One daughter, called a “shrew” for being loud and unruly, is given over by her father to be “tamed” by a man who openly woos her for her money. The other daughter, the supposedly mild and obedient one, is auctioned off for marriage to the highest bidder. In bare outline, the two central plots of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew present an image of marriage that could hardly be more unappealing, especially to modern sensibilities. Yet Taming continues to be one of Shakespeare’s most popular, most produced plays. Why?
Doubtless, there might be bad reasons. Seeing a woman broken like an animal and not only put in her place but made to sermonize about that place at the end of the play probably gratified some of Shakespeare’s original audience and may amuse a few sexists today. On the other side, some recent productions deliberately render the play unfunny, even more brutal than it is, as if its only value as art were to reveal the horrors of an old sexual hierarchy that still lurk under allegedly more advanced views of marriage.
Others simply exult in the brilliant wit-play and insult contests, the often ridiculous characters and the sometimes cartoonish action (a lute smashed over someone’s head!). Why take it so seriously, they say, it’s obviously just a romp, a lark? More technically, they might use the word farce, meaning a special kind of comedy that supposedly dissolves moral concerns in harmless gags and laughter.
This view accounts pretty well for the play’s humor and much of its lasting appeal. But funny as it is, the play has its own seriousness. Most importantly, it permits—it even requires and rewards—more sympathy for the characters’ feelings and fates than would be comfortable in pure farce. This is especially true for Katherine. Her shrewishness, while shown to be a real character failing, also seems an understandable response to her father’s favoritism and the needling manipulations of her sister. In her first scenes, we see a person at the mercy of her own rages, but also one whose rages spring from awareness that her society deprives her of intrinsic value and of choice in love. Her jealousy of Bianca suggests that she really does want love, and her tantrums show that she will not accept patronizing or money-grubbing flattery instead. It’s hard to dismiss her suffering during the taming plot if we see her not as a butt of harmless slapstick violence or a pure embodiment of a vice but as an imaginable human being.
As for Petruchio, our Tamer, beginning with his first conversation with Katherine and continuing through the play, we see hints of surprised appreciation for her beauty, liveliness, wit, and spirit—and eventually maybe something like love. Shakespeare gives Petruchio, too, his own character—brash, bold, and above all self-consciously absurdist and theatrical. His taming project may vividly epitomize the man-on-top idea of power in the traditional view of marriage, but his behavior at every stage—wooing, wedding, and taming—also appears to everyone as an outrageous parody of that view, a “mad marriage” he’s making up as he goes.
The taming is all on his terms, but in context Katherine’s final speech on woman’s place in the world is an ironic triumph over her sister—and maybe a triumph of irony. It’s certainly deliciously theatrical in ways that Petruchio alone in her immediate audience can appreciate. Hasn’t learning to play along with and even out-do him in exaggerated role-playing ended up increasing her own composure and self-possession? Is it really a “taming” if it has taught her how to muster society’s orthodoxies, which expressly limit her say over her own life, to assert herself and to increase her social power? Would Petruchio even like the conventional woman she describes and at this moment plays? And yet he clearly likes her.
However they’re played, the sparks and tensions and the subtly developing rapport between Katherine and Petruchio jostle us out of the belly laughs of farce into a more complex comic response, one that mingles sympathy and judgment in possibly uncomfortable ways. The pleasures—and provocations— of seeing these two work out their “mad mating” are mostly what keep audiences coming back.
by Philip W. White
Centre College Associate Professor of English
Philip White joined the Centre College faculty in 1999. He is an associate professor of English. He was named a Centre Scholar in 2007. He had previously taught at Brigham Young University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
White’s interests have focused on Shakespeare and poetry. He has published critical and scholarly work in both fields. His poems have won a Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Republic, Slate, Poetry, Agni, Literary Imagination, Antioch Review, New England Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere.
White holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.