The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew is still performed frequently, and going back to include silent movies, this play has been translated into more than a dozen film versions. The Taming of the Shrew shows significant advances over Shakespeare's first play, The Comedy of Errors, not just in comedic sophistication, but also in the psychological depths Shakespeare breathes into the two leading characters, Petruchio and Katharina. Whereas The Comedy of Errors is largely a "troupe play," without "juicy" roles that major stars are eager to take on, Taming of the Shrew offers two of the most savory and interesting roles in all of Shakespeare's comedies. The 1967 Franco Zeffirelli film production of Shrew features such mega-stars as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. If you are viewing the play on video in addition to reading the text, I heartily recommend this version.

The Shrew vs. A Shrew
Shakespeare wrote The Taming of the Shrew probably sometime around 1592, definitely before 1594, the year in which the strikingly similar but also appreciably different play, The Taming of a Shrew, was published. At one time it was believed that A Shrew was the source for Shakespeare's play, but compelling evidence suggests that A Shrew was not just an earlier edition of Shakespeare's play, as Bevington suggests, but rather an inferior version of The Shrew constructed from the recollections of two particular actors who had played roles in Shakespeare's original version of the play, those of Sly and Grumio (Boyce 624).

One curious feature of The Taming of the Shrew, our text, is that the opening "frame" for the play, the "induction's" story of a lord playing a prank on the tinker Christopher Sly by making him think he is a wealthy lord himself, is not maintained past the closing few lines of Act 1, Scene 1. It seems uncharacteristically awkward and problematic that Shakespeare would open the play with this framing device and then let it fall away completely, without at least some more substantial return to the Sly-as-lord frame, especially at the end of the "play proper," the stories of Petruchio and Katharina, and Bianca and her suitors, which are supposed to be presented by the "players" we see in the first Induction scene. Given Shakespeare's exceptional artistic sensibilities from the beginning of his career, it is odd that the play is "unfinished" in this respect, in the same way that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is unfinished because not all of the pilgrims tell their tales and we never learn who wins the tale-telling contest established in that work's "General Prologue."

What is most interesting about these two differing versions of the play, The Taming of the Shrew and The Taming of a Shrew, is that in the apparently unauthorized A Shrew (known as a "Bad Quarto" version), the framing device of the prank played on the drunken tinker, Sly, is indeed maintained throughout the play with four "interlude" scenes such as that given in 1.1.249-54 and also an "epilogue" in which the outer frame achieves satisfying closure. Thus it seems that our 1623 "First Folio" text of The Taming of the Shrew may be an incomplete version of Shakespeare's play as it was performed in his day. Charles Boyce speculates that the 1623 text may have been taken from the best available text at the time, but one that might have been used for a specific production run that cut the "Sly" sequences because of a temporary shortage of actors (624). Some productions of The Taming of the Shrew drop the Induction scenes entirely; on the other hand, some printed editions of Shakespeare's play append the "interlude" scenes and the epilogue from A Shrew, even though we know virtually for certain that these additions are not an accurate rendering of Shakespeare's own words.

Illusion vs. reality
As happens frequently in Shakespeare, we have a "play within the play" since the "play proper," the two love plots centering on Katharina and Bianca respectively, is supposed to be performed for the benefit of Christopher Sly. Any time we see a performance of a play within a play we are self-consciously reminded that the play we are watching is itself imaginary, an illusion presented as reality that we must buy into if we are to enjoy the play. In such self-conscious drama, an actual audience are reminded that they are watching a play themselves, and the actual audience see themselves mirrored onstage by another audience (of actors) watching another play. There's tremendous irony here, as the writer reminds us that what we, too, are watching or reading is actually a fiction or illusion, a play.

This theme of players playing gets a good deal of attention throughout The Taming of the Shrew. With or without the closing frame contained in The Taming of a Shrew, the opening frame in the two Induction scenes underscores the theme of illusion that runs all throughout the "play proper." As you read, be on the lookout for different sorts of "players" or "actors" playing fictitious roles and "performing" for different "audiences." The most obvious instances are the identities of the tutors that Lucentio and Hortensio assume so that they can woo Bianca after her father has decreed that no one may court her until Katharina is married off first. And of course Lucentio's assuming the part of the language tutor necessitates that his servant Tranio assume the role of Lucentio, and later the Pedant (or merchant) from Mantua is enlisted to play the role of Lucentio's father, Vincentio.

While the plot and the humor in the earlier Comedy of Errors depend very much on accidentally mistaken identity, the mistaken identities in The Taming of the Shrew are all produced by the characters' conscious intentions of deceiving others. Petruchio doesn't assume an entirely different identity in his "taming" of the shrew, Kate, but he does indeed "act," presenting an illusion by "playing a role" with Katharina in their very first meeting, at their wedding, and especially when they arrive at his home as newlyweds. He acts the role seemingly of a fool or madman during their wedding ceremony, and then he pretends to be so loving that he will not permit her to eat any food not prepared to absolute perfection. He pretends to be impossibly exacting and tyrannical with his servants and the tradesmen hired to make her clothes; he forces Katharina to accept the illusion that the sun is the moon, or that an old man is a young damsel. His playing a role is the most essential ingredient in his method of "taming" the curst and shrewish hellion Katharina so that she becomes a quiet, submissive, "proper" wife in the end. Again, as you read, keep on sharp lookout for places where characters assume roles and present illusions to their different "audiences."

Psychological complexity
Shakespeare's keen understanding of human psychology is evident in his portrayal of Petruchio's successful manipulation of Katharina. From their very first meeting, Petruchio seems to know just how to keep the willful, strong-minded spitfire Katharina off balance and on the defensive, and in the end he seems to wear down her defenses so effectually that she is "tamed" just as a wild horse is made manageable and suitable for riding by a skilled horse-breaker. He seems to understand her from the get-go, and he knows exactly how to push her buttons so that she goes from being sharply (if perhaps flirtatiously) resistant to him in their initial encounter, to pleading with him to be reasonable in Act 4, Scene 1, to accepting that it's night even at noon if he says it is in Act 5, Scene 1, and finally, without his prompting, to lecturing other women on the proper role of the wife being to serve her husband even as a footstool if he desires it (5.2.180-83). In many respects Petruchio's method is to behave towards Katharina just as she has before behaved towards others: with willful arrogance, short temper, and seeming irrationality. By holding up of mirror of her own behavior for her to see, so to speakas Curtis notes, "he is more shrew than she" (4.1.76)Petruchio gets her to see how ridiculous and unpleasant her own behavior used to be.

But what is most interesting in the vein of illusion vs. reality, and what may reveal Shakespeare's genius in understanding and portraying the human psyche most effectively of all is his portrayal of Katharina. Many readers of this play have considered it as not merely demeaning to women (which, in its apparent doctrine that women should be utterly subservient to men as Katharina suggests in 5.2.141-83, it clearly is, from our modern perspective), but as being even worse for recommending abusive treatment of womeni.e., through Petruchio's abusing Katharina until she simply gives in and becomes abjectly servile, completely "beaten down" by Petruchio's stronger will. If we read the play carefully, however, we may see that Katharina has not been metaphorically bludgeoned into submission any more than she has been physically beaten, but has, rather, experienced significant psychological growth and learned truly to see "the ugliness in her shrewish behaviour" (Boyce 627). If Katharina recognizes her own behavior in the petulance and irrationality of her husband, then perhaps her change in demeanor is more of her own volition than just her caving in to the indomitable Petruchio.

The play supports even more interesting psychological possibilities as well. Some productions of The Taming of the Shrew in recent years go so far as to portray Katharina as not really submitting to Petruchio at all, portraying her seemingly submissive demeanor in Acts 4 and 5 as purely an illusion, with heavy irony, where her speeches are read with great sarcasmwhere her attitude is peevish ("like, yeah, whatever, if you want the moon to be the sun, then fine, it's the freakin' sun, okay? Can we, like, go now?"). This feminist interpretation has Petruchio as completely ineffectual, where his "dominance" in the end is presented as illusory and purely comical, where his tone of voice indicates more bluster and shrill insecurity than real dominance and confidence, where he seems at times almost surprised when Katharina "obeys" him.

More conservative critics such as Harold Bloom see the relationship as being an instance of "true love"love at first sight, actuallyand Bloom, too, suggests that it is really Katharina who controls Petruchio: Bloom writes that "Kate firmly rules while endlessly protesting her obedience to the delighted Petruchio" (32). Regarding the climactic speech of the play, Katharina's chiding of the disobedient Bianca and the Widow in Act 5, Scene 2, Bloom says, "It requires a very good actress to deliver this set piece properly, and a better director than we tend to have now, if the actress is to be given her full chance, for she is advising women how to rule absolutely, while feigning obedience" (33). Bloom's reading of the play suggests that the ultimate illusion in The Taming of the Shrew is that of Petruchio's dominance over Katharina, for the reality may be that Katharina is the "absolute ruler." How Katharina might in fact have the upper hand is, I hope, something we will get our teeth into in this week's discussion.

Perhaps the most practically important question in the play, however, is whether or not Petruchio and Katharina really do love each other. In a proper comedy, they should of course be in love by the play's end. If they are indeed in love, as readers tend commonly to accept, this play may be a classic instance of the "romantic comedy" genre we are most familiar with today through such movies as Overboard (with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) or You've Got Mail (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), just to name a couple. . . . Our hero and heroine begin the play fiercely at odds, but before the credits roll we have to believe they are going to live together happily ever after. For this standard comedy ending to apply in The Taming of the Shrew, some moderate course between the extremes of Petruchio as abusive "woman-breaker" and Katharina as the "yeah-right, whatever" dominator of a primarily "wimpy" Petruchio are probably essential. It is important to note that these extremes, however, can indeed be supported by the text, under the right director in each case. This is part of the brilliance and the enduring power of Shakespeare's plays: they can be and are often interpreted in radically different and even opposing ways.

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Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Press, 1990.

The passages below are by no means the only ones of especial importance in the play. They are but a selected few of many that help convey the play's central themes, motifs, or other key features. I encourage you to consider these passages for your contributions in discussion, certainly, but not exclusively these and these alone, by any means.

Reading points: a few matters to consider as you read:

purple bullet Psychological complexity and depth in characterization; consider especially how Katharina and Petruchio are interesting and challenging roles for actors.

purple bullet Illusion vs. reality: in particular, note how many different characters become "actors" and play assumed roles in front of different "audiences."

purple bullet Thematic parallels between the induction scenes and the "play proper."

purple bullet Parallels or intersections of theme or meaning between the two primary plots (centering on Katharina and Bianca respectively): consider how these two plots inform or "comment upon" one another.
purple bullet Shakespeare's humor: consider different comedic techniques or different types of humor.

purple bullet Petruchio's "taming" method: Shakespeare's apparent commentary upon gender.

purple bullet Open to interpretation: consider ways this seemingly patently sexist play may be interpreted from other, less sexist perspectives. Look for gender-centered passages that may be read in entirely different tones.

purple bullet The evolving relationship between Katharina and Petruchio: from possible initial attraction to love?  Do they end up really in love?  Is this play a legitimate "romantic comedy"?

purple bullet The play's continuing popularity: why does this play have such staying power?

purple bullet The play's continuing relevance: any significant applicability to modern readers?

Discussion questions:

Note different instances where characters become "actors" and perform for different "audiences" within the play.

Identify parallels or intersections in meaning between the two plots, the one centering on Petruchio and Katharina and that centering on Bianca and her suitors: how does what happens in one plot inform or illuminate what happens in the other?

Explore Petruchio's tactics of taming Katharina: what is his method precisely, at different points of the play, and how or why is it so successful? If you think he does not succeed really in taming Katharina, explain how this is so.

Point out speeches or passages that can be interpreted in two or more radically different ways: explain the different interpretations, and in particular, explain how actors might read these lines to suggest the different meanings (discuss tone of voice, gesture, etc.). Most especially, look for passages that a hard-core feminist director might interpret differently from more traditional readings of the play.

Discuss the play's continuing popularity. Particularly if you believe the play is patently sexist in its portrayal of men's and women's roles in society or within relationships, how can we account for its being so widely read and performed in an era where such overt sexism isn't tolerated? Explain.

Discuss the continuing relevance of this play in any respect, ranging from topics treated briefly in specific passages to overriding themes or larger statements about society or humanity.

Discuss psychological depths in Petruchio and Katharina: what makes them seem so "rounded" or fully developed, more "real"?

Discuss passages suggesting that Katharina and Petruchio either are or are not truly in love.

Critical response options below (just one, not all three) (submit via email before our F2F meeting):

Quoting from the text four times or more to substantiate your claims, explain how the Induction is vitally important in setting up the body of the "play proper." How does the Induction establish themes or motifs that are central to the rest of the play? Explain.

b): Watch any film version of The Taming of the Shrew and discuss the significance of any departures the film version makes from Shakespeare's text: avoid simply stating what these differences are; explain how they effect a particular interpretation of the play or how they affect the "meaning" of the play in substantial ways.

c): Open assignment on Act 5: including at least three quotations to support your claims, examine anything from the last act that strikes you as interesting or significant in any way.