Commentary

The Taming of the Shrew is sometimes seen as an account of the tyranny of man over woman, but this is a misinterpretation stemming from our distance from the assumption of Shakespeare's day. In Elizabethan England it was almost universally agreed that it was a God-given right, confirmed in the Bible, for a husband to dominate his wife in all things, just like a king could dictate to a citizen or a human being could control an animal. Kate's famous speech in 5.2.137-180 expresses this belief quite plainly. However, it is a mistake to think that the story of Kate and Petruchio is intended to make this point; rather, it takes the point for granted. Instead, the play's main plot concerns the development of character and of love in a particular sort of personality. 

Shakespeare's version of the 'battle of the sexes' is a striking advance on its predecessors. In treatments of this classic theme both before and since Shakespeare, a woman is commonly beaten into submission or is tormented in some more sophisticated manner. The violence in The Shrew—except for conventional beatings of servants, a staple of theatrical humor dating back to Roman drama—is limited to Kate's own assaults on Bianca and Petruchio, which demonstrate her shrewishness. Petruchio 'tames' Kate by means of a clever strategy that startlingly resembles modern behavior-modification therapy. 

In fact, the psychology of The Taming of the Shrew is highly evolved, evidence that, even early in his career, Shakespeare had the capacity to delineate personalities. Acts 1-3 contain a convincingly familiar portrait of a highly defensive young woman who shields herself from criticism by attacking others first, and she is strong enough to make her father and sister regret any effort to reform her. The portrayal of the deceptively demure Bianca, who slyly taunts her sister in 2.1 and who displays her own willfulness when she is alone with her suitors in 3.1, suggests that Kate has been compared to her younger sister too often for her temper to tolerate. Petruchio understands this and, although he is motivated to marry for mercenary reasons, he values Kate's high spirits. Thus he can maneuver her into abandoning her shrewishness, and his technique, although comically overdrawn, is psychologically sophisticated. 

Petruchio persistently assures Kate that she is a rational and loving person. On the other hand, he himself behaves terribly, throwing tantrums and flying in the face of good sense—in fact, he exaggerates the behavior by which she has distinguished herself. She finally succumbs to him and adopts conventional wifely behavior, represented by the humorous tests she passes in 4.5. Her transformation comes about not because Petruchio has forced her to feign acceptance of a repugnant role, but because she has seen in his antics the ugliness other own shrewish behavior and has also come to recognize the emotional rewards for herself in being a dutiful wife. He has understood her, and now she understands both herself and him. 

That Kate and Petruchio are in love before the play ends is sometimes disputed on the grounds that she becomes too servile to allow any relationship between them other than master and slave. However, her servility exists only in the minds of observers from another age, our own; for Shakespeare's audience, and for Kate herself, her new position is simply a conventional one. It does not at all preclude love. Petruchio and Kate demonstrate their growing affection, rather than declare it outright, but it is no less real. At the end of 5.1 they express affection for each other for the first time: she kisses him, and she calls him 'love'; he responds by calling her his 'sweet Kate', an epithet he has earlier used only sarcastically.  

The 'submission' speech is not delivered in slavish resignation to a demand, but as a duty, carrying with it the rewards of a solid place in the world, a place described with approval in the speech itself. Petruchio has not tried to humiliate Kate, and she is not;, humiliated. Instead, he has asserted her superiority to other wives and offered her a podium from which to lecture the Widow. He has not asked her to speak of her own relationship to him; it is entirely her idea to assert that her own experience of rebellion has been barren and. pointless. To close the speech, she freely offers a symbolic enactment of her acceptance of the traditional wifely role. Flabbergasted, almost at a loss for words, Petruchio can only sputter, 'Why, there's a wench' (5.2.181), and kiss his bride. Shakespeare consistently gives his heroines the last word in his comedies, and in The Shrew, as always, that word confirms the triumph of love, specifically conventional married love. 

It is ironic that Petruchio's frankly mercenary interest in marriage yields a love match, whereas Lucentio's rapture for Bianca lands him with a shrew. This twist reinforces the contrasts between the main plot and the subplot. Petruchio's tactics and their happy outcome are juxtaposed with the more conventional romancing of Bianca. The sub-plot consists of an assemblage of traditional dramatic situations; youth is pitted against age; the romanticism of intrigue and disguise is compared to courtship conducted in business terms.  These comparisons are familiar ones, deriving from Italian and ancient Roman models, and the participating characters are mere stereotypes, with the single exception of Bianca, who is humanly complex. Lucentio and Hortensio are stock young men of Italian romances; Tranio is part of a tradition of cunning servants that dates back to ancient Greek comedy; Baptista is a standard father-of-the-girl; and Gremio is referred to several times as a 'pantaloon', the comic old man of the Commedia Dell’Arte. These predictable characters make the eccentric individuality of Petruchio and Kate particularly attractive. 

The conventionality of the majority of the characters is just one of several features of the play that intentionally stress its artificiality. The Induction asserts that the tale is a fiction, intended for light entertainment. The final scene serves a similar function. By 5.2 the strands of the plot have all been woven together, and all that remains is a formal summation of the play's themes. The ritualistic setting of a wedding feast "told the presence of most of the play's cast strengthen the element of magic in the thrice repeated summons of the wives and their triple responses, and in the crowning gesture of Kate's statement of proper martial relations. While it not does not do so as explicitly as the Sly plot, the ceremonial nature of this scene also emphasizes the artificiality of the fantasy it closes. 

The Taming of the Shrew relies heavily on accepted dramatic conventions, and it approaches traditional farce in many respects. It lacks the depth of Shakespeare's later comedies, but it also foreshadows them; Kate in particular anticipates Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. In its presentation of several psychologically resonant portraits, as well as in its strong organization and thoughtfully developed themes, it is a remarkable early work.

 

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