An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!” — Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962
With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself. This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over. (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)
The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself. The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play. A close reading would bear this out.
Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a wife and a dowry. A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista. Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer. Like Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.
Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca. The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine. No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor. This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio. The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief. Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii]. The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine? How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?
Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew. She is abrasive and hurtful. In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires. Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism. Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love. It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One]. Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio. Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.
Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew. Like the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general. Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:
[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].
It is all about the dowry for Petruchio. Not about love, not even about sex. Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.
There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same. In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].
Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”
And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will? The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep. Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs. Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully. Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her? Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].
Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation. Katherine’s revenge is to materialize Petruchio’s power-mirages. She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile. Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife. She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride. Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion. From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant. In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well. Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].
In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her. If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do? She is the perfect parody of servility and docility. Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:
Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].
In other words: If I say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun. If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon. If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five. The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying. By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.
Who IS Katherine, precisely? Is she a reluctant conformist? Is she an inconsiderate conformist? Is she a vigorous conformist? To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks. Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely. Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself? The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises. The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.
You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].
The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish. If she were as vapidly selfsame as Bianca, Petruchio would likely not want her. No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio. Because she is never reducible to One Thing. Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated? Has Petruchio not been Kated? Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?
Dr. Joseph Suglia