Analysis of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespeare comedy, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592.  Though this farce has always been a popular one, it isn’t without controversy.  The traditionalist attitude towards women that is depicted, especially in Katherina’s closing speech–about a wife’s required obedience to her husband, was problematical even back in Elizabethan times.  For this reason, modern productions try to soften the perceived sexism in various ways: for example, at the end of the Franco Zeffirelli film version, Katherina (played by Elizabeth Taylor) walks out on Petruchio (Richard Burton) without his permission; and in the 1929 film version with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Petruchio), Katherina (played by Mary Pickford) gives Bianca an ironic wink during the closing speech.  There is always an indication that Katherina’s feisty spirit hasn’t been, and never will be, broken by any man.

I will argue, however, that there is absolutely no need to alter the ending for feminism’s sake.  What must be remembered is that the Petruchio and Katherina story is just the play-within-the-play, a farce staged for Christopher Sly, the main character of the Induction.  Though all too often cut out of productions, this Induction is, in spite of its brevity, the real story of the play.

Here are some quotes:

“I am as peremptory as she proud-minded,/And where two raging fires meet together,/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.” –Petruchio, Act II, scene i, lines 130-132

“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-gorg’d,/For then she never looks upon her lure.” –Petruchio, Act IV, scene i, lines 172-176

“What, did he marry me to famish me?”  –Katherina, Act IV, scene iii, line 3

“FIe, fie!  unknit that threatening unkind brow,/And dart not scornful glances from those eyes/To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor./It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,/Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds./And in no sense is meet or amiable./A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled–/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;/And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty/Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it./Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,/And for thy maintenance commits his body/To painful labour both by sea and land,/To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,/Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;/And craves no other tribute at thy hands/But love, fair looks, and true obedience–/Too little payment for so great a debt./Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/Even such a woman oweth to her husband;/And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will,/What is she but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?/I am asham’d that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace;/Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,/When they are bound to serve, love, and obey./Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,/But that our soft conditions and our hearts/Should well agree with our external parts?/Come, come, you froward and unable worms!/My mind hath been as big as one of yours,/My heart as great, my reason haply more,/To bandy word for word and frown for frown;/But now I see our lances are but straws,/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,/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.”  –Katherina, Act V, scene 2, lines 136-179

“Why, there’s a wench!  Come on, and kiss me, Kate.”  –Petruchio, Act V, scene 2, line 180

The Induction is the key to understanding this play, for it is the real story, not the Petruchio and Katherina one.  The Induction’s brevity should not distract us from its centrality.  The play staged before Christopher Sly should be regarded as no more important than the plays-within-plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet.  The length of the Petruchio and Katherina farce, admittedly covering the vast majority of The Taming of the Shrew, nonetheless shouldn’t deflect us from the conclusion that it’s of secondary importance to the Christopher Sly story.

It is unfortunate that the Induction is so often trivialized as a mere appendage, or framing device, that can easily be discarded from productions as superfluous.  It is key to understanding the play’s themes of deception, illusion, and denial of reality.

The shrew of the Petruchio story may be Katherina, but Christopher Sly is the shrew of the Induction.  We must remember that, in Shakespeare’s day, a shrew could be a nasty person of either sex, not just a woman, as ‘shrew’ is understood today.  Sly, a drunken oaf who refuses to pay for the ale he’s drunk at an alehouse in England, is just the kind of charmless fellow in need of a good taming.  In fact, he will be so well tamed that he’ll nod off during the performance of the play.

A lord and his men come to the alehouse after a hunt, and they see the drunken slob sleeping at a table.  As contemptuous of Sly as the annoyed hostess is, the lord decides to play a trick on him.  Sly is carried to a bedchamber in the lord’s house, carefully so as not to wake him.  When he wakes in bed, he’s been changed into the clothes of a lord, and a boy is dressed like a woman, pretending to be the lord’s obedient wife (!).  This tricking of Sly, that he’s a lord, should clearly indicate what we are to think of the ‘lord’ of any house, and of his ‘obedient’ wife: it’s all an act.

Sly is told that all of the life he remembers, that of a tinker, is a mere dream he’s had while being in a coma for fifteen years.  His life as a lord, into which he has woken, and surprisingly so, is his ‘real’ life.  His real life has been an illusion, apparently.

Next, he is to watch ‘a pleasant comedy’, since his would-be doctors say such entertainment would be conducive to the restoration of his health.  The play, that of the Petruchio and Katherina story, is so long that we, the audience, forget about the main story, the Induction, and are deceived into thinking that this mere play-within-a-play is the real story.  This switching of real and illusory events (i.e., Induction and play-within-a-play) parallels the trick played on Sly, whose sense of reality and illusion are also reversed (i.e., his comatose dream-life as a tinker versus his supposedly actual life as a lord).

We must always remember how sensitive the Bard was to the illusory nature of theatre, a notion he exploited for artistic effect in several of his plays.  The Taming of the Shrew is no exception to this: the play-within-a-play is to be understood as mere theatrical illusion, while the Christopher Sly story is the real one.

Another thing about Shakespeare: with his deep, penetrating insight into human nature, one of the main reasons his plays have endured for so many years, it is inconceivable that he could have had so simple-minded a view of humanity as to think that men are the natural rulers of women, however dominant such a bigoted view may have been in Elizabethan times.  The Taming of the Shrew, far from being a sexist play, very subtly satirizes male chauvinism, particularly in the Induction.

The play staged before Sly, being mere theatrical illusion, needn’t–and mustn’t–be taken seriously.  It’s just a farce, and its attitude towards women is accordingly absurd.  The themes of deception and denial of reality within the Petruchio and Katherina story only reinforce the absurd illogic of sexist thinking.

When Lucentio sees and falls in love with Katherina’s pretty younger sister Bianca, he cannot woo her, for their father Baptista insists on finding a husband for shrewish Katherina first.  Lucentio thus disguises himself as a teacher of Latin (‘Cambio’), while his servant Tranio pretends to be Lucentio.  Lucentio and Tranio even exchange clothes in the street, this seeming role reversal astonishing Biondello, Lucentio’s other servant.  Servant is master: this can be seen as a subtle indication of the true husband and wife relationship.

Similar to Lucentio’s deception, another suitor to Bianca, Hortensio, disguises himself as a music teacher, ‘Licio’.  When Baptista agrees to have ‘Lucentio’ marry Bianca (after Petruchio agrees to marry her nasty sister), a pedant from Mantua, deceived by ‘Lucentio’ into believing Mantuans’ presence in Padua is illegal (on pain of death), agrees to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father, and pretend to agree to pay the dowry for Bianca’s marriage.  All acting and pretending, just like the chest-thumping, ‘dominant’ husband of traditional marriage.

Speaking of dominant husbands, Petruchio quickly shows himself to be as much of a shrew as Katherina (see quote one).  He beats his servants, shouts at them abusively, and behaves like a madman.  He denies reality throughout the story, pretending that his bride’s real name is Kate, that she’s sweet and gentle, and that she wants to marry him as much as he does her (she of course doesn’t want to marry him at all).

More denial of reality comes after their marriage.  When Kate is in his house in Verona, he raves wildly at his servants that his dinner is badly cooked (it’s fine) and her bed is unfit for her to sleep on (it’s also fine).  Later, he rejects a beautiful, perfectly good dress Kate would have worn to Bianca’s wedding, claiming the tailor got the measurements wrong (the tailor hadn’t, and insisted he had the correct measurements from Petruchio, while Petruchio’s servant Grumio denies it, knowing full well that no mistake was made).

Petruchio pretends the time is seven o’clock, when it is actually about two; he insists that she agree with his deliberate inaccuracy (Act IV, scene iii).  On the way to Padua to attend Bianca’s wedding (Act IV, scene v), Petruchio pretends the sun shining in the sky is actually the moon, and that an old man (the real Vincentio) is a pretty young woman, again demanding that Kate go along with his bizarre distortion of reality.

All of these caricatures of reality symbolize the phoniness of male dominance of women, a phoniness that is most clearly shown in the final scene, when Bianca and a widow prove themselves to be even more shrewish towards Lucentio and Hortensio than Kate has ever been.  When Kate gives the final speech about obedience to husbands, we should clearly see that this is the ultimate denial of reality: wives are, always have been, and always will be, thoroughly indomitable.  Shakespeare knew–he just pretended he didn’t.

13 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

      1. Actually, question for you. I just spoke with my husband, and he was really reluctant to believe your point of view. He said you didn’t put forth enough evidence towards Kate’s speech at the end; he still believes it is an act of submission. What evidence is there that it is not?

  1. Well, that’s the point: it is an ACT of submission. What she says is all, of course, just straightforward talk of obedience to husbands. But the speech must be seen in light of all the denial of reality shown throughout the rest of the play. With her, it is also denial of reality. The speech shouldn’t be read in isolation from the rest of the play; that would take it out of context. And again, it is the Induction that must be paid more attention to.

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