Few of Shakespeare’s plays elicit such a polarizing initial response as The Taming of the Shrew: indeed, the issues generally begin right there in the title. A “shrewish” – or shrill and unmanageable – woman is beset by men who demand she be “tamed” to allow access to her more conventionally behaved younger sister. It is tempting to dismiss the play as a product of its time, but it is short-sighted to suggest that it is merely a misogynistic treatise on the domination of one sex over another.
The clash of “tamer” and “shrew” is no Beatrice-and-Benedick-esque “war of wits,” although Kate and Petruchio do hold their own in terms of wit. Both have lived under the yoke of others – Petruchio with his recently deceased father and Kate suffering a resigned abandonment of any hope for conformity – which sets them apart In Padua.
Kate’s father and sister have given up on her; potential wooers favour her dull but pretty sister over the infinitely more interesting woman that she is; and she is saddled with the burden of knowing that unless she becomes someone she is not, her sister will be condemned to a loveless life too. Small wonder she is seen as “Kate the curst.”
Petruchio enters the game initially seeking a wealthy match. The resistance Kate shows, however, and the energy she embodies quickly eclipse his monetary motivation. Kate intrigues Petruchio, and he her, as he shows a greater interest in her than perhaps any wooer before. Kate’s distress at thinking she has been stood up at the altar is palpable and unaffected: despite the tribulations she suffers in the “taming,” there’s more going on for Kate than an enforced marriage.
Structurally, the play is riddled with clues to how we should interpret it. The Induction scene featuring Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker, renders the entire Padua setting a metafiction, where the characters
perform not only for our audience but for Sly’s retinue. The ridiculous machinations of Hortensio, Lucentio, Tranio and Gremio, through disguises, bogus pedagogy and switched identities, push the Shrew firmly into the world of farce, with Kate and Petruchio as the most truthful figures left standing. When Vincentio arrives to find the Pedant has impersonated him, which leaves Lucentio, Tranio and Bianca scrambling for explanations, Kate and Petruchio look on, concerned but not implicated, their honesty unimpeachable.
As farce, Kate’s “taming” (and arguably her countertaming of Petruchio) is elevated past the point of concern for an abused woman’s well-being and into the realm of a sadomasochistic game where everyone involved is well apprised of the safe words. Kate’s acquiescence to Petruchio is not at the expense of her self-worth; to interpret her famous final speech as submission from a woman now the shadow of her former feisty self is to ignore the fact that, more than almost any other couple in the canon, Kate and Petruchio are on the same wavelength.
The farce never obscures the very real electricity that crackles between them throughout the play. Much is made of the fact that none of Bianca’s suitors are interested in Katherina, but we shouldn’t forget that she doesn’t give a single one of them – not even the gallant young Lucentio – a second glance. No one challenges Kate intellectually until she meets Petruchio, and vice versa. Petruchio could join the Bianca sweepstakes himself, or seek out the far less complicated Widow that Gremio marries, but there is no question in his mind after his first encounter with Kate.
The Taming of the Shrew is a challenging play, filled with complexities and characters who push one another incessantly. It is also a rollicking comedy about the institution of marriage and the differences between couples who subscribe to it. To take it as a simpleminded attack on the rights of women is to read only its surface, and miss the richness and complexity that lie within.
Toby Malone, PhD, is a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer in the Department of Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo.
Production support for The Taming of the Shrew is generously provided by Larry Enkin & family in memory of Sharon Enkin, and by Martie & Bob Sachs.