a shrew—not even a shrew pretending not to be a shrew!

  3. All quotations from the play are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1961).

  4. Though the scholar will of course explore further in the original works, the easiest introduction to the content of the Elizabethan sermons and conduct books is through works such as Chilton Latham Powell, English Domestic Relations 1487-1753 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1917); Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York: Elsevier Press, 1952); Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1956). Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935; rpt. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1963), p. 226 notes that there is “a strange sameness in point of view and treatment in the books read by the burgher of 1558 and by his grandson in 1640.” Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethans at Home (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 79 observes how much from the early conduct books, many of which went through several editions, reappears in the later ones: “Each writer, then, set forth much of what had been said before, adding what he insisted he had learned from observation or experience.” For instance, the analogy between breaking a horse and taming a wife which Johannes Ludovicus Vives makes in The office and duetie of an husband, trans. Thomas Paynell (London, 1553), sigs. N7v-N8 is repeated almost verbatim nearly half a century later in Robert Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde government: for the ordering of private families, according to the direction of Gods word (London, 1598), pp. 173-74. The ideas recorded in a domestic conduct book written much before or after Shakespeare's play are thus relevant.

  5. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977; abr. edn. New York: Harper, 1979) notes that although “there are plenty of examples of Elizabethan women who dominated their husbands,” many women, particularly of the upper and upper-middle classes, accepted the “theoretical and legal doctrines of the time”: “The evidence suggests … that married and unmarried women were as submissive and dependent as the conduct books suggested that they ought to be” (pp. 139, 141).

  6. Edmunde Tilney, A briefe and pleasant discourse of duties in Mariage, called the Flower of Friendshippe (London, 1568), sig. C5v. Cleaver is uncommon in following the conventional division of duties (pp. 170-71) with the acknowledgment that “the dutie of the wife, or of the husband, doth not so exempt either of them, but that she also according to her ability and power, must helpe her husband to get it, and hee likewise in his discretion, direct her in the dispensation thereof,” yet even he follows this exception to the rule with the caveat that “order consisteth in this, that the husband [is to] follow his businesse … [and] is not to deale, but soberly and in great discretion with affaires, that are proper to the wife” (p. 186).

  7. Vives, Office, sig. U1; Cleaver, p. 176.

  8. Vives, Office, sigs. E6v-E7. Cleaver emphasizes the unnaturalness of exchanging domestic roles: “a mankind woman is a mōster: that is, halfe a woman, and halfe a man. It beseemeth not the mistresse to be a master, no more then it becommeth the master to be mistresse” (p. 223).

  9. Xenophons treatise of hovsholde, trans. Gentian Hervet (London, 1544), fol. 24v.

  10. Joseph Swetnam, The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and vnconstant Women: Or, the Vanitie of them; chuse you whether (London, 1622), p. 56.

  11. Cleaver, p. 176.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Johannes Ludovicus Vives, A very frvtefvl and pleasant boke callyd the instrvction of a Christen woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (London, 1541?), fols. 106-106v. See also Xenophon, fol. 41v; Henrie Smith, A Preparatiue to Mariage (London, 1591), p. 97; [Heinrich Bullinger], The Christian state of Matrimony, wherein husbandes & wyues may learne to keepe house together wyth Loue, trans. Myles Couerdale (London, 1575), fol. 76v.

  14. Cleaver, p. 43. William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie: or A Short Svrvey of the Right Manner of Erecting and Ordering a Family, according to the Scriptures, trans. Thomas Pickering (London, 1618), p. 698 notes that the husband is “to be the principall agent, directer, and furtherer of the worship of God within his family.”

  15. Tilney, sig. E4v; Vives, Instruction, fol. 108v.

  16. Vives, Instruction, fol. 108v; Robert Snawsel, A looking glasse for Maried Folkes (London, 1610), sig. E5v.

  17. Perkins, p. 700.

  18. Swetnam, pp. 11-12. See also Tilney, sig. E4v; Thomas Nashe, Christs Teares Over Iervsalem, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow, 5 vols. (London, 1910), 2:144; Antoine de La Sale, The fyftene Joyes of maryage (London, 1509), sig. A8v.

  19. Tilney, sig. E6v.

  20. In this Petruchio departs from standard Elizabethan procedure. Xenophon allows a husband to instruct his wife how to put things in good order, but he does not suggest that the husband illustrate the lecture by doing her work (fols. 29v-32).

  21. Tilney admonishes the wife to make her husband's face “hir daylie looking glasse, wherein she ought to be alwayes prying, to see whē he is merie, when sad … wherto she must alwayes frame hir owne countenance” (sig. E4v).

  22. Vives, Office, sigs. U3-U3v. Tilney observes that it is “a great want in a woman, if she be unskilfull in dressing of meate. For it is the chiefest point of a houswife to cherishe hir husbande, who being sicke, will haue the best appetite to the meat of hys wyues dressing” (sig. E4v). In explaining that “the maried Wife is to haue the rule and ouersight of the household … because the practice thereof is more conuenient and fit for her sexe, then for her Husband,” Guillaume de la Perriere, The Mirrovr of Policie (London, 1598), fol. 115 specifies the “base matters” which are to be left to servants; these do not include dressing her husband's meat.

  23. Vives, Instruction, fol. 106v.

  24. Vives, Office, sigs. Xvv-Xvi; Instruction, fol. 95v; Camden summarizes: “It is the duty of the husband to provide meat, drink, and clothing for his family. He deputes this duty to his wife by furnishing her with the money with which to buy the necessaries” (p. 120).

  25. Vives, Office, sig. E4v notes that “as it is not in [the husband] to make of a woman no woman, so it is not in him to make of a mā no man.”

  26. La Perriere specifies that the wife “suffer not any to come into the house without expresse licence or commandement of her husband” (fol. 116); Vives, Instruction, fol. 108.

  27. Perkins, p. 691; Cleaver, pp. 174, 202; William Gouge, Of Domesticall Dvties: Eight Treatises (London, 1622), pp. 408-409.

  28. Christina Hole, English Home-Life 1500-1800 (London: B. T. Batsford, 1947), p. 62. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 634 notes that “the father of the groom usually undertook to give the pair lodging in his own house for the first few years,” but then mentions several examples where the bridal couple lived at first with the bride's father; Pearson says that the bridal couple “might spend a little time after the wedding with the bride's family, possibly even a few weeks” (p. 356). In any case, Petruchio's carrying Kate off to his own house immediately after the ceremony is not customary.

  29. Christina Hole, The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto & Windus, 1953) points out that women usually rode “sidesaddle or pillion behind some male relative or servant” (p. 156).

  30. Cleaver, p. 206.

  31. Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome, trans. Samson Lennard (London, 1612) has a slightly fuller version than Tilney; he speaks of an obedient wife as always “applying and accomodating hir selfe to the maners and humours of hir husband; like a true looking-glasse, which faithfullie representeth the face, hauing no other particular designement, loue, thought, but as the dimensions and accidents which haue no other proper action or motion, and neuer moue but with the bodie, she applieth hir selfe in all things to hir husband” (p. 455).

  32. Gouge observes that in “indifferent things” (things not expressly commanded or forbidden by God) which the wife thinks improper she may attempt to persuade her husband, but if she cannot persuade him, she must yield to his authority (pp. 338-39).

  33. Of Domestical Dvties, p. 388.

  34. Arraignment, p. 53. See also John Lyly, Euphues and His England, in Works, ed. R. W. Bond, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), 2:225: “Behaue thy self modestly with thy wife before company, remembring the seueritie of Cato, who remoued Manilius frō the Senate, for that he was seene to kisse his wife in presence of his daughter. … Husbands shold scarce iest before their wiues, least want of modestie on their parts, be cause of wantonnes on their wiues part.”

  35. Office, sig. R2.

  36. The Sermons of Edwin Sandys (1585), ed. John Ayre (Cambridge: 1841), p. 327 notes that “the man is a ‘cover’ of defence unto his wife, and the woman a ‘pillar’ of rest unto her husband.”

  37. Huston, in contrast, sees Petruchio as freeing Kate from “a world ruled, not served, by convention” in which man “threatened ultimately by dehumanization … can act [only] either formulaically in cliché or mechanically in obsession” (p. 84).

  38. Cleaver, p. 174.

  39. “An Homilie of the state of Matrimonie,” Certaine Sermons or Homilies appointed to be read in Chvrches, In the time of the late Queene Elizabeth of famous memory (1623) (Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968), p. 242.

Geraldine Cousin (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Touring of the Shrew,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 7, August, 1986, pp. 275-81.

[In the review below, Cousin examines two productions of The Taming of the Shrew. The critic maintains that although The Medieval Players' production raised interesting questions concerning gender roles, it failed to take the sex-reversal experiment far enough, and describes the Royal Shakespeare Company production as “sombre,” praising the production’s unflinching portrayal of Petruchio's “unpleasant” side.]

During 1985, it was possible to see, as I did, two productions of The Taming of the Shrew performed in non-conventional playing spaces. On one of the few sunny afternoons of the summer, I saw an open-air performance by the Medieval Players in the New College cloisters, Oxford; then in December the RSC Nat West touring version came to the Whitbread Flowers Warehouse, Stratford. I found a good deal to admire and enjoy about both productions, but certain decisions which the Medieval Players took with regard to casting led me to speculate on the problems which the play presents for a contemporary audience. The RSC touring version seemed to me to demonstrate one very effective way of confronting these problems and of finding acceptable solutions to them.

The basic difficulty of the play is of course its attitude to women. Petruchio's treatment of Kate is bad enough (witness his reference to her as ‘my goods, my chattels’). But how is an audience today to approach Kate's final speech? How can a contemporary audience accept the following words?

I am ashamed 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.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strengths as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are,
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.

It is clear from the programme notes to the Medieval Players' production that they were aware of the play's possible difficulties. The following quotation from the programme points to their own solution:

By casting a man as Kate, as Shakespeare himself would, of course, have done, the Medieval Players' production takes the play away from inappropriate modern reaction and lets us see the struggle as a game, not as a solemn treatise.

Not only Kate, but Bianca, too, was played by a man. Furthermore, a number of the male characters—notably Tranio, and two of the suitors to Bianca, Lucentio and Hortensio—were played by women. These sex-reversals worked well. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Hortensio, whose absurdities and pretensions were deliciously mocked by Joanna Brookes, the actress playing the role, and also Graham Christopher's Bianca, whose modestly downcast eyes and pouting lips revealed rather than hid the steely determination beneath these surface tricks.

My difficulty with the Medieval Players' production lay in the fact that they didn't take their ideas about the play through to their obvious conclusion—for although Kate and Bianca were played by men, and Lucentio, Tranio and Hortensio by women, there was no sex-reversal in the case of Petruchio. The idea of reversing the sex of the actors playing the lovers seems to me to make sense only if this idea is carried through in the case of the central pair.

If Petruchio had been played by a woman, the relationship between the two would have been funnier because the actors could have used the fact that they were of the opposite sex to comment on their characters' follies. A man playing a woman or a woman playing a man can use this fact to point up the character's absurdities (as a number of the actors did). The games-element of the play, which the company wanted to stress, would then have been more evident.

In addition to making the relationship between the central characters funnier, casting a woman as Petruchio would have enabled the actors to find a way of engaging constructively with the problems the play holds for us today. If both Petruchio and Kate had been played by people of the opposite sex, it would have been better possible for the actor and actress to explore the sexual basis of the relationship and, through this, to suggest a developing affection and mutual respect. These qualities are there in Shakespeare's text. What is needed is a way of presenting them which does not shirk the task of confronting the problems which the play presents for us today.

I cannot see these problems as an ‘inappropriate modern reaction’. A performance of any play takes place in the present. Obviously the text was conceived and written in the past, and it is important that throughout rehearsals due consideration should be given to careful exploration of the playwright's use of language, known conditions of writing and performance, and so on. Finally, however, the actors have only their twentieth-century selves with which to bring the text to life, and the audience must respond with their present-day hearts and minds.

There is a moment at the end of Act V, Scene i, of The Taming of the Shrew which is, I think, a major turning point in the relationship between the central characters. Petruchio asks Kate to kiss him, but she answers that she is ashamed to do so in the street. Petruchio tells her that in that case they must turn back and return home instead of finishing their almost completed journey to her father's house. Poor Kate, exhausted by Petruchio's treatment of her, kisses him, and says, ‘now pray thee, love, stay!’ Clearly it is for actors and director to decide how to play this, but, whatever decision they make, the scene has to make sense in relation to the end of the play.

Individually the actors playing Kate and Petruchio in the Medieval Players' production performed the scene well. I found the section immediately prior to the kiss moving, but the production had provided no context for the kiss itself. What we were left with was two men on a raised platform, one dressed as a man, one as a woman. The man dressed as a woman crossed to the man dressed as a man as if he were going to kiss him. Then the latter turned his head away so that the former's lips just brushed his cheek. The atmosphere between the two, which a moment before had been electrically charged, was lost.

The two actors had no choice but to play the scene in this way, because a homosexual undercurrent, for which no expectation had been set up, would have been out of place: but no alternative expectation had been established either which would have given the actors a more satisfactory way of playing the scene. The result was that the genuine feeling which can be seen to distinguish Kate and Petruchio from the other lovers was lost, and the audience left finally with the fact of Kate's seemingly unconditional surrender to Petruchio's bullying, without being provided with any acceptable emotional or intellectual way of responding.

Kate's submission to Petruchio is not simply verbal. She offers to place her hand beneath her husband's foot, in token of her obedience. In the Medieval Players' production, Kate placed her (his) hand on the ground, and Petruchio lifted it and raised Kate up. It could have been a very moving moment, in that it could have shown Petruchio's acceptance of a future equality between the two of them, but, like the earlier kiss, it lacked a context. A female Petruchio and a male Kate could have used this moment to reveal the comradeship and sexual love which have come to characterize the relationship, and by freeing this from problems of gender and expectations regarding sexual characteristics and attitudes, have made the production deeply moving and thought-provoking.

The RSC touring production was so different that it took an effort of imagination to recognize it as an interpretation of the same play. Performed in traverse, with a long, thin central playing-area, and with costumes and set design largely in a near-monochromatic range of off-whites, beiges, greys, and browns, this was frequently a sombre, even a hauntingly sad, production.

The narrow, extended playing area did not always lend itself well to the sharply defined clarity of focus needed for farce. I felt at times as though I was watching a tennis match, my head moving from side to side, as I focused first on one piece of action, then on another. Despite this, however, the production, taken as a whole, seemed to me admirable. It was beautiful to look at, but not in a way I found distracting. It was very moving and, though funny only intermittently, the laughter when it came was of a particularly satisfying kind. It didn't evade the question of the play's contemporary relevance, but found instead a way of confronting its difficulties.

Shakespeare, of course, begins the play with an Induction, the gulling of the drunken Christopher Sly, who is fooled into believing that he is a rich lord watching a performance by a group of strolling players. The performance is actually taking place, but Sly's status and wealth is a fabrication. Di Trevis's production for the RSC touring company added a framework which began and ended the play, and served at a number of other moments as a valuable point of reference.

The performance opened in darkness with the sound of a baby crying. Then the music of a violin was heard, and as the lights went up the audience watched the entrance from one end of the playing space of a group of nineteenth-century travelling players. The actors formed themselves into a disturbingly beautiful and moving tableau. A woman carrying a bundle representing a baby was frozen in the attitude of pulling a weird, catlike structure which resembled a huge pram made out of plaited cane with a large, dark-coloured hood. In it sat another woman, also holding a baby.

Two women dressed as gypsies played violins, and the rest of the company of players stood immobile for a few seconds. Behind them was a large, dirty, off-white banner on which were written the words. The Taming of the Shrew—a Kind of History. Slowly, the company began to trudge across the long expanse of the playing space. The floor and the wooden partitions at either end were painted a dull black. Rolled-up white cloths lined the playing area, showing the demarcation of the performance-space. The banner and the cart suggested echoes of Brecht—though the latter was obscurely reminiscent, too, of Lewis Carroll, while the muted colours and the style of the costumes had a Dickensian feel. The players seemed to move helplessly through a cold and inhospitable landscape.

Slowly the players exited, and Christopher Sly and the Hostess erupted noisily into the performance-area through one of the central aisles. This was a distinctly ‘realistic’ Sly. He urinated and vomited on stage, and finally, when the Hostess had left, threw down a small scrap of cloth on to the vomit and fell asleep.

The care with which the company of travelling players and the credibility of the dirty, drunken Sly were established was very important with regard to the overall effect of the production. Sly was present throughout. Beautifully played by Michael Troughton, he served as an on-stage observer of the players' performance, a kind of barometer by which the actual audience could test their responses to the action.

The fact that the play was clearly being performed by the players, and the presence of Sly—a desperately poor and hopeless man, falsely convinced that he has power and riches—together created a framing-effect which enabled the audience to set the play's events at a distance, yet also gave them a structure within which to formulate their responses.

The connection between the two illusions—that which the players create and Sly's unconscious role-playing—was clearly made when Sly, newly dressed in his rich man's clothes, and both fascinated and bewildered by what is happening, sat on a couch at one end of the playing-space, while in the centre of the performance-area the page was transformed into the semblance of Sly's lady. Slowly, a woman's wig was placed on the page's head, completing the illusion.

The players waited humbly for the real lord, who stood patronisingly behind Sly, to give them permission to begin performing. Their costumes seemed only partially complete. Kate and Bianca wore underskirts and sleeveless bodices, laced at the back. Their parasols were full of holes. The tattiness was deliberately contrived, the subdued colours very beautiful. The incompleteness was a small but constant reminder of the ‘illusion’ of the ‘players performing’.

From the first meeting between the two, the relationship between Kate and Petruchio was explored constructively. Alfred Molina, as Petruchio, stood alone on stage awaiting his first glimpse of the woman he had just stated his intention of marrying. His tall figure was dressed in a dirty white suit and down-at-heel black boots. His head was hunched so that his chin touched his chest. He looked belligerent and bull-like, yet unconfident, as he tried to work out how to approach Kate.

The traverse staging worked effectively in the ensuing scene, when the performance-area triumphantly aided the farcical elements of the play. The furniture consisted simply of stools in the centre of the space. The actor and actress skirmished round these and each other, using Shakespeare's words and the space to score points off each other. The scene was very funny, but it established, too, both an equality of wit and determination and a sexual current of energy between them on which the rest of the production was able to build.

A major reason why the depiction of the relationship between Kate and Petruchio was so successful was that Alfred Molina was not afraid of showing the audience the unpleasant aspects of Petruchio. When he referred to Kate as ‘my goods, my chattels’, he did not attempt to mitigate the force of the words by speaking them lightheartedly. But neither did he show Petruchio as an unpleasant man, with whom it was unnecessary to sympathize: instead, he spoke the words clearly and strongly, and with a certain integrity, challenging the audience to formulate their own response.

Kate was played powerfully and movingly by Sian Thomas. There was a particularly interesting interpretation of Act IV, Scene v, which revealed how well Kate and Petruchio were matched, and also set up expectations which the climax to the production satisfactorily resolved. During the long and tedious journey from Petruchio's home to Kate's father's house, Petruchio constantly contradicts Kate, and insists that she accept his version of events, even if this is patently absurd.

The scene takes place on a public road. It is daylight, but Petruchio insists he will go no further unless Kate agrees that the moon is shining. The dialogue culminates in Kate's ‘agreement’:

Then God be bless'd, it is the blessed sun;
But sun it is not when you say it is not,
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it nam'd, even that it is;
And so, it shall be so for Katharine.

As Hortensio, who is also present, comments to Petruchio, seemingly Kate has accepted Petruchio's view of the relationship: ‘the field is won’. The travellers then meet an unknown elderly man and Petruchio instructs Kate to embrace this ‘fair lovely maid’. Kate calls the man a ‘young budding virgin’, at which point Petruchio comments that she must be mad to address an old man in this way. Kate's following lines are:

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on seemest green.

In this production, Kate emphasized the word ‘sun’ in such a way that Petruchio was fully reminded of the preceding battle of words between them, and he looked away in confusion. A moment before, it had seemed that Petruchio had bullied Kate into submission, but Sian Thomas's intonation and Alfred Molina's look of discomfort established the fact that this was a turning point of their relationship.

Kate appeared to have accepted the subservient position demanded of her, but she had the wit and skill to reveal to Petruchio the tactics he had used to beat her. Now, he looked embarrassed and at a loss as to how to proceed. The possibility of a different kind of relationship was created, and the actor and actress were able to play the kiss in the next scene in a way which revealed the growth of tenderness and desire between them.

As well as relationships between men and women, this production explored, through the character of Christopher Sly and the client status of the travelling players, the relationship between the privileged and the non-privileged. During the second half of the production, Sly became progressively more caught up in the events which were being enacted before him. At one point he watched Lucentio kiss Bianca's bare arm and became clearly interested in doing the same to his ‘lady’.

Gradually, however, as he watched the slow growth of tenderness between Kate and Petruchio, his own feelings changed and he timidly and gently held his ‘lady's’ hand. For Sly, the fictitious events he was watching were real, and he was persuaded by what he saw to respond more caringly.

The final part of the performance skilfully interwove the various strands which had been established—the developing relationship between Kate and Petruchio, the link between Sly's situation and the play-within-the-play, and the framing device of the travelling players who present the show. Act V, Scene i, ended with the kiss between Kate and Petruchio, but before this the second and third of these strands were linked in a particularly interesting way.

The elderly gentleman whom Kate addresses at Petruchio's command as ‘young budding virgin’ is in actuality Vincentio, father of Bianca's lover, Lucentio. In order to win his bride, Lucentio has changed places with his servant Tranio, and now Tranio pretends not to know his master's father and calls for an officer to take Vincentio to gaol.

In Di Trevis's production, Sly heard the call for an officer to be summoned, and intervened decisively. ‘No,’ he said, ‘no prison.’ The players tried to remonstrate with him, reminding him that it was a play he was watching, not reality, but he was adamant. Clearly he had had experience of prison, and refused to countenance its introduction into the play. The actors looked helplessly at each other, wondering how to continue. Then the comic policeman who had entered was persuaded to leave. Biondello, Lucentio, and Bianca entered, and the action continued.

This moment worked in a variety of ways. It was, first of all, very funny. Secondly, it focused the audience's attention on the various illusions which had been established. The central action concerns the progress in the relationship of the lovers, chiefly Petruchio and Kate. This is presented as a play performed by a group of actors and is watched by Sly who wrongly believes himself to be a rich lord. At the same time, the audience knows that all the characters, including Sly and the players, are played by actors.

The interruption of the play-within-the-play and the focus on the other illusions which had been established had the effect of reminding the audience that they were watching a play. It reminded them, too, of Sly's state of poverty at the beginning of the performance. Now his involvement in the fiction of his role makes him believe in his ability to affect the fictitious events being enacted before him; but his power is as illusory as the play he watches, and as his privileged status.

After Sly's interruption, the play resumed its course towards the imminent conclusion. Sian Thomas's rendering of Kate's final speech was characterized by a certain ambiguity. She appeared to suggest that she was carrying Petruchio's previously stated view of her role as wife through to its logical conclusion, in order to show its absurdity.

The speech was partly tongue-in-cheek, but it also clearly showed Kate's new-found love for her husband. Petruchio listened with growing emotion to Kate's words, and at the end wiped away a tear. His words, ‘Why, there's a wench!’ were spoken quietly, and he was obviously moved. He picked up the cap which he had ordered Kate to throw down, put it gently on her head, and then jokingly placed it on his own. The two of them ran off with their arms round each other, laughing at the folly of the other characters.

The play-within-the-play ended with a wedding tableau, rose petals, and music, but the performance was not over. The players took their bows and went off to change, but Sly's own fiction had not ended. After the confusion of the congratulation of the players, and their subsequent exit, Sly and his ‘lady’ moved towards each other. Sly was gentle and loving. He believed in his role, and he had seen that respect and affection between men and women was possible. Then the page threw off his wig and ran away, laughing mockingly. Sly watched, grief-stricken, and the genuine lord contemptuously threw a few coins at his feet. Sly had fulfilled his part as entertainer. Now he was being paid.

Some of the players then returned to collect props and costumes. An actress got down on her hands and knees to clean the floor. The actress who had played Kate entered. She looked humble and downtrodden now. There was no trace of her courage and vivacity as Kate. In her arms she held the baby she had carried at the beginning of the performance as she pulled the cart. As the lights faded for the final time, Sly stretched out his hand to this actress, offering her as a gift one of the coins that had been tossed at him.

A poor man had learned something through the experience of watching the play, but he was without power. He was a man, but he was not rich, and within the society the production depicted both qualities were necessary before a human being was considered of real worth. In the play-within-the-play which constituted the main action of the performance the real audience had seen a man and woman discover from a seemingly hopeless starting point a relationship that was moving and valid. The framing of this stage action with other illusions provided a structure within which audiences could explore their response to the play. Like the frame of a picture, these illusions could serve to focus the attention on events depicted within the frame or, finally, on the external world.

William T. Liston (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Taming of the Shrew, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 52, October, 1997, pp. 122-24.

[In the review below, Liston comments on the unique setting of director Richard Rose’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, adding that the two actors playing Katherina and Petruchio, while “very good actors,” were not well suited for these roles. Liston contends that as a whole, the production failed to spark enthusiasm.]

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Richard Rose, sets and lights by Graeme Thomson, costumes by Charlotte Dean, Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, 10 June 1997, two hours fifty-five minutes.

The Taming of the Shrew is so popular, despite its apparently politically incorrect message, that it frequently gets some kind of updating to make the production stand out from others. For the Stratford Festival Theatre's 1997 production director Richard Rose, omitting the Christopher Sly plot, set the play in New York's Little Italy (or Little Padua) in the 1960s, evoked first by a banner picturing the Statue of Liberty (while a ship's horn sounded), and then by about six lighted mini-buildings carried in on poles—the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, for example. (Camelot opened the Festival Theatre after extensive refurbishing over the winter, so spectacle seemed to be prominent in designers' minds.) Tranio arrived in a red car from the fifties, with tail fins, carried around his waist, and in a later scene several such cars were carried on.

As the immigrant Petruchio (Peter Donaldson), dressed in a shabby suit, told Hortensio of his father's death, both men crossed themselves and then spat off to the side, a routine repeated another time or two in the production. Later in the same scene, Grumio (Stephen Ouimette), in motherly fashion, spat on his master's face to wipe it clean for Petruchio's meeting with Baptista. Nothing if not homey, this production. Yet it suffered the fate common to productions that require the actors to speak in accents: the Italian often slipped, at times into Irish.

Katharina (Lucy Peacock) wore a black dress, accented with a red scarf to suggest her fire; the tamer Bianca (black-haired, rather than the usual blonde) wore a bell-shaped pink dress. But for the scene (II.1) in which Kate bullies her sister for knowledge of her suitors, set on a bed, Bianca wore the costume of the French-maid of porno fantasies, a black dress with white apron, while Kate was in a black slip. In short, it was a bondage scene. This motif carried over into Kate's meeting with Petruchio later in the scene: when she struck him, he carried out his threat to cuff her (220) if she struck him again by handcuffing her to him, effectively restraining her rebellious nature, at least for the moment. Before the scene had ended, she was crawling along the floor with her cuffed arm back between her legs, dragging Petruchio along in a chair on casters. She had been reduced to his horse, his ox, his ass, his any thing.

The wedding was very much a media event, among other things. Petruchio and Grumio arrived dressed as cowboys in chaps. Kate screamed offstage when she saw Petruchio, but marry him she did. The priest had to shield the statue of St. Anthony from Kate's garter, which Petruchio threatened to shoot at it, sling-shot fashion. Before leaving the astonished wedding party, Petruchio was careful to collect his fees from Bianca's suitors for his efforts on their behalf. A call for Alitalia ended the scene, as Petruchio and Kate left for their honeymoon at his villa in the old country.

Interpolated visual imagery dominated the production. St. Antonio's Brass Band processed across the stage a couple of times, most tellingly just as Hortensio and Tranio had abandoned their suits to Bianca. The band was leading a corpse to its final rest, and the Widow dropped a handkerchief for Hortensio. As the stage cleared, Bianca and Lucentio (as Cambio) appeared briefly above, disheveled, buttoning up. Before the play had ended, most of the men, including the Pedant and Baptista, had made cameo appearances in the same window, in various states of undress, with women (sometimes two) similarly unattired.

Marilyn Monroe made an appearance as a model, with her dress being blown up during the tailor's scene. The tailor—or rather designer—a black homosexual fop, had entered with the enhancement of a smoke machine. If truth be told, Kate rather enjoyed the bullying of the tailor, and her conversion to Petruchio's way of seeing the world began with his declaration that ‘'tis the mind that makes the body rich’ (IV.3.172), a little before the sun-and-moon scene, which was set in and just outside an Alitalia aircraft.

The final scene reinforced what earlier scenes had established: money was important always. Hortensio bet on his Widow's obedience with money from her purse. Having won his wager, Petruchio was careful to collect his winnings.

Kate's delivery of her advice to froward wives was ambiguous. She began with a touch of coyness, and clearly she had come to enjoy playing Petruchio's game. Yet there seemed to be no sense of irony in her delivery, so whether she had totally accepted Petruchio's ‘aweful rule, and right supremacy’, was not fully apparent.

Katharine and Petruchio finally had their turn in the window above, a married and bedded couple (the bed standing upright), happy, sharing the money that Petruchio had so lovingly earned.

Despite all the gimmickry, however, the production didn't really catch fire. Peter Donaldson and Lucy Peacock, two Stratford veterans and very good actors, are not ideally suited for the roles of the apparently rough-and-tumble Petruchio and the fiery Katharina that he had to tame to his obedient and ultimately happy wife.

George Cheatham (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Imagination, Madness, and Magic: The Taming of the Shrew as Romantic Comedy,” in Iowa State Journal of Research, Vol. 59, No. 3, February, 1985, pp. 221-32.

[In the essay below, Cheatham argues that The Taming of the Shrew is similar to Shakespeare's later romantic comedies, and demonstrates the ways in which the play, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, uses the metaphor of theatrical role-playing to explore the idea of transformation in general, and the transformational power of love in particular.]

The position of The Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare's canon has been and remains uncertain. Well into the current century critics kept it distinct from the other comedies, terming it “ugly and barbarous,”1 for example, or “altogether disgusting to the modern sensibility.”2 Even contemporary critics have found the play difficult to place. As J. Dennis Huston complains, criticism of Shakespearean comedy has played a kind of shell game with The Shrew. Recent studies have shown, he says, that the play is neither happy, pastoral, nor festive comedy. Neither is it an early metadrama. Two recent studies of “early Shakespeare” even ignore the play.3 Critics have clearly had difficulty finding a critical niche to accommodate The Shrew. In one way, of course, such difficulty is good, for readers and auditors must approach the play not as a happy comedy, say, or a festive one, but as itself, as The Taming of the Shrew. Unfortunately, the difficulties with classifying the play may have caused some people not to approach it at all and to consider it only one of Shakespeare's unsuccessful early experiments, an oddity in Shakespearean comedy.

Critics in the last thirty or so years, though, have generally seen The Shrew more as romantic comedy than as farce.4 And in the last fifteen or so years they have begun to cite specific connections between The Shrew and Shakespeare's later, characteristic romantic comedies. John Russell Brown, now followed by others, first noted similarities between the ideas of the imagination and acting in The Shrew and in later comedies, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream.5 Brown, however, does not elaborate the similarities. Marjorie Garber more explicitly makes the connection between the two plays, explaining that Katherina's awakening as if from a dream (IV.i.166-68) is the turning point of her transformation. Although merely figurative and not literal, Kate's awakening nonetheless adumbrates Shakespeare's later mature use of dream devices, in which the dreamer is taken “momentarily out of time” and led “toward a moment of supernatural enlightenment, an accession of knowledge which is frequently self-knowledge.”6 In The Taming of the Shrew, she says, we find the germ of the idea of transformation which becomes central in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Garber's analysis is accurate as far as it goes, but the point merits still more elaboration than she gives it, for The Shrew contains more than just the germ of the idea of transformation. It, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, uses the central metaphor of theatrical role-playing and the subordinate metaphors of madness and magic to explore in detail the idea of transformation—specifically transformation through love.

Ironically, the very characteristic that has historically caused The Shrew to be judged as an atypical Shakespearean comedy—Petruchio's taming of Kate to be an obedient wife—connects it intimately with A Midsummer Night's Dream. Surprisingly, I have not seen anyone point out how closely Petruchio's taming of Katherina resembles Oberon's “tormenting” (II.i.147) of Titania and Theseus' wooing of Hippolyta:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries. …


Both plays begin with disharmony caused by rebellious females, the implications of which Titania makes explicit, in oft-quoted lines:

                    The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.


The unnatural quarrelling between husband and wife spreads outward, since Titania and Oberon are gods, creating disharmony in nature itself. And even in The Shrew, although Katherina is certainly no goddess and the disruption proceeding from her shrewishness barely extends beyond her father's household, Shakespeare clearly suggests the unnaturalness of her forward temper. Such an uncontrollable person is no woman but a devil, a “fiend of hell” (I.i.88), until she be of “gentler, milder mould” (I.i.60).8

Order is restored in both plays, moreover, only when the women are subdued and returned to their natural position, subordinate to their husbands. As Kate herself eventually says, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign …” (V.ii.146-47). Petruchio finally establishes rightful control only by out-shrewing the shrew; Theseus, by outfighting the Amazon warrior; and Oberon, by out-willing the willful one, showing Titania the folly of doting on the Indian boy by causing her to dote foolishly on Bottom.9

But in each case the husband's supremacy leads not to domination but to peace and harmony. Kate eventually offers her hand below Petruchio's foot, but instead of standing over her as a conqueror, he raises her beside him: “Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate” (V.ii.180). The long-delayed marriage-bed, symbol of fruitful and orderly union, follows, “Come, Kate, we'll to bed” (V.ii.184). Theseus' conquest of Hippolyta leads similarly to harmonious marriage, “With pomp, with triumph, and with revelling” (I.i.19), and to a blest marriage bed. Oberon's subduing of Titania leads to new amity and triumphant dance (IV.i.86-88). Such a view of marriage was, of course, the conventional Christian one, requiring that both partners, despite the male's rightful supremacy, treat each other with “gentilesse,” to use Chaucer's words, and not seek “maistrie.”

Marriage, as part of the social hierarchy, as part of the so-called Great Chain of Being, reflected all social relationships—the ruler's relation to his people, for example, or Christ's to his church or a master's to his servant—and was in turn reflected by each of them. Each of these relationships could be used metaphorically to describe any of the others. Katherina herself invokes the analogy of sovereign and subject, as quoted above, to describe marriage. Such comparisons were commonplace. In The Shrew, however, Shakespeare adduces another analogy to explore the marriage relationship, the unconventional metaphor of theatrical role-playing. Each of the play's three attempts at transformation through role-playing—Petruchio's of Katherina, Lucentio's of Bianca, and the Lord's of Sly—suggests that an ideal marriage requires gentilesse from both partners, not maistrie. Each suggests, specifically, that, first, one can play only a compatible role and that, second, the role-playing succeeds only if all parties exhibit sufficient selflessness.

Katherina's transformation from shrew to wife involves role-playing, and it succeeds, at least in part, because she is called on to play a congenial role, that of loving and obedient wife.10 Like a director, Petruchio explicitly details to her and to others the part he expects her to play:

                    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. …



And, honest company, I thank you all
That have beheld me give away myself
To this most patient, sweet, and virtuous wife.


To induce Katherina to play the part he desires, Petruchio must himself assume a variety of roles, particularly those of madman and shrew. As Gremio notes about Petruchio's antics, “Petruchio is Kated” (III.ii.238)—that is, Petruchio acts like Kate. He acts mad and shrewish and, like her, sets his selfish will against all others. The resulting misery—the spoiled wedding and feast, the beaten servants, and disrupted household—reveals slowly to Katherina what she has been and what she has done to others.11 Seeing herself in Petruchio's madness and shrewishness, she gradually adopts the alternate role he offers her, that of loving and obedient wife. Her new role, however, comes only with difficulty, and she is for a while disoriented:

                                                                                          she, poor soul,
Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,
And sits as one new-risen from a dream.


This “stage of wonderment, this subjectivity of experience and suspension of ordinary assumptions is,” according to Marjorie Garber, “the turning point in the transformation of the shrew.”12 Petruchio so treats her, says Brian Morris, that Katherina “is never allowed to be sure of her own nature until she surrenders to the character he has created for her.”13

That surrender occurs in Act IV, Scene v. There, meeting Vincentio on the road, Petruchio calls the old man a young woman and demands only that Katherina answer “no” and embrace Vincentio. She, however, responds effusively:

Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away? or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allot thee for his lovely bedfellow!


Here Katherina does more than merely obey Petruchio; she sympathetically joins him in his game. She speaks to Vincentio with the “gusto,” says John Russell Brown, of an actor given a congenial role.14 Through this imaginative and generous participation in Petruchio's fiction, Katherina discovers the truth of that fiction. That is, in pretending to be what she does not appear to be, Kate recognizes what she really is. In this speech and in the later one at the wager, Kate helps to create her own role as obedient spouse. And in the creation she and Petruchio take pleasure and find love.15

As mentioned, Katherina's transformation succeeds, at least in part, because she is called to play a congenial role—one assigned to her, in fact, by nature. But the success of the transformation depends just as much on the spirit in which Petruchio works on her and in which she accepts his machinations. Such success as they have requires mutual giving, a willingness of both parties to transcend their narrow selves. Kate obviously does so when she surrenders to the role Petruchio provides for her. And Petruchio does so too by surrendering to the roles he must play to alter her. Were his motives, after all, truly selfish (as his famous lines suggest they might be: “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua” [I.ii.74-75]), he could dispense with the role-playing altogether. But he does, finally, “give away” (III.ii.188) himself to Kate.

The failure of the play's other two attempts at alteration, moreover, at least in part through selfishness, underlines the mutual giving by Katherina and Petruchio.16 Both Lucentio and the Lord of the Induction, like Petruchio, attempt to direct another into a new role. Lucentio, like Petruchio, presents a role which he hopes Bianca to play, that of a goddess:

O, yes, I saw sweet beauty in her face,
Such as the daughter of Agenor had,
That made great Jove to humble him to her hand
When with his knees he kissed the Cretan strand.
.....Tranio, I saw her coral lips to move,
And with her breath she did perfume the air.
Sacred and sweet was all I saw in her.

(I.i.164-67, 171-73)

Unlike Katherina, however, Bianca never comes around, partly because the role offered her is unnaturally elevated and thus incompatible and partly because she never consents to play the role. She never overcomes the selfishness she exhibits early in the play—when she refuses to be instructed by her tutors, for example (III.i.16-20).

Bianca's failure is relatively minor, but the play's other failed transformation, that of Christopher Sly from tinker to lord, looms large in all discussions of The Shrew. Some critics argue that Sly's change, like Katherina's, succeeds, that he is transformed and redeemed through the wonderful powers of art17 or that he is created anew, raised up to life as a lord.18 Such interpretations, however, seem obviously erroneous. Katherina literally becomes an obedient wife; Sly neither literally nor even figuratively becomes a lord. His marriage with his “lady,” for example, will never be consummated. And when he awakens from his drunken slumber, no matter which possible epilogue one chooses, Christopher Sly will still be just a tinker.

Only Sly himself in any way believes the truth of his transformation, the actuality of his fictive role as lord:

Am I a lord? and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? or have I dream'd till now?
I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak.
I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker nor Christopher Sly.

(Induction ii, 66-71)

But neither the auditors nor the other characters are ever convinced, for Sly and his new role are essentially incompatible; he does not play his role well. He cannot, for example, order wine, as a lord would, but calls instead for “a pot o' th' smallest ale” (Induction ii, 73). Nor can he master the correct form of address for his supposed wife:

… What must I call her?
Al'ce madam, or Joan madam?
Madam and nothing else, so lords call ladies.
Madam wife, they say that I have dream'd. …

(Induction ii, 106-10)

Just as important to the failure of Sly's transformation, though, is the Lord's motive in practicing on him. The Lord seeks not to alter Sly but selfishly to amuse himself in “pastime passing excellent” (Induction i, 63). The Lord wishes not to change Sly to a lord but merely to place him in the circumstances of a lord so that his essential nature as a tinker will stand humorously evident.19

These three attempts at transformation in The Shrew lead to two conclusions about role-playing and romantic love. First, one can play only a compatible role. That is, one can become only what at some essential level he or she already is or should be. Katherina, for instance, no matter how shrewish she seems, can become a loving, obedient wife, for nature intends her to be such.20 Bianca, on the other hand, cannot become a goddess. And Sly's attempts at lordship serve only to emphasize that he is essentially no more than a tinker. In this respect, The Shrew looks forward to A Midsummer Night's Dream and, indeed, to all Shakespeare's later love transformations. In the later play Bottom's famous “translation” is really no change at all but a literalizing of what he already truly is—an ass. He and Sly are alike in this: exalted surroundings only emphasize their low natures. Hippolyta and Titania, like Kate, similarly become what nature intended for them to be all along, subordinate wives. And Oberon's love potion works on Demetrius and Lysander only because it returns them to their initial love choices, Helena and Hermia respectively.

Second, the role-playing succeeds only if all parties exhibit sufficient selflessness. Here too The Shrew anticipates A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the later play's description of the imagination illuminates the former play. Actors must be able to transcend themselves through imagination in order to play roles, and the auditors must likewise use their imaginations to generously “amend” (V.i.208) the actors' feigning. When Philostrate suggests that Theseus can “find sport” in the “nothing” (V.i.78-79) of the mechanicals' play, Theseus argues otherwise:

The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake;
And what poor duty cannot do, noble respect
Takes it in might, not merit.
.....Love, therefore, and tongue-tied simplicity
In least speak most, to my capacity.

(V.i.89-92, 104-05)

Even the relatively unimaginative feigning of the rude mechanicals, if charitably received, does, as Bottom promises, somehow fall pat, and the play thus “needs no excuse” (V.i.339).

These two conclusions about role-playing apply equally to that metaphor's tenor, romantic love. First, just as a play succeeds only if actors are assigned compatible roles, so true love emerges only if lovers' expectations for love are natural and reasonable.21 One should not, for example, expect a goddess, as Lucentio does, if he wants a wife. Second, just as a play succeeds only if the actors and audience both imaginatively accept the fiction, so true love emerges only if both lovers generously accept each other and “amend” each other's faults. Petruchio and Katherina are both lovers and, metaphorically, actors, and the same generous selflessness that enables them to be successful performers (imagination) enables them also to be successful lovers (gentilesse).

In The Shrew the successful lovers are also the actors. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, the two functions are distinct. The four wedding couples illustrate love; the rude mechanicals illustrate performing; and it remains for Theseus and Hippolyta to connect the two in their lunatic, lover, and poet exchange—their attempt to comprehend the happiness of the young lovers.

After a wild night in the woods the young couples in A Midsummer Night's Dream are awakened by Theseus and Hippolyta to find themselves—mysteriously—happy and in love. Theseus questions how “gentle concord” (IV.i.142) has grown from their earlier discord, but the youth cannot answer. “My lord,” responds Lysander,

                                                  I shall reply amazedly,
Half sleep, half waking; but as yet, I swear,
I cannot truly say how I came here.


The others respond similarly.

Rational Theseus acknowledges the strangeness of the events related by the youth but not their truth, and he tries to explain away the events as merely a set of imagined falsehoods or senseless misunderstandings:

'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.


Hippolyta, however, recognizes, although she cannot explain, a truth beyond “cool reason.” The lovers' story may not make rational sense. But sensible or not, the changes wrought by the night's happenings are undeniable: All the lovers' minds are “transfigur'd so together” that the events have grown to “something of great constancy / But howsoever, strange and admirable” (V.i.24-27). Discord has somehow become concord; enmity, somehow love. Even the auditors cannot explain the changes. They can know only that lovers, like lunatics and poets, have dreams and visions which can, although irrational, somehow be true. The strange and wondrously enriching power of love cannot be explained rationally; it can only be metaphorically compared to a dream's magically coming true through “fairy grace” (V.i.382).

In A Midsummer Night's Dream the figures of magic and dream which metaphorically explain love are concretely presented through the fairies and their potions. In The Taming of the Shrew the figures convey the same theme, but only imagistically, through Petruchio. In him the lunatic, lover, and poet—and a bit of the magician—all meet. He is obviously a lover, and his role as an actor/director/playwright who guides Katherina into her role as wife qualifies him as poet. He is also a lunatic, and Shakespeare systematically presents him as such. Katherina calls him “one half lunatic” (II.i.286) after their first meeting. On the wedding day (III.ii) she names him a “mad-brain rudesby,” a “frantic fool” (ll. 10, 12), and his “mad attire” (l. 118) and “mad-brain'd” (l. 157) actions during the wedding elicit the appellation “mad” from Gremio, Tranio, and Bianca (ll. 176, 235, 237). And despite the general madness of Petruchio's actions, specific references to it occur only at these points in the text. That fact seems significant. For immediately after Katherina calls him “one half lunatic,” Petruchio describes her ideally to Baptista, in lines already quoted:

Father, 'tis thus: yourself and all the world
That talk'd of her have talk'd amiss of her.
If she be curst, it is for policy,
For she's not froward, but modest as the dove;
She is not hot, but temperate as the morn;
For patience she will prove a second Grissel,
And Roman Lucrece for her chastity.


Immediately after he is termed mad by the wedding guests, Petruchio thanks them for their attendance and again describes Katherina ideally, again in lines already quoted:

And, honest company, I thank you all
That have beheld me give away myself
To this most patient, sweet, and virtuous wife.


To the audience these words seem madness at the time Petruchio speaks them—Kate seems obviously a shrew and no “second Grissel”—but they are a madness in which truth resides, like the madness in the play's Induction. There what is called Sly's “strange lunacy” (Induction, ii, 27)—that he is Christopher Sly, old Sly's son of Burton Heath—is actually the truth. And by the play's end Petruchio's madness too has become truth: Katherina by then is temperate, patient, sweet, and virtuous.22 His descriptions of her may be the irrational imaginings of a madman, a lover's vision of an ideal wife, and a poet's description of the ideal role for a woman. But they are also true. Petruchio's visions, which the rest of Paduan society has judged madness, have somehow become real—and in a way that others can explain only by calling the transformation a “wonder” (V.ii.106, 189), thereby acknowledging Petruchio a sort of miracle worker.23 Like the story of the night in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which strangely grows to something of great constancy, Petruchio's ideal vision of Katherina wonderously bodes, as he says,

                    peace … and love, and quiet life,
And, to be short, what not that's sweet and happy.


With Petruchio's generous help, Katherina, like the young lovers, rises as if “new-risen from a dream” (IV.i.173), mysteriously loved and in love. And like Bottom/Pyramus rising from the dead, she finds her less-than-perfect performance accepted. Her shrewishness yields wondrously to the harmonious joy of the marriage-bed in much the same way that the Burgomask of rude mechanicals yields magically to the dance of fairies.


  1. John Bailey, Shakespeare (London: Longmans, 1929), p. 100.

  2. G. B. Shaw in Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York: Dutton, 1961), p. 188.

  3. J. Dennis Huston, “‘To Make a Puppet’: Play and Play-Making in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 73. Huston cities, respectively, J. D. Wilson, Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1962); Thomas McFarland, Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1972); C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959); James Calderwood, Shakespeare Metadrama (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1971); A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1967); and Early Shakespeare, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 3, eds. J. R. Brown and Bernard Harris (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962).

  4. Roughly since Northrop Frye's “The Argument of Comedy” in English Institute Essays 1948 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1949), pp. 58-73.

  5. Shakespeare and his Comedies (London: Methuen, 1957), pp. 94-98. G. R. Hibbard [ed. The Taming of the Shrew (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1968), p. 38] says briefly in his introduction that in The Shrew Shakespeare was very much interested in imagination, which he explored in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Calderwood calls Sly Bottom's “spiritual cousin” (p. 131). Alexander Leggatt [Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 42] says that Sly's awakening “is a dramatic moment of a kind that will continue to fascinate Shakespeare throughout his career” and, specifically, that Sly resembles the waking lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream. T. F. Van Laan (Role-Playing in Shakespeare [Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978], p. 52) says that role-playing as structure in The Shrew anticipates nearly all of Shakespeare's subsequent plays. Alvin Kernan (The Playwright as Magician [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979], p. 67) says that The Shrew connects with Shakespeare's later plays thematically in the use of theatrical art.

  6. Dream in Shakespeare (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974), p. 34.

  7. Peter Alexander, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1951).

  8. At least as early as the medieval Uxor Noah and Gyll in The Second Shepherds' Play, the shrewish wife has been a type of sinful disobedience.

  9. Titania's doting on Bottom is a clear reversal of natural order: a goddess submitting herself to a mortal—to an animal, in fact, to an ass. She awakens with no thought of claiming the Indian boy, for the obvious folly of such a perverse submission to Bottom reveals to her the unnaturalness of her refusal to submit to Oberon. The doting on an ass suggests further that Titania, in refusing to obey her rightful lord, reverts to her bestial nature, which should be subordinate to her rational one. In refusing to play the role nature intends for her, she necessarily becomes beast-like, less than nature intends her to be. Perhaps something of such an idea inheres in the term “shrew” and in the falcon metaphor Petruchio uses with Kate. Also Sly's drinking himself to the level of a “beast” or a “swine” (Induction, i, 30) is similar.

  10. Kernan, for example, argues that “theatrical methods alone” enable Petruchio to alter her from shrew to wife (p. 66), and Van Laan claims further that the play characterizes all life as a theatrical enterprise (p. 43).

  11. Hibbard, p. 21.

  12. Garber, p. 34.

  13. Morris, p. 135.

  14. Brown, p. 98.

  15. See Leggatt, p. 59. Staging of the play, moreover, could very nicely support such an interpretation, as Ronald Bryden pointed out in conversation (13 April 1984). In the first part of the play Kate is able to control the situation. That is, coming from offstage, railing, she is able to present herself as she wishes others to see her. But as the play progresses, she comes to be surrounded by other characters, hedged in. In III.ii, for example, she enters in a group, a wedding train, and even though she is the center of the group's attention, the others nonetheless limit her, as does her engagement. She re-enters later in III.ii, again in a group, this time as a wife, and exits physically carried off by Petruchio. In IV.i she is, in effect, a prisoner in Petruchio's house.

    In IV.v, however, the situation changes. Once she accepts Petruchio's game with Vincentio, she is no longer hedged in. That is, she and Petruchio stand apart from the others—here in the sense that they are in on the joke while Vincentio is an outsider and literally in V.i. Her and Petruchio's joint knowledge, which the others lack, gives them joint control. Her acceptance of her assigned role thus frees her. In V.ii she again is able to enter and present herself. But this time she presents herself for and with Petruchio, not just to him. She and he understand what is going on, while to the others her actions can be only a “wonder.”

  16. See also Van Laan, pp. 44-53. He, though, considers Lucentio a successful actor/director, who “changes Bianca from Baptista's daughter to Lucentio's wife” (p. 47).

  17. Kernan, p. 67.

  18. Huston, p. 79.

  19. The Lord's joke is appropriate in one sense, though. Through his drinking Sly has become a “beast,” a “swine” (Induction, i, 30), less than a tinker. Being shown to be a fool and no more than a tinker is a fit punishment for Sly. See also note 8.

  20. See note 8.

  21. To paraphrase Bottom, love and reason must keep at least some company. For example, no distinction exists between Demetrius and Lysander capable of explaining Hermia's initial love of Lysander and not Demetrius. Her choice, while inexplicable, is nonetheless consistent with reason, for Lysander is undeniably “a worthy gentleman” (I.i.52). See R. W. Dent, “Imagination in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Shakespeare Quarterly, 15 (1964), 117.

  22. Katherina, too, is mad, but in two distinct ways. Initially “stark mad or wonderful froward” (I.i.69), Kate willfully and obstinately sets herself against all society. Such selfish madness, that of the pariah, does not enrich her life but instead narrowly limits it. The madness of the lover, on the other hand, that which Katherina exhibits toward the play's end, is enriching. In concurring with and actually surpassing Petruchio's mad assertion that Vincentio is a young maiden, she goes beyond her narrow selfishness, surrendering willingly to something outside of herself. The expansive madness of the lover thus liberates her.

  23. The term is Huston's (p. 77).

Shirley Nelson Garner (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside the Joke?” in “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, edited by Maurice Charney, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988, pp. 105-19.

[In the essay that follows, Garner maintains that whether people view The Taming of the Shrew as a “good” or “bad” play depends on where they see themselves in terms of the play's central joke, which Garner describes as one directed against women and written to entertain a misogynist audience.]

If you had grown up hearing that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language (or at least one of the two or three greatest) and that he is a “universal” poet, who speaks across time and national (even cultural) boundaries, you—especially if you were a woman student—would be shocked to study him in a college or university in the 1980s and to read The Taming of the Shrew for the first time. My own students—particularly my women students, though sometimes the men in my classes as well—often exclaim in dismay, “I can't believe Shakespeare wrote this!” A graduate student, rereading the play with only a faded memory of having read it before, commented that it was commonly her experience now to read something that she had once enjoyed only to find it disappointing. That was what happened when she read Taming of the Shrew, and it gave her a sense of loss. Reading the play from a woman's perspective, she could not help but be a “resisting reader.”1 Even if teachers of literature offer an ingenious reading of the play, their students will probably not be seduced into a very happy view of it. They will know in their hearts that—at the least—there is something wrong with the way Kate is treated. And they will be right.2

I am not sure that anyone except academics who have invested much—perhaps all—of their professional lives in studying Shakespeare would need to debate whether Taming of the Shrew is good or bad. The best that can be said for the play is just what Peter Berek concludes in his essay in this volume: that it shows Shakespeare had suppler attitudes toward gender than his contemporaries and that it “may have been a valuable, even necessary, stage in moving toward his astonishing expansion of the possibilities of gender roles.” This argument makes the play interesting, but it does not make it good.

The Elizabethans probably considered the play “good.” Attesting to the popularity of its main idea, numerous shrew-taming stories exist as well as another version of the play, evidently, acted close to the time of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.3 The values that underlie the story are obviously those of a patriarchal society, in which the desirability of male dominance is unquestioned. When patriarchal attitudes are called into question, as they have been in our time, it becomes a more delicate matter to put an “uppity” woman in her “proper” place—on the stage or off—and she becomes a less easy mark for humor. Taming of the Shrew read straight, then, must seem less “good.”

Interpretations of the play that stress its farcical elements or view the ending as ironic are often efforts, I think, to keep the play among the “good,” to separate Shakespeare from its misogynist attitudes, to keep him as nearly unblemished as possible.4 These efforts to preserve Taming suggest that in our time it has become one of the problematic plays in Shakespeare's canon. They demonstrate how relative to time and place are the ideas of “good” and “bad.” What I wish to argue here is that no matter how you read the ending, no matter how you define the genre of the play, it is still a “bad” play. From the response of members in the seminar on “Bad Shakespeare,” at which the ideas here were first presented, it is clear that some people still like the play, still count it among the “good,” or “more good than bad.” This fact suggests that “good” and “bad” are also relative to the pleasures of the particular members of an audience. I would also argue that whether you see the play as “good” or “bad” depends on where you see yourself in terms of the central joke. If you can somehow be “in” on it, the play will undoubtedly seem better than if you cannot be.

The central joke in The Taming of the Shrew is directed against a woman. The play seems written to please a misogynist audience, especially men who are gratified by sexually sadistic pleasures. Since I am outside the community for whom the joke is made and do not share its implicit values, I do not participate in its humor.5 Because the play does not have for me what I assume to be its intended effect, that is, I do not find it funny, I do not find it as good as Shakespeare's other comedies.

The Induction makes immediately clear the assumptions about women and sexuality that are at the core of Taming. When a Lord, a character named only according to his rank, imagines and creates for Christopher Sly a world like his own (though more romantic), the “woman” he peoples it with suggests a sixteenth-century ideal: gentle, dutiful, utterly devoted to her husband. He directs his servingman to tell Bartholomew, his page, how to play the part of Sly's wife:

Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say, “What is't your honor will command
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?”
And then, with kind embracements, tempting kisses,
And with declining head into his bosom,
Bid him shed tears, as being overjoyed
To see her noble lord restored to health
Who for this seven years hath esteemed him
No better than a poor and loathsome beggar.(6)


Surface manner, “With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,” defines inner character, marks the “lady” as “feminine.” The importance of soft-spokenness as an essential attribute of femininity is suggested by King Lear's lament over his dead Cordelia: “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman” (5.3.274-75). In a culture that tended to see things in opposition, to split mind and body, virgin and whore, the quiet woman represented the positive side of the opposition. The woman who spoke up or out, the angry woman, represented the negative side. At a moment when Hamlet feels the greatest contempt for himself, he mourns that he “must, like a whore, unpack … [his] heart with words / And fall a-cursing like a very drab” (2.2.592-93). When Bartholomew appears dressed as a lady and Christopher Sly wonders why the page addresses him as “lord” rather than “husband,” Bartholomew answers:

My husband and my lord, my lord and husband,
I am your wife in all obedience.

(Ind. 2.106-7)

The male fantasy that underlies this exchange is that a wife will be subject, even subservient, to her husband in all matters.

More subtly suggested as attractive in the Induction is a notion of sexuality associated with the violent, the predatory, the sadistic. The Lord immediately directs that the drunken Christopher Sly be carried to bed in his “fairest chamber,” which is to be hung round with all his “wanton pictures” (Ind. 1.46-47). After Sly is promised all the requisites for hunting, including hawks that “will soar / Above the morning lark” and greyhounds “as swift / As breathèd stags, … fleeter than the roe” (Ind. 2.43-48), he is offered the most desirable paintings. The movement from hunting to the predatory sexuality imaged in the pictures makes obvious the association between hunting and the sexual chase. Sly is promised by the Second Servingman:

Adonis painted by a running brook
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.

And the other men join in the game, revealing their own erotic fantasies:

We'll show thee Io as she was a maid
And how she was beguiled and surprised,
As lively painted as the deed was done.
THIRD Servingman.
Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one shall swear she bleeds,
And at that sight shall sad Apollo weep,
So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn.

(Ind. 2.50-60)

Suggestions of violence, particularly of rape, underlie all of these images. The figures the paintings depict are among the familiar ones in Ovid's Metamorphoses: Adonis, the beautiful, androgynous youth gored to death on a wild boar's tusks; Io, a maid Zeus transformed into a heifer in order to take her; and Daphne, who was changed into a laurel tree to prevent Apollo's raping her. The images of violence intensify, as though each character's imagination sets off a darker dream in another. Interestingly enough, the story of Adonis is drawn the least bloody though it is inherently more so. It is Daphne, the innocent virgin, who bleeds. It would seem that the most predatory and sadistic impulse calls forth the most compelling eroticism for those who participate in the shared creation of these fantasies.

It is appropriate that The Taming of the Shrew is acted for the male characters of the Induction, for its view of women and sexuality is attuned to their pleasure. Underlying the notion of heterosexual relationships in Taming, especially marriage, is that one partner must dominate. There can be no mutuality. The male fantasy that the play defends against is the fear that a man will not be able to control his woman. Unlike many of Shakespeare's comedies, Taming does not project the fear of cuckoldry (though perhaps it is implicit), but rather a more pervasive anxiety and need to dominate and subject. In taming Kate, Petruchio seems to give comfort to all the other men in the play. Before Hortensio marries the Widow, he goes to visit Petruchio, to see his “taming school,” which Tranio describes to Bianca:

                                                                                                              Petruchio is the master,
That teacheth tricks eleven and twenty long
To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue.


However pleasant the idea of a “taming school” may be for men, the attitude it implies toward women is appalling.

From the outset, Kate is set up so that her “taming” will be acceptable, will not seem merely cruel. This strategy serves as a means to release the play's misogyny just as madness allows Hamlet, Othello, and Lear to castigate the women who love them—their mothers, daughters, lovers, wives—and rail against them and women in general in shocking ways. In the play's only soliloquy, Petruchio delineates his plan to subject Kate:

Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And 'tis my hope to end successfully.
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop she must not be full gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper's call,
That is, to watch her as we watch these kites
That bate and beat and will not be obedient.
She eat no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
As with the meat, some undeserved fault
I'll find about the making of the bed,
And here I'll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets.
Ay, and amid this hurly I intend
That all is done in reverent care of her,
And in conclusion she shall watch all night.
And if she chance to nod I'll rail and brawl
And with the clamor keep her still awake.
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I'll curb her mad and headstrong humor.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak—'tis charity to show.


Petruchio's stringent mode is just that used to tame hawks; it might well come from a manual on falconry. The notion behind this central metaphor of the play is that a shrewish woman is less than human, even less than a woman, so may be treated like an animal. Only the audience's acceptance of this premise allows them to feel the play as comic.

Critics' efforts to dismiss the play's harsh attitude toward women, to disclaim its cruelty, have led them to emphasize that Taming is a farce and not to be taken with the kind of seriousness that I am taking it.7 In other words, to pay attention to its cruelty, to give credence to its misogyny, is to misread its genre. Though Taming does not feel to me like farce, I do not wish to argue about its genre. Accepting it for the moment as farce, I would ask rather: Could the taming of a “shrew” be considered the proper subject of farce in any but a misogynist culture? How would we feel about a play entitled The Taming of the Jew or The Taming of the Black? I think we would be embarrassed by anti-Semitism or racism in a way that many of us are not by misogyny. I do not think critics could imagine writing about those fictitious plays a sentence comparable to this written of The Taming of the Shrew: “Once she [Kate] was naturally and unquestionably taken to be a shrew, that is, a type of woman widely known in life and constantly represented in song and story [italics mine].”8

To be sure, Kate is an angry woman. She threatens violence to Hortensio; ties Bianca up and strikes her; breaks a lute over Hortensio's head when he, in disguise, is trying to teach her to play it; beats Grumio; and strikes Petruchio. Yet what is said about her makes her worse than angry. When Hortensio refers to her as “Katherine the curst,” Grumio echoes him and makes clear how intolerable a “shrewish” woman is to the men in the play:

Katherine the curst!
A title for a maid of all titles the worst.


Gremio refers to her at various moments as a whore (1.1.55), a “fiend of hell” (1.1.88), and a “wildcat” (1.2.196). The other men repeat his sentiments. “Shrewd,” “curst,” “froward,” Kate is mainly noticeable for her “scolding tongue.” Many of the impressions of Kate are rendered through Gremio and Hortensio, who are the most threatened by her. Gremio insists that no man would marry her, only a devil would, and asks incredulously, “Think'st thou, Hortensio, though her father be very rich, any man is so very a fool to be married to hell?” When Hortensio affirms that there are “good fellows in the world” who will marry her for enough money, Gremio replies, “I cannot tell, but I had as lief take her dowry with this condition, to be whipped at the high cross every morning” (1.1.123-34). Hortensio confesses to Petruchio that though Kate is young, beautiful, and well brought up,

Her only fault—and that is fault enough—
Is that she is intolerable curst!
And shrewd and froward, so beyond all measure
That were my state far worser than it is,
I would not wed her for a mine of gold.


Even Baptista accuses Kate of having a “devilish spirit” (2.1.26).

We come to understand, perhaps, that Kate does not deserve this kind of denunciation, that the male characters rail so against her because she refuses to follow patriarchal prescriptions for women's submission to men. When Bianca, so praised and desired for her “beauteous modesty” (1.2.233-34), rejects Hortensio, he immediately denounces her as a “proud disdainful haggard” (4.2.39). This sudden reversal suggests that the men see women only in relation to male desires and needs and describe them accordingly. Yet we only glimpse the way their bias works. Shakespeare does not reveal it so obviously as he does in, say, Antony and Cleopatra, where the men who degrade and insult Cleopatra are clearly threatened by her and jealous because she is able to seduce Antony away from them.

Shakespeare also adumbrates circumstances that account for Kate's anger. The preference of everyone around her, including her father, for a quiet woman (in other words, a woman without any spirit) is enough to provoke her. She undoubtedly understands the high value placed on women's silence, which Lucentio reads, in Bianca for example, as a sign of “maid's mild behavior and sobriety” (1.1.70-71). She, of course, understands Bianca's competitiveness with her, which is acted out with passive aggression: “Her silence flouts me and I'll be revenged” (1.1.29). She also chafes at her certain sense that she is men's possession, a pawn in the patriarchal marriage game. She reproaches Baptista about Bianca:

                                                                                                                                  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.
Talk not to me; I will go sit and weep
Till I can find occasion of revenge.


Though Baptista tells Petruchio that he must obtain Kate's love before he will give his permission for the two to marry (2.1.128-29), when it comes down to it, Kate is simply married off, bargained over like a piece of goods:

Faith, gentleman, now I play a merchant's part
And venture madly on a desperate mart.
'Twas a commodity lay fretting by you;
'Twill bring you gain or perish on the seas.
The gain I seek is quiet in the match.


She is not a woman to accommodate easily an economy that makes her a possession of men, in which a husband can say of a wife:

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 anything.


Shakespeare also allows Kate to claim her anger and gives her a moving explanation of her outspokenness:

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.


Yet what is said or shown to extenuate Kate does not weigh heavily enough to balance the condemnation of her, which is an effort to prepare us to accept Petruchio's humiliation of her as a necessity, or “for her own good.”

Kate and Petruchio are both strong-willed and high spirited, and one of Petruchio's admirable qualities is that he has the good sense to see Kate's passion and energy as attractive. When he hears of her tempestuous encounter with Hortensio, he exclaims:

Now, by the world, it [sic] is a lusty wench!
I love her ten times more than e'er I did.
O how I long to have some chat with her!


Presumably Petruchio puts on an act to tame Kate; he pretends to be more shrew than she (4.1.81). As one of his servants says, “He kills her in her own humor” (4.1.174). But Kate's “shrewishness” only allows Petruchio to bring to the surface and exaggerate something that is in him to begin with.9 When we first see him, he is bullying his servant—wringing him by the ears, the stage direction tells us—so that Grumio cries, “Help, masters, help! My master is mad” (1.2.18). It surprises only a little that he later hits the priest who marries him, throws sops in the sexton's face, beats his servants, and throws the food and dishes—behaves so that Gremio can exclaim, “Why, he's a devil, a devil, a very fiend” (3.2.154). When he appears for his wedding “a very monster in apparel,” we learn that his dress is not wholly out of character; Tranio tells Biondello:

'Tis some odd humor pricks him to this fashion,
Yet oftentimes he goes but mean-appareled.


The strategy of the plot allows Petruchio “shrewish” behavior; but even when it is shown as latent in his character and not a result of his effort to “tame” Kate, it is more or less acceptable. Dramatically, then, Kate and Petruchio are not treated equally.

In general, whatever is problematic in Petruchio is played down; whereas Kate's “faults” are played up. For example, we tend to forget how crassly Petruchio puts money before love at the beginning of the play since he becomes attracted to Kate for other reasons. He speaks frankly:

I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.


And Grumio assures Hortensio in the most negative terms that money will be Petruchio's basic requirement in a wife:

Nay, look you sir, he tells you flatly what his mind is. Why, give him gold enough and marry him to a puppet or an aglet-baby or an old trot with ne'er a tooth in her head, though she have as many diseases as two-and-fifty horses. Why, nothing comes amiss so money comes withal.


No one in the play speaks against this kind of materialism; indeed, it seems to be the order of the day.

Kate's humbling begins from the moment Petruchio meets her. Petruchio immediately denies a part of her self, her identity as an angry woman. Just as the Lord of the Induction will make Christopher Sly “no less than what we say he is” (Ind. 1.71), so Petruchio will begin to turn Kate into his notion of her. Yet because her will and spirit meet his, the absurdity of his finding Kate “passing gentle” (2.1.235-45) and his elaboration of that idea is more humorous than not. It is when Petruchio begins to give Kate ultimatums, which I know he can and will enforce, that the play begins to give me a sinking feeling:

                                                            Setting all this chat aside,
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.
.....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 reason I begin to lose heart at this point is that I am certain Kate will not be able to hold her own against Petruchio. The lack of suspense is crucial to my response. I know that an angry woman cannot survive here. When I read or see Macbeth or The Merchant of Venice, though I know the witches' prophecies will come true to defeat Macbeth and that Portia will trick Shylock out of his pound of flesh, I always feel the power of the contest. But not in Taming.

After Kate and Petruchio are married and go to Petruchio's house in act 4, the play loses its humor for me. The change in tone follows partly from the fact that Petruchio's control over Kate becomes mainly physical. In Padua, the pair fights mainly through language, a weapon that Kate can wield as well as Petruchio. When Kate strikes Petruchio in the city, he swears he will hit her back if she does it again (2.1.218). Though he deserves slapping in the country, she cannot risk that there. While Petruchio never strikes her, he tries to intimidate her by hitting the servants and throwing food and dishes at them. The implication is that if she does not behave, he will do the same to her. Petruchio's physical taming of Kate is objectionable in itself; it is particularly humiliating because it is “appropriate” for animals, not people. Petruchio's description of his plan to tame Kate has no humor in it; related in soliloquy, it has the sound of simple explanation.

Kate's isolation in the country among Petruchio and men who are bound to do his bidding creates an ominous atmosphere. Her aloneness is heightened by the fact that even Grumio is allowed to tease her, and her plight becomes the gossip of Petruchio's servants. Her humiliation has a sexually sadistic tinge since there is always the possibility that Petruchio will rape her, as he threatens earlier:

For I will board her though she chide as loud
As thunder when the clouds in autumn crack.


Petruchio's notion of sexual relations here is worthy of Iago, who says of Othello's elopement, “Faith, he tonight hath boarded a land carack” (Othello 1.2.49). Grumio immediately tells Hortensio, “A my word and she knew him as well as I do, she would think scolding would do little good upon him. … I'll tell you what, sir, and she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face and so disfigure her with it that she will have no more eyes to see withal than a cat” (1.2.107-14). He suggests that Petruchio can out-scold and outwit Kate, but he also implies, through particularly violent imagery, that Petruchio will use force if necessary. Petruchio even tells Baptista, “I am rough and woo not like a babe” (2.1.137).

When we hear that Petruchio is in Kate's bedroom “making a sermon of continency to her” (4.1.176), I imagine that he is obviously acting contrary (his favorite mode), preaching abstinence when he might be expected to want to consummate his marriage. I have also wondered whether we are supposed to imagine that Kate has hoped to please him by offering herself sexually. Or does she actually desire him? Is the play reinforcing the male fantasy that the more a man beats and abuses a woman the more she will fawn on him?10 But the episode is probably related mainly to assure us that Petruchio does not rape Kate, since we have been led to think he might. A play within a play, The Taming of the Shrew is enacted to crown Christopher Sly's evening. I think it is intended to have the same salacious appeal as are the paintings proposed for his enjoyment.

Kate and Petruchio's accord is possible only because Kate is finally willing to give up or pretend to give up her sense of reality—which is reality—for Petruchio's whimsy. He will do nothing to please Kate until she becomes willing to go along with him in everything, including agreeing that the sun is the moon. When she will not, he stages a temper tantrum: “Evermore crossed and crossed, nothing but crossed!” (4.5.10). Eager to visit Padua, she gives over to him in lines that can only be rendered with weariness:

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.


What follows is one instance after another of Petruchio's testing Kate's subjection to him.

One of the most difficult aspects of the play for me is the way the women are set against each other at the end. Kate and Bianca have been enemies from the beginning, but now the Widow takes sides against Kate, calling her a “shrew” (5.2.28). Kate's famous speech on wifely duty is addressed to the widow as a reproach. The men use their wives to compete with each other:

To her, Kate!
To her, widow!


Betting on whose wife is the most obedient, the men stake their masculinity on their wives' compliance. A friendly voice will be raised against this kind of wager in Cymbeline, but not here. Only the Widow and Bianca, who will subsequently become “shrews,” demur. When Kate throws her cap under foot at Petruchio's direction, the Widow remarks, “Lord, let me never have a cause to sigh / Till I be brought to such a silly pass”; and Bianca queries, “Duty call you this?” When Lucentio reproaches Bianca for costing him five hundred crowns, she replies, “The more fool you for laying on my duty” (5.2.123-29). Though the Widow and Bianca are hateful characters, I find myself in sympathy with them. The ending of the play simply goes awry for me.

Kate's final speech may be taken straight, as a sign that she has “reformed”; or it may be taken ironically, as though she mocks Petruchio. The happiest view of it is that Kate and Petruchio perform this final act together, to confound those around them and win the bet. Even if we accept this last interpretation, I cannot take pleasure in Kate's losing her voice. In order to prosper, she must speak patriarchal language. The Kate we saw at the beginning of the play has been silenced. In one sense, it does not matter whether she believes what she is saying, is being ironical, or is acting: her words are those that satisfy men who are bent on maintaining patriarchal power and hierarchy. For them, Kate's obedience, in Petruchio's words, bodes

                                                  peace … and love, and quiet life,
An awful rule and right supremacy;
And … what not that's sweet and happy.


For Kate, it means speaking someone else's language, losing a part of her identity. She no longer engages in the high-spirited play of wit that was characteristic of her when Petruchio first met her (2.1.182-259).

If I stand farther back from the play, it seems even less comic. It is significant that Taming is a play within a play: “not a comontie a Christmas gambold or a tumbling trick” or “household stuff,” but “a kind of history” (Ind. 2.137-42). It seems to carry the same weight as The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet or the rustics' dramatization of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The pithy truth that Taming contains implies a kind of heterosexual agony. It is noticeable that just before the play begins, the Induction calls attention to the fact that the Page, though pretending to be a woman, is actually a man. Convinced that he is a lord and that the Page is his wife, Sly wants to take his “wife” to bed. The Page begs off, claiming the physicians have said that lovemaking would be dangerous for Sly, and adds: “I hope this reason stands for my excuse.” Picking up the double meaning attendant on the similarity of pronunciation between “reason” and “raising,” Sly continues the phallic pun: “Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long” (Ind. 2.124-25). The source of Sly's desire is ambiguous: Is it the woman the Page pretends to be, or is it the man the Page reveals he is? Perhaps they are the same: a man in drag. In any case, the breaking of aesthetic distance here asks us to recognize that we are watching a homosexual couple watch the play. From their angle of vision, Taming affirms how problematic heterosexual relations are, especially marriage. The fault would seem to lie with women, who are all “shrews” at heart. If a man aspires to live in harmony with a woman, he must be like Petruchio (a comic version of Hotspur) and able to “tame” her. If he is gentle, like Lucentio, he will undoubtedly become the victim of a shrewish wife. This is not a happy view of women; it is an equally unhopeful vision of love and marriage.

Even though there may be ambiguities at the conclusion of Shakespeare's comedies, they are most joyous when couples join with the prospect of a happy marriage before them. In order for marriage to be hopeful in Shakespeare, women's power must be contained or channeled to serve and nurture men. When it is—in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or A Midsummer Night's Dream—the comic ending is celebratory. When it is not, in The Merchant of Venice or Love's Labor's Lost, the tone of the ending is less buoyant, even discordant. In Love's Labor Lost, when women remain in power and set the terms of marriage, it is implied that something is not right. Berowne comments:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play;
Jack hath not Jill. These ladies' courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.


When the King insists that it will end in “a twelvemonth and a day,” after the men have performed the penances their ladies have stipulated, Berowne replies, “That's too long for a play.” The final songs contain references to cuckoldry, and their closing note is on “greasy Joan” stirring the pot.11 What is different about the movement toward a comic ending in Taming, is that women are set ruthlessly against each other, Kate's spirit is repressed, and marriage is made to seem warfare or surrender at too high a price.

Taming is responsive to men's psychological needs, desires, and fantasies at the expense of women. It plays to an audience who shares its patriarchal assumptions: men and also women who internalize patriarchal values. As someone who does not share those values, I find much of the play humorless. Rather than making me laugh, it makes me sad or angry. Its intended effect is spoiled. It is not only that I do not share the play's values, but also that I respond as a woman viewer and reader and do not simply respond according to my sense of Shakespeare's intention or try to adopt an Elizabethan perspective (assuming I could). I stand outside of the community the joke is intended to amuse; I sympathize with those on whom the joke is played.

I understand that within the tradition of shrew stories, Shakespeare's version is more generous of spirit and more complex than other such stories. But Taming seems dated. I think that it is interesting historically—in tracing a tradition, in understanding sixteenth-century attitudes toward women—and that it is significant as part of Shakespeare's canon, as any work of his is. But limiting its importance this way, I imply that I find it less good than many of his comedies. And I do. If I went to see it, it would be out of curiosity, to find out how someone in our time would direct it.

Shakespeare continually depicts in comedy an infertile world in which lovers are separated; the task of the play is to restore the world by bringing lovers together. In several instances, he presents characters who are “man-haters” or “woman-haters” and unites them. Benedick and Beatrice, Hippolyta and Theseus are examples; Kate and Petruchio are forerunners of these couples. Interestingly enough, Shakespeare never again shows a woman treated so harshly as Kate except in tragedy. I think that Shakespeare either began to see the world differently or that he recognized the story of Kate and Petruchio did not quite work. Most significantly, he obviously enjoyed portraying witty women characters, and he must have seen that it was preferable to leave their spirits untamed.


  1. I use Judith Fetterley's term because it so aptly names the common position of the woman reader (The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction [Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1978]).

  2. Students recognizing the misogyny of Taming may encounter a response similar to that which, according to Leslie Fiedler, a Jewish child may meet when he confronts the anti-Semitism of The Merchant of Venice: “A Jewish child, even now, reading the play in a class of Gentiles, feels this [the full horror of anti-Semitism] in shame and fear, though the experts, Gentile and Jewish alike, will hasten to assure him that his responses are irrelevant, even pathological, since ‘Shakespeare rarely “takes sides” and it is certainly rash to assume that he here takes an unambiguous stand “for” Antonio and “against” Shylock’” (Leslie A. Fielder, The Stranger In Shakespeare [New York: Stein and Day, 1972], 98-99.

  3. The other version of the play, entitled The Taming of A Shrew, may be by another author or a bad quarto of an earlier version of the play by Shakespeare. For a discussion of the differences between the two plays, their relationship, and the critical controversies regarding them, see Peter Berek's essay in this volume.

  4. Carol Thomas Neely comments that feminist analyses of the play, including her own, emphasize “Kate's and Petruchio's mutual sexual attraction, affection, and satisfaction while deemphasizing her coerced submission to him.” She provides an excellent summary of this criticism and suggests that feminist critics are responding to “conflicting impulses—to their profound abhorrence of male dominance and female submission and to their equally profound pleasure at the play's conclusion.” She comments, “Feminists cannot, without ignoring altogether the play's meaning and structure, fail to rejoice at the spirit, wit, and joy with which Kate accommodates herself to her wifely role. Within the world of the play there are no preferable alternatives. But we cannot fail to note the radical asymmetry and inequality of the comic reconciliation and wish for Kate, as for ourselves, that choices were less limited, roles less rigid and unequal, accommodation more mutual and less coerced” (Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985], 218-19).

  5. Though her reading of the play is different from mine, Linda Bamber describes a response similar to mine. Agreeing with Coppélia Kahn that “the play presents Kate's capitulation as a gesture without consequence to her soul,” she comments that “it cannot seem so to a feminist reader.” She adds: “The battle of the sexes as a theme for comedy is inherently sexist. The battle is only funny to those who assume that the status quo is the natural order of things and likely to prevail. To the rest of us, Kate's compromise is distressing” (Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare [Stanford: Stanford University Press], 35).

  6. This and subsequent quotations from Shakespeare's plays are from The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, 1963).

  7. Robert B. Heilman, Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew in The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, 323-27.

  8. Heilman, 323.

  9. Joel Fineman is either reading wishfully or perversely when he argues that Petruchio's “lunatic behavior” is “a derivative example” of Kate's shrewishness; see “The Turn of the Shrew” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Geoffrey Hartman and Patricia Parker (London: Methuen, 1986), 142.

  10. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton, 1977), 72.

  11. Shirley Nelson Garner, “A Midsummer's Night's Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill / Nought shall go ill,’” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9(1981): 47-63.

Tita French Baumlin (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Petruchio the Sophist and Language as Creation in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 237-57.

[In the essay that follows, Baumlin views Petruchio as a sophistic rhetorician, and observes that Petruchio uses his rhetorical skill to engender a positive change in Katherina. This, Baumlin argues, supports the view that at this early point in Shakespeare's career, the playwright possessed an optimistic conception of language and its positive, transformational power.]

“Language most shows the man: speak, that I may see thee!”

Ben Jonson, Timber

Properly placed among his earliest dramatic works,1The Taming of the Shrew displays Shakespeare's most optimistic vision of the positive, creative powers of language. We find here none of the later plays' ambivalence toward the powers and moral complexities of language, for the characterization of Petruchio represents a paradigm of the sophistic rhetorician at a most successful and morally admirable stance: he uses the powerful tools of rhetorical arts to create for his bride a new reality grounded in play, self-respect, and love. His manipulation of Katherina—through outlandish hyperbole, linguistic “disguises,” and outright untruths—need not condemn Petruchio as a sophist in the typically pejorative sense of this term, for his ultimate motive is not acquisitiveness, sexual or financial. Rather, his goal is to create through words a “brave new world” of marital harmony, one to replace Katherina's previous verbal universe and the maladaptive personality that was its consequence. By changing her name from “Katherine the curst” to “just plain Kate,” Petruchio ultimately changes her sense of self, creating for her a new, more functional persona. And this renaming points us toward the playwright's view of his own art at this early level of aesthetic development: the skillful dramatist, like the sophistic word-magician, must properly understand both the world-building, demiurgic power of his medium and the human responsibility which must accompany it.

And moral responsibility is precisely the question raised by critics who find Petruchio to be sexist and morally reprehensible; in fact, some have found the play satiric or downright offensive in the portrayal of a woman forced into submission through the cruelties of a bully.2 However, as is always the case with Shakespearean materials, the best analysis is begun in clear sight of the sources and analogues.3 In the closest analogue, a contemporary ballad—“A Merry Jeste of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe Lapped in Morrelles Skin” (c. 1550)—the husband kills his sharp-tongued wife's horse (Morrelle) and incarcerates her in the horse's salted skin in order to “tame” her into submission. In other contemporary versions of this ballad, physical violence is again the approved remedy for a domineering wife—binding, beating, bleeding her, even beating her dead animal's hide upon her back—and the more ingenious and physically excruciating the techniques, the better.4 Petruchio's methods of “taming” reveal, however, the uniquely rhetorical emphasis5 of Shakespeare's version of this familiar story. Here, even the title gives ironic reference to other “tamings” of shrewish wives, for Petruchio does not “tame” Katherina into subservience; rather, he awakens Kate to her true nature, helping her to discover self-control, a joyful spirit of play, and an ability to care deeply for someone besides herself.

The play's emphasis on language is evident from its beginning, when the complaint throughout Padua is that Kate's sharp tongue cannot be endured: Bianca is made to “bear the penance of [Katherina's] tongue,”6 while Hortensio and Gremio cannot “endure her loud alarums” (I.i.127). Katherina is, in short, “Renown'd in Padua for her scolding tongue” (I.ii.100), using her language to drive away not only potential, undesirable suitors but family members and potential friends as well. Her language serves, then, not to graft her firmly into the network of social interaction but rather to isolate her from all humanity. Though critics have sought to identify causes for her self-imposed isolation—parental neglect, superior intelligence, high-spiritedness7—Katherina is in any case sketched in the traditional outline of the shrewish woman with a sharp tongue, and the structure of the comedy itself—if it is to remain a true Shakespearean comedy—indicates that Katherina must somehow turn her language from an instrument of bitter defense and isolation into a tool for human growth and humane instruction in the community.

Shakespeare's supreme innovation, actually, is his Petruchio—a skilled rhetorician who, appropriately enough, cures his wife's linguistic illness more with language than with physical brutality toward her. Petruchio claims to be a straight talker (I.ii.65-66), but it is evident from the beginning that he is more often a virtuoso circumlocutioner and punster in his “taming,” for as Grumio warns the suitors, if “he begin once, he'll rail in his rope-tricks. I'll tell you what, sir, and she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face, and … disfigure her with it” (I.ii.112-16, emphasis added): his means of assault against Katherina's shrewishness is thus a figure of rhetoric and not a fist. Whether it be in “rope-tricks”8 or what he calls “few words” between friends (I.ii.66), Petruchio employs language, rather than physical force, to serve his needs. Granted, Petruchio first appears on stage assaulting Grumio, but he does so in the context of their punning banter, telling Grumio if he will not “knock me here soundly” (I.ii.7) at the gate as he has bid the servant to do, then Petruchio himself will “ring” (line 16), whereupon he proceeds to wring Grumio by the ears. This passage indeed sets up Petruchio's character: he is capable of—and willing to use—physical violence and verbal abusiveness, as the text points out clearly throughout the play, for he repeatedly strikes and insults his servants even in Katherina's presence. However, though a long-standing stage tradition has often overemphasized the potential for violence in Petruchio's character—most notably in the famous “Good morrow, Kate” scene (II.i.181 ff.)—the text itself does not demand an actor's overtly violent characterization of Petruchio's actions toward Katherina. In fact, the only direct indication of Petruchio's physical force, apparently in restraining her, lies in Katherina's single line, “Let me go” (II.i.241), which itself is by no means univocal: we could interpret it to mean “Let me pass by you” as easily as to mean “Let go of me.”9 The text itself actually invites a reading in direct contrast to the stage tradition, one in which Petruchio's language—not his body, fists, nor masculine dominance in physical strength—accomplishes the persuasion, the “taming,” of Katherina.

Petruchio's rhetorical skill, then, most clearly defines his character, and his oratorical prowess is so evident that one can pick any line at random and find rhetorical figures which emphasize Petruchio's playful bombast, a quality delightfully obvious not only on the page but also to an audience's ears. The repetitiveness of the internal rhyme of “wive and thrive” (I.ii.56) is at the very least comic in sound, and more humorous still is the fact that he brings this whole array of rhetorical machinery, not to the orator's arena, but to a simple domestic encounter. His first extended speech in this scene pushes rhetorical floridity to the limits:

Signior Hortensio, 'twixt such friends as we
Few words suffice; and therefore, if thou know
One rich enough to be Petruchio's wife
(As wealth is burthen of my wooing dance),
Be she as foul as was Florentius' love,
As old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrowd
As Socrates' Xantippe, or a worse,
She moves me not, or not removes at least
Affection's edge in me. [Whe'er] she is as rough
As are the swelling Adriatic seas,
I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua.


The ironic contrast between his opening statement—“'twixt such friends as we / Few words suffice”—and the number of his actual words is comic; we may notice the use of accumulatio in the gathering momentum of allusions, prosthesis in the “moves / removes” wordplay, and gradatio and antistrophe in the last two lines. It would appear, from the standpoint of the traditional, violent wife-taming folklore, that this master of verbosity belongs more in arenas of classical debate than in the domestic realm of “wiving happily in Padua,” and yet, ironically enough, this rhetor is precisely the one to transform the maladjusted “Katherine the curst” (I.ii.129) into a woman whose own language fosters the growth, recreation, and edification of her self and others.

Such, in fact, is the magnitude of Petruchio's rhetorical self-confidence that he does not at all fear contact with this “irksome brawling scold” (I.ii.187):

Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?
Have I not in my time heard lions roar?
Have I not heard the sea, puff'd up with winds,
Rage like an angry boar chafed with sweat?
Have I not heard great ordnance in the field,
And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies?
Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets' clang?
And do you tell me of a woman's tongue,
That gives not half so great a blow to hear
As will a chestnut in a farmer's fire?
Tush, tush, fear boys with bugs.


Here Petruchio uses twelve lines of extended eloquence to tell the suitors simply that he does not fear Katherina! His uses of anaphora combined with grandiose diction serve to elevate and amplify with great rhetorical flourish the things he has heard—lions, stormy seas, wars—and to reduce Katherina's dreaded sharp tongue to the domestic sound of a tasty chestnut roasting in the homely fire of the humble farmer. Finally, this grandiloquent speech reduces Katherina's fearsomeness by ending with an appropriately comic thud: in “boys with bugs,” the commonness of diction, the alliteration and the monosyllables all produce the miniscule “reality” of Katherina's verbal intimidation.

As to the truth of Petruchio's professed reasons for wooing—if he marries “wealthily, then happily”—we might consider that hyperbole is the most characteristic device of his language and that he is apparently wealthy himself (I.ii.57), for his father is dead and has left his fortune to Petruchio (I.ii.191). Still, whether or not Petruchio actually begins the suit for financial gain, Acts I and II show him becoming increasingly intrigued by the challenge Katherina poses to his rhetorical prowess. When Hortensio graphically describes Katherina's outburst—she used “twenty such vild terms / As had she studied to misuse me so” (II.i.158-59, emphasis added)—Petruchio seems invigorated by the story: “Now by the world, it is a lusty wench! / I love her ten times more than e'er I did. / O, how I long to have some chat with her!” (II.i.160-63). The comic understatement in the euphemism “some chat” is meant to bring laughter from an audience steeped in the traditionally gruesome and excruciating remedies for such female terrors; further, the audience knows that before Petruchio is able to “tame” a shrewish wife he first must, of course, marry the woman, and such a maneuver will indeed take “some chat” to accomplish. How will this prince of prolixity manage it?

Petruchio's answer to this question lies in his soliloquy just before Katherina's entrance, where he announces that his “method” will be a series of linguistic disguises. His inventive approach to discourse with Katherina will simply be to say the opposite of whatever she accepts as reality: “Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain / She sings as sweetly as a nightengale; / Say that she frown, I'll say she looks as clear / As morning roses newly wash'd with dew” (II.i.170-73). Her speech can no longer serve to isolate her from others, as it has done in the past, because whatever she says will draw a response from Petruchio; even her silence will command a response from him: “Say she be mute, and will not speak a word, / Then I'll commend her volubility, / And say she uttereth piercing eloquence” (II.i.174-76). Petruchio's discourse, then, will refuse to mirror her own verbal reality but will rename it, and in renaming her reality, he will transform it. Clearly, his self-conscious emphasis upon language in transforming her is evident as he ends the soliloquy and begins his campaign: “But here she comes, and now, Petruchio, speak. / Good morrow, Kate, for that's your name, I hear” (II.i.181-82).

This famous “Kate” speech is his first attack; when she insists on being called “Katherine” (II.i.184), he responds by giving her every variation on “Kate” he can think of: “You lie, in faith, for you are call'd plain Kate, / … the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate-Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / … Hearing thy mildness prais'd in every town, / … Myself am mov'd to woo thee for my wife” (II.i.185-94). His amplification and puns on “cates” (delicacies) are answered in kind by Katherina, who uses the precise pun uttered in the previous scene (I.ii.72) by Petruchio: “Mov'd! in good time! Let him that mov'd you hither / Remove you hence” (II.i.195-96). Clearly, beneath these exteriors are two kindred spirits, each using the “move/remove” wordplay in adjacent scenes; Katherina, apparently, has the same fixation on verbal pyrotechnics as Petruchio, but she has not learned how to use this gift for her own and others' benefit rather than for spite. While Ralph Berry suggests that Petruchio's “tongue-in-cheek hyperbole” cannot be combatted and Kate is “reduced to asking questions as a form of marking time while she works out the counter-strategy,”10 we might instead find in this scene the clash between two antithetical views of language. Kate is not “reduced” here; rather, for the first time in her life she is brought up sharply to discover that her customary view of language as mimetic medium of assault—a language that mirrors her turbulent emotions and fends off anyone who seeks to change her—is no longer functional when it meets with the epistemic language of Petruchio, a versatile and generative language which easily duplicates and reduplicates itself to meet her at every turn. Until this moment she has seen herself as fixed in a central self—the “Katherine” self—and has used her language to defend that essence, to protect it from change, which unfortunately protects her from growth as well; by renaming her “Kate,” Petruchio meets the challenge of this static conception of self and seeks to shatter the “Katherine” persona.

To disclose his motives to Katherina, Petruchio says he will speak to her in “plain terms”:

And therefore setting all this chat aside,
Thus in plain terms:
.....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.


Actually, this speech is fairly “plain” for Petruchio; momentarily he drops his linguistic disguise and openly admits his intentions. And yet, this section contains many of Petruchio's major devices: “chat” is again Petruchio's term for his word games and deliberate bombast; now an added pun on “Kate”—“cat”—provides a delightful playfulness, precisely the quality his potential marriage partner needs to learn. Petruchio swears “by this light whereby I see thy beauty,” and this very sun will later be one of his means to teach Katherina the sportive uses of an epistemic language. Most significant, perhaps, Petruchio is relentless in calling her by the name he has thrust upon her, for in renaming “Katherine the curst” as “Kate,” he has made the first move in creating her new, functional identity.11

His second step is to build a new public identity for Kate by explaining to the others that she still rails in public because “'Tis bargain'd 'twixt us twain, being alone, / That she shall still be curst in company” (II.i.304-305). The success of such a trick of language is inescapable, for no matter how vehemently Kate denies the charge, her speech will merely reinforce society's imagined view of her true “tame” personality in the private company of Petruchio. Since he has privately called her “pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous, / But slow in speech, yet sweet as spring-time flowers” (II.i.245-46), he can now present her publicly as having already demonstrated such qualities: she is now “the kindest Kate, / [who] hung about my neck” (II.i.307-308). And by publicly denying any mimetic quality to her language—that is, by denying that her language reflects the truth of her stormy nature, he further strengthens the creative quality of his own.

Clearly, Petruchio's reliance on language to obtain what he wants places this character in a very old comic tradition: the so-called “old” comedy hero of Aristophanes who “uses the grand style [which] seems to invent its own rules as it goes.”12 As Cedric Whitman has shown, the hero of “old” comedy is “a low character who sweeps the world before him, who dominates all society … creating the world around him like a god … and abides by no rules except his own, his heroism consisting largely in his infallible skill in turning everything to his own advantage, often by a mere trick of language. He is a great talker.”13 A “great talker” himself, Petruchio also creates the world around him with his great skills in “mere” tricks of language. Indeed, much of the comedy of this play for Shakespeare's audience may have existed in the invasion of the traditional world of shrew-taming—beatings, bleedings, and mutilations—by a hero who, conversely, “talks the world into submission,” to use Dennis Huston's phrase, “remaking it according to his desires, almost as if he were a god.”14 Petruchio's astounding skills as rhetor provoke Katherina's stunned response, too; less than one hundred lines after their first meeting, she marvels, “Where did you study all this goodly speech?” (II.i.262).

Petruchio's creative use of language also places him in a still older tradition: the sophistic school of Gorgias of Leontini, who, in spite of Plato's attempts to defame him in the Gorgias, professed a very well-formed structure of rhetorical and epistemological theory.15 Gorgias's techniques later became the schemes or figures of traditional rhetoric, devices which emphasize the power of language to create new realities through the magical effects of skillful juxtaposition of words. The accomplished sophist can make the world appear according to his wishes, as Gorgias claims he does in the closing of the Encomium on Helen: “How then can one regard blame of Helen as just, since she is utterly acquitted of all charge? … I have by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman.”16 Here, language has created a new reputation for Helen by recreating the situations surrounding her ill fame; likewise, Petruchio seeks to “defend” an infamous woman by reshaping her fame through his powerful language.

Gorgian persuasion is an effort to build new versions of the world by eradicating static preconceived notions and offering the listener the freedom to choose a new mode of thinking or even, as Petruchio offers to Kate, a new and dynamic self. And the sophist accomplishes his persuasions through a verbal creation of potential situations, rather than a mimesis or mirroring of present conditions. This process necessarily amounts to deception because it creates in the mind not present “truths” but potential worlds of emotions or experiences. Yet this element of deception is, in sophistic language theory, neither negative nor irresponsible, for it is well founded upon the epistemology contained in Gorgias's On the Nonexistent, or On Nature,17 which suggests that identity is not a single pure essence but a harmony of contraries: the dissoi logoi, or disparate truths, constitute reality. Truth, then, is relative, and communication, like identity, can be no more complete than our finite sense perceptions; there being no absolute essence of reality, words as well are relative, subject to the speaker's own focus or interpretation. In fact, sophistic philosophy implies that language cannot operate without distortion—that is, without espousing but one aspect of a manifold truth. This ingredient of deception is for Gorgias, then, “not only inevitable—because of the nature of language—but necessary as well. If a man was not to be immobilized by irreconcilable contradictions, he had to be deceived into thinking that only one of the alternatives was correct.”18 Verbal deception, then, is not a lamentable necessity but a virtue, in that it allows the human mind to narrow alternatives and reach a decision.

The aesthetic implications of Gorgian language philosophy here need added emphasis: language bends to the will of its master, giving the sophist power not only over the word but over the psyche of his audience and ultimately over the world itself. Sophistic rhetoric asserts the violence of language, its capacity to ravish, to enthrall; it indeed revels in display, deriving pleasure from its own virtuosity, its own abilities to fashion a world of words. The existence of multiple truths and the polysemy of language allow the sophist to argue his own truth into being at the same time that it allows for the ludic, the playful and creative, aspect of his language. Discourse, for Gorgias, is like a drug, serious and potentially deadly, but also magical and equally playful: the Encomium on Helen states that “the effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. For just as different drugs dispel different secretions from the body, and some bring an end to disease and others to life, so also in the case of speeches, some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.”19 And in Plato's dialogue Gorgias, we find the sophist again linking the splendid power of his art with the practice of medicine: “I have made calls on patients who were unwilling to take their medicine or submit to an operation or a cautery; and though their doctor could not persuade them, I did so, by no other art than rhetoric.”20 Sophistic rhetoric, then, can serve a healing and curative effect when other arts cannot heal or cure, but the rhetor must intend to benefit the listener: Gorgias goes on to insist that one should “make use of rhetoric in the same way as one does of every other sort of proficiency. This, too, one should not employ against any and everybody. … The rhetorician is capable of speaking against everyone else and on any subject you please in such a way that he can win over vast multitudes to anything, in a word, that he may desire. But … he must use his skill justly.”21 And Gorgias's own epideictic speeches reveal a deliberate and self-conscious playfulness as he “justly” uses his skill; the audience's enjoyment—even when the subject is death, as in his oration the Epitaphios—is produced by a delight in words themselves, as language enlightens, reshapes, transforms, heals the listener who participates in the game. Indeed, the entire pattern of Gorgian rhetoric contains “many of the characteristics of a ‘language game,’ with all the emphasis on epistemological suppleness and versatility which the word ‘game’ implies.”22

These very qualities of suppleness, versatility, and playfulness are indeed the characteristics which Shakespeare's Katherina desperately needs to appropriate into her language and life. And Petruchio, in the fine Gorgian pattern, goes about talking Katherina into harmony with himself with all the godlike insouciance of the most powerful orators of sophistry. He “uses his skill justly”—to quote Gorgias—and does not publicly insult her, although he does behave outrageously in church at their wedding and forcibly kisses her “with such a clamorous smack / That at the parting all the church did echo” (III.ii.178-79). Though he is physically abusive to his servants and ruthless in depriving Katherina of food and sleep on their wedding night, his actions all work within a verbal context: his language transforms an edible supper, as Katherina calls it (IV.i.169), into a meal of rubbish “burnt and dried away” (line 170) which the servants must take away. And unlike his shrew-taming predecessors,23 Petruchio himself does not eat or drink when his wife is so deprived; Katherina, in fact, laments that “he does it [all] under name of perfect love” (IV.iii.12). Similarly, though one might be anxious about the consummation effected by a bridegroom “shrew tamer,” Katherina instead receives from Petruchio a “sermon of continency” (IV.i.182) on their wedding night, depriving both Katherina and himself of sleep. He tells us quite bluntly that he is appropriating the linguistic deception of sophism when he soliloquizes, “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” (IV.i.188), with all emphasis upon the deviousness and deception inherent in the Elizabethan usage of “politicly.” His “politic” is a verbal one, intended to transform two warring opposites into one harmonious whole.

Throughout the last half of the play, Petruchio's rhetorical performances display his most brilliant exhibitions of the sophistic virtuoso. In his stunning abuse of the tailor, he combines tapinosis and diaeresis comically to reduce the tailor to the lowest emblem of his trade: “Thou liest, thou thread, thou thimble, / Thou yard, three-quarters, half-yard, quarter, nail! / … Away, thou rag, thou quantity, thou remnant!” (IV.iii.107-11). Diaeresis and hyperbole reach most astounding proportions in his well-known description of his bride: “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” (III.ii.230-32). Those who label Petruchio a domineering brute have pointed to the apparent chauvinism of this passage; in proper context, however, this speech need be no more a truthful representation of Petruchio's inner feelings than his abuse of the tailor when it suits his “politic.” Amplificatio and hyperbole tend to be characteristic of Petruchio when he is deliberately deceiving his listeners; there is no more reason to see in this speech a chauvinistic attitude toward women than to find in his description of the tailor a disregard for tailors. On the contrary, Petruchio's language displays Gorgian rhetoric at its finest—exploring the extremes of verbal deceptions and disguises in order to cure, heal, and transform an isolated, selfish, dysfunctional personality into a socially integrated woman at peace with herself and her world. Petruchio reconstructs Katherina's disagreeable statements into mild expressions of agreement, her approvals into complaints, denying her any effectiveness of language at all. Try as she may, she cannot insult Petruchio nor, indeed, locate any of the previous power once afforded her by her language. With utter delight in the virtuosity of his verbal skills, Petruchio goes about creating a new world for Katherina, even going so far as to create new words when the fancy strikes him: his exclamation of “Soud, soud, soud, soud!” (IV.i.142)—as an apparent expression of impatience at the first meal in his country home—shows us Petruchio at the height of the ludic sophism with which he verbally besieges his world.

Petruchio's most outlandish verbal game occurs during their return to her father's house; in Petruchio's insistence that “it is the moon that shines so bright” (IV.v.4) at midday and that the elder Vincentio is a fresh and lovely “gentlewoman” (line 29), his linguistic madness reaches its most comic proportions. And here Katherina finally gives in to the madcap flexibility of Petruchio's approach: he insists that “I say it is the moon” which shines at midday (line 4) and she responds with “I know it is the moon” (line 16), agreeing at last to the very epistemological possibilities of language that Petruchio has been trying to communicate to her from the beginning. She also implicitly indicates that she understands what is happening to her self in the process: when he contradicts her to say that “it is the blessed sun” (line 17), Katherina now responds, “Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun, / But sun it is not, when you say it is not / And the moon changes even as your mind” (lines 18-20). Though she teases him with reference to the mood changes of the “lunatic,” she also makes it clear that she finally realizes these outlandish linguistic maneuvers have been “games” all along. Secondly, and most significantly, she lets him (and the audience) know that the transformation of “Katherine the curst” into “plain Kate” is hereby complete, for “What you will have it nam'd, even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherine” (lines 21-22) shows us that even the formerly rejecting persona, Katherina, now accepts his “renaming” of reality.

The crucial growth in Kate's character is her metamorphosis into a fully human creature who is able now to view life—through sportive language—with a spirit of “play.” Johan Huizinga suggests that play fosters growth because play “creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection” for it allows transport out of one's present self “without, however, wholly losing consciousness of ‘ordinary reality.’”24 Petruchio indeed teaches Katherina the benefits of approaching life in a ludic manner, as if life were a game,25 but Petruchio's games are very much in the Gorgian spirit of discourse, verbal games that can transform, heal, cure, recreate. As John Poulakos points out, the advantage that the Gorgian rhetorician offers to help listeners solve their “existential dilemma” is that he “tells them what they could be, brings out in them futuristic versions of themselves, and sets before them both goals and the directions which lead to those goals. All this he does by creating and presenting to them that which has the potential to be.”26 Petruchio's language has taught Kate that she can find health in her life—an ability completely outside her grasp at the beginning of the comedy—through linguistic play, exploring potential selves towards her own growth. “Katherine the curst” saw language only as a medium of sharp and offensive combat, a means of preserving the present personality by protecting the vulnerable inner self from exposure, assault, and change; Petruchio's sophistic language, however, has taught her that “futuristic versions” of the self can be imaged and assumed, thus healing the dysfunctional portions of the personality.

Kate now continues this newly discovered playfulness with joyful abandon, addressing Vincentio, with great rhetorical flourish, as a “Young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet” (IV.v.37). In fact, Kate has so fully accepted Petruchio's language that she now talks like him,27 with figurative excess, outlandish hyperbole, and nonsensical wordplay; Kate's discourse also confirms here that she, at last, realizes they are a team. And though Kate is reluctant to kiss in public, she does so at Petruchio's insistence and calls him “love” (V.i.148), suggesting her willingness to celebrate physically the union that their linguistic games have created. This kiss is the final “contract” they arrive at and, ironically, it is a non-verbal one: though Shakespeare's comedies are full of characters who give and take love with oaths, vows, and promises of affection, this non-verbal contract is appropriate to the inventive structure that Petruchio has constructed all along—language used deliberately to conjure the non-real, the potential, rather than to describe the real and present state of being.

Dennis Huston suggests that the final scene is “a revised version of Kate's original wedding celebration” displayed for the audience.28 There is, however, a deeper thematic significance, for the audience has already seen—in their kiss—a symbol of their compatibility. Rather, this final scene functions as Kate's display in her own world of her own newly appropriated sense of language used to heal, to edify, to cure disease located outside the self. The games which precede Kate's final speech—her obedient responses to Petruchio's call and to his command that she throw down her cap—are Kate's affirmation that she is willing now to incorporate teamwork into their marriage. Petruchio says that her response to his call bodes “peace … and love, and quiet life” (V.ii.108), a point which applies also to Kate, who has been freed from her former restrictive view of herself and her world.29

Kate's controversial monologue30 in the last scene thus emerges as Kate's use of language to recreate her friends—those “froward and unable worms” (V.ii.169) who refused their husband's calls—to teach them, at Petruchio's prompting, what she learned through a long series of painful events ranging from the self-imposed isolation of girlhood to the self-perpetuated marital disharmony she has experienced up to this day. She points her listeners toward the proper course of behavior by first illustrating the antithetical consequences of shrewishness: “Fie, fie, unknit that threat'ning unkind brow, / … It blots thy beauty, as frosts do bite the meads” (V.ii.136-39). To view this speech as a mystifying indication of Shakespeare's reactionary attitude toward women is to overlook a substantial portion intended for the men seated at the feast: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,” and risks his life “for thy maintenance” (lines 146-48, emphasis added). This description of man's proper marital virtues is surely directed specifically toward Hortensio and Lucentio, neither of whom appears to be Petruchio's equal in caring for the growth of his partner. That Petruchio and Kate are well-suited to each other is more evident in this speech than anywhere else in the play: this monologue makes clear that Kate has grasped the principles of mutual care and health that are the foundation of the recreational, literally re-creational, language she has learned. Germaine Greer has called Kate's final speech “the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written” for it “rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both.”31 Surely, Petruchio's true friendship has resided in his patient insistence upon Kate's health and growth and in his willingness to use his linguistic skills to awaken her, and she rewards his gift through loyalty and teamwork in the public realm.

Kate also confesses the sickness of her own previous condition, citing strong personal testimony for the truth of her argument. While a woman is “like a fountain troubled, / Muddy [and] … bereft of beauty” (lines 142-43), “none so dry or thirsty / Will deign to sip, or touch one drop of it” (lines 144-45): these poignant lines strike at the very heart of her characterization, her own self-defeating rhetoric having kept her isolated and lonely, lacking any conception of her own beauty and potential for nurturing any “thirsty” ones around her. “But now I see,” she says, “our lances are but straws, / Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare, / That seeming to be most which we indeed least are” (lines 173-75). Clearly, “bandy[ing] word for word” (line 172) proved to be a “straw lance” for Katherina, for in her apparent strength—the mightiness of her scolding tongue—she was unknowingly weak “past compare”: in seeming to be most controlling of her world, she was actually at the mercy of her isolating language. Kate's “but now I see” is thus a moving, personal testimony to the power of Petruchio's language which has purged the dysfunctional personality and has reconstructed a new definition of selfhood for this intelligent and sensitive woman.

A dominant theme here is Kate's complete appropriation of Petruchio's language—a curative, healing medium which also embodies delightful deception and play. On the one hand, her speech is serious in both presentation and intent—to cure these wives who “offer war where they should kneel for peace” (line 162). To Petruchio alone, however, her imagery communicates a different and more playful message—a ludic self-mockery of her own previous folly.32 Other sportive messages are possible: this oration is the closest to either a frank admission of his wisdom and her previous blindness or an open thanks for his perseverance that Petruchio will ever receive. In any case, the spunky spirit Petruchio so admired early in the play has not been vanquished but has been redirected. And Petruchio's understanding of these subtleties is signaled in his response, “Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate” (line 180), which is as affectionately playful on the overt level as Kate's speech on the implicit level: though Petruchio is clearly impressed with her speech—after all, the terse response is uncharacteristic of him and this is the first time he has listened so quietly or patiently to anyone in the play—he returns her eloquent oration with as lusty and brief an understatement as he can devise. This exchange portrays not a sad image of lifeless surrender to male dominance but a spirit of flirtatious fun that will generate a rich creativity in this marriage grounded upon self-respect, mutual respect, and proper care. And their wedded harmony which reverberates on many complex verbal levels will now be demonstrated on a non-verbal level, as Petruchio indicates, “Come, Kate, we'll to bed” (line 184). As Shakespearean comedy always reminds us, the medium of language is neither the only, nor always the best, mode of communication and communion in love.

In this context, then, the induction to The Taming of the Shrew emerges not as an unrelated or abandoned experiment,33 but rather serves as an introduction to these themes of identity and transformation through language. The attempted metamorphosis of Sly from tinker to lord is emphasized by the very surroundings which the tricksters say they will fetch for him—the true Lord's “wanton pictures” (Ind.i.47): paintings of “Adonis painted by a running brook, / And Cytherea all in sedges hid, / … Io as she was a maid / And how she was beguiled … / Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood” (Ind.ii.50-57). These actual pictures are never presented to Sly, but are only verbally created in his imagination. This verbal creation of transformational instants, or “Ovidian moments,”34 strikes the thematic keynote of the play that will follow, itself a verbal artifice intended to transform identity, to usher Sly into a world where language creates new identities and transforms the beggarly into the lordly, the foolish into the wise.

The Lord of the induction and Petruchio thus bear a certain kinship,35 for each attempts to remake a particularly stubborn specimen into something more like himself. Yet these two creators further become extensions of the playwright's persona, himself the great manipulator of language to effect creations, recreations, metamorphoses. For the playwright as well as for Petruchio, language is a means for transforming his world: Petruchio, the skilled rhetorician, succeeds in creating a new Kate from “Katherine the curst,” and it is with this optimistic revelation that the comedy ends. That language can and does bring real and positive change, magical transformations, to this world becomes, then, the final emphasis, for Shakespeare lets the play-within-a-play end the action. However, the Lord's creation of a new Lord Sly is only brief and apparently abortive: no matter how hard the Lord and his companions try to transform Sly, they cannot succeed. And from the beginning, we are shown that the Lord seeks to force this new identity upon the drunken Sly in the spirit of a mere “jest” (Ind.i.45). Yet Petruchio's business, we must remember, is both serious and magnanimous—he seeks to liberate Katherina from the prison of her own rhetoric in order to provide for them both “peace and love and quiet life.” The induction and play combined thus underscore the burden of responsibility facing the playwright himself; in order to effect change, not only must he be brilliantly skilled at the uses of rhetoric, but his heart must be in the right place as well. It is a somber note that this perspective injects into the joyfully optimistic chord at the play's end, but it is nevertheless an essential one: if, as Dennis Huston points out, “Petruchio offers us the image of the player and playwright as all-conquering hero,”36 then the burden of the conqueror must be always to perfect his talents and to use them for the true benefit of his audiences. No other comedy in Shakespeare's works presents such unequivocal trust in the ethics of the artist and the efficacy of language to order lives and create positive change in the human world. In fact, the sheer world-building power of sophistic language will have few happier results anywhere in literature than in The Taming of the Shrew.

Missing from the world of this youthful play, however, is any account of man's use or misuse of language for gain at the expense of other human beings; evil, though it becomes an increasingly essential element in Shakespeare's later plays, is indeed noticeably absent from the world of Padua. Here we find no Shylock using language to reduce human commerce to serve his own revenge and greed and to insulate himself from the redemption of generative language, nor do we find a Falstaff using the language of seduction in order to feed an insatiable appetite, nor even a comic though traitorous word-magician like Parolles, his very name an indication of Shakespeare's growing ambivalence toward the terrible demiurgic powers of language. In fact, the sophistic word-wizard Petruchio is reincarnated countless times throughout Shakespeare's canon, in diverse guises and in possession of various degrees of skill and magnanimity: from the professional “corrupters” of words, Touchstone and the other sophisticated fools, to the delightful and deadly Falstaff, to the naive Dogberry, whose passion for sophistry unfortunately cannot insure his mastery over language, to Iago, whose fascination with the power of demiurgic language is matched only by his intense love of evil, even finally to Prospero, who discovers his tragic potential for misuse of linguistic power but learns how to own his failures as well as his victories. Clearly, Petruchio is an early embodiment of a proposition—that language can recreate reality—to which Shakespeare was to return again and again; thus, on a continuum representing his gradual incorporation of evil into the complex interrelations among language, human life, and art, The Taming of the Shrew remains firmly at the optimistic extreme: Petruchio and Kate stand, harmoniously united, in testimony to the youthful playwright's conception of the beauty and world-building power of language in the hands of the skilled and magnanimous artist.


  1. G. Blakemore Evans, editor of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 48-50, sees the progression from The Comedy of Errors (c. 1592) to The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1593) to The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594) to Love's Labor's Lost (1594), and this chronology has much to recommend it thematically in the growing complexity of comic vision and language theory. Editors who place Love's Labor's Lost first in the chronology seem to do so based only on the diction and versification of the play, while a concern for theme, genre, and language theory surely must place The Taming of the Shrew early in Shakespeare's development, as will be argued here.

  2. Charges of sexism and questions of gender problems in criticism are complex, to be sure. For example, Coppélia Kahn, “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage,” in The Authority of Experience: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Arlyn Diamond and Lee R. Edwards (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1977), pp. 84-100, maintains that the play satirizes masculinity and thus does not glorify Kate's apparent submission to Petruchio. It should be noted, however, that it may not be useful to label such a reading of the play as “feminist” merely for its darker interpretation of the play (or, conversely, to label as “anti-feminist” a reading which celebrates Kate's marriage), since some “feminist” critics do not see Kate as sadly submissive to male supremacy at the play's end: see, for example, 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 R. S. Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 65-78, who demonstrates that the play shows a liberation of femininity from medieval concepts of male supremacy; and Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), who finds that “Kate's submission gives her power over Petruchio” (p. 108). Early critics who see the play as offensive or equivocal include E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (1925; rpt. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1951), p. 40; Arthur Quiller-Couch, introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1928), p. xvi; John Masefield, William Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt, 1911), pp. 108-109 (though Masefield's 1954 revised version is less emphatic on this point); George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (1961; rpt. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971), pp. 186-88.

  3. See Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folk-Tale: A Classification and Bibliography, FF Communications No. 74 (Helsinki, 1928); Jan Harold Brunvand, “The Folktale Origin of The Taming of the Shrew,SQ 27 (1966):345-59. Folktale tradition contains most of the play's major motifs—the muddy trip, the wager, “fairer” sister(s), deprivation of meals and sleep, and the attempts to force the wife to agree to absurd statements—but always in conjunction with physical abuse of the wife and/or domestic animals.

  4. Anne Barton, introduction to The Taming of the Shrew in The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 106. See also Brunvand, p. 345, and W. C. Hazlitt, Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England (London: J. R. Smith, 1864-1866).

  5. Several critics have pointed out the linguistic emphasis of Petruchio's character, though without a focus on classical rhetoric or sophism: Thomas Marc Parrott, Shakespearean Comedy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949), p. 152; Richard Levin, “Grumio's ‘Rope-Tricks’ and the Nurse's ‘Ropery,’” SQ 22 (1971):82-86; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 63-65; Theodore Weiss, The Breath of Clowns and Kings: Shakespeare's Early Comedies and Histories (New York: Atheneum, 1971), p. 61; and J. Dennis Huston, Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 62-80.

  6. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, I.i.89, in The Riverside Shakespeare. All subsequent quotations from this play refer to this edition.

  7. See Huston, pp. 78-80; Weiss, p. 70; Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp. 83-101; Harold Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 69.

  8. Levin, pp. 82-86, shows “rope-ripe” to be (by Shakespeare's time) “already well established as a designation for the self-conscious and over-elaborate use of language” (p. 85). Although the phrase is also a sexual double entendre, “rope” commonly meaning “penis” in Elizabethan usage (p. 83), Grumio is also “boasting that Petruchio will defeat the shrew not only in the erotic arena but also in the rhetorical, by developing a more recondite verbal battery to out-scold her” (p. 86). While this emphasis on the “self-conscious and overelaborate use of language” in Petruchio is appropriate, it will be argued here that Petruchio does not defeat or “out-scold” Katherina, but rather recreates her through his creative rhetoric.

  9. Similarly, many stage directors have interpreted Petruchio's line about Kate's “limp” (“O, let me see thee walk. Thou dost not halt,” II.i.256) to mean that he has necessarily wounded her foot in a scuffle, but this line, too, is equivocal: Kate could be simply refusing to walk at his command, sitting down defiantly, and thus offering her next line, “Go, fool, and whom thou keep'st command” (line 257), to say, “Go walk, yourself.” The text is explicit in its references to Kate's violence toward her sister and to Petruchio's violence toward his servants, even toward the priest in the church, but nowhere does the text explicitly direct Petruchio's physical abuse of Kate, nor that he even touches her except to kiss her, once in the church (forcibly) and twice (with Kate's permission) before the play's end.

  10. Berry, p. 65.

  11. Juliet Dusinberre notices that the “Kates” in Shakespeare (Lady Percy, wife of Hotspur; Henry V's queen; Petruchio's wife) “all get the same kind of man” (p. 289). I would argue that Petruchio's renaming of this “Kate” is an attempt to insure the “fine match” that Dusinberre discusses in the other two Kates' marriages.

  12. Cedric Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero, Martin Classical Lectures Series, vol. 19 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964), p. 25.

  13. Whitman, pp. 25, 51.

  14. Huston, p. 62.

  15. Nancy S. Struever discusses the influence of Gorgianism in the Renaissance in The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetorical and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 13-14. My discussion of Gorgias's rhetorical and epistemological theory is also indebted to: Charles P. Segal, “Gorgias and the Psychology of the Logos,Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 66 (1962): 99-155; Richard Leo Enos, “The Epistemology of Gorgias' Rhetoric: A Re-Examination,” Southern Speech Communication Journal 42 (Fall 1976): 35-51; Richard Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976); Richard A. Engnell, “Implications for Communication of the Rhetorical Epistemology of Gorgias of Leontini,” Western Speech 37 (Summer 1973): 175-84; John Poulakos, “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Language,” P&R 16 (1983): 35-48; Bruce E. Gronbeck, “Gorgias on Rhetoric and Poetic: A Rehabilitation,” The Southern Speech Communication Journal 38 (Fall 1972):27-38.

  16. Gorgias, Encomium on Helen, in The Older Sophists, trans. George Kennedy, ed. Rosamund Kent Sprague (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1972), p. 54.

  17. See Sextus, Against the Schoolmasters, in The Older Sophists, pp. 42-46.

  18. Engnell, p. 177.

  19. Gorgias, in The Older Sophists, p. 53.

  20. Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. C. Helmbold (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), p. 15.

  21. Plato, Gorgias, pp. 15-16.

  22. Struever, p. 13.

  23. See Brunvand, p. 358, who shows that in Northern European folktale traditions, the “tamer” reveals an added measure of cruelty by helping himself to hearty servings of food and wine at the table where the wife is denied any repast.

  24. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), pp. 10, 14.

  25. The idea that Katherina learns a “game” is a point made by many other critics, though without special emphasis upon language games. See William O. Scott, The God of Arts: Ruling Ideas in Shakespeare's Comedies (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Publications, 1977), pp. 15-16; Cecil C. Seronsy, “‘Supposes’ as the Unifying Theme in The Taming of the Shrew,SQ 14 (1963):23-24; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Early Comedies (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), pp. 82-83; Berry (whose title of the chapter for this comedy is “The Rules of the Game”), pp. 54-71; Huston, who notes that Petruchio teaches Kate through play to embrace life rather than push it away (p. 80).

  26. Poulakos, p. 43.

  27. Both Huston (p. 90) and Berry (p. 69) suggest that Kate's style in this passage resembles Petruchio's.

  28. Huston, p. 91.

  29. Kate's being “freed” from a false conception of self is a point supported by many critics, among them: Scott, p. 19; Huston, p. 80; 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 R. S. Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 65-78; Joan Hartwig, “Horses and Women in The Taming of the Shrew,Huntington Library Quarterly 45 (1982): 285-94; James P. McGlone, “Shakespeare's Intent in The Taming of the Shrew,Wascana Review 13 (1978): 79-88; S. C. SenGupta, Shakespearean Comedy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950), p. 115.

  30. The catalog of critical controversy over the last scene is too voluminous to itemize here, but see Robert B. Heilman, “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew,” MLQ 27 (1966):150-51, for a survey of critics who explore an ironic reading of Kate's monologue; Northrop Frye, in A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), says that “when we first see Katharina she is bullying Bianca, and when we take leave of her she is still bullying Bianca, but has learned how to do it with social approval on her side” (p. 80); similar positions are also taken by Larry S. Champion, The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), p. 40; E. M. W. Tillyard, p. 85, though Tillyard sees her as “the same girl, only with her will broken”; and Goddard, p. 68. G. B. Shaw pronounced the ending and Kate's submission to male authority “altogether disgusting to modern sensibility” (p. 188). For recent criticism exploring patriarchy and ideological considerations in the play or in the comedies generally, see Kathleen McLuskie, “Feminist Deconstruction: The Example of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,Red Letters 12 (1982):33-40; Valerie Wayne, “Refashioning the Shrew,” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985):159-87; Joel Fineman, “The turn of the shrew,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 138-59; Karen Newman, “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,ELR 16 (Winter 1986): 86-100; Catherine Belsey, “Disrupting Sexual Difference: Meaning and Gender in the Comedies,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 166-190.

  31. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1971), p. 206. Greer goes on here to note that “it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever” (p. 206). In a more recent publication, Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), Greer notes that the play “is not a knockabout farce of wife-battering, but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals” (p. 111). A similar emphasis on equality is shown by Jeanne Addison Roberts, “Horses and Hermaphrodites: Metamorphoses in The Taming of the Shrew,SQ 34 (1983):159-71, who terms this play “Shakespeare's most sexist comedy” but notes that Shakespeare modifies a “standard tale of male supremacy with a humane vision” in that “Petruchio himself is equally tamed” (p. 171).

  32. Huston, p. 92., suggests that she incorporates into her speech several veiled references to her “earlier failures,” such as the wooing scene (“threatening unkind brow”), the wedding (“confound thy fame”), the first journey (“muddy, bereft of beauty”), the ordeal at Petruchio's country home (“so dry or thirsty”). If this is indeed the case, the wordplay clearly bears the influence of Petruchio's sophistry in the versatility of interpretation and focus as well as in the puns.

  33. See, for example, Dusinberre, p. 108; Berry, p. 57; Scott, p. 113; and Peter G. Phialas, Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1966), p. 43.

  34. Weiss, p. 51.

  35. Weiss, pp. 46-47, and Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 41-62, both point out similarities between Petruchio and the Lord.

  36. Huston, p. 10.

Randall Martin (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Kates for the Table and Kates of the Mind: A Social Metaphor in The Taming of the Shrew,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 1-20.

[In the essay below, Martin proposes an examination of The Taming of the Shrew based on an understanding of the play's contemporary context, arguing that such a reading reveals that Petruchio's treatment of Katherina reflects the conflicted ideas held by the Elizabethans about the “nature of women.”]


The vigour of recent critical debate over Petruchio's treatment of Katherine has turned The Taming of the Shrew into the first of Shakespeare's problem comedies. Traditionally it has been staged as a whip-cracking farce in which Katherine's need for reform is taken for granted and Petruchio's strategy of giving her more than a taste of her own medicine is seen as justified and reasonable. Any anxiety audiences might feel about the harshness of Petruchio's methods is allegedly relieved by the play's conventional slapstick context, which presupposes characters of limited human sensitivities who are insulated from experiencing “real” pain, thus making compassion for Katherine's ordeal unnecessary.1 This easygoing and still prevalent view of the play has been increasingly challenged, however, by critics and productions reinterpreting it as a vexatious social comedy. They anatomize the cultural assumptions of male superiority behind Petruchio's attempt to change Katherine and at the same time redefine her aggressive behaviour as self-preserving resistance to patriarchal repression.2 This recontextualizing leads to rejection of the argument that the negative impact of Petruchio's actions is neutralized by the operation of artificial or essentializing dramatic formulas, since the play maintains a realistic historical dimension insofar as it parodies contemporary marriage customs (Hibbard 15-28). The presence of this dimension also counters assumptions that Katherine is tamed in any facile way, and prompts critics and directors to see her notorious submission speech as defiantly ironic (rather than facetious, as a farcical interpretation might play it), although some concede that she may be knowingly complicit at the end of the play so as to satisfy, in a purely pro forma way, the theatrical conventions of romantic comedy.

Such revisionist readings make it increasingly difficult to continue seeing the play as an uncomplicated romp whose sexist premises can be overlooked, as if gentle Shakespeare did not really mean them. Yet however indebted we are to this new orientation for refreshing the play's critical- and stage-life, its persuasiveness may ultimately be weakened by inherent aspects of the approach itself: marginalizing certain historical and theatrical perspectives that may partially mitigate our impatience with the play's outmoded assumptions; reading into speeches ironies that are unlikely to have been available to Shakespeare's audience and that cannot be supported by direct textual evidence. The interpretations produced by such re-readings may be stimulating and provocative, but may also tend to belie the complexity and pluralism of the original cultural context, and to deny the possibility of characters' motivations being anything other than good or bad. Strictly polemical readings, moreover, often seem out of touch with the play's history of searching and enjoyable productions (Morris 88-104, Thompson 17-24).

What I wish to suggest in this paper is that the tendency to polarity among late twentieth-century views of The Taming of the Shrew can be reversed, not by blurring the play's distinct conflicts within a universalizing middle ground, but by rehistoricizing those conflicts. Situating the play within its contemporary context of social ideas and practices will help to show that Petruchio's treatment of Kate reflects genuinely contradictory Elizabethan attitudes about the nature of women, and that the contradictions are the result of sixteenth-century revaluations of traditional views. Petruchio's undeniable urge to master Kate has led recent accounts to demonize him and thus to bar anything but a negative assessment of his motives, even though Shakespeare suggests something more multidimensional by contrasting his attitudes with those of characters in the plots involving, respectively, Christopher Sly and Bianca. And while Petruchio's actions represent the most ruthless expression of the play's dominant social paradigm of male supremacy, they are mediated through certain social metaphors that posit a variant yet equivocal paradigm: intellectual and spiritual equality between husband and wife within a domestic hierarchy. The result is a disjunction between liberating ideas and cultural conservatism, and thus a kind of doublethink, which precisely mirrors Renaissance attitudes toward women. The Taming of the Shrew makes little attempt to reconcile these tendencies, however; in fact, Petruchio's histrionic shifts in behaviour and the contrast between his attitudes and those of male characters expressed in the other two plots draw attention to their incongruity. Only at the very end does Shakespeare seem to impose closure on the play's cultural debate by subordinating Petruchio's unconventional mix of values, which Katherine has been forced to internalize if not necessarily accept, to a romantic love-conquers-all formula.

This paper will briefly examine the historical context of conflicting Renaissance ideas about the nature of women and of marriage, and also the relation of these ideas to neo-Platonic theories about love. Shakespeare reflects these different points of view in his various plots, and particularly in regular and parodic representations of the neo-Platonic “banquet of senses” metaphor. When discussing marriage, both neo-Platonic writers and Tudor social theorists habitually contrasted intellectual and material realms of being when advocating the merits of rational compatability over sensual love. Shakespeare uses their distinctions to clarify the ultimate position of Kate: she may claim equality with men in the former areas but must accept inferiority in the latter. Such an unresolved paradox reveals Shakespeare to be less proto-feminist (as one recent critic has claimed) than simply aware of the co-existence of contradictory ideas within the Elizabethan status quo, which The Taming of the Shrew thereby implicitly accepts.3 If my stress appears to be more on what Petruchio believes he is trying positively to achieve, it is not because I discount the negative aspects of his taming, but because these have been well examined in recent criticism, to whose work I hope to add a further historical dimension.


Renaissance humanist writers who debated the nature and social position of women during the sixteenth century reassessed classical and mediaeval views according to two broad lines of inquiry: positive re-interpretation of Biblical passages bearing on human sexuality, and the substitution of Platonic theories of human capability for Aristotelian ones.4 The first of these had the effect of raising the status of matrimony and rejecting the notion that celibacy was a superior spiritual state.5 Reformers issued handbooks redefining the purposes and conditions of marriage and outlining the mutual obligations of husband and wife. In England, Vives's Office and Duetie of an Husband (1553?) was followed by works of Agrippa, Bullinger, Erasmus (see also Bean, “Passion”), and, closest to the time of The Taming of the Shrew, Henry Smith, whose Preparatiue to Mariage is typical of the genre and was apparently widely read, having gone through three editions in 1591 alone. Like his colleagues, Smith emphasizes that there is no spiritual degradation in conjugal sex, and that to view marriage as the natural Christian state has the practical function of allowing for mutual help and companionship in addition to the traditional moral ones of assuring propagation and averting fornication (1, 13-26). The basis for compatability between wife and husband, which now assumes cardinal importance, must be what Agrippa calls a “reasonable and chast [faithful] loue” (Cviv).6 Humanists had two reasons for emphasizing the role of rationally based affection: to counter mediaeval notions of courtly love, which countenanced romantic passion outside marriage,7 and to avoid concentration on money and property, which were the foremost considerations in arranging pre-Reformation upper- and upper middle-class marriages (Stone, Family 137; Crisis 594-95, 599). Smith recommends that, as Adam slept before Eve was created, so should a man subordinate earthly desires when wooing to avoid basing marriage on “Venison” [= lust] or “gentrie” [= riches] (10). He concludes, “The goods of the world are good, and the goods of the bodie are good, but the goods of the minde are better” (29-30). Agrippa likewise advises the prospective husband to “chose a wyfe, not a garment, let thy wyfe be maryed vnto the[e], not her dowrye” (Cvir-v).

Despite these more progressive views, when it came to extending their implications to social equality for women, humanist theologians largely failed to overturn traditional prejudices.8 Indeed, as Lawrence Stone has demonstrated, the Protestant shift of moral responsibility from parish priest to head of the household, as well as primogeniture's empowerment of the nuclear-family patriarch, actually led to a loss of domestic and legal freedom for women (Family 137-40, 154-55). Moreover, theories about either political or domestic structures shared mutually reinforcing principles. Bullinger, for example, speaks often of “mutuall loue matrimoniall” as an ennobling spiritual state and the foundation of marital fellowship, yet at the same time compares the husband's position to the prince's as head of a kingdom (Hiv). Smith juggles similar views:

The man & wife are partners like two owers [sic] in a boate, therefore hee must diuide offices, and affaires, & goods with her, causing her to bee feared and reuerenced, and obeied of her children and seruants like himselfe; for she is as an vnder officer in his Common weale.


Within the household humanist theory extols spiritual equality and mutual respect, but whenever a political dimension is introduced its claims revert to traditional assumptions concerning female inferiority.

The second general influence on sixteenth-century ideas about women came from neo-Platonism, the diffuse body of theories based on Plato himself (often imperfectly) and on later interpretations. Plato argued that because human souls were separate from and had a life prior to bodily existence, physical differences between men and women were “nominal” and did not indicate any natural disparity in moral or intellectual capacities.9 Beyond these basic ideas, neo-Platonism as it concerned women concentrated mainly on developing theories about the nature of love. The locus classicus is Marsilio Ficino's In Convivium Platonis De Amore Commentarius (1475). Although there was no English translation available during the sixteenth century, numerous French ones were printed (the latest being 1588), as well as Ficino's Italian version (1544) of his Latin original. Ficino describes love as a cyclical force radiating from the divine creator into the world as Beauty (a pure idea) and Love (Beauty's earthly image), and then returning to its heavenly source as human pleasure. When the eternal idea of Beauty is suffused throughout the physical world it becomes veiled in material objects and can be contemplated only by the rational soul in human beings. Contemplating Beauty allows individuals to achieve union with God, and because, women are the world's most beautiful creations they provide the material image that comes closest to Beauty itself. Neo-Platonic theory therefore not only denied the inferior status of woman but also regarded her, not always this side idolatry, as the earthly pathway to intellectual and spiritual enlightenment (52-53). Such ideas influenced a whole body of polemical writers such as Cornelius Agrippa, whose treatise Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde (1542) begins with this assertion:

The diuersitie of [male and female] kyndes, standeth onely in the sondry situation of the bodily partes, in whiche the vse of generation requireth a necessary differe[n]ce. He [God] hath giuen but one similitude and lykenes of the sowle, to bothe male and female, betwene whose sowles there is noo maner dyfference of kynd. The woman hathe that same mynd that a man hath, that same reason and speche, she gothe to the same ende of blysfulnes, where shall be noo exception of kynde.


Agrippa's book constitutes part of the rhetorical controversy over the nature of women that sprang from neo-Platonic thought during the sixteenth century. Most works in this genre, regardless of which side they took, were academic exercises to be admired for their skill at ingenious (and in the case of arguments defending women, paradoxical) argument rather than serious proposition and defence, and consequently these too had a limited influence on real social practices (Woodbridge ch. 1-ch. 5; Bornstein v-xiii). A few, however, such as Agrippa's, and Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (Englished as The Book of the Courtier by Thomas Hoby, 1561), went beyond literary games to present forceful and more serious challenges to traditional assumptions. Agrippa's philosophical daring was known elsewhere from Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences (1569, in Latin 1534), in which he catalogues variant opinions on a large number of topics to show that moral values are contingent because all knowledge is subjective. Although many of his arguments are clearly facetious, others, such as his belief that social customs are not based on an immutable natural order, are in earnest.10On the Nobilitie of Womankynde can in turn be distinguished from The Courtier in that Agrippa shows himself to be aware of the persistent discrepancy between theoretical and cultural attitudes toward women, whereas Castiglione (in part because of his intended courtly readership) is not. The body of Agrippa's book in fact parodies the whole controversialist method, with interminable lists of “excellent” women mingled with fantastic bits of etymology and natural folklore, so that like Of the Vanitie of Artes and Sciences it mixes absurd contentions with serious ones, partly for fun and partly to distance Agrippa from academic attack.11 Toward the end of the treatise, however, he removes his tongue from his cheek and returns to the serious tone of his opening pages:

For anon as a woman is borne euen from her infancy, she is kept at home in ydelnes, & as thoughe she were vnmete for any hygher busynesse, she is p[er]mitted to know no farther, than her nedle and her threede. And than whan she commeth to age, able to be maried, she is delyuered to the rule and gouernance of a ielous husband, or els she is perpetually shutte vp in a close nounrye. And all offyces belongynge to the common weale, be forbydden theym by the lawes. Nor it is not permitted to a woman, though she be very wise and prudent, to pleade a cause before a Juge. Furthermore, they be repelled in iurisdiction, in arbiterment, in adoption, in intercession, in procuration, or to be gardeyns or tutours, in causes testame[n]tary and criminall. Also they be repelled from preachynge of goddes worde, agaynst expresse and playn scripture. … But the vnworthy dealyng of the later lawe makers is so great, that breakyng goddes commaundemente, to stablysshe theyr owne traditions, they haue pronounced openlye, that women otherwyse in excellency of nature, dignitie, and honour most noble, be in condicion more vyle than all men: And thus by these lawes, the women being subdewed as it were by force of armes, are constrained to giue place to men, and to obeye theyr subdewers, not by no naturall, no diuyne necessitie or reason, but by custome, education, fortune, and a certayne tyrannicall occasion.


This passage goes to the heart of the Renaissance position on women, where the impasse between enlightened theory and familiar custom prevents the former from being translated into political and legal progress. Even in the area of access to education, where humanist arguments had some limited success during the mid- to late 1500s, advancement was confined almost exclusively to upper-class women (Stone, Family 202-06), whereas in general advocacy of women's intellectual freedom never trespassed upon traditional imperatives obliging social institutions to uphold a divinely ordained hierarchical order. From this point of view, The Courtier is entirely typical of the age's unconsciously ambivalent views, since it combines “a conservative desire to maintain the fabric of society as it is with a radical reappraisal of woman's capacity for virtue” (Maclean 42).

Not surprisingly, neo-Platonic ideas about women and love were reflected chiefly in the area of dramatic and non-dramatic poetry (see Harrison), and on this subject Ficino was recalled for what he had to say about contemplating beauty, since this was crucial to the attainment of spiritual growth. Since a woman is the veiled image of divine Beauty, contemplation of her physical attractions is of limited value because this is but a temporary stage in the soul's quest for Beauty itself. As a male lover journeys up the Platonic ladder of being, contemplation via the baser senses (taste, touch, and smell) recedes, since it is only through hearing, sight, and mind that love proceeds to ratiocination, and ultimately to a visionary state of union with the One:

Since, therefore, it is the intellect, seeing and hearing by which alone we are able to enjoy beauty, and since love is the desire to enjoy beauty, love is always satisfied through the intellect, the eyes, or the ears. What need is there for smell? What need is there for taste, or touch? These senses perceive odors, flavors, heat, cold, softness and hardness, and similar things. None of these is human beauty since they are simple forms. …


Love that prefers physical beauty contemplated through the lower three senses is not genuine but rather an appetite dominated by the blood humour (41, 113, 168), which condition Ficino calls lust or madness. He also describes the soul's journey through different stages of sensual knowledge by using the metaphor of a banquet, where, after ascending through each “course” or level, the lover is finally rewarded with an eternal feast of divine revelation (80). The “banquet of senses” became a common Renaissance metaphor for differentiating earthly love from that aspiring to transcendance.12

In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone.

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 141: 1-8)

But like many neo-Platonic ideas, the metaphor was modified as it was put to different uses. In Elizabethan love-poetry the original Platonic notion of an unbridgeable gap between physical beauty and Beauty contemplated by the rational soul was affected by the idea of the Incarnation, in which human and divine natures could co-exist. The young man of Shakespeare's sonnets, to cite these again, exemplifies the divine within the realm of earthly experience (Leishman 149-77):

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, “This poet lies—
Such heav'nly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.”

(Sonnet 17: 5-8)

Similarly, the normal metaphysical direction of the banquet of senses could be inverted, so that a lover who contemplates beauty without forgoing the baser senses experiences a heightening rather than a relaxation of sexual appetite. It is this kind of “Ovidian” banquet (so-called for its associations with Ovid's Ars Amatoria [Kermode 90]) that Shakespeare's Venus contemplates in Adonis:

Had I no eyes but ears, my ears would love
That inward beauty and invisible;
Or were I deaf, thy outward parts would move
Each part in me that were but sensible:
Though neither eyes nor ears, to hear nor see,
Yet should I be in love by touching thee.
Say that the sense of feeling were bereft me,
And that I could not see, nor hear, nor touch
And nothing but the very smell were left me,
Yet would my love to thee be still as much;
For from the stillitory of thy face excelling
Comes breath perfum'd, that breedeth love by smelling.
But oh what banquet wert thou to the taste,
Being nurse and feeder of the other four!

(Poems, “Venus and Adonis” 433-46)

It has been suggested that Shakespeare's poem as well as Ficino's Commentary influenced Chapman, whose Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595) presents the best-known use of the metaphor, albeit in reversed form and with a hidden disclaimer (Bartlett, Myers). Here Ovid himself appears as a “counter-Plato” contemplating Corinna in her garden. He feasts on her charms through each of his senses, going from sight to touch. But just as he approaches his longed-for goal, Corinna's waiting-women return and physical consummation is interrupted. During the course of the poem the narrator pauses to discuss the idea of love as intellectual beauty, and so distinguishes Ovid's descent into physical passion from the true lover's journey toward spiritual revelation. This digression embeds an alternative conception of rational love within the surrounding anti-Platonic narrative, just as Beauty itself is veiled in human incarnations, and as potentially progressive humanist and neo-Platonic revaluations of women were contained by the vested cultural interests of patriarchal order. In The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare seems to be using the metaphor to suggest similar distinctions between Petruchio's attitudes toward love and women and those revealed in the other two plots, and it is this subject I now wish to consider.


When the Lord stumbles upon Christopher Sly in the Induction and decides to have some fun reviving him, he plans a scene of illusion centring on which is a banquet,13 and explains carefully how it is to be managed:

Carry him gently to my fairest chamber,
And hang it round with all my wanton pictures.
Balm his foul head in warm distilled waters,
And burn sweet wood to make the lodging sweet.
Procure me music ready when he wakes,
To make a dulcet and a heavenly sound.
And if he chance to speak, be ready straight
And with a low submissive reverence
Say ‘What is it your honour will command?’
Let one attend him with a silver basin
Full of rose-water and bestrew'd with flowers,
Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper,
And say ‘Will't please your lordship cool your hands?’
Some one be ready with a costly suit,
And ask him what apparel he will wear.

(Ind. i. 44-58)

The provision of specific charms for each of Sly's senses recalls the banquet of sense and reminds us that the Lord's illusion relies on more than theatrical deception alone—a “suppose” making use of accompanying scenery and properties; it is also a process of sense-suggestion in which stimulation by new experiences will instil imaginative and emotional clues into Sly's mind to create a new identity. The Lord here draws on common Elizabethan ideas about the relation of mental states to physiological conditions that held that stimulation of any sense could have a direct impact upon personality. The nature of the banquet's “courses” also reveals its anti-Platonic design in that sexual appetites are excited by tendentious sense associations. The birds in Sly's chamber producing “Apollo's music” are nightingales, creatures proverbial for lechery. They create the appropriate atmosphere for the anticipated pleasures of his couch, “Softer and sweeter than the lustful bed / On purpose trimm'd up for Semiramis” (Ind. ii. 39-40). These provisions complement Sly's grosser preference for beef and ale over conserves and sack, while the proposed recreations of hawking and hunting, although not part of the immediate action, enrich the developing fantasy with associations of vicarious aggression and flatter the subconscious social pretensions revealed in his opening exchange with the Hostess (Leggatt 43). The “wanton pictures” contribute to the overall effect as well, especially when choice scenes are brought to Sly's attention:

SEC. Serv.
We will fetch thee straight
Adonis painted by a running brook,
And Cytherea all in sedges hid,
Which seem to move and wanton with her breath
Even as the waving sedges play with wind.
We'll show thee Io as she was a maid,
And how she was beguiled and surpris'd,
As lively painted as the deed was done.
Or Daphne roaming through a thorny wood,
Scratching her legs that one shall swear she bleeds,
And at that sight shall sad Apollo weep,
So workmanly the blood and tears are drawn.

(Ind. ii. 50-61)

Each of these portrays episodes in Ovid's Metamorphoses involving an actual or attempted rape, and the last two add a dimension of violent compulsion to the scene's other uses of “blood” as sexual heat.

These allusions, as well as the Lord's deliberate stimulation of Sly's baser appetites, leave no doubt of the banquet's outcome, so that when the Page-disguised-as-Wife responds to Sly's summons saying, “Here, noble lord, what is thy will with her?” (Ind. ii. 104), the word “will” immediately assumes its secondary meaning of “lust,” as Sly tries to steer “her” toward bed. The Lord's artful illusion has enlarged Sly's “swinish” and “bestial” nature (see Ind. i. 32) by rehabilitating it in a form recognizable from the testimony of contemporary marriage handbooks and social practices: a husband's rule over his wife empowered by unrestrained will and “will.” The wife accordingly exists as the banquet's fulfilment of masculine desire, what might be called the pièce de résistance. But the Page, also drawing on officially approved forms of behaviour, plays the maid's part well and manages to divert Sly's advances with warnings about lapsing into his former delusion, so he reluctantly tarries, “in despite of the flesh and the blood” (Ind. ii. 128). With the arrival of the players to present their history the secondary effects of small ale take their course.

Part of the comic appeal of Sly's transformation is that in one aspect it is distanced: his heightened predatory desires are rendered frivolous by the indefinitely delayed consummation and the plainly theatrical nature of the Lord's trick. But when in the main play we see similar desires motivating Lucentio's falling in love with Bianca, their implications occur within a setting dominated by real cultural institutions—marriage and education—thereby rendering them more immediate and serious. Here Shakespeare mingles the artificial conventions of his dramatic source with actual Elizabethan customs, and the result is a sometimes perplexing combination. On the one hand a genuine feeling of “life as it was lived” arises from Shakespeare's portrayal of Elizabethan practices in arranging marriages, as G. R. Hibbard has demonstrated (18), and from his attention to tutelage. He sets the play in Padua, a Renaissance “nursery of arts,” refers to universities and subjects favoured by contemporary teachers, and gives free reign to progressive notions about education in Baptista's household, which are based on the assumption that women possess intellectual capacities equal to men.14 Yet these views are undercut when Baptista presumes his daughters do not know how to choose husbands for themselves and, acting upon his patriarchal prerogative, secures profitable and dynastically enhancing marriages for them. This conflict between theory and established practice exemplifies educated attitudes toward women in Shakespeare's time, and provides an analogy with which to explore the play's various representations of love. In the Bianca plot, Tranio declares Lucentio's options in this matter schematically:

                                        while we do admire
This virtue and this moral discipline,
Let's be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,
Or so devote to Aristotle's checks
As Ovid be an outcast quite abjur'd:


The bookish infatuation that follows, accompanied by Petrarchan complaints of pining and burning, indicates Lucentio has chosen Ovidian studies. No less than Sly, yet at first shielded from being shamed by his disguise, his progress in love proceeds through encounters stimulated by the sight, sound, touch, and finally taste of Bianca as his desires grow commensurately bolder. Similarly, classical allusions to Dido, Anna, and Europa (I.i.154, 168) recall themes of duplicity and sexual violence introduced by the Lord's pictures in the Induction, although in one instance Lucentio's tastes are mocked when he mistakes Bianca for Minerva, the goddess of war (I.i.84).

By the standards of contemporary marriage handbooks, Lucentio's pursuit of love is clearly deplorable. He fails to establish relations based on mutual compatibility and instead builds upon plain desire, whose self-indulgent nature becomes manifest in both him and Bianca as their courtship advances (“See how beastly she doth court him.” [IV.ii.34]).15 By contrast, the match between Katherine and Petruchio begins with the issue of compatibility (out of which Shakespeare makes better dramatic capital than previous shrew-taming stories by giving Katherine's rebellion moral and social justification), and leads later to modest (because reluctant) displays of public affection. Furthermore, since the devotion of Lucentio and Bianca to “Venison” contradicts one of the handbooks' main injunctions, it is not surprising that the crass auction of Bianca defies another against greed. Here it is telling that the goods Tranio (as Lucentio) and Gremio publish to bid for possession of Bianca recall the material luxuries provided for Sly's banquet:

                                        my house within the city
Is richly furnished with plate and gold,
Basins and ewers to lave her dainty hands,
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. …


The Bianca plot re-enacts the Induction's association between appetitive and materialistic desires, but in a realistic context that openly satirizes those popular notions of love that venerate “young modest girls” while treating them as choice comestibles.

Petruchio's ideas of love in marriage, on the other hand, reflect the more progressive ideas of the Tudor marriage books, such as that the disposition of worldly goods in marriage is a serious matter yet not the top priority, and that relationships should be based on mutual affection within a domestic hierarchy. Unfortunately, the more positive aspects of Petruchio's motives originating in these ideas become lost amid his initial bravado and subsequent obduracy. His lines about coming to wive it wealthily in Padua ring more memorably in an audience's ears than Grumio's deflation of them as histrionic bombast; a more balanced attitude comes out in his brisk handling of financial arrangements with Baptista. Shakespeare also provides Petruchio with literary allusions pointing to underlying attitudes that are markedly different from those of Lucentio and of Sly before him. Though a cluster at I.ii.68-70 (Florent's wife, Sibyl, Xanthippe) occurs in a typically over-the-top speech, it refers to tales of hard-won fellowship rather than rape and wilful desire; and while Lucentio sees himself as an Ajax (III.i.50-51, proverbial for brainless passion), Gremio likens Petruchio to Hercules (I.ii.255-56), whom Renaissance humanists identified with powers of rational persuasion and regularly adopted as an emblem of their educational aspirations.16 More stereotypical are Petruchio's comparisons of Katherine to Diana (promoter of marital union as well as chastity), patient “Grissel,” and “Roman Lucrece” (II.i.252-54, 288-89). These references to exceptional women, juxtaposed with Petruchio's verbal and physical aggression, appear to echo the romantic attitudes of Lucentio and Hortensio, which simultaneously idolize and degrade women; yet their purpose lies more in Petruchio's opening strategy of surprising Katherine through audacious contradiction and, just as important, of prompting a display of her mental and verbal agility.

That all the play's literary allusions contribute seriously to distinguishing characters' unconscious attitudes is suggested by their selective distribution: Shakespeare uses them only until III.i, as if after that they have supplied a sufficient number of clues to personality; and in this they parallel the physical presence of the Induction characters watching the main performance. For if we accept the Folio text without interpolations from The Taming of A Shrew, whose Christopher Sly scenes may or may not reflect a different version of Shakespeare's, the Induction actors leave the stage at some point after I.i. The theatre audience takes over their roles as spectators, while characters performing in the main play enact the performance that the Induction actors originally introduced. Since the series of classical allusions begun by the Induction disappears at about the same time as its actors, it seems the implications of both are intended to be integrated into our understanding of the main play.

The dichotomy in Petruchio's treatment of Katherine emerges distinctly after their first wooing scene. His offensive behaviour in church during their wedding is described by Gremio, whose report trivializes its blasphemous details. Petruchio then arrives for the celebrations grotesquely decked-out and sporting a high-minded disdain for feasting. His studied non-conformity as well as Tranio's (really Hortensio's?) earlier remarks about his normally modest dress indicate that he has shifted the focus of his aggression and now intends to épater les bourgeois:

Go to the feast, revel and domineer,
Carouse full measure to her maidenhead,
Be mad and merry, or go hang yourselves.


This whole speech (220-37) is a characteristic blaze of theatrical poses, each representing a different exaggerated role in Petruchio's moral repertoire. The attack on feasting frees him from participating in tiresome social rituals that connive at conspicuous consumption, and sets him apart from Bianca and Lucentio, who prepare for a lifetime of demi-monde dinner parties by taking his and Katherine's place. Petruchio's stagey outrage runs roughshod over Kate's bridal rights, yet in the wider context of the play it is difficult to dismiss as merely contrived, because his later actions (which I shall deal with in a moment) reiterate the same theme, as do apparently unguarded remarks such as “Nothing but sit and sit, and eat and eat!” (V.ii.12). Petruchio then switches to a patriarch's vein in the infamous passage describing Kate as his goods and chattels. Again this is and is not Petruchio. It is an attitude borne out by the way he goes about crushing Kate's independence in act IV, but it is at odds with the respect for her witty resilience he has revealed in their earlier flyting. Finally Petruchio parodies Lucentio's romanticism by imitating the chivalrous lover who rescues his helpless mistress from unworthy rivals, just as Tranio/Lucentio imagines he delivers Bianca from the clutches of Hortensio and Gremio.

To decide what Petruchio is by choosing among these roles is to miss the point: he is nothing if not all three, a pastiche of stereotypical attitudes toward women presented at various times and places by Elizabethans themselves. A further role (the trainer who channels a falcon's maverick energy) appears during Petruchio's next show, IV.i, especially in the “politic” speech at the end of the scene. As a set-piece of cool self-justification set amid the surrounding bustle, it is reminiscent of Richard of Gloucester's soliloquies, which reveal dramatic character yet make an audience hesitate to take them entirely at face value because of their overtly histrionic expression. Like Richard, Petruchio establishes a self-regarding engagement with the audience by adopting a stance of superiority and impatient defiance: “He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak: 'tis charity to show” (IV.i.197-98). Even when Petruchio applies the falcon-taming policy, its methods suggest incongruous motives. His strenuous insistence on fasting, sexual continence, and innocent “company” (IV.i.160, 164, 170) extends his earlier ascetic role, while Grumio's business concerning the unseasonably frigid weather softens its rough edges through comic refraction. Petruchio's effort to change Kate's personality by controlling her physical needs also recalls the Induction's banquet of illusion, except that here he reverses the process to correspond with a neo-Platonic objective. If his actions consisted only of starving Kate, they would simply reflect the strategy announced in his “politic” speech. But since they include a shared sexual dimension as well as abstinence from other sensual pleasures, they suggest he wants to guide her away from “will”-ful desires and toward joining him in a companionate pursuit of higher values, culminating in what Irene Dash calls a state of “spiritual intimacy” (37). As with Sly's delusion, the initial effect of Petruchio's régime is disorientation: “she, poor soul, / Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak, / And sits as one new risen from a dream” (IV.i.171-73). But as it proceeds, the basis of contention evolves: from food, sex, and sleep (IV.i), to clothes (IV.iii), to visual perception, the pivotal sense (in neo-Platonic terms) between physical and intellectual being (IV.v). Petruchio's refusal of the haberdasher's and the tailor's goods thus becomes more than just another battleground in the contest of wills; it questions uncritical acceptance of those respectable but ultimately self-serving social norms parodied by his outlandish behaviour at the wedding:

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,
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.


He encourages Katherine to distinguish between gratifying sensual desires, or what Ficino calls the love of “simple forms,” and enjoying an intellectual rapport that is independent of material claims and that forms the basis of “reciprocal love” (98).

Nonetheless, Petruchio's pursuit of what might be called the taming-school's metaphysical objective—spiritual equality based on rational love—also involves accommodating Kate to a paradoxical (yet, by Elizabethan practices, typical) binary element: social differentiation. His motives elevate mutual understanding to the status of an absolute good entirely separate from everyday existence, which otherwise adheres to the traditional claims of hierarchy oblivious to any real contradiction. This dual value system becomes manifest in IV.v, when Katherine's ability to solve the riddle of the sun and moon depends on her ignoring the material evidence of her senses and imitating Petruchio's anti-empirical mode of thinking. During the second round of their game, however, a crucial change occurs; for while Kate is freely practising confusions on Vincentio, Petruchio suddenly drops his anti-conventional pose and plainly describes what he sees:

Why, how now, Kate, I hope thou art not mad.
This is a man, old, wrinkled, faded, wither'd,
And not a maiden, as thou say'st he is.


When Katherine follows suit, by now out of exhaustion but perhaps also out of love (Kahn 97), she implicitly enters into Petruchio's intuitive relationship between respecting minds, distinct from, yet still existing within, the predefined social order. Since this order's “natural” or universal status is the usual justification for maintaining its hierarchical basis (from which source the premisses of Shakespearian comedy also take their cue), Katherine and Petruchio's intellectual compact remains a private luxury. Ultimately it is subsumed within the play's larger dynamic of social discord harmonized through marriage, whose ritual expression of female subordination confirms the apparently immutable superiority of male authority.

The final scene follows the nuptial feast of Lucentio and Bianca and is the last of the play's banquets.17 After Vincentio's strained outcries for his “murdered” son the pace is relaxed, and the obviously theatrical nature of the husbands' wager, like the Induction, has the effect of distancing discordant elements. While not trivial, the implications of Bianca and the Widow's assertions of independence are projected into the future and for the moment appear wryly amusing when set against the strong dramatic pull toward omnia amor vincit. We also recognize familiar Shakespearian attempts to portray the final transformation as something extraordinary and quasi-magical. Katherine's reappearance is greeted by the unusual Shakespearian oath, “Now, by my holidame” (V.ii.100), a four-fold repetition of “wonder” (107-08, 190), and Baptista's pledge of “another dowry to another daughter” (115), which faintly anticipates the resurrection motifs of Shakespeare's later comedies and romances. In such an atmosphere Katherine's final speech inevitably becomes portentous. After the Widow's insults, it is reasonable to expect her to defend herself (as she did earlier: “And I am mean, indeed, respecting you” [32]). Petruchio provides the occasion for this defence by setting up the Widow as a playful target just as he had earlier set up Vincentio (IV.v.27-34), so that Katherine's lecture on wifely duties becomes a rhetorical bid for intellectual superiority over her detractors, and thus a conscious performance. But like the numerous roles Petruchio has played, and unlike all the other roles adopted by the play's would-be lovers, the speech is not self-evidently a false identity; for, after the events on the road to Padua, it also re-enacts Katherine and Petruchio's now concordant ideas about the nature of love in marriage. Katherine apparently reconciles herself to an unequal social position because the cultural assumptions underpinning it derive from a plane of existence inferior to that from which she derives her intellectual being. In effect, she must live in both worlds. The intellectual realm remains a substantial source of integrity and pleasure she shares with Petruchio, while the creed of obedience she flourishes here points to the strictly “nominal” importance she attaches to her domestic role.


I have tried in this paper to put the play's marital relationships into historical perspective by showing that, despite his enforcement of male supremacy, Petruchio's underlying motives suggest some degree of respect for Katherine's spiritual and intellectual being. That this is expressed through his crude domination of her physical needs can be seen as Shakespeare's stage metaphor for contradictory attitudes of writers on women in Elizabethan society, which on the one hand acknowledge a woman's spiritual and intellectual freedom and equality, and on the other do not question, with very few exceptions, her inferiority in the social order. Because Kate is forced to accept this contradiction, it is not solely her last speech that questions what is universal law: the questioning also occurs in the play's wider exchange of attitudes. Shakespeare conveys the two main lines of Renaissance thought on women by presenting variations on the banquet of sense metaphor in both its neo-Platonic and its “Ovidian” forms. Like Chapman's poem, the former, with its more positive view of women, exists as a minority position embedded in and tamed by the dominant dramatic—and corresponding social—structure. Although neo-Platonic ideas about human capacities had the potential to challenge traditional cultural practices, they here remain an ideal presence with no impact on the social side of Petruchio's relationship with Katherine. Shakespeare is not prepared to let the potentially emancipating theories of neo-Platonic love challenge romantic comedy's traditional assumptions about marriage any more than humanist writers on the subject of women felt obliged to recognize or promote the wider political implications of their reforming principles. The Taming of the Shrew acknowledges the existence of these contradictory attitudes but does not resolve them in any forward-looking way.


  1. See Daniell, Heilman, Morris 104-49, Saccio and Seronsky.

  2. See Dash, Dusinberre, Jardine, Kahn, Novy, “Patriarchy,” and Woodbridge. For views that seek a middle way see Andresen-Thom and Bean, “Comic Structure.”

  3. The optimistic view is Dusinberre's. For a response see Barton.

  4. In brief, traditional authorities asserted that human sexuality was motivated by passions that were part of fallen nature and that the “daughters of Eve” were naturally more disposed towards sin than men. The main scriptural evidence is Genesis 3:1-16 and Pauline texts such as Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-12. Theological arguments were buttressed by Aristotle's accounts of natural history asserting that women were spiritually inferior to men because a) they lacked real souls, and b) physical differences between men and women corresponded to mental ones, and in both areas the female was the disadvantaged sex. See a) Aristotle, De Generatione Animalium II.3 (737a), Ethica Nicomachea III.10-12 (1117b-19b), Problemata XXVIII (949a-50a); b) Aristotle, Historia Animalium IX.1 (608a-b), Ethica Nicomachea VII.7 (1150a-b). Also Maclean.

  5. That marriage was the natural Christian state for men and women, in which they were equally capable of spiritual growth, was indicated by Jesus's participation in the wedding at Cana and the fact that he first performed miracles there (John 2:1-11). Also Stone, Family 135-36.

  6. Also see Vives Cviiir-Dir, Erasmus, A Modest Meane Bviiir, Bullinger Divr.

  7. This is the main theme of Erasmus's Modest Meane, a dialogue between a romantic lover, Pamphilus, and his sensible friend, Maria. When she rejects his apparently frivolous advances by saying he has not considered marriage seriously, he surprises her by talking at length about rational companionship and matrimonial obligations. Maria is won over and agrees to seek her parents' permission to wed, but (still sensibly) holds back the “three words” Pamphilus longs to hear and offers him a “Pomander to cheere [his] harte wyth” in lieu of a kiss.

  8. Besides the cited examples see Vives Eiiiv and P1v and Agrippa Cviv-viiv. For further discussion see Jardine 37-67, Maclean, 47-67, Stone, Family 137-38, Kelso, Novy, “Demythologizing,” and Woodbridge 129-36. Among lower-class women, where property considerations were not a factor, it has been presumed there was more autonomy (Stone, Family 192). Servant women migrating to London from the provinces, in particular, seemed to have enjoyed a more active role initiating relationships, finding partners, and conducting courtships, because they were not under direct or surrogate patriarchal control. Yet in both these cases freedom must have been relative, given the inherent hierarchy within service and marriage as institutions. See Elliot.

  9. The Republic V, 452e-57c, Laws VII, 804d-06c. Also Allen 131-38.

  10. For example, “[Moral philosophy consists of] diuers vse, custome, obseruation, & practise of common life, and … is mutable according to the opinion of times, places, and menne, whiche with threatninges, and flatteries they teache to children, and to the elder sorte with lawes, and punishment …” (Tiiiv). Also Ssivr.

  11. This came anyway. See Nauert 108-09, 194-97.

  12. See Kermode, Watkins, and Anderson. The last of these traces the use of the banquet as a poetic metaphor for love-making.

  13. Ind. i. 35-39. (Shrew quotations are from Morris.) The Folio stage direction states, “Enter … some with apparel, Bason and Ewer, & other appurtenances,” where modern editors now begin Induction ii. The equivalent direction in The Taming of A Shrew reads: “Enter two with a table and a banquet on it, and two other, with Slie asleepe in a chaire, richlie apparelled, & the musick plaieng.

  14. These details do not derive from Shakespeare's source. George Gascoigne's Supposes (1566) is set in Ferrara, to which Erostrato, the equivalent of Lucentio, comes simply “to studie.” Bullough I, 114.

  15. Most modern productions of the play (e.g., Stratford, Ontario, 1982) show Bianca and Lucentio engaged in fairly explicit activity here, in contrast to the reluctant kiss Katherine offers Petruchio at the end of V.i.

  16. Agrippa compares his task to that of Hercules, on the opening page of The Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences, A1r. Also see Wind.

  17. Enter … bringing in a banquet” (Folio s.d.).

Works Cited

Agrippa, Henry Cornelius. The Commendation of Matrimony. London, 1540.

———. Of the Nobilitie and Excellencie of Womankynde. London, 1542.

———. Of the Vanitie and Vncertaintie of Artes and Sciences. London, 1569.

Allen, Christine Garside. “Plato on Women.” Feminist Studies 2 (1975): 131-38.

Anderson, Donald K. “The Banquet of Love in English Drama.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 63 (1964): 422-32.

Andresen-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.

Aristotle. Works. Trans. W. D. Ross. 12 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908-52.

Bartlett, Phyllis B. “Chapman's Ovid's Banquet of Sense.Notes and Queries 198 (1952): 46-47.

Barton, Anne. “The Feminist Stage.” Times Literary Supplement 24 October 1975: 1259.

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

———. “Passion Versus Friendship in the Tudor Matrimonial Handbooks and Some Shakespearean Implications.” Wascana Review 9 (1974): 231-40.

Bornstein, Diane, ed. The Feminist Controversy of the Renaissance. Delmar: Scholar's, 1980.

Bullinger, Heinrich. The Christen State of Matrimonye. London, 1541.

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 6 vols. London: Routledge, 1961.

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Thomas Hoby. London, 1561.

Chapman, George. Poems. Ed. Phyllis B. Bartlett. New York: Russell, 1962.

Daniell, David. “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio.” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 23-31.

Dash, Irene G. Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.

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

Elliot, Vivian Brodsky. “Single Women in the London Marriage Market: Age, Status and Mortality, 1598-1618.” Marriage and Society. Ed. R. B. Outhwaite. London: Europa, 1981. 81-100.

Erasmus, D. A Mery Dialogue, Declaringe the Propertyes and of Shrowde Shrewes, and Honest Wyues. London, 1557.

———. A Modest Meane to Mariage. London, 1568.

Ficino, Marsilio. Commentary on Plato's Symposium on Love. Trans. Sears Jayne. Dallas: Spring, 1975.

Harrison, John Smith. Platonism in English Poetry of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. 1903. New York: Russell, 1965.

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

Hibbard, George R. “The Taming of the Shrew: A Social Comedy.” Shakespearean Essays. Ed. Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders. Tennessee Studies in Literature. Special Number 2. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1964. 15-28.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters. Brighton: Harvester, 1983.

Kahn, Coppelia. “The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare's Mirror of Marriage.” Modern Language Studies 5 (1975): 88-102.

Kelso, Ruth. The Doctrine for the Lady in the Renaissance. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.

Kermode, Frank. “The Banquet of Sense.” Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950. 84-115.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare's Comedy of Love. London: Methuen, 1974.

Leishman, J. B. “Shakespeare's ‘un-Platonic hyperbole’.” Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Hillary, 1961. 149-77.

Maclean, Ian. The Renaissance Notion of Woman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Morris, Brian. Introduction. The Taming of the Shrew. By William Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1981. 1-149.

Myers, James Phares. “‘This Curious Frame’: Chapman's Ovid's Banquet of Sense.Studies in Philology 65 (1968): 192-206.

Nauert, Charles G. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1965.

Novy, Marianne L. “Demythologizing Shakespeare.” Women's Studies 9 (1981): 17-27.

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

Plato. Works. Trans. George Burges. 6 vols. London: Bell, 1902.

Saccio, Peter. “Shrewd and Kindly Farce.” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 33-40.

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

Shakespeare, William. The Poems. Ed. F. T. Prince. London: Methuen, 1960.

———. Shakespeare's Sonnets, Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

———. The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Brian Morris. London: Methuen, 1981.

———. The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Ann Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Smith, Henry. A Preparatiue to Mariage. London, 1591.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

———. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper, 1979.

Thompson, Ann. Introduction. The Taming of the Shrew. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 1-41.

Vives, J. L. The Office and Duetie of an Husband. London, 1553.

Watkins, W. B. C. “Shakespeare's Banquet of Sense.” Shakespeare and Spenser. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1950. 3-35.

Wind, Edgar. “‘Hercules’ and ‘Orpheus’: Two Mock-Heroic Designs by Durer.” Journal of the Warburg Institute 2 (1938-39): 206-18.

Woodbridge, Linda. Women and the English Renaissance. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.

Peter J. Smith (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of The Taming of the Shrew, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 57, April, 1997, pp. 120-21.

[In the following review, Smith praises the way in which Lindsay Posner's production of The Taming of the Shrew was not afraid to depict the play's dark elements, such as domestic violence. Additionally, Smith notes that the play's central problem remained unresolved, and that Sly's closing of the play made the ending seem “futile” and “empty.”]

The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Lindsay Posner for the RSC, The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 December 1999, front stalls.

While Lindsay Posner's Shrew never sought to avoid the darker tones and the horror of domestic violence, it nonetheless, in its final scene, attempted to ingratiate itself romantically with its audience. This of course is an awkward balancing act and Posner, despite some interesting local readings never succeeded in resolving the central difficulties of this most awkward of comedies. One reason for this was the sheer brutality of Stuart McQuarrie's Petruchio. He assaulted, kicked, pinched and twisted the ears of his feeble servants. Having knocked Grumio to the ground in I.2, he set about stomping on him including a running kick between the legs. He roughly tousled the tailor's hair and towered threateningly over the haberdasher. Monica Dolan's diminutive Katherine was obviously no match for this violent presence and frequently he would simply pick her up and walk offstage with her over his shoulder.

The opening Induction was played in modern dress. Sly (also played by McQuarrie), a drunken Scottish reveller wearing a bomber jacket, jeans and trainers, was ejected from a night-club and lay prostrate as the hostess railed at him. Dragged off by the lords, he was wheeled back in a bubble bath and waited on by the servants. His sheer panic and his desperation for ‘a pot of small ale’ (Induction 2.1) which he downed in one as soon as he grasped it, were well conveyed and McQuarrie was an affectionate mixture of comedy and pathos. Having got out of the bath, he made his way to a luxurious study complete with desktop computer and logged on to a pornography site to do with sexual domination (a thoughtful updating of the First Lord's ‘wanton pictures’ (Induction 1.44))—the images on his monitor were projected on a large screen upstage. The Taming of the Shrew was part of this site and as he began to run the film, so the play proper began with Lucentio and Tranio (in full Renaissance costume) trotting on horseback towards the screen. As they arrived, they burst through a door in the middle of the screen and the performance began in earnest.

Much of the early part of the play was conducted (rightly) at a furious pace. There was plenty of slapstick and exaggeration in the acting styles. Shrew is a play that thrives on rapid activity and the mingling of accents and the filling of the entire stage with bustle seemed well placed. Dolan's Katherine was disappointing though. As Baptista and Petruchio secured the dowry arrangements, she fumed and squinted angrily but the response was cartoon-like and, in general, she lacked the capacity to portray the profound horror the character must be feeling. The decision to have her spit fully in her father's face as she flounced out was too easy. Again, as Petruchio entered for the wedding in a long red dress (Grumio backed him in a corset and long purple skirt), she stood, her eyes screwed up with fury but really only had one expression which was used yet again during the exchanges over the sun and the moon. However, as she suffered the starvation and deprivation of Petruchio's household, she visibly faded and seemed about to faint. Only here did she really succeed in soliciting our empathy.

The first half ended with Petruchio's soliloquy in which he challenges us to provide him with a better method of subjugating his wife: ‘He that knows better how to tame a shrew, / Now let him speak; ‘tis charity to show’ (IV.1.197-8). Following the delivery of these lines he coolly looked round the audience (on all three levels) and, being greeted with silence, smiled smugly and exited. This arrogance reappeared during the final banquet scene. As Katherine entered, following the wager, pushing before her Bianca and the Widow, Petruchio in a cocky gesture, looked at his wine and slurped it before gargling and swallowing ostentatiously. Nobody could say a word until he was ready. The fact that this Petruchio was so unsympathetic made Katherine's crucial set-piece on wifely obedience seem like just another bit of brainwashing. It was therefore totally at odds with the production that, at its conclusion, she threw herself into his arms and kissed him passionately before he carried her off to bed. Charlotte Randle's Bianca was distinctly unimpressed and tossed her drink back defiantly in a mock toast to her husband.

There were several notable supporting roles. Colin McCormack was a fruity First Lord, patting the buttocks of his exiting butler. He doubled as an exasperated Baptista—less patriarchal bully and more hen-pecked father. Louis Hilyer's Tranio was refreshingly down-to-earth while Ryan Pope's impish Biondello was brassy and insolent despite being almost continually on the end of somebody's boot.

The closing frame found Sly back on the streets being mocked by two office girls from the Christmas party (with crowns of tinsel). As Sly resolved to go home and see to his wife, he pointlessly flicked them a V sign—they had already exited. He stumbled drunkenly off stage and the production closed. There was something futile and empty about such a perfunctory ending.

Margie Burns (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Ending of The Shrew,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 18, 1986, pp. 41-64.

[In the following essay, Burns asserts that the play's unity is established through the frame created by Sly's disappearance in the first act, and the “disappearance” of the shrew in the final act.]

The central thematic and formal principle in The Taming of the Shrew is its conversion of oppositions into dialectics, so that initially adversarial relationships or hierarchies become vehicles of reciprocal exchange. This is accomplished in the relationship between Kate and Petruchio, in the relationship between the Induction and the main play, and ultimately in the relationship between the ending and the “missing” ending. All of these relationships are subsumed by the ending of the play.

The conclusion of Shrew poses two famous problems, the remarkable disappearance of Christopher Sly and the other Induction characters after Act I, and the ambiguity of Katherina's self-extinguishing speech in Act V (ii.136-79).1 At the beginning of the play, Sly disappears, to be replaced by Katherina the shrew; at the end of the play, Katherina the shrew disappears, to be replaced by someone evidently rather … sly.2 As this charming symmetry of beginning and end suggests, I think, the play coheres, without the addition of any supererogatory ending. I shall argue that the two problems mentioned above are connected and that, by virtue of their connection, they can be resolved; the exchange between them—and between beginning and ending—partly indicates the formal complexity of the play, but also evidences the unity of the play. To explain the ending of Shrew, one should posit not that half a frame is missing, but that the unity of the play is its frame.3 Thus Sly's loss can be discussed as the play's gain, because the discontinuation of Sly's story actually helps develop the Kate-Petruchio story. Leaving aside for now the traditional assumptions of Shrew criticism, therefore, I shall concentrate at first on purely formal considerations. Rather than hypothesize a missing ending, I shall focus on the manifold connections between the Induction and the final scene in particular, and between the Induction and the main play overall.

Modern readers have reawakened to some of the thematic connections between the Sly story and the rest of the play, as sketched by Richard Hosley in his overview of the play: a “threefold structure of induction, main plot, and sub-plot, unified as these elements are by the ‘Supposes’ theme”4 Among recent readers, Maynard Mack guides the consensus, emphasizing the characteral parallels between Sly and Kate: “what the Lord [sic] and his servants do in thrusting a temporary identity on Sly is echoed in what Petruchio does for Kate at a deeper level of psychic change.”5 Sidney Homan similarly emphasizes the parallels between Sly and Kate, in his reading of the metadramatic parallels between, respectively, spectator and actor.6 Alongside the consensus on the links between Sly and Kate, however, other readers have noted analogous links between Sly and Petruchio, following the direction pointed out by the fair-minded Harold Goddard:

In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly the tinker, drunk with ale, is persuaded that he is a great lord who has been the victim of an unfortunate lunacy. Petruchio, in the play which Sly witnesses (when he is not asleep), is likewise persuaded that he is a great lord—over his wife.7

Goddard's attractive insight, partly a corrective to a rather sexist and elitist emphasis on Kate and Sly as solely the weaker partners in parallel manipulations, will be pursued farther. First, however, to substantiate any of the larger characteral relations between Induction and play, one must observe the detailed relations between scene and scene in the Induction and Act V.

Both the Induction and the final scene necessitate a “banquet,” an atmosphere of communal festivity somewhat self-consciously evoked:

Sirs, I will practice on this drunken man.
What think you, if he were convey'd to bed,
Wrapp'd in sweet clothes, rings put upon his fingers,
A most delicious banquet by his bed,
And brave attendants near him when he wakes … ?


In each scene, the festivity celebrates a marriage and/or the reaffirmation of a marriage; in obvious burlesque of comedy's traditional celebratory ending, the Induction bestows a rejoicing wife on the semi-sentient Christopher Sly, before an onstage audience of the whole comic community. So complete a happy ending, indeed, almost obviates any other ending; in a structural pun, its very completeness jocosely explains the absence of a coda for Sly. In fact, the two “ending” scenes of the Induction and Act V jocosely reflect each other: the Induction festivity shows a husband restored to his senses; the final scene shows a wife restored to hers; so far, so good (though I think the ironies in the former pinpoint those of the latter, as Goddard suggested). As one would expect from Renaissance drama, especially Shakespearean, the same process of reflection extends further, throughout the structure of the play: the happy ending of the Induction is picked up in Act V, scene ii, and the unhappy ending of Kate and Petruchio's wedding in Act III is reflected in Sly's unconsummated marriage in the Induction and in the absence of any consummation at all for him after Act V.

With contradictory open-endedness, the end-stopped Induction belies its own form, partly by setting up further developments, as the players enter and commence arrangements for a play. Furthermore, it also sets up the audience: since anyone first seeing the play would expect Sly to be its protagonist, the swift transmutation of roles at the end of the Induction comes like a practical joke. Like the lord, the playwright has a near-supine creature to practice on, and in both cases the butt of the joke metamorphoses into bemused (and perhaps reluctant) spectator, his mind on other things. Beyond the initial foolery, however, the playwright's joke suggests a more fruitful sense of “practice,” and Sly's happy ending also provides a warm-up, a rehearsal, for that of the main play. Parallels between the Induction and the final scene generate what might be called a familial relationship between the Induction and the play. Seen in such perspective, the Induction stands as a sort of little sister to the main play, applying itself to “practice” as a younger sister should:

Well, go with me and be not so discomfited:
Proceed in practice with my younger daughter;
She's apt to learn and thankful for good turns.


Shall sweet Bianca practice how to bride it?


Incidentally, the suggestions about “practice” for Bianca, while juxtaposing her to Katherina, hint subliminally at her constantly ongoing if quiet rehearsal as understudy in the role of shrew.

Following the overall pattern of familial resemblances (and familial stresses), the main play, which apparently must be finished before Sly's induction can be completed, falls into a kind of Leah-and-Rachel relationship to the induction, like an older sister who must be married off before the younger sister can marry. In The Taming of the Shrew, both the main play and the older sister are initially presented—objectified—as things to get rid of:

'Tis a very excellent piece of work, madam lady: would 'twere done!


I am agreed; and would I had given him the best horse in Padua to begin his wooing that would thoroughly woo her, wed her and bed her and rid the house of her!


Happily, the disregarded potential both in Katherina and in her story comes to fruition, as both become (cf. Kant) ends in themselves. Meanwhile, the Sly frame, like the sly Bianca, proves other than what it seemed originally, perhaps balks at expanded development, and finally disappears, subsumed within a larger perspective.

In the overall temper of energized humanism thus sustained by the play, a humanism based on a rather optimistic concept of the potentials in individualism, one outstanding quality in the play is its openendedness—at times, its double-endedness. The Induction and the final scene, for example, are enriched by the open-ended dialectic of literal and figurative language that connects the two scenes. Centered around parallel occasions, the scenes also center around parallel conversations about hunting; however, the literal hunting topos of the Induction metamorphoses into the figurative topos of the final scene:

This bird you aim'd at, though you hit her not;
Therefore a health to all that shot and miss'd.
O, sir, Lucentio slipp'd me like his greyhound,
Which runs himself, and catches for his master;
'Tis well, sir, that you hunted for yourself;
'Tis thought your deer does hold you at a bay.


In the Induction, the men enter arguing about which of three hunting dogs is best; in the final scene, the men argue about which of three wives is best—an infelicitous parallelism which boomerangs on at least two of them since only one wife proves a retriever (of her husband's wager, and incidentally of the other wives). Beneath the jollification (often dubious, in such scenes in Shakespeare's plays), Lucentio and Hortensio's uneasy banter about escape, retrieval, and entrapment betrays their underlying unease, the contradictory sensations of hunters unsure of their prey and of objects of prey themselves. With the play's brilliant doubleness, the colliding forms of edginess produce, for the two characters, a hint both of their own possible entrapment and of a possibly slipping grasp on the yet-untamed wives. Briefly stated, the edginess comes from a tension between denial and fulfillment and is exploited in the wedding-night wager and exacerbated by the wives, who first leave the room (shift their “bush,” as Bianca says [V.ii.46])8 and then withhold their appearance. Again, the polite theatrical indication of the wives' future sexual behavior reflects or is reflected by the action of the Induction, when Sly's wife similarly withholds herself.

Drawing the two scenes yet closer together, the two hunt conversations employ not only the same images but even the same numbers. Like the lord, who enters boasting about his hound—“Saw'st thou not, boy, how Silver made it good / At the hedge-corner, in the coldest fault? / I would not lose the dog for twenty pound” (Ind.i.19-21)—Lucentio proposes to wager “twenty crowns” on his wife's obedience (V.ii.70) and Petruchio boasts of his wife—“twenty crowns! / I'll venture so much of my hawk or my hound, / But twenty times so much upon my wife (ll. 71-73). In the dreamlike dependency of numbers as in other images, the final scene uses and re-uses the materials of the Induction and transposes them to higher terms—or at least to more expensive terms. Indeed, the earlier hunt may echo in the final scene even through the names of the hunting dogs, which chime interestingly with the wives' characters: “Bellman” suggests Kate's voice and function in the play; “Silver,” like “Bianca,” suggests light coloring; and “Echo” adequately describes the unnamed widow whose speeches largely just echo Bianca's.9 Such linguistic echoes reverberate Petruchio's implicit connection of his wife with his other hunting creatures, further widening the uneasy tension between a view of the wives as hawks, hounds, etc., and a view of the wives as “deer” (with the obvious pun). Whether in tandem or in opposition, the Induction and final scene interact to enrich each other; when the playwright pursues contradictions far enough, the progressive complexities involve release as well as tension. Like the progression from literal to figurative “sly” character mentioned before, the progression from literal to figurative hunt draws the beginning and ending of the play closer together and enlarges the play from the literal, confining bounds of its beginning.

The sense of expansion at the ending is amplified by Katherina. Following the men's jokes and the men's wager in a last-but-not-least position, Kate's big speech to the audience seems at first to endorse a downplaying of the woman's role. Its immediate impact in the theater, however, certainly does not downplay her role, and like many other readers, I think it proceeds through—and succeeds theatrically by means of—intentional though extemporaneous irony, along the lines of Kate and Petruchio's gamesplaying in Act IV, scene v.10 Kate's strategic rhetorical position at the end, her eyebrow-lifting overenthusiasm, the vivid language she uses to delineate women's weakness, all support the strongest possible reading of her part at this juncture:

Fie, fie, unknit that threat'ning unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.

(ll. 136-138)

The haphazard order to the lord/king/governor terms, by the way, suggests their rather loose application. To support a political hierarchy, they should form a linguistic hierarchy, as in Portia's incomparably more serious and therefore more elevated use of the same terms:

Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.

(MV, III.ii.165-67)

Katherina, in contrast, sites the real power of her speech in women; above, she begins by emphasizing that women should avoid injuring men; continuing, she similarly emphasizes that women should avoid injuring themselves:

It blots thy beauty, as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame, as whirlwinds shake fair buds. …

(ll. 139-40)

While Katherina warns women that they could injure themselves or others, the speech never introduces a more sinister dimension of any equivalent threat from men. Like Katherina herself at every point in the play, the speech continuously displays strength and animation. Thus it dwells on the concept of womanhood, and in such a way as to produce images of strong passions and elemental forces—pungently reinforced through Kate's own language and behavior (even in this speech):

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;

(ll. 169-72)

With a pre-Freudian and almost Victorian limpidity, she pronounces that “… our [women's] lances are but straws” (l. 173); but she nonetheless represents women's duty with a particularly “unfeminine” image which, in effect, endows women with “lances”:

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,

(surely the inclusion of the word “honest” is important here)

What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

(ll. 155-60)

Most appropriately, the multiply-ironic military idiom in this passage produces the reverse battle cry of “Let's lay down our weapons,” a genre whose energies carry it from the Lysistrata through the Sixties slogan of “make love, not war.” Of course, the strategy employed by Katherina at this juncture (as in the Lysistrata) is the time-honored one of carrying the battle to favorable terrain.

Throughout her speech, Katherina exhorts women to offer dutiful obedience freely; the speech addresses (ostensibly) not the men in the audience but the women themselves, and it argues not masculine coercion but masculine privation:

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 labor, both by sea and land;
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold. …

(ll. 146-50)

Indeed, as with the dubious image of the “foul contending rebel” preceding, Kate's evocation of the ways in which men can be distressed becomes almost a reverse cheer. Proclaiming in lavish detail the difficulties which men must face, Kate shows such gusto as to overwhelm any poor-little-woman argument in the speech; the zest which characterizes Kate's language certainly extends to the subject of men's burdens.

Overall, the speech presents the concept of mutual support between the sexes, clearly based on women's freedom as well as men's, to offer or to withhold. Critics of all political persuasions have passed over this salient point. Indeed, little serious analysis has been devoted to the language of the speech itself; most criticism has its starting point in the supposed tenor of the speech and then addresses itself to justifying or debunking the supposed message.11 The language which presumably couches the message has been neglected. Partly diverging from such a pattern, however, Juliet Dusinberre notes the difference between this speech and the analogous one in A Shrew, though her conclusion differs from mine.12 More in line with my own view of the presentation, Margaret L. Ranald refers to the concepts of partnership and mutuality in discussing both the speech and the play;13 and similarly Anne Barton takes as her emphasis “a Katherina of unbroken spirit and gaiety” at the end of the play, “who has learned the value of self-control and of caring about someone other than herself.”14 In this regard, the speech corresponds fully to the rest of Act V, scene ii: notwithstanding superficial appearances, the entire last scene of The Taming of the Shrew cleverly reinforces a fundamental reciprocity and equality (however raucous) between the sexes. Paradoxically, even the men's wager sustains the reciprocity (unbeknownst, probably, to Hortensio and Lucentio); after all, the men bet on their wives' willingness to appear rather than simply compelling their wives' appearance. It is not suggested that they could compel their wives to appear; what they do, instead, is to reciprocate the treatment asked of woman in Kate's speech, in a willing compliance, a submission based (in one case) on trust, they watch and wait for their spouses to return (from the “bush” outside). In other words, they bet on their wives. This reciprocity is sustained throughout the scene, even to the inclusion of slight touches like the final couplet—which comments equally on Petruchio's taming and on Kate's allowing herself to be tamed:

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

In the previous wedding scene, a similar tag expresses the same exchange:

… being mad herself, she's madly mated.
I warrant him, Petruchio is Kated.


Despite the belittlement in such comments, the audience can see that, if Katherina gives herself and her image into Petruchio's protection, Petruchio's stature—as either “tamer” or simply person—rests in Kate's keeping, in the reciprocal estate of marriage.15

I have been arguing that the inequalities ostensibly espoused by Katherina's speech are belied by the energizing individualism of her rhetoric—its vividness, strength and ironies combined in a game of seeming ease analogous to and infused with sprezzatura (even if the latter is more typically considered the exclusive property of the male courtier of the period). In this respect, the final speech reflects the play as a whole, where the same interaction of superficial inequalities against the more fundamental energies of developing individualism results in much the same outcome: a “taming” which stars Katherina as the pivot of the whole play. In particular, the ostensible or gamesmanlike imbalance of Katherina's speech reflects the fate of the Induction, further tightening the formal connections between Kate's problematic speech and Sly's problematic disappearance. With the unfinished Induction, after all, the play concludes on a seeming imbalance between the beginning and ending fully as audacious as the seeming imbalance between the sexes with which Kate's speech concludes. The imbalance itself thus generates a balance, both between the beginning and ending of the play and between the Induction and the play as a whole. The Taming of the Shrew seems to be poised at a moment of relative optimism, which envisions the energies of humanistic individualism as reconcilable with the stresses it imposes on family relationships.

In any case, the connections between the Induction and the final scene of the play lead inevitably to the larger connections between the Induction and the play as a whole. At this juncture, however, to argue for those connections becomes a more complex proposition, partly because to point out the parallels or connections between the Induction and the rest of the play often necessitates references from the text of the play to the context imposed by its history in criticism. Historically, criticism of the play shows that the apparent inequalities in Katherina's speech and in Sly's disappearance invite—or almost compel—speculation (as in this essay). Unfortunately, much such criticism, though by no means all, has reacted to these dazzling provocations to thought by hypothesizing a missing ending for Sly and a missing earnestness for Kate, extending both Sly's story and Kate's conversion beyond the text. Since I think that the play has more than sufficient aesthetic unity to justify its non-ending or its non-final ending (depending on one's preference for terms), I would hypothesize that the artificial extensions imposed by such readings serve chiefly to get both Sly and Kate home—and to keep them there. This point must, however, await the substantiation offered by the further formal connections between play and Induction.

To justify the ending of The Taming of the Shrew, I would term it not a missing ending but a non-final ending, and I would look to the advantages (formal and theatrical) for the playwright implicit in such lack of finality, as well as to the consistency of such lack of finality with the movement of the play as a whole. The metadramatic approach which has proved useful to other readers proves useful again in this context. One recent reader suggests, for example, that the difference between the play's Induction and ending reflects the difference between farce and comedy; thus with Sly's disappearance the farce also disappears, in a metadramatic sloughing-off of old wineskins which nicely signals the author's development into a playwright of genuinely comic stature.16 Similarly, a student concluded that as the Induction characters get farther and farther into the play, they simply get swallowed up; like the audience watching, they become lost in the play, and therefore the lord's joke partly metamorphoses into a joke on himself, as he and his attendants are swept away by the action which they themselves initiate. Reinforcing the metadramatic approach on this point, the traditional topos of the biter bit brings the Induction closer (once again) to the main play. For just as Kate has the tables turned on her, seeing her shrewishness reified in another personality, as in the therapeutic technique of commanding the double bind that requires correction, Petruchio also sees his game successfully played back at him by Kate, when she mimics and outdoes his Baroque flipflops (IV.iv. and V.ii). As Erasmus recommends in the former instance,

Malo nodo malus quarendus cuneus.—To a crabbed knot must be sought a crabbed wedge. A strong disease requyreth a stronge medicine. A shrewed wyfe a shrewed husbande to tame her. A boysteous horse, a boysteous snaffel.17

And in the latter, he similarly recommends,

Fallacia alia aliam tradit.—One discept driveth out another, As we see one nail driven out with another nail, so doth many times one craft and guile expel another.18

In the play, the energetic series of proverb-salted processes—tormentor tormented, fighting fire with fire, one nail drives out another—returns on itself (“Petruchio is Kated”), as Kate's domineering recoils on herself, Petruchio's supposed lordship on himself, and the lord's joke on himself, all combining in one of the more therapeutic veins of theatrical comedy.

In part, I would contend that the combination succeeds because it is actually a re-combination, resulting from correspondences between Kate, Petruchio, and the other main-play characters and the figures from the Induction who actually offer shadowy equivalences for the main-play characters. The play's reversals, inversions, and reciprocities include an exchange which connects characters in the Induction to characters in the main play. Thus Kate's situation resembles not only Sly's, but—as has already been touched on—other links connect Kate to the lord and Petruchio to Sly. In fact, Kate's character includes, like Petruchio's, elements of both Sly and the lord (and in Kate's case, of the page and the hostess), relationships which derive support from the original doubling of actors' parts. Presumably, for example, the same actor played either Sly and Petruchio or the lord and Petruchio; perhaps the same boy actor played the hostess of the Induction and Kate; or perhaps, more appealingly, the page of the Induction played Kate, while the hostess doubled as either Bianca or the Widow.19 If the original pairings remain uncertain, their thematic import at least remains correspondingly open to conjectural use.

As one instance of key parallelism, when the page of the Induction becomes a lady, he also becomes, like Kate, a model wife. Consider the course of his instruction in how to personate a wife:

Tell him from me, as he will win my love,
He bear himself with honorable action,
Such as he hath observ'd in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished. …
And say, “What is't your honor will command,
Wherein your lady, and your humble wife,
May show her duty and make known her love?”
And then with kind embracements, tempting kisses,
And with declining head into his bosom. …


If the page does play Kate, his practice in receiving instruction (“taming,” so to speak) amply fits him to do so; like Kate afterward, he rehearses the role of wife, under the tutelage of his “lord,” in order to win that lord's “love” (l. 109). Furthermore, the fact that the page's role as wife runs counter to his previous role does not make the theatrical joke any less effective—although it does, of course, prevent any ultimate consummation onstage (the page's story does not have an ending, either). Incidentally, the lord's speech indicates that the lord, like Petruchio, seems to have devoted some thought and energy to the course of instruction as a husband.

Where the page resembles Kate, Christopher Sly also resembles Petruchio; where Kate's character seems to contain elements of the page and the hostess, Petruchio's seems to contain elements of the lord and Sly, a transference which proves significant. In his own way, Sly shows a propensity, like Petruchio's, to treat his wife from the start as (as we say) a person:

Where is my wife?
Here, noble lord, what is thy will with her?
Are you my wife and will not call me husband?
My men should call me “lord”; I am your goodman. …


Fascinatingly, Sly's comic celerity here in assuming a social distance between him and his “men” anticipates the way Petruchio and Kate bond with each other, leaving other members of their respective genders to engage in a sort of post-play battle of the sexes as groups, rather than as individuals. To do so, however, he assumes the same distance between his servants and his wife—a distinction which, the play suggests, would be sloughed off swiftly by a “real” lord. As Petruchio expostulates, dogmatically,

She is my goods, my chattles; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything;


Petruchio's over-emphasis on the legal situation at least brings it out into the open and signals his own uneasiness here. Indeed, I think that the ensuing mock-heroic scene dramatizes Petruchio's genuine underlying desire to remove Kate from the situation enunciated:

I'll bring mine action on the proudest he
That stops my way in Padua. Grumio,
Draw thy weapon, we are beset with thieves;
Rescue thy mistress, if thou be a man,
Fear not, sweet wench, they shall not touch thee, Kate:
I'll buckler thee against a million.

(ll. 236-41)

The comedy points up an actual need for individual protection against a community of people like Baptista, a need which Petruchio seems to recognize.

Like Petruchio later, Sly shows his recognition of his wife as a person, by exploring the possibilities of the wife's name (also commencing the instant intimacy which he desires):

What must I call her?
Al'ce madam, or Joan Madam?
Madam, and nothing else, so lords call ladies.

The last is a telling comment, underlined by the fact that the lord himself has no name, and evidently repudiated by Sly:

Madam wife …

(ll. 108-12)

Similarly, Petruchio opens with Kate's name:

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, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation. …


Sly and Petruchio attest the wife's identity by emphasizing the wife's name, in an authorial word-play which reflects adversely on the nameless Widow and the colorless Bianca—as well as on the unnamed lord and the name-changing “Supposes” characters, among the men.

From such connections, the roles in Induction and main play recombine, sometimes to produce rather androgynous results (e.g. the treatment of the page, both by his own lord and by Sly). In the doubling-up typical of the play, moreover, the characters also form their thematic bonds in pairs; when Petruchio becomes a lord, like Sly, and Kate becomes a lady, like the page, the two pairs of characters reflect each other's situations, partly in the mutuality of their mock-elevations. In fact, the social elevations are validated chiefly by their mutuality—converted, like so much else in the play, from oppositions to dialectics. As briefly stated at the beginning of this essay, each initial opposition or hierarchy—Kate and Petruchio, Sly and the lord, Induction and play—metamorphoses into a vehicle of dialectical exchange, as does even the opposition of “ending” and non-ending (or missing ending), where the non-ending can serve as an ending, and the ending can serve as an open door.

Here enters much of the thematic point of the ambiguous ending—again, attesting a moment of rather optimistic humanism, even in the form of the play; when the dichotomy between “formal” and “thematic” or contentual also becomes recognizable as dialectic, and the form can be seen as homologous with the relationships among the characters, then the open-endedness of the play vindicates the open-endedness of the central characters' relationship. If both Sly and Petruchio have jokes played on them, the ending of the play finally gives the jokes some point; Kate's mock-elevation of Petruchio results in a genuine elevation, a release from the limitations of his earlier role (fortune-hunter, bully, etc.), reflecting her release from her role. While the joke on Petruchio takes on a point, however, the joke on Sly—as just a joke—remains pointless, and the play outgrows it. The disappearance of Sly and the other Induction characters partly constitutes the disappearance of a sly joke, and the play proves its enlargement at the end by enlarging the audience from the sly state of mind.

In examining this point, I found that the concept of a developing dialecticism in the form of the play elucidates the minor puzzle of Sly's name. While the significant name “Sly” can hardly be accident, given the way Shakespeare plays with names, the name seems not to fit Sly's egregiously straightforward personality.20 Perhaps, then, the name conveys less the individual character than the frame of reference which he provides. In such a sly frame of reference, either Kate or Petruchio must be seen as beaten, while the other must be narrowly seen as victor, a reductive view which downgrades the characters to manipulators and bullies (or to shrews and slys). Given the direction of the play, such a view would result in the loss of Kate and Petruchio, and the playwright chooses fittingly to jettison Sly instead. Only characters like Lucentio and Hortensio cling to their sly jokes, and their attitude toward Kate and Petruchio tends if anything to arouse the audience's protectiveness toward the latter. In a neat structural pun, the “Supposes” remain sly—merely sly, like spectators, eavesdroppers, bystanders—at the frame rather than at the center of things, leaving the viewer or reader to identify (as most do) with the central intelligences. Finally, indeed, with Kate's address virtually directly to the audience, the playwright allows the audience itself to “frame” the play from its vantage point as bystanders in a different and larger sense, released—like Kate and Petruchio—from the initial configuration of response.

In other words, the playwright declines to put the lid on, recork the bottle, at the end of The Taming of the Shrew; to return to the Sly framework would imply regression, inappropriate to a play whose action celebrates so much progression. The confinement of a single limited role for Sly, whether in a manor or in the gutter, would diminish the playwright's options and those of his characters; and if Sly's story is not over, perhaps Kate and Petruchio's is not over either. Their wedding occurred back in Act III, after all, so the audience knows that a wedding does not necessarily signify closure any more than it necessarily signifies the happy ending; and the end of the play reinforces the point, partly through Bianca and the Widow's weddings and partly through its own lack of closure. For Kate and Petruchio, the open ending is the most persuasive happy ending, because the open threshold promises them room to grow; as Kate and Petruchio make their final exit with the other characters gaping after them, their development suggests a dimension beyond closure into the adult future of the “real world.”

Professor Anne Barton, introducing the play in a student text, observes of the traditional joke-on-a-beggar story that “inherent in all versions is the return of the beggar to his original state and his conviction that all the wonders he has seen and enjoyed were only an exceptionally vivid dream.”21 In The Taming of the Shrew version, perhaps the author wishes to do more than tell an old joke. Perhaps the Sly framework disappears because any enclosing form would ill-suit an action of release and expansion; like the audience watching and some of the characters within it, the play escapes from limits initially imposed on it, reflecting its own action in the farthest-reaching optimism of Renaissance dramatic mirroring. In such form, the story represents a dream come true, less for the tinker turned lord than for the married couple turned friends and for the audience turned party to its own entertainment in the fictional characters' happiness.22

As mentioned, emphasis on the formal unity of the play extant has ramifications beyond the text of the play to the context of previous criticism. In my opinion, the play has traditionally been read with an elitist and antifeminist bias which reifies relationships as hierarchies and then endorses those hierarchies. Where the play itself makes elaborate jokes out of its hierarchies—including the highly sanctioned ones of youth and age (“Young budding virgin, fair and fresh …” [IV.v.37]), father and son (“Thy father! O villain! He is a sailmaker in Bergamo” [V.i.80-81]), and master and servant (“Knock you here, sir!” [I.ii.9]) critics have too often solemnly taken them to be fixed, normative, and ordained. The play itself leaves virtually nothing fixed; rather, its action proceeds and unfolds chiefly through a series of exchanges, including exchanges of role which entail exchanges of status, which leave status mobile and suspended in mobility at the end of the play.

Instead of focusing on the mobility, or suspension, sustained by the text, however, and analyzing the consequences or significance of such mobility, much criticism has concentrated instead on the “missing” ending, proceeding not from the text itself but from the underlying assumption that Sly should return to his “rightful” state. (Analogously, as observed above, Kate's final speech is often approached from the assumption that she, too, is coming to her senses and returning to the ordained subservient status of women). I wish to examine the assumptions underlying such criticism, despite the inexplicitness of the assumptions. Obviously, the fact that Sly does not have an ending leads to the question, “Why not?” But this valid question, with which I have attempted to deal on formal grounds, differs considerably from its implicit reformulation in much Shrew criticism, which asks not, “Why doesn't Sly have an ending?” but rather, “Of course, Sly must have had an ending; where did it go?” If the cumbersomeness of this proposition renders it suspect (in chess or in logic, an attempted resolution entailing two steps is called inelegant if only one is needed), its disingenuousness renders it even more suspect. As an ostensible starting point, it not only does not begin with the beginning—namely, with the text that we possess—but also conceals this slippage. I would argue that, in the absence of social or critical presupposition, the logical question would ask why the ending is the way it is, rather than why it is not as it is not.

I shall return to the presuppositions shortly, but only after dealing with the two most nearly solid grounds on which they rest. The idea that Sly should have an ending has two bases: an implicit comparison to the ending of the other extant “shrew” play, A Shrew, and an implicit comparison to a more overtly regular dramatic closure. In regard to the first: given the tremendous uncertainty, from the time of initial productions and revivals of The Taming of the Shrew to now, about the relationship between The Shrew and A Shrew—which is the source of the other, whether either is the source of the other, whether one or both draw directly or indirectly from yet a third play now lost, etc.23—hypotheses about the relationship of any part of the plays must be cautiously advanced. In any case, Shakespeare altered so many sources in so many significant ways that “source” alone, today, would determine almost no textual decisions. In regard to Shrew, an instructive caution lies in earlier scholars' eagerness to excise parts of the play from the Shakespearean canon (the parts regarded as too brutal, too farcical, etc.).24 And in regard to endings, given the augmented dramatic effect accruing to an ending, caution is also behooved; eighteenth-century readers of Shakespeare provided the all-time nadir of negative examples, as in altering the ending of King Lear (a trifling change from sad to happy) to resemble that of the sources.

If the norm provided by A Shrew is obscure, the norm provided by a sense of closure or by any desire for such sense in regard to this play is invisible. In the first place, one might reasonably ask whether the desire for a more regular ending—whatever regularity entails—prescribes any particular ending for Sly, especially if the irregularities of the ending coalesce with the larger irregularities of the play. An a priori application of invisible norms of regularity actually begs the question, for Shakespeare manipulates and/or disappoints expectations of satisfactory endings in a multitude of forms throughout the canon. Looking at that segment of the canon into which The Taming of the Shrew falls, one notes immediately that Love's Labor's Lost ends with no marriages at all but only the commutation of the men's original sentence from three years to one; and The Two Gentlemen of Verona ends with the surprising denouement of attempted rape which produces the final reaffirmation of love and friendship. Needless to say, both endings strike numerous readers as in some way unfinished. With a paradoxical symmetry, therefore, the relevant period of the author's career comprises three lopsided or oddly ended comedies in a row, framed by Comedy of Errors before and Midsummer Night's Dream after, both of which self-consciously call attention to their links between beginning and ending in play-within-play devices which constitute frames. If I were forced to speculate about this period of the author's career, I would conclude that Shakespeare is metadramatically memorializing his own development in the virtuosity of beginnings and endings, by playing off frame plays against skewed-frame plays.

When neither the norm provided by A Shrew nor the norm provided by a priori appeals to a sense of closure dictate any particular ending for The Shrew, I consider the historically variable and laborious explanations of where Sly's ending “went” to be a social reflex to Sly's change in status, a reflex of some emotionalism. Although this proposition cannot be proven ultimately, one could create a strong supposition to such effect. Thus, it is remarkable that wherever a reading of this play deals with the “missing ending,” its thrust deals exclusively with Sly's story. Despite the lord's longer speeches, greater number of lines, greater complexity of character and greater impact on the action—which the lord, after all, initiates—criticism never focuses on the lord's story as unfinished, presumably because he at least remains in the manor house which is his rightful place. Such a consistently limited focus suggests that the truncation of Sly's story jars less our sense of closure than our sense of status. Further corroborating this position, the page's story also lacks completion, leaving the page in a position surely even more anomalous than Sly's, but far less regarded by scholarship than Sly's.

Here I am reluctantly forced to differ with readers who have, with some courage, argued explicitly in favor of the missing ending theory (in contradistinction to those who simply finesse the argument altogether). Both types of readers have applied themselves seriously and responsibly to hypothesizing an ending which fills the perceived gap. One ingeniously constructs an ending designed, in regard to the “ladies of London” in the audience, to be non-sexist: Sly awakens at the end of the play with a hangover, starts home to tame his own wife, and is foreseen (though not shown) to fail signally in the attempt.25 This surmise, however, relies entirely on the existence of a character unmentioned in the play, a wife for Sly. While such a character could arguably be added by a director interested in the concept, the text itself provides absolutely no support for such an addition. Therefore, it seems implausible: how, in speeches of such detail as Ind.ii.18-26 and 85-98, which mention personae never heard of again such as “Cicely Hacket,” “old John Naps of Greece,” and “twenty more such names and men as these” (ll. 95, 97; italics mine), could a wife of Sly's fail to be mentioned?

The other reader employs a casting analysis of the last scenes—also purely hypothetical—to argue that a Sly ending was cut from the play because of its excessive demands on the personnel.26 The problem with this hypothesis, however, is that the idea of insufficient personnel to include Sly still does not establish that an ending for Sly was written and then dropped. Even admitting the problem, which cannot easily be established, given the uncertainties attendant on part-doubling, it could equally have been obviated by never writing an ending at all; could the author not see the end coming? In general, efforts in academe to prove a previously existing ending for Sly do founder on this objection; while A Shrew and numerous theatrical productions prove the relative ease of inventing an ending, nothing shows how one came to be lost. There is great difficulty in accounting for a hypothetical ending's being lost or cut, leaving not a wrack behind.

For the alert reader, the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew should provide a foretaste of the limitations of supposititious lordship. In a simulacrum of the dialectic that develops in the main play, just as Petruchio becomes a lord when Kate becomes sly, so Christopher Sly becomes a lord when the lord becomes sly; Sly's induction into the aristocracy depends on an induction of the aristocracy into slyness. Both parts of the play translate a hierarchy—less rigid than it seems, even in the Induction—into mobile reciprocity. Nor does the Induction circle back to repress Sly, although the play puts him to sleep before he can tinker (to use the word in its Elizabethan sense) with it further.27 Rather, Sly's comic-economic mobility commences before the start of the play (I.ii.18-22) and continues beyond the end. If the exchange between real and mock lords chiefly indicates that any man can be induced to think himself a lord, the flimsy distinction evaporates completely in the metadramatic reminder that both roles depend on an actor and a few props. The distinctions between the real and the mock lords undermine themselves, as the lord successfully dupes Sly only by demoting himself to Sly's mock-entourage—“O noble lord, bethink thee of thy noble birth” (I.ii.32-48)—becoming a “tinker” in order to create Sly a “lord.” As with any delusional victim, the ironies of the joke on Sly resemble those of the treatment of Don Quixote, where others must participate in the victim's fantasy (a fantasy, by the way, foisted off on the victim by the “real world” to begin with) to bring him into their world; victimized by the victim, they enter into his order of things as much as or more than he enters theirs (as with Kate and Petruchio). Where the Induction ends, both key characters display “sly”-ness and “lord”-ship in a hierarchical relationship coterminous with their persons and their roles, which disappears when they disappear.

Evidently, the wish to provide an ending to Sly's story proceeds from a wish to “complete” two actions: to return Sly to his original lowly state, and to send Sly home to tame his own wife. What the reader must question, however, is the nature of such completion. One who does not view the dual repression as necessarily desirable will probably not view it as a priori more complete than the play extant; such a concept of completion rests on presuppositions about the hierarchies initially presented in the play. But notwithstanding an emphasis on putatively Elizabethan terms of “degree” by readers in the vein of E. M. W. Tillyard,28 a hierarchy in practical politics is not an essentialist entity, external to and independent of the persons who in their various relationships sustain it. Hierarchies change when the persons, roles, and relations which compose them change. As the action of The Taming of the Shrew reflects, the potential of such alteration is the regenerative potential of such social constructs; when the initial oppositions in the play become vehicles of reciprocity, Sly can enliven the lord's house, Kate and Petruchio can enliven and regenerate stale courtship patterns (including those of the theater), and a surprise non-ending can enliven the traditional ending of comedy. Thus the wish for closure can be exchanged for the pleasures of vitality. In the play's structural exchange between ending and non-ending, neither is entirely either, and both have qualities of the other, with a self-reflexiveness which would seem almost vertiginous in modern literature but which is contained within the effortless dialecticism of Renaissance drama. In the similar exchange between main play and frame, incidentally, the crucial thematic shift between “inner” and “outer” within the action of the play is reflected when the apparent play-within-a-play becomes the outer half, at the end, while the apparent frame disappears within the play.29

In the same multiplicity of self-reflection, the play's stories also exchange patterns on a broader basis: the public relationship, the hierarchy of status between Sly and the lord's household, becomes a “marriage,” while the private relationship, the marriage of Kate and Petruchio, becomes a highly public political division, a battle of the sexes which polarizes the entire comic community. The relationship between Induction and main play—again, one of reciprocal exchange—manifests itself in the movement from division to marriage in the former, from marriage to division in the latter (and back), an ironic series of inversions where each marriage results in an “equality” of sorts—more apparent than real in the Induction, more real than apparent in the main play. Undermining conventional distinctions between the personal and political, the class division between Sly and the lord translates into a tongue-in-cheek familial relationship, and the union of Kate and Petruchio (initially characterized by the language of commerce anyway [II.i.115-31]) creates a politicized struggle for dominance or, in modern jargon, sexual politics.

The resultant continuum between psychological and political, between private and public and individual and society, provides a healthful perspective for reading the play. With the transformation of Sly and Petruchio into supposed lords, The Taming of the Shrew administers to the audience the traditional sugar-coated pill of comedy. Beneath the humor, one salient phenomenon manifests itself through the symmetrical action: predictably, where there is a lord around, the spectator will often be confronted with the choice of beholding a shrew or beholding the sly. If this parallelism is indeed pointed thus, then the audience has a lesson to learn. Christopher Sly has a name but no title; the lord has a title but no name; and when the anonymous lord and the eponymous Sly vanish together, the play suggests a to-be-dreamed-of dimension of life from which both lordship (or repression, or force) and slyness (or resistance, or fraud) can be excluded. Such a dimension is not created entirely by the play, of course; Petruchio and Kate just drive the same terms into a higher plane of material and emotional satisfaction, creating a vital little realm of their own, relatively independent of the pettiness around them. If Sly and the lord are excluded by the world of the play, Kate and Petruchio seem themselves to exclude that world—at least insofar as represented by the other key characters.

Since the play does not assert the completeness (or even the complete possibility) of either alternative, excluding “the world” or being excluded from it, both alternatives leave a sense of unfinished work behind them. Only thus, however, does Shrew leave something unfinished: it recognizes that in human relationships, including relationships between the individual and the social structures, much remains to be done and few solutions to be found. To insist that the play is literally, formally unfinished violates its formal expansiveness. In the absence of textual or historical evidence, the idea of a missing ending must be regarded as myth with the usual function of myth, to explain puzzling sensations or puzzling phenomena, such as the impression created at the end of The Taming of the Shrew that much does indeed hang in the balance.


  1. All citations of text refer to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Hardin Craig, ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1961).

  2. Tightening the parallel between the words shrew and sly, the OED gives the latter repeatedly as a noun (thirteenth through fifteenth centuries) to describe a person, a sly. Chaucer's Miller's Tale provides an instance not recorded in the OED: “Alwey the nye slye / Maketh the ferre leeve to be looth.” (The “nye slye,” of course, is “hende Nicholas.”)

  3. In regard to the concept of “frame,” especially the implied necessity of completing a frame, it should be pointed out that modern use of the word frame differs from that found in Shakespeare. Of some seventy-seven instances including variants in The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, Marvin Spevack, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), most are verbs. Shrew itself uses the word only as a verb (Ind.ii.135; I,i,232); nor does any other language in the play suggest a finished product or an unfinished product. In Shakespeare's plays overall, frame signifies an internal shape, an order of principle, rather than a finite or rigid structure externally imposed (e.g., a picture frame, a cucumber frame). Only Sonnet 24 approaches the latter, but even there the frame is held within, allowing a play on the senses of human form or human body. The complexity of the concept of a frame stems partly from the related word “induction.” While I, too, have found the term useful, it nonetheless remains an addendum, not found in the Folio but inserted later by Pope. According to the Concordance, Shakespeare never uses the word in Pope's sense; while induce and inducements, etc., appear on occasion, induction signifies only “plot” (1H4, III.i.11, and R3, IV.iv.5 and I.i.32). One wonders what a difference Pope might have made for scholarship, had he applied a term like “proem,” “prologue”; no reader insists that a play with a prologue requires an epilogue or vice versa.

  4. Richard Hosley, “Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew,Huntington Library Quarterly, 27 (1964), 289-308.

  5. Maynard Mack, “Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Essays … in Honor of Hardin Craig, Richard Hosley, ed. (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 279-80. Among other readers who pursue the same idea, Brian Morris provides a useful history of the problems arising from the segmentation of the play, in the New Arden edition of Shrew (New York: Methuen, 1981).

  6. Sidney Homan, “Induction to the Theater,” unpublished reprint from the 1978 MLA Convention Special Session, “Shakespearean Metadrama.”

  7. Harold Goddard, “The Taming of the Shrew,” in The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), I, 68-73. For a similar point see Sears Jayne, “The Dreaming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 17 (1966), 41-56.

  8. Wordplay gives Shrew much of its liveliness and explains part of its longevity; when Bianca uses the word bush, for example, she puns on the senses of bird in the bush and a bush for wine; when students read the line today, current slang adds yet another sense. The play lends itself to wordplay in the classroom, in the following suggestions for alternative titles: “Sly and the Family Minola,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sly,” and of course, “The Turn of the Shrew,” used elsewhere.

  9. Cf. Goddard's analogous discussion of the echoes of the hunt in MND, I, 75-78.

  10. Perhaps Goddard is the most famous of the older generation of readers to agree with this sense of Kate's speech. More recent readers include Nevill Coghill, Margaret Webster, and Coppélia Kahn, all cited in a useful overview by John C. Bean, in “Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Green, and Carol T. Neely, eds. (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 65-78. While I find Bean's article helpful and intelligent, I disagree with his use of the terms “revisionist” and “anti-revisionist,” borrowed from Robert B. Heilman's “The Taming Untamed, or, The Return of the Shrew,” Modern Language Quarterly, 27 (1966), 147-61. If readers who emphasize the ironies in Kate's language and demeanor are to be called “revisionists,” I think the usage begs the entire question. Rather than insist, as such readers seem to do, that irony entails a narrow perspective of Kate as sneak and Petruchio as dupe, I would suggest that the effortless dialecticism of Renaissance dramatic verse (especially Shakespeare's) allows some latitude on the point; irony and earnestness, joke and gravity, etc., are related to each other, not merely antitheses.

  11. See, for example, Heilman; Marilyn French in Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981), pp. 82-85; and George Bernard Shaw, Shaw on Shakespeare, Edwin Wilson, ed. (New York: Dutton, 1961), among widely varied others.

  12. In Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 78-79.

  13. Margaret L. Ranald, “The Manning of the Haggard; or The Taming of the Shrew,Essays in Literature, 1 (1974), 149-65.

  14. Anne Barton, Introduction to Shrew in The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, et al., eds. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  15. Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, which ends with Alison adjured to keep her husband's estate and honor and fully willing to do so—if another husband comes along—provides fascinating parallels; some are noted by David M. Bergeron, “The Wife of Bath and Shakespeare's Shrew,University Review, 35 (1969), 279-86. Each work, segmented into an introduction and a marriage story, portrays a power struggle between the sexes, structured with attendant ironies through a series of inversions and dialectical exchanges.

  16. Mark Scheid, unpublished discussion, 1978. See also Bean: “Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew rises from farce to romantic comedy to the exact extent 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” (p. 66). This approach recasts and dynamizes an older distinction between the Kate-plot as farce and the Bianca-plot as comedy; cf. E. M. W. Tillyard, “The Taming of the Shrew” in Shakespeare's Early Comedies (London: Chatto and Windus, 1965).

  17. Desiderius Erasmus, Proverbes or Adagies with newe addicions gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, by Richard Tauerner, London, 1539 (repr. Amsterdam, New York: Da Capo Press, 1969), fol. 5v.

  18. Ibid., fol. 33r. Erasmus has been cited in other respects as part of the influence behind this play; see Peter Alexander, “The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969), 111-16.

  19. Frustratingly little direct evidence exists on the doubling of parts in early productions of the plays. Furthermore, doubling in the comedies even from the nineteenth century is “intermittent and hard to trace” (Arthur Colby Sprague, The Doubling of Parts in Shakespeare's Plays [London: Society for Theatre Research, 1966], p. 29), making it difficult to infer an earlier stage tradition from one more recent. However, as a “matter of course” Sly was removed at the end of the first act in nineteenth-century productions (Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1945], p. 56). Sly's remaining on stage until the end of the first act does not insuperably bar the actor from doubling the parts of Sly and Petruchio, in any case; modern stagecraft offers the easy solution of concealing Sly in darkness, from which his voice can be heard while Petruchio exits into the same darkness. While the broad daylight of Elizabethan staging offered less concealment, by the same token it also demanded less deference to verisimilitude in physical details—cf. Oberon's “I am invisible” among countless examples.

  20. Several influences probably operate here. Since one actor in Shakespeare's own troupe was named Will Sly, the character's name suggests some joke on the casting of the play. Marston subsequently uses the same name, emphasizing its low-life tenor: two characters in the Induction to The Malcontent are named Will Sly and Sinklo, suggesting a possible tradition in connection with the name. As Thelma Greenfield suggests, the name may be retained from sources, since A Shrew uses the same name (The Induction in Elizabethan Drama [Eugene: Univ. of Oregon Press, 1969], p. 104). For a larger discussion of Shakespearean name-play, see Harry Levin, “Shakespeare's Nomenclature,” in Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 51-77.

  21. Anne Barton, op. cit., p. 108.

  22. For the topic of “dream” in connection with Shrew, see Goddard, Jayne, and Marjorie Garber, Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1974). The dynamics of dream energize the play; dream imagery pervades the language, the main play has a dreamlike dependence on the Induction, and the entire play with its open-ended structure serves as an induction to the author's next play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. While I disagree with the idea that Sly falls asleep and dreams the Kate-Petruchio story, it certainly has more dignity than the idea which is its deep structure—that Shakespeare fell asleep and neglected to finish the play. Furthermore, the undoubted relevance of dream to the play has the appeal of uniting two different literary influences—the folk tale of the joke on a beggar, and the literary genre of dream-visio narrative—in a dialectic which contributes to this play among others of Shakespeare's.

  23. See, among others, Greenfield, Hosley, “Sources and Analogues,” and “Was There a ‘Dramatic Epilogue’ to The Taming of the Shrew?Studies in English Literature, 1 (1961), 17-34; as well as Morris.

  24. As mentioned by Tillyard, op. cit.

  25. Peter Alexander, op. cit.

  26. Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew: A Reconsideration,” Studies in English Literature, 18 (1978), 201-15.

  27. In Elizabethan usage, the word tinker is generally deprecatory, cf. OED c. 1592: “to work at something clumsily or imperfectly, esp. in the way of attempted repair or improvement,” a definition relevant not only to Sly's role in Shrew but also to Petruchio's and the lord's (to say nothing of producers who either add an ending or subtract a beginning, as Jonathan Miller did in the BBC production of Shrew. Revealingly, I think, Miller's open assertion of Shrew as anti-feminist resulted in a lifeless production, which robbed both Shrew and John Cleese of much of their comic genius).

  28. E. M. W. Tillyard, in The Elizabethan World Picture (London: Chatto & Windus, 1943). Predictably, Tillyard, in Shakespeare's Early Comedies, supports the theory that Sly once had an epilogue, p. 74. But see Ernest P. Kuhl, “Shakspere's Purpose in Dropping Sly,” Modern Language Notes, 36 (1921), 321-29.

  29. For related use of the terms inner and outer, see Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 140.

Michele Marrapodi (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Crossdressing, New Comedy, and the Italianate Unity of The Taming of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 10, 1999, pp. 333-58.

[In the following essay, Marrapodi links the Induction and the main plot to Italian origins. The critic contends that the Induction is similar to Italian Renaissance models, and the main plot is Italian-inspired in its thematic development of the comedy of “classical intrigue.”]

The three-part structure of The Taming of the Shrew—Induction, main plot and subplot—has been considered organically united by the themes of disguise and mistaken identity central to the subplot, which derives from George Gascoigne's adaptation (Supposes, 1566) of the prose and verse editions of Ariosto's I Suppositi (1509, 1532).1 Whereas the Italian origin is easily identifiable in the Tranio-Bianca-Lucentio plot, the other two parts of the play would not seem to offer sufficient elements to suggest precise Italian sources; hence the development, in the past, of a critical tradition which considered the Shrew and The Merry Wives of Windsor to be Shakespeare's two most English comedies. Brian Morris, for example, views the Sly scenes in the light of the dramatist's life and does not recognize in the taming-plot any concrete form of narrative or thematic influence outside the background of national cultural practice: “The real sources of The Shrew rise in Shakespeare's experience of Warwickshire, of the town houses of mercantile London, of the taverns and streets, and of all sorts and conditions of women, their expectations, frustrations, conquests and surrenders.”2

Beyond the numerous but vague derivations mentioned by Morris himself from English and European cultural traditions, both popular and erudite (folktales, ballads and medieval plays), it is possible to find in the Shrew some thematic developments of classical intrigue comedy and interesting re-elaborations, some Italian in origin, of New Comedic conventions. Robert Miola has convincingly demonstrated the intertextual linkage which, starting from Greek and Latin New Comedy, leads to Ariosto's nova comedia via the plays of Menander, Plautus and Terence.3 The use of disguise, the callidus servus, the duping of the old by the young, the sudden return of the absent father, and the lock-out scene are among the principal theatergrams taken up and transformed by the dramatist through a series of parallel actions. Although the links between the Induction and the main body of the play remain tenuous in some respects, both stylistic-metaphoric coherence, amply attested by various studies, and the origins of both major plot lines in the classical tradition unify the three parts of the play. A stimulating article by Richard Hosley sees in the Shrew “a synthesis of many sources and traditions,” belonging to different genres and cultures.4 In my view the Italian matrix of the Bianca-Lucentio plot affects the form and conventions of the entire play, relying on the theatergrams and types of classical New Comedy and of commedia erudita, which reached Gascoigne through Ariosto's indebtedness to Plautus and Terence.5

If the coexistence of both New Comedic and Italian elements appears evident in the two complementary narrative lines forming the main stories,6 it is not so in the Induction where the thematic and stylistic affinities with the play proper and the relationships with classical and Italian theater are less explicit and even problematic because of the disputed connection with the anonymous The Taming of A Shrew (1594).7 In an endeavor to trace a common Italian inspiration, this essay will explore the double nature of the Induction as a Frame, i.e. a dialogic anticipation of the motifs of the play in the form of a metatheatrical structure of the English kind, and as a Prologue, i.e. an independent diegetic segment having the character of an autonomous spectacle, based on Italian Renaissance types and models. Taking the Sly plot as the central focus of discussion, it will also claim that gender and crossdressing motifs provide significant cues for the Italianate unity of the Shrew as a whole.


From Rowe's first critical edition of 1709 onwards, the Induction has been separated from the rest of the play and divided into two scenes of 136 and 142 lines respectively. The first scene consists of three brief sequences which give rise to the following succession of events: an altercation with the hostess and Sly sleeping (Ind.I.1-13); the Lord's return from hunting and the organization of the jest (Ind.I.14-74); the arrival of players and request for performance (Ind.i.75-136). The opening quarrel between the drunken tinker and the hostess ironically anticipates the central clash between man and woman, the taming motif, and Petruchio's strategy of acting the role of the alazon. Like Petruchio, Sly appears as a braggart, deriving from the various milites gloriosi of classical comedy: he boasts his descent from a noble and ancient lineage (“The Slys are no rogues. Look in the / Chronicles”, Ind.I.3-4); he mixes up Richard the Lionheart and William the Conqueror, implying that he is acquainted with soldiership; he twice misquotes The Spanish Tragedy (“paucas pallabris”; “Go by, Saint Jeronimy”; Ind.I.5,7), trying to show off learning which he does not possess.

This alazoneia and the clumsy soldierly attitude prefigure Petruchio's cockiness when he uses a series of war metaphors to boast of his capacity to handle Katherina's rebellious character (“Have I not heard great ordnance in the field, / And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies? / Have I not in a pitched battle heard / Lord ’larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets’ clang?” 1.2.202-5). The opening provides an initial framing effect in line 5 (“let the world slide. Sessa!”), echoing the closing lines of the Induction (“And let the world slip, we shall ne'er be younger” Ind.II.142). This kind of game-framing appears in the repeating images and phrases that continue within the play itself. Sly's utterance, “go to thy / cold bed and warm thee” (Ind.I.7-8), based on the game of contrasts, anticipates the words of the second hunter who finds him asleep: “Were he not warm'd with ale, / This were a bed but cold to sleep so soundly” (Ind.I.30-1). The association between warmth and beds takes on a growing importance in the course of the main plot, tying up with the erotic implications of Petruchio's intention to kindle passion in Katherina by means of punning and verbal clashes:

Am I not wise?
Yes, keep you warm.
Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed.


This kind of metonymic relation between warmth and beds reappears, after the marriage, at the start of Act 4, in the episode in which Grumio and Curtis light a fire in Petruchio's country house (4.1.4-5ff.), punning on the contrast between warmth and cold. Here the relation acquires erotic significance as it is associated with the idea of consummating marriage, an idea that Petruchio represses in Katherina (by means of the taming process enacted through sexual abstinence and by depriving her of food and sleep). The mutton, “burnt and dried away” (4.1.157), and not given to the woman, is explained by Petruchio with reference to the theory of ill-sorted humors, causing the bilious and choleric behavior of the two lovers (4.1.158-63). In the same way, depriving Katherina of sleep and sex is part of Petruchio's tactics to outdo Kate by adopting her own pose as a scolding wife. Thus, if Bianca can say, referring to her sister, that “being mad herself, she's madly mated,” in Gremio's words, “Petruchio is Kated” (3.2.242-3).

Sly's words, uttered before falling asleep, suggest the framing function of the Induction. When the hostess threatens to send for the “thirdborough”, Sly calls her “boy” (Ind.I.12). This gender-confusion heralds the appearance of the “boy” in the following sequence (Ind.I.17) and the task given to the page of impersonating Sly's wife, thus anticipating the theme of crossdressing at the heart of the comedy.8 The return of the Lord and his train signals the end of the initial realism and introduces the aristocratic world of the second section. The transition is marked by a change of stylistic register. Ironically, while Sly is waiting for the “thirdborough” (“Let him come, and kindly” Ind.I.12-13), he falls asleep and begins dreaming. We thus move into the mannered atmosphere and cultured language that marks the start of the new sequence and the joke played on him by the Lord. Not surprisingly, Sly's fictitious entrance into the opulent aristocracy of the new world is enacted during his sleep and with the disguise and deception techniques of theatrical pretense. To the Lord, Sly appears to be a “monstrous beast”, “a swine” (Ind.I.32), a counterfeit of man on whom the effects of the art of simulation will act like a “flatt'ring dream or worthless fancy” (Ind.I.42).

A skilful connection is thus made between dream and scenic illusion: both weaken the boundaries between truth and fiction, appearance and reality, operating on mental confusion.9 The Lord's order to carry Sly “gently” (Ind.I.44) to the best room in his mansion and to dress him as a rich gentleman—as well as echoing Sly's adverb in line 13 and looking forward to lines 64 and 70—makes explicit reference to the seduction of the senses, which must be skilfully stimulated for the success of the plan. Sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste are all involved in this scene and at the start of the next, to evoke those illusory sensations which will produce in Sly the effect of estrangement, of loss of identity:

Carry him gently to my fairest chamber,
And hang it round with all my wanton pictures.
Balm his foul head in warm distilled waters,
And burn sweet wood to make the lodging sweet.
Procure me music ready when he wakes,
To make a dulcet and a heavenly sound.


By depriving her of food and sex in Act 4, Petruchio uses a similar strategy, based on the bafflement of the senses, in the taming of Katherina. The strategies link the Lord's behavior to Petruchio's, especially in the former's display of theatricality by which he accomplishes the whole plan, distributing the parts, giving advice, even dealing with scenery and stage props.

Let one attend him with a silver basin
Full of rose-water and bestrew'd with flowers,
Another bear the ewer, the third a diaper,
And say ‘Will't please your lordship cool your hands?’
Some one be ready with a costly suit,
And ask him what apparel he will wear.
Another tell him of his hounds and horse,
And that his lady mourns at his disease.


As David Daniell has maintained, in his long speech the Lord shows that he is “obsessed with the notion of acting, particularly with the careful creation of an illusion of a rich world for Sly to come to life in”.10 The answer of the first hunter, “I warrant you we will play our part” (Ind.I.67), heralds the news of the players' arrival with which the episode concludes, and ties the realization of the beffa to the actual performance. In this way the hunter's playacting appears to be constructed as a metonymic expression of the theatrical spectacle per se and is, at the same time, the frame of that announced by the professional troupe, becoming, in Cesare Segre's words, the principal container of a secondary scene en abyme, “staged within the first”.11 If we consider that the initial paradigm, which concludes with Sly's dream, acts as a mini-prologue to the beffa at the expense of the sleeping beggar, we are faced with multiple framing pieces, in that the two complementary scenes of the Induction also constitute the prologue to the comedy proper considered as a play-within-the-play. The entrance of the players produces a double mirror effect in the reference to the actor's first experience in which “he play'd a farmer's eldest son” and “woo'd the gentlewoman so well” (Ind.I.82-3): it ironically subverts the situation that Sly has to face in his new role as a lover and reflects the more general events of the main plot, centring on Petruchio's strong characterization (“Antonio's son, / A man well known throughout all Italy”, 2.1.68-9), and on the teasing of Katherina. The sequence is followed by the Lord's request to use the troupe's artistic ability (“cunning”, Ind.I.90) for the fulfilment of the deception. The recommendations to the actors about the “modesties” and “merry passion” (Ind.I.92-5) of the dramatic profession confirm the Lord's role as the producer of this metatheatrical sequence. Significantly, it is the same invitation to natural acting as that given to the hunters.12

The criss-cross game of references and the particularly coherent structure support the hypothesis of considering the Induction an independent narrative part, revolving around a character of a strong clownish nature who acts as the compère-presenter of the main action, parodying or underlying its motifs and developments. Telling examples of this kind of dramatic inset may be found in Peele's The Old Wives' Tale (1584), Jonson's Every Man Out of His Humour (1600), Webster's Induction to Marston's The Malcontent (1604), or Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607), in which we have different cases of autonomous narratives preceding the actual plays. For Thelma Greenfield, who distinguishes among occasional, critical and frame inductions, Plautus's and Terence's prologues share many characteristics of the inductive pieces, especially in relation to pretense and theatricality, and in such stock elements as “the wanton who sits on the stage, the noisy lictor, the officious usher, the sleeper, slaves, nurses with crying babies, and talkative housewives”, all recurring features of both Italian and Elizabethan drama.13 Hence, another source of inspiration for this clownish part-playing, on which various dramatic solutions were modeled, is the rich typology of the Italian Renaissance prologue, of Plautine and Terentian derivation but with frequent grafting from the proems of the Decameron, having an introductory, polemic, or mixed character.14

Angelo Poliziano is one of the first Cinquecento theoreticians to attempt a definition and a classification of the classical prologue which, besides explaining the argument, can present “some other things to the audience, for the benefit of the author, or of the play itself or of the actor”:

‘Prologo’ è parola greca, in latino prima dictio, cioè esposizione antecedente alla vera composizione del dramma. Quattro ne sono i tipi: raccomandatario, in cui si caldeggia la storia o l'autore; relativo, in cui si esprimono insulti verso un avversario o ringraziamenti al pubblico; argomentativo, con l'esposizione dell'argomento del dramma; misto, con la presenza simultanea di tutti i precedenti.15

(Prologue is a Greek word, in Latin prima dictio, that is an exposition antecedent to the actual composition of the play. There are four types: recommendatory, in which is extolled the importance of the story or author; relative, which contains insults against an enemy or thanks to the audience; argumentative, with the exposition of the argument; mixed, with the simultaneous presence of all the former.)

G. B. Giraldi Cinthio makes a strong case for the essential autonomy of the prologue in his Intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie (1543):

… non si può dire tal prologo parte della favola; perché non ha legamento alcuno coll'azione che nella favola si tratta, né a quel modo si recita che si recitano l'altre parti; perocché colui che fa il prologo il fa in persona del poeta, il quale non si può né si dee introdurre nell'azione. Laonde, non imitando il prologo l'azione, riman chiarissimo ch'egli della favola non è parte, ma è una giunta postavi da' Romani per disporre gli animi degli spettatori alla attenzione, o per conciliare insieme benevolenza al poeta; il che mostra il voltar del parlare che fa colui del prologo agli spettatori, la qual cosa non si può fare negli atti della favola, se non con riprensione.16

(It is not possible to consider the prologue a part of the fabula; because it has no link whatsoever with the action treated in the fabula, and is not acted in the same manner as the other parts either; in that the prologue-speaker acts as the poet himself, who cannot and must not intrude in the action. Hence, because the prologue does not imitate the action, it is plainly not part of the fabula, but an addition made by the Romans to draw the attention of the spectators' minds, or to favor their appreciation of the poet; this shows the particular address to the audience by the prologue-speaker, which is impossible in the acts of the fabula without disapproval.)

As Clifford Leech has pointed out, the terms prologue and induction are used almost interchangeably in the Elizabethan age: the prologue spoken by Rumour in 2 Henry IV is headed “Induction” in the Folio and, though different in form, “it is not the practice to have the prologue spoken in the person of a character in the play”.17 The virtue of the prologue was to give an immediate account of the play's argument, although this inevitably reduced the spell of realism. This limitation may explain Leech's final remark that “the almost total absence of the device in the earliest seventeenth-century tragedy” reflected current fashions (p. 164) and the preference in Shakespearean tragedy for the beginning in medias res.18 Despite the obvious cultural differences between Italian and Elizabethan dramatists, among the most interesting cases of Italian dialogic prologue is that in Alessandro Piccolomini's L'Amor costante (1536), in which a Spaniard comments on the organization of the performance, talks with the prologue-speaker and is involved in the mise-en-scène, “perché aviam de bisogno d'uno che facci meglio un capitano” (because we need someone who plays a captain's role better);19 those in Aretino's Cortigiana (1533), acted by a “Forestiere” and a “Gentiluomo”, who debate the “pomposo apparato” (pompous staging) and the authorship of the play; and that in Ipocrito (1542), spoken by two protatic malcontents, who by means of oblique anaphoric language and paradoxical statements criticise society on all levels.20 Another significant play, La strega (c. 1570) by Anton Francesco Grazzini, opens with an interesting dialogue between two interlocutors, Prologo and Argomento, discussing theoretical matters on the nature of comedy and the actual play. This introductory part has an induction-like structure “similar to those later used by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan playwrights”.21

Among the monological prologues, it is worth mentioning the prologue written by Bibbiena for the staging of an unknown comedy traditionally associated with his Calandria (1513). The speech parodies the vices of Florentine society through the narration of a dream during which, using Angelica's ring (as in Boiardo's Orlando innamorato), the speaker acquires invisibility, since “chi lo portava in bocca non poteva esser veduto da persona” (whoever wore it in his mouth could not be seen by anyone).22 Bibbiena's prologue seems particularly important to the Shrew in the common device of a sleeping character whose dream brings forward the production of a play. One should finally recall, because of the strong subversive challenge it presents to all accepted conventions, the lengthy prologue included in Giordano Bruno's Candelaio (1582), divided into caudate sonnet, dedication, argument, anti-prologue and pro-prologue, which enjoyed great popularity in England after the years the Italian philosopher spent in London and Oxford.23

In contrast with these various forms, the Induction written by Shakespeare is characterized by a greater theatrical completeness, which gives rise to a microdrama whose internal division imitates the tripartite structure of the Shrew: prologue (Sly-hostess quarrel), main plot (arrival of the Lord and his train), subplot (Sly's metamorphosis and performance of the jest), supporting the hypothesis of a preliminary narrative piece which works as an ironical metaphor of the play proper. The Italian quality of the Induction, centring on the beffa of an illusory reality on a sleeping rustic, has a peculiar Boccaccian derivation. In Decameron (III,8) two crafty monks carry the lulled Ferondo to the underground of their convent to make him believe, when he recovers, that he is in Purgatory to expiate his jealousy. The comic spirit of the beffa is much the same. Thus, with the continual emphasis on theatrical pretense, the Sly framework provides access to the Italianate world of supposes, paralleling its motifs, types and situations.


The order given to the page to don a female disguise and to act the role of Sly's wife completes the organization of the jest, placing on the same level the enactment of the beffa and the production by the professional troupe:

… Bid him shed tears, as being overjoy'd
To see her noble lord restor'd to health,
Who for this seven years hath esteemed him
No better than a poor and loathsome beggar.


The transsexual impersonation of the page Bartholomew is the only example in the Shakespeare canon of male sexual disguise, except for the comic metamorphosis into “the witch of Brainford” which Falstaff is forced to undergo in order to escape from Master Ford's jealousy, and the expedient of the two “boys” disguised as women in the wedding ceremonies announced at the end of The Merry Wives of Windsor.24 If male sexual disguise, as an escape from an irate husband or to replace the bride is very rare in Elizabethan theater, it represents a constitutive variant in New Comedic conventions.25 This theatergram develops in a long intertextual chain of uses and re-uses stretching from classical comedy (Plautus's Casina and Terence's Eunuchus) to the commedia erudita; it plays an important role in the beffa on Nicomaco in Machiavelli's Clizia (1525) and its variations in Lodovico Dolce's Il ragazzo (c. 1540) and Giovan Battista Gelli's L'errore (1555), as well as providing the most original twist in Aretino's Marescalco (1527), in which the discovery of a boy instead of his bride fully satisfies the stablemaster's misogynistic and homosexual tastes.

The common plot element of crossgender disguise says much about the genetic affinity between the two Shakespearean works, traditionally considered the most English in the canon; yet, on the other hand, precisely the application of this particular theatergram hints at a much more significant blending of elements of classical and Italian derivation than hitherto recognized.26 Moreover, Sly and Falstaff have in common the characteristic traits of alazoneia: braggadocio, a passion for drinking, idling and gold, repressed lust, and even the use of the contrast warm/cold and the same tendency to playact. Like Falstaff, disguised as “Herne the hunter”, Sly, dressed as a nobleman, is compelled to forgo the sexual satisfaction which he was jokingly promised only to be subjected to collective mockery. The typology of the characters also harks back to the stock figures of classical and Italian New Comedy. If Sly embodies the alazon with the conventional vices of the boastful soldier, inspired by Plautus's Miles Gloriosus, the Lord is entrusted with the role of the eiron, in this case setting the action going. Petruchio, with his histrionic strategy, takes on the roles of both the alazon and eiron for the teasing of Katherina, invariably showing the boastful pose of a braggart and the ironic mockery of a jester, parodying his wife's shrewish attitude. Whereas the subplot, taken from Ariosto, represents, sometimes in multiple fashion, all the main characters of classical New Comedy and commedia erudita: the faithful servant Tranio (callidus servus), the enamoured master Lucentio (adulescens amans), and no fewer than five types of elderly or middle-aged men—the pater familias Baptista, the Pedant of Mantua and the Pedant Gremio, the rejected suitor, Hortesio, acting as senex amans, and the senex iratus Vincentio in difficulty with the cunning Biondello (dolosus servus)—all discomfited in various ways by younger adversaries.

The joke on Sly, organized by the Lord, gives rise, in the commedia improvvisa, to the duet between Zanni and the Magnifico, whose relations, as Guido Davico Bonino has pointed out, “echo the eternal conflict between oppressed and oppressor, but also, the more specific one, between town and country.”27 A social and cultural conflict of this nature can also be read in the Induction between the sleeping beggar, called “monstrous beast” and “foul and loathsome” image of death (Ind.I.32-3), and the aristocrat: in the cultured nobleman's jest we may find a display of class power at the expense of Sly's misfortunes. Aretino's Marescalco provides an analogue to the Induction, in that it offers a similar aristocratic entertainment, played on a lower-class figure, in the duke's farcical marriage of the misogynistic stablemaster to a transvestite boy. Since Aretino draws on Casina and Eunuchus, from which Ariosto's I Suppositi also derives, we may say that the Sly plot, as well as the rest of the play, inventively refashions New Comedic models from a contaminatio of classical and Italian deep sources.

The scenario of the commedia dell'arte is likewise recognizable in the presence of numerous stereotyped phrases in Italian and in Lucentio's expression “old pantaloon” (which is the natural development of Magnifico) referring to Hortensio (3.1.36). In well managing and re-combining all this in a tripartite configuration, Shakespeare's handling, as Leo Salingar has put it, “is not mere imitation of New Comedy or Italian plots, but the application of Italian methods to new purposes”.28 Yet, if the beggar represents the chosen victim, the second Induction scene also shows, as suggested by Keir Elam, that Sly, notwithstanding he “is forced willy nilly into the role of actor” […] is quite ready to renounce his familiar but paltry universe of discourse in favour of the more alluring one sketched out by the Lord and his helpers.29 In other words, the question of Sly's awareness of the beffa on him is left ambiguously open; indeed, some significant utterances of Sly's would seem to conceal a sharp irony concerning the unexpected advantages deriving from his new condition.

To consider the second scene, it is necessary to clarify the construction of femininity that the Lord advises the page to impersonate:

Such duty to the drunkard let him do,
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say ‘What is't your honour will command,
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?


These lines extol a model of a wife who is obedient, gentle and subdued, whose “soft low tongue and lowly courtesy” make her an example of virtue and devotion. The ironic contrast with Katherina's “scolding tongue” is evident, but it is also worth noting that this ideal feminine figure will also be the portrait that inspires Katherina's final speech. The analogy between the two situations is confirmed on the linguistic plane. Petruchio's request to Katherina (“tell these headstrong women / What duty they do owe their lords and husbands” 5.2.131-2) is anticipated in the Lord's instructions to the page (lines 113-15), and Kate's speech echoes the absolute love uttered by Sly's fictitious wife in the second scene. The correspondences of characters and situations between the Induction and the main plot also provide instructive links with the Ariostan intertext from which the Gascoigne subplot derives. Since Miola's illuminating analysis has dealt extensively with Shakespeare's New Comedic variations of Supposes and its deep sources, I will sketch out only a few other elements more specifically connected by common ancestry with commedia erudita.

In the interplay of parallel actions, the couples Sly-page and Petruchio-Katherina correspond to the couples Lucentio-Bianca and Hortensio-widow, all related by a series of contacts and contrasts to Petruchio's taming school (4.2.53-8). Disguised as Cambio and Litio, teachers of Latin and music respectively, Lucentio and Hortensio act as a foil for the taming offered by Petruchio, although ironically his shrewish partner will impart to them and their wives the final lesson in the wager scene. If the “new-born” Sly and his “obedient wife” parody the taming motif, they also anticipate the rhetoric and content of the discourse on marriage in this concluding scene, which sees all the couples involved, in some way or another, in Katherina's matrimonial lecture. The metatheatrical role of the Lord as promoter, schemer and producer of the beffa, mirroring Petruchio's variable playacting, corresponds to the figure of Tranio as architectus doli, impersonating the deviser or intriguer of the action who exchanges clothes with his master and invents the Pedant's role-playing as Lucentio's father. The locked-in beggar, physically and mentally entrapped in the Lord's opulent mansion and in his “supposed” noble attire, provides an ironical reversal of the New Comedic lock-out scene, drawn from the Ariosto-Gascoigne play. In the Shrew, Vincentio is left out and accused by Tranio of madness like Antipholus of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors and his Plautine precursors in Menaechmi and Amphitruo. Unlike Ariosto's Dulippo, Shakespeare's Tranio does not find a long-lost father, but he does escape punishment, and his faithful service is gratefully acknowledged by his master:

What Tranio did, myself enforc'd him to;
Then pardon him, sweet father, for my sake.


The theatergram of the callidus servus as a trickster and the New Comedic door-knocking and crossdressing are central to commedia erudita. From Fessenio in Bibbiena's Calandria to Ligurio in Machiavelli's Mandragola, from Querciuola in Piccolomini's Alessandro to Panurgo in Della Porta's La fantesca, a variety of ingenious servi and cooperative partners are capable of adding a new twist or finding an immediate solution to a difficult situation. In Cecchi's L'assiuolo in particular, as well as in Piccolomini's Alessandro and Della Porta's La fantesca, all drawing on Latin New Comedy via Boccaccio's Decameron (VIII, 7) and Ariosto's Supposes, the theatergram of the faithful servant is associated with skilful variations of the door-locking theme. In L'assiuolo (1550), a young student, with the collaboration of a friend and a cunning servant, obtains sexual satisfaction from a lawyer's wife, Oretta, while her jealous husband is left not only cuckolded, but locked all night in a cold courtyard, imitating the call of the horned owl (a hilarious metonymy of his own state) which he thought was to be his password to an illicit sexual encounter.

An extraordinary contaminatio of classical and contemporary sources (Supposes, Calandria and Gl'Ingannati) constitutes the three plots of L'Alessandro (1543), all coherently united by the crafty trickery of a servant and the recurring presence of lock-in/lock-out motifs. In the first, an adulescens amans enters with a rope-ladder the bedroom of his beloved and is locked in by her irate father. In the second plot, a senex amans, disguised as a locksmith to gain access to a captain's wife, is miserably locked in a closet and later locked out of his own house by his dolosus servus (as in the Pedant-Vincentio-Biondello exchange). In the third plot, inspired by Eunuchus, Lucrezia, crossdressed as Fortunio to escape persecution, falls desperately in love with another girl, Lampridia, who looks like her long-lost lover, Aloisio. With the complicity of a chambermaid, who lets Fortunio into Lampridia's dark bedroom, while she is sleeping, Lucrezia finds out that Lampridia is a man. The cousin of the supposed maid locks them in, discovering at the end that his stepsister is actually a boy, the lost Aloisio, and the presumed rapist is Lucrezia; the couple have been in love with each other since childhood.

In Della Porta's La fantesca (1592), Essandro crossdresses as a maid, named Fioretta, to persuade his beloved Cleria to love Fioretta's twin brother. In this transsexual attire he is foolishly courted by the girl's father, Gerasto, who has promised Cleria to a Pedant's son. To avoid the marriage, Essandro and his servant Panurgo, after various lock-in and lock-out episodes and with the trickery of Panurgo's and the parasite Morfeo's comic disguises (impersonating first Gerastro and his daughter and, later, the Pedant and his son) disrupt the engagement, till the young lovers are happily reunited in a multiple recognition scene of false identities and long-lost relatives. This same functional game of correspondences in the three parts of the Shrew—based on the beffa, criss-cross disguises and make-believe—emerges in the succession of events of the second Induction scene to which now we may turn.


The concluding scene of the Induction is divided, like the previous one, into three brief sequences. In the first (Ind.II.1-99) the servants offer drink, food and costly garments to Sly who insists on his true identity; later, won over by the servants' allurements and by the expectation of a lovely wife, the tinker is content to take on his new role as an aristocrat. The second sequence (Ind.II.100-28) develops the meeting between the pseudo-master and the false wife and the thwarted desire to consummate the marriage. The third sequence (Ind.II.129-42) announces the arrival of the players and their production of The Taming of the Shrew. The strategy of the entire scene is to offer an interpretative key to the “pleasant comedy” (line 130) about to be performed, anticipating its main themes. The offer of drinks and food by the two servants introduces one of the constant motifs of the play, variously signalled by rich iterative imagery in the language of many characters and dealt with, specifically, in no fewer than three episodes of the main plot: in the wedding feast which Petruchio refuses to attend; in the already mentioned country house scene, in which he compels Katherina to fast; and in the final reunion, which celebrates the couples Lucentio-Bianca and Hortensio-widow. Only on this occasion does Petruchio accept the invitation to dine (“Nothing but sit and sit, and eat and eat!” 5.2.12), that is, only when the conquest of Kate has occurred and he can demonstrate it.

This links him to Sly's rebellious behavior at the opening of this second scene, when the beggar rejects the privileges of his new identity, and leads to the parallel motif of clothes, skilfully used by Petruchio in his taming of Katherina:

I am Christophero Sly, call not me ‘honour’ nor ‘lordship’. I ne'er drank sack in my life. And if you give me any conserves, give me conserves of beef. Ne'er ask me what raiment I'll wear, for I have no more doublets than backs, no more stockings than legs, nor no more shoes than feet …


Sly's words prefigure Petruchio's analogous attitude when he rejects the role of gentleman, imposed upon him by the circumstances, and goes to the wedding ceremony in the motley robes of a fool or jester with “a new hat and an old / jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turned; a pair of / boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, / another laced; an old rusty sword ta'en out of the / town armoury, with a broken hilt, and chapeless; / with two broken points; his horse hipped-with an / old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred” 3.2.41-7). To Baptista and Tranio, who beg him to change his attire before marrying Katherina, he significantly replies: “To me she's married, not unto my clothes” (3.2.115). The inversion of the value of the dignity of clothes, whose moral Petruchio's disguise plays upon, is realized by the subtle Tranio (“He hath some meaning in his mad attire” 3.2.122).

Thus the didatic theme of clothing as a distinction from deceitful appearance is associated with that of “supposes”, taken up by Petruchio in the episode with the tailor and the haberdasher, where he abandons his apparent intention to buy a cap and gown, which Katherina particularly likes. To the woman's “This doth fit the time, / And gentlewomen wear such caps as these”, Petruchio replies: “When you are gentle, you shall have one too” (3.3.69-71). Petruchio's teasing is even more manifest in his words at the end of the same scene:

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,
And as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds,
So honour peereth in the meanest habit.


Petruchio's strategy is to create a behavioral code that surpasses the limitations of appearance and the boundaries of language and adopts non-verbal communication founded on a communion of feelings and on silent love vows. The strategy becomes clear in the comic exchange on sunlight or moonlight, at the end of which Kate agrees to use the same linguistic code as Petruchio (“What you will have it nam'd, even that it is, / And so it shall be so for Katherina” 4.5.21-2). From this point onwards there is in the couple a tacit agreement on non-verbal communication made up of glances, participation and jocularity which finds immediate confirmation in the meeting with old Vincentio, at first jokingly taken for a virgin (4.5.27-48).

Adapting the clothes metaphor, which recalls the leitmotifs of disguise and mistaken identities, Petruchio reaches a perfect understanding with Katherina in the wager scene, when he demonstrates not only the complete taming of his bride but also and above all his successful realization of a harmonious relationship of reciprocal trust. Hence Katherina's significant gesture of taking off and stamping on her cap, in obedience to Petruchio's request (“that cap of yours becomes you not. / Off with that bauble, throw it under foot” 5.2.122-3), acquires an important symbolic connotation: it goes beyond too easy a submissive attitude, and attains a more intimate and profound marriage of true minds made up of playfulness and complicity. In complying with Petruchio's request, Katherina's gesture displays genuine devotion and love but it also contains a warning amidst the mutual overacting. In her own peculiar way she lets her husband know that she can play the role of the devoted wife as she was able to play the shrew: the option is Petruchio's. The uniqueness of their union is highlighted by the distance from the other couples, who do not employ the same language. The widow defines the deed as “a silly pass” (line 125) and Katherina's sister Bianca considers it “a foolish duty” (line 126). Petruchio's couplet reveals the exclusive relationship which now links them:

Come, Kate, we'll to bed.
We three are married, but you two are sped.


The sensitivity which Katherina has acquired colors the final speech with undertones of irony and pretense, serving to suggest an unconventional relationship founded on language-games and the awareness that each has of the other's needs and desires.30 The maturity attained is comically anticipated in the conclusion of the Induction, where in Sly's behavior we may find a progressive perception of the joke being played on him, which induces him to accept his new status as a nobleman. Sly's hesitations are soon overcome by the Lord's cunning strategy of alluding to “strange lunacy” and “lowly dreams” (Ind.II.30, 33) and of stimulating interest in the new status by appealing to the senses. What the Lord attempts to do is to invert the reality/dream relation in the tinker's mind, making him a spectator, as well as a victim, of the theatrical jest:

Wilt thou have music? Hark, Apollo plays,
And twenty caged nightingales do sing.
Or wilt thou sleep? We'll have thee to a couch
Softer and sweeter than the lustful bed
On purpose trimm'd up for Semiramis.


The same effect is sought in the servants' descriptions of pictures on erotic subjects intended to arouse Sly by means of sexual fantasies (lines 50-4 and 58-61), and to prepare him for the final revelation that his young wife is eagerly awaiting him:

Thou art a lord, and nothing but a lord.
Thou hast a lady far more beautiful
Than any woman in this waning age.


Interestingly, the motif of sensory stimulation returns in Sly's acceptance of his aristocratic condition. Yet if the Lord's purpose has been achieved and illusion replaces reality, Sly's sudden abandonment of his true identity in favor of an alien world that flatters him with its enticing mirages reveals an ambiguous choice, halfway between cunning and incredulity, underscored by a brusque shift from prose to verse, which gives his new role a comic flavor:31

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dream'd till now?
I do not sleep. I see, I hear, I speak.
I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things.
Upon my life, I am a lord indeed,
And not a tinker nor Christophero Sly.
Well, bring our lady hither to our sight,
And once again a pot o' th' smallest ale.


In the tinker's words there is the same comic bewilderment as that which precedes Katherina's perceiving of Petruchio's strategy at the moment of the beneficial “sermon of continency” (4.1.170), during which, as the servant Curtis reports, his master adopts the same roughness as the woman in order to force her to take stock of the absurd peevishness of her nature and to consider “which way to stand, to look, to speak, […] as one new risen from a dream” (4.1.172-73). The second servant makes further reference to the dream, reminding Sly of his illness:

These fifteen years you have been in a dream,
Or when you wak'd, so wak'd as if you slept.


His witty answer, “These fifteen years! By my fay, a goodly nap” (line 82), marks the beginning of the tinker's ironic participation in the theatrical game which concerns him and in which he can act the part of the noble master.

The hypothesis of Sly's awareness of having been manipulated has a threefold justification: 1) his sudden acceptance of the new identity comes immediately after his being aroused by means of erotic fantasies about “a lady far more beautiful / Than any woman in this waning age” (Ind.II.63-4); 2) the parallel situation between the taming of Sly and Katherina is suggestive of a common ironical compliance with their respective teasing-tests; 3) in the farcical nature of the Induction and, in the general emphasis on pretense, Sly's self-mocking participation in the trick fits coherently into the theatricality of the play. For although there is no record of this in the performance history as far as I know, the fact that Sly and Petruchio have been sometimes performed by the same actor not only makes the hypothesis possible but it offers a twist of great comic effect. Significantly, in Michael Bogdanov's 1978 production, where this doubling represents the longed-for revenge of Sly upon unruly women, “Petruchio's wedding clothes were those he had worn as Sly, a sharp contrast to the proper gray flannel suits of the other guests.”32

The ensuing sequence introduces the second segment of the farce, which shows the entrance of the page Bartholomew disguised in such a way as to “usurp the grace, / Voice, gait, and action of a gentlewoman” (Ind.I.129-30). After the short initial exchange, which continues the motif of sensory stimulation (Ind.II.101-2), Sly asks about his wife, and the crossdressed page steps forward with an overt sexual offer (“Where is my wife? / … Here, noble lord, what is thy will with her?”, 103-4). The beggar's first reaction is the request to be called husband, to which the false bride retorts with a chiasmus, conveying a further form of erotic submission: “My husband and my lord, my lord and husband; / I am your wife in all obedience”, 107-8). These lines look ahead to the words with which Katherina, in her final speech, in accordance with Elizabethan precepts, extols the union of matrimony and absolute obedience to the husband: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign” (5.2.147-8). The affinity with the page's words reveals the subtle similarity between the two characters and is an invitation to consider Bartholomew a “foil” to Katherina. Both are called on by their lords to act the part of the loving and devoted spouse and they enter into their roles with growing enthusiasm and participation. This reading of the final speech is consistent with the game-like character of the entire Induction and with the behavior of Katherina who, once she has understood Petruchio's playacting strategy, not only accepts it willingly (as in the joke against old Vincentio) but also joyfully enriches it with other comic twists. Her ironic part-playing as the victim of Petruchio's jests thematically links her astute performance with that of Sly, whose onomastic implication is now clear, and both of them with Italian comedic conventions.

In classical New Comedy, the maturation of the protagonist and the recognition of his social identity mark the transition from pistis to gnosis, which in the Shrew, through the theme of “supposes”, becomes the passage from illusion to reality, from a society ruled by senes to one dominated by adulescentes.33 In portraying the strong characterization of Katherina, Shakespeare creatively rearranges female roles from a wide variety of dominating or shrewish but triumphant and assertive matronae, ranging from Aristophanes's heroine in Lysistrata to Plautus's Artemona and Cleostrata in Asinaria and Casina respectively, from Terence's Sostrata in Hecyra to Machiavelli's Sofronia in Clizia, and passing through a number of other variants and imitations in such works as Giovan Maria Cecchi's La moglie (c. 1545), Girolamo Parabosco's Il marinaio (1550), Benedetto Varchi's La suocera (1569) and Luigi Groto's Alteria (1587), including the novelle versions of nagging and aggressive wives by Boccaccio, Bandello and other prose writers in Italy, France, and England. As Alexander Leggatt stresses, Katherina's submission to her husband is not “something to be admitted with shame, or rationalized, but celebrated—particularly in the presence of women who have just failed the test she has so triumphantly passed.”34

The eroticism of the Sly-Bartholomew exchange returns in the subsequent lines, when Sly's recollection of his long illness is interpreted by the page in terms of sexual abstinence:

Madam wife, they say that I have dream'd
And slept above some fifteen year or more.
Ay, and the time seems thirty unto me,
Being all this time abandon'd from your bed.


To Sly's immediate invitation, “undress you and come now to bed” (line 118), Bartholomew recommends a little patience in order to ensure a perfect recovery, “For your physicians have expressly charg'd, / In peril to incur your former malady, / That I should yet absent me from your bed. / I hope this reason stands for my excuse” (lines 122-5). The deictic “this” indicates a bawdy allusion, brilliantly echoed in Sly's answer: “Ay, it stands so that I may hardly tarry so long” (line 126). The erotic word-game on erection (“stands”) may carry a double meaning, depending on whether the transvestite boy is pointing to himself or to Sly, implying either homosexual or heterosexual enticement. If he is referring to himself (in line with the ludicrous, Plautus-like character of the entire scene) the exchange plays on homoerotic tensions, explicitly aroused by the page's invitation. In that we have a further association with Aretino's Marescalco and, via its deep source, with Terence's Eunuchus.35

Although Sly's homosexual drive may not be overtly suggested within the text, his sexual call to the transvestite boy posits the two characters' response to the beffa in a common intertextual perspective. In either case, not only does this mock marital episode herald the theme of consummating a marriage, which plays an important strategic function in the taming-plot, but it foreshadows the frequent use of sexual puns in the Petruchio-Katherina exchanges, which give rise to lively verbal clashes in terms of a battle of the sexes. Language-games are part of the therapy put forward by Petruchio to cure his mate, using the same weapon of wit as Kate does in her irreducible poses. The success and the real quality of the play lie in this verbal strife, since, as Ruth Nevo has pointed out, “Nothing is more stimulating to the imagination than the tension of sexual conflict and sexual anticipation. Verbal smashing and stripping, verbal teasing and provoking and seducing are as exciting to the witnessing audience as to the characters enacting these moves.”36

In the last sequence a messenger announces the performance of a “pleasant comedy” in Sly's honor to help him recover from his melancholy and, as he says, to “frame your mind to mirth and merriment, / Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life” (Ind.II.135-6). The therapeutic value of the theater is a long-established convention with many significant examples from Hamlet to The Duchess of Malfi. While tragedy plays on the ambiguity between feigned and real madness, intrigue comedy, as is the case in the Shrew, focuses upon the comic equivocation of the false staging of madness.37 The trick played on Sly, therefore, privileges the idea of theater as pretense, linking coherently with the false wife's playacting and the general deception in which Sly himself plays the leading role. “Just as Christopher Sly the beggar”—Juliet Dusinberre has observed—“is transformed into a lord for the duration of the play, with a player-boy as the lady his wife—‘in all obedience’—so Kate and Petruchio adopt the most hyperbolic postures open to man and wife in their relation to each other, as the premise for real life.”38 Thus we are led to perceive a perfect metatheatrical relation—between Sly's story and the “history” (Ind.II.140) in the comedy, between the tinker's delusion, perpetrated by the Lord, and Kate's taming, accomplished by Petruchio—which leads to an interesting juxtaposition of mistaken identities and disguises involving Sly in the double role of actor and spectator:

Well, we'll see't. Come, madam wife, sit by my side
And let the world slip, we shall ne'er be younger.


After these closing lines, Sly and the page will make only one more brief appearance, between the first two scenes of Act 1. At this point the false Lord and the sham wife comment on the play they are watching and remain present as an onstage audience throughout the performance, reminding us, through the framing effect, of the distinction between fiction and real life.39 As the fool's exit in King Lear signals the King's progressive recognition of his tragic delusion, so Sly's lapsed role marks the beginning, in the comedy as well as in the theater, of “the subtilties of these our Supposes”, in Gascoigne's definition, as “nothing else but a mystaking or imagination of one thing for an other.40 The degree of ironic awareness that the protean zanni—“by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bear-herd, and now by present profession a tinker” (Ind.II.18-21)—expresses in playing the part of the deceived protagonist can be appreciated only if we too watch the staging of The Taming of the Shrew in the announced terms of play-within. In acknowledging the linguistic and thematic affinities between the Induction's plot and the other parts and characters of the play, we recognize a device that derives specifically and directly from Italianate comedic conventions, contributing to the unity of the whole.


  1. See C. C. Seronsy, “‘Supposes’ as the Unifying Theme in The Taming of the Shrew”, Shakespeare Quarterly, XIV (1963), pp. 15-30; Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1974), pp. 222-5. Some passages in Gascoigne's translation show that he used both editions (see the opening, for instance, and the dialogue between Cleander and Pasiphilo in I.ii).

  2. The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Brian Morris (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 69. All quotations are from this edition.

  3. Cf. Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 62-79. The pervasive influence of classical and Italian theater on Shakespeare has also been freshly reconsidered by Louise George Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time (New Haven: Yale UP, 1989).

  4. Richard M. Hosley, “Sources and Analogues of The Taming of the Shrew”, Huntington Library Quarterly, XXVII (May, 1964), p. 307.

  5. Ariosto's prologue acknowledges indebtedness to Eunuchus and Captivi. Miola's Shakespeare and Classical Comedy brilliantly discusses the pervasive presence of Mostellaria in the play.

  6. Miola, “Shakespeare […] unites the three actions by portraying them as variations of New Comedic intrigue: each features the classical device of courtship by disguise, proxy, or impersonation; each illustrates variously the New Comedic tendency of fiction to be or become true in surprising ways” (p. 79).

  7. On the topic of the relationship of the Shakespearian text to the anonymous play, see Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, “No Shrew, A Shrew, and The Shrew: Internal Revision in The Taming of the Shrew”, in Shakespeare: Text, Language, Criticism. Essays in Honour of Marvin Spevack, ed. B. Fabian and K. Tetzeli von Rosador (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1987), pp. 351-70. For the purpose of the present essay, it is precisely the fact that the Sly plot disappears from the Shakespeare text which makes the double nature of the Induction possible.

  8. Cf. Michael Shapiro, “Framing the Taming: Metatheatrical Awareness of Female Impersonation in The Taming of the Shrew”, The Yearbook of English Studies, 23 (1993), pp. 143-66, who in Sly's gender-confusion views an attempt at “accentuating the general practice of crossgender casting if not the presence of the same female impersonator who had played the role of the gentlewoman” (p. 151). In a recent essay orientated towards audience response criticism—“The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting, and Power”, Studies in the Literary Imagination, XXVI: 1 (Spring, 1993)—Juliet Dusinberre sees in Sly's error a metatheatrical reference to the boy actor, suggesting “the presence in the play itself of actors, not just impersonators of characters” (p. 67).

  9. The emphasis on the theme of dreaming has led some scholars to interpret The Shrew as Sly's dream. For this suggestive approach see S. Jayne “The Dreaming of The Shrew”, Shakespeare Quarterly, XVII (Winter, 1966), pp. 41-56.

  10. David Daniell, “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio”, Shakespeare Survey, 37 (1984), p. 24.

  11. Cesare Segre, “Shakespeare e la ‘scena en abyme’”, in Teatro e romanzo: Due tipi di comunicazione letteraria (Turin: Einaudi, 1984), p. 52.

  12. The mirror effect, suggested by the entrance of the players, is close to that produced by the acting of the Dido-play in Hamlet and the recommendations to the actors links the passage to the analogous “modest speech” (Hamlet, 3.2.16-24).

  13. Thelma N. Greenfield, The Induction in Elizabethan Drama (Eugene: University of Oregon Books, 1969), p. 69. For a useful link between Shakespeare's Shrew and other frame plays, see pp. 97-119.

  14. See Alessandro Ronconi, “Prologhi ‘plautini’ e prologhi ‘terenziani’ nella commedia italiana del ’500”, in Il teatro classico italiano nel ’500, Atti del Convegno dell'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Quaderno n. 138 (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1971), pp. 197-214. The particularity of the Italian prologue in relation to its classical antecedents is stressed by Nino Borsellino in Borsellino and Roberto Mercuri, Il teatro del Cinquecento (Bari: Laterza, 1973), pp. 3-14. Some useful references to the Italian prologues in relation to Shakespeare's comedies are to be found in H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen, 1938, rpt. 1969), pp. 73-99. In this regard, see also my “Prologue”, in The Italian World of English Renaissance Drama: Cultural Exchange and Intertextuality, ed. Michele Marrapodi (Newark: Delaware UP, 1998), pp. 9-19.

  15. Angelo Poliziano, La commedia antica e l'‘Andria’ di Terenzio, ed. R. Lattanzi Roselli (Florence, 1973), (transl. from Latin), quoted in Il teatro italiano: La Commedia del Cinquecento, ed. Guido Davico Bonino, Vol. 1 (Turin: Einaudi, 1977), p. 462.

  16. G. B. Giraldi Cinzio, Intorno al comporre delle commedie e delle tragedie (1543), in Scritti critici, ed. Camillo G. Crocetti (Milan: Marzorati, 1973), p. 202.

  17. Clifford Leech, “Shakespeare's Prologues and Epilogues”, in Studies in Honor of T. W. Baldwin, ed. Don Cameron Allen (Urbana: Illinois UP, 1958), p. 152. It may be worth considering that, although he provides no intertextual link with classical and Italian prologues, Leech reads the device “as being a direct address to the audience, preceding the play, normally spoken by a single actor who is usually but not necessarily alone on the stage” (p. 151-2).

  18. The seven Shakespearian plays with prologues (Romeo and Juliet, 2Henry IV, Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, the latter in collaboration with Fletcher) mainly present a classical construction of a mixed type, obeying diverse dramaturgical needs, ranging from exposition of the subject-matter to spatial-temporal specification, from the necessity of providing a narrative link with the antecedent or the previous play to the metatheatrical function of audience involvement.

  19. Alessandro Piccolomini, L'Amor costante (1536) in Commedie del Cinquecento, ed. Nino Borsellino, Vol. 1 (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1962), p. 306.

  20. See Pietro Aretino, Tutte le commedie, ed. G. B. De Sanctis (Milan: Mursia, 1972).

  21. Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaisance (Urbana: Illinois UP, 1960), p. 137.

  22. Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, La Calandria (1513), in Commedie del Cinquecento, ed. Nino Borsellino, Vol. 2, p. 18.

  23. On Bruno's life in England, see particularly Dorothea Waley Singer, Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), pp. 26-45, and Hilary Gatti, The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge: Giordano Bruno in England (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 128-38.

  24. The Merry Wives of Windsor, ed. H. J. Oliver (London: Methuen, 1980), 4.2.89; 5.5.183-205.

  25. Cf. Giulio Ferroni, “Techniche del raddoppiamento nella commedia del Cinquecento”, in Il testo e la scena: Saggi sul teatro del Cinquecento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1980), pp. 43-64.

  26. See Robert S. Miola, “The Merry Wives of Windsor: Classical and Italian Intertexts”, Comparative Drama, 27 (1993), pp. 364-76.

  27. Bonino, Introduction to Il teatro italiano: La commedia del Cinquecento, Vol. 3 (Turin: Einaudi, 1978), p. xxvi.

  28. Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, p. 225.

  29. Keir Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), p. 36.

  30. Cf. Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1980), pp. 49-50: “Petruchio has enlisted Kate's will and wit on his side, not broken them, and it is the function of the final festive test to confirm and exhibit this. […] The man she has married has humour and high spirits, intuition, patience, self-command and masterly intelligence; and there is more than merely a homily for Elizabethan wives in her famous speech.” See also J. Dennis Huston, Shakespeare's Comedies of Play (London: Macmillan, 1981), pp. 90-3. A rather different interpretation is given by Shirley Nelson Garner in “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke”, in ‘Bad’ Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, ed. Maurice Charney (London and Toronto: Associated UP, 1988): “Taming is responsive to men's psychological needs, desires, and fantasies at the expense of women. It plays to an audience who shares its patriarchal assumptions: men and also women who internalize patriarchal values. As someone who does not share those values, I find much of the play humorless. Rather than making me laugh, it makes me sad and angry” (p. 117).

  31. See Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), p. 41; Edward Berry, Shakespeare's Comic Rites (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984), pp. 55-56, 195.

  32. Tori Haring-Smith, From Farce to Metadrama: A Stage History of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, 1594-1983 (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 119.

  33. See Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy, pp. 77-8. For Miola, “In New Comedies like Eunuchus the virgo proves to be an Athenian citizen, and recognition of her true identity makes possible a desired marriage. Similarly, in the Shrew Kate, through the magic of theatrical play, presents herself as ideal wife, no longer a shrew; proclamation of this new identity makes both possible and desirable her marriage, already performed, to Petruchio” (p. 78).

  34. Leggatt, p. 61. By contrast for Margie Burns, in “The Ending of The Shrew”, Shakespeare Studies, XVIII (1986), pp. 41-64, the relationship between induction and play comes out as a kind of dialectic between Bartholomew's playacting and Kate's final speech: “If both Sly and Petruchio have jokes played on them, the ending of the play finally gives the jokes some point; Kate's mock-elevation of Petruchio results in a genuine elevation, a release from the limitations of his earlier role […], reflecting her release from her role. While the joke on Petruchio takes on a point, however, the joke on Sly—as just a joke—remains pointless, and the play outgrows it” (p. 54).

  35. On the fortune of Eunuchus as a seminal play, see Keir Elam, “The Fertile Eunuch: Twelfth Night, Early Modern Intercourse, and the Fruits of Castration”, Shakespeare Quarterly, 47 (Spring, 1996), pp. 1-36.

  36. Nevo, p. 38.

  37. See Vanna Gentili, La recita della follia: funzioni dell'insania nel teatro dell'età di Shakespeare (Turin: Einaudi, 1978), pp. 47-8; 66-127.

  38. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975, repr. 1985), p. 106. See also Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962, rpr. 1967), pp. 94-7. According to Righter, who considers Shakespeare's induction to be an adaptation of the anonymous A Shrew, the Sly scenes focus on the play metaphor, demonstrating “the cunning with which elements of illusion can insinuate themselves into life, and be mistaken for reality” (p. 95).

  39. See Caroline Di Miceli, “The Taming of the Shrew: Frame and Mirror”, in The Show Within: Dramatic and Other Insets, ed. François Laroque, vol. 1 (Montpellier: Université Paul-Valéry, 1992), pp. 127-39. For Di Miceli, who sees in the Shrew a game of mirror and framing insets throughout the entire play, Shakespeare's framing devices, here stressed by Sly's brief return, create a double movement: “a movement of penetration into the dramatic action […] and a movement of recoil, where we are shown that our participation is nevertheless limited, the play proper being merely fiction for us, while forming part of Sly's reality” (p. 130). It is doubtful, however, as the present essay attempts to demonstrate, that Sly is totally unaware of the joke played on him and that, like Katherina, he does not comply with the situation.

  40. George Gascoigne, Supposes, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), vol. I, p. 112 (italics in the text).

Wayne A. Rebhorn (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Petruchio's ‘Rope Tricks’: The Taming of the Shrew and the Renaissance Discourse of Rhetoric,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 92, No. 3, February, 1995, pp. 294-327.

[In the essay below, Rebhorn assesses both Petruchio's and Katherina’s use of rhetoric, asserting that The Taming of the Shrew serves as an analysis of Renaissance rhetoric and issues—including power, politics, and gender relations.]

Shortly after Petruchio's first appearance in The Taming of the Shrew, he vows to court Katherine despite her reputation as a shrew “renowned in Padua for her scolding tongue.”1 His servant Grumio immediately boasts on behalf of his master that all her efforts will be in vain: “She may perhaps call him half a score of knaves or so: why that's nothing; an he begin once, he'll rail in his rope tricks. I'll tell you what, sir, an she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face, and so disfigure her with it, that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat” (1.2.109-14). This passage contains a textual crux, the phrase “rope tricks,” that editors have frequently emended to “rhetricks” in order to do justice both to the idea of Petruchio's railing and to the subsequent reference to “figure.” In recent years, however, scholars have found a number of reasons to leave the phrase alone, offering a variety of interpretations to show both how it fits thematically into the play and how it echoes words or phrases concerned with rhetoric in other Renaissance texts. Thus, they have taken it as meaning “tricks worthy of hanging,” a mocking gesture on Grumio's part, which degrades the upper-class Petruchio by pronouncing him fit for a type of punishment typically associated with the lower classes, as it is later in the play when the angered Vincentio denounces his deceiving servant Biondello as a “crack-hemp” (5.1.40).2 Similarly, in keeping with Petruchio's bawdiness, “rope tricks” has been read as a bawdy allusion where “rope” betokens “penis,” as in The Comedy of Errors (4.1.2; 4.4.46), and as a pun on “rape tricks.”3 “Rope tricks” has also been read as a play on “roperipe,” a pejorative adjective for the use of extravagant language and inkhorn terms rather than plain speech. Thomas Wilson seems to have coined the word in his 1553 Arte of Rhetorique; it was later used as a pun on “rhetoric” by Robert Wilson in his play The Three Ladies of London (c. 1581) and by Thomas Nashe—in the form of “rope-rhethorique”—in his pamphlet Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596).4 Since Petruchio, if not particularly given to inkhorn terms, is certainly extravagantly rhetorical in his verbal and other behavior, the contention that Grumio's phrase is meant to evoke “roperipe” or “rope-rhetorique,” and through such terms the subject of rhetoric itself, certainly seems justified.

Although critics have located a significant number of meanings in Grumio's reference to “rope tricks,” they have left two important questions unanswered. First, is there any logic of association governing the range of references in the passage, or is the conjunction of ideas of trickery, ropes, hanging, sex, rape, and rhetoric merely adventitious? Second, what is at stake in Shakespeare's decision to identify his protagonist so firmly with rhetoric just shortly after Petruchio's first appearance on stage? The answer which this article will offer to the first question is that a logic of association is indeed at work: all the notions suggested by the “rope tricks” passage relate to defining aspects, to key concepts, metaphors, and images, of rhetoric as conceived in the Renaissance. In fact, all point to a conception which makes rhetoric a matter of power, control, and coercion, turning the rhetor into a decidedly masculine figure who is represented as a ruler, a civilizer, and also, more disturbingly, a rapist. Thus, the play can be interpreted as a repetition or re-presentation of the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric. At the same time—to address the second question—once Petruchio has been identified as playing the role of rhetor in order to woo Katherine, the play shows that his success with her is not really due to rhetoric at all. For if rhetoric in the Renaissance, as in other historical periods, was defined as the art of persuading others to do one's bidding by means of words and their accompanying gestures, then The Taming of the Shrew makes perfectly clear that, insofar as Petruchio seeks to gain his ends by means of that art, he fails.5 His failure makes it possible to read the play as an implicit rejection of many of the main claims advanced by Renaissance rhetoricians; it becomes, in other words, a critique of the very discourse of rhetoric which it evokes and repeats in its representation of its protagonist. However, as we shall see when we examine Katherine's complex response to Petruchio's final “taming,” the play shows that if rhetoric cannot match the exalted claims made by Renaissance rhetoricians on its behalf, it nevertheless does have a strategic value for its practitioners. For it allows Katherine to achieve a measure of independence and to resist, even to subvert to some degree, the male authority which otherwise threatens to possess her totally.

What I offer here is a “rhetorical” reading of Shakespeare's work, though not one in the traditional mode, for most readings of this sort aim to locate the presence of rhetorical figures or structures in a literary work, thereby identifying it implicitly or explicitly as a simple continuation or repetition of material one finds in rhetoric manuals.6 By contrast, my reading will do something quite different. First, it will be more thoroughly historicized than such readings usually are, for it will not connect the play to a rhetoric presented as if it were a transhistorical phenomenon—as if figures and structures, for instance, had exactly the same valence in the modern world as in the Renaissance or in classical antiquity. Instead, it will situate Shakespeare's play within an appropriate historical context, that of the discourse of rhetoric produced in England and on the continent in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, and will show how the play reproduces aspects of rhetoric as that art was defined in its own period. Second, I will analyze the play not as a repetition of figures and structures, but as a representation, a modeling, of a rhetorical interaction, as it was imagined by Renaissance rhetoricians. Finally, I will argue that Shakespeare's play does not strive merely to represent aspects of Renaissance rhetoric in a more or less passive manner. The play has an active, even dialogic, relationship to its context: it reconstitutes elements of that context, defining and clarifying but also consciously evaluating, commenting on, and critiquing them. I thus aim to show that Grumio's reference to “rope tricks” is anything but a casual joke; it invites us to scrutinize and evaluate the complex interplay of rhetoric, power, politics, and gender relations that lies at the heart of the discourse of rhetoric in the Renaissance.


Although Petruchio never delivers a formal speech in The Taming of the Shrew, he would be no less an orator in the eyes of the Renaissance. Defined as the art of verbal persuasion, rhetoric was conceived as covering a wide variety of personal interactions that extended well beyond the three traditional varieties, namely, forensic rhetoric for the law courts, deliberative rhetoric for political discussions, and demonstrative or epideictic rhetoric for speeches of praise and blame. Rhetoric had already migrated into poetics in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance continued to conflate the two, just as it followed its medieval predecessors in conceiving letter-writing and preaching as branches of the art.7 More important, Renaissance rhetoricians, taking hints from Aristotle and Cicero, did not limit their art just to formal speeches, but conceived of it as being present practically whenever communication and persuasion took place.

In his influential De causis corruptarum artium of 1531, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives begins by defining rhetoric as teaching one how to use the classic genres, judicial, deliberative, and demonstrative, but then goes on to assert its general usefulness: “the faculty of speech, like a kind of universal tool, has been diffused through all things, not unlike grammar and dialectic; nor did Cicero and Quintilian omit to mention that there are more genres [than the traditional three] of which one might speak. … The genres all have the most diverse methods of invention, arrangement, and style. For who does not see that invention and elocution are very different in giving thanks, congratulations, consolations, history, description, and teaching, from what they are in judicial, deliberative, and demonstrative oratory?”8 William J. Bousma has summed up what Vives and other writers felt about the art: “Renaissance rhetoric was … valued for its plasticity, its ability to flow into and through every area of experience, to disregard and cross inherited boundaries as though they had no real existence and to create new but always malleable structures of its own.”9 In a sense, practically everyone in Renaissance society could be seen as an orator, and, what is more important, Renaissance people knew it.

Working with this conception of rhetoric, we can say that Petruchio engages in two related projects that would identify him unmistakably as a rhetor: his courtship of Katherine and his “taming” of her. The first is clearly a matter of rhetoric as the play presents it, for it is preceded by the passage on “rope tricks,” and it is planned as a specifically verbal assault. In his soliloquy just before he accosts her, Petruchio rehearses with himself how he will “tell,” “say,” “commend,” “give … thanks,” and so on (2.1.167-80), and he concludes with the assertion: “But here she comes, and now, Petruchio, speak” (180). The second project, the “taming” of Kate, is concerned with her transformation into an “ideal” wife. Although many disciplines in the Renaissance, from religion to education to politics, aimed at molding and changing people, rhetoric did so, too. Henry Peacham's celebration of the art at the start of his Garden of Eloquence is typical, if somewhat exaggerated, in crediting the orator with the Orphic ability to transform primitive human beings into civilized creatures. By means of the orator's “prudent art of perswasion,” he says, they “were conuerted from that most brutish condition of life, to the loue of humanitie, & polliticke gouernment.”10 It is, of course, just such a “conversion” which Katherine seems to undergo in the first scene of act 4 when she agrees to call the sun the moon in accordance with Petruchio's wishes. Thus, both of his projects can be said to comport with the goals of rhetoric in Renaissance, and consequently confirm the character of rhetor which is assigned to him by Grumio's punning reference to “rope tricks” and disfiguring figures.

Petruchio is not just any rhetor, of course; he is the rhetor as the Renaissance conceived him. From the Italian quattrocento through the seventeenth century, writers on the art celebrated the rhetor as a figure of power whose skill with words enabled him to control, shape, and transform the beliefs and behavior of those around him. These writers produced treatises, handbooks, and essays in Latin, Italian, French, English, and other vernaculars, all of which focus on what Aristotle called pathos, on moving the emotions, and through them the will, of the audience. In his highly influential De inventione dialectica, for example, Rudolph Agricola presents such moving as the chief end of the orator and defines it as a disturbing of the emotions (“affectibus perturbare”), and Vives complains in his De causis corruptarum artium that contemporary orators fail to move their audience because they are “entirely unaware of what the emotions are or how to drive them on or restrain them.” At the end of the sixteenth century, Jacques Amyot, the translator of Plutarch, tells the orator to move people through their passions, because “men let themselves be manipulated by their passions more than by their reason.” Francis Bacon defines the office of rhetoric in similar terms: it ideally seconds reason by using the imagination “for the better moving of the will,” a process which he equates with making the “affections in themselves … pliant and obedient.”11 Finally, in a striking example close to Shakespeare's play in time and place, Henry Peacham's Garden of Eloquence reviews tropes and figures one by one and specifies the “use” to which each may be put, inevitably one that involves the moving of the auditor's emotions. Metaphors, Peacham claims, move the hearer's affections, “are forcible to persuade,” and make “such a firme impression in the memory, as is not lightly forgotten” (p. 13).

If the orator moves his audience, he does so for the sake of power, at least according to Renaissance writers. The Milanese rhetoric professor Anto Maria de' Conti produced a remarkable dialogue on the subject about 1550 in which he tells the orator that he has the power to seize the spirits of his listeners, “so that you could force them, even unwilling, to follow your opinion.” A similar perception leads Vives to argue that delight (delectare) is a misnomer for the second office of rhetoric (besides teaching and moving); it should rather be called detenere (‘detain’, ‘occupy’, or ‘seize’) since listeners are seized (capiuntur) or moved by things which are delightful. In stressing the power of poetry, which he identifies with rhetoric, George Puttenham speaks of the “violence” of persuasion and recounts the tale of the orator Hegesias, who convinced many of his hearers to kill themselves through his arguments on behalf of suicide, a story Amyot rehearses for the same purpose.12 In short, for these Renaissance rhetoricians, the orator moves others in order to command them, just as Petruchio intends to do in courting Kate. He brags to her father, Baptista, using an image of irresistibility to suggest the power of his voice: “Though little fire grows great with little wind / Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all. / So I to her, and so she yields to me” (2.1.133-35). Or, as Grumio puts it, Petruchio will play the part of the potent, conquering rhetor, defeating his adversary utterly in their war of words: “an she stand him but a little, he will throw a figure in her face, and so disfigure her with it, that she shall have no more eyes to see withal than a cat” (1.2.111-14).

From the start of The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio is not only as self-assured, aggressive, and domineering as the Renaissance orator was imagined to be in rhetorical treatises and handbooks, but he and the orator are also given a specifically political definition. Thus, although Petruchio may change his tactics between act 1 and act 4, his end remains the same, and that end is implied by the first words of the soliloquy he offers after he has begun “taming” Kate: “Thus have I politicly begun my reign” (4.2.175). This statement suggests that Petruchio sees himself as a ruler and Kate as his subject; it is reconfirmed by Kate at the end of the play when she scolds Bianca and the Widow, insisting that a husband is “thy lord, thy king, thy governor, … Thy head, thy sovereign” (5.2.139, 147). To be sure, such a notion, strikingly absent from The Taming of a Shrew, was an Elizabethan commonplace, and even more so during the pervasive patriarchalism of James, whose rule saw the only printed version of The Shrew appear in the First Folio. The linking of ruling and taming, however, points once again to the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric, which not only connects the two notions but assigns them positions of central importance. It is already well known that Renaissance rhetoric may be distinguished from its medieval antecedents by the overtly political or ideological purpose ascribed to it.13 What needs to be specified is the way in which treatise after treatise figures rhetoric as rule, and the orator as ruler. Far exceeding the idea of “moving” the auditor—a conception which does not really suggest total control—Renaissance treatises see the orator as leading or dragging, ruling or dominating, even tyrannizing those who listen to him. The Counter-Reformation rhetorician Cypriano Soarez, for instance, says the orator rules (“regit”) and notes that in peaceful cities oratory has always done so (“semperque dominata est”) while the dedication to Johann Sturm's popular treatise praises eloquence in political terms: “It rules the spirits and minds of those who listen, governs them, and leads them where its will dictates.”14 In a single passage of his De eloquentia sacra et humana, the French Jesuit Nicholas Caussin goes to the heart of the matter: “The rule of eloquence, which dominates the emotions, is the highest, for it brings men together in societies, allures their minds, impels their wills to go where it wants and to lead them away where it wants. It gives succour to those in need, comforts the afflicted, saves the accused, frees [people] from dangers, and generally establishes a certain mild tyranny in the hearts of men.”15 Moreover, the orator himself is repeatedly identified as a ruler. In the fifteenth century, the humanist Lorenzo Valla sees him as the guide and teacher (or duke) of the people (“rector et dux populi”), and in the next century Vives repeats this notion. Indeed for some thinkers rhetoric is the royal art par excellence, as it is for Amyot, who composed an entire treatise to argue the point, his Projet de l'Éloquence royale, composé pour Henry III, roi de France.16 Peacham celebrates this ideal of the orator's role: “what he commendeth is beloved, what he dispraiseth is abhorred, what he persuadeth is obeid, & what he disuadeth is avoided: so that he is in a maner the emperor of mens minds & affections, and next to the omnipotent God in the power of persuasion” (Garden of Eloquence, p. iv recto).

As he approaches his wooing of Katherine, Shakespeare's Petruchio presents himself as a swaggering version of just such an emperor of men's minds. His peremptory manner, his insistence on his own power, and the stress which he and Katherine both place on his political relationship to her as sovereign, all reproduce the dominant conception of the rhetor in the period—one that might well be labeled “absolutist,” considering historical developments in political theory and practice.17 Petruchio can be seen as intending to act out—indeed, to carry to its logical conclusion—the fantasy of control at the heart of absolutism not just in his taming and ruling over Katherine generally, but in the principal sign he demands of her, a sign which is calculated to confirm his status as monarch and her own as obedient subject. For he insists both that she speak just as he does and, more important, that his words be allowed to determine the very reality of their world. As he proclaims his right to call the sun the moon or a man a woman, Petruchio arrogates to himself both the power of Adam, who first gave names to all things and served frequently in the Renaissance as the model for patriarchal rule, and the power of God, the creator and patriarch of all patriarchs. Petruchio's proclamation amounts to an assertion that he can—and will—create the world through his words; he indulges a fantasy of ultimate power that Katherine confirms as she tells him: “What you will have it named, even that it is” (4.5.21).

Thus the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric images the rule of the sovereign-rhetor over his subject-auditor in terms of forcing, leading, or dragging the latter to do things against his or her will. Another important image of that rule, most suggestive for The Taming of the Shrew, involves the idea of tying or binding. When Caussin, for instance, praises rhetoric for its power to “allure their [i.e., human beings'] minds,” his Latin says that the orator “mentes allicit.” Similarly, in his De ratione dicendi, Vives writes, “speech both allures minds to itself and rules in the emotions.”18 The verb allicio comes from lacio, which also means “to allure,” but a clearer sense of its significance can be grasped from its nominal laqueus, which means “snare” or “noose.” In other words, Caussin and Vives image the orator controlling the auditor by ensnaring him or her with a rope of words. In a related image which associates the idea of tying with that of leading or dragging, Daniel Barbaro writes in his Della eloquenza of 1535 that the orator manages his auditors by controlling their emotions, “because they seem … the true and powerful cords with which others are drawn by our wills.”19 In these passages, the writers use the image of ropes or cords to identify the power relations between the orator and the auditor; they all make the rhetor a practitioner of “rope tricks” with a vengeance, one whose subject is, like Tranio, “tied to be obedient” to his master's “pleasure” (1.1.209, 208).

Two linked sets of alternative images which Renaissance writers on rhetoric used to describe the orator-auditor relationship are also present in Shakespeare's play, and both of them envision the orator's entering into and taking possession of the auditor in some way. In one, he impresses or imprints himself on those who listen to him, as the late sixteenth-century French parlementaire Guillaume Du Vair exemplifies in declaring that orators do not just paint mores on the heart “but imprint there, with burning flame, the most lively and violent affections which can enter into it.” Amyot, too, speaks of the power of the orator's eyes which “imprint in those who watch them the very passions of the person who is speaking.”20 Developing the same image, Peacham stresses the utter passivity and helplessness of the auditor. Metaphors, he says, “leave such a firme impression in the memory, as is not lightly forgotten” (Garden of Eloquence, p. 13), and he continues, “In respect of their firme impression in the mind & remembrance of the hearer, they are as seales upon soft wax, or as deep stamps in long lasting metall” (p. 14). Peacham's language here, like Du Vair's and Amyot's, not only dramatizes the orator's power to shape a listener who is unable to resist, but also stresses that this process occurs within the auditor's heart or mind. This ability to penetrate the listener in order to possess him or her fully is the focus of the second set of alternative images. Soarez thus speaks of the orator's words being carried through the air and entering into the spirits of others, while Angelo Poliziano more dramatically describes the orator's ability to “burst into the hearts and minds” of his subjects. Caussin presents the idea of an airborne invasion even more strikingly when celebrating the force (vis) of eloquence: “for as if supported by its [i.e., Eloquence's] wings, the soul of the orator flows into the breasts of his auditors and makes them his servants in a form of servitude most pleasing to all.”21 Whether the orator is imagined to impress himself on the spirit of his listener or to enter into that person in order to possess him, the power involved is virtually magical. It is therefore hardly surprising that many writers on rhetoric should see the art as such, or should identify Orpheus and Amphion as mythical prototypes for the figure they celebrate.22

In a variety of ways, The Taming of the Shrew shares this language of violent possession and magical power with the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric. Eloquence is, as Petruchio labels it, “piercing” (2.1.175), a word which implies either stabbing with a weapon or penetrating another in order to control him or her. We note that Petruchio presents himself as “armed” (2.1.138) against Katherine's words—and hence not about to be penetrated and possessed by her—while he, by contrast, fully intends to “board” her (1.2.94). Moreover, Petruchio is identified as a magician. Tranio, for instance, lauds his success in taming Katherine by trickery and magic: “Petruchio is the master / That teaches tricks … / To tame a shrew and charm her chattering tongue” (4.2.56-58: my emphasis). In addition, Petruchio like Orpheus is associated with music, and specifically with the lute by the music of which Baptista wishes his daughters, and in particular Kate, to be broken or tamed (2.1.146). Orpheus's instrument was, of course, the lyre, but that the lute might evoke him as well is demonstrated by the play which is either a source or an earlier version of The Taming of the Shrew, namely, the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew. There the character who is sent to teach Kate to play the lute explicitly evokes Orpheus: “The sencelesse trees by musick have bin moov'd / And at the sound of pleasant tuned strings, / Have savage beasts hung downe their listning heads / As though they had beene cast into a trance, / Then it may be that she whom nought can please, / With musickes sound in time may be surprisde.”23 Finally, in a most powerful, albeit indirect manner, Shakespeare's play invokes the idea of magical possession, for character after character connects Katherine with the devil, thus suggesting that she is some sort of witch whose shrewishness amounts to diabolical possession.24 While she is never directly said to be possessed, that idea is applied to the parallel figure of Christopher Sly, whose initial insistence that he is a tinker, not a nobleman, prompts the lament that he “Should be infusèd with so foul a spirit” (induction, 2.15). In the perspective produced by such imagery, then, what the play depicts in the transformations of Sly and Katherine is a double exorcism, the freeing of two characters who are “infus'd” with evil spirits by being possessed with the magical words, the “good spirits,” of the Orphic Lord and the equally Orphic Petruchio. To rephrase this notion in terms of the witty language used by Petruchio to Katherine: in charming her into submission, he will have effectively inserted his tongue in her tail (2.1.219). This admittedly obscene image can also be read as a pun according to which Petruchio's triumph will be a matter of possessing Katherine's tale, which he has been able to enter and control with his orator's tongue.

The obscenity of Petruchio's repartee should not be dismissed as merely a heightening of comic atmosphere. He is insistently bawdy or obscene from almost his first appearance when he jokes that he will “board” Katherine (1.2.94), and his bawdiness is marked throughout the play by a strong element of phallic aggression which presents masculine sexuality as a form of attack and domination. Indeed, throughout the play Petruchio's verbal behavior is both extravagant and consistently aggressive as he blusters, brags about his roughness (2.1.130 ff.), and threatens at various times to beat others. Moreover, all this aggression is associated with a character whose adult masculinity is at issue: he claims at one point that he does not “woo like a babe” (2.1.136), insists on his sexuality in the ensuing courtship scene—Kate, of course, resists him by insisting on just the opposite (see 2.1.227 ff.)—and he soliloquizes later that he will “man my haggard” (4.1.180). Thus, when Grumio speaks of his master's “rope tricks,” he is not only making a bawdy joke equating ropes and phalluses, but points directly to the aggressive nature of masculine sexuality in the play insofar as the rope also connotes the idea of force through associations of tying, binding, and dragging.25

To say that Petruchio's “rope tricks” involve the sexual domination of Kate is to suggest that what he plans to do to her looks disturbingly like rape. As noted at the outset, at least one critic has glossed Grumio's phrase as “rape tricks,” and more than one has evoked the idea in analyzing Petruchio's treatment of Katherine.26 In fact, the play contains a tissue of allusions to various sorts of rapes and analogous notions of (usually) male domination, ranging from the offer to show Christopher Sly erotic pictures of Adonis, Io, and Daphne (induction, 2.47 ff.), through Lucentio's reference to the rape of Europa (1.1.164-67), down to Petruchio's praise for Kate as “a second Grissel, / And Roman Lucrece” (2.1.295-96). To be sure, as critics have rightly noted, Petruchio does not engage in sexual intercourse with Kate at all before the play ends and actually uses sexual deprivation as one of his methods for controlling her in act 4.27 However, the absence of the sexual act is more than compensated for by the bawdiness and aggression which characterize Petruchio's language and behavior. Moreover, what was crucial in legal definitions of rape in Renaissance England was not the fact of sexual violation so much as the taking or possessing of someone against her will. Thus, although a parliamentary act of 1576 condemned rape as being in the same class with theft and murder, there were very few prosecutions in part because of “the widely held legal dictum that conception proved consent: ‘Rape is the forcible ravishment of a woman, but if she conceive it is not rape, for she cannot conceive unless she consent.’”28 This dictum clearly gives priority to the issue of will and makes bodily penetration secondary. For instance, in the rape trial involving Margery Evans, a trial which may have influenced Milton's Comus, the chief question turned “not vpon th'external Act whether it was done or not but whether it was in the patient voluntary or compulsory.”29 Just such an emphasis on will occurs in The Taming of the Shrew. The word itself appears a large number of times, often as a character insists on having his or her way. Thus, Christopher Sly, introduced to his “wife,” is asked what his “will is with her” (induction, 2.101), while Kate protests being manipulated by her father's “will” (1.1.57), says she “will not go” (3.2.210) with Petruchio after the wedding, and insists in response to his taming that “speak I will” (4.3.74). Petruchio is equally insistent and tells Kate, “will you, nill you, I will marry you” (2.1.270). When he finally transforms her, she shows her compliance not only by coming at his call but by asking at once, “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” and then telling the other women that they should be obedient to the “honest will” of their husbands (5.2.100, 158). Such examples could be easily multiplied. What they indicate is that Petruchio's treatment of Katherine amounts to co-opting her will. When added to the bawdiness and phallic aggression associated with him, this fact validates the reading of “rope tricks” as a pun on “rape tricks”; it makes Petruchio's intended “persuasion” the functional equivalent of a sexual assault.

To see Petruchio as a kind of rapist is not to lessen his identification as an orator but, rather, to intensify it. The various images which the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric uses to describe the way the orator controls the auditor can easily be seen as leading to a metaphoric equation of rhetor and rapist. The idea of rape is conjured up by passages describing the orator as a figure of force who leads, drags, ties, or ensnares his listeners, and whose words are said to enter or penetrate, imprint, and then occupy or possess them. However, the argument does not depend solely on imagistic associations, for rape is often directly present in the discourse of rhetoric in one of its key notions—ravishment. Thomas Wilson, for example, writes in praise of the power of oratory: “what greater delite doe we knowe, then to see a whole multitude, with the onely talke of man, rauished and drawne which way he liketh best to have them?”30 Amyot similarly speaks of how the peroration of a speech ought to “ravish and transport” us, and Puttenham says that rhetorical figures which are “sweet and melodious” affect both ear and mind, “because the eare is no less rauished with their currant tune, than the mind is with their sententiousness.” Both English ravish and French ravir derive from Latin rapere, which means to seize or snatch or possess as well as to rape, and is the source of English rape. Rapere is, of course, used in Latin treatises on rhetoric such as de' Conti's De eloquentia dialogus, which encourages people to study eloquence “so that they can transform, impel, drag, and seize the minds of the auditors to the embracing of what is honorable.”31 In short, according to the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric, when the orator operates upon his auditor, the action involved is, in one sense or another, rape.

Just as both Renaissance legal doctrine and The Taming of the Shrew focus on the will in connection with rape, so does the discourse of rhetoric. To be sure, the concern with the passions in moving the auditor is genuine, but the main emphasis consistently falls on moving the will. De' Conti, for instance, speaks of how the orator “softened and changed the spirits of those peoples with his most eloquent speech so that he forced them to obey his will.” Caussin similarly speaks of how eloquence “impels [people's] wills to go where it wants and to lead them away where it wants,” and his compatriot, Du Vair, speaks of how the orator is “master not only of … persons and goods, but of their very own wills.”32 Finally, Peacham says that by means of the rhetorical figure of amplification, the orator “may prevaile much in drawing the mindes of his hearers to his owne will and affection” (The Garden of Eloquence, p. 121) and Wilson claims that the eloquent words of orators “will force a man to be sory with them, and take part with their tears even against his wil” (Arte of Rhetorique, p. 134). For all these writers—indeed, for virtually every Renaissance writer on the subject—rhetoric resembles rape insofar as it clearly involves the orator's assertion of his own will in co-opting the less powerful wills of those he addresses in a verbal act of violence identified as the binding, seizing, and possessing of their spirits. It is just such a verbal act, of course, which Petruchio, as rhetor, is about to perform upon Katherine as he sets off in the courtship scene “to have some chat with her” (2.1.161).

The issue of gender is clearly involved in everything I have said so far about the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric. That discourse was presented as an exclusively male art to its would-be practitioners, since public speaking was considered an unfit activity for women.33 The issue of gender is more complicated, however, for rhetoric itself, as distinct from the rhetor, is usually understood as female. A long and consistent tradition identifies it with the goddess Peitho (“Persuasion”) among the Greeks, personifies it as a domina in Rome, and makes it a lady or a queen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.34 Such an identification must have been threatening to the men who practiced rhetoric and wrote about it, so that Roman writers such as Cicero and Quintilian compensated by insisting on the masculine character of the orator as a warrior. The Renaissance does something similar and even goes a step beyond its classical predecessors. It recovers a mythological figure who had singularly little play in ancient culture, and uses it to create an ultra-masculine symbol of the orator. That figure is none other than Hercules.

To be more precise, Renaissance writers celebrate the rhetor as the so-called Hercules Gallicus. While they could easily have identified rhetoric with Mercury, the fortuitous publication of Lucian's Herakles in 1496 allowed them to avoid associating rhetoric with deception (Mercury was the patron deity of thieves) while instead emphasizing “masculine,” Herculean qualities such as force and rule.35 According to Lucian, Hercules was depicted in Marseilles as the god of eloquence, leading his followers by means of chains of gold and amber that connected his tongue to their ears. The Latin translations of Lucian's account by Erasmus and Guillaume Budé in the early sixteenth century gave the figure a wide exposure in European culture, and it became all the wider when Andrea Alciati included a graphic rendering of the image in the 1531 edition of his emblems. Entitling his emblem Eloquentia Fortitudine Praestantior (Eloquence is more efficacious than force), Alciati depicted Hercules holding a club and a bow, but leading others by means of a set of chains. This image was then picked up and repeated with variants by other Renaissance mythographers and emblem-book writers. Because this was an emblem of the Gallic Hercules, it appealed especially to the French, who conflated it with the image of the Libyan Hercules supposedly responsible for the founding of France and used it as a figure for a number of their kings and rulers. As a result, throughout Europe the Hercules Gallicus became a figure for both inspired eloquence and political power. In his Projet de l'Éloquence royale, Amyot no sooner declares that a king's words are a principal part of his power than he alludes to “our famous Hercules Gallicus whom the people followed pulled by the cord from his tongue.”36 Hercules was not only on the minds of Renaissance Frenchmen, however, as the following citation from Wilson indicates. The “power of Eloquence,” he writes, is so great “that most men are forced, even to yeeld in that which most standeth against their will. And therefore the Poets doe feine, that Hercules beeing a man of great wisedome, had all men lincked together by the eares in a chaine, to drawe them and leade them even as he lusted” (Arte of Rhetorique, preface). Puttenham too evokes the same representation of Hercules: “where they had figured a lustie old man with a long chayne tyed by one end at his tong, by the other end at the peoples eares, who stood a farre of and seemed to be drawne to him by the force of the chayne fastned to his tong, as who would say, by force of his persuasions” (Arte of English Poesie, p. 154). Thus in Hercules the Renaissance found a perfect figure for the rhetor, one which focused on force and made it both masculine and political at the same time. Needless to say, if the orator is the supremely masculine Hercules, it is a simple matter to imagine his audience in feminine terms. That is precisely what all the imagery of entering and possessing, violating and raping accomplishes, thereby validating Renaissance men's vision of the “proper” order of the universe in which men ruled and women obeyed, whether they wanted to or not.

It should not be too difficult now to see how Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew may be read as a variant on this representation of Hercules. The play directly identifies him with Hercules at one point, when Gremio attempts to dissuade him from trying to court and tame Katherine: “Yea, leave that labour to great Hercules. / And let it be more than Alcides' twelve” (1.2.254-55). Moreover, since Petruchio is a master of “rope tricks,” Grumio's witty remark can be seen as evoking not merely the cords by which the orator ensnared the passions of the auditor but also the chains by which Hercules dragged his followers. As the preceding quotation from Amyot indicates, those chains were sometimes referred to as cords; and in some of the illustrations in Renaissance emblem-books and mythographies, Hercules seems connected to his followers as much by ropes as by chains. Thus, in this way, too, Shakespeare's play reveals its connection to the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric. Like Hercules, Petruchio epitomizes just those traits of the orator which identify him with masculine force and political power, and present him as leading and dragging, penetrating and possessing his subject. That subject is a woman, of course, and as he co-opts her will in asserting his own, he perpetrates acts which clearly merit description as “rope/rape tricks.”

Within the discourse of rhetoric, the Herculean orator is no more literally a rapist than is Petruchio in the course of the play. On the contrary, he is a hero celebrated for his humanity, insofar as he practices an art which is flatteringly seen as distinguishing men from animals. In his oration on Quintilian and the Sylvae of Statius, for instance, Poliziano, echoing Cicero, praises rhetoric by asking his listeners: “What is more excellent … than that you alone should excel other men in that by which men themselves excel the other animals?” Similarly, George of Trebizond, in his Oratio de laudibus eloquentie, declares that without oratory men are condemned to be beasts.37 Throughout the discourse of rhetoric, the orator is presented as a civilizer, someone who uses his verbal artistry to control or tame unruly listeners necessarily presented as savages or animals. Indeed, writers seem never to tire of repeating the myth, taken from the beginning of Cicero's De inventione, in which the orator is the founder of civilization, one who used his verbal power to bring wild people into cities and forced them to accept some form of civil order. Thus, in the mid-sixteenth century, de' Conti writes that at the dawn of time only orators could have persuaded people to obey the laws of civilization. He then asks rhetorically, “Or did a savage people most desirous of living freely place the laws, like a yoke, upon its neck of its own free choice?” Around the end of the century, Du Vair similarly declares that “eloquence first sweetened the manners [moeurs] of men, softened their savage affections, and united their different wills in civil society.”38 And in Shakespeare's England, Peacham praises those individuals from “times past, who by their singular wisdom and eloquence, made savage nations civil, wild people tame, and cruel tyrants not only to become meeke, but likewise mercifull” (dedication, Garden of Eloquence, p. iv recto).

In celebrating the rhetor as civilizer and rehearsing their myth, however, Renaissance rhetoricians need not simply be taken at their word. The story they recount may be credited as an expression of their benevolence, but it can also be seen as a self-serving rationalization which mystifies the orator's verbal violence and savagery, his metaphorical rape of others, by disguising it under a supposedly humanizing sweetness. A similar kind of rationalization is also at work in The Taming of the Shrew; indeed, it is present in the wording of the play's title, which articulates the outlook of all the male characters, at least, on Petruchio's actions. The play is filled with characters who justify their social, economic, and political domination of others by identifying those others as animals ready for taming. Thus, the Lord, who identifies himself initially as an expert on the training of dogs, calls the sleeping Christopher Sly a “monstrous beast,” a “swine” (induction, 1.31), and obviously feels completely justified in amusing himself by playing a sadistic practical joke. Similarly, Hortensio labels Bianca a “proud disdainful haggard” (4.2.39) as she frustrates his every effort to “tame” her. Most important, Petruchio accepts without hesitation Baptista's notion that Kate is an animal whom one might “break … to the lute” (2.1.146), later denominating her a “haggard” who must be trained to “come and know her keeper's call” (4.2.180-81), so that Petruchio is due congratulations when she is finally “tamed” (5.2.188-89). In the play, as in the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric, the act of persuasion may be humanely intended and may speak to an elevated conception of civilization for which Hercules, the god of wisdom as well as of eloquence, is the spokesman. That act can also be seen, simultaneously, as a self-serving affirmation of one's own superior humanity and of others' savagery—both of which identifications become clear when the tamers practice their “rope/rape tricks” on the tamed, successfully mystifying what the tamed might well experience as savage treatment by characterizing this as a domestication of wild beasts for the sake of civilization.


Despite Petruchio's wonderful way with language, his witty, bawdy puns and plays on words, and his clever design to woo Kate by turning everything she says upside down, he fails resoundingly to convince her to marry him. Identified as a masterful rhetor at the start of the play, he is defeated in that role, and with him the notion of an omnipotent, masculine, regal rhetoric is defeated also. The play thus enables us to interpret it as exploding some of the most important claims advanced by Renaissance rhetoricians, undercutting the idealistic elevation of the rhetor into a king who leads his savage subjects to civilization, and discrediting the fantasy of eloquent language as the source of power in the world. Moreover, as the play pits Petruchio against Katherine and men against women, it exposes the sexual politics of Renaissance rhetoric, destroying the presumed distinction between men and women on which that politics is based by showing that the distinction involved is not natural, but an artificial construct, an ideological move designed to serve the interests of men. Finally, however, in the ambiguity of Katherine's “conversion” and subsequent behavior, the play reverses course to some degree and winds up celebrating rhetoric after all. For if rhetoric is not the means for men to rule others as subjects, it turns out to be the means for women, for subjects, to resist and even subvert men's rule, thereby gaining a measure of control over those whose superior position is owed not to rhetoric, but to social traditions, laws, and physical force. Rhetoric may not be the invincible offensive weapon it is imagined to be in the Renaissance discourse on the subject, but Katherine shows it is not to be dismissed as an instrument of defense.

Let us begin with the elevated status of the rhetor as king and civilizer. Before examining how Shakespeare's play handles this issue through its characterization of Petruchio, it is important to note certain strains of criticism in the discourse which present the rhetor in negative terms. In his De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum, Henry Agrippa characterizes rhetoric as flattery, lying, and deceit, and although he recognizes its power, he condemns it as leading either to tyranny or to sedition and disorder. Reversing the positive evaluation of Hercules in other texts, he deplores the rhetorician's disregard for truth which enables him “to ensnare the spirits of his listeners by means of the sweetness of his speech and to lead them tied to his tongue by their ears.”39 This negative vision of the rhetor, associated with sedition or tyranny rather than good kingship, derives ultimately from Plato's Gorgias and can be found in the work of writers such as the Italian Francesco Patrizi, the Englishman John Jewel, or the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne.40 A second, equally negative view does not condemn the orator as a political menace, but derides him for possessing a skill which, far from making him a king or emperor, fails to separate him from the dregs of the populace. In his famous letter replying to Ermolao Barbaro's praise of rhetoric, Pico della Mirandola attacks it as deception: “For what else is the rhetor's function but to lie, to ensnare, to entrap, to trick.” He goes on to condemn the orator as effeminate, uncivilized, indecorously seeking the applause of the crowd by means of “the soft step, the clever hands, and the playful eyes” which really belong only “in the actor and dancer.” Jewel similarly attacks the orators' performance as déclassé, for his auditors are not wise men, “not serious men, not philosophers, but the filth of the people, mobs.” And Patrizi, focusing on the orator's willingness to lie and to espouse the contrary of the just and the good, labels him a truffatore, a trickster or confidence man, thus linking the figure to the horde of sharpers and swindlers who roamed the cities and towns of Renaissance Europe and peopled texts from Boccaccio to Machiavelli to Molière.41 Manifestly, within the discourse of rhetoric there is a stream of protest which views the orator not as an admired monarch but as a wicked tyrant, a source of sedition and public disequilibrium, even a trickster or a clown.

The vast majority of writers about rhetoric celebrated the orator, taking pains to rebut such criticisms and to insulate their positive vision of the figure from his demonic or clownish opposite. Nowhere are these protective tactics more visible than in de' Conti's De eloquentia dialogus of around 1550. De' Conti uses the dialogue form in a nondialogical manner: first he has one character praise rhetoric, then another attack it, and then has the first speaker pronounce an ostensibly definitive defense. The attacks are the familiar ones: rhetoric causes sedition and disorder, and the orator is not a wise ruler, but a charlatan. The terms of the latter attack are particularly interesting in light of the images used generally by writers to define the operations of rhetoric and Grumio's witty words in The Taming of the Shrew. De' Conti's critic declares as follows to the defender of rhetoric: “For you say that eloquence is marvelous because it renders listeners dumbfounded, but the same thing can be said of a rope dancer or juggler or even … a mountebank.” De' Conti's spokesman then replies that the rhetor is a good man who calms sedition while wisely ruling the state. Stung, however, by the reduction of the orator to the level of a “rope dancer,” he insists that the two are one hundred eighty degrees apart (“toto … diametro”) and asks indignantly, “What similarity does a rope-walker have with eloquence?”42 The problem for de' Conti is that an assertion of difference does not amount to a proof of difference. Moreover, quite often the very language used to praise rhetoric fails to answer the criticism made of it, so that if its critics say it is seditious in stirring up the passions, its defenders praise it in exactly the same terms, although they want readers to believe that rhetors would never think of sedition. Or if critics accuse the orator of tyranny, soon defenders arise to praise it for what they themselves term the “tyranny” it holds over people's minds and hearts. If critics fault the orator for appealing to the base crowd and performing acts that hardly distinguish him from rope dancers and jugglers, those who praise rhetoric consistently stress its effects on the common run of people and characterize the orator as an actor or performer. In short, notions which de' Conti and other defenders of rhetoric want to distinguish keep falling together and turning into one another; the terms they use to celebrate rhetoric keep metamorphosing into criticisms.

Precisely the same thing occurs in The Taming of the Shrew. If Petruchio can be read as a version of the ideal orator-ruler, he can just as well be seen as a version of the orator-tyrant, one whose treatment of Kate will indeed be “peremptory” (2.1.130) and whose courtship is not an attempt to reason with her, but to bully her into submission. Even more strikingly, the play equates Petruchio with the clown. It identifies him as “mad” in a variety of ways: he chooses the forward Kate over the accommodating Bianca; his wooing is outrageously bawdy; he insists that Kate loves him when she says she does not; he comes late to his own wedding and makes a shambles of the ceremony; and so on and on.43 Indeed, from the start, the others pronounce him “mad” (1.2.19), later calling him a “mad-brain rudesby” (3.2.10) and a “mad brained bridegroom” (162) with whom Kate, declared mad as well, is “madly mated” (246). The play actually insists more on Petruchio's madness, extravagance, and eccentricity than on his regal behavior, at least until the last scene when Kate identifies her husband firmly as her sovereign. Moreover, Petruchio's actions—especially his clever, punning use of words and his bullying of others—are mirrored by those of his servant Grumio who is said to be “full of cony-catching” (4.1.38)—that is, of clownish, lower-class trickery which makes him a double for Petruchio, who is a master of “rope tricks.” Thus in his “madness” and his association with “cony-catching,” Petruchio appears as much a clown as a king. A comparison with Shakespeare's later creation, Prince Hal, proves instructive, for both men demonstrate both clownish and regal behaviors. With Hal, however, the two are compartmentalized, clownishness being confined to the tavern, kingliness to the court. By contrast, The Taming of the Shrew seems to insist on the inseparability of the two, for just as it prevents us from distinguishing perceptions of Petruchio as good king and as wicked tyrant, so it collapses the images of him as ruler and clownish trickster. In doing both things, the play deconstructs two of the key oppositions—those between the rhetor-ruler and rhetor-tyrant, and the rhetor-king and rhetor-clown—on which the entire Renaissance discourse of rhetoric was based.

The Taming of the Shrew also explodes a notion propounded by virtually all writers within the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric—the notion that language is power. Whether it celebrates the orator's verbal ability or denounces it as profoundly dangerous, the discourse consistently proclaims the tongue mightier than the sword. Wilson's dedication to his Arte of Rhetorique recounts how Pyrrhus used an orator to persuade a country to yield itself to him when he could not conquer it by force of arms. Wilson asks rhetorically, “What greater gaine can we have, then without bloudshed achive to a Conquest?” (p. iii verso). Noting that Pericles conquered more with words than with arms, Du Vair similarly indulges in rhetorical questioning: “What greater honor can one imagine for oneself in the world than to command without arms and forces those with whom you live?” One might recall here the motto of Alciati's Hercules Gallicus, Eloquentia Fortitudine Praestantior. It is not surprising, of course, that most works about rhetoric should stress its power, since the writers were usually rhetoricians themselves. They consequently had a vested interest in claiming the superiority of their art, as Amyot does when he recounts to Henri III how Julius Caesar quelled a mutiny with the cutting edge of his tongue and insists that “the word of a King is a principal part of his power.”44

Shakespeare's play shows that this belief in the power of words needs real qualification. Although Petruchio does attempt to tame Kate with words, she defeats him in the wooing scene, where she matches or even bests him in repartee, responding to his phallic aggression with witty rejoinders stressing his sexual inadequacy, and replying to his self-identification as a gentleman by labeling his “crest” the sign of the fool, a “coxcomb” (2.1.227).45 The discourse of rhetoric implicitly characterized the orator's auditor not just as a woman but as an utterly passive one, a being with no voice who stood helpless before the speaker's words as they seized and bound, penetrated and raped her. Kate, however, is anything but silent and passive; her words are swords every bit as much as Petruchio's are. As a result, his attempt to overpower her in wooing her ends in his defeat, not hers. He asks her rhetorically, “Am I wise?” and Kate dispatches him wittily with, “Yes, [just wise enough to] keep you warm” (264-65). Petruchio then not only abandons his reliance on words and their presumed power, but underscores their irrelevance as he informs her she has no real way to resist marriage: “Marry, so I mean, sweet Katherine, in thy bed. / And therefore, setting all this chat aside, / 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” (266-70; my emphasis). Petruchio misrepresents the situation here—Baptista has said that Kate shall marry Petruchio, but only if she wishes—just as he does later when he tells Baptista that Kate is shrewish only out of “policy” (292) and has agreed to marry him. At this moment in the play critics have wondered why Kate does not resist. The usual answer is that despite her apparent rejection of her suitor, she does in fact wish to get married, as she indicated earlier in the play (see 2.1.31 ff.), and her silence in the face of his assertions about her willingness may consequently be construed as consent.46 Such a reading is possible, but it does not disqualify another which would stress the way in which Kate is being manipulated, in which she appears to be given no choice in response to a collusion between her suitor and her father, about whose prior arrangements she knows nothing. This collusion, moreover, seems acceptable to all the male authorities present, and is validated implicitly by a patriarchal culture which by law and tradition vested all real power with men, not women. This same patriarchal culture allows Petruchio to proclaim after his marriage that he is “master of what is mine own. / She is my goods, my chattels” (3.2.231-32). What the play shows is that in a culture where wives are “chattels” and where “chat” is no certain means to power, the male rhetor Petruchio will always triumph not because he is a rhetor, but because he is male and can resort to traditional social and legal prerogatives to gain his end.47

In order to tame his shrew once he has married her, Petruchio essentially turns away from rhetoric and relies on another traditionally male weapon, physical force. Whereas the rhetorical tradition imaged the orator as metaphorically seizing, binding, and raping his auditor, the play has Petruchio reject the ineffective violence of words for the violence of deeds, revealed as the superior form of “persuasion.” Not only does he threaten physical violence on several occasions, but he actually practices it, beating his servants at various times, throwing wine in the priest's face at the wedding, and “rescuing” Katherine from “thieves” (3.2.238) at the reception just afterward. Most notably, he virtually incarcerates his wife, depriving her of sleep and food. Although critics have stressed that his actions with her may constitute “reverent care” (4.1.191) to reform or cure her, his actual reference to his “care” for her indicates clearly that it is just part of an act, on a par with keeping her awake by pretending the bed is ill-made. Indeed, his actions can be more directly seen as muscle flexing designed to achieve what he himself defines as his goals, “peace …, and love, and quiet life, / And awful rule, and right supremacy” (5.2.108-9). Petruchio wants a tranquil domestic monarchy, which means that Katherine must conform to his wishes no matter what she wants and whether or not what is done is good for her.48 Of course, by using force to coerce Kate, Petruchio not only appears to be a bully, but his behavior evokes the idea of rape which the play suggests so powerfully in other ways. The Renaissance discourse of rhetoric saw the rhetor as rapist, but the idea stayed at the level of “mere” metaphor. In the play, however, Petruchio's violence and forcing of Katherine's will come uncomfortably close to turning that metaphor into a reality. As “shrew,” Katherine also uses violence in attempting to lay claim to a male prerogative in her culture: like Petruchio and other men, she too beats servants, and in a direct parody of the orator's “rope tricks,” she literalizes the metaphor involved by actually tying up her sister Bianca. However, when she hits Petruchio in the courtship scene, challenging his “gentlemanly” restraint, his response—“I swear I'll cuff you if you strike again” (2.1.222)—not only proves he is no gentleman by her definition, but demonstrates his possession of the superior force with which he is identified throughout the play and which he is prepared to use in restraining her. What the play shows is that the presumptive male right to use violence to enforce men's traditional and legal rights over women ensures Petruchio's final “taming” of Katherine; her ineffectual “rope tricks” are no match for the much more powerful “rope tricks” and “rape tricks” which he and other males in his culture are allowed to practice.

Kate's success in matching Petruchio at repartee as well as her playing of “rope tricks” are indications of the problematic nature of gender distinctions in The Taming of the Shrew. Just as the Lord's reidentification of Christopher Sly as a nobleman after a change in dress and situation indicates the arbitrariness of class distinctions, so Kate's ability to appropriate supposedly “male” tactics, however limited her success with them, indicates the equal arbitrariness of distinctions based on gender.49 In other words, Shakespeare's play allows the viewer to see that the qualities imagined as distinguishing men and women do not inhere in either sex, since both sexes are capable of manifesting them. Moreover, he shows that men insist on such distinctions because it clearly serves their interests to do so; it enables them to maintain what Petruchio calls “awful rule, and right supremacy” (5.2.109), and thereby to construct their very identities as men. These identities involve their self-identification as figures of power, and require for their complete validation that women recognize men's power, disguised as a right to rule.

All men in the play identify maleness with power. Petruchio is the most noteworthy in this regard, for he both asserts his power and acts it out by violating conventions and expectations. He insistently characterizes himself as a warrior or hero, summing up this view of himself when he imagines his encounter with Kate and her violent tongue: “Have I not heard great ordnance in the field, / And heaven's artillery thunder in the skies? / Have I not in a pitched battle heard / Loud 'larums, neighing steeds, and trumpets clang?” (1.2.199-202). Varying this military language, Petruchio also presents himself as an adventurer, someone who has “come abroad to see the world,” the “maze” into which young men go in order to “seek their fortunes” (1.2.57, 54, 50). His identification with the merchant-explorer is not substantially different from his identification with the warrior-hero. In the Renaissance the two categories tended to interpenetrate, as an epic such as Camoëns's Lusiads indicates. In either case, then, Petruchio can be seen as defining his maleness in terms of a heroic capacity for violence, toughness, and endurance. He even goes so far in dramatizing his power as to say at one point that he, not the clock, determines what time it is, whereupon Hortensio remarks in an aside, “Why, so this gallant will command the sun” (4.3.193)—momentarily turning Petruchio into a version of the biblical hero Joshua, if not into God himself. As Hortensio's words here may be construed to suggest, Petruchio is not alone in linking maleness with heroic violence. Not only do the other men fail to take serious offense at his violations of social decorum, but they second his metaphor, seeing Katherine as his opponent, a “soldier” (2.1.144) whose scolding is a call to battle (1.1.126: “loud alarums”), and judging his taming of her to be a labor of Hercules (1.2.254-55). Revealingly, when she finally agrees to speak as he wishes, Hortensio congratulates him, bringing together the images of both the merchant-adventurer and the warrior: “Petruchio, go thy ways, the field is won” (4.5.23).

It is crucial that male identity be validated not only by other males who share its constitutive values, but by women who submit to male power and admire it as a source of male superiority. Thus, all the men in the play see Katherine as someone to be defeated; like all women, she must be “put … down” (5.2.35)—sexually, physically, and hierarchically. For all the men, moreover, such a defeat entails a validation of the “natural” order, since it means that Katherine will have been made “kind” (5.2.14). “Kindness in women” (4.2.41), as Hortensio expresses it, means compliance and obedience, not the independence of judgment, the willfulness, that he resents in Bianca, whom he labels a “proud, disdainful haggard” (39). Hortensio's use of the falcon image here suggests just how suspect is Petruchio's similar use of the term for Katherine: to call a woman a haggard is not to present an objective assessment of her wild, animal-like behavior, but to serve one's own interests—in this case, Hortensio's wounded vanity—putting her down by raising himself up and justifying the position he constructs for himself as a superior male. To validate such a position entirely and thereby to confirm one's identity as a male, one must defeat one's female opponent, “man” one's haggard (4.1.180). The surest sign of that victory is the kind of public acknowledgment Katherine supplies Petruchio at the end of the play. She first identifies herself as an obedient subject and her husband as her rightful sovereign, and then justifies this hierarchical distinction by stressing the physical difference between them, the difference between men's heroic, phallic “lances” and women's weak little “straws” (5.2.173). Katherine thus affirms what Petruchio and all the other men in the play have denominated as the natural order, and she confirms the identities they insist upon for both themselves and women. What Katherine cannot do, of course, is to make those identities appear really “natural.” The play shows that men construct the gender distinctions which Katherine here repeats, and establish them coercively—whether by tradition, law, or simply brute force.

In revealing the arbitrary nature of the gender distinctions authored and authorized by a patriarchal society, The Taming of the Shrew simultaneously exposes the sexual politics inscribed in a discourse that took pains to identify rhetoric as the exclusive province of men, despite the feeling that it was fundamentally female. That feeling may relate back to the fact that, as Patricia Parker has argued, one of the most important parts of rhetoric was invention—the finding out of one's subject matter—which, because of its association with creativity and generation, tended to be identified conventionally as female.50 In this connection, it is significant that not only rhetoric's defenders frequently personify their art as female, but its critics often attack it in the same terms. For instance, when Pico della Mirandola criticizes rhetoric in his famous letter, he links it to the deceptions involved in cosmetics, coquetry, and seduction. If one uses eloquence in philosophy, it is “rouge on an upright virgin”; by means of “vocal splendors and beauties,” orators “seek to drag men to their opinion by coquetries”; their use of rhetorical language is a matter of “going to excess, or being wanton with metaphors”; and so forth.51 Thus, at the very heart of the discourse of rhetoric in the Renaissance stands a gender distinction according to which rhetoric is celebrated insofar as it is practiced by males as an art of power, but condemned as female because of its intrinsic attributes, its seductiveness. This distinction is, of course, untenable. For if bad rhetoric adorns itself with the ornaments of style or plays wantonly with language, so does good rhetoric; if bad rhetoric is female because creative, so is good rhetoric; and if bad rhetoric seduces its listeners, the strategy which “saves” good rhetoric by turning the rhetor into a rapist makes the art appear even worse from an ethical point of view. Renaissance works celebrating rhetoric attempt to ignore these underlying contradictions, whereas Shakespeare's play exposes them by focusing on them directly, thereby attacking the sexual politics not only of his culture, but of the discourse of rhetoric which helped to constitute that culture.

Although in characterizing Petruchio The Taming of the Shrew undermines the rhetorical tradition's presentation of the supremely powerful masculine rhetor-king and his language, it finally does offer a celebration of rhetoric in its presentation of Katherine, for whom rhetoric serves not as an invincible offensive weapon ensuring the male ruler's power and authority, but as a potent defensive weapon by which his female subject can resist him even in the act which makes her seem to confirm his triumph. The key to his final celebration is the irony of which Katherine shows herself mistress both during and after the moment of her seeming “conversion” in act 4.52 Prompted by Hortensio to “Say as he [Petruchio] says” (4.5.11) when he calls the sun the moon, she responds with a singularly ambiguous statement: “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” (4.5.13-15). Katherine's words here can be taken “straight,” and as such they would seem to indicate her total capitulation to Petruchio's will; she appears to agree that she will become exactly what she protested so vigorously against just two scenes earlier—her husband's “puppet” (4.3.103). But her statement also invites an ironic reading; it can mean that she certainly knows the difference between the sun and the moon, but is willing to call them whatever Petruchio wants, simply in order to humor him. Rather than an expression of passive, helpless acquiescence, her speech can be taken as a real, albeit indirect, criticism of her husband's madness. The very words which allow Katherine ostensibly to convert allow her simultaneously to maintain a degree of independence and freedom from Petruchio's rule over her.

Katherine's “conversion” in the fourth act, her alignment of her will with that of Petruchio, is marked by her agreeing to speak as he wishes her to speak. To put it slightly differently: her “conversion” enables Katherine to do what she has really wanted to do all along—take on the very role which Petruchio failed to fulfill and which women in the Renaissance were never supposed to play, the role of orator. Petruchio empowers her to assume this role because he believes that her words signify her capitulation and represent her real emotions, her interior disposition. Rhetoric, however, always presupposed a gap between words and things, between words and feelings; what the play allows us to see is that as she speaks all Katherine really does is to repeat Petruchio's words. The moment of her conversion, her seemingly total submission, does not involve her really thinking that the sun is the moon when he says it is; it merely involves her saying what he wants her to say. This difference, slight but far from trivial, enables Katherine to maintain an interior distance from Petruchio's position even while seeming to espouse it; he can command her words, but that does not mean he can really command her feelings or beliefs. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he can at most only seem to command her words, for the irony of her remarks enables her to undercut and thereby resist Petruchio's triumph even at the moment she appears to be confirming it. The result is that despite Petruchio's enormous efforts to transform Katherine into a model wife, her words do not allow us to conclude that she has been transformed at all. Quite the contrary, they suggest that in a profound way, except for her agreeing to tell Petruchio what he wants to hear, she is the same Katherine at the end of the play that she was at the beginning, just as Christopher Sly, no matter how nobly dressed and waited upon, remains irreducibly himself in his every appearance. If she is different, we might say that she has undergone a development that parallels but reverses Petruchio's. Their two careers manifest a perfect chiastic relationship to one another, for he begins by failing as a rhetor and then turns to violence in order to reach his goal, while she begins with violence—breaking lutes, tying up her sister, hitting people—and ends by becoming a mistress of the art of rhetoric, an art she uses not merely to defeat Bianca and the Widow by means of her “womanly persuasion” (5.2.120), but to manipulate Petruchio as well.

Kate's status as rhetor is dramatized in the last scene of the play when she delivers what must be counted as the only true formal speech in the play, her oration on wifely obedience, which, like the rhetoric Petruchio tried to use earlier in the play, has one primary aim—the acquisition of power. Her goal in this speech is to make her audience, Bianca and the Widow, into her willing subjects. That Kate should play the orator at the close should be no surprise, for throughout the play she has demonstrated her possession of all the necessary verbal skills. The only difference between her performance as orator before and after her conversion is that in the first case, acting on her own initiative and without male approval, she is proclaimed a shrew, while in the second, authorized to speak by her husband, she is celebrated as a model wife. Under these terms, we can once again see the play working to deconstruct the sexual politics inscribed in the Renaissance discourse of rhetoric, the politics that praised good rhetoric as male and denounced bad rhetoric as female. The point is that Katherine's verbal skill not only remains exactly the same throughout the play but proves indistinguishable from the skill which Petruchio displays. Yet it is just such a distinction which Petruchio takes pains to establish and preserve at the end. For in authorizing Katherine to drag Bianca and the Widow forcibly back into the room and then to deliver an oration persuading them to a proper obedience—in authorizing her, in other words, to behave just as he has behaved throughout the play—he nevertheless wants to insist that her performance as orator is qualitatively different from his own. Specifically, he wants to say that she displays an approved sort of female rhetoric, necessarily inferior to the male rhetoric he would employ. Thus, as Katherine leads Bianca and the Widow into the room, he remarks to Lucentio and Hortensio: “See where she comes, and brings your froward wives / As prisoners to her womanly persuasion” (5.2.119-20; my emphasis). Despite Petruchio's insistent adjective, however, Katherine's activity here in no way distinguishes her from her husband. Oratory thus stands revealed not as a male art, but as a human one.

Katherine is ostensibly operating in this last scene as Petruchio's agent, and this reinforces the appropriateness of calling her an “orator,” for in the Renaissance “orator” was the usual term for ambassador or diplomatic representative. But one must ask whether she is really Petruchio's “orator” here. Is she really just repeating, re-presenting, his values and beliefs, implementing the vision of right rule with which he has associated himself? The irony marking her words at the moment of her conversion suggests that such a view may be too simple. It is important to remember that Katherine has been authorized to play the orator and, as suggested earlier in reference to Renaissance criticisms of rhetoric, the orator is frequently perceived as being able to pursue the end of sedition as easily as that of right rule. To put the issue slightly differently: the linguistic and other resources of the orator were understood in the Renaissance to be sources of both power and danger, potentially the means to create civic order or foment rebellion. In particular, tropes such as the irony Katherine displays could be used to confirm the social and sexual order if employed in the “proper” way, but they could just as easily be made to undermine it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they had a slightly greater capacity for upsetting order than for generating it because of the ambiguity, evasiveness, or undecidability that characterize them.53 Tropes like metaphor and irony are slippery; as their mistress, Katherine the orator is equally slippery—hence, dangerous and unsettling too. Nowhere is she more so than precisely at the moment when she seems most fully under Petruchio's control, that is, when she delivers her long speech on the proper place of women at the end of the play.

Critics have long wished to read that final oration as ironic, primarily on the grounds that Katherine has already shown herself to be a mistress of irony in act 4.54 However, one does not need to argue on such sheerly contextual grounds, for if one examines her speech in its own right, its irony becomes apparent. The speech falls into two slightly unequal parts, in the first of which Katherine uses political language to make the husband into a prince, a model figure of right rule whose chief concern as he labors “by sea and land” (5.2.149) is the care of his subjects who consequently owe him their unquestioning obedience. In the second part of the speech, Katherine justifies male rule in different terms: women are “soft,” unfit for “toil and trouble,” and their strength is “weak,” while men are, by implication, tough and strong, ready and able to perform heroic (and mercantile) adventures; women have “straws,” men “lances” (165, 166, 174, 173). One way to read the relationship between the two parts of the speech is to say that, taken together, they constitute an argument for the rightness of male supremacy, in that the womanly weakness stressed in the second part appears to require the protection men are seen as extending to women in the first part. But there is another way to read that relationship in which the two parts become antithetical. For if the first part makes men the protectors of women, the second part makes them their adversaries, figures whose “lances” represent an intimidating threat to those merely equipped with “straws.” Thus, if the first part creates an image of a loving husband and mystifies his rule as right by identifying it as care, the second part demystifies that rule as a matter of pure force, identifying the husband as a violent figure who implicitly menaces his wife in order to guarantee her submission. Katherine's speech can be read as a final deconstruction of the right rule/tyranny opposition maintained within the discourse of rhetoric: if the speech supports Petruchio's desire to justify his position as a loving sovereign motivated by care for the well-being of his subjects, it also suggests that such a positive identification can never entirely eliminate its negative counterpart and prevent the loving sovereign from appearing a brutal tyrant who coerces, bullies, drags, invades, and rapes his subject into submission. Read in this way, Katherine's speech subverts where otherwise it seems to confirm the social order. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it may subvert this order, for there is no necessary reason why the two parts of the speech must be read one way or the other. Nevertheless, the very possibility of a negative, ironic reading is in itself potentially destabilizing, and as a result subversive of the established order. Thus, as he authorizes Katherine to play the orator, Petruchio may think he has created a diplomatic representative, an “orator,” to serve his interests, but the play subtly suggests that Katherine remains her own woman to the end. And so, of course, do Bianca and the Widow, who, though silent after Katherine has finished talking, betray no sign that her words have converted them, any more than Petruchio's powerful rhetoric persuaded Katherine in the earlier courtship scene.

One might do well to recall Grumio's comment in the “rope tricks” passage that Petruchio will “throw a figure” in Katherine's face and thereby “disfigure” her (1.2.112-13). In Renaissance English “to disfigure” meant not only to mar someone's appearance, but to disguise it. Read one way, Grumio's comment is simply a boast that Katherine will be defeated, that she will “lose face”; read in another, however, it means that she will wind up disguised. What the play shows her doing, of course, is wearing the mask of the orator, a verbal disguise which allows her to say what Petruchio wants her to say, but with such consummate irony that her words can simultaneously produce a contradictory and subversive meaning. Even more ironically, it is Petruchio, not Katherine, who is responsible for her wearing this disguise. To be sure, Katherine's subversion at the end is indirect at best; she does not openly, defiantly challenge the male-dominated order as she did earlier in the play. She ends in a subservient position, to the admiration, the marvel, of everyone in the room, and nothing she says can be read as a direct rebellion against the position she holds as an “ideal” wife. But Katherine has gained something by playing her now-authorized role as orator. She has discovered that although her rhetorical skill with words cannot give her—perhaps cannot really give anyone—the power to command the world, it can at least allow her to mark off her independence from it by giving her a way to achieve a limited triumph over those whose rule is ensured by social traditions, legal structures, and physical force. As an orator, she can have recourse to irony and can use it to undermine and slyly critique the male authorities about her, authorities whose commands she otherwise has no choice but to obey. In short, rhetoric gives Kate, if not the last laugh, at least the occasion for an ironic smile.


  1. My text for this play is William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, ed. H. J. Oliver (Oxford, 1984). All other references to Shakespeare's works are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974).

  2. See the note to the word in Oliver's edition, p. 124.

  3. On the bawdy nature of “rope tricks,” see Richard Levin, “Lyly and Shakespeare on the Ropes,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 68 (1969): 237-44, and “Grumio's ‘Rope-Tricks’ and the Nurse's ‘Ropery,’” Shakespeare Quarterly 22 (1971): 82-83. For the suggestion of “rape tricks,” see Joel Fineman, “The Turn of the Shrew,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York, 1985), p. 143.

  4. Levin, “Grumio's ‘Rope-Tricks,’” pp. 83-86.

  5. On the Renaissance conception of rhetoric as the art of verbal persuasion, see Brian Vickers, In Defence of Rhetoric (Oxford, 1988), pp. 294-339.

  6. For examples of such readings, see Vickers's final chapters.

  7. For the transformation of classical rhetoric into poetics, letter writing, and preaching, see James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1974).

  8. Juan Luis Vives, Opera omnia (hereafter abbreviated as OO), ed. Francisco Fabian y Fuero (Valencia, 1785), 6:159: “facultas dicendi, tamquam universale quoddam instrumentum, per omnia de quibus dicimus fusa est, non aliter quàm Grammatica, et Dialectica: nec Cicero et Quintilianus tacuerunt plura esse, de quibus diceretur, genera … ; atqui diversissimam habent inveniendi, disponendi, ornandi rationem; ¿Quis non videt ad agendas gratias, ad gratulationes, ad consolationes, ad historiam, ad descriptionem, ad praeceptiones, longe esse alia, et inventione, et elocutione opus, quàm ad judicia, et consultationes, et demonstrationes?” For other examples of such an extension, see George of Trebizond (Trapezuntius), Rhetoricorum libri V (Venice, 1523), p. 80 recto; Philip Melanchthon, Encomion eloquentiae, in Werke in Auswahl, ed. Robert Stupperich (Gütersloh, 1961), 3:49; and John Rainolds, John Rainolds's Oxford Lectures on Aristotle's “Rhetoric,” ed. Lawrence D. Green (Newark, Del., 1986), p. 250.

  9. William J. Bousma, “Anxiety and the Formation of Early Modern Culture,” in After the Reformation, ed. Barbara C. Malament (Philadelphia, 1980), p. 234.

  10. Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence (1593), introduction by William G. Crane (Gainesville, Fla., 1954), p. iii verso. Subsequent references to this work appear parenthetically in the text.

  11. Rudolph Agricola, De inventione dialectica libri tres (Cologne, 1528; reprint, Hildesheim, 1976), p. 159; Vives (OO, 6:170): “qui sint affectus, aut quemadmodum vel impellendi, vel revocandi, omnino nescii”; Jacques Amyot, Projet de l'Éloquence royale, composé pour Henry III, roi de France (Versailles, 1805), p. 41: “les hommes se laissent plus manier a leurs passions qu'a la raison”; Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, in Selected Writings, ed. Hugh G. Dick (New York, 1955), pp. 309-10.

  12. Anto Maria de' Conti, De eloquentia dialogus, in Trattati di poetica e retorica del cinquecento, ed. Bernard Weinberg (Bari, 1970), 2:152: “suspensos ita teneas auditorum animos et attonitos ut, vel invitos, pedibus in sententiam tuam cogas discedere”; Vives, De ratione dicendi (OO, 2:171); George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Edward Arber (London, 1869), p. 153 (subsequent references to this work appear parenthetically in the text); Amyot, p. 10.

  13. Among many others, see Marc Fumaroli, “Rhetoric, Politics, and Society: From Italian Ciceronianism to French Classicism,” in Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983), pp. 253-73, and his L'Age de l'éloquence: Rhétorique et “res literaria” de la Renaissance au seuil de l'époque classique (Geneva, 1980); Nancy Streuver, The Language of History in the Renaissance: Rhetoric and Historical Consciousness in Florentine Humanism (Princeton, N.J., 1970), pp. 102-25; and Victoria Kahn, Rhetoric, Prudence, and Skepticism in the Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985), pp. 27-30.

  14. Cypriano Soarez, De arte rhetorica libri tres (Verona, 1589), p. 6; Joannes Sturm, De universa ratione elocutionis rhetoricae libri III (Strassburg, 1576), p. iv verso: “eorum qui audiunt animos ac mentes regit, gubernat, & pro arbitrio tractat.”

  15. Nicholas Caussin, De eloquentia sacra et humana, 3d ed. (Paris, 1630), p. 459, my emphasis: “Atque eius quidem eloquentiae, quae in affectibus dominatur, summum est imperium: nam coetus hominum tenet, mentes allicit, voluntates impellit quò vult, & unde vult deducit, opem fert supplicibus, excitat afflictos, reis dat salutem, liberat periculis, adsummam, mitem quandam tyrannidem in pectoribus hominum constituit.”

  16. Lorenzo Valla, Dialecticae disputationes, in Opera omnia (Turin, 1962), p. 694; Vives, De ratione (OO 2:93). For other images of the rhetor as ruler, see the prefatory “Discours” of M. Le Grand, Sieur des Herminieres, to René Bary, La rhetorique françoise (Paris, 1659), no pagination; Vives, De tradendis disciplinis, De causis, and De ratione (OO 6:356, 6:152-53, and 2:89, respectively); Angelo Poliziano, “Oratio super Fabio Quintiliano et Statii Sylvis,” in Prosatori latini del Quattrocento, ed. Eugenio Garin (Milan, 1952), pp. 882-84; Pierre de la Ramée (Petrus Ramus), Dialectique, in Gramere (1562), Grammaire (1572), Dialectique (1555) (Geneva, 1972), p. 134; and Gabriele F. Le Jay, Bibliotheca rhetorum (Venice, 1747), p. viii.

  17. On the development of absolutism in Renaissance culture, see, among others, Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, 1974); Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, 1979); Donald R. Kelley, The Beginning of Ideology: Consciousness and Society in the French Reformation (Cambridge, 1981); and Fritz Hartung and Roland Mousnier, “Quelques problèmes concernant la monarchie absolue,” in Relazioni del X Congresso Internazionale di Scienze Storiche (Florence, 1955), 4:1-55. On the analogy between the relationship of king and subject and husband and wife in patriarchal political theory, see S. D. Amussen, “Gender, Family and the Social Order, 1560-1725,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 196-217, and Gordon J. Schochet, Patriarchalism in Political Thought: The Authoritarian Family and Political Speculation and Attitudes Especially in Seventeenth-Century England (New York, 1975).

  18. Vives, De ratione (n. 8 above; OO 2:89): “sermo autem et mentes ad se allicit, et in affectibus dominatur.” In another passage of his De eloquentia sacra, Caussin speaks of eloquence as a “conciliating thing efficacious in seizing and tying spirits” (p. 5; my emphasis: “Concilatricula res, & efficax capiendis illigandisque animis”).

  19. Daniel Barbaro, Della eloquenza, in Weinberg, ed. (n. 12 above), 2:349: “perciò che queste … paiono le vere e potenti funi con le quai si tirano l'altrui alle nostre voglie.”

  20. Guillaume Du Vair, Traitté de l'eloquence françoise, in Oeuvres (Paris, 1641; reprint, Geneva, 1970), p. 400: “mais y impriment, voire avec bruslure de feu, les plus vives & violentes affections qui y puissent entrer.” Amyot (n. 11 above), pp. 50-51: “impriment en ceus qui les regardent les memes passions de celui qui parle.”

  21. Soarez (n. 14 above), p. 7: “Orationem vero exceptam aere quasi vehiculo incredibili celeritate brevissimo temporis spatio ad quamplurimos pervenire? ac postremo per tenuissimos aurium meatus singulari opere, artificioque perfectos, in alienos animos introire.” Poliziano (n. 16 above), p. 882: “pectora mentesque irrumpere.” Caussin, p. 5: “huius enim velut subnixa pennis, Oratoris anima in ipsa auditorum pectora influit, & gratissima omnium servitute sibi mancipat.”

  22. For references to oratory as magic, see Desiderius Erasmus, Collected Works: Literary and Educational Writings, ed. A. H. T. Levi (Toronto, 1986), 6:343; Bary, p. 3 recto; and Barbaro, Della eloquenza, p. 342. For references to Orpheus and Amphion, see Bary, p. 1 verso; Caussin, p. 2; Du Vair, p. 395; Peacham (n. 10 above), p. iii verso. For a discussion of Orpheus as an image of the rhetor in the English Renaissance, see Heinrich F. Plett, Rhetorik der Affekte: Englische Wirkungsästhetik im Zeitalter der Renaissance (Tübingen, 1975), pp. 172-82.

  23. The Taming of a Shrew, scene vi, lines 1-6, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (New York, 1957), 1:81-82.

  24. On Katherine as witch, see Karen Newman, “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew,English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 92-93.

  25. On the equation of rope and penis, see Levin, “Grumio's ‘Rope-Tricks’” (n. 3 above), pp. 82-86.

  26. On Petruchio's treatment of Katherine as a form of rape, see Dennis J. Huston, “‘To Make a Puppet’: Play and Play-Making in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 74; Jeanne A. Roberts, “Horses and Hermaphrodites: Metamorphoses in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 165; and especially Shirley N. Garner, “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside of the Joke?” in “BadShakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon, ed. Maurice Charney (Rutherford, N.J., 1988), pp. 105-19.

  27. David Daniell, “The Good Marriage of Katherine and Petruchio,” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 29; Garner, pp. 114-15; and Michael West, “The Folk Background of Petruchio's Wedding Dance: Male Supremacy in The Taming of the Shrew,Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 71.

  28. Nazife Bashar, “Rape in England between 1500 and 1700,” in her The Sexual Dynamics of History: Men's Power, Women's Resistance (London, 1983), p. 36. The reference is to Nicholas Brady, The Lawes Resolution of Women's Rights or the Lawes Provision for Women (1632), p. 396.

  29. Leah S. Marcus, “The Milieu of Milton's Comus: Judicial Reform at Ludlow and the Problem of Sexual Assault,” Criticism 25 (1985): 318. Marcus cites a manuscript record of the trial at the Henry E. Huntington Library: MS. EL 7399, p. 1. She notes that the Lady in Comus is not actually raped, but that rape is evoked by the text since Comus compares her to Daphne fleeing Apollo and she is placed in a situation of powerlessness and sexual suggestion (pp. 317-18). I am making a similar claim about rape and The Taming of the Shrew.

  30. Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique (1560), ed. G. H. Mair (Oxford, 1919), p. iii verso. Subsequent references to this work appear parenthetically in the text.

  31. Amyot (n. 11 above), p. 40: “ravir & transporter”; Puttenham (n. 12 above), pp. 206-7; de' Conti (n. 12 above), p. 161: “ut audientum mentes immutere, impellere, trahere, rapere possent ad honestatem capessendam.”

  32. De' Conti, p. 160: “oratione facundissima populorum animos ita demulserit et immutarit ut suae cogeret eos parere voluntati”; Caussin, p. 459: “voluntates impellit quò vult, & unde vult deducit”; Du Vair, (n. 20 above), p. 395: “maistre non seulement de leurs personnes & de leurs biens, mais de leurs propres volontez.” Compare Agricola (n. 11 above), p. 2: “Fidem facimus … credenti, & velut sponte sequentem ducimus.”

  33. On Renaissance resistance to teaching girls rhetoric, see Constance Jordan, “Feminism and the Humanities: The Case for Sir Thomas Elyot's Defense of Good Women,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago, 1986), p. 253.

  34. On the goddess Peitho, see James L. Kinneavy, Greek Rhetorical Origins of Christian Faith: An Inquiry (New York, 1987), pp. 33-35. For rhetoric as a lady in the Middle Ages, see Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven, Conn., 1962), pp. 196-98. On rhetoric as lady or queen in the Renaissance, see Giovanni Berardino [sic] Fuscano, Della oratoria e poetica facoltà, in Weinberg, ed. (n. 12 above), 1:190; Pierre Fabri, Le Grand et vrai art de plein rhétorique, ed. A. Hérou (Rouen, 1890), 1:6; Vives, De ratione (n. 8 above; OO 2:93); and Antoine Furetière, Nouvelle allégorique, ou Histoire des derniers troubles arrivés au royaume de l'Éloquence, ed. Eva van Ginneken (Geneva, 1967). For attacks on rhetoric which identify it as female, see Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, De incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum et artium, in Opera (Lyon, 1600[?]; reprint, Hildesheim, 1970), 2:32-33; John Jewel, Oratio contra rhetoricam, in The Works, ed. John Ayre (Cambridge, 1850), 4:1286; and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, letter to Ermolao Barbaro (April 5, 1485), in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Gian Francesco Pico, Opera Omnia (Basel, 1557; reprint, Hildesheim, 1969), pp. 351-58.

  35. On the Hercules Gallicus, see Plett (n. 22 above), pp. 166-73; Robert G. Hallowell, “L'Hercule gallique: expression et image politique,” in Lumières de la Pléiade (Paris, 1966), pp. 243-53; Edgar Wind, “‘Hercules’ and ‘Orpheus’: Two Mock-Heroic Designs by Dürer,” Journal of the Warburg Institute 2 (1928-29): 206-18; and Marc-René Jung, Hercule dans la littérature française du XVIe siècle: De l'Hercule courtois à l'Hercule baroque (Geneva, 1966).

  36. Amyot, p. 7: “nostre Hercules Gaulois tant renommé, que les peuples suivoient attirés par le fil de sa langue.”

  37. Poliziano (n. 16 above), p. 882: “Quid est … praestabilius quam in eo te unum vel maxime praestare hominibus, in quo homines ipsi ceteris animalibus antecellant?”; George of Trebizond, Oratio de laudibus eloquentie, in John Monfasani, George of Trebizond (Leiden, 1976), p. 368.

  38. De' Conti, p. 160: “An sponte sua rudis populus et libere vivendi cupidissimus, legibus tanquam iugo, colla supposuit?” Du Vair, p. 395: “l'eloquence ait premierement adducy les moeurs des hommes, amolly leurs sauvages affections, & reüny leurs differentes volontez à la societé civile.” For other examples of this commonplace idea, see Andreas Benzi, “Oratio quam recitavit in principio studii Florentiae,” in Karl Müllner, ed., Reden und Briefe italienischer Humanisten (Vienna, 1899; reprint, Munich, 1970), p. 110; Bary (n. 16 above), p. 1 recto; Fabri, pp. 5-9; Caussin, p. 7; Poliziano, p. 882; and Wilson's preface (n. 30 above).

  39. Agrippa, p. 32: “dicendi dulcedine decipere animos auditorum, illosque lingua sua revinctos ducere ab auribus.”

  40. Francesco Patrizi, Della retorica dieci dialoghi (Venice, 1562), pp. 39a-43b; Jewel, 4:1283-91; Michel de Montaigne, “De la vanité des paroles,” in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Albert Thibaudet and Maurice Rat (Paris, 1962), pp. 292-95.

  41. Pico della Mirandola, p. 352: “Nam quid aliud rhetoris officium quam mentiri, decipere, circumvenire, praestigiari?” and “mollem incessum, argutas manus, ludibundos oculos in histrione & saltatore”; Jewel, 4:1287: “non gravos viros, non philosophos, sed populi colluviem, sed conciunculas”; Patrizi, p. 40b. On the abundance of tricksters and confidence men in Renaissance European society and literature, see my Foxes and Lions: Machiavelli's Confidence Men (Ithaca, N.Y., 1988), pp. 1-37.

  42. De' Conti (n. 12 above), p. 153: “Nam quod ais esse mirabilem eloquentiam quod attonitos audientes, idem de schenobate aut praestigiatore aut etiam circulatore … dici potest”; p. 157: “Quid enim habet simile funambulus cum eloquentia?”

  43. Petruchio's wild boasting may also evoke the fool who appeared in mummers' wooing plays; see W. B. Thorne, “Folk Elements in The Taming of the Shrew,Queen's Quarterly 75 (1968): 495.

  44. Du Vair (n. 20 above), p. 395: “Quel plus grand honneur se peut-on immaginer au monde, que de commander sans armes & sans forces à ceux avec qui vous vivez?” Amyot (n. 11 above), p. 7: “la parole d'un Roi est une principale partie de sa puissance.”

  45. On Kate as Petruchio's match in the wooing scene, see Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton, N.J., 1972), pp. 63-65. On Kate as besting him, see Newman (n. 24 above), p. 94.

  46. On Kate's willingness to marry Petruchio, see Peter G. Phialas, Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1966), p. 34; Berry, pp. 65-66; and Margaret Loftus Ranald, “The Manning of the Haggard; or The Taming of the Shrew,” in Essays in Literature 1 (1974): 156-57. It is noteworthy that while the Kate of The Shrew remains silent in response to Petruchio's assertions, the Kate of A Shrew identifies her motives clearly: “But yet I will consent and marrie him, / For I methinkes have livde too long a maid” (vv. 40-41).

  47. Although she incorrectly limits the notion of violence to physical coercion. Shirley N. Garner argues that Petruchio wins in his contest with Kate not because of the rightness of his male authority but because of superior force; see Garner (n. 26 above), pp. 105-19.

  48. There is a strand of criticism directed at the play which validates Petruchio's viewpoint and sees the shrewish Kate as neurotic and unbalanced, hence in need of a cure. Such critics often wish to credit Petruchio with the most noble intentions, to see his yearning for “peace …, and love, and quiet life” as an expression of both genuine feeling for Katherine and real concern for her well-being. Nevertheless, since Katherine never has an opportunity to discuss with him what she might consider an ideal marriage arrangement, and since Petruchio does coerce her into obedience, it is difficult to evaluate his behavior in such a benevolent fashion. For arguments presenting Kate as neurotic and Petruchio's taming as, in some manner, justified, see Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London, 1973), pp. 41-62; Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers (Indianapolis, 1971), pp. 83-101; Marion D. Perret, “Petruchio: The Model Wife,” Studies in English Literature 23 (1983): 223-35; Roberts (n. 26 above), pp. 159-62; 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, ed. Carolyn Lenz, Ruth Swift, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana, Ill., 1980), pp. 65-78.

  49. On the arbitrariness of class and gender distinctions in the play, see Newman, pp. 86-100, and Marianne L. Novy, “Patriarchy and Play in The Taming of the Shrew,English Literary Renaissance 9 (1979): 264-80.

  50. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London, 1987), pp. 8-35.

  51. Pico della Mirandola (n. 34 above), p. 352: “fucum in proba virgine,” “lautitias vocum & veneres,” “trahere in sententiam his lenociniis homines quaeramus”; p. 356: “aut nimis luxuriandum, aut translatis lasciviendum.”

  52. For examples of this view of the play, see Richard Henze, “Role Playing in The Taming of the Shrew,Southern Humanities Review 4 (1970): 231-40; Huston, pp. 73-87; Perret, pp. 223-35; and Peter Berek, “Text, Gender, and Genre in The Taming of the Shrew,” pp. 91-104, in Charney, ed. (n. 26 above).

  53. For the Renaissance notion that rhetorical figures are inherently unstable and disorderly, as well as “female,” see Parker, esp. chaps. 3, 5, and 6.

  54. Many critics insist in various ways that Kate's last speech is ironic. For some examples, see those cited in nn. 49 and 52.

Juliet Dusinberre (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Taming of the Shrew: Women, Acting, and Power,” in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 26, No. 1, 1993, pp. 67-84.

[In the essay below, Dusinberre reexamines Katherina's role in light of the fact that in the original performances of The Taming of the Shrew Katherina would have been played by a young male actor. Dusinberre explores the ways in which the audience's perceptions of the power relations in the play would have been affected by this knowledge, and notes that the boys, like women in Elizabethan society, were in positions of dependency.]

The opening of The Taming of the Shrew is strikingly different from that of the related play The Taming of a Shrew in offering the audience in the first ten lines a battle between the sexes. The Beggar, who calls himself Christopher Sly, threatens to “pheeze” the Hostess who throws him out of her inn, not just for drunkenness, but for not paying for broken glasses. Threatening Sly with the stocks, the Hostess exits, determining to send for the constable. In A Shrew, the innkeeper is a Tapster, and Slie's offence simply inebriation. Shakespeare's Sly defies the Hostess in a strange little speech: “Ile not budge an inch boy. Let him come, and kindly.” He has in the course of eleven lines quoted Kyd's Spanish Tragedy and challenged her abuse of him as a rogue: “Y'are a baggage, the Slies are no rogues. Look in the Chronicles, we came in with Richard Conqueror: therefore paucas pallabris, let the world slide: Sessa” (First Folio). He sounds momentarily like John Durbeyfield in Hardy's Tess, claiming an ancient and declining stock. The little interchange offers a vignette in which a man and woman engage in a power struggle: she, only a woman, but with a trade and a function which give her access to authority over him: he a beggar with illusions of grandeur, ancestral memories of great men, culture, a power he no longer posesses. But why does he call her “boy”?

I want to argue that he calls her boy because she is a boy. The Hostess must, in Shakespeare's theatre, have been played by a boy actor. But if Sly addresses her as a boy, then a new dimension is added to the interchange. In his drunkenness he seems momentarily to refuse to enter the play: to be, not a drunken beggar, but a drunken actor, who forgets that his dialogue is with a Hostess, and thinks that the boy actor is getting above himself. In other words, the theatrical illusion seems to be tested before it is even under way. Is Sly a beggar, or is he an actor who must play a beggar?

In The Taming of the Shrew, more than in any other play, Shakespeare uses the relationships between actors as a commentary on the social relationships represented in the self-contained world of the play, the drama of The Shrew which is performed before the Beggar (persuaded to believe that he is a lord) at the request of the “real” Lord of the Induction who enters from hunting to refresh himself at the inn and is visited by a company of players. The audience in the theatre is required to react to two competing dramas: a stage representation of a traditional courtship and taming drama; and a more covert drama which constantly interrupts and comments on the taming drama, one generated by the actual structures of relationship present in the company which performs the piece. Sly's use of the term “boy” to the boy actor is only one of many oddities which suggest to the audience the presence in the play itself of actors, not just impersonators of characters. I want to demonstrate how this works in a number of interchanges in the play, and to reinterpret Kate's role in the light of its original theatrical provenance: that Kate would have been played, like the Hostess, Bianca, the Widow, and the young Biondello, by a boy. How would this material condition of Shakespeare's theatre have modified audience perception of the power structures represented in the fiction of The Taming of the Shrew?1

If Kate is played by a boy in the position of apprentice, then the dynamic between Kate and other players on stage, and between Kate and women in the audience, is altered from what it is in the modern theatre. The boys stood in the position of apprentice towards the adult sharers in the company.2 It was not a guild apprenticeship, but more of a personal arrangement, such as that between Pepys and his boy Tom Edwards in the 1660s, a child whom he employed as his attendant from the Chapel Royal: well-educated and a good singer (V [1664], 228, 234 n.1, 255) The boys in Shakespeare's company would each have had a particular master; Burbage was master to Nicholas Tooley, and Augustine Phillips—another boy in the company—spoke in his will of Tooley as his “fellow” in the company (Greg I:47). The master-pupil relationship between the apprentices and the adult actors and sharers in the company is a highly significant one in the dynamics of the company and can be seen to be in operation in The Shrew. The Lord sends instructions to his page on how to play the lady, as any master might have instructed his apprentice on how to play Kate. Furthermore, the apprentice's role in the company creates for him a special relationship with the women in the theatre audience. He must, when the play is done, return to a position of dependency. But great ladies enjoyed a position of social superiority to that of apprentices (Howard 31-40). The apprentice has within the world of the play access not only to that momentary social superiority but also access to the stage power of the female heroine. Women in the theatre audience may return to the subservient lives of women in Elizabethan social structures, but they too have been allowed within the theatre the fantasy of different kinds of power which link them in sympathy with the boy himself as he represents women on stage. Sly, as an actor refusing to play his part—there was, after all, an actor in Shakespeare's company called William Sly—defies his inferior in the company, the boy playing the Hostess. But the play gives the Hostess authority over him: she demands that he pay for the broken glasses and sends for the constable.

The Taming of the Shrew creates for the audience images of power in the male world in the roles of Petruchio, Baptista, Lucentio, but it also undermines them with a different kind of power, generated by the counterpointing of the actor with the role he plays. This special energy enters the play through the ambiguous medium of Sly, but is sustained throughout the drama by the covert juxtaposing in Kate's role of the heroine and the boy apprentice who must act her. Similarly, the actor who plays Tranio with histrionic virtuosity oscillates between the subservience of his social role and the dominance of his acting role as Lucentio.

Curiously, various snippets of information back up a theory that the Induction of The Shrew deliberately places before the theatre audience not a fiction, but a group of players whom they may identify as actors, rather than as characters, as a modern audience might identify repertory players or particular actors and actresses in a number of different roles. Two actors who appear in the Induction set this line of enquiry in motion. The Taming of the Shrew contains a number of prefixes in the text which refer directly to the names of actors: possibly Sly himself, and certainly Sincklo: named as the Second Player in the Induction. This seems to be more than accident as the play constantly obliges the audience to remember that behind the character in the play is an actor who has his own reality and his own relation to the other figures on the stage, a relation forged in the acting company, not in the Italian society world in which he plays a part.

Shakespeare's Sly may in fact have been played by William Sly, a member of both the Pembroke's men in the early 1590's (McMillin, “Casting”) and subsequently of Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's men, later the King's men. His name is on the list of Shakespeare's company at the beginning of the 1623 Folio. In 1604, William Sly appears in the new induction which the playwright John Marston wrote for The Malcontent. He is named in the Dramatis Personae under a special heading: “Actors of the King's Men, at the Globe Theatre, who appear in the Induction: WILLIAM SLY, JOHN SINKLO, RICHARD BURBAGE, HENRY CONDELL, JOHN LOWIN.” In this Induction, Sly pretends to be a member of the audience with social pretensions who has come to sit on the stage as if he were a gallant. The Tire-man, realising that he is not a gentleman, tries to shoo him off: “Sir, the gentlemen will be angry if you sit there.” Sly calls for the other actors, saying that he has seen the play often and “can give them intelligence for their action.” When the actor John Sinklo enters, he greets Sly familiarly: “Save you, coz.” They gossip, and call for the players, Burbage, Condell and Lowin. At a certain point, Sly seems to be rambling and one of the actors begs him to leave the stage, this time successfully. The part is a curiosity in its transparent disguising of two actors for audience members, while on the page they remain simply actors.

Odder still, Sinklo appears in The Shrew, just seventy lines after Sly has fallen into a drunken sleep. The Players enter and the Lord turns to the second player, named in the Folio prefix, probably on Shakespeare's own authority, Sincklo. Sincklo was distinguished in Shakespeare's company by his appearance: he was extremely thin and cadaverous-looking, and he played parts which suited this physiognomy. He is named in 2 Henry IV as the Beadle who arrests Mistress Quickly and Doll. He played the forester in 3 Henry VI who arrests the King. He probably played the emaciated Apothecary who supplies Romeo with poison, and Robert Faulconbridge in King John, mocked by the Bastard for his lack of sex appeal (Gaw 289-303; Wentersdorf, “Names”; McMillin, “Casting” 155, 157). The Lord remembers him in a particular part:

          This fellow I remember
Since once he played a farmer's eldest son—
'Twas where you wooed the gentlewoman so well—
I have forgot your name, but sure that part
Was aptly fitted and naturally performed.(3)

This passage is always taken straight: Shakespeare made a friendly gesture towards an actor for a good performance. But its jests seem to me to huddle in upon each other. The Lord cannot remember his name, although Shakespeare names him in his text: he is John Sincklo. You were a wonderful lover, remarks the Lord to someone who looks like a jailer or a supplier of poison. It is a theatre company's joke, but it becomes much funnier if the audience has seen the actor in other parts and can share the joke. They would have been able to share the joke if they had just seen 2 Henry IV; The Shrew was certainly performed in these years.

But one must perhaps also ask whether Shakespeare's play was written sometime in 1595-7, not in the earlier period. Sincklo's presence in the Induction to The Shrew, together with the possible references to his other roles, particularly in 2 Henry IV, might imply a later date for Shakespeare's play than is usually suggested.4The Shrew would then enter the constellation of plays in which Shakespeare probably used Sincklo: Romeo and Juliet, and King John. The interchanges between Sly and the Hostess at the beginning of The Shrew are rich partly because they recall the interchanges in the two parts of Henry IV between Mistress Quickly and Falstaff.

Sincklo's name for the Second Player immediately raises the question of doubling. The Elizabethan custom of theatrical doubling would have made it possible for The Shrew to be acted with only thirteen players (nine adults and four boys), excluding hired men.5 It has been suggested that the absence of a return to the Sly plot at the end, and of the interventions in the play made by Slie in A Shrew, result from a theatrical exigency when the Players were touring at the time of theatre closures because of the plague. With his talent for making a virtue out of necessity, Shakespeare seems often to have constructed his plays with doubling written into their artistic conception. Hippolyta may have been doubled with Titania, and often is so on the modern stage. In Pericles, it is almost certain that the incestuous Princess at the beginning doubles with Marina, the virtuous and chaste Princess at the end. Many correspondences in structure and language make doubling part of the play's emotional impact. If Shakespeare used an economical touring cast of only thirteen actors, all the players who appear in the Induction to The Shrew must originally have played parts in the drama presented to Sly. Did Shakespeare, as was his custom, consider the artistic implications of doubling in relation to the fiction he was creating in the main body of the play, and if so, how did that theatrical necessity affect the construction of the action? Sincklo as Second Player must have acted a part in the main action of The Shrew. But which part?

The question can be answered by returning to the peculiar partnership between Sly and Sincklo, in theatrical terms, in both the Induction to The Shrew, and later in Marston's The Malcontent. The doubling process seems in The Shrew to create a special line of communication with the audience particularly evident in the scene in which Lucentio's father Vincentio is brought face to face with the Pedant who pretends to be the father. The scene acquires a special point if Sly doubles with Vincentio. Artistically, Sly makes an ideal Vincentio. The Beggar took little convincing (although much more than in the quarto play) that he was a lord; he is doubled with a wealthy man incapable of entering a world of illusion, whether created by drink or disguise, a man of solid single identity, the antithesis of an actor. Vincentio is a “sober ancient gentleman” who is presented with a tale about his own identity: that he is an imposter.

This is not Vincentio's first encounter with a challenge to his own self-perception. Kate has greeted him on the road to her father's house:

          Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet,
Whither away, or where is thy abode?
Happy the parents of so fair a child!
Happier the man whom favourable stars
Allots thee for his lovely bedfellow.


Vincentio is gentleman enough to take it all in good part as a merry joke between gentlefolk. But the habits of sobriety which determine his good-humoured acceptance of a joke at his expense threaten to turn the second comic denial of his identity into a scene more tragic than comic. Turning on Tranio, disguised as Lucentio, he cries: “O, he hath murdered his master! Lay hold on him, I charge you in the Duke's name. O my son, my son!” (5.1.67-9). In The Taming of the Shrew, where everyone tries his or her hand at playing a part, Vincentio's rugged adherence to a God-given role is both a weakness and a strength. It underlines Vincentio's social reality as a man of wealth and position but heralds in the play itself the end of the play-acting, by defining the limits of theatricality for both actors and audience. Vincentio's distress provides a necessary agent between the brilliant carnivalesque of the sun and moon scene on which he enters, and the sobering domestic closures of the obedience speech. Sly may not re-enter Shakespeare's scene, but the world in which he is a beggar is reasserted in Vincentio, the rich man who refuses even for one moment to play another part.

At the height of Vincentio's alarm about his son, in the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew, Slie intervenes: “I say wele have no sending to prison” (80). In Shakespeare's play, the intervention is made by Gremio, the unsuccessful suitor to Bianca, billed in the stage direction as a “pantaloon” (the shrunken old man from the Italian commedia del' arte): “Take heed, Signor Baptista, lest you be cony-catched in this business. I dare swear this is the right Vincentio” (5.1.76). Gremio has a curious part in The Shrew not paralleled by anything in the quarto. He is old and rich and unsuccessful. His suit is the source of an interchange between Katherina and Bianca in II.i. Kate tries to find out which of the suitors Bianca affects. Bianca denies Hortensio, and the following exchange ensues:

O then, belike, you fancy riches more:
You will have Gremio to keep you fair.
Is it for him you do envy me so?
Nay then, you jest.


You must be joking, remarks Bianca, in the confident tone of a woman who can choose, which infuriates her suitorless sister more than anything. Gremio at the end does not get a wife either to obey him or not. But he has one important moment in the play. He protests against sending Vincentio to prison and declares that he is sure this is the right Vincentio.

That Slie intervenes in A Shrew but Gremio intervenes in Shakespeare's version is odd. Shakespeare's Hostess threatened Sly with the constable; in his drunken apprehension of the play this episode could plausibly have reminded him that he might go to prison for not paying for the broken glasses. A possible ending for the play would indeed be the return of the Hostess with the officer, perhaps played by John Sincklo, who played the Beadle who arrested Mistress Quickly in 2 Henry IV, an inversion of roles which would have its own theatrical irony for audiences who had seen both plays. But the Slie who intervenes and prevents Vincentio's arrest is the other Slie, the one in A Shrew where there is no Hostess, and no threat of prison (although, confusingly, there may have been the same John Sincklo acting in the play). Why did Shakespeare give the intervention to Gremio when it would have been much more appropriate in the drama he had himself written, to give it—as in the anonymous text—to Sly?

The easy answer is of course that Sly was needed for the part of Vincentio. But another answer based on theatrical realities suggests itself. Gremio, old shrunken and unsuccessful suitor to Bianca, must have been doubled with the Second Player of the Induction, the man called Sincklo, whom the Lord praised for acting the lover so well. Skinny, cadaverous, with a stage history of arresting people, Sincklo, having failed yet again to be a good ladies' man, steps forward to protest against sending people to prison. It is a joke based on the acting company and aimed at a repertory audience. Beneath the role of Gremio is the reality of Sincklo, the actor who looked like a jailor. Beneath Vincentio, a man who resists the denial of his identity, is Sly, willing to apprehend being a Lord. Almost, the two parts coalesce: Sly as Vincentio is momentarily in danger of going to prison after all, and possibly Vincentio's acting should register, however fleetingly, his own double role as rich man and Beggar, until he is returned to singular identity by Sincklo, protesting that in this play he is not a jailor but a man who plays the (albeit unsuccessful) lover. The Taming of the Shrew never completely conceals the presence of the actor behind the mask, showing the audience two competing power structures, one social, the other theatrical.

One of the peculiarities of the anonymous The Taming of a Shrew is that instead of Slie's rising in status under the influence of the trick, he stays the same, and the Lord descends to his level, the level of good fellows. Slie in this play only recognises his new state through his clothes: “Jesus, what fine apparell I have got” (46). He is easily persuaded, where Shakespeare's beggar resists: he would much rather drink beer than sherry; he doesn't want to wear a doublet, and he accuses his attendants, as Vincentio accuses the Pedant and his accolade, of trying to make him mad. He is ultimately convinced not by clothes but by poetry, and responds—as Sebastian responds to the equally unexpected raptures of Olivia in Twelfth Night—by adopting the poetic idiom:

Am I a lord, and have I such a lady?
Or do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?

He is still asking for beer, but he tries to translate it into an aristocratic idiom: “And once again a pot o'th' smallest ale” (Induction 2.62-71). Shakespeare's Sly unwillingly becomes an actor in an aristocratic show. The Slie of A Shrew remains himself, but brings the actors into his orbit. The Lord remains with him all the time, and has become “Sim,” a good fellow. But oddly, this name also seems, like Sincklo's name, to link the Lord with a particular player, because at the very beginning of the play-within-a-play the direction reads: “Enter Simon, Alphonsus, and his three daughters” (48). Simon, the Lord who gulls Slie, is already on stage, however. Possibly the actor who played Alphonsus was one Simon Jewell, a player in the Queen's or Pembroke's Men, who died of the plague in August 1592.6 But it is also possible that, as in the 1960 John Barton production (Holderness, Performance 31), an actor playing in the play stepped out of it to address Sly, when he intervened, about the prison, and also during the negotiating with Alfonso. Simon, the Lord, never seems, even when he comes from hunting, remotely like a lord. He is much more like an actor, one of the boys.

In Shakespeare's play, the Lord is emphatically never one of the boys: he is an instructor of boys, both those he would call boy because they are his social inferiors, Sly, the player who must not spoil the show by laughing—and those who really are boys—Bartholomew the page who must play Sly's lady; he calls to one of his men:

Sirrah, go you to Barthol'mew my page
And see him dressed in all suits like a lady
That done, conduct him to the drunkard's chamber,
And call him “madam”, do him obeisance.
Tell him from me—as he will win my love—
He bear himself with honourable action
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished.

He not only advises on the idiom, how the boy is to behave and speak, but on practical matters, how he is to produce tears:

And if the boy have not a woman's gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift,
Which in a napkin being close conveyed
Shall in despite enforce a watery eye.

He is confident that all will be satisfactorily performed:

I know the boy will well usurp the grace,
Voice, gait and action of a gentlewoman.

(Induction 2.101-128)

In the next scene he instructs Sly: to be a lord requires a mind stocked with poetry and luxury, hawking and hunting, the arts and music, and the ideal. Sly is beguiled by the language of birth, the imaginative world which opens before him: “I smell sweet savours and I feel soft things” (Induction 2.66). When the Lady enters, she plays her part to perfection:

My husband and my lord, my lord and husband,
I am your wife in all obedience.

Does she, one might ask, overplay it a little? Sly announces that he seems to have slept fifteen years, and the Lady responds:

Ay, and the time seems thirty unto me,
Being all this time abandoned from your bed.

The effect is instantaneous:

Sly: 'Tis much. Servants, leave me and her alone.
Madam, undress you and come now to bed.

(Induction 2. 102-12).

If this is a page acting, one suspects that he willfully overplayed his part to make the onlookers laugh. The moment has the zest of purest amateurism: a naughty boy let loose in a woman's clothes, pushing his luck as far as it will go.

Ben Jonson's play Cynthia's Revels, which was acted by a children's company at court, opens with an Induction in which three children in the company quarrel about who is to speak the prologue:

… I thinke I have most right to it:
I am sure I studied it first.
That's all one, if the Author thinke
I can speake it better.
I pleade possession of the cloake.

This child appeals, brandishing his costume, to the audience: “Gentles, your suffrages I pray you.” A voice [within] calls out angrily: “Why, Children, are you not asham'd? Come in there” (IV.35). Admittedly this is a company of children (of the Chapel Royal); but the apprentices could be as young as ten and most people would feel it is not only children who are capable of such speeches. Bottom is more genial, but he still wants the best part: indeed he wants every part.

The sense of the power invested in the actual part which is played is not confined to the apprentice boy actor in The Taming of the Shrew. A parallel can be drawn with the role of Tranio, servant to Lucentio, who gets to play the master. One presumes that the less proficient actor was given what seems on the face of it to be a side-lined part, until one realises that he is in fact required to take over from Lucentio, who thus becomes an onlooker, and a subordinate: the schoolmaster of Bianca, not the acknowledged wealthy lover. Presumably the more skilled actor actually took the part of Tranio. But the servant, Tranio, is almost too convincing in his role of master, Lucentio. It seems to me false to play Tranio as a man who transports into the role of master the commonness of a servant.7 He plays Lucentio, as the Page is to play Sly's lady, as one who knows how, if necessary, to imitate a good actor and thus become one; this is an Elizabethan view of education even if not ours. The reason for Tranio's success in the part of Lucentio is his command of a noble language, the language of Petrarch in Petrarch's city, Padua. When Lucentio devises the disguise, Tranio accepts in these terms:

In a brief, sir, sith it your pleasure is,
And I am tied to be obedient—
.....I am content to be Lucentio.


The servant must obey the master, but the actor is jumping for joy that he is to play the bigger part, the part of the master, not the servant. His first speech is to his rival suitors to Bianca, defending his right to enter the competition:

And were his daughter fairer than she is,
She may more suitors have, and me for one.
Fair Leda's daughter had a thousand wooers;
Then well one more may fair Bianca have.
And so she shall: Lucentio shall make one,
Though Paris came in hope to speed alone.

Gremio is as startled as we are: “What, this gentleman will out-talk us all!” Lucentio, newly demoted, is sour: “Sir, give him head. I know he'll prove a jade” (1.2.235-42). Access to the language of class which Tranio as actor can command as easily as he can play his previous role of obedient servant, gives him stage power.

By the end of the play, Tranio has also acquired some social power within its structures. When he sits at the wedding feast and sees the brides already squalling, he is locked into a fellowship with Petruchio, Baptista, Lucentio and Hortensio which seems to offer no cognizance of his renewed status as servant. It is as if, from playing the master, he has acquired the manners of a master and now sits in easy fellowship with the real masters. But equally one could say that fellowship is resolved into actors playing a new kind of role, that of audience. As they share the comradeship of actors watching their fellows play a scene, social distinctions in the world of the play are momentarily forgotten in the theatrical climax. Actors, amateur and professional, will recognise the special comradeship between performers in a particular production and how relationships off-stage intertwine with relationships on stage. This is the stuff of The Taming of the Shrew, and more so than in the anonymous A Shrew, which is a play dominated by class conflict: them and us, or the workers and the toffs, as Holderness puts it in his edition of the play (18-19). In Shakespeare's play, class is a necessary element of the drama.8 But its centre of vitality is acting and theatre: the relation of the players beneath the masks to the parts they play, and the special power generated from a sense of interweaving relationships within the theatrical world which comment on the relationships impersonated in the social world of the play.

The Shrew may have been written with particular actors in mind for other parts besides those of Sincklo and Sly. This early comedy, oddly enough, though apparently dating from the early 1590s, reminds one of Hamlet. The arrival of the company of professional players, their sophistication: no one is going to laugh at the antics of the mad lord watching the play; the respect with which the hunting Lord of the Induction treats them and above all, that Lord himself, all invoke the world of Hamlet. The Lord, like Hamlet, fancies himself as a playwright and has already constructed his own little drama of deceiving Sly before the Players arrive, which then becomes more complex when he has more actors, and more professional actors ready to hand. Hamlet instructs the Player to insert a speech of his own writing into The Murder of Gonzago and holds forth about acting. The Lord in The Shrew, spurred on by the arrival of the Players, still plans his own amateur show in which his page will play the lady. His speech of instruction is not, to my mind, an instruction on marriage but an instruction on how to act an obedient well-born lady, and the incentive given is that the page will win the Lord's love, or one could say, that the apprentice will win the master's love. Hamlet was played by Burbage. Did that remarkable actor, who joined the newly-formed Chamberlain's men at the same time as Shakespeare in 1594-5, perhaps also play Petruchio? Did Shakespeare rewrite the early play in order that it would provide a fit vehicle for this actor? If so, the memorial construction theory must go out of the window, and so must the attendant—and far from convincing—very early date for The Shrew. Be that as it may, the possibility that Petruchio and the Lord were played by Burbage seems worth entertaining from the evidence of the play itself.

Burbage was no doubt a fascinating actor to be apprenticed to, and probably very demanding. Shakespeare seems to have written scenes for Burbage which allowed both actor and dramatist to incorporate into the play the rehearsing of how it should be acted. An elegiac tribute to Burbage in Thomas May's The Heir, written in 1620, the year after his death (Gurr 44), recalls that when he acted:

… Ladies in the boxes
Kept time with sighs, and teares to his sad accents
As he had truely been the man he seem'd.

Hamlet's advice to the players to hold the mirror up to nature is tailor-made for such an actor. It is not only the Lord's interest in acting in The Taming of the Shrew which seems to link him with the roles which Shakespeare created for Burbage in the mid-1590s. Another inhabitant of Shakespeare's stage in the mid-1590s is conjured up by Petruchio's dedication to the wooing of Kate:

Think you a little din can daunt mine ears?
.....Have I not in a pitched battle heard
Loud ‘larums, neighing steeds and trumpets’ clang?
And do you tell me of a woman's tongue,
That gives not half so great a blow to hear
As will a chestnut in a farmer's fire?
Tush, tush, fear boys with bugs!


Petruchio here sounds like Hotspur in I Henry IV, whose troubled dreams of battle alarm another Kate. Both men, Petruchio and Hotspur, share a rhetoric of sport: Hotspur is as much a huntsman on the battlefield as the hawking Petruchio is a warrior in wooing. But they share their love with someone else: the Lord in the Induction, who enters praising his hounds as enthusiastically as Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I want to suggest that the Lord in the Induction was played by the same actor as Petruchio (Burns 51) and that that actor was Richard Burbage, who joined the Chamberlain's men in 1595, along with Shakespeare himself. Burbage's theatrical career begins, in our records, with a sensational stage brawl (Greg I:44) not too dissimilar to the first scene between Petruchio and Kate. Hotspur himself, of course, is in Shakespeare's play boisterously matched with Kate (in defiance of history).

Many of Kate's lines carry a Dionysiac charge for most women, of things thought but never said, as when she bursts out to Petruchio, over the business of the cap:

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak,
And speak I will. I am no child, no babe.
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.


Oddly, these lines have found their way into the first Quarto of Hamlet (1603), which precedes the more usually authenticated 1604 Quarto 2. Hamlet says of the Players, about to enter:

The clowne shall make them laugh
That are tickled in the lungs, or the blanke verse shall halt for't,
And the Lady shall have leave to speake her minde freely.

(my italics)

In both the 1604 text and the Folio, the link with The Shrew passage has been obscured by a slight re-wording: “The Clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickled o'th' sear, and the Lady shall say her mind freely, or the blank verse shall halt for't” (Complete Works 2.2.324-6). The implications are obvious. The line stuck in the theatre audience's mind, and perhaps was the key moment of Burbage's stage performance with his apprentice. Natalie Zemon Davis has written of the unruly woman on top in European culture: Kate is anarchic. She seems to obey not only no social conventions but no theatrical ones either, speaking when she is supposed to be silent, according to everyone else's rules. This includes the ending of the play too, where she is supposed finally, after a play of speaking her mind, not to speak her obedience. Her final rejection of the heroine's giving way gracefully is marked by her wonderful long outburst. If it is about obedience, its provenance is marked by an apprentice's joyful sense not of the social, but of the theatrical arena, in which, like Tranio, he is a free citizen chosen on merit. The play creates within the comic context a charge of anarchic delight comparable in intensity and verve to the tragic energy of Hamlet himself. It is as though the reality of the boy beneath the role speaks to the reality of the women in the audience, allowing them stage power even as he proclaims social submission.9

The incentive offered to the apprentice who plays Kate is not just the winning of his master's love—and the satisfaction of an actor like Burbage must have been worth winning—but his own pride of place in the play. Stage power appears here, even if the price of it is a speech on social submission. Furthermore, behind the text of Kate's obedience speech is the powerful evocation of manhood: dangerous, challenging, adventurous, painful (Burns 46-7). As the apprentice enters the woman's discourse, the dramatist has seen to it that he conjures up a vision of his own entry into the position of master: the one who takes the risks.10 But this is also mirrored in his stage situation, because the play stands or falls on the apprentice's performance in the last scene, just as Petruchio's wager stands or falls, and as the husbands gather round to witness their wives' performance, so the masters gather round to see whose apprentice will play the big part: the one with the cloak, the one who studied it first, or the one that the author thought would speak it best. One of the reasons why The Shrew, with its apparently time-bound folk-origin conservative dogmas about women, has not simply died a quiet death like all the other Elizabethan plays in the taming genre, is that it releases into the auditorium an energy created through a dialectic of opposed wills, command versus obedience, and power versus powerlessness, which is polarised in the utterance of the boy actor playing the woman.

In The Taming of the Shrew, the apprentice has virtually the last word. As the stage heroine mouths obedience, the apprentice eyes his female audience, both the querulous wives on the stage and the women in the audience. Did the women in the audience register the exhilaration of the apprentice actor seizing his chance to be master, to realise stage power even if the price of it was a recognition of the submission to which he and they would have to return once the play was over? The triumph of The Shrew is the triumph of art over life, of making a beggar believe that he is part of the play, or of making a drunken actor enter an illusory world and use its language. Men and women in the theatre audience in Shakespeare's play become the watcher, Sly, and take his place as witnesses of the play, but also become seduced, as the Beggar is, into entering the play world, believing it to be real, as the ladies believed Burbage's acting to be real. In this play, Shakespeare has allowed the apprentice to upstage the master, perhaps originally Burbage himself. No one bothers much about Petruchio's reality because they are so busy talking about Kate's. Her speech steals the show. Beneath an ostensible message of humility it generates the suppressed exhilaration of its stage power: the seizing of mastery by the apprentice even as he proclaims a master's doctrine of subjection.

What did Shakespeare's contemporaries make of it? I maintain that they were not all out ducking their wives in the pond.11 Sir John Harington, who owned a copy of The Taming of a Shrew (given that Shakespeare's contemporaries made no distinction between their title, which Shrew?) wrote in 1596 in The Metamorphosis of Ajax: “For the shrewd wife, reade the booke of taming of a shrew, which hath made a number of us so perfect, that now every one can rule a shrew in our countrey, save he that hath her. But indeed there are but two good rules. One is, let them never have their willes; the other differs but a letter, let them ever have their willes, the first is the wiser, but the second is more in request, and therefore I make choice of it” (153-5). A year later, in 1597, Harington wrote his wife a poem on their fourteenth wedding anniversary, entitled “To his wife after they had been married 14 yeares”:

Two prentiships with thee I now have been
Mad times, sad times, glad times, our life hath seen.
Souls we have wrought four payr, since our first meeting
Of which two souls, sweet souls were to to fleeting.
My workmanship so well doth please thee still
thou wouldst not graunt me freedom by thy will,
And Ile confess such usage I have found
Mine hart yet nere desir'd to bee unbound.
But though my self am thus thy Prentice vowd,
My dearest Mall, yet thereof bee not proud,
Nor claym no rewl thereby, there's no such cause,
For Plowden who was father of the laws,
which yet are read and ruld by his indytings,
doth name himself apprentice in his Writings.
And I, if you should challenge undew place,
could learn of him to alter so the case.
I playn would prove I still kept dew priority,
and that good wives are still in their minority,
But far from thee my Deare bee such audacity,
I doubt more thou dost blame my dull capacity,
That though I travaile true in my vocation,
I grow yet worse and worse at th'occupation.


In this remarkable poem the husband is the apprentice to his wife and has served two seven-year terms, which have given him such content that he prefers bondage to freedom. In Harington's Epigrams, printed after his death, the compositor has either made an error, or failed to understand the significance of the fourteen years: that the apprentice's bonds were up. In this poem Harington, who always claimed that his poems were not fiction, but truth, warns his wife that if she should prove proud, he could prove in law that the situation might be reversed, and she would find that she was the one who was still in her minority, in the apprentice position. However, he is not afraid that that boldness will be taken by her, but rather that he will fail her in his vocation.

The sexual intimacy of this poem within a domestic context makes it most extraordinary, yet the sustained image of the apprentice suggests that it was not only in the theatre that apprentices and women shared a common minority status, but also that the equality which the apprentice boy might gain as heroine, might have its counterpart in the true interchange between apprentice and master which is created in the delight of Petruchio at the end of the play in the boy's performance. Harington, who was fond enough of Shakespeare's plays to possess fifteen of them in quarto, and three duplicates (Furnivall 283-3), may have felt that for his own wife and for himself, the witty jesting godson of the queen, the play had much to say. But that that message is a humiliating one for women, however much it may be so in a theatre where women actresses play Kate, seems to me in Shakespeare's theatre to be belied by the realities of the theatrical world in which the boy actor earns his momentary supremacy by means of a brilliant performance of a speech proclaiming subjection. If the boy actor winked at Petruchio, he might also have winked at the women watching him in the theatre. Did the women in the audience hear words which send them back to domestic drudgery, or did they share the heady sensation of mastery which the boy actor infuses into one of the longest and most exciting parts he has ever played, in which, in the end, he silences with his eloquence the greatest actor in Shakespeare's company, and surpasses even that actor's wildest expectations of good performance? The boy actor invites women in the audience to participate not in what he says, but in the theatrical power which orchestrates the act of speaking.


  1. The valuable edition of The Taming of a Shrew by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey has stimulated a number of questions in this paper, although I disagree with some of the editors' conclusions, and find it surprising that in a cultural materialist edition there should be no specific analysis of the effect on the play of the theatrical condition that Kate would have been played by a boy.

  2. Bentley argues that although there was no player's guild to which boys were officially apprenticed, there is plenty of evidence that boys were attached as apprentices to particular adults in the company. Rastell finds no evidence that post-pubertal youths played Shakespeare's women.

  3. Induction I. 79-83, The Taming of the Shrew. All quotations from Shakespeare's Shrew are from this edition unless otherwise stated.

  4. Leeds Barroll's argument for the bunching of plays in the Jacobean period when Shakespeare could foresee performance in the public theatre, if taken back to the earlier decade, must oblige scholars to rethink the dating of the plays in relation to outbreaks of plague in the 1590s. The Shrew on this reckoning might have been written after the 1592-4 outbreaks which would put it in the same period as the plays discussed in my text, although of course this speculation would force a reconsideration of the memorial reconstruction theory in relation to A Shrew.

  5. I am indebted to Wentersdorf's analysis of the ending of The Shrew although my conclusions differ from his, as he believes that Shakespeare did provide a “Sly” ending to the play. Wentersdorf remarks that its absence in the Folio may be because the Folio editors “believed the revision to have been carried out with Shakespeare's approval and therefore that the shortened text constituted an authentic if artistically less satisfactory version” (215).

  6. Thompson, Taming 3. This would put early 1592 as the last possible date for the composition of A Shrew.

  7. In the 1992 Royal Shakespeare Theatre production at the main house in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by William Alexander, Tranio almost succeeded in wooing Bianca, and the tension between his performance as Lucentio and the subservient role the real Lucentio was forced to play became a notable part of the drama.

  8. The Victorian William Cory wrote in his journal: “I have formerly thought I should like to see gentlefolks act Taming of the Shrew, of course as a mere trifle” (398). His wish might have been fulfilled in the RSC 1992 Shrew which rewrote the Induction in order to emphasize its modern upper-class equivalents, and forced these genteel persons then to play the parts of Petruchio's servants.

  9. Fineman's argument for the restoration of patriarchal modes at the end of the play ignores this vital dimension of underlying theatrical interchange between audience and player, which creates its own dynamic of difference.

  10. My argument is based on a theatrical exigency: the ways in which the playwright has written into the part the realities of the player's own situation in order to facilitate his representation of the woman he plays. The effect in this speech is not to present the woman as a construction of “masculine self-differentiation” (Greenblatt 51) but to draw out of the woman's own role an energy implicit in the creation of Kate herself, and related to Zemon Davis's perception of “unruliness” discussed earlier.

  11. This is not to underestimate the importance of Boose's fascinating research into the treatment of scolds in Elizabethan England, although I do find it more relevant to the world of The Taming of a Shrew, with its much more popular frame of reference, than to Shakespeare's (to my mind) very courtly play.

Works Cited

Barroll, Leeds. Politics, Plague and Shakespeare's Theater: The Stuart Years. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.

Bentley, Gerald Eades. The Profession of Player in Shakespeare's Time 1590-1642. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.

Boose, Lynda. “Scolding Brides and Birdlime Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213.

Burns, Margie. “The Ending of The Shrew.Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 41-64.

Cory, William. Extracts from the Letters and Journals. Ed. Francis Warre Cornish. Oxford: n.p., 1865.

Duthie, G. I. “The Taming of a Shrew and The Taming of the Shrew.The Review of English Studies 19 (1943): 337-56.

Fineman, Joel. “The Turn of the Shrew.” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. London: Methuen, 1985. 138-59.

Furnivall, F. J. “Sir John Harington's Shakespeare Quartos.” Notes & Queries 7th Series, IX (May 17, 1890): 382-3.

Gaw, Alison. “John Sincklo as One of Shakespeare's Actors.” Anglia 49 (1926): 289-303.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Fiction and Friction.” Reconstructing Individualism. Ed. Thomas Heller, Morton Sosna, and David E. Wellbery. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986. 30-52.

Greg, W. W. Dramatic Documents for the Elizabethan Playhouses. Oxford: Clarendon, 1931.

Gurr, Andrew. Playgoing in Shakespeare's London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Harington, Sir John. Epigrams. 1600. Bound into the Orlando Furioso, in English Heroical Verse. London: Richard Field, 1591.

———. Sir John Harington's A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax. Ed. Elizabeth Story Donno. London: Routledge, 1962.

Hinman, Charlton, ed. The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile. London: Hamlyn, 1968.

Holderness, Graham. The Taming of the Shrew: Shakespeare in Performance. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989.

Holderness, Graham, and Bryan Loughrey, eds. The Taming of a Shrew. Memel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Howard, Jean E. “Scripts and/versus Playhouses: Ideological Production and the Renaissance Public Stage.” Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 31-40.

Jonson, Ben. Cynthia's Revel's. Ben Jonson. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Marston, John. The Malcontent. Ed. Bernard Harris. London: The New Mermaids, Benn, 1967.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The Act, the Role, and the Actor: Boy Actresses on the Elizabethan Stage.” New Theatre Quarterly 3 (1987): 120-30.

McMillin, Scott. “Casting for Pembroke's Men: The Henry VI Quartos and The Taming of A Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 23 (1972): 141-59.

———. “Simon Jewell and the Queen's Men.” Review of English Studies 27 (1976): 174-7.

Moore, William. “An Allusion in 1593 to The Taming of the Shrew?Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 55-60.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews. London: Bell, 1971.

Rastall, Richard. “Female Roles in All-Male Casts.” Medieval English Theatre 7 (1985); 21-51.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

———. The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile. Ed. Charlton Hinman. London: Hamlyn, 1968.

———. The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. Ann Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. Ed. Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

The Taming of a Shrew. Ed. Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992.

Thompson, Ann, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

———. “Dating Evidence for The Taming of the Shrew.Notes and Queries 29 (1982): 108-9.

Trewin, J. C. Going to Shakespeare. London: Allen & Unwin, 1978.

Wentersdorf, Karl P. “Actors' Names in Shakespearean Texts.” Theatre Studies 23 (1980): 18-30.

———. “The Original Ending of The Taming of the Shrew: A Reconsideration.” Studies in English Literature 18 (1978): 201-15.

Zemon Davis, Natalie. “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe.” The Reversible World. Ed. Barbara A. Babcock. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1978. 147-89.

TCI: The Business of Entertainment, Technology, and Design (essay date 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Bring on the Shrews,” in TCI: The Business of Entertainment, Technology, and Design, Vol. 32, No. 5, May, 1998, pp. 11-13.

[In the following review, the critic characterizes Andreai Serban's production of The Taming of the Shrew as a parable concerned with taming the beast in all of us.]

Across a gray floor in front of a gray fire curtain, a mummy hobbles to Cole Porter's “I Hate Men,” and Christopher Sly falls asleep on a heart-shaped pillow that also looks like a breast with nipples.

Away with the curtain! A bright yellow 40′ truck spans the back of the thrust stage; red lettering on the trailer announces the American Repertory Theatre. The front lifts, revealing ART actors, clowns, and acrobats, to present The Taming of the Shrew. And Andrei Serban's production is off and flying.

From here, scenic designer Christine Jones works in primary colors, creating a set that goes beyond her research on carnivals and circuses and constantly surprises. Below the gray floor throw is a bright yellow gym mat, 20′ x 20′, onto which the company tumbles and jumps. When the back of the truck comes off, lighting designer Michael Chybowski changes colors below and behind, keeping them bold and bright, sometimes patterning square and rectangular surfaces with bright circles.

“Serban wanted a simple design that could become just about anything,” Jones says. The truck served as inner stage, in one scene becoming a ramp for a fashion show as Petruchio shows his bride the beautiful gowns that just won't do. A mural masks the truck during the wedding scene. And Kate jogs alongside the truck to Bianca's party while hubby rides within.

Put a rope around the mat and it is a boxing ring, just the place for a battle of the sexes. (“I will attend her here,” Petruchio announces through a mic, to cheers and jeers from the crowd.) Add a school chair, and some red screens for characters to climb on or peep over, and Bianca is ready to study. The book she reads? The Rules.

Jones, who built some pieces, found a truck cab in a Boston junkyard. The shop sawed it, removing a 2′ section in the center and pushing it together so it could come in and out of the wings.

Serban interpreted the play as a parable about taming the beast that lives inside each of us, and in a production by turns whimsical and grotesque, he raised questions about personal identity. Characters trade and shift, both on the surface and beneath it. Tranio and Lucentio swap clothes and the roles of servant and master. While Kate moves from a whip-cracking shrew to a loving wife, Bianca finds pleasure in sadomasochistic games and becomes a full-fledged shrew by the play's end.

Catherine Zuber's costumes helped transform characters. Kate, who enters in a red pantsuit, with red boots and top hat, and brandishing a whip, wears a white pantsuit to her wedding, then finds her way to skirts. Bianca, who shows off her teeth and legs to suitors as a cone-headed Baptista auctions her, trades her pink miniskirt, lace-trimmed panties, bobby socks and bows for pink hair, a green skirt, and a mini-whip, en route to a darker look.

Petruchio comes to wive it wealthily in black leather and sunglasses, carrying a guitar and flanked by bikers. Trading guitar for gun, he resembles Elvis one moment, the Terminator the next, a Mafia kingpin shortly thereafter. He wears a conventional suit to propose marriage, strips to a muscle bodysuit for the first round, and in a production with no shortage of cross-dressing, shows up for his wedding in a bridal gown. A literal “spring” hat and a T-shirt from the Macho Institute of Taming, acronym MIT, numbers among the costumes that draw laughs. Lights and prop humor include a switch from moonlight to sun and back again at Petruchio's whim; the newlyweds sit by a TV with an on-screen fireplace. And Jones makes irreverent use of what she found in Italian travel books. A 20′-tall leaning tower is a drive-thru “Pisa” place, one of many ever-changing set pieces that dot the landscape as this commedia-influenced farce spins forth.

Serban develops ideas in rehearsal with actors, and the first preview was also the first run-through of the show. Props were removed and added five minutes before opening. And although actors rehearsed in costumes and wigs from day one, in this work-in-constant-progress, costumes and characters developed together and through previews. Zuber pulled and shopped, building very little to avoid the costly process of rebuilding.

Zuber began fittings before rehearsals started for a show that would eventually require 111 costumes designed for flexible movement and rigged for fast changes that sometimes occurred onstage. Serban brings on the clowns, and a wide assortment of street people, gangsters, freaks, and others dressed in wildly varied garb, wigs, and noses. In a show with lots of leather—even Hortensio's widow gets into the act—there's a clown in white leather, too. Costume shop manager Lynn Jeffrey started with two dressers, then hired a third, not only to facilitate changes but to help track what quickly became an overwhelming inventory.

Christopher Walker pulled Porter tunes from four versions of Kiss Me Kate, and created a soundscape from real and exaggerated sound and moments of other music that included mambo, Elvis and Sinatra.

Laurie E. Maguire (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Cultural Control in The Taming of the Shrew,” in Renaissance Drama, Vol. 26, 1995, pp. 83-104.

[In the essay below, Maguire analyzes the three forms of cultural control found in The Taming of the Shrew: the hunt, music, and marriage.]

To say that Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is a play about taming is to state the obvious: the “wooing” of Katherine by Petruccio, perhaps more than any other main plot in Shakespeare, dominates performance and criticism of the play. But taming can take many forms, and I want to argue that The Taming of the Shrew is imbued with three forms of cultural control: the hunt, music, and marriage. These variations on a theme are linked subtly but crucially by the central image of music, and are introduced through the cynegetic motif that occupies the play's first two scenes.


The Taming of the Shrew opens with Christopher Sly, “old Sly's son of Burton Heath, by birth a pedlar, by education a cardmaker, by transmutation a bearherd, and now by present profession a tinker” (Ind.2.17-20). Further demoted by drink from tinker to “swine,” the sleeping Sly is discovered by a creature from the opposite end of the social hierarchy, a Lord, who is abroad with his men enjoying that activity of the allegedly civilized classes: the hunt.

The sixteenth-century hunt embodied class and privilege.1 As Richard Leppert explains (123), it was a “ritualized exercise” requiring organization and control, the choreography of men and hounds.2 It took place on one's own land; it was a musical activity; it was predominantly a male sport; and it demonstrated male power and ownership in its most primitive form: “the right to kill” (Leppert 126).

The musical component of Renaissance hunting was tripartite: a sequence or blend of the twelve-note French horn, the baying of hounds, and the human voice “sometimes playing separately and according a role to the individual soloist, sometimes joining in a spontaneous and joyful polyphony, crowned by a formal and triumphal coda” (Cummins 160). The French horn, more complicated and sophisticated than its English counterpart, delivered “calls” to direct the hunt. Sequences and combinations of long and short notes are described (and sometimes transcribed in linear form) in all hunting manuals. Thus, the musical sequence can indicate hounds running, a view of an animal (a different sequence for each kind), water, bay and request for help, death, a call for hounds to assemble, a call for hunters to assemble, a retreat, and so forth. Some of these situations also permitted oral calls, although usually the human voice was restricted to the encouragement or subduing of hounds. The hounds themselves were the most musical part of the hunt, selected more for their cry than for their speed (Theseus's hounds are “slow in pursuit, but matched in mouth like bells”: MND 4.1.122). Gervase Markham acknowledges “sweetnesse of cry,” “loudnes of cry,” and “deepnes of cry” as important factors in selecting a pack of hounds, and advises on breeds for bass, counter-tenor, and treble—beagles, for example, for trebles (Countrey Contentments, bk. 1, 7-8). “Of these three sorts of mouthes,” he continues, “if your Kennell be (as neer as you can) equally compounded, you shall finde it most perfect and delectable: for though they haue not the thunder and loudnesse of the great dogges, which may be compared to the high winde instruments, yet they will haue the tunable sweetnes of the best compounded consorts, & sure a man may finde as much Art and delight in a Lute, as in an Organ” (Countrey Contentments, bk. 1, 10). Whereas the horn's pitch was constant, hounds enriched the musical atmosphere through their variety of pitch. Such variety was not simply for acoustic pleasure. As John Cummins explains, this canine music was “crucially informative to the hunter skilled in its interpretation and intimately aware of the notes of each individual hound” (169).

Renaissance quarry were many and various, the noblest being the deer, although foxes and hares were frequent targets, particularly toward the end of the seventeenth century when deforestation, combined with the introduction of firearms, reduced the number of deer (Carr 23-24). Foxhunting had a long history, if only as a form of pest control,3 and the anthropomorphization of the fox as wily and cunning makes one dwell on the appropriateness of the Lord finding a creature who is literally Sly. Hunting took place very early in the morning: early morning is the ideal time to trap foxes, who feed at night and are slow and lethargic before dawn, their evening meal undigested. (Theseus, enjoying an early-morning hunt in A Midsummer Night's Dream, greets the sleeping lovers with the sarcastic surmise that they have risen early to observe the rite of May, and, in the eighteenth century, Sir Walter Bagot reprimanded his sons for their tardiness in arriving at four in the morning [Auden 3].) Christopher Sly is similarly victimized by his evening in the tavern, his inebriation not yet neutralized by sufficient sleep. Despite a temporary reprieve, in which he is elevated to a Lord and offered, as aesthetic pleasure, images of the chase (Venus and Adonis, Jove and Io, Apollo and Daphne), Sly is killed off by the dramatist in the course of the play.

Of the three pictures of the chase offered to Sly in the induction, two concern women being pursued and/or raped by a god, and show the relevance of the hunt to issues of gender. The characterization of women as the sexual victims of the male hunter has a long tradition. Virgil presents the lovesick Dido as “a doe caught off her guard and pierced by an arrow from some armed shepherd” (Aeneid 99). The poem “The wofull wordes of the Hart to the Hunter” in The Noble Arte of Venerie presents the stag at bay in sexually suggestive terms: “Since I in deepest dread, do yelde my selfe to Man, / And stand full still betwene his legs, which earst full wildly ran” (Turbervile 136). Titus Andronicus makes this connection more explicitly when Chiron and Demetrius view the rape of Lavinia as a variant of the more usual hunt:

My lords, a solemn hunting is in hand;
Single you thither then this dainty doe.


Chiron, we hunt not, we, with horse nor hound,
But hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground.


In Troilus and Cressida Pandarus sings a salacious song underpinned by complex metaphors of sex and hunting:

For O love's bow
Shoots buck and doe.
The shaft confounds
Not that it wounds,
But tickles still the sore.
These lovers cry, “O! O!”, they die.
          Yet that which seems the wound to kill
Doth turn “O! O!” to “ha ha he!”
          So dying love lives still.


David Willbern (164) lists further examples from medieval literature to Shakespeare that show the traditional association of hunting with sexuality.

In general in the Shakespeare canon, images of hunting evince nothing but sympathy for the hunted, who is presented as an innocent victim. Julius Caesar, harmlessly deaf, epileptic, and unfit, is butchered:

                                                            Here wast thou bayed, brave hart;
Here didst thou fall, and here thy hunters stand
Signed in thy spoil and crimsoned in thy lethe.
O world, thou wert the forest to this hart;
And this indeed, O world, the heart of thee.
How like a deer strucken by many princes
Dost thou here lie!


The slaughtered children of Macduff are “murdered deer” (Macbeth 4.3.207). Duke Frederick is troubled by conscience when killing venison in the forest of Arden, questioning why the “native burghers” should “in their own confines with forked heads / Have their round haunches gored” (AYLI 2.1.23-25). Similar scruples are voiced by the Princess of France in Love's Labor's Lost (4.1.7-35).4 Such sympathetic reactions were atypical in the sixteenth century, the notable other exceptions being Erasmus, More, and Montaigne (Cartmill 76-78).

Shakespeare's sympathy is of interest in light of the association of both Sly and Katherine with quarry in The Taming of the Shrew. These two social subordinates are linked in that both are manipulated and “practised upon” by a Lord. The common denominator of class and gender issues in the cynegetic motif is made clear in act 5, when the subject of the hunt is revisited metaphorically, thereby concluding Sly's apparently incomplete tale analogously in a discussion of marriage. The three husbands in act 5 compare and bet on their wives' performance, as the three huntsmen compare and wager on their dogs in the induction; the induction's wager of twenty pounds becomes the twenty crowns of act 5, a sum rejected by Petruccio in a hunting analogy: “I'll venture so much of my hawk or hound, / But twenty times so much upon my wife” (5.2.75-76).5 This episode is imbued with the language and attitude of animal sports, from Petruccio's and Hortensio's hortatory cries (“To her, Kate!” / “To her, widow!” / “A hundred marks my Kate does put her down” [5.2.35-37]) through the characterization of Bianca as a bird (“Am I your bird? I mean to shift my bush, / And then pursue me as you draw your bow” [5.2.48-49 and cf. lines 52-53]) to the depiction of Kate as a deer that attacks (“'Tis thought your deer does hold you at a bay” [5.2.58]). Like the tinker Sly, women are reduced to the status of animals. Shakespeare's sympathetic attitude elsewhere to the victims of hunting may suggest that he viewed the predicament of the cornered female in The Taming of the Shrew as one to be condemned, rather than the male position of tamer as one to be celebrated. However, before drawing any interpretive conclusions about the presentation of women as deer in act 5 of this play, we must first consider an analogous topic: the depiction of women as musical instruments.


There are over one hundred musical allusions in The Taming of the Shrew (Waldo and Herbert; and cf. West). From the Apollonian “twenty cagèd nightingales” whose singing is offered to Christopher Sly, to Petruccio's musical puns on “sol-fa” and “burden” and his snatches of popular songs; from Hortensio's disguise as a music master, with his broken lute in 2.1 and his new gamut in 3.1, to the matrimonial harmony that Lucentio musically anticipates in act 5—“At last, though long, our jarring notes agree”—the play uses the nodal image of music to chart the development of the characters' personal relationships. More important, musical images and actions reveal the personal makeup of Katherine. The figurative association between bad behavior and bad music was a Renaissance commonplace, and, as T. R. Waldo and T. W. Herbert note (193), “[t]wo strands of meaning, the musical and the belligerent, are united when Kate uses the musical instrument as a weapon.” Decisively rejecting musical instruction and the heavenly harmony associated with it, Katherine seems set to steer the play in the direction of “loud alarums.”

From Boethius the Renaissance inherited a tripartite understanding of musical relations: musica mundana referred to the harmony of the universe; musica humana referred to the harmony that resulted when man was tuned by reason; musica instrumentalis referred to practical music making (Hollander 24-25; Ross 108; Finney 88-90). The dominant iconographic image linking all three was a stringed instrument, a universal lute-harp-lyre “possessing the ethical and esthetic values of the Greek kithara” (Hollander 128). It was logical that, if the heavens were perceived as “a tuned stringed instrument, so man with his cords and fibers, physiologically associated with stringed musical instruments, could be considered to require an analogous harmonious tuning spiritually as well as medically. Hence the idea of Concord very often is represented … by a stringed instrument” (Ross 109).

Presented as (or presenting herself as) a paragon of personal harmony and feminine perfection (at least in public), Bianca expertly manipulates the conventional musical associations:

Sir, to your pleasure humbly I subscribe.
My books and instruments shall be my company,
On them to look and practise by myself.


Lucentio responds appropriately, comparing Bianca with Minerva (not only the Roman goddess of wisdom but the “mythical originator of musical instruments” [Waldo and Herbert 197]), an equation restated by Hortensio in 3.1.4-5: “this Bianca is, / The patroness of heavenly harmony.” In her Cambridge edition of the play Ann Thompson reprints Holman Hunt's suggestive painting of Bianca, Patroness of Heavenly Harmony, in which Bianca's perfectly tuned character is symbolized by the lute in her hands. Throughout The Taming of the Shrew Katherine is presented in musical opposition to her sister as a woman who mistakes her frets, a discordant instrument who must be tuned.

This is just another way of saying that she is a volatile animal who must be tamed, as Katherine herself seems to realize when she rejects the lute and the lute lesson. Although, prima facie, the ambience of this episode seems innocuous enough, Katherine's violence may be prompted by the degrading horse-breaking attitude of her father, implicit in his question to Litio, “thou canst not break her to the lute?” (2.1.147; emphasis added. Cf. Kahn 108). The vocabulary of breaking in untamed horses, of teaching them “the manage,” is plentiful in the play, and resurfaces in a seventeenth-century treatise, Thomas Tryon's The Way to Health (1683). This book of medical miscellany and related advice concludes with a chapter that combines astrological and musical wisdom: “Cyterns and Gitterns are under the Moon and Venus, in the Sign [of] Sagitary; being well managed, they yield pleasant, soft, effeminate Harmonies” (ch. 21).6 This musical language, in which citterns (wire-strung members of the lute family) and gitterns (an etymological if not musicological cognate of the guitar7) are viewed as female instruments (“under the Moon”) who must be properly handled (“well managed”) before making appropriately feminine sound, epitomizes the treatment of Katherine in the play.

Music was, like woman, both divine and dangerous, capable of soothing or exciting, able to lead progressively to an appreciation of higher things (beauty, the good, the spiritual) or to damnation (for music encourages passivity, idleness: like sex it requires a receptive partner who could be physically or aurally “ravished”; Hollander 200-201). In this respect music is linked to those other artistic skills, rhetoric and face painting, which may embellish a natural attribute (eloquence, beauty) for the glory of God or may conceal and deceive.8 In addition, the technical vocabulary used for musical playing was unmistakably suggestive. “Touch” denotes both a musical action and a caress: Rolliardo in James Shirley's The Bird in a Cage boasts, “I can touch a Wench better then a Lute” (1.1.11-12), and a gentleman in Thomas Nashe's Anatomie of Absurditie tells what it is “to tickle a Citterne or haue a sweet stroke on the lute” (7; emphasis added). It was hardly a large or difficult step for the Renaissance to map attitudes to music onto attitudes to women.9

This equation of music with women leads easily to a series of images in which musical instruments, and music in general, are used as an elaborate synecdoche for sexual organs or sexual activity. In 1566, in Lewis Wager's The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene, we find explicit and extended sexual/musical punning (lines 837-44):

Mistresse Mary can you not play on the virginals?
Yes sweete heart, that I can, also on the regals,
There is no instrument but that handle I can,
I thynke as well as any gentlewoman.
If that you can play vpon the recorder,
I haue as fayre a one as any is in this border,
Truely you haue not sene a more goodlie pipe,
It is so bigge that your hand can it not gripe.(10)

Preparing a seduction scene between Doll Common and the Spanish count in Jonson's The Alchemist, Face prompts: “Sweet DOL, / You must goe tune your virginall, no loosing / O' the least time” (where “tune” means “play” as well as “tune”; 3.3.67-68). In the same scene Doll is urged to keep a client nocturnally awake with her “drum” (3.3.44).11 In Cymbeline Cloten confesses:

I am advised to give her music o' mornings; they say it will penetrate. Enter Musicians Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we'll try with tongue too.


The clowns in Lyly's Midas make sexual jokes on “fiddle” (1.2.8) and “notes” (1.2.84-87), and there is sexual innuendo on “fiddle” in Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl (2.2.20-22). Music, musical “parts,” and the touching of instruments all provide double entendres in Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (2.1.13-14, 68, 78-79). In Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness the servant Nick returns the lute to the unfaithful Anne with the aside “would that had been the worst instrument you ever played on”; “instrument” also has a bawdy connotation in the anonymous Wit of a Woman (lines 175-79). In Pericles the hero compares Antiochus's daughter to a viol, distinguishing between the heavenly music of sex in marriage and the discordant sounds of illicit intercourse:

You're a fair viol, and your sense the strings
Who, fingered to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heav'n down and all the gods to hearken,
But, being played upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.


A madman in Dekker and Middleton's 1 Honest Whore reprimands an imaginary schoolmaster who taught his wife to “play vpon the Virginals, and still his Iackes leapt vp, vp: you prickt her out nothing but bawdy lessons” (5.2.270). In The Wit of a Woman a traditional musical refrain becomes slang for the female pudenda: sometimes women who are dancing jump “so high, that you may see their hey nony, nony, nonyno” (434-35).

The most frequent sexual-musical image in the Renaissance concerns stringed instruments, with lutes being the favorite metaphor. The image of the beloved as a lute to be played upon was a frequent Petrarchan conceit. Thus men could be imaged as lutes, as for example, in the ninth sonnet in the 1599 edition of Drayton's Idea or Wyatt's poems “My lute, awake” and “Blame not my lute” or Campion's “When to her lute Corinna sings.” In Renaissance drama the association between women and stringed instruments is primarily sexual and far from complimentary. In The Duchess of Malfi (2.4.33-36) Webster uses the image of a lute to express the Cardinal's salacity. The Cardinal compares his treatment of Julia with Castruchio's:

Thou hadst only kisses from him, and high feeding,
But what delight was that? 'Twas just like one
That hath a little fing'ring on the lute,
Yet cannot tune it.

When one considers that those Renaissance musicians who did not have lute cases took their lute to bed with them as protection against cold and damp (Hollander 139), the sexual equation of women with lutes is doubly appropriate.12 Furthermore, the lute was sometimes associated with seventeenth-century prostitutes: in Middleton's Your Five Gallants (1605), Primero's brothel presents itself as a music school.13 This identifying accessory of prostitutes may perhaps explain the following reference to a gittern that appeared in the Book of Orders of the Merchant Adventurers of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1554 (Records 25). Rules governing the appearance and behavior of apprentices provide a lengthy list of prohibitions; among them, we are told, no merchant is to allow his apprentice “during the tyme of his apprentishood to daunse. dyse. Carde. or mvm. or vse any gytterns.” The denial of social pastimes such as dancing and playing at dice or cards suggests that the gittern reference may refer innocuously to musical entertainment, but it is tempting to suspect a sexual implication.14

The terms “fiddle” and “fiddler” were not confined to violin playing but applied equally to the fingering on all stringed instruments. In The Taming of the Shrew Katherine rejects not just the lute but the lute-master, who explains, “I … bowed her hand to teach her fingering” (2.1.149-50). Given the bawdy associations of “fingering” in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Duchess of Malfi, it is hardly surprising that Katherine should reject Hortensio's very physical lute instruction.15 The sexual insult is underlined a few lines later in Katherine's terms of abuse: “she did call me rascal, fiddler.” “Fiddler” is a common slang term for a violator of chastity, as in Chapman's Bussy d'Ambois (“my chastity … you shall neither riddle nor fiddle” [3.2.258-59]) or Dekker's Match Me in London (1.1.57-61):

and he [the barber] stood fidling with Tormiella [daughter of Malevento].
Fidling at least halfe an houre, on a Citterne with a mans broken head at it, so that I think 'twas a Barber Surgion.

In this quotation the sexual associations of “fidling” are reinforced by the reference to “Citterne,” which, like the musical instruments cited above, could function rhetorically as a euphemism for the female genitalia (see, for example, King's The Passenger [Benvenuto 7], in which Pipa does not “permit her wanton louer to lay his hand vpon her Citterne”). Thus, musical instruments in general, and stringed instruments in particular, have strong associations with the female body.

I have argued elsewhere that the nonsensical sartorial criticism Petruccio offers in 4.2, when he sees the pinking on the sleeves of Katherine's dress, requires emendation. Petruccio's complaint reads as follows:

Whats this? a sleeue? 'tis like [a] demi cannon,
What, vp and downe caru'd like an apple Tart?
Heers snip, and nip, and cut, and slish and slash,
Like to a Censor in a barbers shoppe.

(TLN 2073-76; 4.3.88-91)

I have suggested that “Censor” should read “cittern.” The cittern (renowned for its grotesquely carved neck) is used metaphorically elsewhere by Shakespeare and at least ten of his contemporaries in similarly derogatory contexts. In the drama of the period the association between barbers and citterns is almost a commonplace: the cittern can be amply documented as a standard item in barbers' shops, where it was provided for the musical enjoyment of waiting customers. In Jonson's The Staple of News (1.5.127-30) Pennyboy Junior recounts how his “barber Tom, … one Christmas, … got into a masque at Court, by his wit, / And the good means of his cittern, holding up thus / For one o' the music.” In Lyly's Midas (3.2.35), Motto, the barber, reminds his man that he has taught him several skills of the trade, including the “tuning of a cittern” (“tune” has the dual meaning “play” and “put in tune”; see OED tune 3a). Oliver the weaver, in Middleton's The Mayor of Queenborough (3.3.166-67), tells how he helped a poor barber who, it seems, was forced to pawn his cittern: “I gave that barber a fustiansuit, and twice redeemed his cittern: he may remember me.” In Jonson's Epicoene Morose chooses his deceptively silent bride on the advice of Cutbeard the barber. When his bride proves talkative, Morose exclaims, “That cursed barber! … I have married his cittern, that's common to all men” (3.5.58, 60). The equation of silence with chastity and speech with promiscuity was a Renaissance commonplace; Morose's cittern analogy subtly links his wife's noise-making capacity with her presumed general availability. Dekker and Middleton similarly suggest sexual availability in 2 Honest Whore when Matheo denounces Bellafront as a whore, “A Barbers Citterne for euery Seruingman to play vpon” (5.2.151).16

The ambience of the barber's shop was social (ale was served and games played), medical, tonsorial—and egregiously masculine. When Katherine rejects the lute (an emblem of femininity à la Bianca) in 2.1, and Petruccio rejects the cittern (an emblem of female pliability and passivity from an exclusively masculine environment) in 4.3, we may perhaps discern the couple's kinship: both are expressing hostility to stereotypical gender associations.


It cannot be denied, however, that Petruccio's behavior in the sun/moon scene looks suspiciously like that of a man intent on playing an instrument to produce the sounds that he wishes to hear. An eighteenth-century riddle (the answer to which is: a lute) is based on this image:

Her Back is round, her Belly's flat withal,
Her metamorphos'd Guts are great and small.
Her Navel's comely, and her Neck is long,
Bedeck'd with Ornaments, though small, yet strong.
Being thus compleat, her Master's chief Ambition,
Is to make known to all her sweet Condition.

(Burton 97 … )

The explanation of the riddle concludes: “being very well tuned, the Master is ambitious to delight his Auditors with his Sweet Musick … and will not conclude till he hath play'd over his Lessons, to the content of the Company” (Burton 98). A four-line rhyming observation follows, which describes the journey of a “Well bred Damsel” from deformity to “excellent Virtues”: “She's then for him that loves her, Musick Sweet” (Burton 98).

Such a musical partnership may be viewed positively—a lute cannot make music without a player, and a public performance of music making is the natural consequence of private practice. It may equally be perceived negatively—the lute will always be the passive receiver of, and conduit for, the tunes imposed by the dominant player. The most obvious example of the player's dominant control and the instrument's passivity is seen in the myth of Syrinx, the Arcadian nymph who fled from the attentions of Pan; she was metamorphosed into a reed from which Pan subsequently made a flute. Given dramatic life by Lyly, Pan says:

This pipe, my sweet pipe, was once a nymph, a fair nymph, once my lovely mistress, now my heavenly music. Tell me, Apollo, is there any instrument so sweet to play on as one's mistress?

(Midas, 4.1.13; emphasis added)

Bubulcus in Shirley's Love Tricks (2.1, p. 22) says of his beloved that “there is no music without her; she is the best instrument to play upon.” From one angle Petruccio seems to be behaving as Pan, pursuing his mistress, and metamorphosing her into an instrument for music (“For she is changed as she had never been” [5.2.120]). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to do the same thing with Hamlet:

Will you play upon this pipe? [the Player's recorder]
My lord, I cannot. … I have not the skill.
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

(3.2.338-40; 350-60)

Hamlet can resist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's attempts so easily because these would-be players have no musical skill (“I know no touch of it, my lord” [3.2.344]). Petruccio, however, has considerable musical knowledge, as his vocabulary and snatches of song continually testify. What Hamlet can dismiss in one scene Katherine must struggle against for four acts.

For a more positive musical interpretation we must turn to Othello; here Shakespeare uses stringed music to represent marital concord. Othello's and Desdemona's kisses are viewed as “the greatest discords … / That e'er our hearts shall make!” (2.1.199-200; the frequent association of heart strings with music strings arose from a “false etymological relationship” [Hollander 210] derived from Latin puns on cor/cordis/chorda). Iago continues the image with the contemptuous “O, you are well tuned now, / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music” (2.1.200-201).17 Another “well-tuned couple” in a contemporary domestic tragedy have their nuptial bliss portrayed musically. The Frankfords' happiness at the opening of A Woman Killed with Kindness is described by Sir Charles: “There's music in this sympathy; it carries / Consort and expectation of much joy” (1.69-70). Heywood presents this musical/marital emblem physically with an onstage lute, a gift from Frankford to Anne, which is symbolically broken at the end of the play when Anne, “who used to make sweet music on her lute, has made sour music of her marriage” (Cary 114).

Katherine's marriage in The Taming of the Shrew may move in the opposite direction to that of Desdemona or Anne Frankford. The Katherine who refuses to play on the lute and makes discordant sounds in the early acts responds harmoniously to the commands of her husband in acts 4 and 5. Harmony in marriage, like harmony in lute-playing, depends on sympathetic pairs. Lute strings are strung in double courses and produce cacophonic sounds when they vibrate against each other in a “struggle for independence” (Hollander 233). So Katherine's independence in rejecting partners is presented as cacophony: she “[b]egan to scold and raise up such a storm / That mortal ears might hardly endure the din” (1.1.170-71). But as Sidney's Arcadia makes clear (262v), and as Katherine herself comes to realize, “one string [cannot] make as good music as a consort.” After some initial clashes of sound as Katherine takes the measure of her partner's musico-rhetorical style, Katherine progresses from the ostinato “dumps”18 of the play's opening to the harmonious playing in partnership with her musical and marital “consort.” All levels of music fuse in the play's conclusion, from the rhetorical duet to the nuptial kiss (“the greatest discord that e'er [their] hearts shall make”) to the final exit to bed: “the true concord of well-tuned sounds / By unions married” (sonnet 8, lines 5-6).

It is clear that this optimistic conclusion is not the only possible interpretation of the lute/cittern association and the allied references to stringed music in the play. No matter how harmonious the resultant music, the lute remains an object that the male subject uses for pleasure; and as in so many positive images of the married couple—for example, that of the rider and horse working in partnership—the “well-tuned” image conceals the hierarchical inequality of the relationship between player and instrument. For clarification and contextualization of the interpretive ambiguities of the play's musical images we must return to the motif of hunting.


As a sport, hunting demonstrates power, predominantly masculine power, over wild nature. It has analogies in the wooing in The Taming of the Shrew, where Katherine is a wild creature who must be controlled. Petruccio lays his patriarchal cards on the table:

I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.


This statement comes in act 2, immediately after the episode in which Katherine has rejected both music and music master by breaking the lute over Hortensio's head. Katherine's violent behavior here is not as malapropos or uncivilized as it might appear, for musical instruments such as the lute are, like hunting and marital taming, a paradoxical blend of civilized life and violence, demonstrating male power over nature. Trees are felled, wood is split, to create lutes, harpsichords, virginals, viols da gamba, bandoras, citterns. Man the creator is also man the destroyer. These apparent irreconcilables come together in the figure of Apollo, who is both god of hunting and god of stringed instruments, and in The Tempest in the tyrannical/beneficent Prospero who releases the ethereal and musical Ariel by splitting the cloven pine in which he is imprisoned. Violent and destructive action is not separate from so-called civilized behavior, and in some cases may even lead to it, as the mottoes engraved on harpsichords, virginals, and spinets explicitly acknowledge (McGeary #27, 49, 25):

Io da le piaghe mie forma ricevo.
[I receive form from the blows (I received).]

Virginal, 1527

Non nisi mota cano.
[Not unless struck do I sing.]
                                                            Harpsichord, seventeenth century
Intactum sileo percute dulce cano.
[Untouched, I am silent; strike me, I sing sweetly.]

Spinet, 1741

Created by blows (inflicted on wood), or made musical by being struck, musical instruments—the epitome of the civilized classes—are symbiotically linked to violence.

The characterization of violence as a creative or harmonious teleology is disquieting to twentieth-century sensibility, not least because of the Renaissance's explicit gendering of music and musical instruments as feminine. The aestheticization of violence against women in musical mottoes or virginal lids (see below) suggests that such violence is civilized, productive, acceptable.19 Although Petruccio does not actually strike the instrument to produce the sweet sounds in act 5, his taming is presented in unremittingly musical terms. Wealth is burden of his wooing dance; Katherine's railing is, to him, the sweet singing of a nightingale (we remember an earlier ominous reference to the caged nightingales who will sing sweetly for Christopher Sly); and the “Friar of Order Grey” of which Petruccio sings a portion is, as P. J. Croft explains (8), “a bawdy tale of male domination and female submission.” Although critics frequently contrast the taming treatment Katherine receives from Petruccio with the more civilized education in music and the humanities that Bianca receives, the two are not as different as one might think. By this argument both Bianca and Katherine are cornered and controlled.

It is surely no coincidence that, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, one of the most common topoi to be painted on virginal and harpsichord lids (of which women were the primary players) was the hunt. As Richard Leppert explains, “To place a hunting scene on a clavichord effectively linked this power over life to the activity of music, the apparent radical opposite to the hunting scene. … [A]rt and power are one and the same. In other words, the distance is collapsed between art, typically theorized as a spiritual and spiritualizing realm of human experience, and a man's power to shape the physical world” (Leppert 126, 133). Thus considerations of music bring us back to the hunt, for, like the hunt, music is associated with class (the music master comes into the home), with power (musical notation provides orders for players to follow), and with violence (from the creation of wooden instruments to the mottoes that advocate domestic violence as a prelude to harmony). The issues come together dramatically, comically, in venery, which the preface to The Roaring Girl promises the reader: “To the Comicke Play-readers, Venery, and Laughter.” As Jean Howard explains (170), venery can mean both sexual pursuit and hunting with hounds.

In act 5 Katherine is characterized as a deer (5.2.57-58); but, as Margie Burns points out (44), and as the betting language in the scene makes clear, Katherine also functions as a retriever. This slippage between quarry and helpmate illustrates a duality in Renaissance attitudes to marriage, first broached in The Taming of the Shrew in the series of references to horses.20 Renaissance marriage and equestrian manuals frequently link the training of horses with the training of women: both are taught to obey the “manage.” The “brank” or scold's bridle worn by shrews was modeled on the horse bridle, a symbol of harness which survives in miniature in the wedding ring (until recently wedding rings were worn only by women); and yet once the horse was trained, rider and mount were viewed as a noble if unequal partnership, as were husband and wife. (This relationship between animal management and marriage is coincidentally encoded in the homonymic bridle/bridal.)

Thus, despite notable ambiguities in interpretation, it is in the end difficult to see how references to women as hunted animals or musical instruments, in this play at least, can be flattering or ennobling. The linked images of hunting, music, and taming suggest in fact that marital relations are but one part of The Taming of the Shrew's larger skeptical analysis of so-called civilized behavior. The play analyzes cultural control in the three areas of life that are considered indices of man's progress: musical entertainment, sporting activity, and Christian marriage. Man's progress in music, sport, and conjugal relations is grounded in manipulation: of nature, animals, and social subordinates. The underlying motif may be play (the gulling of Sly is a “jest,” a “pastime passing excellent”; New Criticism sees Petruccio's taming strategies as an invitation to Katherine to enter a playful world of transforming reality; the recreation in music and hunting is obvious), but such play is not without its victims or its dangers. Although the exiled Duke Senior in As You Like It learns to appreciate unadorned nature in the forest of Arden, finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,” in reality urban “civilized” man uses trees to make musical instruments and books. Women, animals, and the environment suffer for the sake of conjugal convention, sport, and musical leisure. The creation of civilized life is a paradox, involving uncivilized behavior. Progress comes, quite literally, as the musical references in The Taming of the Shrew show, with strings attached.


  1. For information in this paragraph, and throughout this section, I am indebted to Carr, English Fox Hunting; Cartmill, A View to a Death; Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk; Markham, The Gentlemans Academie and Countrey Contentments; Cockaine, A Short Treatise; Leppert, ch. 6 of The Sight of Sound; Turbervile, The Noble Arte (this is a free translation of Jacques du Fouilloux's La Venerie [c. 1561]); and Twiti, The Art of Hunting.

  2. The medieval and Renaissance hunt was a much slower activity than its modern descendant, and horses were not always used. For the speed of the Renaissance hunt, see Cockaine, who does not mention horses, and cf. Carr 28.

  3. But see Cockaine's A Short Treatise, which puts the fox above all other quarry.

  4. For discussion of these examples, see Cartmill 78-80.

  5. For other similarities between the induction and 5.2, see Burns.

  6. I quote from the second edition, 1691, p. 446.

  7. For differing views on this subject, see Munrow 26 and Ward passim.

  8. Thomas Peacham compares music to rhetoric; Phillip Stubbes compares music to cosmetics. For these references, and further information on the equation of women with music, see Austern, “‘Sing Againe’”; “‘Alluring the Auditorie’”; “Music and the English Renaissance.” Cf. also Hollander 104-22. For a related analysis of Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry showing how the terminology of the debate about poesy is also the terminology used in debates about face painting, see Dolan.

  9. The conflated sexual-musical associations of “play” are still current in a 1995 Museum of London advertisement, which invites the reader to view Lady Hamilton's guitar with the elaborate pun “See what Nelson's mistress was playing when she wasn't playing the strumpet.” A pun on (s)trumpet also seems indicated in Othello 2.1.181. Iago concludes the speech in which he has been observing Cassio's over-gallant behavior with Desdemona by announcing Othello's arrival; Iago's phrase resonates with unambiguous elision: “The Moor—I know his trumpet” (emphasis added).

  10. Although published in 1566, the play seems to have been written in the reign of Edward VI; see White xxii-xxiii.

  11. For the sexual significance of “drum” in All's Well that Ends Well, see Stanton.

  12. In The Vanities of Human Life (c. 1645; National Gallery, London) the Dutch painter Harmyn Steenwyck uses the round-bellied lute to symbolize the female body, and the phallic flute and shawn (a medieval oboe) to symbolize the male body.

  13. For the association between prostitutes and lutes, see Dirck Van Baburen's Procuress (1622; Boston Museum of Fine Arts) and Frans Huys's The Lute Maker's Shop (sixteenth century, reproduced in Moxey). For discussion of these works, see Williams 2: 834-35 (lute) and cf. 3: 1481 (viol). In Hieronymus Bosch's triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500; Prado, Madrid), the third panel shows the results of lust: damnation. Male bodies are depicted crushed by, or crucified on, two giant musical instruments: a lute and a harp.

  14. I am grateful to S. P. Cerasano for drawing my attention to this reference.

  15. In The Taming of a Shrew this covert innuendo is made more explicit. Kate's threat of violence is prompted by Valeria's lewd “What, doo you bid me kisse your arse?” (a mishearing, deliberate or otherwise, of Kate's vituperative command to “mend it [her lute playing] …, thou filthy asse”). See The Taming of a Shrew 6.24-30, in Bullough.

  16. For further taunts and criticisms based on cittern metaphors, see Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost 5.2.602-16; Ford, Love's Cure 2.2.108; Ford, The Fancies 1.2, p. 234; Ford, The Lover's Melancholy 2.1.36-39; Marston, The Scourge of Villainy, p. 301; and Massinger, The Old Law, pp. 533-34.

  17. See King for an analysis of the importance of music in Othello.

  18. A “mournful song or melody”; see Morris 2.1.277n.

  19. For a more recent example, see Susan Stroman's choreography for the Gershwin musical Crazy for You (1992-95). Adorned with taut strings from chin to toe, the female chorus cleverly emulated basses that the male chorus plucked, while the company sang “Slap that Bass” (emphasis added).

  20. See Roberts, Wayne, and Boose on this subject. See also Thomas Tryon's The Way to Health (446), which uses the language of horse training to refer to musical control.

I am grateful to Thomas L. Berger, S. P. Cerasano, Frances E. Dolan, Lynn Hulse, and George Walton Williams for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay. I wish also to record my thanks to the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada for a grant that funded part of this research.

Works Cited

Anon. The Wit of a Woman. 1604. Ed. W. W. Greg. London: Oxford UP for the Malone Soc., 1914.

Auden, J. E. A Short History of the Albrighton Hunt. London: Edward Arnold, 1905.

Austern, Linda Phyllis. “‘Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England.” Music and Letters 74 (1993): 343-54.

———. “Music and the English Renaissance Controversy over Women.” Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music. Ed. Susan C. Cook and Judy S. Tsou. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994. 52-69.

———. “‘Sing Againe Syren’: The Female Musician and Sexual Enchantment in Elizabethan Life and Literature.” Renaissance Quarterly 42 (1989): 420-48.

Benvenuto, Il Passagiere. Trans. “Mr King.” London, 1612.

Boose, Lynda E. “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 179-213.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 1. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.

Burns, Margie. “The Ending of The Shrew.Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 41-64.

Burton, Robert. Winter-evening Entertainments. London, 1737.

Carr, Raymond. English Fox Hunting: A History. Rev. ed. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.

Cartmill, Matt. A View to a Death in the Morning: Hunting and Nature through History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Cartwright, William. The Ordinary. The Plays and Poems of William Cartwright. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1951.

Cary, Cecile W. “‘Go Breake This Lute’: Music in Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness.Huntington Library Quarterly 37 (1973-74): 111-22.

Chapman, George. Bussy d'Ambois. Ed. Nicholas Brooke. London: Methuen, 1964.

Cockaine, Sir Thomas. A Short Treatise on Hunting. London, 1591.

Croft, P. J. “The ‘Friar of Order Gray’ and the Nun.” Review of English Studies 32 (1981): 1-16.

Cummins, John. The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Dekker, Thomas. 1Honest Whore. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker. Vol. 2. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964.

———. 2 Honest Whore. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker. Vol. 2. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964.

———. Match Me in London. The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker. Vol. 3. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966.

Dolan, Frances E. “‘Taking the Pencil out of God's Hand’: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England.” PMLA 108 (1993): 224-39.

Finney, Gretchen L. “A World of Instruments.” ELH 20 (1953): 87-120.

Fletcher, John. Love's Cure. Ed. George Walton Williams. The Dramatic Works in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon. Vol. 3. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976.

Ford, John. The Fancies. The Works. Ed. William Gifford, with additions by Alexander Dyce. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1895.

———. The Lover's Melancholy. Ed. R. F. Hill. The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1985.

———. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Ed. Derek Roper. London: Methuen, 1975.

Heywood, Thomas. A Woman Killed with Kindness. Ed. Brian W. M. Scobie. London: Black, 1985.

Hollander, John. The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961.

Howard, Jean. “Sex and Social Conflict: The Erotics of The Roaring Girl.Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage. Ed. Susan Zimmerman. New York: Routledge, 1992. 170-90.

Jonson, Ben. The Alchemist. Ben Jonson. Vol. 5. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1937.

———. Epicoene. Ed. R. V. Holdsworth. London: Benn, 1979.

———. The Staple of News. Ed. Anthony Parr. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.

Kahn, Coppélia. Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.

King, Rosalind. “‘Then Murder's out of Tune’: The Music and Structure of ‘Othello.’” Shakespeare Survey 39 (1987): 149-58.

Leppert, Richard. The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Lyly, John. Gallathea and Midas. Ed. Anne B. Lancashire. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1969.

McGeary, Thomas. “Harpsichord Mottoes.” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 7 (1981): 5-35.

Maguire, Laurie E. “Petruccio and the Barber's Shop.” Unpublished paper.

Markham, Gervase. Countrey Contentments. London, 1615.

———. The Gentlemans Academie; or, The Booke of S. Albans. London, 1595.

Marston, John. The Scourge of Villainy. The Works of Marston. Vol. 3. Ed. A. H. Bullen. London: John C. Nimmo, 1887.

Massinger, Philip. The Old Law. The Plays. Vol. 4. Ed. W. Gifford. London: G. and W. Nicol, 1813.

Middleton, Thomas. The Mayor of Queenborough. The Works of Thomas Middleton. Vol. 2. Ed. A. H. Bullen. New York: AMS, 1964.

———. Your Five Gallants. London, 1605.

Middleton, Thomas, and Thomas Dekker. The Roaring Girl. Ed. Paul A. Mulholland. The Revels Plays. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1987.

Morris, Brian, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. London: Methuen, 1981.

Moxey, Keith. Peasants, Warriors, and Wives: Popular Imagery in the Reformation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Munrow, David. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Oxford UP, 1976.

Nashe, Thomas. The Anatomie of Absurditie. The Works of Thomas Nashe. Vol. 1. Ed. R. B. McKerrow. London: A. H. Bullen, 1904.

Records of Early English Drama. Newcastle upon Tyne. Ed. J. J. Anderson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1982.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Horses and Hermaphrodites: Metamorphoses in The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 159-71.

Ross, Lawrence J. “Shakespeare's ‘Dull Clown’ and Symbolic Music.” Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966): 107-28.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor with John Jowett and William Montgomery. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

———. The Norton Facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare. Ed. Charlton Hinman. New York: Norton, 1968.

Shirley, James. The Bird in a Cage. Ed. Frances F. Senescu. New York: Garland, 1980.

———. Love Tricks. The Dramatic Works and Poems of James Shirley. Vol. 1. Ed. William Gifford and Alexander Dyce. London: Murray, 1833.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. London, 1590.

Stanton, Kay. “All's Well in Love and War.” Ideological Approaches to Shakespeare: The Practice of Theory. Ed. Robert P. Merrix and Nicholas Ranson. Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1992. 155-63.

Thompson, Ann, ed. The Taming of the Shrew. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Tryon, Thomas. The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness. London, 1683.

Turberville, George. The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting. London, 1575.

Twiti, William. The Art of Hunting. 1527. Ed. Bror Danielsson. Stockholm Studies in English 37; Cynegetica Anglica 1. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1977.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight. 1965. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Wager, Lewis. The Life and Repentance of Mary Magdalene. Reformation Biblical Drama in England. Ed. Paul Whitfield White. New York: Garland, 1992.

Waldo, T. R., and T. W. Herbert. “Musical Terms in The Taming of the Shrew: Evidence of Single Authorship.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10 (1959): 185-99.

Ward, John M. “Sprightly and Cheerful Musick: Notes on the Cittern, Gittern, and Guitar in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England.” Lute Society Journal 21 (1979-81): passim.

Wayne, Valerie. “Refashioning the Shrew.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 159-87.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. 3d ed. London: Benn, 1993.

West, Michael. “The Folk Background of Petruchio's Wooing Dance: Male Supremacy in The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974): 65-73.

Willbern, David. “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus.English Literary Renaissance 8 (1978): 159-82.

Williams, Gordon. A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. 3 vols. London: Athlone, 1994.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Brooks, Dennis S. “‘To show scorn her own image’: The Varieties of Education in The Taming of the Shrew.Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 48, No. 1 (1994): 7-32.

Argues that the various themes, anomalies, and plots in The Taming of the Shrew are united by the play's concern with the Renaissance debate regarding education. Brooks notes that to Renaissance theorists education was a complicated socialization process.

Candido, Joseph. “The Starving of the Shrew.” Colby Quarterly 26, No. 2 (June 1990): 96-111.

Examines the play's focus on eating and drinking, observing that allusions to the food and drink of Shakespeare's England emphasize the importance of the Induction and the character of Christopher Sly, and inform the play's treatment of such issues as marriage.

Deer, Harriet A. “Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew.” In The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 63-78. New York: Insight Books, 1991.

Considers the relationship between theatrical conventions and social values explored in The Taming of the Shrew, suggesting that just as the Renaissance actor/playwright grappled with transforming popular plots and characters into new dramas with broader meanings, so did the marginalized men and women in society struggle to adapt harmful and abusive Renaissance social conventions and marriage customs into new types of relationships.

Fineman, Joel. “The Turn of the Shrew.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 138-59. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Maintains that The Taming of the Shrew supports patriarchal orthodoxy, despite the play's association with the subversive language of women and the subversive power of theatricality.

Korda, Natasha. “Household Kates: Domesticating Commodities in The Taming of the Shrew.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 109-31.

Highlights the ways in which The Taming of the Shrew's taming strategies differ from those of traditional shrew-taming stories, and examines the economic terminology Shakespeare utilized in crafting the play's taming tactics.

Mikesell, Margaret Lael. “‘Love Wrought These Miracles’: Marriage and Genre in The Taming of the Shrew.Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 141-67.

Compares the main plot and subplot of The Taming of the Shrew with the plots of their sources (oral folk tales and ballads concerned with shrew taming, and an English translation of an Italian relative of New Comedy) in order to show that Shakespeare's alterations aligned his drama with the views on marriage found in contemporary Protestant conduct books.

Moisan, Thomas. ‘“What's that to you?” or, Facing Facts: Anti-Paternalist Chords and Social Discords in The Taming of the Shrew.Renaissance Drama 26 (1995): 105-29.

Studies the way in which the play's analysis of the proper relationship between sons-in-law and fathers-in-law, combined with the play's treatment of the friction between generations, complicates our understanding of the main action and its more prominent themes.

Morris, Brian. Introduction to The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, edited by Brian Morris, pp. 1-149. London: Methuen, 1981.

Offers a comprehensive overview of the play, discussing the following: the textual history, composition date, the authorship issues and sources, and the plot, themes, and characters.

Newman, Karen. “Renaissance Family Politics and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.English Literary Renaissance 16, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 86-100.

Describes the relationship between the play's handling of domestic relations and contemporary Elizabethan societal anxiety regarding gender and power.

Perret, Marion D. “Of Sex and the Shrew.” Ariel 13, No. 1 (January 1982): 3-20.

Compares the treatment of sexuality in the Induction with its treatment in the rest of the play, noting that Shakespeare used the Induction to be bawdy, and the rest of the play to explore the social, rather than physical, aspects of martial union.

Slights, Camille Wells. “The Raw and the Cooked in The Taming of the Shrew.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 88, No. 2 (April 1989): 168-89.

Asserts that the conflict in the play is not between men and women, but between civilized and uncivilized behavior.


The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 55)


The Taming of the Shrew Literary Criticism (Vol. 77)