Breaking Down Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Misogyny and All

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Taming of the Shrew (1594), follows Katherine, an outspoken “shrew,” who is to be “tamed” by her new husband Petruchio. While both characters have violent tendencies, they do not direct that violence at each other for the most part. In order to tame her, Petruchio uses verbal and psychological abuse. He utilizes language and rhetoric, and deprives Katherine of food and sleep until she is willing to bend herself to his will.

If one takes away any kind of softcore interpretation of the play, Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, in one word, problematic. If one takes away the suggestion that Petruchio and Katherine are actually compatible as a romantic couple, then what we’re left with is a tangled web of endless misogyny. This play really covers it all: male dominance and power dynamics within a marriage, the degradation and dehumanization of women, physical and verbal abuse, the objectification of women and women as property, the silencing of women, the stratification of social classes, and violence against servants. But does that mean it should not be read, performed, or studied? Is it possible to read the play for what it is at its core, that is, outright misogynistic, without any variant softcore interpretation? Moreover, should it be read that way?

Katherine challenges the Renaissance idea that women should be obedient, silent, and submissive to men. Her fault is that she is a public woman. She speaks her mind and refuses to be sold off as a commodity from one man to another in this economic exchange called marriage. For her outspokenness and inability to put on a stereotypically female public appearance, she is labelled a shrew. So, what is the point in presenting such an independent and feminist-oriented character if her role is to be subjected to male dominance and ultimately tamed? I may not be able to answer all these questions, but I can attempt to break down the play and explain just a small fraction of its important aspects.

The Induction

We must not forget that this play is twice removed; it is a piece of theatrical fiction that exists within the frame narrative of another piece of theatrical fiction. That frame, called the Induction, depicts a rich Lord who tricks a drunk beggar, Christopher Sly, into thinking he is a nobleman. A troupe of players arrive on the scene and want to perform a play for the Lord, and that play is The Taming of the Shrew. The story of Katherine and Petruchio is, therefore, a male fantasy; a mere performance by men for other (noble)men. One other thing to note is that Sly’s ‘conversion’ into a noble is clearly fictional, and moreover, it is temporary. Or as the Lord himself puts it, “a flattering dream or worthless fancy” (Induction I.41). Can we then say the same about Katherine’s conversion? The Induction does not return at the end of the play, and what happens to Sly thus remains inconclusive. Does that fact also suggest something about Katherine’s taming?

Lucy Bailey’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2012 constantly reminds audiences of the Induction by keeping Sly on stage, thus emphasizing the fact that we are watching his drunken fantasy. While it does not justify the play’s problems, it does position some of its most brutal and cruel aspects as a gross exaggeration. Many other productions cast the same actor for both Sly and Petruchio, creating a similar effect. In these cases, Sly is not just watching the fantasy but instead he is living it as a primary character.

The Hunt

One of the recurring motifs of this play is the language of hunting. In the Induction, Sly’s intoxication and low social class makes him ‘fair game’ for the Lord and his men to play their trick on. The Lord refers to him as a “monstrous beast” and compares him to a “swine” (Induction I.31). They dehumanize Sly in the same way that the suitors and Petruchio dehumanize Katherine, only the Induction presents a power dynamic between social classes rather than gender. When Petruchio reveals his plan to tame Katherine, the language and the process he describes is strikingly similar to that of training a bird of prey for falconry, thus comparing the taming of Katherine to the taming of a falcon. Like a falconer, Petruchio controls his wife’s diet and sleep schedule. It should be important to note however, that as he deprives Katherine of food and sleep, he is also depriving himself of those needs, and that training a bird of prey requires a great amount of time and dedication. Again, this does not excuse Petruchio’s actions and methods nor does it make the metaphor any less cruel, but does give some small potential to their relationship as being founded on something more than just male dominance.

On Marriage

Was Shakespeare a misogynist, or was he just reflecting the ideas of a male-dominated society? His representation of marriage in the play is truly reflective of the times, as Medieval and Renaissance marriages, especially within propertied and noble classes, were not founded on love, but instead on economic and political advantages. Marriage in this play is very different from those in Shakespeare’s other plays. For one, his marriages are almost always situated at the very end, and they often represent the atonement of two lovers and their families. Many of Shakespeare’s couples really do love each other and fight to be together: take the young Athenian couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605) for example, or Orlando and Rosalind in As You Like It (1603). Katherine and Petruchio’s union on the other hand is situated right in the middle of the play, in the second scene of the third act. From the text, we know that the characters’ ideals about marriage are well… messy. Here’s a list breaking down their values for an easier visual:

  • Baptista
    • In his eyes, his daughter Katherine’s marriage should be a companionate one. What matters for him is that Petruchio obtains “her love” in light of their union (2.1.128).
    • For Bianca, his younger and more obedient daughter, whichever suitor “can assure [his] daughter greatest dower / Shall have” her love (2.1.345-46). He prioritizes money over love, thus objectifying Bianca as a mere commodity for financial gain. Ultimately, he recognizes that her obedience means she will not object to the suitor he chooses for her.
  • Petruchio
    • As a foreigner, he cares less about who he is marrying and more about “what dowry shall [he] have with [Katherine] to wife” (2.1.119). It’s the money for him.
  • Bianca’s suitors
    • We know that the suitors fighting over Bianca’s love are not in it for financial reasons, or else they wouldn’t all be fighting over the same woman; they’d be contempt with having Katherine’s hand.

On Language and Rhetoric

Some have pointed out that when Katherine and Petruchio first meet, there is an instant connection between the two at the level of language. What occurs is as much, if not more, a battle of the wits as it is a battle of the sexes. They go back and forth trying to outwit each other but find that they are equally matched. Interestingly, they often literally finish each other’s poetic lines, as Romeo and Juliet do in their first encounter. 

However, one cannot ignore how Petruchio instantly begins to establish a dominance over Katherine in the way that he deliberately calls her ‘Kate,’ a diminutive of her actual name. In a mere six lines, he names Kate eleven (!!) times: "You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst. / But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate, / Take this of me, Kate of my consolation: / Hearing thy mildness praised in every town, / Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded, / Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs, / Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife" (2.1.184-93). This is indicative of how he begins ‘taming’ her right off the bat. He does know her name and is fully aware of what he is doing to it. Ultimately, he names her; he domesticates her.

Conclusion

The Taming of the Shrew is, without a doubt, a problematic play. But I believe it is just as important to recognize those problems and address them as it is to consider the various interpretations that render the play a little less problematic. Many modern productions have adapted the play to either emphasize its brutality, or to give voice to the interpretation that there is a degree of attraction and love between Katherine and Petruchio. These productions unfold so many different aspects of the play and suggest that there is more to it than meets the eye.

In any case, I think the mere fact that this play is so widely debated and criticized for its misogyny is a positive signifier that our society is evolving for the better. We may not be living in a perfect society, but at least we are not living under the gaze of (Sly’s) male fantasy. We have the opportunity to take a play that is misogynistic at its core and interpret it from a vast variety of different angles. In the end it doesn’t matter what the interpretation is, what’s important is that there is one; that we acknowledge these issues and face them head-on; that we have the voice to fight back and criticize them.

 

Information obtained from:

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew, edited by H. J. Oliver, Oxford UP, 1982.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/jan/17/taming-of-the-shrew-rsc

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/power-and-gender-in-the-taming-of-the-shrew

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/jan/26/taming-of-the-shrew-review

https://shakespeare.folger.edu/shakespeares-works/the-taming-of-the-shrew/the-taming-of-the-shrew-a-modern-perspective/