by Michael Chao
Loved by audiences while often dismissed by scholars, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for most people. It is one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies and comes from an era in Elizabethan England where the right of a husband to physically discipline his own wife was widely accepted, though often debated. Critics and viewers of the play who dismiss The Taming of the Shrew as purely an arguably-amusing account of domestic abuse and the domination of a woman by a man are missing the myriad of clues that Shakespeare provides that tell us that things are not always exactly what they seem. From a post-feminist perspective, The Taming of the Shrew is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome plays, often causing outrage, and at the very least, a feeling of ambiguity in those who have seen the play performed. Is this outrage justified or are audiences forgetting to look closer at the details to see the bigger picture? As the saying goes, “The Devil is in the details.”
A major indication that Shakespeare had more in mind than what lies on the surface is his use of one of his favorite devices: illusion and disguised appearances. Multiple characters throughout the play are pretending to be what they are not to deceive others on their way to attaining their own goals. Bianca pretends to be the dutiful, humble daughter and sister, but by play’s end, she has become shrew-like herself and exhibits the same arrogant selfishness found in Katherine at the play’s start. Bianca’s multiple suitors are constantly disguised in their efforts to woo her, mixing social class and status as they change roles and identities at will. It is only Petruchio and Katherine who remain true to their own characters and personalities throughout the play. It is they who grow and change and ultimately come together in a mutually respectful, if not loving, arrangement, leaving the more shallow and short-sighted characters behind. Using this dramatic device, Shakespeare makes clear that the audience should be aware that more lies beyond the surface and that things are perhaps more complicated than they appear.
Another detail often missed or at least misinterpreted within the play is exactly how Shakespeare’s use of falconry as a metaphor for Petruchio’s “taming” of Katherine is intended. Even the use of the word “taming” in the title tends to ruffle the feathers of even the most casual feminist as it brings to mind images of women subjugated to the will and control of their male “masters.” While it is true that Petruchio uses a sort of psychological operant conditioning to “tame” Katherine, the fact usually overlooked is that he puts himself through the same ordeals as she. After finally arriving at Petruchio’s house after the wedding and denying Katherine of anything to eat the first night, Petruchio too goes hungry and says “And for this night we’ll fast for company”(4.1.158). The key words in that statement are “we” and “for company,” which means “together.” The fasting is not limited to just Katherine, nor is the sleep deprivation he puts her through. In his monologue to end Act 4, scene 1, Petruchio acknowledges that he will be the one to keep Katherine awake all night. This is significant because this is the same thing that a falconer does when training a new bird.
“Traditionally the process of acclimating the bird is called manning. It consists of first getting a bird over her fears and then working to get her to allow you to do more with her… One way to man a bird is to flood her senses with her new environment. Traditional methods such as waking take advantage of a bird’s state of shock after being trapped. The bird’s mind is in shock as she is prepared to be mauled or eaten. She literally freezes and the falconer can take advantage of this. The combination of the falconer holding the bird and letting all of the normal experiences of what will be her new life wash over her acclimates a bird very fast to the household…”(Ash).
This should sound familiar as it is precisely what Petruchio does with Katherine. In falconry, both bird and owner bond through their mutual sleep-deprived time together and this is the very same result Petruchio seeks to gain with his plan to deprive Katherine of sleep and food. While thinking of her like an animal to be trained may seem wrong and offensive in today’s culture, Petruchio’s method is thought out with long-term stability in mind and through a time-tested technique, his intentions, in fact, are genuine. Most importantly, it must be realized that he is more than willing to suffer along with her.
This leads to the final point concerning The Taming of the Shrew’s underlying message. In order to truly understand Katherine and Petruchio’s relationship, one should consider what the alternatives for both characters would have been. What many people fail to realize is that Petruchio is both saving Katherine as well as being saved by Katherine. As a well-known shrew, Katherine is disliked by all, feared by most, and has taken on the role of villain perhaps more out of familiarity than by choice. Her behavior is a self-defense mechanism and left unchecked, she has come to relish her power despite the inevitable life of solitude and social ostracism. A misbehaved, disrespectful wife would be something few men would endure, resulting in life without any social standing or companionship. Petruchio recognizes this and physically takes Katherine far away from everything and everyone she knows, and in doing so, gives her a chance to escape the oppression and the social pressures that turned her into a shrew. His “taming” of her “mad and headstrong humor” (4.1.190) is perhaps “merely a way of showing her the advantages of outwardly conforming to society’s expectations so that she can have the husband, the home, and the social approval she surely must crave” (Greenblatt 139). Petruchio sees in Katherine a woman who needs him and wants to change, while in her, he finally finds a woman capable of keeping up with his intensity. Few women would be able to tolerate or thrive under Petruchio’s constant quips and volatile outbursts and both he and a more traditional wife would have suffered for it. His father has died, leaving him to carry on the family name, protect his father’s good reputation, and become his own man. Petruchio is in a state of uncertainty and like Katherine, his quick wit and intellect have become his means of protecting himself from the world. Katherine, while a challenge, becomes a stabilizing point of focus for him. This ultimately leads to the realization that there is a deep emotional attachment and respect for Katherine. Petruchio suddenly acknowledges the possibility of “love, and quiet life” (5.2.112) which are completely counter to his initial brash, globe-trotting, purely wealth-driven motivations. Katherine is more than a match for Petruchio: she is his equal in many ways. Together they find what they both desire: “a well-defined relationship, tempered by mutual respect and love” (Bevington 110). As much as he helps Katherine to let go of her anger and bitterness to find the peace and affection she craves, she helps Petruchio to find himself as he discovers what he has been truly searching for in his worldly travels after his father’s death.
Is The Taming of the Shrew a misogynistic, sexist celebration of traditional male-dominated, patriarchy at the expense of women forced into marriage? Is the play a psychological exploration into traditional gender roles and the struggle for individual identity in the face of societal restrictions? Is this a story about the assertion of dominance and control? Is this a story about two people finally finding love? The answer to all of these questions, quite honestly, is “yes.” The Taming of the Shrew, like all of Shakespeare’s works, is layered and nuanced, but like all theater, open to interpretation. Mention of the play will always elicit responses of both adoration and disgust, which is nothing new and surrounded even the very first performances. Shakespeare, however, provides his audience with enough clues within the text to suggest that the audience should pay close attention, keep an open mind, and that things are not always what they appear to be.
Ash, Lydia. “The Modern Apprentice – Raptor Training Philosophy.” The Modern Apprentice – Raptor Training Philosophy. N.p., 2004-2016. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. New York: Longman, 1997. 108-110. Print.
Shakespeare, William. No Fear Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew. Ed. John C. Crowther. New York: SparkNotes, 2004. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. “The Taming of The Shrew.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. 133-201. Print.