I read this play in college when I was still half asleep in the Woman’s Movement. When I came to it last week, I had a vague idea about the usual characterization of the plot: a bitchy woman is tamed into docility by a husband who asserts his God-given authority over her. I decided to read it this time with a conviction that Shakespeare doesn’t write that simplistically and that he often subverts the world view of his time.
So here’s this woman, Kate, who’s a scold. She’s got a younger sister, Bianca, who is an insufferable and superficial flirt, and an ineffectual father. There’s no mention of what happened to the mother. Whatever the particulars of the family, I assume that Kate’s shrewishness is her response to it. She isn’t happy –actually I think she’s frightened–and her temper keeps people from getting in her way. Everyone is scared of her.
The first thing I noticed about Petruchio, the fellow who is going to “tame” her, is that he’s not afraid of her. He’s not fazed by her anger. I deduce from this that he’s not afraid if his own anger either. He recognizes that Kate is a kindred spirit and he’s immediately interested. Because she’s a kindred spirit he knows what she might respond to. I speculate that the course he embarks on is a strategy that someone once used with him.
I think this is subtle. A man who is planning to dominate a woman is, underneath all the bluster, frightened of her and himself. Since Petruchio is not frightened, something deeper is going on. In their first encounter, Kate is intrigued though she tries not to be. He is at ease. He flirts. He pushes his limits, and sets his limits.
P- Who knows where a wasp does wear his sting? In his tail.
K -In his tongue.
P -Whose tongue?
K-Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
P -What, with my tongue in your tail?
She slaps him.
P- I swear I’ll cuff you if you strike me again.
Petruchio makes a quick business arrangement with Kate’s father –all that dowry crap makes me want to gag but this is 500 years ago after all. Contrast this with the bidding war that goes between the several suitors of Bianca. In the end I felt that Petruchio truly loves Kate and wants to marry her and the business arrangement hardly matters to him.
The wedding day arrives (III, ii) and Petruchio is late, causing Kate some humiliation and anxiety.
. . .a mad-brain rudesby, full of spleen,
Who wooed in haste and means to wed at leisure.
. . .a frantic fool
Hiding his bitter jests in blunt behavior.
Right there: “. . .full of spleen, hiding his bitter jests in blunt behavior.” Kate could be talking about herself.
Petruchio finally shows up dressed in outlandish clothes. Kate is further upset, her father is perturbed, and a friend, Tranio, offers the loan of some clothes more appropriate to a wedding.
Petruchio says, “To me she’s married, not unto my clothes.”
Tranio nods, “He hath some meaning in his mad attire.”
I think the meaning is that Petruchio understands the difference between appearance and something deep inside another human being. He understands the fear underneath Kate’s bad temper. After the wedding he begins a series of games to disarm her. He hyperbolizes her behavior by out-shrewing her and by making unreasonable demands. He is contrary, insisting that she say the moon is out when it’s the sun that’s out. Some of the “games” involve sleep and food deprivation and what seem like crazy-making brain washing techniques. “He kills her in her own humor.” (IV,i)
The “taming” is farce. Petruchio doesn’t need to dominate Kate just because it might be his right in Elizabethan England. Kate doesn’t appear to be a masochist. She’s not afraid of Petruchio and she doesn’t have to stay with him, get along with him or change at all. But he treats her differently than anyone ever has and she appears to be thinking about that. It reminds me of the fights between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. Annie Sullivan and Petruchio recognize Helen and Kate as persons. They respect them even as they wait for the respect to be acknowledged and returned.
There is a small lovely moment in the streets of Padua when Kate wants to do something and they have this exchange:
P-First kiss me, Kate, and we will.
K- What in the middle of the street.
P- What, art thou ashamed of me?
K-No sir, God forbid, but ashamed to kiss.
P-Why, then let’s home again . . .
K- Nay I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee, love, stay.
P-Is this not well? Come, my sweet Kate.
Better once than never, for never’s too late.
This little scene worked for me. I found it as compelling as I did the scene when Kate and Petruchio first meet and have that racy exchange about tongues and tails. The play is almost finished and my thesis seemingly is blown all to hell by Kate’s speech which Cole Porter turned into a song in Kiss Me, Kate:
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war when they should sue for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love and obey. (V,ii)
On the other hand, the above could also be said of men because he who rules can also be ruled. I think Petruchio knows this. If The Taming of the Shrew is about solving anything by women’s (even consensual) subservience then this is a really stupid play in any historical age.
I don’t care for words like rule and obedience, but I think the idea here is that in love, there is a mutual surrender. I could argue that Petruchio has already surrendered to Kate. I think he is smitten with Kate and he wants a relationship of equals and not one where each is hiding bitter jests in blunt behavior.
Here are some great lines:
*I’ll not budge an inch. (Ind, i)
*No profit grows where is no pleasure taken.
In brief sir, study what you most affect. (I,i)
*Kiss me, Kate. (II,i V,i V,ii)
*When will he be here?
When he stands where I am and sees you there. (III, ii)
*The oats have eaten the horses. (III, iii)
*Thereby hangs a tale. (IV, i)
*Where is the life that late I led? (IV, i)
*My cake is dough. (V, i)
*He that is giddy thinks the world turns round. (V, ii)