Nearly all critical commentary on The Taming of the Shrew deals to some extent with the play's treatment of gender roles: that is, what it has to say about socially accepted definitions of appropriate male and female behavior. On the surface, the play appears to confirm a very traditional view that men should dominate women and that women should submit to male authority. All of the characters except Katherina agree throughout the play that her initial rebellious, self-assertive, "shrewish" behavior is not acceptable. In the end, Kate has apparently come round to this position as well, giving a long speech proclaiming the rightness of male dominance and female submissiveness.
Until fairly recently, few people challenged this view of the play. In fact, the play knew centuries of popularity with audiences who found Petruchio's "taming" of Katherina both inoffensive and amusing. In the late nineteenth century, however, commentators began to express uneasiness with the way Katherina is treated, and directors began to experiment with various "ironic" readings of the plays. In the twentieth century, debate over the play's attitude toward gender roles has produced a wide variety of interpretations.
The play's treatment of gender goes well beyond its basic plot. Unlike most playwrights who wrote plays about "shrews" in the early modern period, Shakespeare suggests possible motivations for Katherina's shrewishness: her father clearly favors her sister, Bianca; the prospective suitors are shallow and rude; father and suitors alike tend to treat marriage as a purely commercial transaction. Katherina's relationship with Petruchio is complex. Their early verbal exchanges suggest a certain equality of intelligence. Although the text of the play leaves room for a wide variety of theatrical interpretations of the relationship, the traditional and most common approach emphasizes a strong sexual attraction between Katherina and Petruchio as well as a growing comradeship. Moreover, although Petruchio seeks to control Katherina, he appears to admire and value her spirit.
The relationship between the play's main plot, subplot, and Induction also affects its depictions of gender roles. A struggle for power between men and women is introduced as an issue from the beginning of the play when, in the Induction, a woman—the Hostess—ejects a drunken Christopher Sly from the tavern. In the course of the Lord's practical joke, one of his young male attendants dresses like a woman and pretends to be Sly's noble, soft-spoken, and obedient wife. The practical joke itself can be seen as a parallel to Petruchio's efforts to reform Katherina, as both involve attempts to transform one sort of character into another. For some critics, the Lord's inability to effect a convincing change in Sly's character contrasts with Petruchio's "successful" transformation of Katherina in the main plot. For others, however, the obvious artificiality of both Sly's transformation into a nobleman and the page's transformation into a woman are meant to indicate that Katherina's transformation is equally artificial.
Critics' examinations of these various aspects of the play have led to no consensus as to the play's attitude toward gender roles. A number of critics continue to maintain that the play ultimately accepts and reinforces male dominance of women. Many of these critics also argue, however, that while accepting male dominance the play emphasizes the need for mutual affection, cooperation, and partnership in marriage. Another view maintains that Katherina's final speech should be read ironically, with the implication that she will pretend to defer to Petruchio in public while ruling the household in private. Yet other commentators argue that the play ultimately undermines male dominance of women by showing this dominance to be artificial and illogical. Directors of modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew have also offered a wide variety of interpretations of this issue.
Appearance vs. Reality
Confusion between appearance and reality is a principal source of humor in The Taming of the Shrew. In the Introduction, Sly is misled by carefully orchestrated appearances into believing that he is really a wealthy nobleman rather than a poor tinker. The subplot likewise depends on the confusion of appearance and reality as various characters practice elaborate deceptions. Hortensio pretends to be the music teacher Litio. Lucentio poses as the schoolmaster Cambio. He and Bianca use Latin lessons as a cover for their courtship, and they deceive her father by eloping on the eve of her planned betrothal to another man. Lucentio's servant, Tranio, pretends to be his master and persuades an elderly scholar to pose as his master's father.
In the main plot, the difficulty of distinguishing between appearance and reality is emphasized in various...
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