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.”